Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

English as a First Language

Or: An Uncomfortable Portrait of White American Privilege.

I knew going on the plane  in Philadelphia to attend the Lutheran Word Federation assembly in Namibia that I had what would be a really tight connection in the States, so I wondered if I would make it. I told myself that the airport is not O'Hare by any means, so it might be fine, right? My luggage probably won't make it, but there is a chance that I might. Right?

Not so much.

As we took off from Philly, we were already 30 minutes late, and we never made up the time as we few over the stark deserts of the Middle East, which I was seeing for the first time. As we landed, I still believed that I would not actually step on the Middle Eastern continent before heading to Africa. Until, that is, we were told to exit the plane to board waiting buses... and we were parked on the tarmac, and not directly at the airport. And, of course, being at the back of the plane, I waited with about 20 other people for more buses to arrive (in the 90 degree heat at 7 AM local). After the 10 minute bus ride and speed walking across the airport, my rush to make it by the last boarding was in vain.

I was by myself in another continent, watching the very nice Air Qatar people working on finding new flights for me, and I wondered how this was going to work out, especially when they offered to put me up in a complimentary hotel for part of the 18 hours it would be until my next flight, directly to Windhoek Namibia.

I found myself kind of bumbling from one person to another with my reservation clutched in my hand, looking for this hotel (which I thought was within the airport). I was told to follow the signs (there were none) then found myself being told to go through customs (which took a solid hour), then wandered into the hotel shuttle shepherding person, onto a bus, driving into the city of Doha, and praying all the while that someone knew what they were doing and that I would end up in the right spot. Everyone spoke English to me and I asked them English questions, and they all somehow took care of this one lost American.

A lady from India waited in line behind me through customs, and she asked me in broken English if this was the right thing to do to get out of the airport. I told her I thought so. And I began to realize that every person I talked to and would talk to for the next 12 hours spoke my language, and that I had no clue how to even say "thank you" in Arabic. I consider myself to be a pretty competent traveler, but I would have been totally lost if it had not be for these kind, bi- or tri- lingual airport staff.

This was only the beginning of directly experiencing something that I had knew intellectually - I am privileged that the world speaks my native language.

On Air Qatar, all the announcements were in Arabic and in English.

Though the Lutheran World Federation operates in 4 languages (also French, German, and Spanish), most of the speakers presented in English, and most of the discussion occurred in English (though instant translation was offered, I rarely had to use it).

On the last night a group of German graciously invited me to join them for dinner, and spoke to me in perfect English, and I was very aware that my one semester of German in college was woefully inadequate to converse with them in their native tongue. I imagine that it would have been much more comfortable for them to speak in German with one another, after speaking English all week.

Pastors from Ethiopia and other parts of Africa and Asia discussed complex theological concepts in a language not their first, or maybe even their second. I certainly can't do that. These African pastors are so much smarter than I am.

When the world speaks your language, you are not motivated by necessity to learn another. So it is so easy to feel entitled to your own language.

I was told, thought, that American English is a fairly easy version of English to understand. I hope that during my sermon on Tuesday night, I spoke slowly and clearly enough to be understood by those who spoke English, even though copies of my sermon were distributed in all four languages. That's why I thought it was important that for the moment I went "off script" I said "one moment please" in all the languages (and I asked native speakers how I would go about saying it, so I hope I got it right!).

For my fellow English as a First Language Speakers, we do not get that many chances to experience lingual diversity. It feels uncomfortable to us when someone speaks a language we are not fluent it. But it's a good discomfort. It means that we are not the rulers of the world. It reminds us that we don't know everything, and don't deserve everything. It reminds us that we have a place in this world, and that the world is not required to make a place for us. Being a global citizen begins at home with our attitudes with those who are different than us. Embrace the discomfort - for it means we still have much to learn and discover about one another. And then go download a language-learning app and at least become fluent in "Thank You."

Thank you to all those who showed kindness to this mono-lingual, wide-eyed white American thrown  into the (Lutheran) world spotlight. I so grateful to have received such grace. I certainly didn't deserve it.

View of Doha from the shuttle bus. It was 100 degrees outside!

This sorry-looking American is TIRED!!

View from the hotel. I didn't get to explore the city - someday!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"I'm Not Jesus"

Sermon 5-21-17

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.

Dirk Lange
Because I was not an official voting delegate at the Lutheran World Federation Assembly in Namibia this last week, I did not always have to be in the plenary sessions the entire time. For a little while I was able to help my friend Dirk Lange with his worship committee of awesome people. Dirk Lange was one of my worship professors at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, and he was also the worship planner for the Joint Commemoration service with both Catholics and Lutherans last year in Lund Sweden for the 499th anniversary of the reformation. That service was led by both Pope Francis and the previous president of the Lutheran World Federation Bishop Munib Younan, who I also met last week.
Bishop Younan

Dirk asked me to help with worship last week as I was available, in addition to preaching Tuesday night. Another night I was asked to help distribute communion, which was no small task for a congregation of about 1000 people who spoke or understood English as a second or third language. It was a beautiful and holy chaotic mess, with much patience and graciousness required.

At one point, I tried to flag down one of the hard-working volunteers who was running around with extra bread. Unfortunately, I ran out before he could get to me, and I had to say to the next person in line – Sorry, I’m not Jesus! I hope they understood that I did NOT have the power to multiply the loaves as Jesus did, and in any case, they laughed. And thankfully in a moment, we had more bread.

I am not Jesus, obviously. But that night, giving the body of Christ, Jesus was IN me and WITH me. In the bread and in the wine, Jesus was present IN us and WITH us that evening in the worship tent in Windhoek, Namibia, with a thousand Lutherans gathered together from all over the world. Even when we ran out of bread and had to wait for more, or were confused about which line to be in, or perhaps a little hungry or tired from late dinners and long days, after traveling across continents through far too many international airports to get there.

This is exactly what Jesus is trying to get across to his disciples during the last night they are together, the night of the Last Supper – though the disciples don’t know yet that this is what it will be called. Judas Iscariot had just left the group to go get the chief priests, scribes, and the detachment of soldiers that will arrest Jesus in only a few chapters. Night had just fallen, and the darkness of evil and death were drawing closer to cease their chance to pounce.

Jesus knows what is about to happen. We know what is about to happen. But the other disciples don’t know. For them, the arrest, torture, humiliation, and death of Jesus is still in the future. The disciples will very soon abandon Jesus, but they will also feel abandoned BY Jesus. Jesus here is trying to get them ready for this future that looks as though darkness will win the final victory.

This is a passage that speaks to us as well, right here and now, though we of course know the story ends with resurrection. But even so, we don’t get to see the risen Jesus walking around in our midst. He’s not wandering the globe in his sandals in a world-wide game of “where’s Waldo?”. So how can Jesus be present with us when he seems more absent, especially in the world we live in that is hurting and divided by the powers of darkness and death?

In many cultures around the world, especially in Africa and the Caribbean, come from traditions holding that loved ones who have died have gained higher knowledge and wisdom, and therefore become present to us and guide us. To theologians who come from these parts of the world, Jesus returns to his disciples through the presence and guidance Holy Spirit. And to a science fiction nerd like me, this very much sounds like the brilliant and moving story-arcs from the Star Wars movies saga.

Because I had a lot of time on my hands as I flew across the world to get to Namibia, I watched through ALL the Star Wars movies, including the 2 recent ones. The original trilogy will always be a favorite, you know, the one with Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Yoda, and Princess Leia. There is just something about hearing a good story from a galaxy far, far away to make something about your own story even more clear.

As young Jedi-in-training Luke Skywalker is put through his paces by the small green Yoda, Yoda teaches Luke the nuances of the Force. When Luke yet again doubts the Force, Yoda takes him to task. “Judge me by my size, do you?” Yoda asks. “As well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is…  Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere.”

In this universe far, far away, this all-embracing Force gives Jedi masters the ability to commune with the living after they have died. So, again and again, whenever Luke is in dire need of guidance, Luke’s other mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi return to guide him. Sometimes Obi-Wan leads Luke where he needs to go, as when he tells Luke how to find Yoda to receive training. Other times it is to teach Luke hard truths about his past and his identity. But no matter what, neither Obi-Wan Kenobi, nor the Force, abandons Luke. Not even as Luke comes face-to-face in a battle against the galaxy’s darkest evil… in which he finds the true evil he must combat is not the galactic empire, but within himself.

In universe of the Force, we are luminous beings, and not this crude stuff of flesh and blood. But in OUR universe, we believe that we are BOTH luminous beings and flesh and blood, created as all of this, by a loving God. This loving God sent his son to us, who was both the word of God and the light of the world, so that he would become flesh and live among us – crude matter and all.

Jesus came to live WITH us and AS us to show us that GOD LIVES in us too. Jesus came to live with us, to die as one of us, so that when he lives, we will also live. Jesus came to show us that we are also part of one another, that we are all part of God’s Family, and that God does not abandon God’s children.

Jesus had to come to remind us, because the littlest thing makes us forget. Even Lutherans from around the world need help remembering. This is why the overall theme of the Lutheran World Federation Assembly was “Liberated by God’s Grace.” And the three sub-themes reminded us of what we too often forget – Salvation, Creation, and Human beings are Not For Sale.

These were the themes for the assembly because all-too-often we forgetwe forget that ALL people have been created for freedom and dignity, from the girl who are trafficked to the untouchables from India to African Americans whose ancestors were slaves less than dozen generations ago. We forget that Creation is not a magical never-ending resource, especially if we don’t in our own country don’t directly see the high cost of our throw-away culture. We forget that it is not Wealth and Money are not our gods, but the God of Love gives us our salvation freely and abundantly.

We forget that our command is to love one another. We forget that we are to love the Lord our God by loving our neighbor. Our Republican neighbor and our Democratic neighbor. Our gay neighbor and our straight neighbor. Our neighbors who are women and men and transgender, our neighbors who are black and white and Muslim and Jewish and not-religious.

If we as global Lutherans – Namibians with Indonesians, Canadians with Bolivians – can find common ground and break bread with one another for an entire week, can’t we do the same with the people who are right here, around us?

So if Jesus seems to repeat himself and seems a little wordy, especially in the Gospel of John, it is because we don’t seem to be listening the first or the fortieth time.  And we don’t have to go half way across the world to keeps these commandments of love. The Holy Spirit is always at work, looking out for us over our shoulder, pointing us down the right way, and sometimes telling us the hard truths.

But the Holy Spirit is also the one who says, You are a child of God, and I am a child of God, and together, we are all part of one family of God. We breathe the same air that God has created. We are part of one another, just as Jesus will always be part of us.

“Sorry, I’m not Jesus,” – but Jesus does live us me, and will use our hands and feet. And together as one family we are called to walk into God’s unknown but exciting future. We live, because Jesus lives. Amen.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Abundant Life for All

Grace to you and peace from God our Shepherd and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

If I were to ask you what your favorite Psalm was, what would you say? Yes, the 23rd Psalm, a very popular answer. It’s the one many of us know the best. How many of you memorized it in Sunday School as kids? Actually let’s see if we can remember the whole thing together!

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Well done! We got through it, using one version or another. But the images that we find there are the same, no matter how we say it. Life-giving pastures and waters, safety through dark valleys, and feasting at the banquet table, all provided for by the Lord our shepherd, which is a great beautiful for God. It’s so awesome that every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear the 23rd Psalm and call it “Good Shepherd Sunday”!

The Gospel of John, which we are revisting, also has most of the well-known metaphors and “I am” statements” that Jesus uses for himself, including “I am the good shepherd.” Also included in John are I am the Light of the World, I am the lamb of God, I am the bread of life, and today we have…. I am the gate.

What? Huh? What happened to “I am the good shepherd?” So why aren’t we calling today “Good Gate Sunday”? I guess because it doesn’t have as nice of a ring to it. It’s not one of the more popular I AM sayings of Jesus. So what is it doing here? What is Jesus talking about?

Well, with Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Easter, and Doubting Disciples Sunday, it’s been quite a few weeks since we heard from John what came right before this. It was the story of the man born blind. Remember that guy?

Jesus saw him begging by the road, healed him, and disappeared for a while, while this poor man was grilled mercilessly by his neighbors and then by the religions leaders and Pharisees. No one could not believe that Jesus had healed him. The once-blind man was then cast out for a second time from the community by the very people who were supposed to be acting like shepherds on God’s behalf. The first time for being blind, and the second for believing in this upstart preacher from Galilee. But Jesus came back to this rejected member of his flock.

A shepherd takes care of his sheep. The sheep hear his voice and follow. This man heard the voice of Jesus and followed, even though it cost him dearly.

But what does a Gate do? And why is Jesus calling himself a gate?

An illustration from the “Revised Comic Lectionary,” which is of course a play on words from the Revised Common Lectionary, our three year cycle of readings, shows a man exploring all these Jesus metaphors. “Oh, wait, I got this one!” the man exclaimed so Jesus, “you’re the FENCE, keeping all the sinners from the good people!”  Jesus looked at him, aghast. “No! I’m not the fence!” He says. “Never the barrier! But, I am the Gate, breaking through the boundaries you set up!”

Gates are supposed to close AND open, letting the sheep INTO the safety of the pen, but also opening to let the sheep back OUT to follow the voice their shepherd to good pasture. OUT to experience abundant life.

This kind of abundant life that Jesus is opening up for us and leading us to is not just about what happens to us after we die. Green pastures and still waters and banquets and experiencing the abundance of God is for our lives right now, too. Yes, the 23rd Psalm gives us comfort when we have lost a loved one, after they have been led into the presence of God for their eternal rest.

But. Goodness and mercy are for our lives as we live them NOW. In fact, goodness and mercy are not just following us, like a game of Simon says or follow the leader. Goodness and mercy are CHASING us down, pursuing us with the intention of running us over with God’s abundant life, pretty much. This is the kind of shepherd that is leading us and calling us, one who is concerned about our lives RIGHT NOW.

We follow in Jesus’ steps, and are called to follow his lead in love, service, and suffering. But not all suffering is created equal. I was reading some material from the Lutheran World Federation Assembly I will be leaving for early tomorrow morning. Next week’s week’s theme is “liberated by God’s grace,” and one of the day’s themes is “Human beings are not for sale.” One of the essays I read was by Ebise Ayana is a lecturer at the Makene Yesus Seminary in Ethiopia, a country that sees a lot of human trafficking. This is not just a problem in places far away like Ethiopia. Human trafficking happens right here in THIS country too.

Ebise Ayana wrote in an essay that the idea of Christian women are taught that any kind suffering is acceptable, because Jesus suffered. This too often keeps women in harsh and dangerous situations, like being trafficked. They blame themselves instead of their captors, and lose their God-given sense of self-worth.

Instead, she calls on all women to resist oppression and exploitation in all its forms, because we are called to follow in the footsteps of a liberating God. We may be called to suffer in this resistance for the sake of following Jesus, but suffering does not save us - only Jesus does that. Ebise Ayana insists that when one person is oppressed, the whole human family is diminished. Abundant life means that all people get to live the way that God has created us to live – liberated by God’s grace to work toward the liberation of others.   

Choosing suffering for the sake of becoming like Jesus, in being open gates rather than building fences…..suffering for the sake of breaking DOWN the barriers of race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, perceived disability, religion, and other things that divide us….THIS is the example that Jesus gives us, THESE are the steps we are to follow as part of Jesus’ flock.

There are plenty of other voices out there to try to lead us astray. Voices telling us to give into selfishness, fear, hate, closing our ears, & building fences instead of gates. The voices are everywhere, and they are persuasive, and they will lead you down the wrong path, and away from the abundant life that you deserve.

And at times it seems that we are powerless to resist them, and end up being led down the wrong path anyway, despite ourselves.

But Psalm 23 reminds us that Goodness and Mercy will always be there to chase after us, to pursue us even when we follow the wrong voices down the wrong paths. Even as we walk through the darkest, death-filled valley. They will find us.

So where is the voice of our Good Shepherd calling us to go, right here and now?
In a few weeks, we’ll be having a town hall meeting to check in on how we’re doing as a church so far this year. Between now and then, I will be greeting our Lutheran sisters and brothers from around the world in the city of Windhoek, Namibia. Between now and then, I would like you to think about the direction you think our Shepherd might be calling Family of God.

I believe it is a direction that causes us to lay claim to our name – Family of God – and to embrace who we are as PART of the LARGER Lutheran and Christian community, the ONE WHOLE family of GOD.

What if God used us to draw all those around us into that family? What if God used us to remind all people that there is a place for you here in this family, and that there is a place for you in this flock. After all, we are not a flock of ONE, but we are ONE flock, under ONE shepherd, whether we are in Windhoek Namibia, Delhi, India, or Buckingham, PA. Just as together we said the 23rd Psalm, together we can help each other in following the voice of our shepherd Jesus.

The gate is open, and together we are about to begin the next phase of our new and abundant life in Christ. Jesus is our Gate, too, because it is THROUGH Jesus that we are given this life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Under the Foreshadow of God's Wings

Women from South Africa in WI on '05!
Every synod in the ELCA has a companion synod somewhere in the world. I grew up in the the East Central Synod of Wisconsin, and their companion synod is South Africa. One summer (2005), while I worked at a Lutheran Bible camp (Pine Lake, Waupaca) a delegation of women from South Africa arrived, stayed at the camp, and visited churches from around the synod. We had such a wonderful time with them! The synod that I am now a part of, South East Penn (SEPA) has a partnership with the Lutheran Church in Tanzania. My previous synod was the NJ Synod, and they have a partnership with all 3 of the Lutheran denominations in Namibia!

A few years ago, during one of the NJ synod assemblies, I went to one of the break-out session on their partnership with Namibia, and about the last trip they took, which was quite a few years ago, I think. I remember sitting in on the session, and thinking about how amazing it would be to someday go to Namibia!!

And now look what happened! I had no idea that I would actually be going on a trip like this!

God has a hilarious sense of humor. Back in college 7 of us drove all the way from Wartburg College in Waverly IA to Audubon NJ to visit the home of one of my friends for spring break. It took us about 17 or so hours to drive, but hey, we were "crazy college kids." Little did I know that I would eventually be called to NJ, less than an hour from where I had been 6 years or so before.

A few years ago, when visiting Peddlers Village (near my current church in Buckingham PA), I wondered what it would be like to live in this area, and then decided that the roads were too windy and I would probably spend every day getting carsick. I have since learned which roads to avoid.

My former colleague in NJ has connections to the nearby Doylestown area, and joked in his sermon at my installation that my coming to PA was "a 'trade' that was dozens of years in the making"!

Coincidence? I don't think so.

"Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord." Psalm 31:24

As I prepare and slowly fill  up my bags, my cats suspect that something is up. Shhhh, don't tell them. I have some good people to check in on them, they'll be fine.