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IN ABSENTIA

I’ve been absent from blogging for the past couple of weeks for a reason.

For the months of January and February I am serving as Acting Bishop of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, while their bishop, the Rev. Kurt Kusserow, takes a two-month sabbatical.

We began planning for this time about six months ago, and when the new year finally came around, I soon realized it was going to be a lot to juggle my writing with my other responsibilities. Even though I write for fun, it does require a great deal more thought than just sitting at a desk and typing in the first thing that comes to my head. I do take this seriously.

So therefore, pardon my absence. I will be back on a more regular basis in March, I promise.

But in the meantime, I must devote my time and effort to the people of God in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Be back in about six weeks…

THE YEAR OF PURPOSE II

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

[Ephesians 1:11-14 New Revised Standard Version]

Let me be clear. My intent here is not to write a year-end retrospective. Nor is it an attempt to declare New Year’s resolutions.

But as I reviewed what I had written last year at this time, I noticed I had begun a reflection I didn’t finish. So, what you’re getting today is a full twelve months late!

I can’t recall what distracted me or prevented me from finishing my thoughts. I’ll chalk that up to a function of old age. But why try to think up new things when there’s already nearly half a blog post ready to go?

So here’s where my mind was at this time a year ago, when I was nearing my first full month of retirement. I was focused on the word, “purpose.”

The dictionary defines the word purpose as “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.”

At the Northeastern Ohio Synod Assembly of 2021, I was blessed with the honor of the title of Bishop Emeritus.

As I was approaching the year 2021, that word had become the object of my obsession. One month into my retirement, it was important to find a purpose or a reason for which to live. For most of my life, I have been defined by what I do. This year would be different. I would mostly be defined by what I used to do. And it does take a while to regain one’s identity as someone not related to a vocation. You are not sure of who you are for a while.

And as I look back, I admit it was a challenging adjustment, if not a struggle. COVID didn’t make it any easier.

In many ways, retirement is like a death. One dies to an old way of life. And as I often tell relatives of a loved one who has died, for me this was a year of firsts – the first Christmas, or any major holiday or family gathering without that person or, in this case, that lifestyle.

Hence, the importance of discovering a purpose. One of my colleagues reminded me that it is good to begin each year with a theme. Pope Francis, for example, declared 2021 the “Year of the Family” or the “Year of St. Joseph,” depending on whose report you read. Other than the fact that he is planning an ambitious agenda, I haven’t come across his theme for 2022.

Since I never officially declared 2021 my year of purpose, I have chosen to title my theme for the upcoming year, “The Year of Purpose II.” (Strange, I know.)

In 2021, I had every hope of expanding my writing, which I did. I intend to do more this year.

Then there are the vacation and travel plans that my wife and I put on hold because of the dreaded virus. Hopefully, we can resurrect those in the coming months.

Even with those ideas in mind, I am beginning 2022 by going back to the future, in a sense.
I have been invited to serve as Acting Bishop of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod for January and February, while their current bishop, the Rev. Kurt Kusserow, takes a well-earned sabbatical. I am eagerly looking forward to that

This call, temporary as it may be, has already been a blessing.

First of all, it is a homecoming, of sorts. I was reared in Western Pennsylvania after my family emigrated there from Puerto Rico, so I know the area well. Yes, I still cheer for their professional sports teams, and, for a while at least, I can do that openly without facing hostile stares.

Secondly, in preparation for this role, I have been collaborating with several dedicated ministers of that synod in planning a Martin Luther King commemoration in January. These new relationships have been enriching and have introduced me to different people and different perspectives. Newness always presents an atmosphere of excitement.

There are also some church-related duties coming up following my two-month sojourn in Southwestern PA. I will be one of the chaplains for the ELCA’s Multicultural Youth Leadership Event (MYLE) in St. Paul, Minnesota in July. And in October, I am part of the planning team for our Former/Retired Bishops’ Gathering in Detroit.

So I remain tethered to the church even as I am detached in retirement.

But my greatest hope for this coming year goes beyond the personal or the individual. As I read the opening of the letter to the Ephesians (see verses above) I drilled down on that word: purpose.

We are all created for a purpose – God’s purpose. That is our reason for being on earth.

Together, as a people, we are greater than the sum of our individual parts. There is so much good that can be accomplished in the world if we would only set aside our differences and live together as God’s people in the joyful presence of our Creator, reflecting the goodness that was bestowed on us at birth.

May we look ahead to 2022 with that purpose in mind.

God’s richest blessings to you in the new year!

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DESMOND TUTU

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn;

[Isaiah 61:1-2 New Revised Standard Version]
The Rev. Terrance Jacob

My dear friend and trusted colleague, the Rev. Terrance Jacob, is from South Africa. In 2016, I was blessed to travel to South Africa with him when he was Director for Evangelical Mission for the Northeastern Ohio Synod, and I was the synod Bishop. It was a memorable trip which gave me valuable insights into the country of his birth. He was the perfect guide.

I thought about our trip on Sunday morning when I heard the news of the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a champion in the struggle against the evils of Apartheid, and the embodiment of hope for the liberation of the oppressed people of that nation.

As the tributes continue to pour in, I sought out Pastor Jacob for some of his reflections. As a young man, he, too, was active in the struggle for racial justice and spent time in prison for that activism. Tutu was his source of strength and courage.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Two simple memories stood out for him. “When I was twenty-three,” Jacob said, “he advised me to spend personal time in prayer BEFORE my activism!”

Then at age 32, Pastor Jacob sent “the Arch,” as he is fondly known to South Africans, a thank you letter, to which Tutu replied with a thank you letter of his own.

“Thank you, Rev. Terrance Jacob, for your kind ‘thank you’ letter.”

It is that sort of humility that endeared him to millions of his compatriots, although to others, he was regarded as “public enemy number one.”

My closest connection with Archbishop Tutu came in 2002, when he gave a lecture at Mount Union College (now the University of Mount Union) in Alliance, Ohio. I was in the audience for that lecture and hung on to the man’s every word.

He spoke of God’s radical love and acceptance of all humankind, no matter one’s status. We are created in God’s image, and we have infinite value. That is gospel.

While I don’t remember everything he said word for word, in the midst of that speech he made one statement that made me sit up and pay attention.

“Remember that God loves…Saddam Hussein!”

I confess that my finite human brain couldn’t conceive of such an idea that even our worst enemies are God’s beloved children.[1]

Keep in mind, this was a few months after 9/11 and America was seething from that devastating attack. US troops had just invaded Afghanistan and President George W. Bush was beginning to develop the case for an assault against Iraq.

The shock of Archbishop Tutu’s declaration sent me scurrying to read more about this man who, up to that time, was a figure about whom I knew truly little beyond what I’d read in newspapers.

To my surprise, the theme of God’s love is a staple of all his writings. It is his default position. Page after page is a variation of the same refrain.

My Desmond Tutu book collection

I have read four of his books and even now I wish I had read more. Tutu writes for the average reader. The bulk of the content is a collection of his sermons and speeches, so these are not abstract theological treatises, but real-life applications of the Gospel to actually lived experiences. My goal now is to re-read these and immerse myself into the essence of this courageous man of God, who inspired a nation and its people to strive for justice and convicted the conscience of its oppressors.

Over the next several weeks, social media sites will be awash in quotes from those who find it fashionable to do such things, because that is what social media does best.

We quote the liberators because it is trendy. And in our mind, it absolves us of the guilt of our unwillingness to take the risk.

May I suggest that the best way to honor the memory of this sainted servant is to actually attempt to live out the gospel. I can guarantee you it won’t be easy. Living the life of service to one who went to the cross is not meant to be easy.

After the fall of Apartheid, Tutu was instrumental in establishing South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was an unprecedented attempt at healing the nation by having the oppressors confess to the atrocities they committed against Black people in South Africa, then hearing words of forgiveness from those who were oppressed.

It was a monumental achievement, but one that was not without its detractors.

It was during those hearings that Archbishop Tutu learned that he had prostate cancer, an illness he would battle for a quarter of a century until succumbing to it last week. He reflected on the experience in the final pages of his book, No Future Without Forgiveness:

“It helped me to acknowledge my own mortality, with deep thanksgiving for the extraordinary things that have happened in my life, not least in recent times…Yes, I have been greatly privileged to engage in the work of helping to heal our nation. But it has been a costly privilege for those of us on the commission and I have come to realize that perhaps we were effective only to the extent that we were, in Henri Nouwen’s celebrated phrase, ‘wounded healers.’”[2]

We give thanks to God for the life of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and we pray that his example may be a wellspring of hope for us, inspiring us to live a life that exemplifies God’s goodness.

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[I] Tutu, Desmond and Tutu, Mpho. Made for Goodness. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010. p. 134

[2] Tutu, Desmond. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday, 1999. p. 287

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