Monday, April 17, 2017

Splashing In God's Living Waters

Vacation Bible School isn’t just about fun. I mean, sure, it is fun. But that’s only the second most important ingredient. For me, VBS first and foremost must be deeply theological. After all, being a part of the body of Christ is about digging deep and discerning together who God is and who we are in relationship to God. And whether or not the average three-year-old has any idea that God is right there in her VBS fun or not, it doesn’t change the fact that God is, in fact, right there. So when I set out to develop our theme each year, my first question to myself is: what, biblically, do I want to dig into, draw out, and explore with these kiddos.

This year, I thought of water. Specifically, I was thinking about one of my favorite stories: the Samaritan woman at the well, and Jesus’ talk about “living water.”  From there, the phrase, “Splashing in God’s Living Waters” just sort of popped into my head (I think this is a lot how the Holy Spirit works in my life, which is way cool.) Beyond that, I didn’t give it too much thought. I just brought it to the team to kick around—I don’t work in a vacuum. Often (nearly always) God’s most profound insights are discovered when Christians come together to wrestle with God’s Word. So I dropped the theme on the group (Dottie Fergus, Jen Nelson, Pr. Jon and Steve Manacek). I said, “Let’s do a bunch of Bible stories about water.”

Then Pr. Jon said (and I’m paraphrasing because I can’t quite remember), “It’s all really about baptism.”

His words were like the Holy Spirit’s “Ice Bucket Challenge.” I was completely doused in the most breathtaking ice water deluge, accompanied by a voice from heaven saying, “Duh! Of COURSE it’s about baptism!” Okay, there wasn’t actually a voice, but there was (for me at least) this profound moment of clarity. I honestly hadn’t gone into it with the baptism idea in mind, and yet every story about water somehow comes back to baptism.

Water is AWESOME. Ordinary water can wear down mountains. Living water can break down our most intractable barriers, those walls we build between ourselves and the Other. Ordinary water nourishes life. Living water nourishes the spirit in ways so profound we can hardly comprehend it. Ordinary water washes away dirt and grime. Living water washes away Sin and Death. How can this NOT be the greatest VBS ever?

With baptism at the center, the dam broke wide open, and a cascade of ideas flowed outward, drenching all of us in excitement. We won’t just be dipping our toes in here, folks, we’re diving deep. The theme song started writing itself in my head not a day later. Here are the lyrics so far:

Splashing in God’s living waters,
Diving into the Word,
Rising up a new creation,
This is what we heard:

God said,
“You are my beloved daughter,
You are my beloved son,
You belong to me forever,
You’re new life has just begun!”

Hope you will join us this June as we douse these amazing kiddos with God’s living water!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Naming the Other

For two years now, we’ve been treated to Pastor Jon’s excellent preaching. He has delivered inspiring and powerful sermons touching on both law and gospel, those two most basic aspects of Lutheran biblical interpretation. His sermons on gospel tell us of a God who loves unconditionally, who redeems, uplifts, inspires and blesses. His sermons on law tell us of a God who exhorts us to love our enemies, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and stand up for the oppressed. In short, to reach out in love and service to the Other.

We hear these messages and we nod our heads. We are comforted and challenged. We are called and inspired.

Twice in the past two years, Pr. Jon has gone a step further. He has named the Other. A year ago, he named the Other as the African American community, which is suffering under intense and painful institutionalized discrimination. More recently, he named the Other as Muslims, whose civil rights are being violated by our government.

Naming the Other changes things. As Pr. Jon named the Other, and named the injustice, we reacted at a much deeper level. Some of us said to ourselves, “Yes! THIS is the Christian message. THIS is what it means to follow Jesus!” We left affirmed and inspired. Others of us said to ourselves, “This is politics and it doesn’t belong in the pulpit.” We left disappointed and angry.

People of Calvary, this could be a serious problem. Or it could be an amazing opportunity.

It is a serious problem if we refuse to engage in dialog with one another about these things. It is a serious problem if we keep to ourselves our disagreements with one another, if we dig in to our own ideas and opinions convinced that we are right and others are wrong. It is a serious problem if we have conversations behind closed doors rather than open dialog within our loving and embracing Calvary family.

It is an amazing opportunity if we can come together and wrestle with these very real issues. I think that we can at least agree that our communities and our nation are experiencing an unprecedented level of divisiveness, anxiety and anger. We have been worshipping and sharing in community with one another for years, and even decades. We have practiced Christian hospitality with one another, and we have loved unconditionally. What better environment in which to come together and grapple with difficult issues that directly impact our lives and our call as Christians?

I will tell you now that whichever direction we choose, it is not going to be comfortable. We face either being frustrated with one another in secret, or being honest with one another in what might be painful ways. If we do choose the way of dialog, we will need—absolutely NEED—to set aside our insistence that we are right (this will be especially difficult for me!) We will need to be prayerful, loving, forgiving, and open-minded.

It is probably obvious which option I favor. We cannot simply use Calvary as some sort of ivory tower in which to take refuge until the current turmoil blows over. I do not believe that is what it means to follow Jesus.  I believe to the very core of my being that if we remain silent in the face of injustice, we condone that injustice. If we fail to take action to stand up for the oppressed, we are complicit with the oppressor. So I, for one, cannot remain silent. It is my deepest hope that you will join me in prayerful and loving conversation in which we are unafraid to name the Other.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Living into the Comma

Last week at the children’s sermon, I asked the kids what it meant to be blessed. None of them could put it into words, even though I got the sense they had some idea of the definition. To help them out, I showed them a series of pictures of people and asked them whether or not they thought the people in those pictures were blessed.

Unsurprisingly, they recognized right away that the family with the nice, big house, the family at Disney World, and the older couple toasting wine glasses on a yacht were blessed. How did they know? Well, they had “stuff.” And they looked happy. So that’s what it means to be blessed.

When I showed them pictures of a homeless family, a woman grieving, a Muslim woman in front of a mosque that had been vandalized, and a man in jail, they were emphatic. These people were not blessed.

Maybe it was a little bit of a dirty trick—the gospel lesson for the day was the Beatitudes, after all, and of course I was going to challenge the kids’ notions of what it meant to be blessed. But at the same time, these kids had just come from a Sunday School lesson in which they had been discussing this very story, so I was a little surprised that none of them smelled a rat in my questions about blessing.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Because as adults, many of us lifelong practicing Lutherans, we’ve read the Beatitudes and heard them preached on countless times. We know that Jesus turns what was the accepted understanding of blessing in his time on its head. And yet somehow, we still haven’t gotten the message. We still—and I mean all of us at some time or another—fall into the belief that blessings are material things bestowed upon us or the presence of positivity (people, situations and things) in our lives. We still look at those who are suffering and cannot fathom how to see them as blessed.

Of course, all those wonderful things in our lives, material and otherwise are blessings. All that we have comes from God. And if we have good things, those good things come from God! So we are, in that very culturally-defined way, blessed.

The problem is that that’s where most of us stop. We live as though we are blessed-period. Blessed. But the truth is that God’s blessings don’t end in a period. They end in a comma. We are blessed-comma. Blessed, and… Blessed, to... Blessed, so that…

God said to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…  and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:2, 3b

If we are ever to get unstuck in our inability to recognize God’s blessings beyond just the positive material things in our lives, we have to live into the comma. If we are ever to fathom how to see the suffering as blessed by God, we have to move past the comma into the calling.

Luther wrote of God as “the God of the preposition:” God’s work through us. Now I would never suggest that God is unable to work outside of human agency—that the suffering aren’t blessed unless we work to bring them blessing. That being said, I do believe that God calls us—in no uncertain terms—to be a blessing to those who are poor, who grieve, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who experience persecution. God calls us to take action on their behalf, to reach God’s arms around them in love and healing, to work to change systems that continue to do them harm.

This is not simply an admonition, but an invitation. When we live into the comma, suddenly our own blessings seem less hollow. When we stop counting our blessings and start sharing them, life takes on real meaning and purpose. We get “a foretaste of the feast to come” when we will live in joyful community with God’s people (which is all people!) Isn’t that exciting? So go forth! And remember that you are blessed,

Monday, January 16, 2017


On Christmas morning, there were maybe thirty people at worship. Many of our members were out of town or celebrating with family. Others were kept away by the ice on the roadways. It was an intimate gathering, and without prompting, everyone sat in the front few pews. I joked that it was so Pr. Jon wouldn’t be lonely up there.

The greeting of peace took longer than usual. With such a small group, we felt compelled—or maybe it was invited—to take the time to visit with everyone, whether with a handshake or a hug. One person even hugged another twice saying, “I came back for seconds.”

The singing was accompanied on piano, less formal and bombastic than the organ, lending additional intimacy.

The sermon, too, was less formal, with Pr. Jon asking us to listen for words or ideas that jumped out at us as he read the gospel and then inviting a few of us to share what we connected with. Then he dug a little deeper into John’s poetic “In the beginning was the Word” passage by reading from the materials I wrote for the Christmas program. He talked about Jesus’ presence from the beginning in the trinity, and shared the theological basis of Tempus Perfectum as it related to John’s gospel.

As I sat in that little gathering, I was reminded of what I’ve been learning about the early church. After Jesus’ resurrection and before the gospels were written, the disciples and Paul planted little churches all around the Mediterranean. These were not large, formal groups in big buildings with pipe organs (or the first century equivalent). They were small gatherings of people in private homes. Someone would read from Paul’s letters, which were the only Christian readings they would have had, and possibly from Jewish scripture. There would have been a meal. I don’t know if there was music.

I thought: would it be better if this is what church was like on a regular basis? Is this what “church” was meant to be? Certainly one has to wonder whether Christianity would have survived at all had it not become the social-norm-turned-imperialist-weapon that allowed it to spread and grow into the largest world religion. But everything I’m reading at seminary points to the fact that this trajectory of Christianity inevitably removed it from its basic purpose and most central theologies. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to take things back to those earliest days?

What would such a church look like? How would we “be” the church in the world? Would we miss the sound of the organ, the large choirs, the decorated sanctuaries? Or would it be liberating to gather in simple settings, with guitar and piano. Would we bemoan the loss of Sunday School? Or would we cherish the opportunity to welcome children as full participants in worship and have everything be intergenerational? Would we mourn VBS and other activities? Or would we be relieved to give up the endless drive to “create programs” in order to compete for members and resources? What if our main function was to serve our neighbors rather than to grow our congregation?

I suspect we would be deeply uncomfortable. It would be a huge change from what we know. There is so much about our Lutheran tradition I would dearly miss in a small, informal setting.

But maybe we can have the best of both worlds. Perhaps it is not necessary to completely relinquish “church” as we know it in order to move back toward “church” as the very presence of Christ in our suffering world through our actions of love toward our neighbors. Certainly from everything I have seen thus far at Luther Seminary, this is exactly the work that the ELCA is presently engaged in, and the work for which Luther is training its next generation of church leaders. This, too, would be the work of Calvary, should the Five-Year Plan come to fruition.

In the weeks to come, I will explore this and other musings inspired by my seminary education and life at Calvary. I hope you will join me in my reflection and I look forward to spirited conversations with you as we journey through 2017!