It is the time of year when many people make New Years resolutions.
“ I am going to exercise every day.”
“ I will write thank you notes.”
“I will reconnect with old friends.”
“ I will give away more than I buy.”
You’ve heard them. You’ve made them. New Year’s resolutions tend to be individualistic—about personal improvement. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But have you ever thought about making congregational New Years resolutions? In a sense, that’s what annual meetings are at their best. They are an opportunity for a congregation to decide together how they want to make a difference in the world, how they want to share God’s love, how they will live out what God has in mind for them.
What might God have in mind for your congregation this next year beyond making budget, fining enough volunteers and paying the staff? What might your congregation do to stretch beyond itself, to reach more people, to serve neighbors who are in need, to deepen members’ faith and witness?
Might yours be the congregation that starts an after school program that keeps neighborhood kids safe? Might yours be the congregation that starts a new adult Bible study in the café in town? Might you partner with another congregation in a different part of the Synod to learn more about their ministry context and challenges?
Perhaps your congregation would like to sponsor a missionary or Young Adult in Global Mission. Or maybe you’ll set a goal for World Hunger that is a stretch. Or maybe you’ll volunteer to help make the Synod House a reality.
Maybe in this next year you will decide to become more involved in the Synod as a congregation, sending voting members and guests to the Synod Assembly and Theological Conference, distributing the Synod News of the Week to the whole congregation. Or maybe you will take on an issue like human trafficking, or childhood hunger, and work with other groups to make a difference.
Whatever you decide to do as a congregation, don’t waste the opportunity of your annual meeting to make your congregational New Years resolution and to make a real difference in the coming year.
As we do to use to celebrate Jesus’ birth, we also remember that he didn’t come just for us, he came for all of creation. And he didn’t set up the church just for us, but for the world. The world that God made, that God so dearly loves, needs the church. That means us. This year.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
It's one of my favorite Christmas carols-the soaring music, the great harmonies, the inspiring words by Isaac Watts. This time of year there is Christmas-themed music wherever you go. Some of it is secular, sentimental or silly. But "Joy to the World" never disappoints.
We live in a world desperately in need of joy. From those living in poverty and distress to those overwhelmed with holiday obligations, we need joy. Joy is a gift. It is not forced or manufactured. It is genuine, spontaneous, and often unexpected. C.S. Lewis captures it well in his book, Surprised by Joy. When a young woman named Joy came into his solitary academic life, the joy that resulted was a surprise to him.
Joy is the prisoner being granted clemency after 33 years in jail. Joy is almost 200 nations agreeing to a plan to treat the earth as if there is a future. Joy is the kindness of a stranger who smiles at you when you are having a grumpy day. Joy is hearing that the insurance settlement is coming through, even though it was denied the first time. Joy is a father re-united with his children after deployment overseas. Joy is the outpouring of love by a community to a family who has lost a loved one.
Joy is the Word become flesh, dwelling among us. Joy is God so loving the world as to become one of us, to live with us, and to die for us. Joy is the surprise of the resurrection after the devastation of the crucifixion. Joy isn't cheap, and it isn't casual. Psalm 30 says it well:
"Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning."
There are 161 references to joy in the Bible, from Genesis to 3rd John. Joy doesn't come cheaply. It is always a gift. The angel tells the childless Zechariah that they will have a son, saying:
"You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth."
And then he is struck dumb until the baby is born and named John. When the angel appears to the shepherds on the night of Jesus' birth, the angel tells them,
"Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:"
As Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure in John's Gospel he tells them:
"When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you." (John 16:21-22)
Paul, exhorting the Philippians to model themselves after Christ, writes:
"If, then, there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind." (Philippians 2: 1-2)
And "the elder" writes in Third John:
"I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth."
(3 John 1:4)
As Christians, we walk in the truth that Jesus came among us as a vulnerable child, grew up surrounded by other children, and gave his life so that we might be spared from meaninglessness and death. That is our joy, and the joy we offer to the world which God so loves.
"Joy to the world, the Lord is come!"
Bishop Jessica Crist
Three years ago Advent was shattered by the massacre of first graders and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. An elementary school. Reactions were swift. Some called for reasonable gun restrictions, or at least a conversation. Others , for whatever reason, went out and purchased weapons and ammunition.
This summer, the country was stunned by the racially-motivated shooting of a pastor and group of parishoners at a Bible study in South Carolina. A church. Reactions were swift. Some condemned racism. Others criticized the church for not having armed guards.
Last week, Advent was once again shattered by a mass shooting at a community center in California, by jihadists committed to hate. A community center. And the week before, we were shocked by a shooting rampage at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. A health clinic.
This weekend, I joined about 40 other people, including faith leaders from several traditions, at a vigil for peace. We began at Central Christian Church, processed to the Mental Health Center, where we prayed, and then to Planned Parenthood, where we prayed and read the names of those killed in the California and Colorado rampages. It was a vigil for peace, a vigil against violence.
There is no quick fix to the problem of violence. But as Christians, we commit ourselves to pray, and to work to prevent violence. We are not all of one mind, even in the church. But there is no better place than the church to have constructive conversations on difficult topics with people who may have a different point of view. Christianity is about reconciliation, and we can model it in our conversations, having the hard conversations about the things that underlie violence. It is a gift we can give to the world, the world that God so loves.
Three years ago the Conference of Bishops responded to the multiple mass shootings that reached a horrendous climax at Newtown.
The letter from the Bishops is relevant today:
A Pastoral Letter on Violence adopted by the ELCA Conference of Bishops,
March 4, 2013
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”Jeremiah 31.15 and Matthew 2: 18
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Every faithful caregiver who sits with victims of violence knows what we know – as God's church, we are called to reduce violence and should, in most cases, restrain ourselves from using violence. Whether or not statistics show that overall violence has declined in recent years, every person wounded or killed is a precious child of God.
As bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we lament the tragedy of gun violence in our country. We are grieved by the way violence threatens and destroys life. We affirm the current soul searching and shared striving to find a way to a better future.
While the church grapples with this call to reduce violence and make our communities safer, we recognize that before God we are neither more righteous because we have guns nor are we more righteous when we favor significant restrictions. Brokenness and sin are not somehow outside of us. Even the best of us are capable of great evil. As people of God we begin by confessing our own brokenness – revealed in both our actions and our failure to act. We trust that God will set us free and renew us in our life's work to love our neighbors.
In this time of public attention to gun violence, local communities of faith have a unique opportunity to engage this work. As bishops, we were thankful to recognize the many resources our church has already developed (see below). We begin by listening: listening to God, to Scripture, and to each other. Providing a safe place for people to share their own stories, together we discern courses of action. Together we act. And together we return to listening - to assess the effectiveness of our efforts to reduce violence.
In the Large Catechism Luther says, “We must not kill, either by hand, heart, or word, by signs or gestures, or by aiding and abetting.” Violence begins in the human heart. Words can harm or heal. To focus only on guns is to miss the depth of our vocation. Yet, guns and access are keys to the challenges we face.
We recognize that we serve in different contexts and have different perspectives regarding what can and should be done. But as we live out our common vocations, knowing that the work will take many forms, we are committed to the work of reducing and restraining violence. This shared work is a sign of our unity in Christ.
We invite you, our sisters and brothers, to join us in this work:
• The work of lament – creating safe space for naming, praying, grieving, caring for one another, and sharing the hope in God’s promise of faithfulness
• The work of moral formation and discernment – listening to scripture, repenting, modeling conflict resolution in daily life, addressing bullying, conducting respectful conversations, and discerning constructive strategies to reduce violence
• The work of advocacy – acting to address the causes and effects of violence
Knowing that we are not saved by this work, we undertake it trusting in Christ Jesus, who laid down his life for the world and who calls us to be peacemakers, to pursue justice, and to protect the vulnerable.
In this, as in all things, Christ is with us. Thanks be to God.
• “Community Violence” a social message, http://www.elca.org/socialissues
• “The Body of Christ and Mental Illness” a social message, http://www.elca.org/socialissues
• “Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice,” a proposed social statement
• “Peace: God’s Gift, Our Calling,” a 1995 social statement.
• “Ban of Military-Style Semi-Automatic Weapons,” 1989 social policy resolution, http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Resolutions/Search-by-Topic.aspx#guncontrol (both social policy resolutions are at address)
• “Community Violence – Gun Control,” 1993 social policy res
Jessica Crist, Bishop
We offer our support for the honoring of treaty rights, the healing of lives torn asunder by forced cultural changes, loss of language, racism and poverty."
Do you recognize those words? They are not my words. They are the words adopted by the Montana Synod Assembly, as part of our Apology to the Tribes. In the last 2 weeks I have had several opportunities to contemplate more deeply the implications of our Apology.
Two weeks ago, the weekend before Thanksgiving, a small group from our Synod traveled to Airdrie, Alberta to meet with Canadian Lutherans and Anglicans in a gathering we called "Abiding in Right Relations." It was a two day meeting of native and non-native people for education, conversation, worship and reconciliation. Canada has recently completed a Truth and Reconciliation process (inspired by South Africa) on the harm done to indigenous peoples who were forced into church-run boarding schools. We heard stories of grief and loss, and stories of hope. Together we learned about the harmful residue of the Doctrine of Discovery, and pledged to listen to one another as we work for reconciliation and healing. During our worship we confessed:
"It is said that, in Christ Jesus, we are all children of God through faith, but we know that we have often failed to be god and loving. You are our creator. You created us in your image, blessing us with our many differences. You created us a people with different gifts and different needs, as male and female, as yellow and red, black and white. It is these differences that we have condemned, not seeing them as your way of strengthening your family, but declaring these differences to be less than holy. We pray for forgiveness and compassion that we may come together in the circle. We ask this in the name of your Son Jesus who walked among your human family."
And then this week, a group of clergy and laity from the Montana Synod met with the Tribal Council of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, to present the Apology to them. Each reservation has its own history and dynamics. We never know what kind of reception we will have. As we began our presentation, Council members were busy looking at their agendas, anticipating what the next items would be. But as we described why we were there, that our faith compelled us to seek forgiveness and to seek reconciliation, Council members became interested. And as we presented the copy of the Apology, the traditional gift of tobacco, and the quilt incorporating a native prayer wheel and a Luther seal, there was genuine interest. Several council members thanked us, saying that our simply showing up said a lot. We had conversation about ways we might live out our commitment to accompaniment. Among the issues that are crucial to the members of the Tribal Council are the environment, the water compact recently enacted, and the devastating effect of drugs , especially on the young. We offered our prayers, and our advocacy, committing ourselves to becoming more educated on the past, so that we can work together in the future.
Quoting again from the Apology:
"Let it be known to all the Tribes that our door is open to you and we are here to listen and to work for a better tomorrow for all of the Creator's people."
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA