Midweek devotion 6/3

I am better versed in Bible passages than in political slogans, but for many years I have been fascinated and in agreement with a comment by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1918 – 2008) was a Russian novelist, philosopher, historian, short story writer and political prisoner. Solzhenitsyn was an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and Communism and helped to raise global awareness of its Gulag labor camp system.

Here is the phrase I am referring to: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.”  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

These words came to my mind as I sat up late on Sunday evening, watching the reports of demonstrations, looting, arson, and various other sincere and/or criminal activities throughout our nation. While we might have hoped against hope, I am afraid the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was so horrendous that we had to anticipate some sort of response. Most unfortunately, this response has become a significant problem in and of itself and has endangered countless people, caused the deaths of too many and the destruction of the livelihood of more men and women than we can even imagine or fathom. In anticipated fashion, everyone is pretty busy finding the ‘real culprits’ right now. And, of course, every ‘side’ insists that ‘we are better than that’ and that ‘this is not who we are’. These riots, on top of a pandemic and an economic slow-down with massive unemployment, have created a perfect storm in our nation.  We can only weep for all who are treated with contempt, all who think violence is their only recourse, all who stand by helplessly and watch their livelihood go up in flames, all who endanger their own safety to protect others. We weep!

I invite you to think with me about all this at our “faith level”. For you see: this disconcerting life as we are living it right now is not outside of our relationship with God! Who we are as people of faith at 9:30 am on Sunday morning must have a relationship to the people we are on Thursday at 11:15 pm. It is a misunderstanding of both, the separation of Church and State and our Lutheran theology, to insist otherwise. This is about faith in the world, not politics in the pulpit.

The church is to have a prophetic voice! People like me are called to issue prophetic words – in season and out of season – and speak, if needed, truth to power. That has always been an important task of the Body of Christ.

We just celebrated Pentecost. We know that via the power of the Holy Spirit God promises to make all things new through individual believers as well as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church from where God’s love, righteousness and justice will permeate all of life, all nations on earth. Through his death and Resurrection, Jesus has made us righteous with God, our relationship is restored, our sins are no longer the endless, deep chasm between us and our creator they once were even as we continue to struggle with ‘missing the mark’ (see my devotion from last week).

In Scripture the word for ‘righteousness’ also has the meaning of ‘justice’. Of course, we all want justice, especially when we know that we have been wronged. We also have a communal sense of justice – which is exactly what we are experiencing right now as a country.

Lutherans have a so-called “Two Kingdom Doctrine”. Without turning this into a lecture, this is what Luther meant and what we still teach: Luther states that the children of Adam fall into two groups, those who belong to the kingdom of God and those who belong to the kingdom of the world. To the kingdom of God belong all who believe in Christ and live under Him, for Christ is King and Lord.

But beside this spiritual kingdom God has established another, the kingdom of temporal authority. This exists because evil exists. God instituted authorities to check violence and injustice, and to maintain peace and order. Rulers, parents and teachers are all set up as walls against evil. Yet, it should be noted that it is God Himself who rules in both these realms. God never drops the reins. To speak of either is thus to speak of a kingdom which is God's, and it is with Him that we deal in matters spiritual and temporal.  We are sometimes in danger of looking on the temporal as something profane, as if God were active only in the spiritual. The temporal is not foreign to God, and Luther does not regard it as such. To him there is nothing which is profane, and no sphere in which God is not at work.

Translated this means what? The authorities God has put in place right now are in charge of establishing justice and peace for the George Floyd’s of this world and for all those who are harmed in any way by the riots we have seen. All wrong-doers need to be held to account. As well we need to hold to account those who are entrusted with the responsibility to establish justice. They too answer to God! They too are always in danger of solving injustice with greater injustice yet. While we honor and respect men and women for the sake of their office and pray for them (excellent Lutheran imperative!) we do not follow them without question in blind obedience. Together we answer to the author and giver of life.

And, as children of God, living in the spiritual realm of God’s amazing Grace, we know that true justice does not come by electing the ‘right’ leader or by reading certain newspapers or by appointing judges of a particular ‘bend’. True justice comes only when we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, realize that this Spirit is “convicting the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement” (John 17:8).

I have always loved to preach on the Book of Amos, one of the ‘minor prophets’. There is nothing ‘minor’ about Amos, in my mind. I often wish that God would endow me with the spirit of truth and conviction as it was given to Amos.

You too know some of his most famous words: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Now, Amos spoke a long, long time ago but looking around, not too much seems to have changed in the hearts of people. The insistence that we ‘are better than that’ (often heard from pulpits as well) is answered by me with: No, we are not! I am not! You are not! Just check in with Jesus on that one! We are still sinners and we still look out for ourselves. We still do not love God and our neighbor as ourselves. I don’t! We still take what is not ours. We continue to treasure our own life more than that of the next person.

Now, before you throw your first ripe tomatoes at the parsonage: of course, not all of us do all of that all the time!!! But, all of us do some of that often enough that it has an impact on what we pray: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. We always are in this struggle to get on the side of the angels, for that is where we wish to be.

The words of Amos are not only reminding us to do works of justice and righteousness. This is a roar of outrage from a God of justice who looks around and sees injustice everywhere, injustice committed by even God’s own people. It is also a cry of sadness from a God of grace who grieves over what humanity has done. In so many places, that stream of justice and righteousness has slowed to but a trickle. That is why God came into this world, taking on flesh and living among us. Jesus was a prophet, yes, like Amos, calling God’s people to lives of justice and righteousness; but he is also so much more than that, he is our Savior, Emmanuel, God with us.

This is a God who realized that if it was left up to us alone, we would never find our way out of the mess that we have created. Even our best efforts are not enough. We humans need a different way. We need a God who first sets us free from the old ways of life, and then walks alongside us as we live into the reign of God. That God is precisely what we are given in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we are given a glimpse of the promised future, when the fullness of God’s justice and righteousness will be upon all people and all lands. It is Jesus who makes justice roll down. Jesus, who brings justice to us and through us out into the world. And thanks be to God for that. By the power of God’s Holy Spirit: may that realization be given into our hearts and minds. Amen.

Midweek devotion 5/27

Romans 7:19-20 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

On Memorial Day my husband and I had an “Alexa Lunch” with our son Jeremias and his family. When we do that, we all sit around our respective “Alexa” devices and eat and talk. Usually we cover discussion material from ‘soup to nuts’ (no pun intended). On Monday we happen to talk about the difficulty of living far out of town without the ability for kids to ‘catch a ride’ to various activities. How old do you have to be to drive a moped, a this, a that…? At one point our son, with a wink at his eldest child, said: “Well, I guess it’s not illegal until you get caught.” I can be pretty sure that he was not serious because his professional days are spend watching people obey federal guidelines – but, just in case our grandson thought this was an acceptable way of thinking, I added quickly, “I don’t think that is how the law works. You have to obey it whether you are in danger of getting caught or not."  William nodded: yes, he knows that.

We usually know what is right and what is wrong. Most of us have a clear idea of what it means to have a bad conscience: the recognition that something, somehow and somewhere did not go the way we thought it should have. Words were spoken that would have been better left unsaid; actions were taken that caused distress to others or even to ourselves; we are disappointed, hurt, angry.

Yes, most of the time we know even without searching the Bible and going through our Catechism what we must and must not do. We all realize natural law, the law that is written on our hearts, the awareness through our reason to know what is proper and what is not. Under the best of circumstances, the Ten Commandments and natural law are closely connected.

As Christians, and perhaps particularly as Lutheran Christians, we are keenly aware of our consistent and repeated failure to act according to what we know, what has been written on our hearts, what God has given to us as his divine will for our lives to keep us and our neighbor safe. God’s law, the Commandments as such, are not given to make us miserable but to keep us and our surroundings safe. They are like an umbrella that hangs above our lives, protecting us from all that would wash away our security, comfort and hope.

In other words: we should indeed know what to do and what not to do. Well, I am with St. Paul as stated above: my best intentions often do not get me to do what I know is right. St. Paul calls himself a wretched man and wonders who will deliver him from all that which only can lead to death, literally and figuratively. His answer: Christ; Christ alone can do that. The Apostle recognizes that his flesh (and that includes his will and action) is always too weak on its own.

I am truly disturbed these days when I watch and read how some of our brothers and sisters have chosen to say and do things of which they truly ought to know that is cannot be God-pleasing. People attacking each other because they wear or do not wear a face mask? Folks accusing churches who carefully open up for worship, of killing parishioners? Men and women actively and carelessly trying to endanger strangers with reckless behavior? Social media posts that are downright nasty because somebody wants the economy ‘open’ while you want it ‘closed’ or vice versa? Questioning parents because they are making a different decision regarding their children’s activities than you and I? None of this is acceptable. Not in the community of Christians and not ‘out there’ in the world. We know what is right and if we forget, somebody needs to remind us.

Years ago you couldn’t go anywhere without somebody shouting WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? Well, that was really never the question. The question always is: What Did Jesus Do?

He came to call us to repentance. He forgives our sins. He reminds us that without him on our minds and hearts we are lost and will be consumed by our own vices. He came to fulfill the Law because we are so miserable at doing it. He saved us from ourselves. He told us and showed us to love our neighbor – even the one who thinks so differently from me and whose life is not at all in alignment with mine. He died for that neighbor as he died for me.

As we watch the world and in particular our own nation struggle with the issues of the day, we shall remember what St. Paul knew so well about himself: on our own we always will know what is right and still do what is wrong. Without Jesus we will be overcome by that which makes for destruction and death. As we ride out this pandemic, let’s remember that! Amen

Midweek devotion

Last Sunday, May 17th, those who watched our virtual service know that we sang the hymn “Day by Day” at the closing. I think it is a hymn we at Emmanuel know well and seem to enjoy singing. For the record (in case you want to be really upset with ‘somebody’): all hymns and liturgical pieces were chosen by yours truly throughout this pandemic.

The story behind the text of “Day by Day” is truly intriguing. The author, Carolina Sandell Berg, was a woman who learned early in life to trust in the Lord's strength each day to help her overcome her troubles and trials. She was born on October 3, l832 and grew up to become Sweden's most celebrated author of Gospel hymns, and wrote so many (2000!) that she is often called "the Fanny Crosby of Sweden."

Like many Christians, Carolina learned that when pain and tragedy strike, God may use that experience to deepen our faith. When she was 26, Carolina--or Lina as she liked to be called--experienced a tragedy which profoundly affected the course of her life. She was with her father, a Lutheran pastor, crossing a Swedish lake. Suddenly the ship lurched, and before her eyes, her father was thrown overboard and drowned. Lina had written hymns before, but now she poured out her broken heart in an endless stream of beautiful songs. The words of Lina’s hymns were all the more popular because of the simple, beautiful melodies written for them, especially those by Oscar Ahnfelt (including “Day by Day”) who played his guitar and sang her hymns throughout Scandinavia. Lina Sandell Berg once said that Ahnfeld sang her songs "into the hearts of the people." Eventually, she became Sweden's first successful female head of a Publishing House.

There are two other hymns from Lina Sandell Berg’s pen we enjoy singing at Emmanuel: “Children of the Heavenly Father” and “Thy holy Wings”. Like "Children of the Heavenly Father," "Thy holy Wings” is sung to a Swedish folk song. The text draws upon a number of biblical images.

Psalm 91:4 inspires the opening two lines: "He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge." Yet, the most important biblical image to the hymn comes from Luke 13:34, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing." Lina’s text: Oh, let me nestle near thee, within thy downy breast where I will find sweet comfort, and peace within they nest. Oh, close thy wings around me and keep me safely there, for I am but a newborn and need thy tender care.

Sandell was probably quite influenced by the great seventeenth-century German hymn writer Paul Gerhardt. Memorizing Paul Gerhardt hymns as a Confirmation student, l can hear his words in “Oh, close thy wings around me and keep me safely there”. The line, "Oh be my strength and portion, my rock and hiding place," echoes Psalm 119:114: "You are my hiding place and my shield".  The final lines of verse three are a beautiful children’s bedtime prayer: And take into thy keeping, thy children great and small, and while we sweetly slumber, enfold us one and all.

Well, who would have thunk it that we – mostly – stubborn Germans in this community would find deep pleasure in singing hymns written by a Swedish lady during the 19th century!? I wonder what kind of songs, secular or religious, will come out of the pain and isolation we are living through right now? Nobody could have assumed that watching your father drown in a lake would be the impetus for words that could speak to us 150 plus years later. “Oh wash me in the waters of Noah’s cleaning flood” - connecting Baptism with life and death, acknowledging that water brings both. Perhaps it is out of deepest pain, agony, distress and death that words of life are born. Perhaps we need to know what it means to be cut off from others in order to treasure that we are never cut off from God. I don’t know…Amen

Scavenger hunt

All are invited to play along!

Thank you for joining our scavenger hunt! It will be available starting the morning of May 17th and run through May 23rd. Play anytime during that timeframe. It will ask you to find locations around town and take pictures or videos in front of these locations. You will need to download a free app (Actionbound) in order to play. Follow the directions below and have fun. All teams who complete the hunt will be entered to win a prize.

Here is also a link to download the app. https://en.actionbound.com/download/ It works with both Apple and Android. Please download before the 17th, so if you have any questions, we can assist with loading it to your phone or tablet.

Details will be updated as they come available.

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Midweek devotion 5/13

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Isaiah 55:6

“Isolier Station” – “Isolation Ward” – said the large sign in front of the building where I served as charge nurse some 45 years ago. The building was detached from the rest of the rather large hospital, located on a walkway that led from the back of the main facility to an apartment house for nurses. Visitors were only allowed to have contact with our patients by looking in through the windows. As health care workers we did everything possible to make the isolation less distressing for our patients, especially those who were with us for weeks on end.

Social distancing nowadays is isolating us from one another to more or less distressing degrees. While it is nice not to have somebody breathing down your neck at the checkout counter, I am going out on a limb here with stating that we would be glad to exchange that ‘positive’ for all the ‘negatives’ that come with the current isolation requests.

Residents in long-term care facilities are particularly affected by this isolation. Our hearts go out to them. How must it be for those who are stricken with COVID-19 and are quarantined at home or at the hospital away from loved ones? And, we all are particularly deeply troubled by the thought that thousands of people around the globe have died without their closest loved ones by their side. Just two months ago I wrote in our newsletter how important the labor of love we call ‘sitting vigil’ truly is when a beloved person leaves this earth. And, yes, it feels extremely isolating when only up to ten people are standing at a grave side – missing out on the usual hugs, tears and words of comfort we would normally want to share with each other. 

Physical isolation is hard, hard, hard – even if, for the sake of ourselves and our neighbor, it must be practiced. Physical isolation has the horrible tendency to isolate us also emotionally and spiritually. People have realized that and computers, phones and social media platforms are running hot as we seek to keep connections going. Of course, as with all other things in this life, some forms of isolation as well as some efforts to be connected, especially with family and friends, are going a bit overboard in my not so humble opinion. It always takes us human beings a while to settle on a golden middle way, doesn’t it?!   

It is no surprise that times like ours today always hold the danger of distancing ourselves from our faith. It is certainly not unusual for people to experience a true crisis of faith. The question, “Where is God and why does He not do something about this”, is easy to well up in us together with our tears. If God is so distant, I will distance myself from this God who appears not to care. There you go, God. And with that we withdraw from God, our faith and the community of God’s people that is here to offer support.

Well, lo and behold, God does not practice social distancing. God is not “into” isolation. God remains close to us even if we do not see, hear or believe it. God is with those loved ones who are cut off from us and our care. God sits vigil with those who are breathing their last. God does that without our help and perhaps especially under circumstances when we least expect it.

Yes, God is ‘other’ and we speak of Gods’ transcendence, being far away, beyond time and space. However, that statement must immediately be expanded to speak of God’s immanence, His closeness, His abiding presence, His constant protection. Most clearly, of course, this immanence, this closeness, comes through Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit. God is near, so near that He knows everything about us. So near that He understands our innermost concerns. God in Christ Jesus indeed walks with us and talks with us as the old familiar hymn says. Our part is to pray that we may see and hear, trust, hope and count on that nearness now and always. May it be so! No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. John 1:18  Amen.

Midweek devotion

Psalm 31:15-16  My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.  Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.

Years from now our grandchildren will recall the current pandemic and wonder “When was that again”? My grandson, Ismael, who is one of those unfortunate Seniors of the 2020 High School class, will be able to name the exact date of the virus threat and all that went along with it. You don’t forget graduating the end of July on a Tuesday afternoon! Those who are younger today might only recall that there was a time when they couldn’t go to school and mom did her job from the kitchen table with a computer in front of her.

That is the difference of how we count time. There is always actual, chronological time. This devotion is written for Wednesday, May 6th, 2020. There is nothing we can do about this time. But today is also the time when we are anxious about such simple questions as to whether it is safe to go grocery shopping, attend church or if the fever you are having is the first act of a disease that will put you on a ventilator and into a medically induced coma.

The ancient Greeks had two words for ‘time’: Chronos and Kairos. Anything you can pinpoint on a clock or a calendar is Chronos time. These days our Chronos time is harder to keep straight. Last week I insisted a few times that Tuesday was Wednesday and Thursday was Friday. Our patience is failing as we feel that we have lost control over our Chronos time.   

But then there is Kairos time. Kairos time means the right or opportune moment for action. God works in Kairos time. It was the opportune time for action when God sent Jesus to live among us, die and rise from the grave. What God does for us is deliberate and planned out in God’s time. When we pray to God, we expect immediate results. We forget that our time (chronos) and God’s time (kairos) are different. When our patience is wearing out, God is asking us to continue to hang in there and wait for the right or opportune moment.

We do not always like that kind of waiting. Yet, the Christian faith has always been a faith of waiting. We have entire seasons that call us to wait and to let God act in God’s time. Think of Advent, think of Lent.

Look at Scripture and biblical figures like Father Abraham and Mother Sarah. Would we wait THAT long to receive a child and have a promise fulfilled without just throwing in the towel, telling God to get lost? And so you can go through all of God’s holy Word and find His people waiting – waiting for the flood to rescind, waiting for slavery to end, waiting for the long trek through the wilderness end in the Promised Land, waiting for prophets to be proven right or wrong, waiting for God to redeem the world…

Waiting can be really hard. We have waited for many weeks now for our lives to get back to some sort of normalcy. We are so done with that whole waiting idea! As some areas of the country and some segments of our life in Iowa “open up”, we perhaps sense even more that we should move along.  Expressing those hopes aloud will immediately cause someone to tell us that we need to wait much, much longer before we gather for worship, play at a park or eat at a restaurant. As we wait for Covid-19 to subside and for our lives to get back to what was normal before the outbreak, I pray that we can all find a way to live in God’s Kairos time. My guess is that it will not necessarily coincide with my and your Chronos time. Maybe we need to put the calendar away and wait for Kairos time to arrive. See you in worship when it does!! Amen PZ+