Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Methinks we don't protest enough

Recently a church member told me that she finds being called a "Protestant" offensive and frustrating. She doesn't feel like she's protesting anything- she's simply a Lutheran Christian.

I've been thinking about her dilemma and I agree with her in a certain sense. It is not really necessary to think of ourselves (those of us who aren't Catholic) as Protestant in the way Luther and his followers were. The old dichotomies between the Reformation rebels and the Established Church do not exist in the same way anymore and, thus, the old labels need not apply.

However, isn't the larger gospel message that we are to remain Protestants- those protesting against the ways of the world? Aren't we supposed to show Christ's love in many and various ways (how the Spirit moves) through our daily lives and our vocations? Hasn't God given us the gift of faith, so that we might believe in all that has been done for us? Believing that, we are called to protest, gently and consistently, against a world that says we earn our salvation and it's what we have that matters and determines our worth.

Our worth was decided by One who loved us enough to be born into our fallen world, live and die as one of us- for us. I protest vigorously against anything that tries to take that away from me.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What's in a name?

Today I'm wearing special socks: lavender and black with my name at the ankle (Julia) and the words "clever and kind" on the arch. They make me smile to wear them. How anyone knew me well enough to mass produce socks that describe me perfectly to be sold in a store in England... I'll never know. Are all Julias clever and kind?

When I put on my socks this morning, I thought, "My socks say I am Julia", which lead to the thought, "Who do you say that I am?" Now you can see where this is going- right?

In the gospel story (Matt. 16:13-20, Mark 8:27-30, Luke 9:18-21), Jesus asks his disciples about the word on the street about him, "Who do people say that I am?" The disciples tell him that some people think he might be John the Baptist or Elijah or possibly another historic prophet- returned from the dead. When Jesus asks his followers who they believe he is, Peter blurts out, "You are the Messiah (or the Christ)." For once Peter had the right answer, though Jesus urged him and the others not to tell anyone.

In the coming church seasons (Advent and Christmas), we will hear many names for Jesus. There are the names one of the writers of Isaiah wrote with a savior in mind, "Wonderful, Counselor, ... Prince of Peace." These are combined with other names we have for Jesus: the Vine, the Potter, Bread of Life, Light of the World, etc.

We do not use all the names, all the time- but certain names seem more fitting at certain times. We do not necessarily think of Bread of Heaven when we are praying for healing. This Sunday is Christ the King- when we think of Christ very differently than we will four weeks from now.

At a time when we are hearing Christ's name in a variety of ways, celebrating his coming and anticipating his return- I encourage you to ponder in your heart the names of God and who you say that God is. I know I will.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Firm Foundation

Yesterday in church we sang one of my favorite hymns. Here it is with some language edits by me:

How Firm a Foundation

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in God's excellent Word!
What more can God say than to you has been said,
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

In every condition, in sickness, in health;
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
At home and abroad, on the land, on the sea,
As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be.

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

Even down to old age all My people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

This song is full of great lines, but my favorite is at the end of the first verse. "What more can God say than to you has been said/ You, who unto Jesus for refuge has fled?"

Many is the time I've looked at a text on which I was supposed to write or preach some new insights and I wanted to simply point to this hymn. It IS the old, old story. How can I possibly elaborate on that which God made pretty clear through God's initial prophets?

Yet, there's more to this song, faith and God's word than looking at the page and seeing the shapes of letters. The Word itself calls us to be with other people, faith in community, so we can remind each other of how God once moved, does move and will move in the world. When we hear the Word with and from each other, it strengthens that foundation- of which Christ is the cornerstone.

So in this week of Thanksgiving, look for how God is upholding you (maybe after too much turkey, maybe through family drama) and how God has been building a foundation for you and through you- out of love for God's creation!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

With Gratitude

Last week I think I was making people crazy with my Pollyanna attitude. Well, maybe only myself. On Saturday, 27 October, as I was getting ready for bed, I found that my septic tank had backed up and flooded my downstairs bathroom. It was already 9 o'clock at night and I needed to call a plumber, wait for him to come and then clean up the mess after he left. I was so very tired and still needed to get up early and preach the next day. Yet when I went to the store for cleaning supplies at 11:30 at night, I found myself walking through the parking lot praying this: "Thank you, God, that we had money to pay for the repair. Thank you that there is not significant damage and we still have a house. Thank you that this didn't happen on the first night Rob was home."

When I realized what I was doing, I kind of laughed at myself because of my seemingly ridiculous level of optimism. Yet I felt happy because I knew things were going to be okay. My high continued to escalate throughout the week as I knew the time when I would be reunited with my husband came closer and closer.

My happiness forced some reflection: on families whose father/husband/mother/wife/son/daughter isn't returning, on people who have lost loved ones and long for the reunion hereafter, on people who are not in a spot where they can be happy at this time.

Mostly,though, I really reflected on how blessed I feel at this time in my life. I love the work I am doing right now and the people around me who are shaping me. And I am finally living in the same house at the same time with the man I promised to share my life with and whom I love dearly. While I don't know that my Pollyanna-ability to see the good will last indefinitely... I'm enjoying it for a few weeks. I've a lot to be thankful for and I don't mind sharing a little joy. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

November Newsletter

A small moment of fear strikes my heart when I announce “Time for the Children’s Sermon” because I wonder if today will be the Sunday when some well-meaning child asks me a huge theological question. I envision everyone sliding forward in their seats to watch Vicar Julia squirm and answer, “What was before God?” or “What happens when we die?” or “Why do bad things happen?” Yet that fear quickly dissipates when I see all the children squeezing out of pews and scrambling to get to the front of the church. The joy of children who are still excited about coming to church is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.

How can we encourage that joy and excitement? Parents, pastors, teachers and the whole church family promise at baptism to help children learn about their faith and what God has done for them and for the world. When we baptize children, we are witnessing the miracle of God’s claiming them and joining them to us as fellow children of God. Since they are part of this family, it is right that they participate in the activities of the family- including our weekly reunion in worship.

When children are present during the worship service, they are learning about what it means to be in the family. Just like they might imitate their parents’ home or work activities, so they learn to follow your church habits. They learn to stand up to sing, to offer prayer requests, to help with ushering or communion, to kneel at the rail and receive a blessing of words or the sacrament, and they learn that church is important.

In the recent weeks, we seen a way that children are also longing to imitate their parents. Several young children have made a point of giving money to the church for their offering. They are eager to be participants in the ministry of the congregation in ways we might not have thought they understood and that is something we, as a congregation, can encourage. Let us, then, create an opportunity for the children of Gloria Dei to demonstrate their desire to participate and to share what they have.

Beginning in November, we will make a space for children to bring tithes and offerings forward during the offering portion of the service. As the plates are passed throughout the congregation, children will be encouraged to bring whatever they have forward. For the month of November, we will be asking children to bring canned goods of all kinds to help with the various food ministries in which Gloria Dei participates.

Food is concrete image that children can understand and explaining why we bring food to different organizations appeals to children’s sense of fairness. If possible, you might even ask younger children what kind of canned goods they think other people might enjoy or encourage older children to figure out how many cans they could buy with a certain amount of money. It is our hope that this month will help establish a habit and enthusiasm for giving to the church that will remain with the children of Gloria Dei as they continue in life.

We can only imagine the enthusiasm with which children must have hurried toward Jesus and the eyes of love he turned toward them, saying, “Let them come to me.” We can help our children keep that same enthusiasm by teaching them about the gift of faith and how we can use that gift to care for those people around us. May we all remember and share the joy of being children of the heavenly Father in the coming month and beyond!

Reborn Free

Reformation Day Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK
October 28, 2007 Vicar Julia Seymour

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

Peace and grace to you in the name of the Holy Trinity who gathers us here, nourishes us and will go forward with us into the world.

Is there anyone else here who grew up in the American South? I don’t know if you had this experience, but more than once in my life I’ve had people who were not from the South and had never been there ask me one question. This question was not “What are grits” or “Why do you talk like that” or “Why is your tea sweeter than pop”. People will ask if they can make a personal inquiry and then lean in and quietly ask, “Do you still have slaves in the South?”

That’s the equivalent of asking an Alaskan if he or she lives in an igloo or sees penguins all the time. I was usually tempted to put on my thickest drawl and go on and on about the joys and trials of household help, but I never could because of the serious edge to the question. Despite slavery’s end over one hundred and forty years ago, people still believe it might exist in pockets of the South and they want to know about it.

My surprise at that question probably is not even close to how Jesus must have felt when the people to whom he was speaking said, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” Jesus was able to resist sarcastically naming the people who had enslaved the children of Abraham over time- the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians… it was a long list. He could see that his audience needed to understand themselves as never having been slaves. Those of us hearing the gospel today may well feel the same way, but we too are slaves.

We are shackled to a world that tells us our worth is in how much we can do in a given amount of time, how much we have at any moment, and whose side we are on in a given situation. It may seem strange in this day and age to talk about evil as a spiritual reality, to mention the old satanic foe. However, that is how that Darkness, capital “D” darkness, the frigid emptiness seeps in- through the cracks we do not think are big enough to let anything slip. There is a brokenness that surrounds us, that we see and experience every day- in relationships with one another, with creation and with our Creator God. That brokenness is sin and we are in bondage to it and cannot free ourselves.

Considering things we cannot do ourselves lead me to thinking about reunions. My husband, Rob, is scheduled to be home in less than a week and a half. In fact, I might be with him at this time next week. There are not words to describe to you how excited I am. He has been in Iraq since late April, flying cargo planes. We have been able to talk on the phone and email, but I am overcome to think that I will hear him laughing again soon and to know I’ll be able to sit next to him and just reach out and touch him. And I know there are those here who have recently experienced that kind of reunion and those who are waiting for one- whether in this world or the next.

If that is the kind of joy we have in being joined with the ones we love, when nothing else at all matters, we cannot comprehend how God feels to be reunited with us. Yet God is always with us, always rooting for us, always fighting for us and always forgiving us. The reunion happens when we have those moments of clear faith comprehension. When our eyes widen and our hearts break in overwhelming awe as God meets us in how someone else cares for us, in words we hear, in our life experiences and in the sacraments.

Without our own effort, request or even knowledge, God forms and reforms us. Giving us faith and feeding it, God is with us in our wanderings as the prodigal and in our realization of where we belong. There is a place for us at this table, at the Son’s table, where we are always welcome and where we bring nothing- except ourselves as God’s own claimed children. Here is always the greatest re-union

Though we live in a world bound by sin, it will not and cannot win. So hear the words of our emancipation proclamation: You are beloved by God. God’s covenant with you is this: God is always with you, hearing your prayers, giving you faith, and crying with you in darkness. God loved you enough that Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, died for you so that you might be a child of God. As the Son, Jesus’ death has won for you a place in God’s house-forever. It’s the best name drop or recognition, ever. You will never be asked to prove your worth for this gift, because Christ’s own righteousness covers you. And because of Christ, God reformed and reforms the covenant with all his people.

This is the truth and all other ground, all other ground, is sinking sand: Welcome the the reunion.You are God’s beloved. Your sins are forgiven. You are free indeed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Taste and See

It's been awhile, but the fat, white flakes have me in a reflective mood. All week long I have been waiting for the snow to accumulate and I've been thinking about my maternal grandmother.

My grandma taught me how to make snow cream- a delicious combination of evaporated milk, sugar, vanilla and snow. Since I grew up in North Carolina, the opportunities for snow cream were few and far between- but the sweet, creamy goodness is a strong gustatory memory of my childhood. I've been waiting this week to make this year's first batch of snow cream.

Thinking about that taste memory led me down a dreamy path of other reflection. The scent of Deep Woods Off makes me think of summer camp. The smell of cold jet engine fuel takes me back to deplaning in Nome. The sound of studded tires slowly rolling over pavement reminds me of the crunch of gravel under my bike tires when I was young. The sight of children playing with dolls outdoors brings to mind how my sister and I would sneak our "babies" out the window to each other and bring them inside the same way- thus evading the fact that dolls were supposed to remain indoors.

Our senses play a strong role in our lives- both in memory and in day-to-day living. We are usually astonished and impressed by people who live without one or more of the five main senses because we are so accustomed to them and the life we are able to live with those faculties.

I think this is why the earthly elements of the sacrament are so important. These are tangible realities to which God has attached promises of forgiveness, faith and forthcoming blessings. As we experience the touch of water and the taste of wine and bread again- the spiritual memory is formed to associate those experiences with God's word. When we receive the body and blood of Christ and hear the words "for you"- we experiencing a miracle most of us can see, hear, feel and taste. It's an experience God made for us- so we can remember what has been done for us and to create a way for us to encounter God.

It's a tiny meal and a tiny bath, but large in significance. The sacraments are the washing of our hearts and food for the good of the soul. We're grateful for the tangible impression that they make, which also helps us remember that grace is God's gift. We might be able to bring the elements, but God brings the promises- making God the Host, the Guest and the Presents.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What to do?

I was recently asked about how ELCA Lutherans handle difficult passages in the Bible, particularly ones dealing with women's ordination. Do we dismiss them as being from a different cultural context or should we take them literally? So today I want to take a look at one of those passages and one way we might consider it.

1 Timothy 2:9- 14
[A]lso that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. "

The easy way to deal with this is to say it is from a different time and is no longer applicable. This is not the word of God for us. However, that does not acknowledge the reality of this passage as part of our scriptures. If we believe God has inspired the words of the Bible, how do we deal with cultural issues and changes in common understanding.

This is a little bit easier with slavery in that very very few people today believe the passage "Slaves obey your masters" should serve as an obvious Biblical call for a social structure that includes slaves. Yet it be that easily dismissed? And why is that this is easier to do with passages about slavery and not with passages about women in church leadership?

Helpful in considering parts of scripture is the understanding that various parts were written for different reasons. Histories tell of God's people fighting various enemies for various reasons. Wisdom literature sings God's praises and points out hard truths about the reality of life on earth. Prophecy talks about God's expectations, disappointments and work among people. The gospels tell the story of Jesus Christ on earth and Acts tells the story of his disciples after his ascension. Epistles are from disciples to various faith communities- advising, consoling and exhorting. Revelation is, well,... revelation.

When we read Scriptures, we should go into it preparing to be challenged, comforted and questioning about what we meet. We must also remember to think about all scripture together- the Bible is our whole canon- the parts we love and the parts we'd like to leave out.

The letters to Timothy are written, to our best understanding, by someone writing in Paul's name. They may not even be to someone named Timothy, but rather general letters written to faith communities in the names of Paul and Timothy. This was a common practice in that time to write in the style of a particular leader or teacher and to continue to use (usually) his name.

By the time the letters to Timothy and from Peter are being written, people are becoming concerned with the growing church and the development of Christian practices. By now the Christians are still a sect of Judaism, but are more frequently recognized on their own and for their different beliefs. Many Christians by this time would have also begun to adjust to the idea that the return of Christ might be further away than previously thought. The letters we believe are genuinely from Paul (Romans, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) are similar in writing style and deal with understanding the nuances of faith and living in community until Christ comes again... an event that seems imminent. The later epistles, written in the Pauline style, are concerned with church practices and establishing respectability for the growing faith (1 and 2 Timothy, 1 and 2 Peter, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians).

With this information, we have to look at the Scriptures with the eyes of two audiences, those of the original readers and then our own contemporary eyes.

In the whole of Scripture, women have various leadership positions and play significant roles in the development of faith. Where would the lineage of Jesus be without Rahab, Tamar, Ruth and Mary? But it is not only through sex (or retained virginity) that women make a difference, but also through proclamation, hospitality and evangelism. Deborah (Judges 4), Lydia (Acts 6:14), Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2) and Susannah and Joanna (Luke 8:3) all play a significant role in the lives of the people around them and further the spread of the word of God through their actions.

If we know that women play a successful leadership role in Scripture, then what does it mean for our reading of texts that say women should not have leadership roles (over men) in churches. For the time at which it was written, women did not often have access to as much education as men had. Also, other major religions at the time (namely Judaism) did not have women leaders and having them might have made Christians less respected or accepted culturally. In contemporary understanding, the message is that our church leaders (and our own behaviors as church members) reflect not only on ourselves, but on the gospel. Our lives are not merely our own, but may be the encounter people remember with a person who described themselves as a Christian.

The larger message is that there are parts of the Bible that may seem irrelevant or confusing, but when we dismiss them, we lose the chance for God's spirit to work in our hearts and increase our understanding of the Word. So don't shy away from that Bible or the wrestling. Jacob might have limped away from the angel, but he did so with a blessing. So do we when we spend time read God's inspired Word to people then and now.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Ordinary Time

Yesterday when I was putting on my alb (the white robe) before church, I reflected, a little disappointedly, on the service to come. I confess that I had the thought, "It's kind of a boring Sunday." There were no baptisms, no special recognitions, I wasn't preaching... so nothing new, just the same, same, same service that happens all the time.

The service began with announcements as usual, the confession and forgiveness and then a hymn, etc. You know how it goes. Yet it was somewhere around the children's sermon that I felt that thrill of ecclesial excitement. It's hard to describe, but it's like the Holy Spirit blowing up my spine and saying, "Wake up! Look, look! Here's something else!" (In my mind, the HS has to use Dick and Jane syntax- otherwise we might miss the point. See the sunrise! Taste the bread! Grace is good! Count the blessings- 1, 2, 3.)

Back to the church service and my tingling spine, as I heard about the words of the children's sermon (Scott was preaching), I thought about the idea of "ordinary time" (which is what some denominations call the Sundays between Pentecost and Advent) and the ordinariness of a church service. In Ordinary Time, we receive the most challenging gospel texts. Not the stories about the life of Jesus, but the heart of his teachings- about money, faith, prayer, and neighbor love. We wrestle with the parables, rather than floating in the details of the baptism or the walk to Jerusalem before the crucifixion. We hear the confusing predictions about the end of time. Ordinary time does not provide liturgical holiday breaks and is only accented by baptisms or other special services that vary from year to year and in different congregations.

Yet ordinary time is no less miraculous than Easter or Christmas. In fact, I daresay, ordinary time is more miraculous. In those two big holidays, or even lesser commemorations, we are remembering the events of Christ's life and what they mean for our faith. Christ's coming, death and resurrection are part of the mysteries of our faith. Ordinary time offers, constantly, the miracles of our faith: that God promises to come to us in the sacraments of communion and baptism. That God always forgives our sins and, through Jesus, accepts us as children. That we are able to gather and worship without fear and hearing the good news in our own languages.

The celebrations of the liturgical year can seem more important because they are big, but we must remember that the greatest portion of the year is devoted to ordinary time and to the miracles that happen during any ordinary worship service.

What Shall I Say (October Newsletter)

The first time I ever talked formally with a pastor about my sense of call to ministry that pastor prayed with me. The second time, she handed me a book called “What Shall I Say?” This was a slim black paperback with a leaf pictured on the cover. It is the book put out by the ELCA that describes the various opportunities for ministry in the church. “What Shall I Say?” describes what an ordained pastor does, what a diaconal minister does, and so on. When I read the book, for the first time, I really saw in print what someone would expect of a pastor and how the church will guide people in different ministry roles.

The funny thing is that “What Shall I Say?” could be the theme for my ministry training. That phrase comes into my head all the time. If I know I am going to meet with someone, what shall I say? Will the words come that are helpful to this person? When I am preparing a sermon, what shall I say? How can I make this text clear and relevant to the congregation? When I am praying, what shall I say? What are the words that convey the emotions, experiences and expectations I have? Then I have my blog, the newsletter, daily conversations, Sunday School and the whole host of encounters that happen on a daily basis, what shall I say in those?

In my short time here so far, I have been encouraged and excited by the number of people who participate in the ministries of Gloria Dei. People are eager to help with AFACT, with youth, with church gatherings and with other projects. I have also met people who have good ideas about ministry opportunities and are unsure about what to do. There is a desire in the congregation to begin a ministry of visitation, both to members who might be homebound for various reasons and to people who have visited Gloria Dei for worship. Another fruit of the spirit blooms in helping with worship on Sunday morning. If ever there was an easy “burden” or light “yoke”, ushering, lecturing or assisting with communion all fit that description.

“What shall I say?” sums up Moses’ reaction to the burning bush (Exodus 3). The Lord, in the form of the flaming shrubbery, appeared to Moses and told him to go to Egypt, speak to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from slavery. Moses was worried about not being believed and about not being eloquent enough, but God assured him that all would be well and taken care of. As we know from the story, through the actions of a tongue-tied leader (and his siblings!), the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.

“What shall I say?” could be the refrain of our lives as Christians. Happily, we never have to say, “What shall I say to make God love/forgive/save me?” We have the blessed assurance that God, through Christ, has done all those things out of love for us and all creation. I realize we are not (too often) freeing people from oppressive slavery, but participation in various activities allows many people to benefit from your talents and for our congregation to grow in many ways. Despite the lack of blazing rhododendrons in my life, I believe God has provided many blessings to me, including the chance to learn from this congregation. As the year progresses, we will all continue in the ministries of this family, Gloria Dei. With God’s grace, may we continue to learn that God provides us with a way to answer “What shall I say?”

Monday, October 1, 2007

Idol Chatter

Lectionary 26
September 30, 2007

Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

Idol Chatter

Peace and grace to you in the name of the Holy Trinity who gathers us together here, nourishes us and will go forward with us into the world.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What does the pursuit of happiness entail? How will you know when you have attained that which you pursue?

Our culture tells us there are many things we need to make us happy. Maybe we are not receiving advertisements for beds of ivory or wine bowls, but we do need a Victrola…a hi-fi…an eight-track player…a cassette player… a Walkman… a CD player…a Discman… an I-Pod. There is always something newer, better, faster, bigger to be had. It’s not even to keep up with the neighbors anymore. It will make our lives better. We’ll save time, be healthier, be smarter, have shinier hair, whiter teeth, a better marriage, deeper sleep, a free pet turtle… it’s always something.

I am not saying progress is bad. That we should shun technology and retreat or that we need to divest ourselves of all our belongings, but what good is it if we gain the whole world and lose our souls? Too easily life can become about what we have. Please look at the back of your bulletin at the second lesson. “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”

Godliness combined with contentment? What does that mean? Let’s think of contentment as satisfaction- a fullness of heart and spirit. Godliness can be described as humbleness in communion with the Creator. So there is a deep sense of fulfillment in knowing one is walking with God. Yet that phrase still is a little troubling. We know it is God who meets us, who comes to us, who gives us the gift of faith, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. So godliness is an attribute that comes from the top down- from our Maker to us. How can we be anything but content to know that God walks with us in our daily lives?

But what about that parable? Where the rich man goes to Hades? And the poor man, described so graphically, goes to be with Abraham? This parable is preceded by the woman who finds the lost coin, the man who finds the lost sheep, the father who finds his prodigal son and the dishonest manager who was extravagant in forgiving debt. Still when the Pharisees heard all these stories, they scoffed at Jesus. Luke 16:14 says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” Jesus tells them, “… God knows your hearts…” and then this parable comes abruptly.

This parable is interesting for many reasons. There is no introduction or conclusion. Hades was the Greek term for hell. Lazarus doesn’t go to the Father, but to Abraham. There is no mention of faithfulness. What is interesting is that the rich man still thinks he can give orders from Hades. Oh, Abraham… how about sending that man to cool me off? No? Well, send him to my brothers, so that they might be saved.

Jesus is saying to the Pharisees, “You fools! You just don’t get it. Amos said your possessions mean nothing if you do not grieve for the wrong that is in the world. Micah said do justice and love mercy. Isaiah says how beautiful are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, good news and salvation. Everything you need is right in front of you, but you will continue to believe that you are better than others because you dress well, eat well and offer more expensive sacrifices. You just don’t get it and I’m beginning to see that you may not ever.”

While we are able to see Jesus’ point, we can easily forget it. As Martin Luther reminds us, the first commandment is always the easiest to break. We do not mean to have other gods, but when we are distracted by the offerings of the world, when we idolize what is offered here, our hearts are not in the right place. We end up not grateful and we are not content.

This morning we have a baptism. Some of you may be able to remember your baptism, but many of you may not. Baptism is a mysterious of work of God that we have the chance to witness and in which we can participate. We are always encouraged to remember our baptisms daily. And what of those baptismal promises?

The strangest one always seems to be “Do you renounce the Devil and all his empty promises? The forces of evil?” What are we renouncing? That promise reminds us that nothing else in this world can offer us what God offers us in baptism- life, salvation and mercy. We baptize infants because God has called us to welcome all in this way into the family of the Church. When we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Before we have the chance to sin, God’s power cleanses us, showers us with love and fills us with the Holy Spirit.

Here where we are claimed as God’s own- there are certain truths that are self-evident. We are all equal in God’s eyes- beloved and blessed. Through God’s promises we can take hold of the life that really is life. We are freed to love the people around us- to use our possessions, our talents, and our time to help our neighbors. And we are called here again and again to remind ourselves that we are God’s own. That reminder serves as a beacon to guide us in pursuing godliness and contentment. Let your light shine before the world, so that they may see the good things you do and glorify your Creator in heaven.

We all have things, but we must remember they are just that… things. They have no value beyond what they can do for our lives in the very short term. Let your heart be moved by all that God has done for you and do not be swayed by the empty promises of the Devil. Remember God’s miracle for you in the waters of baptism. Solid and sure are those promises combined with water. They do not fail.

In fact, there is only one empty thing that God has ever given the world- the tomb.

Jesus Loves Me

This Sunday, there was a grace moment in church- a moment so filled with and blessed by the Holy Spirit that I will always remember it.

The pianist played a beautiful version of 'Jesus Loves Me' during the offertory. As the notes rippled throughout the sanctuary, so did another sound... the soft sound of voices singing the hymn, quietly and gently. As I looked out at the congregation, I saw so many people, young and old, singing the song together. Parents encouraging their young children with the words, older people with smiles on their faces at the familiar tune, elderly members silently moving their lips to a song they've known for years.

It was such a powerful visual. Almost a liturgical Norman Rockwell painting- the family of God gives their offerings and rejoices in song. Yet there was more than just a nice visual and a sweet sound. There was a genuine sincerity in the music. These weren't lyrics to puzzle over or a new melody. The song was sung from memory of life experience and spiritual understanding. So, it will always stand as one of the most profound theological moments of my life- watching the group of people I have come to love and feel a part of singing with blessed assurance, "Yes, Jesus loves me."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

How Can I Keep from Singing

For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of bears. I can remember dreams when I was very young about being chased by bears. I am not entirely sure what that stems from, but needless to say- it's been a lifelong horror. I am not certain that I could put a fine point on the fear- being mauled, just seeing a bear, being eaten. I'm just afraid of bears.

How ironic that someone who is terrified of bears lives in Alaska. I've seen a black bear less than a quarter-mile from my house. Once I was in the path of a running grizzly while in the tundra outside Nome. I've seen bears from far away and not far away enough when I've been hiking in different places. I generally feel pretty calm about at the time, though my heart pounds.

Why am I thinking about bears now? I have had a hymn going through my head for a couple days. Not a hymn about bears (which one would that be?), but the hymn "My Life Flows on in Endless Song".

My life flows on in endless song; above earth's lamentation,
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
(Chorus) No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I'm clinging
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing? (Chorus)

What thought my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Savior liveth.
What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth. (Chorus)

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing!
All things are mine since I am his! How can I keep from singing? (Chorus)

Like many Alaskans, I love to hike and sometimes I have to do a short one by myself. Though I have resorted to the "Hello...coming through" style of announcing my presence, I like to sing as long as I have the air to do so (some hiking can be too strenuous to allow for melodic announcing). My heart is usually pounding because, though not bearanoid, I do wonder what greets me around the corner.

This hymn gets me through more than just lonely hikes. It's gotten me through some lonely months. There are six more weeks (I hope) until my husband comes back from overseas. At a recent "reunion training", family members were told that the last few weeks can be the hardest because you can see the end (and you're hoping information about extension doesn't come!). I cannot pretend that I am happy all the time. Some days are harder than others, but I can say that I haven't felt too alone through the past months. Even in dark days, my life has flowed on in endless song (sometimes a very mournful tune) and I haven't kept from singing.

Life is full of bears and other things. There are no promises that we will always feel like singing, but God does provide the background music of faith- so that when we catch the "sweet, but far-off hymn", we can rejoice with all of creation.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Opportunities from Heaven

I recently went with a friend to see the movie Evan Almighty- the story of a modern man whom God tells to build an ark. He encounters a great deal of ridicule from his friends and even his family as he outlines the plans for the giant boat and begins to appear more and more like a biblical figure each day.

While I wouldn't recommend the movie for its theological soundness, I do think it had a few good points to consider. In one scene, Evan's wife is in a diner and is very upset. She left Evan and took their sons with her because she believed he was going crazy and was potentially harmful. As she looks lamentably at her plate, the "waiter" stops by her table. Though she doesn't know him, the audience recognizes "God" as he has appeared in the movie.

"God" tells her this: How do you think God answers prayers? If you pray for courage, does God give it to you or make an opportunity for you to be courageous? If you ask for patience, does God grant that or show you a chance to be patient? If you ask for family togetherness...

That, of course, was the catchphrase for her. She had prayed for her family to grow closer together, she just hadn't seen working together on the ark as that heaven-sent opportunity.

Life and faith are not always Hollywood-neat, but I think there is a little bit of sense to this idea. How often have we prayed for this or that and believed our prayer to be unanswered? Admittedly, some of our deepest prayers aren't for things that call for opportunities- we want someone's safe return, healing or other specific action. God hears these prayers and is with us in our cries, our anger and our need.

Prayer is yet another mystery in the life of faith and it can be one that is difficult to maintain Martin Luther says because God has called us to prayer, it is okay to ask God for the strength to pray, to remind God of the difficulty of prayer and even to revisit God's promises to hear our prayers.

May you have strength in your prayers and confidence that you are being heard. May the Spirit open your heart to see when and where God has laid the groundwork for the granting of some of your prayers.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Everywhere you turn today, there are flashbacks and memorials to September 11, 2001. People are talking about where they were, what they remember or how they were affected. Many people are also reflecting on the aftermath of that attack and tragedy, even how it is affecting us today in cautionary actions and in worldwide conflicts.

Driving to work this morning, I wondered about how the apostles might have felt at the Passover - a year after the crucifixion. A few of them might have still be in Jerusalem, since some of Paul's letters talk about a group of disciples there, but others left that area and went to other parts of the world to spread the message of Jesus. Yet I am sure at Passover, that celebratory meal, they always thought back to that one time, in the Upper Room- when everything was so uncertain. And then three days later, everything they thought they knew was upturned.

We have slowly found the world moving forward from that particular September day. The memorials will probably space out more and we will remember the 10th anniversary, the 15th... Like other events in our national conscience, we will ask each other where we were on that day.

Yet, let us also remember the apostles and be like them. Remember this moment. The blessing of the bread and of the wine. The knowledge and comfort of the presence of Christ in that action. The blessing of it in the dark times of your life.

In a day full of remembrance, take a moment to remember all for which you are grateful and all that has been done for you.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

September Newsletter Entry

It is hard to believe that fall is here. It is not yet time for sweaters, but I find my hand moving past the lighter shirts in my closet, down toward the longer sleeves and darker colors. My drive from Eagle River has changed too. I have to think about the school traffic and more people driving in and out of the city. Everyone is hoping for one more fishing trip, one more hike, yet another campout- trying to enjoy the vestiges of the summer and the fun that autumn can provide in the short time it’s here.

This month marks a mental change for me. For the past three years, the end of August has meant a return to Connecticut and to school. I had to think about books, class schedules, and travel plans. I was a student.

Now I’m still learning, but from you. This year is my transition from student to pastor and Gloria Dei is helping me over that bridge. Internship brings new levels of authority, involvement in decision-making, surprising ministry experiences and absorbing the nuances of the role to which I have been called.

There is a delicate balance to learning about this position. I have to learn the balance between what I studied in school and what happens when knowledge is applied, between being a leader and encouraging others to lead. I have begun to hear from you about what you like to see in a pastor regarding preaching, visitation, teaching and presence.

In the spirit of learning about my new role, I have taken a new title. According to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, I can be called pastoral intern, intern or vicar. Though titles are not that important to me, what’s in a name is actually important. Part of internship is learning about being a pastor, but one only actually earns that title through a call to a congregation and ordination.

In the meantime, “pastoral intern” seems like too many syllables to ask you to use. That title was too big. “Intern” does not seem to clearly describe what my role is here; thus, that title is too small. “Vicar” is unusual, but can be explained in its originality. “This is our vicar, Julia. We’re helping her learn to be a pastor.” It does sound very British and it is unfamiliar to most of us, including myself. However, it is the title that best seems to fit the position. It is just right. We will all learn to use it together.

All this change does make me think with gratitude about the unchanging nature of God. No matter what kind of changes I experience, it is blessedly assuring to know God remains the same today, tomorrow and forever. May that thought comfort you as well this month, during a season of change.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Faithfully Stepping Out in Doubt (Sermon 9/1/07)

Lectionary 22 Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK
September 2, 2007 Vicar Julia Seymour

Proverbs 23:6-7, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

Peace and grace to you in the name of the Holy Trinity who gathers us together here, nourishes us and will go forward with us into the world.

How many of you have heard about the book coming out that contains the letters of Mother Teresa? It is a collection of letters she wrote to her spiritual advisors over the course of fifty years about her struggle with doubt and darkness. Mother Teresa writes that she continues to believe in God, but that she no longer hears God’s voice and she is no longer assured, as she once was, of God’s will.
These letters date from the time, in 1948, when she began the Missionaries of Charity in India. Before that time, she came to India with the Sisters of Loreto and then she believed she heard Jesus telling her to start a new mission, a mission for Indian nuns to minister to the poor of that nation. When she finally received Vatican approval to begin the new mission, she believed stopped hearing the voice of God.
There have been many reactions to the news of these letters. Many people have expressed shock to know that Mother Teresa felt this way, but I think most people are not surprised. If anything, I think more people will consider Mother Teresa saintly for her struggles than even for her works. Because a struggle with faith is something to which most people can relate.
The Bible is full of people who needed affirmation of their faith, who longed for an extra assurance of God’s presence. The list even includes Jesus who, in His most human moment- suffering on the cross… in His most divine moment, suffering on the cross, said, “My God, My God… why have you forsaken me?”
The theologian Frederick Buechner says God only allows His greatest saints to experience that level of feeling, but I disagree. I do not believe there is a hierarchy among saints and, if I ever needed proof, I find it in the reality that we all have or all will experience that kind of moment in our lives. It is that moment when the rug comes out from under us so quickly… we did not even know we were falling until we hit the floor. Accidents, illnesses, deaths, personal realizations, life changes, and revelations can take our breath away and make us look around and say, “Where is God?”
Later, in reflection, we are able to see God in the people who came to our aid or in the small miracles that helped us make it through one day at a time. Perhaps they did not know that card meant everything to you. Maybe the ability to get out of bed and take a shower seemed like a miracle. Even in something good happening to someone else that reminds us of positive things in the world.
How do we keep going when we feel that way? And what about those times when we are not devastated, but just feel bland, not bad…not good… just waiting for something to happen- something to affirm our faith in a small way.
We can and should be consoled by the realization that faith does not depend on us. It is a gift from God that we could not produce ourselves, even if we wanted to. The small blue book to which members of the congregation contributed, God Provides, is full of stories of people right here who were very worried about various things and God came through… maybe not how they expected, but in a way they were able to experience as a blessing, as divine provision.
The reading today from Hebrews tells us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the Word who was with God in the beginning, the man who walked next to the Sea of Galilee, and is the word and sacrament present in, with and under us today. God has promised that will not change… not matter how dark the walk gets.
That’s when I think we need to look again at the smallest things possible. Faith is like the mustard seed… not that we have to plant it and make it grow, but its tiny size grows into a miraculous plant. God gives us that mustard seed each day… in the sunshine, in the ability to make decisions, in the people around us. When you start with the smallest thing possible for which you have to be grateful, your list of blessings can grow to enormous proportions.
Yet, in the midst of that blessedness, we can still have doubts about our relationship with God and even about God’s own self. What to do then? We have nothing to prove to God. God knows us in our innermost selves and loves us despite what’s in there. In the knowledge of that love, we are called in today’s readings to turn to the people around us… to look around our tables, our neighborhoods and our world and say, “What can I do with what God has given me?” This is how Mother Teresa ultimately found her only consolation. She put on foot in front of the other each day and helped the Christ she saw in the people around her. She heard God’s voice in them and responded in the only way she knew how… believing that what she did for them, she did for God.
When I think about the 12 apostles, there is only one I have ever wanted to be. Not Peter…bumbling along. Not James and John, fighting over who will sit next to Jesus. Certainly not Judas. But I wouldn’t mind being Thomas. I would like to have the chance to see and to touch. But instead, you and I are among the blessed who have not seen, but have believed.
Until the day that we do see, when Christ comes again… God has promised to give us faith… to help us in this world to help each other. That faith is not the absence of questions or the absence of doubt. That faith is action in spite of doubt. Actions like, letting mutual love continue… showing hospitality to strangers… visiting those in prison… honoring loving relationships… sliding over and letting someone else have a better place at the table.
When we let these actions fill our lives… when we count the tiniest things with gratitude…when we keep moving even in times of uncertainty and in darkness, we open ourselves to the possibilities of reaching beyond our doubts and fears… to the possibility of entertaining angels… to the possibility of touching Christ in the person right next to us. How do we know he’s there… because God has promised it and God always keeps the faith.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Religious Holidays in Anchorage

You may have read in the Anchorage Daily News about a new policy regarding certain religious holidays and the scheduling of school activities. If not, a link to the article is here.

The new rules do not mean that school will be out on these new holiday inclusions, but that the Anchorage School District will avoid scheduling activities, like sporting events, on these days. The new list includes Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. They are added to a list which includes New Year's, Orthodox Christmas and Easter, Good Friday, Easter, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas.

The new holidays may be unfamiliar to some:

Passover is a Jewish celebration, in the springtime, that commemorates the events in Egypt that led up to the Exodus. The name of the holiday comes specifically from the fact that the angel of death "passed over" the houses of the Israelites during the plague which killed the eldest sons of the Egyptians. Passover is a holiday of celebration of freedom and an expression of continued hope about the coming of the Messiah.

Rosh Hashanah is a fall Jewish celebration commemorating the New Year. It is a time to wish happiness and health to everyone you know.

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, another autumn Jewish holiday. Yom Kippur is marked by a day (or more) of fasting and expressions of regret for wrong-doing in the previous year. It is a time to try to make amends with family and friends and to forge stronger bonds in relationships.

Eid al-Fitr is a late-autumn/early winter (usually) Muslim celebration marking the end of Ramadan. It is time of celebration to end the fasting, rejoicing in a renewed sense of spiritual accomplishment and thanking God for the help and strength of making it through Ramadan.

Eid al-Adha is a Muslim commemoration celebrating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Ishmael. For Muslims, Ishmael, the son of Sarah's handmaiden Hagar, is a significant spiritual figure, believed to be a father of their faith. In Islamic tradition, Ishmael was the son Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice. Eid al-Adha celebrates Abraham's faith and God's intercession.

The recognition of these holidays by the Anchorage School District acknowledges the changing face of our city's religious population. Of course, not everyone in the city falls into the categories of the three Abrahamic faith traditions, but they are the most significant in terms of populations numbers.

There will still be people who may have other spiritual observances that will conflict with school activities and they will have decisions to make. The school district is not required to acknowledge any holidays according to religion, but does so to make things easier for the majority of students.

Is this the right thing to do? Some people argue that Christian students would not get the same treatment in a primarily Muslim or Jewish country. However, I believe that is a strong argument for why we should allow such practices here. Religious tolerance does not mean we have to say all spiritual practices are equal or that all roads lead up the same mountain. In the case of Christians, it can and should mean that we feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick and make some allowances for other beliefs because it is what Jesus would have us do. When we do it for the least of these, we do it for Him.

Monday, August 20, 2007

If God is for us (Sermon 8/19)

Jeremiah 23:23-29, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 11:49-56

Peace and grace to you from God our Father, Jesus our Savior and the Holy Spirit who Moves Us All.

Oh, Jesus.

Why would you say that?
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, but rather division!”
My heart sank when I first read those words and in the past couple weeks I read them over and over.
I like the Jesus who heals. The Jesus who tells stories about blessed peacemakers, prodigal sons and found sheep. Maybe even the Jesus who gets a little angry in the temple and tells people what’s what. Scott said sometimes he likes Jesus to stir things up. I do too… when he does it on Scott’s Sunday to preach.
I don’t know what to do with Jesus the divider. I am sure that’s how his disciples felt when Jesus told them this.
The Jewish community in that time was already well divided. The Pharisees who were concerned about the Scriptures. The Sadducees who worried over the rules. The Zealots who were angry about the Roman occupation. Everyone dreamed that the Messiah would come, would free the Jewish people and would unite them all in his leadership.
Instead, here was a humble man from Nazareth… who told the small band of people who were actually following him as the Messiah that he had no plans for unity, but to divide.
Jesus is already worried by this time about being able to complete his ministry before he dies. He’s trying to warn his disciples about what will happen, but his statement reflects his frustration with the situation. This group of fisherman and animal herders knows how to interpret weather signs, seasonal change, but they don’t recognize the signs of a Messiah. But what does this gospel mean for us?

After looking at the gospel for a long time and waiting for clarity that did not seem to come, I moved onto the other New Testament passage. If the gospel confused me, the passage from Hebrews irritated and furthered confounded me.
I do not want to be tortured or have horrible things happen to me in order to obtain a “better resurrection.” In this whole list of named people, there is one totally upstanding person, one righteous prostitute and several less-than-ideal leaders of Israel. I divide them into the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Let’s start with the Good: Samuel the prophet: nothing blemishes his record. From the time his mother Hannah gave him to the temple as a very young boy to when he died during the reign of Saul, he was completely honest with people, lead righteously and was such a exemplar to the faith that Saul even committed the forbidden act of going to a fortune-teller just to have Samuel consulted after the prophet had died. Samuel is a clear witness to our faith history.

Then there’s the Bad: Rahab was a prostitute with her house stuck in the walls of the city of Jericho. Though she might have known many men, Rahab knew enough to recognize the two spies who came from Israel to scout out her city. She hid them in her house, so they would not be killed. In turn, they saved her family when the city was destroyed. Maybe her initial resume seemed spotty, but Rahab did the right thing when no one else had a clue- a shining star in the mantle of faith heroes.

Now we have the Ugly: Gideon, a judge over Israel, was so nervous and unsure that God actually was speaking to him that he tested him not once, not twice, but three times. God set fire to food in front of Gideon and twice made a piece of fleece wet, while the ground around it remained dry. Even so, Gideon was still nervous about doing what God asked and sometimes performed his tasks in the middle of the night so people wouldn’t see him. Some brave, faithful leader…

Then Barak, from Judges Chapter 4. Barak was the general of the Israelite army and when Deborah, the judge of Israel (that’s right! A woman judge!), told him to go forth in battle, he squirmed and said he would not go unless she led him. So, she left her job to lead him on his job, but told him because of his reluctance the largest victory in the battle would go to another woman. A woman named Jael killed Sisera, the leader of the opposing army. Ah, Barak… a moment’s indecision and your glory is stolen by a woman.

Samson- there’s a real man for you. No woman is going mess up his destiny… oh, wait. Samson was dedicated by his parents as a Nazarite, which involved a certain kind of lifestyle and certain prohibitions. Samson pretty much broke them all- he married a foreign woman, he drank wine at his wedding, he touched a dead lion and ate honey from its body and he was generally known for his short temper. Then there was the whole Delilah fiasco.

The saddest story is that of Jepthah. He was the head of a group of rogues and the leaders of Israel came and asked him to fight for them against their enemies. Jepthah said he would. He prayed to God to give him victory and promised he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house upon his victorious return. Sadly, Jepthah’s only child, his daughter, came out to meet her father. Despite prohibitions against child sacrifice, Jepthah did as he had sworn to do because God had given him victory.

Finally, there is David. I have mixed feelings about David. His affair with Bathsheba, his killing of her husband, his abandoning of Israel and the Ark when the city was attacked by his sons,… David, David, David…

Some great cloud of witnesses there. So far we have some colorful faith heroes and a divisive Savior and… some broken windows.

It’s hard to know what to say about the vandalism that occurred this week in church. The damage is shocking and upsetting. It is sad that we are to the level of resignation that we utter the phrase at least they did not do x or y. At the least, this is the result of someone who does not have anything else to do. In the worst, this is malicious action. We all have the question “Why”, but I’m sure how many of us actually want to know the answer.

With all of these thoughts turning over and over in my head this week… divisive Savior, broken windows, sketchy faith heroes… I really felt at a loss about what to say this morning.
In desperation, I turned to the calendar that lists the Scripture passages for each week of the church year. In addition to an Old Testament passage, New Testament passage, a Psalm and a Gospel… there is also a theme mentioned. My eyes widened when I saw this week’s theme…
“If God himself be for me…”

If God himself be for me… who can be against me?

That is a word, like in Jeremiah, a word like a fire that burns in your heart
If God be for us… who can be against us?

The Lord says through the prophet, “Am I God nearby and not a God far off?”
God is a God of this moment and of history,
of this place and of all creation,
Of us and of the people who move against us.

Jesus divides not because he is angry or because division is his desire for the world, but it is a result of who He was and is in the world. There are so many people who believe they are the most genuine followers of Christ, but when we believe we have it right… we get it wrong.
The separation within churches today is sad because it has the potential to harm the Gospel. If we were one united church, we would believe that we did it ourselves. In our brokenness, we are able to come together in organizations like AFACT and make changes in a community, changes for good… because we believe it is what Jesus would have us do and because it is what God is doing through us.

At the AFACT meeting this weekend, we saw a display of over thirty headlines from local media outlets from the past 3 years… headlines that talked about the work AFACT is doing in the community… it was nearly an average of a story a month.
That work together unites people even over differences about ordination, communion, baptism, or the Bible. Our divisions unite us because we know we depend on God to strengthen those relationships and to guide our work.

When God is for you, it doesn’t matter what your history is… God can use you.
Listen… for the voice nearby, for the burning in your heart, for the echo in your spirit.
The person who broke into the church is a witness to our faith. We have not abandoned the building. We have not given up hope. We know that God is for us.

It does not mean that God is against those who trouble us, but nothing this world can present can separate us from the love of God. Jesus goes before us as the perfector of our faith, the faith that God gives us to run with grace and patience the race of faith- living our lives.
God goes before us in the cloud of witnesses who built this congregation, witnesses like Dalia and Betty, whose faith in service we celebrate today.

God roots for us as the current witnesses to God’s power in this congregation and community. God is present for us- here at God’s table and with each other.

Martin Luther says the most powerful words, the only words that matter at the table, are the words “For you.” These are words we should carry away from the table. Words we should say when divisions seem to overwhelm us. When we see the broken windows.

The mystic Julian of Norwich said she heard the Savior say to her: “Sin is here, but all shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Do you know how we know that?

Because God has said He is nearby and far away. God unites us in our division. God uses the Good, the Bad and the Ugly for his glory and for the good of his creation.
Because if God is for us… things cannot ultimately be anything but well.
So beloved witnesses to God’s love,
Say to yourselves
God is for me… who can be against me?
Say to your neighbor, “God is for you… who can be against you?”
Say it to your other neighbor.
Let us say it together “God is for us… who can be against us?”
These are words of fire, like those from Jeremiah. Let them burn in your heart.
God is for us… who can be against us?
Witness to it in spite of everything. When you go out these doors, past the broken windows… the message to carry to the world is…
God is for us… who can be against us?


Friday, August 17, 2007

Three Ws

When I was in seminary, there always seemed to be plenty to read and write. There were chapters of the Bible to cover for class, language flashcards to peruse, theology books to plow through and a never-ending stream of pages to pound out on a variety of topics. I do not know why I thought that internship would bring a break from this. While I am doing different reading and writing, it always seems like there is so much of it to do. In considering this situation, I came up with the 3 Ws of internship (or pastoral ministry in general).

First, one waits. I feel like I am constantly waiting. Waiting to have a moment to mull over a new idea. Waiting to get to work and see what's waiting there for me. The ultimate wait is for the Spirit to move. I always feel like I am waiting for a BIG sign to tell me: "Here's what to write. Here's what to say. Here's how this sermon/newsletter/card should read." Yet the clock can tick down to the wire and I'm still waiting.

My second "w" is willing. I had a writing teacher once who told my class, "Everybody thinks if they have the perfect desk, the perfect setting, the perfect cup of tea... that the writing will just happen. Words will flow. It doesn't work that way. Writing is work." It certainly is. You have to be willing to sit down and push through your ideas. I have to be willing to write things down and then throw them away or store them for another writing project. One has to be willing to stare at the blank page, whether in a notebook or on a screen, and force one's self to put words down. It is not easy, but if your job involves writing, you must be willing to accept the amount of work involved.

The third "w" is writing. When I've waited long enough (or too long) and have made myself willing to sit down and try, then the writing begins. The started and stopped sentences. Fingers poised over keys. Finally, the tingle of realization that your idea has begun to crystallize. I can't type quickly enough to put the thoughts down. You pause to change a word choice. Consider an image. Suddenly, I find myself trying to write a conclusion: memorable and affirmative. There is still editing to be done; last minute revisions are almost guaranteed. What needs to be written has been written. There is a sense of release. In addition, there is almost a feeling of over-exposure: someone will read this and have their own opinion. You may hear that opinion or you won't. There's no telling how it might affect. But you have written what you needed to write.

I find myself stacked up with writing that needs to be accomplished: forms for school, essays, learning goals, lesson plans, blog entries, cards, newsletter pieces and sermons. There is not always time to think about these three "w"s, but I believe I cycle through them each time. There is more writing involved with this position than I thought there would be. It's pleasurable, though, because I have clear people in mind to whom I am writing: the people of God at Gloria Dei.

Monday, August 6, 2007

For Such a Time as This

When I was a little girl, I loved to read stories out of the Bible. I know that sounds funny, but I did. I progressed beyond my Bible story book and would read things out of my little New King James that my parents gave me when I was four. Among my favorite stories to read was the story of Esther (found just before Job).
I loved the story of the brave girl who was brought before the King Xerxes (or Ahasuerus) and was chosen to be the queen. Her cousin Mordecai told her of a plot by the king's right hand man to kill all the Jews, which would include Mordecai and even Esther herself. Esther gathered all her courage and went before the king to tell him about the plot. The story ends up with a happy ending for the Jewish people (celebrated in the springtime holiday of Purim), but the end is unhappy for Haman (the right-hand man) and his compatriots because they are all killed in a very shocking ending to the story.
I was thinking of a verse from Esther today. When Mordecai tells her of the plot to kill the Jews, she reminds him of the danger in going before the king. Mordecai tells her, "Don't think that just because you live in the king's house that you're the one Jew who will get out of this alive. If you persist in staying silent at a time like this, help and deliverance will arrive for the Jews from someplace else, but you and your family will be wiped out. Who knows? Maybe you were made queen for such a time as this."
I do not believe that everything that happens is in God's plan for us. I believe sometimes our choices and the choices of other people influence our lives in ways we did not and could not expect. Yet I do believe God is with us in triumphs and in perils and has given us many gifts to use in varieties of situations.
Esther was kidnapped from her family and put into a harem to be perused by the king. She was chosen to be queen, which probably put her in a place where it was dangerous to acknowledge her faith practices (dietary regulations, prayers, etc). However, in a time of dire need, she was able to use her courage, her gift of rhetoric and her beauty to save her people.
Sometimes in the face of adversity, tragedy or even celebration, it can be difficult to know what to do or how to help. We have to work to trust God to guide us. When we think of our time and talents as God-given, it makes it hard not to use them toward the needs of the world in such a time as this.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

James, Apostle

Yesterday was the feast day for the Apostle James. James, and his brother John, abandoned their father's fishing boat and went with Jesus to fish for men. These sons of Zebedee are also referred to as the "Sons of Thunder". They had a tendency to speak before they thought and seemed to continually miss the point of Jesus' ministry. They wanted to sit next to Christ on the throne, they were present at the Transfiguration and were there throughout the Passion week events.

James is considered the first martyr of the early Church. He was executed by Herod Agrippa I about 15 years after Jesus died.

References to James are found in:
Matthew 10:2, 17:1-13
Mark 1:16-20, 3:17, 10:35-41, 14:32-42
Luke 5:1-10; 6:14, 8:51, 9:28, 54
Acts 1:13, 12:2

James is a role model for us because he reminds us that Christ's work and love is never about the "end" or what glory we can have for ourselves. The saving work of Christ in us spurs us to love our neighbors in the world. Like most of the disciples, James did not always understand what Christ was talking about or doing. Following the resurrection, however, he could not be stopped from spreading the gospel.

Through our baptisms we die to sin and are raised to new life in Christ. Daily we are to remember this action, done to us, for us and through us and ask the Holy Spirit to move us, like James, in action for the good of God's beloved creation.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

And it was still hot

My favorite children's book is Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. If you are not familiar with the tale, it's about a little boy whose mother sends him to his room one evening. His imagination runs away with him and he ends up in the land of the wild things. Once he convinces the wild things of his powers, they make him king. Though he loves it, he misses home and he wants to be where someone loves him best of all. So he ends up back in his own room. "There he finds his dinner waiting for him. And it was still hot."

I always think this is a very grace-filled ending. Ultimately, we all want to be where we are loved best of all. The location of that love is always and only within the heart of God. We can feel that in our life experiences that create that sharp gasp of surprise at the awesomeness of the moment. No matter how far we wander or what we think we deserve, God is always with us. And God's grace, when we are able to recognize it, is always hot.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Luther said, "Popes can err..."

Many people were surprised, or maybe not, last week when Pope Benedict XVI declared that non-Roman Catholic Churches are outside the true faith. This affirmation of older, more traditional RCC teaching has not been reaffirmed in church-wide commentary really since Vatican II in the 1960s. In addition, many church bodies, including the Lutheran World Federation, had felt progress was being made in ecumenical relationships with Rome.

The document is an attempt to clarify some matters of RCC faith that may have seemed murky to some for the past forty years.

Some highlights include:

Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of "Church" with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?

Response: According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called "Churches" in the proper sense.

Why was the expression "subsists in" adopted instead of the simple word "is"?

Response: The use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the Church. Rather, it comes from and brings out more clearly the fact that there are "numerous elements of sanctification and of truth" which are found outside her structure, but which "as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity".

"It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church".

In very technical language, the document basically explains the Roman Catholic Church understands itself to be the closest and truest expression, on Earth, to what Christ intended for the church.

You can read ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson's response here.

I believe the reiteration of Roman Catholic beliefs in this manner is saddening, given the state of the world today. When divisions in the church are emphasized, the ultimate price is paid by the Gospel message we are supposed to spread. What kind of story can we tell about Amazing Grace when we cannot yield it to one another in fellowship in Christ. Though the Vatican document acknowledges the work of Christ in other Christian communities, it implies that such communities are ultimately in great error because of their continuation in separation from the Church at Rome.

As a person who has spent much time answering questions by non-Christians about the Christian church and faith, it is difficult and sometimes frustrating to spend much of a conversation answering questions about the differences between denominations rather than talking about Christ's action in the world.

Speaking of, that may be the most difficult part of the document to swallow. The Eucharist is a mystery! We do not know how what happens happens, but Christ has promised his presence in that meal and when he throws a party, he always shows up! We should rejoice in the expansive opportunities the gift of faith allows us in encountering Christ, rather than wonder if we are really in a church where such events occur.

By the way, when we say the Apostle's Creed we state, "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints..." This doesn't mean we're sneaking a heretical belief into the Lutheran service every Sunday or secretly we wish we were back in Rome. It's actually a blatant statement of our belief in the universal nature of Christ's Church and work in the world. Little "c" catholic means universal. Big "C" Catholic refers to the church in Rome. All three Creeds are ancient ecumenical creeds, embracing the teaching of the apostles and early Church fathers (and mothers!) about the Trinity, the Church and the World. Ironically, when we say that creed, we join our voices with all those saints each Sunday who say the same words ...all those people believing in Christ- the one True Head of the Church.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In the beginning

It's the middle of my second week of internship. The first week was a little disjointed (no pun intended) due to my broken thumb and the Independence Day holiday. My first Sunday went well and I felt very welcomed into the Gloria Dei family. The second week is busier, but that's good because it helps me feel more settled in and attached to the church.

I have started this blog as a way to make public some of my feelings and experiences along this journey and to share with you some of my meditations. I may not be able to post daily, but I will generally try to share a poem, hymn, inspirational writing or Scripture verse that I have been contemplating.

My Hope is Built on Nothing Less

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus' name

(Chorus) On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.

This hymn has become very significant to me in the past year. The explanation of the First Commandment ("You shall have no other gods.") in the Small Catechism says, "We are to fear, love and trust God above all things." This means love of God should be first in our hearts.

This is very difficult and, happily, God knows we are not really always able to live up to that standard and we are forgiven. Knowing that, we remember that God always loves us first. That notion should make us feel joyous, not guilty.

There are times, though, when the events of life are so overwhelming, nothing can be brought to mind except our feelings about the immediate circumstances. In those times, God's love comes to us in ways we might not be able to see at the time, but we will recognize later.

Christ's love for us is the rock we can cling to in the sinking sand. It comes to us with hope in our sacraments and in our daily lives.

In these first few weeks, the hospitality of Gloria Dei has been a solid rock for me, showing the love of Christ in this place.