“Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath (spirit) to enter you, and you shall live. (Ezekiel 37:5)
I’ve been thinking a lot about breathing these days. I picture those people with the Covid-19 virus trying to suck breath into their lungs, with or without ventilators. I think about the doctors, nurses and other health care workers having to breathe through masks all day…or not being able to breathe through them because of the shortage. I breathe in a deep lungful of fresh Montana air as I walk, thanking God that I can breathe. Even the planet is breathing easier as the pollution levels have dropped drastically around various parts of the globe.
Breathing, the in and out of air through our lungs into all parts of our bodies, is central to life as we know it. Without breathing we die.
In the ancient Hebrew language as well as ancient Greek, the words for breath and spirit are the same word. (Heb: ruah; Gk: pneuma) God breathed spirit into the first human and there was new life. God continues to breathe the Spirit into us so that we may have new life again and again in Christ.
In this time, we need to breathe. Yes, physically of course. But spiritually, mentally, emotionally as well. We need to just stop and breathe. Slowly, deeply, gratefully taking each breath as a gift of life from God. Take a moment now and pay attention to your breath and say, “thank you, God, for your breath of life.”
Remember though that as followers of Christ, the life of breathing in the Spirit is a life of love, a life of hope, a life of kindness to others. The Spirit’s breath breathed into us in our baptism gives us the strength and courage to love our neighbor as ourselves.
One way of supporting and caring for the breath of others right now is to avoid sharing your breath with them. Six feet is the furthest those tiny virus nuclei can travel, so staying out of that range is important. That is why I am still strongly recommending that all worship services or activities for which congregations gather (ex. Lent suppers, Bible studies, fellowship times, non-essential congregation meetings, etc.) be suspended and/or postponed for the time being, most likely until after Easter. We will continue to assess the situation but start planning how you might do Holy Week and Easter in ways that protect, nurture and care for the breath of life in our neighbors.
Another way you can care for the breath of others is to support our health care workers by sewing masks and gowns. Get your quilting groups and sewing clubs working (in their homes) to sew masks that our hospitals and clinics can use to protect themselves and their patients. Be sure to follow the specifications that they are asking for by looking on the hospital or clinic website. (For example, the Great Falls clinic has this link)
Also, as spring arrives and many of you think about gardens, consider planting a crop of vegetables the excess of which you can share with your local food banks. Providing fresh produce grown with love in the Montana and Wyoming soil and air is a great way to serve the breath of life in your neighbor. During WWI and WWII these were called victory gardens. Perhaps now we can call them Spirit gardens.
There are many ways in your local communities to support the breath of life in others; open your spirit to the Spirit’s working in you to discover what other ways you might serve.
And then come back to the source of your breath, to the God of your creation, the Christ who heals you, and inspiration of the Spirit. Refresh your hearts, souls and minds in the diverse worship, prayer, and Christ-centered opportunities provided by your congregations so that you can breathe in the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is your spirit’s respirator, inspiring you with God’s comfort, courage and hope now and always. So don’t forget to stop and breath with Jesus this week and “Receive the holy Spirit.”
“When he had said this, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22)
Dear Siblings in Christ,
“It’s cancelled!” How many things in your life have been cancelled this week? School? Worship? Dinner out with friends? The NCAA tournament? In many ways it may feel like life itself was canceled during the past few days.
But here are some things that I can assure you haven’t been cancelled:
Instead of only thinking about what has been cancelled, spend some time today thinking about what has not been cancelled in your life and take joy in it. Give thanks for it. Life continues on; differently yes, but life still goes on.
Another thing that has not been cancelled is the Golden Rule. Nor has God’s command to love our neighbor as our selves been removed. The Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – is still alive and functioning. And especially in this time of uncertainty, anxiety and fear, God still calls us to follow it.
The Golden Rule is found in one form or another in every major religion and many spiritualities, philosophies and secular ethical programs throughout the world. Jesus names it in his Sermon on the Mount (Mt 7:12) and pushes us further to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”
But following this rule is not easy. In order to follow the Golden Rule, we must be able to self-reflect honestly and have empathy for others. We need to be able to step into another person’s shoes and ask ourselves “How would I feel if I were in this situation and that were done to me? If I wouldn’t like it, maybe I shouldn’t do it them. If I would like it, then maybe I should consider do it for them.” Perhaps this is where we go wrong. Turned in on our selves and our own anxieties, we forget how to self-reflect and empathize with our fellow children of God.
So what does it mean to follow the Golden Rule in the time of pandemic? Hopefully you can think of many different ways to “do unto others as you would want done unto you.” Hopefully, you will find many new and exciting ways to “love your neighbor as yourself” during this time. Please watch for a pastoral letter from me later in the week describing various ways we as church can “do unto others” especially regarding giving, Holy Communion, conducting meetings, etc.
But in this newsletter piece, I am going to focus on one crucial way we need to follow the Golden Rule as we face Covid19 together: Postponing worship services and congregational gatherings. Because it is the best way we can love our neighbor right now, I am strongly recommending that all in-person worship services and other congregational gathering activities across the Montana Synod be suspended at least until Easter, at which time we will reassess the situation.
Some of you have already made that decision. Thank you for loving your neighbor and doing health unto others. But if you haven’t made this decision yet, I encourage you to do so – for the sake of the health care workers who are already being pushed to the limits; for the sake of your grandparents, parents, kids and grandkids and someone else’s; for the sake of the person with lung disease or diabetes or heart conditions that just might breathe in one of your air droplets; for the sake of your community, your state, your nation and your world.
On NPR last week, there was a story about rural hospitals and how they will be affected when the virus hits their community. (Rural Hospitals Brace For Coronavirus) Many of you live in towns with a small hospital that you and your neighbor rely on when you get sick. But most of these rural hospitals don’t have the staff, the resources, the equipment or the space to respond if the virus enters your town. Even our city hospitals will easily be overwhelmed if this thing takes off.
It’s easy when we live in a rural place with so much space between our town and the next to think we’re safe. I know, I’ve lived and served in such communities. But all it takes is one person who goes to “the city,” catches the virus, brings it home, greets folks in worship and shares their new-found “friend” with others before the little hospital in the town is overwhelmed.
Put yourself in the shoes of the healthcare worker in that hospital or in any of our hospitals and clinics in the state; how would you want/need people to act? Hopefully, you would want others to respect your life and others enough to take every precaution against spreading the virus. Hopefully you would want others to love you as much as they love themselves.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s a simple command from God that, in times of fear and anxiety, we too quickly ignore. But the only way we will get through this is if we walk this wilderness journey together, putting ourselves in others’ shoes, taking on one another’s burdens and going the extra mile. This is what Jesus Christ did for us and does for us every day. Let us be Christ’s body for one another, sharing the new life we know we’ve already received.
In the meantime, as you go through each day in physical isolation from each other, remember that “y’all [together] are the body of Christ and individually members of it. If one member suffers, all suffer together with [them]; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with [them].” (1 Cor 12:27, 26)
Let us be one in Christ together!
Dear Fellow Followers of Christ,
We live in anxious times, even more anxious than the usual anxiety that has been pervading our society over the last several years.
Every day we are hearing about the covid-19 virus and the deaths and suffering caused by it. We also know that this year’s version of the flu is taking its toll on certain populations. Disease, especially when words like pandemic are attached to it, always brings out the fear and panic in us. Witness the recent hoarding of cleansing wipes that cares only for the self and nothing for the neighbor in need.
What does it mean to follow Christ during this time of covid-19 and the flu? No doubt you’ve seen some resources offering various forms of practical, moral, and theological guidance.
However, another piece of news emerged from the ELCA Churchwide council meeting this week that may be exciting for some and anxiety-producing for others. While some are applauding the removal of the “Visions and Expectations” document from use in the ELCA due to the suffering and trauma the document’s use and abuse has caused, others are anxious about the possible consequences of its removal. Will the church descend into chaos without any guidelines of expectations for our leaders? Will there be a free-for-all where pastors, lay leaders, and lay people alike feel the freedom to do whatever they like whenever they like without any consequences?
The answer to these questions is “No,” of course not. For the purpose of guiding and governing the behavior of our rostered leaders and candidates for ministry, bishops and candidacy committees will use the “Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline.” This document will be the guide for our church’s “disciplinary processes of counseling, admonition and correction, with the objective of forgiveness, reconciliation and healing” when responding to unacceptable behaviors by leaders who harm others. Also, as you can see when you read the whole document, it guides the behavior not only of our rostered leaders but also congregations and members of those congregations as we work to live our lives together in Christ as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
But my answer of “No” to these anxious questions goes beyond these documents. Because finally we as followers of Christ are not first guided human-constructed documents, as well-meaning or harmful as they may be, but by God’s Law of Love. In all that we do – all of us, whether rostered leaders, lay leaders, lay people -- all we who claim to follow Christ are called and commanded to love our God with our heart, soul and mind our neighbor as ourselves (Mt 22:36-40). This is the central Law that governs our lives as followers of Christ as well as all legal, aspirational, and character tools we try to develop for living in this world. In other words, if anything we construct does not, in word or use, love God and neighbor, it does not serve God’s Law of Love.
But “Love God and Neighbor” is so broad and so general, you may say, and it’s hard to use in specific situations. True, though it does point us in the direction of Love and away from hate, fear and anger. But fortunately God has given us more to work with: the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments (and Luther’s rich explanations of them), Paul’s letters, the Sermon on the Mount, and other direction from Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions as well as reason and our experience.
I do not have the space to offer a discussion of these facets of God’s law here, but that is where I am headed during this time of Lent: to explore in more specific detail how these gifts of God’s Law can help us better follow Jesus in these anxious times even as we are both sinner and justified saints.
In the meantime, as you struggle with your anxieties, I invite you into scripture and to return to your faith – your trust and commitment first and foremost in the God of Love and New Life. First, in regard to any anxiety and/or excitement you feel regarding the removal of “Visions and Expectations”, remember: “For you were called to freedom [in Christ], brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself…’” We are called to live by the Spirit, my friends. Therefore let us be guided by the Spirit in all that we do and all that we are. (Gal 5:13-26)
Second, in regard to covid-19, remember: “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, you will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust’…You will not fear the pestilence that stalks in darkness…” (Psalm 91; did you notice the number reversal 19 to 91?) So use common sense, pray, wash your hands, elbow bump the Peace, stay home if necessary, be wise in how you conduct worship, and love your neighbor, caring for them even as you care for yourself.
What does God’s Law of Love have to do with following Jesus? Everything, according to Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7)
Jesus begins his Sermon by blessing his followers with the abundant life that comes only in him. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward of new life is great in God’s kingdom.”
Then he gives his followers their identity: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” This is not you must try to be salt or light, but you ARE already. We as his followers are those who flavor the earth and light up the world.
He then calls his followers to live out this identity in Christ into the world so that following Jesus means living in ways that let Christ’s light shine and let Christ’s salt flavor the world. “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” These are the same words that are said to us during our baptism.
And then throughout the rest of the Sermon, Jesus describes what it looks like to let Christ’s light shine: by fulfilling God’s law of love in the world, not just in its most basic form but in its fullest. “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
The problem is that some days, we don’t care for God’s law of love very much. The law is always telling us what to do. It gets in the way of our freedom and keeps us from doing, saying, and thinking the things we want. When we don’t follow God’s law, it has this annoying tendency to make us feel guilty and accuse us. And when we feel accused we fight back, demanding the law be repealed because we believe it takes away our freedoms.
That is until someone hurts us. Then we’re crying “there oughta be a law” and demanding someone be punished. I used to tell my ethics students that “everybody is moral relativist until their car gets stolen. Then the law is their best friend.” For many, the law works great when it’s used against others; but when it’s about us, then we’d just as soon be rid of it.
So, if we dislike the law so much, why spend time talking about it? Especially in church where we come to feel good about ourselves. In church, we want to be comforted and consoled. We want to be given good news, uplifted and encouraged. We want to be told how much God loves us and we want to be confirmed as mostly good people who mostly follow God’s commands.
What we don’t want from the church (the body of Christ) is to be given a bunch of laws to follow or ways we’re supposed to behave. And we certainly don’t want someone, including our pastor, pointing out how we fail to follow those laws. Often the implication is, “Church isn’t supposed to tell me how to live my life. Church is supposed to be a safe zone where I can go to feel good about myself and escape the demands of God and my neighbor.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and theologian who stood up to the Nazi’s and was killed for it, calls this “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace” is when we receive the free gifts of Christ but don’t let them change how we live in the world. It’s when we turn the gospel into something meaningless by refusing to recognize the power that the gospel has to change how we live together.
A little boy really wanted a new bike. So he sat down to write God a letter. He started by writing, “Dear God, I’ve been a very good boy...” Then he stopped and thought, “No, God won’t believe that!” So he started his letter again. “Dear God, I’ve mostly been a good boy...” Then he stopped, thought a moment, and then shook his head. “No, God won’t believe that either.” Standing, he went into the bathroom and grabbed a big towel from the shelf. Then, he went into the living room where his parents kept a ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary. He took the statue, wrapped it safely in the towel and stowed it under his bed. Then he returned to his letter. “Dear God,” he wrote, “if you ever want to see your mother again, you’ll get me that bike.”
Too often, we humans are like that boy. Although God has given us the law of love to help protect our lives here on earth, we keep trying to turn it into tool of power against God and neighbor or use it to manipulate God and others into giving us our way. We use it as a weapon to prove our own righteousness and judge others. Or we use it as a tool to earn our moral righteousness by climbing over others’ backs.
But when we finally admit that we can’t follow the law on our own, it’s only then that we realize just how much we need Christ. It’s only then, in our inability to follow the law, that we’re willing to turn to the gospel, saying, “God save me! I can’t do it myself.” It’s only then that we are able to hear Jesus’ invitation to follow him into his new life in which we will let the light and love of God shine in all that we do.
God’s law of love is indeed life...as it governs our lives here on earth. It protects us, serves us, and guides us into a safer, kinder, healthier life together when we follow it. The law is God’s gift to us and it blesses us in a sinful world. But at the end of the day, it has no power over our salvation before God. The law can’t save us from our sinful selves. Only Jesus Christ can do that, by giving us new life in relationship with God and empowering us to live as the salt and light he’s made us to be.
Your fellow follower of Christ,
“Stop coveting! Just stop it. Try and stop coveting.” This is the example I gave my students when teaching them about how Lutherans understand Law and Gospel. Invoking the 9th and 10th Commandments and Martin Luther’s explanations of them in his Small Catechism, these words and our attempts to stop desiring more than we need -- especially in an advertising culture that tells us over and over again that we need everything constantly -- show us our inability to keep the Law of Love as God gives it to us. We simply cannot stop coveting or harming others through our coveting.
As we follow Jesus into the 40 days and nights of Lent, we enter into a time of preparation, a time of confession and forgiveness, a time of diving more deeply into our relationships with God, neighbor, and self. Hopefully, through this journey, the Spirit will find us more transformable into the disciples Jesus calls us to be.
Part of our journey through Lent will involve walking in the Word of God, which first and foremost means walking in Jesus himself. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” (Jn 1:1, 14)
Jesus is God’s ultimate and intimate Word to us. And for Lutherans listening for that Word, we hear it in the shape of God’s Gospel and Law. Whether you’re reading the Bible, whether you’re hearing God’s Word preached in a sermon, whether you’re meeting Jesus Christ who is the Word of God made flesh, you are experiencing both Gospel and Law.
But what do Lutherans mean by Law and Gospel? The easiest way to describe Gospel and Law is to use English grammar. The Gospel, which means “good news,” is when God is the subject of the sentence and is acting upon us, the recipient. For example, God saves you; God loves you; God heals you; God forgives you. God guides you; God transforms you; God cares for you; God has mercy on you. The Gospel is the life-giving, life-supporting, life-directing Word God is constantly doing in you and for you in Christ; you only have to receive it in faith with an open spirit through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The Law is also God’s Word to us. But the Law happens when God makes us the subject of the sentence and teaches us how to live together in a sin-filled world, including as Christ’s community (the Church). “Love your God; love your neighbor. Don’t bear false witness. Do to others what you’d want done unto you in similar circumstances.” Here we as Christ’s followers are the actors, the subject, expected to act (or not) while God and neighbor are the recipients. That’s the Law: it teaches us how to live with and toward others.
God’s Law is actually experienced in two ways. First, the Law is a gift of love by which God orders our lives so that we can live healthier, happier, more blessed lives in this sinful world. If we actually followed God’s Law of Love, the world would be a better place to live. The problem is we don’t because we can’t.
Take for example the recent reactions in our country to the “threat” of the coronavirus. Rather than loving and caring for people who may be ill, in our fear of this unknown attack on our lives, some have started scapegoating and blaming certain groups of people or hoarding things like masks or expecting to be first to receive any cure or demanding exclusion of possible carriers.
Or take for example the current election rhetoric among candidates and their supporters alike. Luther defined the 8th Commandment as “we are to fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” Are the candidates following this basic law of living in community together? Are we as followers of Christ expecting them to? Are we even trying to keep the 8th Commandment ourselves?
This is where the second function of God’s Law enters: as the gift of a mirror, which when it is held up in front of us, reflects God’s expectations for Christ-centered and life-supporting relationships back to us. And when we see our own reflection in that same mirror and our inability to follow the law, and then compare it to how God calls us to live, we feel accused and yes, even guilty. But it is only in this reflection that we truly realize that we can’t keep the law on our own and that only God can save us.
But, even then, lest we fall into hopeless apathy or into angry guilt or helpless shame, here the Gospel enters our lives with its Amazing Grace-filled news: God saves you; God loves you; God heals you; God forgives you. God guides you; God transforms you; God cares for you; God has mercy on you.
Over the next weeks of Lent, we are going to spend some time with God’s Law. We will journey with Christ as he reminds us that he is not here to abolish the law but to fulfill it. (Mt 5:17) We will explore with one another the important role God’s Law of Love plays in following Jesus.
But as we take this journey, cling to and never forget the good news of the gospel of God’s forgiving, loving and accepting grace for yourself AND for your neighbor. For it is only in God’s grace given in Christ that we can hear the law and live together in love.
Blessings to you on your Lenten journey,