Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.
I had intended this Advent season to reflect on the assigned Old Testament prophetic readings. The prophet Isaiah takes center stage during Advent. He speaks words of hope as we await the Savior’s coming. In this week’s reading, the text opens with the words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” [Isaiah 40:1]
But I am especially fascinated by the hopefulness found in the imagery of the psalm reading for this week, Psalm 85, a portion of which is found at the beginning of this post. In particular, I am drawn to verse nine: Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
It is a desire that we yearn for amid the tension that this nation has experienced in these past few weeks. Imagine what would be if righteousness and peace were to kiss. We pray, we struggle, we long to dispel those social, political, racial, and economic differences that divide us as a society.
And in the midst of this all, we cannot, we must not forget that we are children of God, created and formed in God’s image. God loves each and every one of us, despite our human flaws. God’s love lives within us, and we are called to be a reflection of that love toward others. It’s that simple, yet that complex.
I close with the following video in which the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, speaks to the issue of racial justice. The video runs less than three minutes. Listen and reflect. May God’s peace be with you in this Advent season.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
If I were to take everything that I’ve read about Ferguson, Missouri, since last summer and stack it in a pile, I imagine the paper would fill a large size room. If I were to add what I haven’t read, we could fill a house. This doesn’t include the hours and hours of news coverage that have been dedicated on the electronic media to the events of just the past 36 hours, since the grand jury decision was announced late Monday night.
Let me preface what I am about to say by confessing that, like all of you, I wasn’t on the scene the day Michael Brown was killed. I did not see what happened. All I know are the tragic results. That is really all anyone knows – that a life was ended by a hail of bullets.
But lack of first-hand knowledge has done little to stop anyone from speaking out. Everyone has a right to speak freely. However, I hold fast to a saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” That valuable aphorism has helped me rein in my emotions at controversial times.
Yes, I am reluctant to wade into what has become a cesspool of public opinion surrounding this unpleasant incident. I’m not one who reacts in knee-jerk fashion to such a highly charged, explosive atmosphere as has been created by the killing of Michael Brown. Yet, for as much as I deliberate, as much as I consider all aspects of the issue, even though the cynic in me feels I can add nothing more to the din of the discourse, I can’t stay silent. This is an emotionally visceral moment.
I realize the dangerous ground on which I tread. As a person in a position of church leadership, I am bound by the office I hold to care for God’s people, lead by example of holy living, and give faithful witness. But I am also called to be prophetic. To paraphrase the words Jesus once said, “If I were to keep silent, even the stones would cry out.”
So if you wish to stop reading at this point, I understand. If you have already determined that you think you already know how I feel you need not continue. Thank you for reading this far. I’m writing the rest of this post for my sinful, human self.
It distresses me that Michael Brown is dead, just as any person’s death distresses me. I am distressed because this one death is symptomatic of a deeper, more onerous problem in this country and this society – that of making judgments based on the color of one’s skin. Call it what you will, racism, bigotry, prejudice; it is an illness, a cancer that has metastasized at the very core of our social fabric. I see little hope, no solution, no antidote to the poison that exists in, with, and through us.
It distresses me when I read the comments from those who will never understand, those who condemn the protestors without bothering to consider their frustration. “Why do THEY destroy property?” “Why can’t THEY react peacefully?” “If only THEY would obey the law, respect authority, and on, and on, and on….”
Well, I am THEY. I can tell you that racial profiling does happen. The potential for another Ferguson exists right here in Northeastern Ohio, as a New York Timesarticle from last September points out.
I can tell you that there are people who perceive themselves as superior the moment they look at me. I can tell you that oftentimes, people make stupid comments thinking they mean well, but condescending nonetheless. I’m not just speaking about law enforcement, but the general public as well. I have experienced all of this. Fortunately for you, I am one of the THEY that prefers peaceful reconciliation and doesn’t resort to violence, but oh, sometimes I am so tempted.
I’ve mentioned before on this blog that in the photo on my driver’s license I wear my clerical collar. It is a conversation changer. The transformation in attitude once I display my I.D. is astounding, in some cases, almost apologetic.
It distresses me that, unfortunately, I sense that a week from now we will have forgotten Ferguson and will have moved on to the next crisis. Ferguson will be filed in the archives along with Ebola, immigration reform, and gun violence. Bring on Black Friday.
Thankfully, there are also those who, though they will admittedly never understand, are willing to stand alongside the victims of oppression. In every major city, there was a protest on Tuesday after the decision. I thank God for those folks who were and are willing to risk and demonstrate.
And, oh, yes! By the way, a new liturgical season is upon us. It’s Advent. How appropriate that the season of waiting comes at the very time when the people cry out for justice. How fitting that we wait for Christ’s coming at the very time that people are in despair. How meaningful that the God of grace and mercy waits with us who long for hope. I pray for peace and love in this Advent season. Pray for the people of Ferguson.
And I close this long, rambling rant with a prayer by one of my colleagues, Bishop William Gafkjen of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, who has the gift of articulating his supplications far better than I am able to at this point.
Holy Spirit, use this moment in our life together to transform us. Teach us what it means that there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, Republican nor Democrat, police nor citizen, white nor black. Knit us together in a unity that will endure tear gas and broken glass, shattered hearts and belligerent righteousness, frail legal systems and self-protective fear. Make us peacemakers, form us as children of God, humble us and raise us up to something new, a new community, beloved and loving, walking the way of the cross, giving ourselves to your promise of new life, resurrected life, abundant life, on the other side of every death-dealing day. Along that way, make us aware of your constant companionship and empowering presence. Good Lord, deliver us. Set us free to be what you have made and called us to be. Use me, even me, today, tomorrow, and the day after the next, to make a difference, to be an ambassador of your reconciling love, to live and offer new life, a new way, pioneered by Jesus, crucified and risen for the life of the world. Make it so. Now. Today. With morning’s light. Amen
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
[1 Thessalonians 4:13]
I have tried to avoid making these blog posts a summary of my week’s activities or a reprise of homilies I’ve preached. But yet it seems that, as much as I would like not to do that, I do it anyway. It’s my version of Paul’s words from Romans 7:16, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Therefore, allow this preamble to serve as an apology for what I am about to do – tell you about my week’s activities and repost a segment of a homily I preached this past week.
On Saturday, November 8, I received word that one of our pastors had died of a massive heart attack. The Rev. Arthur E. Cubbon had served St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Stow, Ohio, since 2008. His obituary can be found by clicking HERE.
I must confess that as bishop, I expected to do pastor’s funerals. But I believed those would be the funerals of retired pastors, those who had faithfully served in our parishes and lived well into their golden years, not one of an active, robust 60-year old. This one came out of the blue. Shock doesn’t begin to describe the emotional impact of such a calamity.
When tragedy strikes, I tend to be one of those people who asks very few questions. I simply begin doing what my vocation calls me to do. I checked in with his widow, the Rev. Leah Schafer, to make sure she was being cared for. I called the deceased pastor’s congregation council president to find out how I could help. It so happened that I had no scheduled parish visit for Sunday morning, so I asked if they would want me to be present for their worship services.
You may find it strange that I would ask permission to be with people in grief. But, as I’ve been counseled, bishops should not take it for granted that we have blanket permission to impose ourselves into the middle of a congregation’s affairs. Yes, this situation was an exception because of its catastrophic circumstances. But I asked anyway, and my request was enthusiastically accepted.
So in essence I preached two funeral sermons – one on Sunday to comfort the congregation in its mourning, and the other on Tuesday as we celebrated the life of this faithful servant. To say that both were difficult is a classic understatement.
I have been with many grieving families over the course of my time in ministry, but never with an entire congregation. This was a first. I prayed for the right words. Based on the reactions of parishioners, my prayers were answered.
But my most challenging moment came as I distributed communion and looked into many a tear-stained face. I had to summon all the self-control in my being to keep myself from crying right alongside them.
Tuesday was no easier. What buoyed me on that day, however, was the presence of nearly four dozen clergy, many of whom vested and processed into the sanctuary ahead of the casket that contained the corpse of their now-absent colleague. They were not just Lutheran, but clergy of several other denominations with which Art had collaborated in mission and ministry during his time at St. Stephen’s. It was an overwhelming demonstration of solidarity and fraternity of the vocation we share, and a powerful witness to the faith which we proclaim. It was the comfort and support I needed at this particular time.
As we approach the end of the calendar year the lectionary readings for our liturgies tend to focus on the end times. Several of them lend themselves to funerals. As I read the texts for Sunday, the 9th, I concentrated on the epistle from 1 Thessalonians and the opening verse: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” [1 Thess. 4:13]
And I preached to the congregation:
We do grieve this morning. It is a natural reaction when one loses someone dear to them. We grieve because of all that Pastor Cubbon meant to us – to this church, each individual member as well as the corporate community; to this synod, and to the community of Stow. And we linger in that grief, but we don’t wallow in it. We don’t grieve as those who have no hope. You see, death for the Christian is entirely different from that of the unbeliever because we share in Christ’s victory over death.
My homily also included the words of Jesus in the Gospel reading from Matthew: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” [Matt. 25:13]
Those words took on a whole different meaning for us last Sunday morning.
There are many people who were far more qualified to preach the funeral homily on Tuesday morning. Those who knew Art far better than I did. Those who had more stories to tell than I did. But in God’s sense of order, the responsibility fell to me. I can only hope that throughout the four days, from the time of his death to the day of his funeral, I did justice to Art Cubbon’s memory. And far more importantly, I pray that God was glorified.
Each Monday morning our synod staff gathers for devotions. Most of the time they consist of one or two readings and a reflection by whoever the leader is that day, and usually we close with the responsive prayer.
This past Monday (November 3) I felt a need to worship and honor the memory of those faithful rostered leaders who served this synod and now rest from their labors, having died in the past year. So we celebrated a Eucharist. What follows is my homily for our All Saints observance. The focus text is Revelation 7:9-17. The final three verses of which are cited here:
For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
All over Northeastern Ohio and elsewhere churches celebrated All Saints Sunday on November 2. It is a tradition to remember those members of their respective churches who have died in the past year. As their names are called out, usually during the prayers of intercession, a candle is lit, in some cases a bell is tolled. At Covenant, where I served for the last five years, it is also a tradition to write each individual name on a ribbon and place it on the processional cross. That ribbon is then given to the families of the deceased as a remembrance of the day and their life of faithfulness while on earth. We would also add their names to a booklet that lists all deceased members, symbolic of the saints of every time and every place. I seem to recall that we in the Northeastern Ohio Synod used to keep a book of that sort, curated by the same pastor who was my predecessor at Covenant and who developed the booklet.
The point is that All Saints is a day of remembering, and as we remembered those who were dear to us, I felt a need that we here in our little congregation of the synod office should remember those rostered leaders who served in our synod and entered the church triumphant over the past year, David Scharf, Paul Thielo, George Lambert, Deborah Nebel, Donald Saylor, George Wright, andPeter Shults.
I’m sure they were remembered in some parish where they had a connection, but not collectively, as a group of servant leaders, by the judicatory in which they carried out their ministry, which is us. So we will do that this morning.
In the conglomeration of commentaries I read over the past week, I was most drawn to the one by David Lose, the president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, who wrote about the sermon he would want to hear on All Saints. He encouraged pastors to expand their sermons beyond those human losses we grieve to include other losses in our lives.
As he put it, “Loss that deserves notice and demands comfort comes from many places, not only death. It comes in leave-takings, as we depart for a new job and home and leave beloved friends and colleagues behind. It comes as you slowly lose a loved one to Alzheimer’s. It comes in the loss of employment or dignity. It comes from struggles with illness both of body and mind. It comes from the exhaustion of caring for a special needs child and the occasional recognition of all the things given up in order to offer that care. It comes from disappointment at home or work or school, of dreams deferred or hopes dashed. Such loss comes at us from so many sources, and I think there may be value to wondering together how this day could address them as well.”
I think of the people of First Lutheran Church in Lorain and the adjustments they’ve had to make in their worship life since the fire of August 28th. I think of the people of St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Cleveland, and St. Matthew’s in Parma (two parishes which closed in the past year) and the void in their lives even as they worship in new faith communities.
I can only speak personally as to how my new position, however exciting the challenge may be, also required me to take leave of a community of people I had grown to know and love, and how my wife and I still grieve that. As a result, I understand why many pastors don’t always respect boundaries and remain in contact with former parishioners. I also understand why we require pastors to distance themselves from remaining in communication with those in their parish, otherwise, they would never leave. It is one of those restrictions that has to be enforced so as not to undermine the ministry of the incoming pastor.
In the changes that have occurred in this building since my election, each of you has suffered a particular loss. There are not as many people in the building as there once were. Perhaps you are grieving that daily interaction with those who worked alongside you for many years. I sometimes think we talk more loudly in order to compensate for the smaller number of voices that we once heard. It just happened to work out that way, but perhaps today is the ideal day to have our first staff round table and talk about those changes.
Transitions are difficult. They are as agonizing as they can be rejuvenating. They bring as much sadness as pleasure. We linger in the moment of loss but we cannot remain.
I am reminded of the poem by Robert Frost, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, especially the last stanza:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.
As we pause to remember today the changes in our lives and those servants who have gone before us and now rest from their labors, also keep in mind that they are rejoicing around God’s throne, and worship him day and night, as our Revelation text points out.
We will, in several moments, also gather around Christ’s table, and share in Holy Communion, where we will join the people of all times and all places and offer thanks and praise to the one who is seated at the center of the throne, the one who also shelters and comforts us and accompanies us in our time of loss. And as we are fed with the body and blood of the lamb, we pray that we will remain in communion with those we remember today, as we look forward to the day when we, too, will hunger and thirst and grieve no more.
In the name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The following is an edited version of the homily I preached at the Lutheran – Catholic Covenant Celebration at the Kent State University Newman Center on Sunday, October 26, 2014. With the Festival of All Saints approaching, I thought the baptismal themes expressed would be fitting for this day. The texts for the homily were Romans 6:4-11, and John 3:13-17. There are additional comments in the postscript.
When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
With these words, we begin a Lutheran funeral liturgy. You will note immediately that they are the exact words of the Apostle Paul which we heard in our epistolary reading [Romans 6:4-11].
Each and every one of us, regardless of our economic or social status, our political leanings, our race, our religion, each and every one of us share two things in common – we were born, and we will all die.
I am reminded of this every time I turn on the news, especially in these last several weeks since the outbreak of Ebola in several West African countries. The stories have dominated the headlines. The relatively few incidents here in the United States have created a panic the likes of which this country hasn’t witnessed in years, despite the fact that only one person has died.
What it points out to me is the tremendous grip that the fear of death has on our lives. When someone dies in a foreign country, as thousands have in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone and elsewhere, it doesn’t seem to matter to many of us. But when it happens in our back yard, it becomes a crisis.
So we do everything possible to avoid death. Yet every attempt to avoid or to defeat death, is ultimately self-defeating. To underscore this, I would point out that 50,000 people die annually in these United States from the flu, and there are an estimated 32,000 gun violence deaths each year. What we do in life has consequences, some good and some bad.
In the first five chapters of Romans, Paul describes why all men and women are equal before God. He states that sin entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Guilty by association, all of their descendants must suffer the punishment of a broken relationship with God, with one another, with Creation and finally the ultimate punishment-a physical death. We die because of sin. We are children of a fallen humanity. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Paul explains that both the Jew and the non-Jew are guilty of disobedience. The Jewish people have broken the law given through the prophet Moses and the Gentiles, the non-Jews, have broken the law that God had written on their hearts. The Gentiles have also, according to Paul, chosen to worship the creation rather than the Creator. Both groups stand guilty before God and deserve punishment but God offers his grace through faith. Salvation is a gift not the reward for religious works.
While this argument may seem obvious to us, it was not obvious or logical to many. Paul’s opponents argued that if God forgive so easily what is going to keep people from continuing to disobey the law. Why would anyone want to go to the trouble, effort and inconvenience of obeying the moral code? His rivals also contended that if God likes to forgive and men and women like to sin, why not keep on sinning so God will keep on forgiving. To which the apostle responded with horrific outrage.
Paul’s vehement reaction was based in his understanding of the connection between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and Christian baptism. Death need not be the final end for us. We need not fear death. And the greatest defense that we have against death is our baptism. It is through baptism that we die to sin and live a new life in Christ.
The Christian life is a new life. We are committed to a different kind of life. We have died to one kind of life, and been born into another. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way in The Message: “we left the old country of sin behind…we entered into the new country of grace- a new life in a new land!”
Someone pointed out to me some time ago that your baptismal certificate is both a death certificate and a birth certificate! Death to the sinner! New life in Christ! I must admit I never thought of it that way. But that does present an interesting image.The first act of living the Christian life is to die to your past.
Somewhere in my preparation for this homily I read that in the early days of church history it was a common baptismal practice for those entering the water to lay aside their old clothes, depicting their surrender of the former life of sin and death. They emerged from the water like newborn babes – naked and innocent.
Once we have died to ourselves, we can then live to God. So Paul tells the Romans to consider themselves dead to all the things from their past; to treat every desire, every temptation, every old habit as if they were lifeless. Paul insists that the cross must be seen as more than Christ’s last breath, it is also sin’s last breath.
Of course, we are still tempted. We are still tempted to worship the gods of success, prestige, and money. We are still tempted to take what doesn’t belong to us. We are still tempted to cheat or to spread rumors. We are still tempted to lie to save face. We are still tempted but we don’t have to give in. We are not bound to a certain behavior.
Our Lord graciously invites is to live our Baptism each and every day. In our Gospel reading from John we hear Jesus give us those words of assurance in verses sixteen and seventeen have the “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
We have Christ’s word that we are, by baptism, dead to sin. And we have Christ’s promise that we shall be raised from the dead with him into life eternal. Our true identity lies as close to us as our own experience of baptism. Those who are baptized have been incorporated into Christ and share his destiny. What is left is for the baptized to become what they are, living out the meaning of baptism in daily life. Amen.
I write this with a heavy heart. On Tuesday evening, October 28, 2014, a dear friend, Abelino (Al) López died peacefully at Cleveland Clinic with his family at his side.
I have known Al for nearly 40 years. We first met as members of the board of the Spanish-American Committee for a Better Community in Cleveland back in 1977. We cut our teeth on community service back then. Those were turbulent times and the meetings were often contentious. But the discord served to galvanize our friendship.
We played basketball, and shared an occasional lunch. And at the heart of our conversations was first and foremost, the betterment of the Hispanic community of Cleveland. It was his passion.
Al went on to help found Esperanza, an educational agency committed to providing scholarship for deserving Hispanic/Latino students in the Cleveland Public School System. Always an advocate for education, he served many years as a counselor at Cuyahoga Community College and was a mentor to many.
I am convinced that as he entered God’s heavenly embrace, the first words he heard were, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Rest eternal grant him, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon him. Amen.
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
In my brief time as bishop, I have developed a new appreciation for the staff of our churchwide office. These are people who serve God by advancing the mission of the church, not only in Chicago, but all over the world. Many of these men and women sat in on most, if not all the meetings at the Conference of Bishops held at the Lutheran Center earlier this month. Then several of them flew from Chicago to Perrysburg, Ohio, to play an active role in organizing and facilitating the first Networking for Mission event for the Region VI synods, which include all three Ohio synods, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan.
For several of the bishops from our region the concern was that the event seemed hastily put together and some of the staff admitted as much. But let me quote Bishop Marcus Lohrmann of the Northwest Ohio Synod, who offered the following impressions:
In the Conference of Bishops we have been talking about the need to break down “silos”. This event did that. Churchwide staff from a variety of areas (e.g. global mission, communications, mission interpretation, stewardship, churchwide campaign, world hunger), conversed, worshipped, dined with lay leaders, bishops, some synod staff in a manner that was both informative and energizing for all participants (these days I confess it takes a bit to energize me!). One of the best parts was watching how our lay leaders connected/networked with our gifted churchwide staff (most of whom I have had little interaction in the past). In my 16 plus years in this office I have not experienced an event quite like this one.
I echo Bishop Lohrmann’s thoughts. I was not eager to spend another two nights away from home after being gone for eight days. But this event was well worth it. I was more than thrilled that over 20 others from our Northeastern Ohio Synod, both clergy and laypersons, were present to interact with staff and with each other. Their concern for what we do as church together gives me a sense of hope that God will be served and we will continue to work faithfully for the mission of the kingdom.
Each bishop was able to gather with his or her synod for about an hour. It was not long enough. I would hope this time spent together inspires us to stay in conversation with each other.
Bishop William Gafkjen of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod shared this paragraph about his synod gathering, which he wrote as part of a report for another organization:
One of our little [synod] group in the room was a pastor who confessed that he has struggled for years with whether to remain a part of the ELCA. Coming to this event was a sort of last chance in his discernment about leaving. Tears rose in his eyes as he spoke about how moved he was to be part of such a great church and to work alongside such remarkably committed and inspiring people. He wished he had worked harder to get some congregational members to the event and proceeded to initiate conversation with the others present from our synod about strategies for “getting this great story told in the congregations across the mission territory.” Huddled together as a microcosm of our synod in that little room in a church basement, it felt like a mini-Pentecost had descended. I could see glimmers of fire in this pastor’s teary eyes, reflected in the eyes of his sisters and brothers around the table.
Bishop Eaton came in Saturday afternoon for a keynote presentation on the role of networks for the early church, in congregational contexts, and in our present situation. She kept this event on her busy schedule despite the fact that her father-in-law had died the previous Wednesday. In Bishop Lohrmann’s words, “Her presentation was winsome.”
After she spoke, Bishop Eaton and the four other bishops present sat down in front of those in attendance for a 45-minute question and answer session. An independent article on that session can be found here.
Overall, I came away inspired. Despite the many days away, the drive home was reflectively cheerful. My hope was renewed that at some point all churches will learn to look outside of their four walls and seek to learn from one another. It’s a matter of either striving and flourishing together or withering alone. The task won’t be easy, but we forge ahead, buoyed by the strength of the one who loves and upholds us, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
With the above text, we began the opening session of the second Bishop Formation Event, which I am attending as part of my first Conference of Bishops at the Lutheran Center in Chicago.
The formation leader, Bishop Michael Girlinghouse of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod, asked us after reading the words, “How do these verses speak to you?”
Each of the six of us new bishops then voiced our thoughts, and that led into sharing with the others some recollections of our respective installations and reflections on our first months in office. I was surprised, as I usually seem to be whenever I’m in the company of the people in this group, by the similarity of our reactions and our experiences. Although there is a uniqueness to each of our stories, the common themes that run through our narratives are rather striking – the joy, the hope, the festiveness of our separate celebrations. These memories serve to bond us even further. That sense of unity will also be a source of comfort and shelter to each of us in the days to come.
But the scripture verses above accomplish the same purpose. The words that leap off the page for me are four: created, formed, redeemed, and called.
In our moments of fear, in our moments of despair, in our moments of sorrow, these are helpful words to keep in mind. The one who created us, the one who formed us, the one who redeemed us, and the one who has called us, now tells us, “Do not fear!”
In this text, the Lord, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, goes on to tell us in specific detail that neither water nor fire will harm us; we shall not be overwhelmed, nor shall we be burned or consumed.
As humans we have a natural tendency to be afraid, to feel overwhelmed. It is in those challenging times that we can turn to these words for refuge and for strength. God is with us. That is God’s promise to us. Keep in mind that God does not say that the problems will necessarily go away, but rather that God will be alongside us as we go through them.
God makes that promise to each and every one of you. Keep these words in mind. Guard them in your heart. Take them with you wherever you go – on the job, in the doctor’s office, in the hospital, whenever tragedy strikes.
They are also words to remember in times of pleasure. For the same God who is with you in the sorrow is the same God who is with you in the celebration.
But they are especially reassuring in the low times. It is then when we should hear them loud and clear: “Do not fear. You are mine. I am with you. I am the Lord.”
I don’t know what lies ahead during my time in the office of bishop. But I do know of one thing – God will also be in this office with me. And for that I say, “Thanks be to God!”