GOD IS STILL LAUGHING

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

Genesis 17:17

I have been at the Conference of Bishops since Thursday, March 5 and will be here until Tuesday, March 10. It’s my second time among the other 64 synodical bishops and the overload of information continues to overwhelm. I keep grasping a snippet of knowledge here and there but if any of you have ever drunk from a fire hose, you may understand the impact. As I sat at worship on Sunday morning among this group of esteemed colleagues, I found it difficult not to recall and reflect on the unbelievable series of events that brought me to this point along my journey of faith.

Few people, if any, keep track of half-anniversaries, but on March 1, I marked six-months in the office of bishop. A week or so after that date, March 10, to be exact, marks a year since I received the telephone call informing me that I was among the top ten names that surfaced in the conference votes that had taken place the second Sunday in March, which was also the second Sunday in Lent of 2014.

The cross at the Lutheran Center, Chicago.
The cross at the Lutheran Center, Chicago.

Each year in our lectionary, the assigned Old Testament readings for the Second Sunday in Lent are taken from Genesis and are associated with the call to Abraham. God makes promises to Abraham that on the surface sound outrageous.

As you may imagine, I relate to this story. Not just because of the similarity of my name, but more so because the story of the call to Abraham offers you and me a lens through which we can understand our relationship with the living God.

One year ago, my plans for the future were pretty clear. My wife, Linda, and I had begun dreaming of leisurely living and long vacations. The only major decision was at what point I would put closure to full-time ministry.

And God laughed.

The thrust of the story of Abraham is that Abraham believed and obeyed what God told him. And I would like to think that I, too, have obeyed. I pray daily that God will continue to equip me with what is needed to faithfully fulfill the ministry to which I have now been called.

In much the same way we are all called.  We are called in the waters of baptism to be a child of God, to become a member of a royal priesthood, a holy nation.

Having been called, we do as Abraham did.  We obey.  We do God’s will in our lives.  We follow God’s commands to love the Lord with all our heart, with all our mind and with all our soul. And we follow God’s command, also, to love those around us in our lives.

Will we always obey God?  That’s not humanly possible.  We are all sinful.  Even Abraham sinned. 

But, in those moments when we sin, we can be assured that we are living under the care and watchful eye of the Holy Spirit, and we are able to ask and receive forgiveness. Then, by God’s grace, we follow-through and go out and do what God has called us to do.  Not always, and never on our own, are we able to do God’s will in our lives.

That is what faith is: to believe that God can do what he has promised. It is to trust the promises of God so implicitly that you act on them. The season of Lent is a particularly appropriate time to reflect on our faith and in whom we place our trust.

WELCOME BACH

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

Psalm 122:1

The purpose of this blog is not to promote events, but just this once, I’m going to break my own rule. On Saturday, March 7, I invite anyone who loves organ music, or anyone who loves classical music, to the Lutheran Church of the Covenant in Maple Heights. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Patrick Parker
Patrick Parker

The organist, Patrick Parker, will be performing works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Following this performance, Patrick will be taking off to Leipzig, Germany, to study at the University of Leipzig for six months and be a guest student at the Mendelssohn Conservatory. For him, it is a dream come true. Leipzig, in case you didn’t know, is the home of St. Thomas Church, where Johann Sebastian Bach engraved his immortal musical reputation.

Patrick was the organist and director of music at Covenant from April of 2010 until June of 2011. He came to us as a 22-year old graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and his position at our church was a convenient way to apply his musical talent while studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music under Todd Wilson. That he is a gifted musician is an understatement.

I’m not certain how much Patrick knew about Bach before coming to Cleveland. Born in a small rural town in North Carolina and growing up as a Southern Baptist, you can imagine the many adjustments Patrick had to make personally, culturally, and spiritually. It was the furthest he had been away from home, the first time away from his parents for an extended period of time, and the first time in a church denomination that exercised liturgical worship. He spent a lot of time in my office, sometimes just chatting, at other times venting, but most often, just needing a place to be. We were, after all, his home away from home.

In his contribution to our 2010 Advent devotional he wrote the following as part of a reflection on Psalm 122: “I think coming to Covenant should have the same meaning as the Psalmist going to the house of the Lord or me going to my family’s house. Each week we should come to a safe, beautiful sanctuary with people we know, commune with God and each other, wish each other peace, and then go out into the world, seeking goodwill for God, others, and ourselves.

He would rehearse with an intensity bordering on the eccentric – sometimes leaving the church building as late as 2:00 a.m. Maple Heights is not Four Oaks, North Carolina. One would not be advised to be walking around at that hour of the morning in an urban area. He once forgot his keys in the organ loft after one of these marathon sessions and locked himself out of the church building and unable to get into his car. Fortunately, he had his phone and called a parishioner who lived nearby.

One afternoon I was organizing things in the office adjacent to the sanctuary during one of his frenzied sessions. I heard him in constant conversation with himself, oblivious to my presence, furiously criticizing himself for not playing up to his own demanding level of expectation. I merely listened, captivated by his monologue, suppressing my repeated urge to laugh out loud at his expletive-laced, self-condemning outbursts.

Worship & Music Chair Jen Dobush, artist Lorraine Johnson-Davis, and Patrick Parker at opening of Bach Concert and Art Gallery in 2010.
Worship & Music Chair Jen Dobush, artist Lorraine Johnson-Davis, and Patrick Parker at opening of Bach Concert and Art Gallery in 2010.

But the results of his efforts were extremely fruitful. His enthusiasm was the inspiration that helped launch our musical concert series.

He loved to perform. The Covenant worshippers loved him in equal measure. They lived for his postludes. More often than not, they were Bach compositions. I invariably had to wait an extended amount of time to greet people after our services because they would stand around in awe, marveling at his mini-concerts and responding with thunderous applause.

I realized Patrick would not remain with us much past his graduation. He was much too talented and his ambitious dreams went far beyond remaining as a church organist.  Yet I held out the unrealistic hope that somehow he would have been able to continue. Currently he is working toward a Ph. D. at the University of Houston. We had begun making preliminary arrangements for this concert before my unexpected election to the office of bishop. Patrick, true to his word, made good on his pledge to return one more time to the congregation that, in his words, shaped him.

Unfortunately, I will be out of town the weekend of March 7, so I will miss seeing him. But I strongly encourage you to attend and witness a virtuoso in the making, who will someday, in my estimation, achieve an outstanding level of acclaim in his profession. And I can then proudly say, “I knew him when.”

 

ASH WEDNESDAY

Ash Wednesday

February 18, 2015

Assigned Scripture readings for today: Joel 2:1–2, 12–17; Psalm 51:1–17; Psalm 103:8–14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10; Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21

 

We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!

2 Corinthians 5:20b, 6:2b

[The parishioners at the Lutheran Church of the Covenant in Maple Heights, Ohio, may recognize a large portion of what follows as the devotion I wrote last year for our Lenten Devotional. I repost it here out of a desire to share with a wider readership.]

**********

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

ash-wednesday11The pastor pronounces those words as, with a thumb, the sign of the cross is traced on your forehead, leaving a trail of ashes – a grim reminder that the same fate awaits us all. Death!

So begins the period of 40 days that we call Lent. This time presents a unique opportunity for us to reflect on our mortality and to focus on the now.  We are reminded of the truth that none of us are promised tomorrow.  We are encouraged to look at our relationship with God today.  It is a call to self-examination, and an invitation to respond to God’s call today.

In the reading from 2 Corinthians, we hear the apostle Paul’s call to reconciliation. Paul calls for those in the church to “be reconciled to God.”

I have a particular fondness for this text. What always stands out to me is the sense of urgency with which he communicates that call. “Now is the acceptable time,” he says.

Paul recognized the need for Christians and the church to receive the good news of forgiveness in Christ, and to let it take root in our hearts.  He knew the difference that this reconciliation would make in their lives.  But the reality is that our human sinful nature dictates that we more often prefer to hold on to grudges.  And the longer we hold on, the harder the reconciliation becomes. 

I post this out of a growing concern for the increasing amount of conflict I seem to sense as I visit congregations around our synod. There appears to be a heightened sense of anxiety around financial issues, but often those are symptomatic of deeper distresses. In many ways, we are no different than the congregations in Paul’s time.

As you begin this 40-day journey through Lent, can you accept the challenge to look at where you need reconciliation? The longer we hold off reconciliation, the harder our hearts become.  Two little words can heal years of hatred: “I’m sorry.”

100_3239The invitation of Ash Wednesday is simple.  We are invited to contemplate what we can do today to welcome God’s reconciling power into our lives.  And that begins today.

Today is the day of salvation. Not someday, but today.

Today is the acceptable time. Not a time in the future, but today.

WHY WE WORSHIP

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Mark 9:7

Why do you worship?

2014-12-30 Bishops Academy 2015 045As a pastor, leading worship has always been gratifying, but being able to be a participant in worship has always been extra special for me. That’s why as bishop I now enjoy the luxury of scheduling myself off one Sunday each month, so that I can be a participant in the worship experience. This is my week not to preach. Yet earlier in the week I met with the clergy from our Richland-Ashland Conference and prepared what, for me, was a brief homily on this Transfiguration Sunday’s Gospel reading from Mark. I’ve since had even more time to reflect on my remarks to them, and I wish to share those with you since I have nowhere else and no one else with whom to share them.

I made a valiant attempt to find something different in these eight verses from Mark’s Gospel that I hadn’t seen before. In case you don’t recall the story, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him to a high mountain, where he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became a dazzling white. The three disciples also hear a voice from a cloud, which says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

We hear a version of this reading every year on this last Sunday after the Epiphany – the Sunday just before Ash Wednesday. So it’s easy to simply tune out because we’ve heard the story so often we think we know it.

But the joy of scripture is that you can read or hear a passage repeatedly and discover something new.  In my efforts to present something different to the clergy group I began to explore a connection between Transfiguration and worship. I will quickly admit that the decision to pursue that preaching path was not original. Several commentaries which I read made the same suggestion. But in my case, it really applied to my life.

Each of you has a particular reason why you choose to attend church each Sunday morning, or whenever you celebrate worship. Each of you goes to church with a particular need to be met. You are looking for something beyond yourself, beyond your world. But the act of simply showing up at church is not worship. Worship is not about you and your needs. Worship is about God.

2015-01-06 Bishops Academy 2015 043 (2)Worship draws us closer to God, or at least it should. Each week we gather, we confess our sins, we receive God’s forgiveness, we sing, we pray, we hear the good news of God’s word, we receive the tangible evidence of God’s grace through the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and we leave, transformed, to witness and to serve God throughout the week.

Mark’s transfiguration story provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the worship of God.

I can’t tell you how much I love worship. And I fervently hope worship is just as special to you. Worship is a very special time when human beings are brought very close to the glory of God. Obviously not to the same extent as for Peter, James and John. But consider this: Not only are we in the presence of our sisters and brothers in Christ, but also in the presence of God, with the people of all times and all places, with the angels, archangels, the church on earth and all the company of heaven. Everything else that we do for the rest of the week flows from our mountaintop experience of worship.

But all these benefits are lost on us if we simply come to worship and go through the motions of our liturgy without really understanding why it is that we do what we do. And that lack of understanding is reflected in our sometimes casual approach to worship.

I can’t help but think of the opening words of the Westminster Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

Worship, then, is a time to be with God, to adore and delight in the One who has loved us in Christ and is therefore to be loved.

Whatever we make of this story on the mountaintop, it should be for us, the chief model of worship. Jesus came to enable us to worship God through him. And in reality, we are changed – which is what transfiguration means. We are moved to go with our changed hearts, and transfigure them into changed lives – to make a difference in the world in which we live.  Worship transfigures how we look at our lives; past, present and future.

2015-01-08 Bishops Academy 2015 034Going to worship has only one good purpose in mind: so that God might meet us here, and surprise us, love us, forgive us, and sustain us.

As we prepare for Lent, to walk the way of the cross, I pray you commit to making a greater effort to approach worship in a more spiritual and reverent way; to remember why we worship; to thank God for sending his son, Jesus Christ, to save us from sin and death. And may we, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, be moved to see the depth and breadth of God’s love, the lengths to which he is willing to go to bring us closer to Jesus, and be transformed by that same Holy Spirit, becoming more like Jesus with every passing day.

TRUTH, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE

For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.

Luke 8:17 [NRSV]

I’m a fan of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. That, perhaps, tells you a little more about me than you cared to know.

I would also venture to guess that, when you read that opening statement, you had one of three reactions: approval, disapproval, or indifference.

Those in the first category are gleefully racing ahead to read more. The second group might not even have gotten this far, unless you’re just curiously dying to know where this essay is going. The rest of you are quizzically asking, “So what?” (You may have even wondered, “What’s a Daily Show?”)

Here are the reasons I’m prompted to watch this half-hour parody of news and current events. The satire is superb. The irony is incisive. The host, Jon Stewart, is hilarious. I can do without all the expletives, but apparently, there’s a craving for crassness among certain elements of today’s society.

There was a time I would fight sleep and dreariness to watch the show at its regular 11 p.m. airtime. But more recently, I’ve either recorded it, caught one of the several reruns, or watched online. Old age, after all, has its limitations.

Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart

Stewart is at his best during political campaigns, when candidates get themselves twisted in knots trying to explain ill-conceived promises that they know all along they can never fulfill. He is a superb interviewer; acerbic, yet not disrespectful (at least in the opinion of some), even to those whose views may differ from his unquestionably liberal leanings. He may flatter those guests with whom he agrees without being overly fawning.

Stewart recently announced he would be leaving the show, which is obviously what inspired me to write this post. His personality is compelling. He is clever, comedic, and competent; skillfully gifted with the uncanny ability to shred the veil of pretense and duplicity that typifies many of today’s newsmakers and public figures.

Brian Williams
Brian Williams

Stewart’s announcement came on the heels of another highly publicized, far more awkward exit – that of NBC News anchor Brian Williams. By now the world knows of his fall from grace following reports that he had embellished accounts of his time spent aboard a helicopter in Iraq. For his self-aggrandizing, egregious error, Williams has been suspended for six months, his credibility, ruined forever.

The contrast between these two men and their leave-taking is paradoxical. The one who for years has admitted to presenting fake news now has more credibility with viewers than the one who for years has claimed to report the truth.

(Totally as a political aside: it was not lost on Stewart, that Williams is the only person who has been held accountable for lying about Iraq. Many of us thought it. He had the audacity to say it.)

It matters not that from earliest childhood we are encouraged to be honest. We will never outgrow the desire to deceive. History, is replete with stories of people who are less than truthful.  Williams is but our latest example. He will certainly not be the last.

I could have quoted any number of verses of Scripture to introduce this essay, not the least of which is the ninth commandment, which counsels us against bearing false witness.

The bottom line is that none of us can stand in judgment of Williams. Because in the final analysis, all of us, at one time or another, have lied. The degree of our deception is the difference, but dishonesty is a part of our DNA. Or, in the words of psychologist David Livingstone Smith, “Deceit is fundamental to the human condition.”

That is why I believe so fervently in grace. We would be so lost without it.

A NOTE OF THANKS

Give your time and effort to the public reading of the Scriptures and to preaching and teaching. Practice these things and devote yourself to them, in order that your progress may be seen by all.  Watch yourself and watch your teaching. Keep on doing these things, because if you do, you will save both yourself and those who hear you.

1 Timothy 4:13, 15-17 [Good News Translation]

The apostle Paul routinely began his letters with a greeting which included the words: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you.”

I, too, want to begin this post with a similar salutation.  I thank God through Jesus Christ for you, the 60,000-plus people of God who make up the congregations of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the ELCA. The main reason for my thankfulness today is that many of our congregations allowed our pastors and rostered lay leaders to take a couple days off for rest and renewal.

Nearly 100 clergy, associates in ministry, and spouses traveled to Geneva-on-the-Lake for the annual Professional Leaders Retreat, which is held each year in the last week of January.

It’s a chance for clergy to get away from the daily demands of parish ministry, reconnect with other colleagues and engage with presenters who are invited to talk about a particular topic pertaining to ministry.

This year’s speaker was the Rev. Dr. Peter W. Marty, senior pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport,

The Rev. Dr. Peter W. Marty
The Rev. Dr. Peter W. Marty

Iowa. He is a writer, speaker, and preacher. You may have noticed his monthly columns in The Lutheran Magazine. The theme for his presentations was, “What does a sermon do today?”

But rather than confine his remarks to preaching, Dr. Marty touched on all aspects of pastoral ministry. Using examples from his own personal life and from the myriad of books and articles he has either read or written, Marty encouraged and challenged all of us to become better at our vocation. He spoke for three 90-minute sessions, and entertained questions at each one.

And whereas other presenters would have most likely hidden in their room during breaks, Marty took the time to talk to individuals in the course of the social hours and mealtimes. He seemed genuinely interested in wanting to know who people were and what was on their minds. He even preached at the closing worship service. It was, for all of us in attendance, time exceedingly well spent.

The Rev. Karl Biermann (center) was installed as Assistant to the Bishop.
The Rev. Karl Biermann (center) was installed as Assistant to the Bishop.

So again, thank you, people of God! Thank you for your investment in the well-being of your pastor.  If you notice this Sunday that your pastor’s sermon sounds different; if you hear a freshness in his or her voice that you hadn’t previously noticed; if you detect an enthusiasm never felt in the past; chances are he or she was at the Professional Leaders Retreat.

We are blessed in this synod with many wonderful pastors. And by giving them the time and the opportunity to learn and improve, you and your congregations will reap great rewards. If your pastor didn’t attend this year’s retreat, encourage him or her to attend in 2016. (Take note of how Paul encouraged Timothy in the scripture passage quoted above.) It would be a wonderful gift to pastors and to their ministry. The benefits to the people in your parish will be immeasurable. But more importantly, God will be glorified!

A POSTSCRIPT ON BETHLEHEM

I declare this congregation, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, to be closed, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

[Service of Leave Taking; Evangelical Lutheran Worship-
Occasional Services for the Assembly]

I recited the above words for the first time in public on Sunday, December 28, 2014, at the end of the service of Holy Closure, the final worship service at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Youngstown, Ohio.

Although I had rehearsed the rite several times in the days before the service, it was the first time I had proclaimed them before a live assembly of the faithful who gathered to grieve the closing of this 202-year-old church. As I looked out at the mournful faces, my jaw quivered, my voice trembled, and my eyes filled with tears. I never imagined it would be so difficult.

Holy Communion at Bethlehem, Youngstown.
Holy Communion at Bethlehem, Youngstown.

But it was, and is, like presiding over a funeral of a dearly loved parishioner. I had never met the overwhelming majority of these people before that Sunday, and yet here I was, lamenting their loss. I had had some contact with them electronically in preparation for the day, but it wasn’t until that last Sunday in December that I heard them share their stories and recall the treasured memories they had of this church building. One person after another echoed the same or similar reminiscence: “I was baptized in this church.” “I was confirmed here.” “I was married in this church.” If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times.

The parish records are handed to the bishop.
The parish records are handed to the bishop.

Our Director for Evangelical Mission, the Rev. Terrance Jacob, had done most of the necessary planning for the closure, including meeting with the congregation’s leaders to discuss the future of the congregation. As I stated in my homily, which you can read in my previous post, the conversations were necessary and regretfully, long overdue.

It was a day unlike any other in my brief four months in office. I was closing a congregation for the first time. I am struck by the reality that it won’t be my last.

Even though I was on another continent when I began writing this post, a half-world away and nearly two weeks removed, my heart was still back in Youngstown, mourning with the people whose congregation is no more. My mind swirled each night for the first few nights, wondering what the future holds for many of the congregations in our synod, and asking myself what God is trying to teach us through this time of decline. How do we become better at doing ministry? How do we discover new ways to make the Gospel meaningful to those who no longer find it relevant? How do we make Christ known to those who have not yet heard the Good News of God’s grace and forgiveness?

These are the questions we will struggle with in the coming year.

I came across a quote from noted Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, which states: “In our contemporary circumstances of ministry, I suggest that despair is the defining pathology that robs the church of missional energy and of stewardship generosity.”1

I find myself lapsing into that despairing mode more often than I care to admit. And I’ve discovered that when I raise the issue of declining congregations in any public forum, the mood of the conversation turns somber. In one of my reflections for our synod newsletter, I mentioned the statistic that 139 of our congregations are in decline. A pastor who visited my office mentioned to me that one of his parishioners latched on to that statistic and, in effect, blamed that pastor as if somehow the entire decline of the synod was his fault!

I had quite a bit of time to gain some perspective during my study tour in Europe. Even though Germany, where I visited, is the birthplace of Lutheranism, nearly 80% of the people there are unchurched. Although on nearly every corner there is a symbol to Christianity and/or Lutheranism – churches, statues, monuments – people, for the most part, look upon them as just symbols and nothing more.

Part of that has to do with the fact that for over half a century, the country was under two oppressive dictatorships. There were the Hitler years from 1933 to 1945, and the Soviet domination that governed the eastern half of Germany from 1945 until 1989.

But what does it mean to be church in a country – or, to be honest, in a world – that doesn’t care about church?

I want to explore this question over the next few posts. I think it is relevant to all of us as pastors and lay people to analyze what is happening in our synod, in our country, and in the world. I would love to engage any of the readers to this blog in the conversation. I am not an academician so I promise not to make this some scholarly treatise. But I would be interested in some good, honest reflection.

And I also must stress that while I may be sad at the moment, my faith is ever anchored in a God of abundance; a God who is faithful to us, even when we are not faithful in return; a God who will welcome us with open arms, though we reject that welcome. We may be fighting an uphill battle, but my hope is that God’s divine wisdom and mercy will endure forever. I am comforted in particular today by two verses of Scripture, one from the prophet Isaiah and the other, a brief snippet from Psalms.

Isaiah writes:

Do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

[Isaiah 41:10]

And from the words of the psalmist: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” [Psalm 30:5b]

May this day be for you a day filled with the joy of God’s love, grace, mercy and peace.


1  Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home, Preaching among Exiles, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, p. 7

 

Reflections, thoughts, ideas on ministry and the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the ELCA

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