Week Five - Day One of Three: Reforming the Way We Imagine the Sacred; FROM separated TO integrated.

gran quivera.jpg

A while ago an older pastor friend of mine was cleaning out his library. I inherited boxes of books that do not have ISBN numbers or barcodes, much to the chagrin of my son, Mark, who was computerizing my library this past summer.   More than once, Mark questioned me, “Dad, are you ever going to read these books?”  I have to admit; at times, my bibliophilia gets the best of me.  I must say, however, that among the faded books covers, there were some genuine out-of-print gems.   

A reoccurring theme in the book stash that my friend gave me was how to make faith relevant in a changing time.  The books came from the turbulent nineteen sixties when many faithful people were wondering how the church should respond.  My friend was a progressive thinker, so you can imagine that the books of his library suggested that the church needed to reform.  We needed to change the way we were worshiping, speaking about God, praying, and doing ministry.  The answer was not to look back to the past but to look to the future with a bold hope.  These books come from the time of Vatican II and the spark of renewal movements in not only the Roman Catholic church but also across the board of mainline Protestant churches.

More than one book jacket suggested that what was needed was to establish a connection between Sunday and Monday morning.  In other words, to meet the challenges that befell modern Christians, the church of five decades ago saw that it needed to extend its voice beyond the sanctuary and a one-hour-per-week worship time.  The church, which was secure in a culturally reserved and respected SACRED space on Sunday morning would need to engage with the PROFANE (or secular) space of Monday morning if it wanted to remain relevant in the lives of the faithful.

Decades later, as I put my friend’s faded books onto the shelves in my library, it seems to me that the church did not rise to the challenge in the way that the authors suggested it should.  Not only has the separation between Sunday and Monday mornings increased but the whole sacred sphere of life seems to have shrunk.  Consumerism has increased as attendance on Sunday mornings has drastically declined.  Even those who attend church are not as regular in their attendance.  As a society, we have let the secular/profane intrude on our observance of the Sabbath.  The gift of Sabbath renewal is one that remains largely unopened.  

Consumable products that are readily available on TV and online promise to satisfy our spiritual hunger.  Unfortunately, the satisfaction is short-lived – like opening a bag of Cheetos.  After devouring bags of mass-produced spiritual snack food, all we have to show are the empty calories and orange fingers.  People are disregarding the deep-seated wisdom of nurturing Christian faith in the context of a community that gathers around Word and Sacrament in favor of the latest fad and celebrity self-based soul fix.  When you fill up on empty calories, it has a negative effort on the body.  Most of the time, it doesn’t even fill us up.  We are left wanting.  Hunger remains.    

Once again this week, we look at reforming the church from the viewpoint of reforming the heart and soul of the believer.  We look inward not to the exclusion of our connection with the community of Christ but because when we come down to it, if we want to see renewal in the church then we must begin with ourselves.  Each of us has the power to make changes this day that will have a positive change in the way that we encounter and respond to God and the world that Christ loves from the vantage point of the cross.  I can’t change your heart, but through the power of the Spirit working within me, I am empowered to do some soul searching and soul improvements of my own.  I start with desiring and longing for God in my life and I invite you to do the same. 

Building on the ideas we discussed last week about moving from transactional spirituality to relational spirituality, this week we look at reforming the way we imagine sacred space.  Do we make divisions between our sacred lives and the rest of life?  Do we maintain distinctions between faithful living and secular living?  How might we integrate our lives so that our souls are nurtured in every moment, whether or not it is on a Sunday in communion with other Christians?

Guiding us through the three blog posts of this week, where we will take up these questions, is a passage from the book of Isaiah.  It comes from a time when the people found themselves discouraged by the experience of exile.  They wondered whether God cared for them and if God could bring them to a place of wholeness.  Isaiah assures them of God’s eternal steadfast love and abiding presence.  Though God might get angry over the lack of devotion and the turning away to other sources for spiritual health, God remains faithful.  Isaiah holds the promise before our eyes; God will not abandon but will rather comfort and bring wholeness and healing.  Desiring wholeness and healing in our own life, we venture forth across the boundaries of sacred and profane.


Today’s scripture: Isaiah 57: 15-17

For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:  I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. 16For I will not continually accuse, nor will I always be angry; for then the spirits would grow faint before me, even the souls that I have made. 17Because of their wicked covetousness I was angry; I struck them, I hid and was angry; but they kept turning back to their own ways.

Prayer:  Wholly and holy God, you are the source of our life.  You have created us and all living things to live in connection with you in all that we say and do.  Your presence is with us in each moment: at church and home; at work and play; in our generosity and our reserve; in our action and passive moments – always, always you are near.  Sadly, we have responded in ways that separate and seek to limit your influence and guidance.  We suffer from a lack of peace.  Guide us back to you.  Let us rest in the sure and certain hope of your presence.  Allow for our desire to be focused on the path that leads your way.  Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.


Tomorrow, we will look at the need for integration of the sacred and profane aspects of our lives by lowering the boundaries that we construct to separate church from home and work. 

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Week Four: Day Three of Three - To a Place of Relational Trust

DSC_0162.JPG

Feelings of melancholy fill me as I think back to the last time I saw my Grandmother alive.  There was nothing more the Doctors could do to stop the uncaring cancer that ravaged her tiny body.  My family visited her in the small hospital room.  Our pastor came by to pray with us all around her bed.  At the time, I did not recognize what twenty years of ministry experience would teach me; the end of her precious life was so very near.  After our visit, we walked down the long hallway with the burden of goodbye heavy upon our hearts. 

As we left the hospital and walked across the tiny parking lot, we witnessed something unexpected.  To the west was the most beautiful sunset.  No doubt aided by the pollution of the north Jersey skies, the descending sun blazed in streaks of orange and gold.  In front of the amber panorama was the Hackensack River with its marshland shores.  High grasses with the occasional cattail standing tall in silhouette, completed the scene.  Instead of taking our breath away, the vista allowed us to breathe in deeply.  In the silence, we stopped and breathed.

I may not remember much of the details of that night, but I will never forget the sense of calm and peace that pervaded my very soul in those seconds.  In the midst of the cruel and horrible experience of my Grandmother’s cancer, suffering, and death there was a moment that I can only describe as holy.  God was present.  Even after all the subsequent years of theological training and reflection, I can’t say how it was so.  It simply was, and that experience was a sacred gift.  It didn’t make anything miraculously go away or change.  Grandma still died, and we grieved to the depths of our souls.  Nevertheless, the abiding assurance of that heavenly sunset was a life-giving and sacramental encounter.  It gave us the strength to get in the family suburban and head home to face the difficult days that lie ahead.

On Tuesday, I mentioned that my prayers “didn’t work” for Grandma as they did for Grandpa.   The transactional faith of my childhood and adolescence was disappointed by the reality of the dark side of life.  Tragedy and death offer a sober contradiction to those who live transactional faith lives.  As I mentioned earlier this week, transactional faith depends upon making deposits in the “goodness” bank.  We are good.  We are faithful.  We go to church and say our prayers.  We make deposits.  God pays out blessings as interest.  Of course, our misdeeds make sudden and sometimes unanticipated withdrawals.  If we are not diligent, we can overdraw our accounts, plunging us into spiritual debt. 

Old school Christian thinking reminds us of our miserable plight – so large is the debt of Adam that we don’t have much of a chance in this transactional system.  We can make regular payments, but the interest keeps us in eternal bondage.  That is why we need Jesus.  Substitutionary atonement theory reminds us that Jesus pays off the debt and settles our account with his blood.  Whew! We can continue unabated on our spiritual spending spree.   Of course, there are limits – the pundits of [outdated] substitutionary atonement theory quickly point out.  Having paid our way, God expects us to be good and build up our balance of goodness.  Heaven still is seen as the prize for a good life.  Hell is still the just desserts for bad decisions and evil living.   These are the mechanics of transactional faith.  Beyond my childhood and adolescent years, I uncritically accepted this theology as the gospel truth.   

Of course, transactional faith is far from either gospel or truth.  Discrepancies arise when despite our efforts to accumulate blessings and interest through careful saving and living, we find ourselves short.  Evil and bad things happen despite goodness and faithfulness.  Conversely, good and unbounded returns fall into the hands of people who are mean, nasty, and corrupt.  The transactional system just doesn’t work.  Continuing on that path is a recipe for turmoil, anger, and ultimately abandonment of God.  Afterall, if God isn’t going to be a good banker, then we might as well not bother to worship, pray, or try to be good.  Let the heathen gods reign as we eat, drink, and be merry without a thought to anyone but ourselves. 

Although it would take me twenty-five years from the night of the sunset over the Meadowlands, I have come around to another way of thinking and of believing.  Faith is not transactional.  Faith is relational.  Our connection to God does not happen through the local branch of the FIRST DIVINE TRUST, with its intricate scales of measurement, hidden fees, and variable rates of return.  Our connection to God begins with the very first breath that we take into our bodies and souls.  We have been created to be in a relationship with God.  God desires to be a part of not only our life but the entire life of all creation. 

The Christian idea of Incarnation (God becomes ‘en-fleshed’ in Jesus) illustrates the Divine desire to be relational.  In Jesus, God navigates the complex network of human joys and sufferings, ups, and downs, good and bad.  Jesus’ ministry becomes instructive for us as we try to fathom the incomprehensible nature of God.  Instead of being a judge or a banker, Jesus was a friend.  Jesus included the outsider, sinner, tax collector, poor, blind, and lame in his table fellowship.  Eating with them, Jesus shared the friendship of God and made them an important part of the kingdom of heaven.  Although the Pharisees clung to their transactional faith, with its rigid boundaries and uncaring rules, Jesus challenged such notions.  It was not about earning God’s favor but rather about turning toward God and dwelling in God’s presence.  This latter approach was an open invitation.

Jesus announced the Kingdom of God and invited his hearers to repent and believe.  Repentance is not only a turning away from doing bad things, but it is a turning toward God.  Turn toward the God who created you.  Turn, not to earn favor and goodies, but rather to connect with the source of your life.  When we turn toward God, we discover that we are invited to live our lives in balance with the rest of creation.  Love becomes the commandment and boundary that we are asked to follow and set in our relationships.  At times it is messy. But it is the way that God relates to us.  God enters into the messy times and struggles and is present to us with love.

No matter our shortcomings, failures, successes, dreams, adventures, joy and pain – we are made to relate in love to others and our Creator.  It is not something that we are left to do alone.  God remains near and abides with us.  God’s relational presence is transformational.  It brings life even in the midst of pain and death.   

What would it look like if we dared to abandon a transactional faith and instead trusted in the relationship that God made with us at the moment of our birth?   What if instead of worrying about an eternal bank account, we sought to engage with loving intent in the raging torrents of life, trusting that God has our life? 

What if instead of going to church or praying to accumulate points or negotiate a deal, we went to simply praise and thank God for always being there for us?  What if we read the Bible not to check for loopholes or to judge others, but to be inspired to live as the Creator of life made us?  What if we practiced our faith in the sure and certain hope that God’s love and care are present in each breath, even if we can’t wrap our heads around it?  

What if we prayed not to beg or barter with God but rather to seek to enter into that space that passes our understanding?  What if we stopped asking, “why me God?” and instead breathed deeply, trusting in God’s presence even in this messy and unknowable moment?  What if our prayers focused more on our breathing than on a lengthy shopping list of wants?  What if we were to speak less in our prayers and trust more in the sure and certain hope that our lives rest in God’s care?    


Scripture:  Isaiah 41: 8-10

8But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend;  9you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, "You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off "; 10do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you,  I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

Prayer: 

Gracious God, help me to trust in you above all things.  Train my heart to feel your presence and my ears to hear the song of your love.  Give me the courage to be bold in my loving and care for others and the world that you have so graciously made.  Guide me along the rough places and carry me when I am too weak to walk.   Through Christ, Amen.


Tommorrow, I begin Week Five of this blog series on the need for ongoing reformation.  The revised format of three blogs per week seems to be getting a good response so I will continue in that way.   Next week our three-part blog will focus on reforming our thinking about the sacred and profane spheres of life.  We will look to move FROM a place of separation between holy and unholy TO a place of integration.

Thank you for taking the time in your busy life this week to read this blog.  I hope that it has been helpful in encouraging faith formation in us all.  

If today's blog was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

Week Four - Day One of Three: Reforming the Way we Engage God; FROM transactional TO relational.

coins in hand.jpg

When I was in high school, I ran Cross Country.  It was a lot of fun running in races.  My sophomore year, I had a particularly good run (pun intended) of medaling in every major meet.  As the season carried on, I can remember increasing the pressure on myself to perform.  At the time, I had a supercharged competitive spirit.  To finish my season with a medal from each race, I needed to come in the top thirty runners.   With hundreds of runners in each race, it was not easy to gain hardware. 

I remember going to church the week after each newly acquired medal and praying to God that I might continue gaining ground in my medal quest.  Now, I didn’t promise that if God gave me the strength to succeed that I would become a pastor.  I’m not Martin Luther, and I don’t pretend to be (Luther, after all, promised to become a monk if God rescued him from a lightning storm.) But, I do remember making a bargain.  Now I can’t recall the details of what I promised.   I think I promised to be good or something.   Whatever it was, it must have worked.  I completed my sophomore year with a medal from each race.  The medals now fill a cardboard shoebox in my basement.  Not only did I do well in the races, but I also managed to work a good deal with God.  

Negotiation.  Promises to do things in return for a Divine favor.  It is not an uncommon way of engaging God and living out our spiritual lives.  If we aren’t active in bargaining with God, then we at least think that the goodness of our lives should at least matter on some cosmic scale. 

We run into trouble, of course, when bad things happen to good people (ourselves included.)  “It isn’t fair!”  We cry out.   We try to do the right things, be nice to people, go to church, say our prayers.  We have done our part, and yet somehow we are still beleaguered by troubles.  Good people suffer from degenerative illnesses and battles with cancer.  Why God?  Why are you letting these things happen to me?  Why are you not keeping up your end of the bargain?

When it comes to our spiritual thinking, we can be very transactional.  If we do this, pray this, give this then we will receive this blessing, our fortunes will be good, and we will come out ahead.  This kind of thinking lies at the heart of the prosperity gospel with all of its opulent preachers who smile a whitened smile and encourage their television flocks to send their money in – if you give, then you will be blessed a hundredfold.  Giving becomes an investment strategy.  Those who are wealthy are so because God has blessed them richly for their good works.  Transactional faith has an appeal that can lure us in.  It seems so right in our supercharged consumerist and competitive society. 

Unfortunately, this transactional way of engaging God and living out our spiritual lives is problematic on many fronts.  It lacks a biblical integrity and simply does not align with the truth that we have observed from living – sometimes bad things happen to very good people. 

This week, we shift our reformation focus away from looking at Reforming the church as an institution and community.  Instead, we will focus on the individual believer.  Our heart needs reformation.  So do our minds and spirits.  We need to repent – turn toward God’s steadfast love that comes as a totally unearned, and non-negotiable gift.  Instead of engaging God in transactional terms, we will look at simply living in a trust-centered relationship. 

The scripture that I’ve chosen for this week is extremely personal and relational.  Connected to the community of believers, we are God’s friends.  God chooses us and desires to be in an abiding relationship with us – no matter what might happen.  Even in the midst of fires, challenges, turmoil, upheaval, and a thousand nasty occurrences, God promises to be present, alongside.  Walking with God, we find that transformation and resurrection emerge as real possibilities.  With hope, we trust – not to gain a transactional advantage but simply because we are God’s children.

So I hope you join me each day this week as we seek to reform the way we engage God; FROM transaction TO relational. 

By the way, does anyone want to make me an offer on a box of old running medals?  Just kidding!


Prayer:  Gracious God, you call us into a life-giving relationship with you.  You do this out of your endless mercy and steadfast love and not on account of our words or actions.  Help us to stop negotiating or bargaining with you.  Turn our prayers into conversations that spring forth from a growing trust and love.   Through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Today’s scripture:  Isaiah 41: 8

But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend;


This week the Reformation blog series itself will undergo a 'reform.'  Based on feedback received, the series will shift from a daily seven day posting to three weekly posts (Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday.)  I hope that this change will allow readers more time to read and process posts.  It will also be somewhat easier to write during these busy days of fall.  I thank you ahead of time for your patience and understanding.    

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Seven (Saturday), Week Three: TO a Place of Faith Formation

"like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house..."   1 Peter 2:5

"like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house..."   1 Peter 2:5

Martin Luther’s children did not go to Sunday School.  In the 16th century, there were no Sunday Schools!  The concept of Sunday School was as foreign to a person living in Luther’s time as would be the steam engine.  Sunday Schools are a product of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.  The Sunday School movement, spearheaded by Robert Raikes, founded schools for poor and orphaned children to teach them to read and write on their one day off from working in the factories – Sunday.  Religious and moral education was a part of the curriculum.  When England (and America) adopted compulsory public education a century later, the focus of the Sunday School focused exclusively on religious education.  Parents still brought their kids to Sunday School– whether or not they attended the services of a church – because until recent years it was seen as a cultural expectation of childhood.

The link between Sunday School, education, and childhood is strong from a historical perspective.  So is the concept that children must be educated in the way of the faith much as we instruct them in reading, writing, and ‘arithmetic.  Such things are part of childhood, at least as we have culturally constructed it.  Had the culture not shifted away from the church, our Sunday Schools would not have seen such a decline in numbers.  And we would probably not be having the conversation of reform. 

Although I will not join my colleagues who have boldly proclaimed that “Sunday School is dead,” I do think that we need to reform the way that we teach the faith.  This reformation is not, however, just for the children.  In fact, it can not start with children.   Adults must commit to their own faith formation much like they are instructed to do on an airline.  If there is a loss of cabin pressure, first put on your mask, then assist children and those who need help.  We need to breathe a spiritual breath of fresh air deeply into our souls. 

An important first step is to move away from the label of faith “EDUCATION.”  What’s in a name?  Too much of the past!   In general, when we think of EDUCATION, we think of something that happens in the first third of life.  We go to school as children, teens, and young adults.  Our formal education stops at some point when we walk across a stage, and someone hands us a fancy piece of paper.  I can already hear your objection. 

But we don’t stop learning!  What about life-long learning?  Yes, on both accounts.  It is true, but, our culture doesn’t enthusiastically support adult education for the masses.  Continuing education might be a part of some professional expectations, but for the majority of folks who are in the midst of their working years, ongoing structured learning is not.  There isn’t the time - and Lord knows at the end of a long workday – there isn’t the energy.  Learning happens largely in an unscripted way as we go about living.  We pick up things as we encounter them.  For example, we learn about medical procedures usually in the hospital when a loved one or we have to go through them.  We also find out things through media channels – there is a lot of information out there.  But do we take the time to engage this information with a critical eye?  Do we take the time to dig deeper into an area of interest for the pure sake of learning? 

Back to our discussion about learning the faith.   Our lack of EDUCATIONAL expectations and support for adults has crept into the church.  An attitude prevails that Faith EDUCATION is for the kids and for those who have the time to do such things.  Adults, who are in the second third of life, simply don’t have the time or energy to engage in faith-learning even if they want.  Besides, what kind of faith growth opportunities does the church offer?  Bible studies are either during the day or during ‘family time’ at nights and on the weekend.

The reformation that is needed is for the church to move away from thinking about providing EDUCATION classes and instead the church needs to encourage FAITH FORMATION opportunities (which may or may not be in classrooms).   At all ages, we need to ask the question; how do we best form and shape our spiritual selves?  How does the church best support this formation?  What kinds of opportunities and experiences might we provide that allow adults to grow and deepen their Christian faith?   

From my experience, faith practices such as worship, prayer, devotions, scripture reading, and service will all play a role.   FAITH FORMATION involves the making relational connections between God’s Word, our baptismal identity, and the world’s needs.  It is a matter of vocation – a spiritual calling – to engage Christ in the busy places of life so that we might be Christ to others. 

There is a compelling need for all Christians to grow in their faith and become life-long learners.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is especially paradoxically true for busy adults.  Faith formation takes time that we don't seem to have.  That said, we need the spiritual grounding that Faith Formation provides now more than ever.  We need genuine faith inn these confusing and conflicting times where so much information and outright lies bombard us daily.   There is the need for spiritual space for us to breathe and recognize that God accompanies us on our crazy travels.  We need a faith that trusts in God’s mercy and love above all things.  But these things don’t just happen, and we can’t buy our way into receiving them. 

The wisdom of those who have practiced the Christian faith over the centuries is that faith doesn’t happen overnight.  It is a life-long journey of ups and downs.  Faith occurs in relationship with a God that continues to come our way and invites us to turn in the direction of Divine love.  We practice our faith in worship, prayer, and service.  Also, our life experiences serve as a crucible in which our faith is molded and tested.   Challenges, joy, pain, triumphs, losses – all these things can serve as teachers if we have a willingness to be pupils.    

Our fears about the decline in Sunday School have driven excessive worry about the future of the church.  If we don’t connect our children to the church, then the church will die.  True.  It is a genuine concern.  It is an even greater concern, however, of this Lutheran pastor that if we don’t connect more adult lives with ongoing FAITH FORMATION, then the church will die in the present.  Our children, after all, are watching whether faith means anything to us.  If it doesn’t, then it won’t mean much to them.  So it is time to put on our own oxygen masks and starting breathing.

I finish this week’s blog with a quote from an ancient African bishop.  St. Augustine of Hippo once said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” 


Prayer:  Gracious God, life is often too busy.  We go in many directions, and our thoughts are often scattered all over the place.  We forget to make the time for you.  We forget to take care of ourselves.  We forget to share love with others.  We don’t breathe.  We don’t stop.  We don’t give thanks.  All of this gets in the way of nurturing the gift of faith that you have so graciously given to us.  Form our faith.  Guide our head, heart, and hands.  Help us to grow so that we might delight and live as your children.   Through Christ, Amen.

Today’s scripture: Isaiah 29: 16c

 Shall the thing made say of its maker,

"He did not make me";

 or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,

 "He has no understanding"?


Tommorrow, I begin Week Four of this blog series on the need for ongoing reformation.  To this point, we have exclusively looked at reforms within the church.  We will shift our focus in week four to reforms within our hearts.  We begin with moving FROM transactional TO relational.

Thank you for taking the time in your busy life this week to read this blog.  I hope that it has been helpful in encouraging faith formation in us all.  

If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Six (Friday-part b), Week Three: “TO” Questions to Ponder As We Imagine Reforming the Way We Teach the Faith

gburgsem3.jpg

Here are a few questions, in no particular order, to invite us to consider the way we teach the faith and the places that we might go TO as we seek reformation.

What ways do we learn the best?  

If faith is more a relationship than a subject, then how might we best grow and learn?

On what aspects about God do we best focus?  How can we best learn, for example, about God's mercy, grace, and forgiveness?

What lessons about God do we need to stop teaching our children, our teens, and adults?

What would be included if we were to write a modern Catechism for Christians?  Would this Catechism be "Lutheran" enough?  Would it matter?

How do we encourage a passion for life-long learning across generations?

What negative connotations does the word 'education' have for the average person?   Does our culture place the highest value on education?  If so, why do we spend more on bombs as a nation than on books?  

What daily practices might we adopt that will encourage our own faith formation?

Is faith best formed in a classroom, community, or through experiences?  How much does each of these areas (classroom, community, and experiences) play a part?  

What would it take to involve every adult at St. James in some type of faith formation?

How often do we pray that our faith and the faith of the church might grow?

Take a few minutes of silent reflection time and ponder these questions.  Maybe they inspire different questions in you.  You might want to write down your response, or you might want just to let your thoughts wander and accumulate.  The goal is to imagine what new and generative places God might be calling us.   Where are we being invited to dwell as we engage in faith formation practices?


Prayer:  O loving God, to turn away from you is to fall, to turn toward you is to rise, and to stand before you is to abide forever.  Grant us, dear God, in all our duties your help; in all our uncertainties your guidance; in all our dangers your protection; and in all our sorrows your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.    (a prayer of St. Augustine of Hippo)

Today’s Scripture:   Isaiah 29:16b

 Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?

 


Tomorrow, I will imagine what it might look like if we can reform faith formation.

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Five, Week Three: Dr. Luther Remained a Hungry and Thirsty Learner

IMG_0382.JPG

A note to my readers:  I apologize for not posting yesterday.  Today I am sharing two posts (now and this evening) to get us back on schedule.  I write as a pastor engaged in the changing context of a congregation.  From time to time, matters arise that require my attention, preventing me from meeting my posting deadline.  I appreciate your patience when this happens - Walt 

When he visited the parishes around Wittenberg in rural Saxony (1527-1528), Martin Luther was dismayed at what he found;

“Good God, what wretchedness I beheld!  The common people, especially those who live in the country, have no knowledge whatever of Christian teaching, and unfortunately, many pastors are quite incompetent and unfitted for teaching.  Although the people are supposed to be Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, they live as if they were pigs and irrational beasts, and now that the Gospel has been restored they have mastered the fine art of abusing liberty (Preface Small Catechism, 338).”

Luther responded to his experience by preaching a series of Catechetical sermons (not an uncommon practice at the time) and writing both the Small and Large Catechisms.  The Small Catechism is a basic summary of the Christian faith meant for household use.  The Large Catechism was more in-depth and was intended for use by pastors and those who wanted to delve into it.  Although he didn't invent the concept of a Catechism, Martin Luther's Catechisms are still widely used in the church.  

Luther spoke of his faith formation and the need of being a life-long learner;  

“I must still read and study the Catechism.  Every morning, and whenever else I have time, I read and recite word for word the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Psalms, etc.  I must still read and study the Catechism daily, yet I cannot master it as I wish but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and I do it gladly (Preface Large Catechism, BC 359).” 

Unlike learning a trade or how to do arithmetic, you can’t learn it, master it, and then live to a ripe old age from the fruits of your educational accomplishments.  Luther’s description of remaining a child and pupil of the Catechism suggests that faith is something that forms over a lifetime.  Again, Luther writes;  

“All the saints know of nothing better or different to learn, though they cannot learn it to perfection.  Are we not most marvelous fellows, therefore, if we imagine, after reading or hearing it once, that we know it all and need not read or study it anymore?  Most marvelous fellows, to think we can finish learning in one hour what God himself cannot finish teaching!  Actually [God] is busy teaching it from the beginning of the world to the end, and all prophets and saints have been busy learning it and have always remained pupils, and must continue to do so (Preface Large Catechism, BC,361).”

According to Luther, as we study, learn, ponder, and meditate on God’s Word, the Catechism, and our faith, the Holy Spirit is present and bestows ever new and greater light and fervor.   God is with us in the formation of our faith.  Faith is not so much an object or subject that we need education about, as it is a relationship in which we interact with God’s self.  The Holy Spirit accompanies us in our struggles and forms our faith in the process.

What is not helpful, however, is a lack of studying on our part or the arrogance to think that we know all that we need to know to live out our lives as Christians.  What is not helpful is the continued attitude that pervades within Lutheran churches (though I am sure that we are not alone here) that faith education is for the children and the youth.  We have bought into the very thing against which Luther cautions – becoming those ‘marvelous fellows’ that “know it all and need not read or study anymore.” 

Luther finishes up his first Preface to the Large Catechism with these words;

“Let all Christians exercise themselves in the Catechism daily, and constantly put it into practice… Let them continue to read and to teach, to learn and meditate and ponder.  Let them never stop until they have proved by experience that they have taught the devil to death and have become wiser than God himself and all his saints.  If they show such diligence, then I promise them – and their experience will bear me out – that they will gain much fruit and God will make excellent [persons] of them.  Then in due time they themselves will make the noble confession that they longer they work with the Catechism, the less they know of itand the more they have to learn.  Only then, hungry and thirsty, will they truly relish what not they cannot bear to smell because they are so bloated and surfeited.  (Preface Large Catechism, BC, 361).”

How do we create a learning environment in our communities of faith and struggle wherein we become hungry and thirsty to grow daily in our faith as children of God and pupils of God’s Word?  


Prayer:  O God, give us grace to set a good example to all among whom we live, to be just and true in all our dealings, to be strict and conscientious in the discharge of every day; pure and temperate in all enjoyment, gracious and generous and courteous toward all; so that the mind of Jesus Christ may be formed in us and all may know that we are his disciples; in whose name we pray.  Amen    (ELW, Pastoral Care, page 375)

Today’s Scripture: Isaiah 29: 16a

You turn things upside down!


Later today, we will be pondering a new set of questions.  If we need to reform the way we teach the faith FROM older models of education , then where should we turn TO?  Where could we go?  How will it look? Where might God be calling us?  

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Four (Wednesday), Week Four: A Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

 
Isaiah29-15.jpg

What does this image inspire in you?  How does the passage from Isaiah interact with the image?  What connections or disconnection come to mind?


Prayer:  

Prayer:  Gracious God, you know us better than we know ourselves.  Meet us in the places where fear, anxiety, hatred prevent us from learning your love and grace.  Instruct our hearts in the way of Jesus so that we might live in the brilliant light of your Jesus.  Open our minds so that we might seek to know you each day.  Strengthen our courage to share your love with our neighbor.  Through Jesus Christ, Amen.   

 

Today’s scripture: Isaiah 29:15

Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the LORD, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”


Tomorrow, we will have a Luther moment.  We’ll look at what Dr. Luther said about the ongoing need for faith formation and we will introduce the important concept of vocation.               

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Three (Tuesday), Week Three: “FROM” Questions to Ponder as we Consider Reforming Teaching the Faith

DSC_0670.JPG

Here are a few questions, in no particular order, to invite us to consider our teaching practices and the places that we might need to move FROM as we seek reformation.

 

What is the most important faith ‘lesson’ we try to impart to our children?

 

As adults, what would we most like to learn or figure out about our relationship with God?

 

Where are the gaps in our knowledge or experience when it comes to matters of faith?  Do we feel shame or embarrassment over these gaps?

 

How critical is it that children and adults can quote from memory pertinent verses from the Bible?  Why?

 

In teaching the faith, are we more concerned with content or substance?

 

Are Sunday morning formats still the best way for us to teach the faith to children, youth, and adults? 

 

What other formats might we use?  How might technology be used?

 

Do we nurture the spiritual well-being of children, youth, and adults and equip them for living out faith in daily life?

 

Is prayer taught as another subject or as a practice?  Do we teach a multitude of ways to pray?

 

How much of our personal experience of God do we share as we teach the faith?

 

 

Take a few minutes of silent reflection time and ponder these questions.  Maybe they inspire different questions in you.  You might want to write down your response, or you might want just to let your thoughts wander and accumulate.  The goal is to encourage a questioning mind and till the soil of our hearts so that they might be receptive for what God wishes to plant.


Prayer:  Lord God of our ancestors, we thank you for what you have done and will continue to do with our daughters and sons.  Walk with them in life, and keep the evil one from obstructing their path.  You see all; you know where the water is deep.  Keep them from danger.  Order their steps and guide their feet while they run the race of faith.  May the good work that you have begun in them be brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray.  Amen.  

(ELW Pastoral Care, page 372)

TToday’s scripture: Isaiah 29:14b

The wisdom of their wise shall perish,

 and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.


Tomorrow, we will look at an image to continue our work of reforming our teaching practices.   

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Two (Monday), Week Three: FROM a place where we must get the lesson right.

IMG_0380.JPG

Paper Dolls.  Have you ever made a chain of Paper Dolls?  It requires some precision in folding the paper in just the right way.  For the link between the paper people to work properly (making them ‘hold hands’) you also need to cut in just the correct places.  Unfurling the Paper Dolls can be a magical experience; the Dolls seem to multiply and hold hands all at the same time.  But that only happens if you’ve properly done the folding and the cutting.  Paper Dolls are not that forgiving and can quickly turn from being a delight to a public exercise in futility and shame.  Look, all of our Dolls are holding hands, but yours are not!  What a maroon you are! Ha Ha!

My first tragic episode with Paper Dolls occurred when I was a Sunday School student in Kindergarten.   Bethany Lutheran Church held its Sunday School classes in the small basement.  Please forgive my memory if I get the details a little messed up – it has been a few decades since I have been there.  Kindergarteners were in a separate basement room for their instruction; the Church Council also used this small room, which had an oversized boardroom table in the center, for their meetings if I’m not mistaken. 

In my three piece Sunday suit, I went to Sunday School.  By and large, it was a positive experience because the people who took care of the Sunday School, the teachers, were great and loving people.  They are among those with whom I share words of thanks for teaching me the Christian faith.  Thinking back, more important than any lessons was the love, acceptance, and encouragement that they communicated in their words, actions, and presence.  Within a context of gratitude, I share the following story, a critique of the process of education and NOT the people involved.  After all, the people were doing the very best they could according to what I’d call standard patterns of Sunday School education. 

One day in that Kindergarten room with the big boardroom table, the lesson involved a craft.  We must have been talking about ‘being one in Christ’ or ‘loving one another’ or something like that.  Those lessons, and rightfully so, were very much repeated.  My Sunday School teacher passed out the paper and safety scissors.  Knowing Mr. Warner, he probably described the directions with his signature big smile on his face.  Fold here and here.  Smile.  Cut here and here.  The details of what followed are now largely a blur, but it didn’t go well for me.  My Paper Dolls were not following Jesus’ command to love each other and hold hands.  I remember feeling ashamed that I didn’t get it right.  I’m sure I didn’t get into trouble for doing it wrong, but that is my emotional memory of the incident.  

The situation of the unlinked Paper Dolls serves as a metaphor for me as I think back on my Christian education.  Again, I do NOT fault the dedicated volunteer teachers or the overworked pastors who were ultimately responsible for the content (and had to deal with the political reality of folks not liking what the denominational publishing house produced or wanting to switch teams and use what the Baptists were using.)  The system of Sunday School and its graduate component, Confirmation, was to educate children and youth on the basics of the faith.  The purpose was to impart the wisdom and doctrines of the church to the next generation so they could make the Paper Dolls in the right way.  Our education was done with a sense of importance so that we would grow up to be good and knowledgeable members of the church and stay out of trouble (away from drugs and jail).  My teachers taught me how to make the Paper Dolls, where to fold and how to cut.  What else was there to know? 

Looking back, however, the educational focus was not unlike the one that I experienced in school.  I had to memorize concepts, names, dates, places.  I had to comprehend and parrot back explanations on stories from the Bible.  It was like Algebra and English – Faith was just another subject in which I needed to acquire competency.  I can’t say that all the efforts – on the part of teachers, pastors, and myself – ever resulted in a deepened spirituality or connection with God.  In fact, the image of God that was encouraged was one of the big Principal in the sky who wanted to make sure that I got good grades, stayed out of trouble, and could properly cut my Paper Dolls. 

We live in a context where Sunday Schools are currently in decline.  According to a 2015 article in USA Today;    

Between 1997 and 2004, churches lost tens of thousands of Sunday school programs, according to data from the Barna Group, and more recent studies show that enrollment has fallen across denominations. From 2004 to 2010, for example, Sunday school attendance dropped nearly 40 percent among Evangelical Lutheran churches in America and almost 8 percent among Southern Baptist churches, prompting speculation that the problem may be more than just a decline in American religiosity (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/03/22/ozy-has-sun-set-on-sunday-school/25080073/)

The decline in participation in mainline churches certainly coincides with a reduction in Sunday School attendance.  With fewer people feeling a religious need to go to church, it makes sense that they won’t be sending their children to Sunday School to learn the faith.   What about the ‘drop-offs’ you say?  Didn’t we always have parents who dropped their kids off without going to worship?  Yes, but as the culture moves in a more secular direction, it is a matter of time before we see the ‘drop-off’ pattern stop.  Sadly, there is no longer a cultural value in many parts of the country for people to even have a ‘faith education.'  

My greater concern, however, is what happens after confirmation to youth and adults who remain ‘in the church.’  For most, faith education seems to stop after students ‘graduate’ confirmation.  We rightfully worry about the lack of youth participation in faith-based activities.  What we don’t concern ourselves as much with is the lack of adult participation in Bible studies and faith education.  This should be as much a concern.   Is it any wonder that our youth don’t become involved in greater numbers? Where are their parents?  

Is part of the reason for lack of participation in adult ed simply because adults see as much need for additional faith education as they have for additional math and science classes?  Education is something that you do when you are starting out.  You learn what you need to be a productive member of society, and then you go on to other things – like jobs, family, pastimes, sports, etc.   The average person knows what they need to know from their education when they were young.  That is true for reading, writing, arithmetic, and I would also guess that most would say for faith too!

But here is the catch – faith is not something we can learn once and then live with a basic competency.  Faith is not an object to be comprehended or a subject for us to master.  You can’t give a proficiency test for the faith that involves coloring in circles with a number two pencil.  Faith is more about relationships than it is about doctrines and content.  Faith is a matter of breathing and being.  Faith grows and dies in the crucible of our life experiences.  There are moments of clarity followed by deep and disturbing doubts.  Faith is formed in the spaces of our hearts, souls, interactions, as well as in our thought processes.

The notion that a child can go to six years of Sunday School, three years of Confirmation, and they are 'set' for the rest of their lives of 'faith' is preposterous, and yet that is what many in the Christian church have accepted as normative.  There is a church-wide need for us to become life-long learners and growers in faith.   It seems to me that we need to start this reform by shifting our language from education to formation.  Through our time together this week in the space of this blog, I hope that we can begin to imagine something different, more life-giving and generative than correctly making Paper Dolls.


Prayer:  O God of wisdom, in your goodness you provide faithful teachers for your church.  By your Holy Spirit give all teachers insight into your holy word, lives that are examples to us all, and the courage to know and do the truth; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  

(from ELW, page 74)

Today’s scripture: Isaiah 29: 14a

so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing.


Tomorrow, I raise some questions for us to ponder about the way that we teach and learn the Christian faith.

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day One (Sunday), Week Three: Reforming the way we teach the faith is not only for the kids

IMG_0377.JPG

Let me begin by saying that I am deeply grateful for my parents and their faithfulness.  Were it not for their weekly practice of bringing me to worship, Sunday School, Confirmation class, etc. I might be an Orthodontist.  Not only did my parents get me to a nurturing place for my young faith, but they took an active part in my faith education.  Mom taught Sunday School.  Dad prayed each week when we got back to our pew after receiving communion.  They taught me by their actions not only on Sunday.  Throughout the week we prayed before meals and bible stories were not uncommon literary choices for bedtime ritual. 

 

I am also deeply grateful for the numerous Sunday School teachers and teachers at-large (who were simply present week in and week out and took an interest in the children) at the two churches of my childhood/youth.  In the spirit of thanks, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pastors who gave witness to Christ’s love and shared with me the message of Grace.   Two pastors, in particular, stand out – Pastor Gary Rickel and Pastor Mark Bruesehoff.  Both were graduates of Seminex (as would be my Spiritual Director in later years, Pastor Mark’s older brother Dick).       

 

For those who may not know, Seminex was a break-off seminary of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, the flagship seminary of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  If you would like a fuller history, check out the Wikipedia entry for Seminex: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seminex. As we think about celebrating the 500th commemoration of the Lutheran Reformation, what happened in St. Louis in the 1970’s is evidence of the ongoing nature of God’s Spirit at work in the church.  Akin to Luther’s actions centuries before was the courage of faculty and students to protest and march off the campus of an institution that was caught up in the politics of a church that was restricting academic freedom and Biblical interpretation.  They went into ‘exile’ not knowing if any of them would ever be allowed to preach, preside, or serve in a congregation.   What is more, without official academic accreditation, Seminex would not have been able to issue degrees and diplomas.  Again, the word that comes to my mind is “courage.” 

 

Eventually, the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago issued degrees and congregations called these reformation-minded pastors.  The path to serve in congregations, however, was not a particularly easy one for the graduates.  Two of those congregations that called Seminex pastors were Bethany Lutheran Church in North Bergen and St. Matthews Lutheran Church in Secaucus – the places that nurtured my burgeoning faith.

 

Though Pastor Rickel and Pastor Mark had very different gifts, these servants of Christ taught me that it was okay to question.  No doubt, they learned this lesson from their own Seminex experience.  Not only was it okay to ask questions, but this process was critical in the development of faith.  Questions are the grist for the mills of faith and Reformation.  Later on, in seminary, I read the work of Paul Tillich who identified doubt as a critical component in a faith life that is dynamic and alive (see Dynamic of Faith or the Courage to Be.)

 

I am grateful for the continued witness of the Seminex pastors to the church.  As I raise questions of reform in the context of parish ministry, I feel that I am standing on their shoulders – or at least receiving courage for the task.  I hope that my ministry will honor the same Christ who was honored by their sacrifices.  

 

This week, I will be looking at the need for the church to shift its understanding regarding how we teach the faith.  We need to move FROM an education-based approach (where we teach faith as an object – much like Algebra in school) TO a formation-based understanding (where we nurture faith as a relationship.)  It may seem like I am splitting a fine hair, but the distinction is critical.  There is much at stake.  In a secular culture that is no longer supportive of Christian faith (or any religion for that matter), the church needs to change its methods on both how it passes down the faith to the next generation and how it continues to nurture the faith of this generation.  At risk are issues of vocation, spirituality, and worship. 

 

So let’s jump into some questions, raise some concerns, and prayerfully consider reformation in this third week of our time together.


Prayer:  Gracious and holy God, give us diligence to seek you, wisdom to perceive you, and patience to wait for you.  Grant us, O God, a mind to meditate on you; eyes to behold you; ears to listen for your word; a heart to love you; and a life to proclaim you; through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, Amen.  

(from ELW, page 76)

Today’s scripture: Isaiah 29: 13

The LORD said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips,while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; 


Tommorrow, I share an experience that illustrates the need for reformation of the way we teach faith. 

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Seven (Saturday), Week Two: TO a Place of a truly Open Table.

table by lake superior.jpg

As a Lutheran pastor who has spent considerable time and energy around reforming congregational communion practices, the Table continues to be a place of focus when it comes to Reformation.   What we say and do around the Table has an impact on who we are as a worshiping community.  Further, our table practices shape our discipleship as followers of Jesus.  

Where our practices align with Jesus' meal practices, as recorded in scripture, we find hospitality, grace, mercy, hope, and resurrection.  In our communion with Christ - and in these sacred values embodied in the sacrament - we find that the gift of life - Christ's own body - is given and celebrated in the context of our own lives.  Here we find Luther’s interchange of love played out in real time.  As we partake this sacred meal, we find ourselves strengthened in our faith for faithful engagement in the struggles and challenges of our world. 

Where our practices do not align with Jesus' meal practices as recorded in scripture, we are in need of reformation.

I wonder if the long-held tradition/practice of 'fencing' the Table around baptism invites such reform.  Over the centuries, communion has been reserved exclusively for the baptized.   Those who come to the table, come already as disciples (or at least as the 'baptized').  The Body of Christ shared at the Table feeds those became baptized in Christ at the font.  There is something good and connected in such sacramental thinking.   In an orderly and Christian social context, there is a natural progression from birth through the waters of grace to the ongoing nurture of grace in the sharing of the supper.  

However, in the post-Christendom context in which we find ourselves, this natural progression is becoming more and more a fanciful construction.  With the largest growing religious segment of the U.S. population being the 'nones' (those who indicate a belief in God but do not claim any religious affiliation), the number of non-baptized (or baptized but never in church) is only going to increase.  In the face of such a dramatic social change, do we maintain our 'fence' around the table and admit only the baptized?   Do we go the route of those who announce that 'only the baptized' or 'only those who are in full sacramental agreement' are welcome to receive?  Those who link sacramental integrity with the purity of practice employ this Pharisaic strategy resting in a doctrinal certitude that is simply unopen to open the Table.  Others go the route of those who announce 'open table' without acknowledging that denominational regulations say otherwise.  It is an ecclesiastic version of a 'don't ask, don't tell' strategy that privileges local autonomy at the expense of the larger church, the church’s teaching and ecumenical agreements.

When I think about the meal practices of Jesus (particularly in the gospel of Luke), God's hospitality and welcome emerge in such a way that challenges any 'fences' that we might put on the Table to restrict access. 

Might the meal of the baptized followers of Jesus be such that we can share in this hospitality in new and transformative ways by removing all the barriers?  Does the integrity of the meal depend so much on who is allowed to receive as it does on the values of the baptized community that dares to set the table boldly in the name of Jesus?  Might the meal remain the meal of the baptized even as we share it with folks who have yet to come to the font?   Might we give greater witness to a broader understanding of Christ's hospitality, welcome, grace, and mercy by removing fences than by retaining them?

More questions, I know.  Perhaps they will be answered not by ecclesiastical conference and assembly through formal adaptation of statements and revised practices but rather at the Table in the local parish.  Albeit in violation of official mandates but aligned with Jesus’ table fellowship, if people are simply welcomed by the love of Jesus as they come to church, then it might work itself out in an organic way.  If “welcomed and communed regardless” becomes the ground level practice of the church, then over time the baptismal fence will be lowered.  It wouldn’t be the first time that church doctrines and formal proclamations had to catch up with the movement of the Spirit.  I will like to be at that Churchwide Assembly in years to come when the Church makes “Open Table” the official teaching of the E.L.C.A.  If I am, I will turn to the person next to me and say, “we’ve been doing this for years!”

[note: today’s blog contains previously published material that I wrote for the 499th commemoration of the Reformation in 2016]


Prayer:  Gracious God, why is truly welcoming others so difficult?  Why do we have a hard time opening our sacramental table, our homes, and our hearts to those who stand outside our experiences and identities?  Forgive the hardness of our hearts that prevents us from truly participating in your unbounded love for all peoples and creation.  Inspire within us a kind of hospitality and welcome that connects with the life of Jesus.  Breathe into our bodies the spirit that will embolden our response so that we might make your love in Christ known to others.  Through Christ, Amen.  

Today’s scripture:  Isaiah 25:9c

 This is the LORD for whom we have waited;

 let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.


Tomorrow, we start Week Three.  From reforming our Eucharistic Welcome, we turn to reforming the way that we think about how we grow in faith; from education to faith formation.   Thank you for reading what I have written this past week. 

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Six (Friday), Week Two: “TO” Questions to Ponder As We Imagine Reforming Eucharistic Welcome

chalice in hand outdoors.jpg

Here are a few questions, in no particular order, to invite us to consider our eucharistic welcome and the places that we might go TO as we seek reformation.

 

What are the core values that undergird our Eucharistic practice?   What if the core values of Jesus’ table fellowship – such as grace, friendship, and hospitality – became the driving forces behind our eucharistic fellowship?

 

What would happen if we removed all barriers to receiving communion?

Do we lose integrity or gain integrity by opening the Table?

How might a truly open table open new possibilities for our mission to neighborhoods that are quickly changing to be no longer ‘Christian’?

How would ecumenical relationships be affected if the Lutherans fully opened their table? 

How would a departure from the traditional understanding of baptism as a prerequisite for admittance to the sacrament complicate our ecumenical movement towards unity or could it be a freeing possibility?

Are there boundaries/fences that we should maintain when it comes to communion?  What about grace, is grace an appropriate fence? 

How do we prevent chaos from reigning?  Does the Table need to be absent of all chaos and disorder?  What if we celebrated the crumbs on the Table?

 

Take a few minutes of silent reflection time and ponder these questions.  Maybe they inspire different questions in you.  You might want to write down your response, or you might want just to let your thoughts wander and accumulate.  The goal is to imagine what new and generative places God might be calling us.   Where are we being invited to dwell as we live in and read God’s Living Word?


Prayer:  Gracious God, create in me the change you would like to see in the world.  Align my imagination and thinking with your grace and love.  Help me to embrace those changes in my heart that allow for growth as your child.  Empower me to reach out in love to my neighbor in new ways that communicate your love.   Through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Today’s Scripture: Isaiah 25: 9

9It will be said on that day,

 Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.


Tomorrow, I will imagine what it might look like if we can reform our eucharistic welcome.

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Five (Thursday), Week Two: Space at Luther’s Table?

A different kind of table talk cartoon.jpg

To suggest that Martin Luther would have supported the concept of opening the communion Table to all people, even the unbaptized is unfounded.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that he would have been against it.  Luther maintains the traditional understanding that the sacrament is a communion with all the saints.  Baptism is the entrance into the blessed fellowship that the saints have with each other and, more importantly, with Christ.  Christ gives the sacrament to the church for the purpose and strength of those within for the sake of its sufferings, forgiveness, and strength in Christian living.  Those outside the fellowship are always welcome through the ‘watery’ gate of baptism.  They are not, however, welcome to come ‘dry’ directly to the table.    

In his 1519 treatise, “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods,” Luther allows for the possibility of communing in both kinds (should the church so decree) and advocates for a frequent celebration of the sacrament.  What fascinates me, however, in this treatise (with the exceptionally long and uninspiring title) is his description of how the sacrament functions in the life of the believer.   Luther imagines communion as an “interchange” between Christ, the believer, and the community of the baptized.  Let me share a snippet of Luther’s writing for our consideration:

 

“Christ with all saints, by his love, takes upon himself our form [Phil. 2:7], fights with us against sin, death, and all evil.  This enkindles in us such love that we take on his form, rely upon his righteousness, life, and blessedness.  And through the interchange of his blessings and our misfortunes, we become one loaf, one bread, one body, one drink, and have all things in common…Again through this same love, we are to be changed and to make the infirmities of all other Christians our own; we are to take upon ourselves their form and their necessity, and all the good that is within our power, we are to make theirs, that they may profit from it.  That is real fellowship, and that is the true significance of this sacrament.  In this way, we are changed into one another and are made into a community by love.  Without love there can be no such change (page 58, Luther’s Works, vol. 35).”

The imperative that comes with communing with Christ is to share God’s love; “As love and support are given to you, you, in turn, must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones (page 54, Luther’s Works Vol. 35.”  The Christian community embodies Christ through the sacrament.  Fellow Christians who receive the sacrament share their needs, worries, and struggle when they partake of Christ’s body.  The body of the Christ (the Christian community) begs for the attention and care that Christians would otherwise give to Christ.

I am grateful for Luther’s sacramental concept of Communion as an exchange of love for it makes a communal connection between sacrament and daily living.  Discipleship, the way that we live out our Christina faith in the course of our daily walk, is critical.  Our participation on Sunday morning with receiving communion is not for our sake alone.  In fact, it is for the benefit of others in the community and Christ himself.  We share in the love exchange – receiving Christ, being made part of his body, sharing sufferings and struggles, and giving of our selves, compassion, and care – as a communal act.   We eat and drink with each other for a purpose beyond our own spiritual lives; at the sacred table, we eat and drink for the sake of the whole community which God claims as his own body in the world.

It is here that I wonder.  If through this sacred exchange we are formed anew into Christ’s body then how do we present ourselves in the world that had changed so dramatically since the time of Luther when Christendom reigned supreme?  What are we to do in a context in which not everyone in the village is Christian and baptized?  If we truly become Jesus’ body, transformed by the love of God to be the loving body of Christ for the sake of the suffering and needs of the community, then do we keep Jesus for ourselves alone?  Are we a “Jesus club” where Jesus never leaves the building?

Surely not!  Luther never confined faith to the inside of a sanctuary.  In fact, he advocated the practice of faith in daily living through vocations and our work in the world.  Still more important than Luther’s teaching on living out the faith, are the gospel stories of how the original body of Christ behaved. 

Jesus’ ministry is one of radical love, hospitality, and engagement.  Jesus fearlessly shared table fellowship outside the sacred boundaries of Temple and synagogue.  Jesus shared love to those both inside and outside of the community.   Jesus exchanged love with tax collectors, sinners, Gentiles, and Roman soldiers.   Jesus presented, again and again, the radical hospitality of God who loved the world and desires fellowship with all creation.

Can we be that body today?  Can we participate in the interchange of God’s love in the sacrament and persist in maintaining the sacramental fence of baptism?  What if the meal of the baptized behaved in the welcoming manner of Christ who did not exclude a single soul?  Can the sacrament maintain its central place within the community of the baptized and still admit those who are unbaptized?

I’m not sure Luther would say, “yes.”  Although I maintain a deep respect for the reformer of the sixteenth century, I guess I’m more concerned with the answer that Jesus might give.  How about you?


Prayer:  Gracious God, you meet us in the sacrament, and you lovingly invite us into your body.  You exchange love, forgiveness, and grace for our sin and brokenness.  At the Table, you make us part of your body and invite us into lives of compassion, faith, and care for those who are in need.  Open our hearts to follow where you lead.  Strengthen our resolve so that we might have the courage to extend your radical hospitality in new ways.  Through Christ, Amen.

Today’s scripture: Isaiah 25:8c

 and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,

 for the LORD has spoken.


Tomorrow, we will be pondering a new set of questions.  If we need to reform our eucharistic welcome FROM a meal restricted only to the baptized, then where should we turn TO?  Where could we go?  How will it look? Where might God be calling us?  

 

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Four (Wednesday), Week Two: A Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

 
Isaiah 25-8b.jpg

What does this image inspire in you?  How does the passage from Isaiah interact with the image?  What connections or disconnection come to mind?


Prayer:  

Gracious God, you are connected with all of your creation.  You created each person in your image.  Guide your church in its interactions and relationships with those who are outside of its communion.  Let us be mindful that your grace and mercy exceed our imagination and possibilities.  Guide us to where you need us to be to participate unfettered in your ongoing work of renewal and restoration of all creation.  Through Jesus Christ, Amen.   

 

Today's Reading:  Isaiah 25: 8b

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all places.


Tomorrow, we will have a Luther moment.  We’ll look at what Dr. Luther said about the Eucharist and how this may or may not be helpful when considering expanding our welcome.               

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Three (Tuesday), Week Two: “FROM” Questions to Ponder as we Consider Reforming Eucharistic Welcome

chalice on wood chips.jpg

Here are a few questions, in no particular order, to invite us to consider our eucharistic welcome and the places that we might need to move FROM as we seek reformation.

 

What do we fear will happen if we removed all restrictions to the communion table and everyone who would like to could receive? 

Do we need really to change the rules on who is welcome?  Couldn’t we simply not announce our formal exclusions? 

Do all Lutheran churches need to practice unrestricted Eucharistic access?   Could we have varying heights of Eucharistic fences throughout the E.L.C.A. ? 

Why is it necessary to explicitly invite everyone to communion?

Is this a question of hospitality, mission, or ecclesiology?  

Does having non-baptized people officially welcomed to the table lessen in any way the meaning of the table for the baptized?

Do non-baptized people want to commune in the first place?  Are they already communing?

How big of a problem is this? 

With no fences in place, aren’t we inviting chaos and disorder?

Is the removal of all barriers to the Table merely a syncretistic accommodation that at the end of the day waters down our celebration?

Would the addition of a large number of non-baptized persons to the table cause communion to no longer be a meal of the baptized?

 

Take a few minutes of silent reflection time and ponder these questions.  Maybe they inspire different questions in you.  You might want to write down your response, or you might want just to let your thoughts wander and accumulate.  The goal is to encourage a questioning mind and till the soil of our hearts so that they might be receptive for what God wishes to plant.


Prayer:  Gracious God, when we exclude others, we break community and contribute to the brokenness and isolation of your creation.  Jesus, you never banished someone from your table fellowship, but through your gracious welcome, you extended God’s radical hospitality.  Jesus, you continue to welcome your children to your table to feast upon your love and forgiveness.  As we dine, let us be mindful of the ways that we push others away from sharing in your divine fellowship.  Renew us, with your own Body, so that we might work on our welcome until no one is left alone outside the fence.  Through Jesus Christ, Amen. 

Today's Reading:   Isaiah 25:8a

 he will swallow up death forever.


Tomorrow, we will look at an image to continue our work of reforming our Eucharistic welcome.   

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Two (Monday), Week Two: FROM a Place of Restricted Access and Exclusion

broken chalice on concrete.jpg

 At the end of a busy week of mission work in the hills of eastern Tennessee, the group gathered in the second story, fellowship hall of the community center.   In preparation for worship, we placed the old, metal folding chairs in a circle.   It was a less-than-perfect circle, but it was getting late.  We had just come back from a day of community building and fun at the Dollywood amusement park.   This Smoky Mountain attraction had just the right mix of entertainment for our diverse mission group of teens, adults, and a few senior citizens.   Everyone seemed to enjoy the opportunity to have a little fun together – including some getting soaked on the water rides.  After all, we had all been a part of a long, hot, and sometimes trying, week of mission work. 

Our mission consisted of two simultaneous efforts.  Two-thirds of the multi-generational group provided a full-day camp for the local children that lived in the nearby hollers.  One-third of the group built handicap ramps onto trailers for the elderly and disabled.   I remember that the days were full of challenges that required great flexibility on everyone’s part.  It was an exercise in intentional Christian community.  Not only did we work, play, and live together but we also prayed together and read our bibles.      

As the group took their places around the less-than-perfect circle, we came together as friends who had accomplished something in which we could all take pride.  We not only survived a week outside of most comfort zones but we built something that would live as a memory in our hearts.  In the appreciative smiles of the children who came for the day camp and the grateful smiles of homeowners who could now go outside to enjoy the refreshing mountain air, we knew that we were going home having made this isolated corner of the world a little better.  What is more, we each learned something about ourselves and from living with others in Christian community.   At the end of each of these weeks, we went home changed in a good and meaningful way.

The reason that we arranged the tan folding chairs, which had seen better days, in a circle was that we needed to gather for communion.  I say that we ‘needed’ to gather for communion because we had to bring to a close our experience in the same manner with which we began.  On the previous Sunday, we gathered for worship before getting on the bus to head south.  Faith Lutheran Church was a eucharistic Lutheran community that found its servant identity firmly connected to Word and Sacrament worship.  Fed by Christ’s body, we ventured into the world to care for others in need through feeding them with love, grace, and the fruits of our labor.

We sat on those chairs in the upstairs room of the Sunset Gap community center, as a community of Christ to give our thanks for God’s goodness, each other, and the opportunity that we all had to serve.  Although we were tired, and some of us were dreading the fourteen-hour bus drive that separated us from our beds at home, we needed to gather around Word and Sacrament as we began to say our goodbyes.  

The worship was a modified version of our standard eucharist.  As good liturgical Lutherans, we followed the ancient pattern or Ordo of worship – GATHER, WORD, MEAL, SEND.  Songs from the week’s day-camp added a jovial atmosphere.  Instead of a standard sermon, participants shared how the week touched them personally.  The sharing of the peace took longer than usual – genuine hugs replaced the polite and sometimes impersonal Sunday morning handshakes.  The experience, after all, bonded us together as friends.  At the time of communion, we joined hands to pray the Lord’s Prayer.  Up from our metal seats, the circle became a little more perfect as we held onto each other.   I imagine that this is what the early Christians must have felt when they came together as a community of the Risen Christ to share life, sing, pray and break bread (see. Acts 2:42).  Except.

Except, all did not receive.  Although we shared in the body of Christ throughout the week in countless examples of Christian friendship, compassion, work, joy, and mutually affirming interaction – when it came time to pass the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, around the circle, not all communed.   One of the adults was unbaptized and so was excluded from communion.   His name was Ky, and quickly he became an essential part of the Sunset Gap Mission.  He came on the mission trip knowing only his friend Patrick.    His enthusiasm, kindness, and hard work quickly won him a place in the hearts of young and old. 

By the end of the week, Ky was a friend to all.   From that point on, Ky was a regular participant in the life of Faith Lutheran; serving and weekly worshiping (sans communion) with us.  For two more years, Ky traveled down to Sunset Gap, fully participating in everything we did (except, of course, communion).  At the end of the second year, Ky indicated that he wanted to be baptized.  On the day that Ky was baptized, the Sunset Gap Mission teams gathered around the font to welcome their new brother in Christ.  It was a glorious day in which we all celebrated.

Thinking back, however, on that night in the Smoky Mountains when we broke the bread and passed the cup, our celebration was incomplete.  Although we could share in Christian community and compassion through the week that was open, inclusive, and transformational when it came to the sacrament, which ought to embrace all these values, there was exclusion.   You are our brother, except you can not share in the very celebration that lies at the heart of our family.  It makes me sad, and I regret the part I played.  I am grateful for Ky’s generosity and patience with the community.  I’m not sure I would have continued to be a part of a group that didn’t share its full welcome with me.      

Had we communed Ky, in violation of the accepted tradition and the general practice of the church, would it have lessened our Eucharistic celebration?  Or, would it have demonstrated that a radical welcome to all who seek the Living God and all who share in compassionate fellowship, is a manifestation of the very Jesus in whose life we share in the breaking of the bread?


Prayer:  Gracious God, sometimes we are limited by our past, practices, traditions, perspectives, and experiences from sharing your radical hospitality and welcome.  We opt to restrict others from enjoying the same access that you graciously share with us.  Forgive us for our exclusive ways.  Open the heart of your church that it might embrace all people with the same love that you lavish upon us.  Through Christ, Amen.

Today’s scripture:  Isaiah 25:7 

 7And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations;


Tomorrow, I raise some questions for us to ponder about the way that we practice Eucharistic hospitality.  Among them will be, in light of today's story, "is this really what Jesus wants?"

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day One (Sunday), Week Two: Reforming the Welcome and Openness of our Sacred Table

fencing work.jpg

If you have ever attended one of my Bible studies, then you are familiar with my drawing of the “Holy Box.”  Inside the box, is the idea of holiness and purity, while outside the box are the unclean, unholy, and impure.  According to the piety of the holy, rule-following, and self-proclaimed righteousness of the Pharisees, God is inside the “Holy Box.”  Only those, like the Pharisees, who do what is right can inhabit the same space in which God lives.  Boundaries keep the good in and the bad out.   And that is important because those who subscribe to the “Holy Box” idea also believe that you can lose holiness.  One bad apple can spoil the bushel.  To prevent spoilage – and not to lose access to God’s presence – you need to maintain the boundaries.  Boundaries need to be thick, impervious, and unyielding to preserve the spiritual health of the community.  That is what the Pharisees thought and practiced.  Then along came Jesus. 

Jesus interacted both inside and outside the “Holy Box.”  Jesus’ regular contact with the outside, impure, infected, and unclean folk expanded the boundary.  Instead of thick and unyielding, the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed was open, permeable, and accessible to insiders and outsiders alike.  Grace removed the incessant need to work righteousness to keep holy in the sight of God.  Instead, the love and acceptance of Christ freed us to reach out to those who were in need – inside and outside the ‘Holy Box’ of our construction.  And it drove the Pharisees nuts!   They could not imagine a world in which you didn’t need to work to stay in God’s good graces.  They could not imagine a world in which God demanded to lower the boundaries.

This week, we will be looking at the boundaries that the church maintains around its most sacred of treasures – the Eucharist.  Age, gender, sexual orientation, intellectual competence, and baptism have all been used to restrict access to the celebration that lies at the heart of Christian community.  Each boundary, or fence, seeks to preserve the integrity of the communing community.  When Paul writes the Corinthian Christians, he is concerned with the way that they are practicing the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Corinthians 13:17-34).  The boundaries around the table that the Corinthians were practicing were more aligned with societal norms than with the teaching of Jesus.  Their fences kept the hungry on the outside while the wealthy insiders indulged themselves to the point of drunkness and gluttony.  Paul famously chided them to ‘examine themselves’ and ‘discern the body’ before they ate or drank less they ‘eat and drink judgment against themselves (1 Cor. 11: 29). 

Ironically, the church would later use Paul’s words to construct fences that excluded the young and mentally handicapped from receiving communion.  Unless one properly understood the doctrines associated with communion, the church deemed them unfit to receive communion.  The fence was, after all, for ‘their good,’ lest they ate and drank to their own judgment.  In spite of this dubious rationale, which still exists in some of the non-ELCA Lutheran communities, the fence excluded and it lacked the heart of Jesus.  For example, it pains me to learn of adults with Downs Syndrome that were never allowed to commune because they ‘would never understand it.’  In case you are wondering, the spirit of the Pharisees remains alive and well – it continues to oppose the radical hospitality of Jesus as demonstrated in Jesus’ table fellowship in the gospels.  Although a portion of the church prohibits the reception of the sacrament on the basis of cognitive acumen, Jesus would never have defended such a fence.

According to the Use of the Means of Grace, the sacramental practices document of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America the only fence that remains in place is that of baptism.   Principle 37 states; “Admission to the Sacrament is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the Church to those who are baptized (Use of the Means of Grace, page 41).”   [To access the complete document: http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/The_Use_Of_The_Means_Of_Grace.pdf?_ga=2.14345911.1063156971.1506184070-1700216488.1477062539 ]  The fence that requires baptism is also maintained by other Christian denominations and churches.  It has the backing of tradition across the board.   The rationale is simple.  Holy Communion was given by Jesus to the church for its benefit, strength, and renewal.  Baptism is the way one becomes part of the Church.  Without baptism, you are not part of the church and not welcome to receive communion at the church.

A quick note- in the case of accidentally communing a non-baptized person, one should not fear.  Use of the Means of Grace points out; “When an unbaptized person comes to the table seeking Christ's presence and is inadvertently communed, neither that person nor the ministers of Communion need be ashamed. Rather, Christ's gift of love and mercy to all is praised. That person is invited to learn the faith of the Church, be baptized, and thereafter faithfully receive Holy Communion (page 42).” Grace is to be employed when ‘mistakes’ happen, and an unbaptized person sneaks past the fence.  Whew!  We wouldn’t want damage to come to the eternal salvation of a server because they inadvertently shared the grace of the table with outsiders.  Sadly, though, grace is not the dominating value of the meal according to the doctrinal rules and regulations.  In the case of mistakes only, are you to apply grace. Once you know someone is unbaptized, according to the fence, you are required to refrain from communing them until you baptize them.  Period.   Grace and welcome stop to preserve the overall purity and integrity of the baptized community. 

As you might be able to guess, this week, I will suggest that we need to reform our eucharistic welcome.  Grace and hospitality need to be driving values at the meal that the baptized share in the presence of Jesus and not a fallback position when we make mistakes.  It is a tough reform to suggest because tradition across the ages has long defended and maintained the fence of baptism.  However, if we want to align our sacramental practices with the table fellowship and practices of Jesus, then it is a task that we must take up with courage. 

We will once again be using continuous readings from Isaiah throughout the week.  I’ve chosen Isaiah because he was a prophet in exile that sought the restoration of God’s people.  He imagines that God’s Word will renew faith and reshape community.   Hope for a life beyond the brokenness of our present reality is embedded in Isaiah ancient and yet strangely contemporary vision.   In many ways, Isaiah is a prophet that embodies the spirit of reformation.   I chose a passage for each week that corresponds to the reform that I am suggesting is needed.  I then divided that passage up into smaller parts for each day and offer them as an outside voice to interact with my writing for the day.  Although I don’t make an effort to connect with each day’s scripture reading, I think that you might.  I am a believer that when you put various elements in the same space, creativity makes unique connections that would otherwise not occur. 

So let us begin week two of our reformation journey.   With work gloves on and pliers in our hands, we set about the task of working on the fences that surround sacred tables. FROM a restricted meal for the baptized that excludes, TO an open meal through which the baptized participate in God's radical hospitality.   


Prayer:  Gracious God, at the Table you share with us your love and life.  In the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, you strengthen your church for its work in the world.  Guide us by your grace as we set your table.  Open our hearts and imagination that we might always celebrate in the context of your radical and life-giving hospitality.  Through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Today’s scripture:  Isaiah 25:6  

 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.


Tomorrow, I share a Eucharistic experience that illustrates the need for reformation of our fences.   

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Seven (Saturday), Week One: TO a Place of Clearer Vision and Hope.

flower in glass.jpg

After my encounter with “Joe” back in Utica in 1995, I returned to the seminary for my final year of instruction.  Gettysburg Seminary will always have a special place in my heart.  It was a formative place for me.  The teaching staff of the sem took my passion for the church and poured the foundation for me to become a pastor.  When I began my training there, I had not read a single book of theology.  By the time I went back to the “glorious hill” for my final year, I had not only read a bunch of theology books, but I found myself kinda liking and understanding them.

 

If you haven’t been to the grounds of the seminary perched upon the top of the historic hill in Gettysburg, then you are missing something.  It is a beautiful setting with the iconic “Old Dorm” in the center.  This building played a critical role throughout the battle that would put the Pennsylvanian town on the map of national significance. 

 

As I recall walking the campus, images of fog nestling among the trees leading up to “Old Dorm” fill my memory.  The fog was a regular enough occurrence.  When it draped like a cape over the seminary grounds, it gave me always a spooky and mysterious feeling.  What it conjured within was a mystique that the sacred grounds held secrets – an ancient wisdom – that just the right key could magically unlock.  I’m not saying that I ever had that key or that such a key existed.  It just always felt to me that if such wisdom were available anywhere, the fog covered slopes leading up to this citadel of theological learning would be a good candidate. 

 

It was, after all, the place where I took the encounter with Joe, which I recalled earlier this week, to process.  I needed to make some sense out of what happened.  Having found myself not exactly up to the task of being a pastoral presence for Joe, I needed to do some thinking.  The fog, you see, wasn’t just an external force that blanketed historical buildings.  It was internal, and lost was I in it. 

 

The biggest disconnect that I had was between what the scripture said and what my heart was saying.  The Bible’s prohibitions against homosexuality seemed pretty clear at the time – my inexperience in biblical scholarship even after three years of seminary training had not yet grasped the complexities of these verses.  Without going into a detailed argument here, let’s just say that when you factor in cultural and language nuances, the prohibitions are greatly contextualized and not as easily applied to current same-gender relationships that are mutual and supporting.   It is a case where you can’t go the literal route (God said it, I believe it, period) without leaving some interpretive integrity at the door.

 

Back to the fog.  I wrestled with not only what I should have done, but also with what I will do when the situation presents itself again, and I’m the pastor.  Many of my classmates were going with the “hate the sin, love the sinner” approach which seemed to me to be not unlike the “don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy that the U.S. military was using at the time to navigate the very same waters.  But what if we were dealing with a created order and not a choice?   Would God create someone doomed from the get-go?  What if only portions of homosexuality (as heterosexuality) were sinful?  Where did grace fit into the whole equation? 

 

I’d take these questions up with classmates and in my ethics class with little success.  I kept hitting the wall when it came to scripture.  Being a student of the Bible, I couldn’t simply discard it as irrelevant – a strategy that still others were taking.  How could I reconcile my heart, theology, and what I was reading in scripture?    It would be another decade of parish ministry and participation in two other degree programs at two additional seminaries before I gained some clarity.  Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t losing sleep on account of this issue all that time; I was losing sleep but for entirely other reasons and that is another story.  Where I finally made some progress was through my work with early Christian meals and a developing eucharistic theology. 

 

I have to credit the prodding in this direction to the Rev. Dr. Paul Galbreath.  Paul was my principal instructor in my doctoral program at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.  He introduced me to the recent scholarship surrounding early Christian meals and the fog began to lift.  What I found in a careful study of Jesus’ table fellowship – recorded in and an essential part of all the gospel narratives- was remarkable.  Jesus ate with the social outcasts of the time in flagrant violation of the literal interpretation of Mosaic Law as guarded by the Pharisees.  What is more, Jesus employed table fellowship because it was a value-laden, experiential, forum of the time that communicated a deep connection – or at least a desire to connect.   It was a radical move that conveyed a radical hospitality. 

 

In my previous reading of Jesus’ meal stories, I mistakenly thought the meals were simply a setting for teaching or healing.  What Jesus said or did at the meals was the object of focus.  True, but the real story was the meal itself.  That Jesus ate with outsiders (and insiders) in the first place was an important story to tell because it shouted aloud a word of grace to the early first century hearers of the gospel narrative.  Jesus’ table fellowship was itself the proclamation of the good news.   God’s desire to commune with broken, isolated, discarded and judged by holy centaurs lives was real and at the heart of the Bible itself.  Grace – that divine acceptance that heals, liberates, and transforms – is the real entrée that was feasted upon as Jesus sat down at the table.

 

Inspired by Jesus table fellowship, I picked up a new lens through which to view scripture.   In truth, this was similar to Luther’s “Was Christum treibet.”  Remember, we looked at this two days ago.  I shared that this German phrase means “that which proclaims Christ” or, thanks to Wengert, “what pushes Christ.”  What proclaims the gospel?  What advances God’s desire and plan for restoration and community for the whole creation?  What connects us to our brother and sister that are isolated and hurting?  These are the questions through which we need to read the Bible.  These are table-minded questions as well.   What allows us to share a meal laden with Christ-centered values with those whose experiences and perspectives are not the same as our own?

 

Here is where our Biblical vision can make a difference in our church and the broader context of our community and nation.  Lord knows, we need a reformed vision in our current climate of partisanship, like-minded media, and a general unwillingness to engage in dialogue with those who are different or hold different views.  Instead of following the path of contemporary Pharisees who demand that we read the Bible in a literal manner that is restricted by fundamentalist dogma and doctrine, let us turn to Christ and the graceful lens of the gospel.   Let the ministry of Jesus, inspire us as we return to the stories of his teaching, boundary crossing, and life-giving table fellowship.      Let the narrative of good news ‘push’ us into both the arms of our Loving Savior AND our hurting sister/brother. 


Prayer:  Gracious God, you are the source of all hope.  In the primordial chaos, your Spirit moved over turbulent waters, and through your Word, you created order and life.  When first you breathed the breath of life into humanity, you gave the gift of a future.  When you freed our ancestors in the faith from slavery in Eygpt, you gave the same gift.  Again and again, through generations, your steadfast love planted the seed of hope which allowed for faithful eyes to see the future anew.  Give me that vision.  Help me to see with hope-filled eyes.  Open my heart through your precious Word so that I might respond to your love in new ways as I live among my neighbors.  Through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Today's Reading: Isaiah 51: 8

For the moth will eat them up like a garment,

 and the worm will eat them like wool;

 but my deliverance will be forever,

 and my salvation to all generations.


Tomorrow, we start Week Two.  From reforming our Biblical vision, we turn to reforming sacramental practice by opening our table as a Lutheran church.

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Six (Friday), Week One: “TO” Questions to Ponder As We Imagine A Reformed Biblical Vision

This photo I took on the island of Hawaii - one of the many flowering trees lost a blossom that fell on the lava-rock surface of the highway. 

This photo I took on the island of Hawaii - one of the many flowering trees lost a blossom that fell on the lava-rock surface of the highway. 

Here are a few questions, in no particular order, to invite us to consider our interpretative lens and the places that we might go TO as we seek reformation.

 

What is the place of greatest disconnect or fear in our heart when it comes to reading the Bible? 

What would it feel like to read scripture as though it were the words of a friend, parent, or trusted teacher?

What would it take for us to put our judgments aside and gracefully read the Bible?

Imagine the least holy people that you know.  How would Jesus interact with them?  Can you think of a story from the Bible that would support your answer?

The Pharisees, who were Jesus’ main opponents, had rigid codes of interpretation and lived by strict rules that guided their conduct.  Jesus invited them beyond their boundaries to embrace the lives of those who lived outside.  What strict boundaries do we defend?  What lines are we simply unwilling to cross?  How might Jesus be inviting us into uncharted territories?

If the grace-centered ministry of Jesus opens our vision for reading scripture, how might we differently see when we look into the eyes of strangers, neighbors, and family alike?

 

Take a few minutes of silent reflection time and ponder these questions.  Maybe they inspire different questions in you.  You might want to write down your response, or you might want just to let your thoughts wander and accumulate.  The goal is to imagine what new and generative places God might be calling us.   Where are we being invited to dwell as we live in and read God’s Living Word?


Prayer:  Gracious God, through your Word, you call your servants to repent and turn toward your life-giving presence.  In the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ, you demonstrated what life-giving presence looks like and how it can create communities of hospitality where love, forgiveness, mercy, and grace reign.  Grow your Word in our hearts so that we might follow you, live in your direction, and travel through uncharted waters.  Through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Today's Reading:  Isaiah 51:7b

do not fear the reproach of others,

 and do not be dismayed when they revile you.


Tomorrow, I will imagine what it might look like if we can reform our biblical vision. 

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.