What does it mean to be blessed? “God bless you,” we say when someone sneezes. “May God bless and keep you,” the worship leader pronounces at the end of worship. “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” the psalm writer states. (Ps 103) “I’ve been so blessed,” we proclaim when we see the goodness in our lives. The word blessing gets used a lot in many different ways in the Christian life, but what does it mean to be blessed?
Those of you who have received emails or letters from me may have noticed that I often close with some version of “Blessings to you” or “God bless you in your ministry.” For me that is no rote statement spun off without thought. “Blessing,” according to Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann, is the “quiet, continuous, flowing and often unnoticed working of God for life and vitality in the world.” Blessing, then, is life. But not just any life. It is God’s life, God’s livingness, vitalness, thriving, and growth that God gives as pure gift to each part of creation. This divine life goes beyond anything we can imagine, though our best picture of it is the abundant new life given to us in Christ and empowered in us as individuals and community by the Holy Spirit.
So when you say “God bless you” to someone who sneezes, you are actually sharing God’s life with them. When I say “Blessings” at the end of my email, I am sharing God’s livingness with you. When Paul writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” (Eph 1:3) he is resharing the divine life with God that God has already given us in Christ in every spiritual blessing from heaven, claiming again his (and our) relationship of abundant life with God.
Over the next months and years, the Montana Synod will be focusing on vitality: congregational vitality, ministry vitality, church vitality, discipleship vitality. In other words, we will be focusing on God’s blessings of life in our world and opening up our selves, our congregations and our communities to the continuous, flowing, life-creating and sustaining work of God in our midst. May God bless us with enlivened hearts and enlivened eyes to notice the divine life already working among us.
In Christ's immeasurable blessing,
“Where is God in all this?!” I find myself asking this question a lot in recent times. Every day, we are constantly bombarded with the realities of human suffering caused by violence, climate, migration, physical and mental illness, unemployment, poverty, and hunger. Too many days we react to these realities with anger, hate, apathy, and escapism.
As we face the messiness of the world, where is God in all this and what is God doing? As we experience the anxiety, fear, and anger in the midst of change, what does it mean to follow Christ? As we discuss and disagree about things like “sanctuary” or “climate change” or the “ELCA,” what does it mean to be Church, the body of Christ, in this messy world?
These are important questions for us as followers of Christ to ask. But too often, we forget to ask them in the midst of our debates about this issue or that topic. Where is God in this? What does it really mean to follow Christ in this? What does it mean to be Christ’s Church in this? In other words, what often seems to be missing is faith, faith in the God of Jesus Christ.
Faith is more than whether we believe in a God or in eternal life. Faith has three intertwined parts, all of which need each other. First, faith is trust, trusting completely in the God of our new life in Christ to save us, protect us, care for us, and love us so deeply that nothing we do or what anyone else does can separate us from God’s love in Christ. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” we say in faith. (Ps 23) “Do not worry, for your heavenly Father knows what you need,” Jesus preaches, reminding us to have faith. (Mt 6:31-32) Faith is first and foremost trusting God no matter what the issue is.
But faith is also commitment to the God in whom we trust. Faith is following Jesus wherever he calls us to go, being the people he calls us to be, and doing the work he calls us to do. Christ calls us out of our anger, our fear, our anxiety into the messy world to serve, care for, and love each other, especially those who need our compassion the most.
Faith also includes our beliefs, our communal understandings about who God is, how God works in the world, what Christ has done for us and continues to do for us through the Holy Spirit. While at times we may have differences in these beliefs, as followers of Christ, we turn to Scripture, the Creeds, the Lutheran Confessions and the stories of faith experienced by the many saints around us to better understand our beliefs and to guide our faith into active love in our communities and the world.
Ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who creates this faith in us and calls, gathers, enlightens and makes us whole so that we are able to live out this faith together. But if we are distracted by other voices, we can’t hear the Spirit’s voice enlightening our beliefs. If we are trapped in our anger, we create stumbling blocks that make it hard for the Spirit to guide our commitment on the path of Christ. If we are overwhelmed by our anxiety, we close ourselves off from the faith that the Spirit is trying to work in us.
As you and your congregations face the realities of our messy times, I encourage you to take a step back from the issues that may be causing division among you and explore your faith in the God of Jesus Christ together. Create opportunities for the Spirit to work among you and ask yourselves, “where is God working in our congregation right now?” Ask “what does it really mean for us to follow Christ in this time and place?” Ask “what does it really mean for us to be Church, the body of Christ, in our community and world?” Explore these questions with one another and then, when you can honestly say that your Spirit-inspired faith is guiding you as the body of Christ, then engage the issues that concern you. You may be surprised by the results. With faith in the Spirit’s life-inspiring power.
Dear Friends in Christ,
When someone asks you who you are, how do you identify yourself? Paul, formerly known as Saul, begins every one of his letters by identifying himself with words like these: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God…” (Rm 1:1) If you have a moment, page through the first few verses of each letter from Paul to see how he identifies himself in relationship to God and his calling. “An apostle of Christ, a servant of God” – these, according to Paul, are his primary identities.
Imagine introducing yourself to those you meet using a salutation similar to Paul’s. Imagine beginning an email or a text with words like “Alex, a disciple of Christ, called to be a musician for the church,” or “Chris, a servant of God, called as a health care worker to serve those suffering or sick.” Take a minute to think through what identities in relation to Jesus you might use in your introduction...
...Now, imagine using such an introduction every time you speak or write to someone, whether stranger, friend or family. How would such ownership of who you are in Christ affect your relationship with God? Your relationship to those around you? To yourself?
After I was elected in June, some of you may have wondered “who is this person just elected to be our bishop?” For some in the synod, I’m fairly well-known; for others, I am a complete stranger. When facing a stranger, especially from a distance, it is easy to make assumptions, to stereotype, to misunderstand and misrepresent. When I catch myself doing this, I try to remind myself of Luther’s explanation to the 8th commandment “to speak well of them and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” (Luther’s Small Catechism) But that’s hard to do when you know so little about a person.
So, to make it easier to get to know me, let me introduce myself using Paul’s salutation style. “Laurie, a beloved child of God baptized into the family of Christ; a sinner reconciled into God’s love by Christ; a follower of Christ, called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a pastor, preacher, teacher, occasional prophet, and now bishop for the sake of proclaiming and energizing the Gospel of new life into the world; definitely NOT God (thank God!); and a ‘little Christ’ called to be a daughter, friend, colleague and neighbor to those in need.”
That’s enough for now. But over the next days, months and years, I hope to have the opportunity to meet you in person so that we can get to know each other better. My plans are to visit each of your communities, congregations, ministries, text studies, celebrations and challenges as my schedule allows. However, please be patient with me; since I am not God (thank God!), I can only be in one place at a time. I’ll do my best to get there when I can. In the meantime, you are all invited to my installation on Saturday, September 21 and to the light-lunch reception afterward for a brief meet and greet with me. I look forward seeing you there!
Your fellow follower of Christ, Bishop Laurie
 Martin Luther uses the language of “little Christ” in his essay called “Freedom of a Christian.” He says that in relation to God we are saved by Christ while in relation to our neighbors we are called to be like Christ – little Christ’s.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Today is my first day as your bishop…the first day of the next six years of our life together in the Montana Synod, ELCA. First days are intriguing events, often lost in the grand adventure of things yet formative for the journey. Think about A-dam, the earth creature’s first day in the garden. Watching creation’s garden grow and flourish, A-dam was commanded by God to avoid an irresistible tree and called by God to the overwhelming task of naming all the animals; we still haven’t finished that task yet. (Gen 2)
Think about Jonah’s first day. Called to cry out against wicked Nineveh, he spent the day trying to escape to the ends of the world, napping in the hull of a ship through a divine storm, being thrown overboard and nearly drowning, and finally being rescued by God’s fish. (Jonah 1)
Think about Jesus’ first day in ministry. Called through baptism to proclaim the Kingdom of God, he was driven by the Spirit of God into the wilderness to suffer Satan’s temptations even as angels cared for him. (Mk 1:12-13)
The tomb-women’s first day after the resurrection was spent proclaiming the wonderful news of new life come out of death, only to be dismissed as idle story tellers; at the end of the day, though, their voices were indeed heard. (Lk 24) And Paul’s first day after his call on the road to Damascus was spent in blind cluelessness, unable to eat or drink, so caught up was he in the firehose of the radical transformation of his life’s work. (Acts 9)
My first day of being your bishop is thankfully a little quieter, spent in Spirit-filled solitude as I move into my new office -- physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. In many ways, I’m feeling the sympathy pains of those biblical first days as this new life as bishop is slowly birthed in me: the overwhelmingness of the task before me, the desire to run and hide (in the mountains, not on a ship), the anxiety of entering the chaotic wilderness, the fear of being dismissed, the sense of blind cluelessness about what’s ahead.
And yet my faith-filled experience tells me that in these first days, God is present, bringing new life into my life and yours. God’s creative possibilities are growing around us still; God’s saving fish is swallowing us into grace; God’s Spirit is ministering to us through the hands and hearts of our angel-neighbors; God’s voice is speaking through us and yes, is being heard whether we know it or not; and God’s transformation is happening to us as called disciples of Christ, clueless as we may be sometimes.
Change is not easy on the soul; transition is tedious, difficult and overwhelming. But when change and transition are guided by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the transformation that emerges again and again is the new life that God wants for us all.
Today, on this first day, I know that God is with me and I know that God is with you. God has been with us during the many days of Bishop Crist’s ministry and God will be with us during every day to come. In our congregations and homes, in our communities and recreation, across the mountains, prairies, and beautifully rugged wildernesses of Montana and Wyoming, God is with us, making every day the first day of the new life promised to us in our baptism into Christ. So, siblings and friends in Christ, welcome to the first day of the next six years of our life together. May God bless us and keep us, may Christ save us and reconcile us, may the Spirit inspire and empower us as we travel these first days together.