Monday, December 28, 2009

The Holy Innocents, and Us

Two years ago, the Gospel text was the story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by King Herod, the same as for the Feast day today. Here is my sermon for that text, offered as a possible help in your meditation on the meaning of this Feast, and that true text of terror. May all the holy innocents in our world, especially those waiting to be born, never be forgotten or abandoned by those who claim salvation in the name of the One truly innocent one who bore our sins upon the cross.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In an odd twist of the calendar, we are hearing the end of the story first this Sunday, and won’t get the first half of the story until next week. That’s because January 6th, the date of the Feast of the Epiphany, falls on a Sunday, next Sunday, and then you will hear the story of the Wise Men following the star to seek the newborn king. This week, we get the aftermath of that adventure, the part of the story when Herod uses his power to act out in rage, eliminating any and all who would threaten his right to rule in Judea.

In a week in which the assassination of Benazir Bhutto of pakistan has filled the headlines and news-blogs, we recognize the temptation to remove rivals to power by force and violence. Herod is enraged. When the Magi come to Jerusalem, they ask where is the King of the Jews. The answer should be obvious: Herod is the King of the Jews. When it becomes known that there is another claimant to Herod’s position, he has only one thought, one response: get rid of the threat. And if the threat is an infant, a helpless child? So much the better: eliminate him before he can grow up and cause real trouble.

This part of the story of Jesus’ birth is usually presented as an add-on. In fact, people often react with anger when this story is brought up during the Christmas season. “Why do we have to listen to this? Don’t we get enough of this kind of blood and gore out there? Please don’t spoil Christmas with this awful story.” And I can understand that reaction, those feelings. Christmas is a time when we want to feel good, if only for a little while. Our nativity sets make such a pretty picture; can’t we be allowed to enjoy it without this ugly story crashing in and spoiling things?

But this story is not an add-on, a diversion. This is the center of the story of Jesus’ birth, of why he came and why it so important that we know that this child is Emmanuel, God with us. He is the sign that will be spoken and acted against. He is the stumbling block that convicts the world of sin. He is the one that strikes fear in the hearts of all those, Herod and us, that want to keep life safely under control and our situation one that is stable and supports our want s and our ambitions.

Herod is afraid of the baby in Bethlehem because this baby threatens Herod’s ability to go on being king. But don’t we all want to keep on being king too? We want to be king in our own little kingdoms: our lives, our plans, our futures. What wouldn’t we do to ensure that our plans will be carried out just the way we want, that our lifestyles will continue to develop in the way we are counting on? It isn’t that we can’t cope with changes that life brings, but we all know there is change, and then there is CHANGE. Our resistance, our deceptions, our manipulations in order to remain in charge and avoid changes that would take that away from us is the stuff of every television drama, of every book and movie plot.

I was reading recently the story of a family, a husband and wife and their two daughters, who had been driving home from a day spent together on a clear August evening in the Twin Cities, when their lives literally were turned upside down when the 35W bridge collapsed. The mother nearly died, all were injured. They are recovering physically, but their lives will never be the same. The plans they had, for that week, for the coming year, were all brushed away. I read of their feelings of being helpless in the face of events that they had never even imagined.

That family had no choice: the bridge collapse was an event they could not foresee or change. But sometimes we are given a choice on how we will handle an unexpected challenge. An pregnancy occurs: the time isn’t right, the situation isn’t right, maybe the marriage is rocky, maybe the expectant parents aren’t married, maybe they’re too young, maybe they’re too old. What to do: take responsibility, even in the face of a situation that isn’t what anyone wanted, or decide to sweep this inconvenient, threatening child away? Or we see a child, not our own, we don’t know this child very well, but the child shows signs of neglect, of not being cared for very well, or perhaps there are even signs that the child is being struck or abused. It is so much easier to not do anything, to figure someone else will react, that it is too complicated and inconvenient to make a fuss, and look what trouble we’ll get into, can’t we just leave things alone? Or we know a friend has been drinking too much, they really shouldn’t get behind the wheel when it is time to leave the party, but it will cause a scene to take the car keys away, and it will make real trouble if you call his parents, and so rather than run the risk of getting him mad you do nothing.

Like Herod, our fears can cause us to do nothing, or to do the wrong thing, that has real, permanent consequences on the life of another. Even the consequence of death. Can the presence of Jesus, God with us, in our lives, in our world, make a difference for us? Can he change us into people who will take risks to help and save others? Can he find a way to bring us forgiveness, even when we have let our fears lead us into hurting or neglecting someone else? I believe he can, and he does. He is our savior in all our distress, in his love and in his pity he redeems us. May his grace give us forgiveness in all our sins and failures; may his presence lead us in following him, and in choosing to care for others as he has taught us, casting our fears on him. Amen.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Asking Questions

Is a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship analagous to marriage?
What should be the criteria by which this question is answered?

Both of these questions are important ones in the ELCA at this time. (They are important outside of the ELCA as well, but I am not dealing with that aspect of the issue in this blog.) The new Social Statement of the ELCA, "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," does not answer these questions. It tries, to a certain extent, to lay out the positions of those who hold to contradictory views on the first question. But, in the end, the social statement does not redefine marriage for those of us in the ELCA. Marriage is still defined as being between male and female. (The statement may not do this as strongly as I and some others would like. But it does not change this understanding of marriage.)

Now the Church Council of the ELCA is and will be struggling with the issue of how to define a "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship" for the various entities of the ELCA. Can the Council make these relationships analagous to marriage? Well, in short, no. The newly passed social statement won't allow that. That does create a problem. If these same sex relationships aren't analagous to marriage, than just what are they?

Unfortunately, the tendency has been to answer that last question in a very snarky manner. That has not served to help the church in the discussion and debate on these issues at all. And at the worst, it has continued to fuel the accusation that those who oppose the ordination of those who are in such same gender relationships (sometimes referred to as PALMS for short) are prejudiced against those who are gay or lesbian.

I don't believe PALMS relationships are analagous to marriage. I don't believe they should be given the status of marriage, in either the churchly or civil realm. But PALMS relationships are not going to go away. Of the ones that I have personal knowledge of, I can attest that they are indeed capable of being loving, committed, faithful, monogamous, and life-long. I would even be able to agree that such a committed relationship has more to recommend it than a life of changing partners and short-term sexual relationships. (And that is a problem for heterosexuals as well; I am not unaware of the log in the eyes of the straight community.) Those of us in the straight community in the church, including in the ELCA, have to take seriously the real commitment that exists between same gender partners in the gay and lesbian community, especially the community that exists in the church. And even as I and others in the ELCA reject the decisions of the August churchwide assembly, and live in confessional resistence to those and other decisions made by the ELCA on a variety of matters, we must look for a better way to deal with these questions.

It is not about my rights to have my conscience respected. It is how I might serve my brothers and sisters in Christ, for the sake of Christ. Even as I disagree. Even as I say "No" to the deeply held beliefs of those who I believe are in error.

It isn't just the Church Council that is struggling with this. It has to be all of us. In some ways it is the essential Lutheran question. What does this mean?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, November 22, 2009

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My kingdom is not from this world.

The only way to get along in this world, whether you are a student in school, an employee in the business world, a politician, a member of the clergy, a taxpayer, a patient in a hospital, or even just a member of a family, is to learn where the power is in the system and then learn how to play the system to your advantage. We all do this, in overt and covert ways, every day. We do it to get ahead, to help others, to cover our rear, and just plain to survive. We hold our finger up in the air to see which way the wind is blowing, and we adjust our plans accordingly. We may hunker down and wait for the storm to pass; we may pick our battles carefully; we may call in our chips when we feel it is time to be repaid for what we have done for others. We know how to go along to get along, and we make it our business to know who has power and how to use that knowledge of power to our advantage.

That is the system Pilate knows. That is the system that Daniel knows. That is the system that the Roman Emperors know. That is the system that every earthly ruler knows, whether tyrant or democratically elected.

And that is the system that Jesus rejects. That is why Pilate cannot figure Jesus out.

Jesus says, My kingdom is not from this world. Jesus isn’t playing the system--he is outside the system, outside the kingdoms and nations and power structures and business models. And the powers that be in this world have no power, no authority, over him. Later in the Gospel, Pilate says to Jesus, “Don’t you know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus then answers, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” Pilate thinks he is calling the shots here, but he isn’t; the only one with any real power is Jesus, who has been given authority by His Father in heaven.

Jesus frightens Pilate, just as he has frightened the religious authorities of his day; and just as he has frightened every power and ruler since. Jesus and his followers are really quite subversive. We agree to submit to the authority of earthly rulers in order to maintain proper order and to show respect for God by showing respect for those people and institutions which He has set up to rule. But as followers of Jesus Christ, we have no king but Jesus. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, of the Ancient of Days whose throne is fiery flames, who is the true bringer of peace, who is and was and is to come.

Daniel and John know this truth. The real action is not with the rulers of the earth, even though the visions of their lies and wicked deeds are terrifying and have real consequences for the earth and her peoples. In spite of all that, however, the real action lies not with the beasts and the disasters and the plagues and the tyrants, but in fact it lies with God and with his kingdom. In spite of all of the terrible things that are unleashed upon the people of God, Daniel and John assure us that it is God who reigns with supreme authority and power. Especially in Revelation, over and over we are shown the real command center: the throne of God and the thousands upon thousands of angels and creatures and martyrs and witnesses who continually praise and worship and serve the Ancient of Days, and the one who has been given dominion over everything that exists.

This has real consequences for us here. There is only one kingdom that matters, to which we owe all of our loyalty, our allegiance, and our very life. And that is the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the beginning and the end. And the Kingdom of God cannot and must not be confused with any earthly kingdom, nation or government. Nor can the Kingdom of God be identified with any particular political system, much less any political party.

Does this mean that there are no political consequences for following Jesus? On the contrary, it means that we are free to “do politics”: that is, to discuss and study and debate who is really our king, and what kind of a king he is. If we believe that the Kingdom of God is real, that it exists now in all its glory, even though we cannot yet see it, and that the Kingdom of God and of the Lamb is our true home and country, then every decision we make is made under the rules of that kingdom. And if you want to know the rules of the Kingdom of God, read the 19th chapter of Leviticus (in fact, I wish I could forbid anyone from reading the 20th chapter until they had not only read the 19th, but had become perfect in following its commands), or read Psalm 50, or the 58th chapter of Isaiah, or the 6th chapter of Micah, or the 25th chapter of Matthew, or the 14th -16th chapters of Luke.

But the biggest consequence is knowing that we are citizens of the Kingdom of God not by what we have done, but by what has been done for us by God. In all of these readings today, the real actor is God. For the love of us, and of all people in this world, Jesus has freed us from our sins by his blood, he has covered up our failures with his righteousness, and has made us to be a kingdom, priests serving the Father. It will take us the rest of our lives to learn how to live as servants of such a King: but by the grace of God, we have the rest of our lives, and then more. Until that time when we join those standing around the throne, Jesus will not fail to speak the truth into our hearts, and into our world; and we can practice our songs of allegiance even as we pray the oldest prayer of the church: Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Few Brief Reflections on Current Events in the ELCA

A few brief reflections on the recent flurry of press releases from the ELCA:

1. I think we hit a nerve.

2. There is no such thing as too much publicity.

3. Pastor Bouman obviously does not approve of Lutheran CORE's definition of the word "Mission." That's ok. We don't agree with his definition of that word either. That gives us a place to begin debate. But he needs to give up the "I care about the downtrodden immigrant more than you do" line of attack. If, that is, he is truly interested in discussion and not attack.

4. This is exactly the way those of us on the steering committee expected the churchwide office to act toward Lutheran CORE. And I find it sad that churchwide has lived down to our expectations.

5. See number 1.

I do want to say one thing more. I was and am very glad that Pastor Bouman attended the Lutheran CORE convocation at Fishers. He was there for most of the event. That could not have been easy. Strong words were used, even a few harsh words, about the ELCA. In spite of his letter, I hope he continues to reflect on what he heard there, in the same way as I continue to reflect on what I heard at the Churchwide Assembly and at the GoodSoil worship service at Central Lutheran. It is easy to be offended. What is difficult is to ask, seriously and sincerely, "Lord, is it I who is in the wrong?"

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us all.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why I'm Staying in the ELCA

I have been giving this a lot of thought and prayer over the past few weeks. And I am ready to give you the two reasons I have decided to stay in the ELCA. And I want to say this before leaving for the Lutheran CORE gathering in Indiana this weekend.

1. This is where God is calling me to be.
That pretty much says it. I have been asked how I can be so certain it is God calling me to this, or how I know God is calling me to really stay in the ELCA. My answer is very unsatisfactory to just about everyone except me. It is that if it isn't from God, then it won't work. And God will let me know. It may take awhile for it to sink in (after all, I am a stubborn German/Scot-Irish Lutheran from Tennessee). But that's ok. And if it is from God, then I will continue to know.
I see myself as a pastor, not a hired hand. I'm not supposed to run when the flock is under attack. And as a pastor, I am to preach repentance and warning, and the promise of forgiveness and renewal of life to all who turn to God in Christ Jesus. I don't see anything that happened at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly that makes that less imperative for the foreseeable future.

2. I love the ELCA.
I know, I'm not supposed to do that. The ELCA is "only" a denomination, a pretty flawed one at that (perhaps, yes, fatally so). I shouldn't make an idol out of a church body, which is after all a corporation. And I don't really have any realistic notion that the ELCA can be "reformed," "taken back," "renewed," or "reborn." And who do I think I am, that one pastor can really make any difference in the ELCA under the present circumstances? Especially, given the progress of original sin is ever ongoing, those circumstances will almost assuredly get worse going into the future?
Like above, this makes no sense. But to quote the old song (sung so wonderfully by Barbra Streisand in "Funny Girl"): "I'd rather be blue over you (ELCA) than happy with somebody else."

And with God, nothing is impossible. Even resurrection from the dead.

Now, this is not any kind of judgment on those who believe they must leave and build outside of the ELCA, either a new denomination or in another, different, Lutheran denomination. I can accept that they/you? are doing what God is calling to be done. Just by someone else.

Now, if this changes, I'll post it here. But don't hold your breath. This is feeling pretty set.

Here I stand. In the ELCA.
God, help me.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

September 2nd is the day the church commemorates Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, Danish Lutheran bishop, pastor, and writer of the 19th century. He stood for a Christian faith deeply rooted in the Bible and in the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, the ones given to the church by Jesus Christ. For English-speaking Lutherans he is best known for his hymn texts, from "Cradling Children in His Arms" to "Built on a Rock the Church Shall Stand." Here are a few of those hymns that are given to us as many of us still struggle with how we are to go forward following the ELCA Churchwide Assembly.

"God's Word is our great heritage, and shall be ours forever.
To spread its light from age to age shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way; in death it is our stay.
Lord, grant while time shall last your Church may hold it fast
Throughout all generations."

"Built on a rock the Church shall stand, even when steeples are falling.
Crumbled have spires in every land, bells still are chiming and calling--
Calling the young and old to rest, calling the souls of those distressed,
Longing for life everlasting.

We are God's house of living stones built for his own habitation;
He fills our hearts, his humble thrones, granting us life and salvation.
Were two or three to seek his face He in their midst would show His grace,
Blessings upon them bestowing.

Through all the passing years, O Lord, grant that, when church bells are ringing,
Many may come to hear God's Word where he this promise is bringing:
"I know my own, my own know me; You, not the world, my face shall see;
My peace I leave with you. Amen."

"The Spirit of the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, which proceeds from the Father. . . reflects the glory of God, so that the church feels the real presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, although the world does not see him. He reveals himself spiritually for all those who hold fast his word with proof as plain as when he revealed himself to his friends after the resurrection and spoke to them about matters that pertain to the kingdom of God. He tells us that he can and will dwell in his church and walk in it as the only-begotten Son from eternity in all the regenerated sons and daughters whom the heavenly Father and the Son embrace, sharing his glory.
"Then, and only then, God's kingdom comes to us, not so that one can point to it and say: look here or look there, as one points to the great nations, but in such a way that the whole church lives in it, saying and singing: Now we know that God's kingdom is truly righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. It comes as the Spirit proclaims in deeds and truth what is to come through that which is now worked and created in us. Then we cannot for a moment doubt that what now lives in us, a real and joyful power, though concealed, shall be revealed when he who is our life comes again even as he ascended. Thus it follows that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us, just as surely as this glory has descended and rests upon us.
"Therefore, Christian friends, we will not be fearful or despondent in the great transition period from darkness to light, from death to life, and from clarity to clarity, for it holds true throughout the lives of all God's children in this world, and not only during their last days, that they shall not fear evil as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and he who is the light of the world is with us. . . ."

(The Fourth Sunday after Easter, 1855, in N.F.S. Grundtvig: Selected Writings, ed. Joahnnes Knudsen (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 115-16. As reprinted in New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints, Philip H. Pfatteicher (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 426.)

Friday, August 28, 2009

CORE's + Spring: We Have Clarity

Tip of the hat to Pr. Zip for providing this on his blog:

In the following letter Bishop Paull Spring, Chair of the Lutheran COREsteering committee, addresses the ELCA Churchwide Assembly's decisions.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

"We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh" (2 Corinthians 4:8-11).

With these eloquent words the Apostle Paul describes his ministry and apostleship. He has experienced distress, pain, suffering, and rejection. He bears the marks of the crucified Jesus. But Paul also is lifted up and sustained by his hope and confidence. The life, and especially the resurrection of Jesus, is the source of Paul’s hope and confidence: "the life of Jesus made visible in our bodies."

The words of Paul describe my feelings as I reflect on the decisions of the recent Churchwide Assembly. Yes, I am distressed that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has now endorsed blessings and ordinations for active gays and lesbians in spite of the clear teaching of Scripture on marriage and homosexual behavior.

But I am not crushed down nor in despair.

For one thing, we now have clarity. We now know where the ELCA is going, and we have a strong sense of where God is leading us. Then, too, we know that we are not alone. We have each other. The tireless efforts of our faithful supporters at the Churchwide Assembly, too many to name, underscore how we are "surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses."

Most of all, I am buoyed up by the confident words of the Apostle Paul. I am not crushed, driven to despair. I am neither forsaken nor destroyed. I place myself where the Church at its best has always placed herself — in the arms of the crucified Jesus, whom God raised from the dead. Jesus’ own resurrection and the promise of my own resurrection on the last day sustain me and give me hope for today. "Death is at work in us," but, much more, the life of Jesus.

Many of us are now asking ourselves, what we should do now?

As faithful Christians, all of us will want to be intentional in our prayer life. We will pray for those who disagree with us. We will pray for one another. We will pray for God’s guidance and leading as we seek to move forward in our Christian life and discipleship.

We will want to give ourselves time for patient and careful reflection. Now is not the time to make rash, hasty decisions. Most people make serious mistakes when they make decisions under pressure. We do not want to make this mistake now. Our relationship with the ELCA is a serious matter for us. I ask that we all take time to reflect patiently with ourselves and with others and not to make rash decisions now. We all have the time for God to disclose his will for us. Lutheran CORE and our supporters have consistently urged us to maintain at least a formal relationship with the ELCA. The question now before us is the level of our participation within the ELCA.

I encourage you to write to your synodical bishop and let him/her know how you feel about the decisions of the churchwide assembly. I also encourage you to be in touch with other orthodox supporters in your congregation or community. We need to support and encourage one another now.

You may also feel drawn to redirect your personal (and congregational) giving outside the framework of the regular budget of the ELCA. My wife and I have already done so ourselves. Both synods and the ELCA have ministries -- camps, nursing homes and relief agencies -- that merit our financial support. There are other ministries within and beyond the ELCA. You may well consider whether your offerings to these other ministries are to be preferred over the regular mission support of the ELCA.

I note in passing that contributions for Lutheran CORE will be greatly appreciated at this time. If we are to re-form ourselves as a confessional movement, Lutheran CORE will need a significant increase in ongoing financial support for our work.

On September 25 and 26 Lutheran CORE will assemble as a convocation at Christ the Savior Lutheran Church, Fishers, Indiana (suburban Indianapolis). Registration forms are available on our website. At this convocation we will consider the future direction for Lutheran CORE and adopt a constitution for a re-formed and re-newed Lutheran CORE. Our goal is to become more intentional about our ministry. We will become a confessional and confessing movement and will carry out many functions that characterize a synod. We anticipate a large attendance at Fishers, and you are invited to attend.

I invite you to visit Lutheran CORE's website,, for more information about our ministry.

I join my prayers with those of other Christians throughout the world. I especially remember in my prayers those of us who have been hurt and are scandalized by the actions of the churchwide assembly. Please join with me in prayer for our work and ministry.

In Christ's Name,
Paull E. Spring
Lutheran CORE Chair

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Don't You Love Farce?

"To flirt with rescue, when one has no intention of being saved. . . please forgive me."

I have never seen the musical, "A Little Night Music," and so had never heard that particular line of dialogue that comes in the middle of the song, "Send in the Clowns." But in browsing around on YouTube a couple of nights ago, I stumbled upon a clip of Dame Judy Dench performing that song. At the time (mid 1990's) she had been playing the role of Desiree in a production in London. During an interview on a British talk show, she explained the role of that song. "It is a very angry song."

I was used to the version done by Judy Collins, who has a lovely singing voice. What I had forgotten is that Sondheim wrote "Send in the Clowns" for an actress who was not a singer; oh one who could carry a tune, but not a beautiful lyrical voice like Collins, or others who have recorded this song. Watching Dench's dramatic, controlled, angry rendition of "Send in the Clowns" transformed this song for me. It is a song of regrets, of accusation, of remorse, and of grief at the missed opportunities and bad timing in a relationship.

Hence the line I quote at the beginning of this post. It is spoken by the man who is Desiree's husband, and it represents his confession. He never intended to be saved, even though he came and acted as if, given enough talk, dialogue, and time he and she could repair the damage done and come to a full understanding and a renewed relationship. Finally, he confesses his part in the farce.

Why does this song speak to me now? Well, it isn't a perfect analogy to recent events at the ELCA churchwide assembly, but there is just enough to jar me into recognizing the anger and the regret of this most recent stage in this denominational drama. "Send in the clowns! -- Don't bother. They're here."

But don't take my word for it. Listen to it yourself.

And, yes: maybe, next year.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Finding Consensus?

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?"
And they answered him, "Well, it appears that there isn't a consensus yet among the crowds. Herod seems to think that you are John the Baptist come back from the dead; so I would stay out of Galilee for the foreseeable future if I were you. Others say Elijah; but you don't really look the part, and your diet is too rich for that to be a good description. And still others say one of the prophets. Jeremiah seems to be the prophet that gets mentioned most often, especially after that rant in the Temple; but we've also heard Amos. Thomas heard you compared to Micah; Simon even heard someone think you were Zephaniah, but I think that is a dark horse. So there really isn't agreement on this as of yet."
John piped in, "We've been concerned about this, actually, because your image is becoming diffuse and confusing to the crowds. Your public personna needs sharpening. "
James said, "Now don't get testy with us. We went ahead and hired a PR firm, one that is known for creating simple but effective public images that stick with the common man and woman. Now, they've been doing some polling, and think that you would be best served by choosing between the identities of either Moses or Elijah. Both of these have an overall positive reaction in the polling data, Moses because of the whole manna thing, Elijah because he opposed the alien influence from the Tyrian royal house, and would probably play well with the anti-Roman faction. But you need to choose one soon, today if possible, and then just stay on-message and be consistent with your public pronouncements and deeds of power."
Then Jesus turned to Peter, who had been uncharacteristically silent up to now. "But you, who do you say that I am?"
Peter looked straight at Jesus and said, "Um, the Annointed One of the LORD?"
The rest of the disciples broke out unanimously: "No, no, no! That one never even got mentioned in the polling! There will be no support for that image, not at all!"
Then Jesus said, quietly, "You know that the Son of Man will be arrested by the chief priests, and be beaten and ridiculed, and he will be crucified."
The disciples stared at Jesus in shocked silence. Then the PR guru spoke up. "Crucified, huh? Would be original; would have the advantage of never being done before. Let me try to picture that. . . no. No. That will never garner a following. Too negative, too violent. The rating on that image would never be family friendly. No, I can't see building a consensus on that idea. I really think the Moses revived would serve you best. Let's put some drawings together, present it to a couple of focus groups, and see how it plays. But I really think you can build a consensus on that. By the way, start carrying a staff. You might as well get comfortable with it now. I'll give you a call in a couple of days. But please -- no more talk about crucifixion! It is a real turn-off. You'll go nowhere with that, not if you want to have any influence on the under-30 multi-ethnic contingent. And let's face it, with an all-Jewish following, you could stand to build in something that will appeal to a wider constituency. Let's start thinking big-tent, shall we? I'll get back with something solid by the end of the week."
And thus the modern church was launched.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Keep Your Hand on the Plow

I ran across this video on YouTube, and what a gift! This young man has a tremendous voice, and this spiritual never sounded better, or more inspiring. Here is encouragement for this week during the Churchwide Assembly, and indeed for much more.

Monday Morning at CWA

On this morning, before all the "stuff" begins, I am updating my Facebook page, including my group "Prayers for the ELCA." This has been a good discipline for me over these past few months, just to have to keep in the rhythm of posting a prayer every morning for this part of the Church known to us and to God as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In a couple of hours I will be registering at the Assembly desk, getting my credentials, logging in for internet access, and helping to make the Lutheran CORE room a hospitable place for those looking for the orthodox "center" at this assembly. Pastor Paull Spring reminded us last night that we are not some right-wing fringe group in the ELCA. We are centrists, orthodox, confessional, holding the faith and the interpretation of Scripture that has been confessed by Lutherans since the time of the 16th century. We are trying to hold the ELCA to the words of its confession in the constitution:
2.02 This church confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.
2.03 This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.
2.04 This church accepts the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds as true declarations of the faith of this church.
2.05 This church accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel. . . .
2.06 This church accepts the other confessional writings in the Book of Concord, namely the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise, the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord, as further valid interpretations of the faith of the church.

For this day, and throughout this week, a portion of my morning devotions will be Romans 12: 9-21. Here are the verses I will concentrate on today:
"Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality."

Finally, let this prayer encourage us all in this week:

"This week we may be given
challenges instead of ease,
courage instead of contentment,
opportunities instead of rest.
But we have a Savior who brings
strength out of service,
faith out of struggle,
and victory out of defeat.
Go then, fearful of nothing,
sure that in everything
we are held secure
in the Master's steadfast love. Amen.

(E. Lee Phillips)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Preparing for Churchwide

How should one prepare for this Churchwide Assembly? I have been asking myself this question over and over for the past few months, and increasingly so in this last week. There are several temptations involved here. Yours may be different; but I will share three of mine.

The First: Despair. There's a reason that despair is in the list of the Seven Deadly Sins: it is deadly. Despair immobilizes you; because you are certain that failure is certain, you stop trying. You give up, and thus make failure more probable. Also, despair is part of the incurvatus se that Luther speaks of, being curved in on oneself as a result of sin. This sounds harsh and condemning; someone who is in despair surely is deserving of sympathy and kindness, right? Please note: I am speaking about myself, taking a good, strong, honest (even harsh) look at my own demon of despair. Curved in on myself, self-focused, self-absorbed, self-pitying: yep, that sounds about right! Indulging this is indulging the Old Adam in myself, and denying the power of the Holy Spirit to bring change to me. In fact, denying the power of the Holy Spirit, period. Which leads to the biggest reason despair is one of the Seven Deadlies: idolatry. Despair is denial that God is indeed God, and that the future is in God's care and keeping. Despair leads me to think that I know the future, and that God cannot turn it around, cannot use me even if my worst fears come true, cannot be in control if things happen differently from what I want. Instead, my despair is in control, which is a way of saying I am in control. And I have just put myself in the place of God.
The Second: Procrastination. I'm really good at this one. I can put anything off, until it is too late and it doesn't matter anymore. This is the sin I bring to God more than any other. When there is that pause for reflection right before the prayer of confession in the Brief Order, usually I am confessing something I have procrastinated about in the past week. In the case of the Churchwide Assembly, it is procrastinating on preparations. Yes, I've been busy. Yes, there have been some unexpected things pop up, especially in the last six weeks. Yes, it has been difficult to keep focused with some of the information that has been revealed recently. But I have procrastinated on some things that I needed to get done. And now I am scrambling. And some things won't get done, or won't get done right. And they could have. Once again, I will come to God with my faults on full view. And the procrastination feeds right in to the despair I talked about above. And it also works well with number three, coming up now:
The Third: Not Praying. I can pick some really bad times to get distracted from prayer. These last two weeks coming up on the Churchwide Assembly is probably the worst time to not be faithful in prayer. But I haven't been. Oh, I haven't given up praying altogether. But it is the kind of "prayer in a hurry" that doesn't really satisfy. Now, I know that God isn't keeping a tally sheet of how many minutes I spend in prayer per day; nor is He docking me "points" for giving him short shrift most days out the past few weeks. But that's just it: I'm not hurting God when I do this. I am just hurting myself. I am cutting myself off from the one thing that I know brings me strength and peace, even in the midst of things that I cannot control. Why? The Old Adam part of me, the one that has a weak spot for procrastination and despair.

So. Now that the Assembly is almost here, how do I prepare for it? Even though the past two weeks are full of missed opportunities, it is not too late. Jesus met me this morning in worship, in the Word read to me and by me, in the sermon that I preached about Jesus being present for us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and then in the meal itself. Jesus fed me himself, and he is part of my body as I come into the city of Minneapolis, as I come into this week. My prayer book is next to my computer, and it will not be far from my hands throughout this week. I have heard from many who are praying for the ELCA in this week, and some who are praying for me. That is strength for the journey, and also impetus to make the time for my own prayers, for reading of the Psalms, and being attentive to the daily Scripture lessons. I have a bookmark list of music videos, courtesy of Youtube, that I will be going to in order to combat the despair that may come; and I will share some of those here. And I know the schedule of this week will keep me too busy to have time to procrastinate!

And Jesus is here, and will be here at the Assembly this whole week. I will see Him, both in the places I expect to find Him and in those unexpected surprising encounters where I wasn't looking for Him at all. I believe I will find Him present in and with those who are working for the same things I am working for; but I also think I will find Him in and with those wearing the rainbow stoles and the rainbow shawls, those working and praying for what I oppose. For all of us gathered in the Convention Center this week, with all of our contradictory and opposing agendas and prayers and hopes, I bring this prayer of St. Patrick:
"Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me.
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all who love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger."

Friday, August 07, 2009

The week has been full. I have been following the news out of Afghanistan, in part because I have friends who have sons who are in country, and in part because this far off country's fate is vital to our nation's fate as well. When I was in college and studying journalism, "Afghanistan" was a synonym for writing about something safe, something so far away that one could safely opine away without running the risk of offending anyone locally. That was indeed a different world. I watch the end of the Newshour on PBS and stand in silent honor as they show the names and photos of those who have recently died in Afghanistan and Iraq. The number of dead U.S. service men and women is rising. Oh, Lord, give us peace. Give peace to your world.

For this Friday, here is a prayer, sung, for the Holy Spirit to be upon this world. Let this bless your day.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Dona Eis Requiem in New Orleans

I think the most powerful story coming out of the ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans was that of the group of youth assigned to clean up an old cemetary. This is a graveyard for the poor, and the bodies are buried in wooden coffins and buried only in four feet of earth, because of the high water table in the area. The coffins disintigrate rapidly, and sometimes the bones work their way to the surface. The youth, in their job of cleaning up, found bones, which they reburied, as well as said a prayer of blessing and re-consecration.

What I find so moving is not the idea of these teenagers coming across the bones, although that is remarkable and I am sure was a profoundly moving and memorable experience for them. But what goes through my mind is the connection this action of these 21st century teens has with the early Christians. In the first centuries, when being a Christian was tantamount to being an enemy of the state (Jesus is Lord, not Caesar), one of the things that got Christians "good press" was how they treated the bodies of the dead. They treated these bodies with respect, including the bodies of those who were not part of their Christian communities, with all the proper actions of washing, laying out, wrapping in clean linen, and giving them a decent burial.

The reason behind this was, of course, the Christian hope in the resurrection of the body. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead in a bodily resurrection, so those who are in Christ will be raised, bodily, at the last trumpet. This belief is all over the New Testament letters of St. Paul, as well as in Revelation. The earthly body was not something to be despised, nor something to be shrugged off like an old filthy rag, good riddance!, at death. Whatever heaven looks like, it is to be populated with bodies -- glorified bodies, it is true, free from corruption, but real bodies nonetheless. Our bodies are the result of God's careful crafting, as Genesis 2 tells us, and are to be treated with care and respect shown to all of God's handiwork, in death no less than in life. And so early Christians, and Christians down through the centuries since, have respectfully, hopefully, cared for the body at death and through burial, whenever possible.

So as these young people came across these bones, these dry, lifeless bones, they witnessed to the Christian faith's proclamation of new life coming in the midst of death and decay, new birth in the middle of a graveyard. "See, I am making all things new," Jesus says in Revelation, and that is the hope in rebuilding the flood-wrecked city of New Orleans. But so much that was destroyed cannot be restored: lives lost, dreams swept away, the precious relics of the past consumed by mold and mud. Even in the face of all of that destruction, the Christian faith dares to utter a word of defiance. Hear the word of the Lord: These bones will rise again! The Lord of Life and Death does keep track, and none of these slain are lost from him.

And until that day, these words from the end of the graveside service echo over those graves, and with the hands of those who tended to these holy relics of God's children, made in His image: Rest eternal grant them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them. Amen.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thursday Refreshment

As we approach the end of the week, I hope this video brings you a bit of musical refreshment for all that may await you approaching the Lord's Day. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

True for These Times

"A real pilgrim going to Jerusalem leaves house and land, wife and children; he divests himself of all that he possesses in order to travel light and without encumbrances. Similarly, if you wish to be a spiritual pilgrim you must divest yourself of all that you possess; that is, both of good deeds and bad, and leave them all behind you. . . . be always desiring the grace of deeper love, and seeking the spiritual presence of Jesus.
You are now on the road, and you know how to proceed. But beware of enemies who will set themselves to obstruct you if they can. Nothing distresses them more than your desire and longing for the love of Jesus, and their whole purpose is to uproot this from your heart, and turn you back again to the love of earthly things. Your chief enemies are the bodily desires and foolish fears which the corruption of human nature stirs up in your heart, and which would stifle your desire for the love of God and take full possession of your heart. These are your deadliest enemies. There are also others, for evil spirits employ all their tricks to deceive you. But you have one remedy, as I told you before. Whatever they say, do not believe them; keep on your way, and desire nothing but the love of Jesus. Let your answer always be, 'I am nothing, I have nothing, I desire nothing but the love of Jesus.'"
(from The Ladder of Perfection, by Walter Hilton)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, July 22

"When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and did not find the Lord's body, she thought it had been taken away and so informed the disciples. After they came and saw the tomb, they too believed what Mary had told them. The text then says: The disciples went back home, and it adds: but Mary wept and remained standing outside the tomb.
We should reflect on Mary's attitude and the great love she felt for Christ; for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the one she had not found, and while she sought she wept; burning, with the fire of love, she longed for him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.
At first she sought but did not find, but when she persevered it happened that she found what she was looking for. When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a love. . . .
Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek? She is asked why she is sorrowing so that her desire might be strengthened; for when she mentions whom she is seeking, her love is kindled all the more ardently.
Jesus says to her: Mary. Jesus is not recognized when he calls her "woman"; so he calls her by name, as though he were saying: Recognize me as I recognize you; for I do not know you as I know others; I know you as yourself. And so Mary, once addressed by name, recognizes who is speaking. She immediately calls him rabboni, that is to say, teacher, because the one whom she sought outwardly was the one who inwardly taught her to keep on searching."
(Homily 22 of St. Gregory the Great)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Love the ELCA ?

"Last of all, love the poor, poor ELCA. I say this in full acknowledgement of how ridiculous it sounds. Nobody loves the ELCA: not those who will push their agenda whatever the cost; not those who are willing to buy a few more years of false peace through appeasement; not those who are ready to walk out in rage or disappointment. Nobody loves the ELCA but God. And God loves it for reasons we all find offensive: because God has always loved and favored the ungodly. While we were still sinners Christ died for us. . . .The ELCA is the ecclesiological form of the sinner: it comes before God, alternately proud and despairing, with hands full of sin, death, and the devil. For the very reason we would kick it away and leave it to die at the side of the road, God comes to this very unappealing bride, takes away the ugly things she has to offer, and in their place gives her righteousness, life, and His own gracious self, not because she is worthy to receive them, but precisely because God comes to the unworthy. "

These are the words of Sarah Wilson,the co-editor of Lutheran Forum, in her editors column in the Summer 2009 edition. "Speak the Truth in Love" speaks to the upcoming Churchwide Assembly in the ELCA, and to the one consuming and over-powering issue of human sexuality, specifically same-gender sexuality. She speaks to those who are both voting members and those who are not but who likely be at the assembly in August. She gives wise counsel on this, and I would encourage anyone out there who has not read this article to do so. (Go to and find out how to get hold of a copy, or even to subscribe to the magazine!)

But it is this last argument that continues to strike me at the heart. Love the ELCA? She is so right. Who loves the ELCA? Who even wants to be found out as loving the ELCA? It is as human construct, a corporation, an address on Higgins Rd. in Chicago, a bureaucracy, a splinter group in the body of the Church catholic. It is one untimely born, and like Job, seems to be cursed from its birth. Not only who loves it; who wants to be accused of loving it? Who dares to be thought such a stupid fool?

As Dr. Wilson writes, only God. And that makes me profoundly sad.

I accuse myself. I have not loved. Is it too late to start?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Reading I

I've been reading Freedom for Ministry by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus. I originally read it a number of years ago, but decided that I needed to be reminded (as only Father Neuhaus can remind one) of what ministry really consists of. It is important to keep the main thing the main thing; it is too easy to get caught up in activities that are not really ministry at all but are only distractions. This book is not a quick read! Rather, I think I will be chewing on it for quite a while.

Picking it up again

"Light the fire in my weary soul,
Fan the flame --
Make my spirit whole.
Lord, you know where I've been,
So light the fire in my heart again."