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AUGUST 21, 2017

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.

[Isaiah 51:1]

In his book, Dynamics of Faith, theologian Paul Tillich devotes a chapter to symbols. He writes that symbols point beyond themselves to something else, and surpass language in quality and strength. In other words, symbols express what words cannot. They give voice to the individual or collective unconscious.[1]

I was reminded of Tillich’s work in light of the recent furor over the removal of Confederate statues and monuments from public sites across America. These actions, and the visceral and violent public reaction, raised several questions in my mind. What is the point of getting rid of them? Why were they erected in the first place? Are these memorials reflective of the values which we uphold today, or merely vestiges of a bygone era?

In June of 2015, Dylan Roof, an avowed white supremacist, massacred nine African-American people at a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. Shortly afterwards, the state of South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from the state house and other prominent locations. The flag has long been a symbol of bondage and oppression to those who were brought to this country as slaves.

Robert E. Lee statue at the University of Virginia — Courtesy Gerry Images

Other states have followed suit in an effort to promote an atmosphere of racial equality, and suppress, if not totally erase, the memory of that disgraceful era. But in this haste to be on the right side of the history, others have felt spurned. It is that segment of society that has now risen to claim the voice they feel is being taken away. The ensuing debate has resulted in protests that sometimes turn tragic, as in Charlottesville, Virginia. This brings up a couple more questions – Which response gives voice to the predominant mood of our society? Whose voice deserves to be heard?

Let me be perfectly clear. I am unambiguously opposed to the presence of anything that symbolizes the superiority or dominance of anyone at the expense of another. It is incompatible with my sense of justice and totally at odds with my understanding of the message of the Gospel.

Yet I must accept the fact that those who support these representations, repulsive as they may seem to me, are also children of God, and therefore my sisters and brothers, whether they believe it or not. That is my struggle.

Two of the readings for this coming Sunday address the issue of identity. The prophet Isaiah informs us that we are all hewn from the same rock, the quarry of Sarah and Abraham. Isaiah’s advice to the exiles of Israel, to look back at their history, is also helpful counsel for us today as we struggle to make sense of the social, political and racial schism that has polarized this country.

To stretch the metaphor a bit further, statues and monuments are also created from rocks. Though inanimate, they also have a life span. To quote Tillich, “Like living beings, they grow and they die. They grow when the situation is ripe for them, and they die when the situation changes…They die when they can no longer produce a response in the group where they originally found expression.”[2]

This gets at the heart of what is happening in our country today. One could argue that these statues and monuments in question have outlived their usefulness, if they ever had any beneficial use at all.

In the Gospel narrative from Matthew, Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is, extracting Peter’s historic confession of faith, which becomes the Rock upon which Jesus founded his church. In confessing Jesus as the Son of the living God, we claim our identity as God’s children.  We’re reminded how much God dearly loves us. We need only to look at Christ and we see that God’s love is the most valued possession we have. More than any statue or monument, that is the source of our hope.


[1] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 41

[2] Tillich, 43

 

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Last week I asked for brief reflections from those who attended the first-ever ELCA Rostered Ministers’ Gathering, which was held in Atlanta, August 7-10. The enthusiasm of the pastors who responded was evident in their remarks. Though they couldn’t contain themselves to the 3-5 sentence limit I imposed, I did very little editing of their comments. I would still love to hear from others, in case you missed my Friday deadline.

 

Pr. Chuck Knerem – First Lutheran, Strongsville

The gathering for rostered leaders was fantastic!  Every Bible study was spot on and stimulating.  The keynotes were inspiring and powerful, especially Dr. Forbes.  He got to his 45-minute limit and the assembly was urging him to go on.  The preaching was dynamic.  I visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights and, while it was a sobering experience, I am better for it.  It provided context for what became my sermon yesterday.  It was uplifting to be with so many colleagues who are struggling with the same issues, and to hear many words of encouragement and thanks from Bishop Eaton.  One of the best quotes came from Rachel Held Evans who said something like, “The church should not concern itself with decline.  Empires worry about decline.  We are resurrection people.  Sometimes the church has to die so it can be resurrected.” 

The gathering was, by far, the best conference I’ve been to in a long time.  Glad to know they plan to do it every three years.

 

Pr. Jimmy Madsen – First Lutheran, Lorain

The days were filled with great worship, enlightening Bible studies, provocative speakers and opportunities for discussion in small groups. But there was also time for relaxation and the enjoyment of one another’s company. It was refreshing to spend time with colleagues without an agenda of things to accomplish except for our renewal. The fact that registration had to be closed early because of overwhelming response is a testimony to the need for this sort of gathering. Kudos to Bishop Eaton, Kevin Strickland and all who made this a reality.  I came away from the event with the hope that our Church will do this again.

 

Pr. David Connor – St. Mark Lutheran, Tallmadge

I thought the tone was just the right balance of honest realism and hopeful idealism– about ourselves, our work, and the ELCA.  Our challenges were not sugar-coated, but no sense of ‘woe is me’ was evident, at least to me.  I was very encouraged to see the diversity of age, race, and gender in the group.  By no means a bunch of old white men.  I was particularly pleased with the presence of younger leaders (I have a feeling that the pre-convention gathering of younger leaders was very strategic). The keynote addresses and Bible study were solid, yet the highlight of the entire program was when each of several key leaders share a portion of their faith stories, including Elizabeth Easton, Chris Boerger, and Kevin Strickland.  Amazing witness– and a great model for sharing and growing the Gospel. Finally, my table representing the Fellowship of Recovering Lutheran Clergy was visited by a lot of attendees.  I was thanked for my presence and many said it was good thing that I was there.  Many said this was the first they had heard of FRLC. 

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Saturday, I will be at Camp Mowana to visit with our synod’s candidates for rostered ministry. Each year I look forward to these conversations, to get to know the candidates better, respond to whatever concerns they have, and encourage them along their journey. It bears repeating that we are facing a shortage of leaders and I ask you to keep these candidates in your prayers. We passed a resolution at our Spring Conference of Bishops which I wish to share with you:

 

“As the Conference of Bishops, we call our worshiping communities to pray for raising up leaders for this church. We ask that the petitions of every worship service include a plea that new lay leaders, deacons and pastors be identified, invited, encouraged and supported in responding to God’s call to ministry.”

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Sunday, I will be with the people of God at Trinity, Clinton, to preach, preside, and celebrate the 25th anniversary of Pastor Julie Thom’s ordination.

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And for this week and always, may the God of our weary years, the God of our silent fears, who has brought us thus far on the way, who has by God’s might, led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray.

+Bishop Abraham Allende

 

 

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AUGUST 14, 2017

      May God be merciful to us and bless us;

may the light of God’s face shine upon us.

         Let your way be known upon earth,

       your saving health among all nations.

[Psalm 67:1-2]

I took a few days off this past week for my annual vacation with my son. But whatever expectations I had that my return would be uncomplicated went out the window even before I began unpacking. As I drove home Saturday, I listened with a mixture of outrage and sorrow to the heartbreaking tragedy of the violent confrontation between White Supremacists and counterdemonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Then I sat down to read the lessons for this upcoming Sunday, which made matters worse.

The Gospel reading from Matthew – Jesus’ healing of a Canaanite woman’s daughter – comes on the heels of this weekend’s horrific catastrophe; and raises confounding questions that make the narrative difficult to explain. Why would Jesus have rejected the Canaanite woman? Why was Jesus so focused on ministry to Israel, to the exclusion of others?  Isn’t that exclusion just the kind of narrow-mindedness Christians are battling today?

The Woman of Canaan at the Feet of Christ
Jean Germain Drouais, 1784

The woman persists, perseveres, and prevails over a rather nasty and seemingly bigoted Jesus, who eventually grants the woman’s wish and heals her daughter. But why did Jesus put this woman through all this?

The reading is troubling because this doesn’t sound at all like the Jesus we have come to know and love. Let us consider, however, that Jesus may have had another objective in his behavior: to hold up a mirror to us and say: “this is you!

We should be bothered by all these barriers that Jesus puts up in front of this woman, but then we should also look at ourselves. How many times have we ignored someone, turned them away, or felt, said, or done worse, because they are different, because they are not like us?  

This reading, and the events in Charlottesville, both teach us that bigotry, hatred, and intolerance have no place in God’s Kingdom. As people of God, we are challenged to overcome those biases in our lives with repentance and prayer, seek God’s forgiveness, then speak out whenever and wherever we see injustice. As people of faith, we are called to witness to the God whom we serve – the God of kindness, justice, and mercy.

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This reading also moves me to commend the work of a group of rostered ministers and lay people here in Northeastern Ohio. Over the past two years, the Cross-Cultural Conversations Team has taken upon itself the responsibility of gathering monthly to engage with each other in discussion, prayer and Bible study on the issue of race, racism, and talking with one another cross-culturally about tough social issues. They have held workshops at each of our last two synod assemblies, and offer themselves as a resource to individuals and congregations who are interested in breaking down those barriers that divide them from others, and inhibit the establishment of meaningful relationships.

I borrowed three questions which they asked at the workshop held during our last assembly, and reprint them here as a helpful guide to you who may be struggling with how to move forward:

a.     When/where did you encounter someone different from you this week?

b.     How did you feel about it?

c.      What questions did the encounter raise for you?

To these, I would add a fourth question:

d.     How did you sense God’s presence in all that for you?

For more information about the group and its work, you may contact Pastor Dirk van der Duim, at Grace Lutheran Church in Hubbard, Ohio.

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I am asking a favor of those who attended the Rostered Ministers’ Gathering last week in Atlanta. I’ve read so many positive comments on social media that I would ask that any of you who would like to share your experience, drop me an email by this Friday with your reflections on the event. Three to five sentences would suffice.

I so regret that I was not able to be with you, but it would be a blessing to your colleagues and the good people you serve to hear your impressions. I will use as many as space allows on next Monday’s Musing.

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This coming Sunday, August 20, at 11:00 a.m., I will be at the High Meadows Picnic Area in Elyria, for the Second Annual Worship in the Park. Eight congregations, five Lutheran and three Episcopal, will gather together for an ecumenical service that witnesses to the glory of God and our full communion partnership, which is now in its 18th year.

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In the meantime, may God be merciful to you and bless you, and may the light of God’s face shine upon you this week and always.

+Bishop Abraham Allende

 

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JULY 31, 2017

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
  come to the waters;
 and you that have no money,
  come, buy and eat!
 Come, buy wine and milk
  without money and without price.

[Isaiah 55:1]

The connections between food and faith are fascinatingly striking.

As I rode the train home from Philadelphia, I read a book entitled, Take This Bread, by Sara Miles. It’s the author’s memoir of how she came to faith by the transformational act of receiving communion for the first time – at the age of 46!

Sara Miles

Raised an atheist, the simple act of receiving the body and blood of Christ spurred Miles to begin a food ministry at that same church a year later, and, eventually, be baptized.

Yes, I know that’s contrary to our sense of proper Lutheran procedure, but how we do things isn’t the point of this story.

Miles writes in her memoir, “The food pantry, as I envisioned it, was another way of doing church—though one that didn’t demand belief or expect people to pray. It wasn’t a social program but a service, modeled on the liturgy of the Eucharist…because none of us ‘deserved’ communion, and we still received it every week”[1]

There are times when need outweighs protocol. That is, in a sense, the point of this week’s gospel reading from Matthew of the feeding of the 5,000. When Jesus sees the multitude of people gathering to see him, Matthew says that he had compassion on them. Jesus meets the needs of others in his life of obedience to God.

But the command that is often missed when people read Matthew’s version of the story is that, contrary to popular belief, Jesus does not feed the crowd.  He tells the disciples to feed the crowd.

YOU give them something to eat,” he tells them.

The reason for the disciples’ resistance is that they don’t have the physical resources to feed the crowd.  They weren’t necessarily being cold-hearted in their refusal to feed the crowds, but with only five loaves and two fish, they just didn’t see how it was possible. 

How familiar does this sound to you?  How often, in our congregational life, do we look around, and all we see is what we don’t have?  We look at our meager resources and think, “We don’t even have enough here for ourselves, much less anyone else.” 

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that unless we have enough to start with then we can’t help. Our whole existence as church is by faith. If God presents us with an opportunity, our challenge is to look for ways that we CAN do it, rather than looking at what we’ve got and then decide whether or not we can do it. It may drive your church treasurer crazy, but Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook so easily as we would like.  

Jesus is concerned with meeting our needs on every level, and calls us to meet the needs of others in the same way. It’s astounding how little becomes much when God is in it.

The Psalm response for this week contains a familiar Lutheran table prayer that many of us have often recited before meals:

The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,

  and you give them their food in due season.

 You open wide your hand

  and satisfy the desire of every living thing.

[Psalm 145:15-16]

And I close with another that is perhaps more familiar to most of us:

Come Lord Jesus be our Guest;

And let these gifts to us be blest.

And may there be a goodly share;

On every table, everywhere.

Amen.

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This coming Sunday I will be with the people of God at Grace Lutheran Church in East Palestine, Ohio, as they celebrate their 107th anniversary. I will also have the distinct honor of performing two baptisms for the first time as bishop.

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I pray this week and always, that we may respond to needs of the world with compassionate hearts, offering all we have to Jesus, that he might bless it for us to share in the ministry of God.

+Bishop Abraham Allende


[1] Sara Miles, Take This Bread (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008), 113.