Just breathe. We’ve heard a lot about breathing in recent weeks: about George Floyd’s last breath plea of “I can’t breathe”; about the breathing struggles of those who experience the symptoms of Covid, hospitalized or not; about the fact that our own breath can become an instrument of harm to others with whom we share the air when we fail to wear a mask. Just breathing can be challenging these days.
Just breathe. This was some guidance offered by Pastor Chris Haughhee, chaplain at Intermountain Children’s Home (a Montana Synod ministry partner), with the kids who are experiencing mental health struggles such as clinical anxiety and depression brought about by trauma in their lives. Pastor Haughhee shared this breathing guidance in a blog (found here) and with it a short, 3 minute film called “Just breathe.”
In this film, various children describe in detail their own experience with anger and what it feels like. One little girl uses the image of a jar full of glitter in water. To her, anger feels like that jar being shaken wildly so that all that glitter is exploding through her brain and she can’t see anything but flashing sparks of light. But, the girl says later, when she stops and just breathes, the anger settles down the way glitter drifts to the bottom of the jar when it’s no longer shaken. The film ends with both children and adults practicing the art of just breathing. (Watch the video here.)
Just breathe. This is good advice for us all these days. “And the Lord God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life and Adam became a living being.” (Gen 2:7) “Thus said the Lord God, Come from the four winds, O breath/Spirit, and breathe upon these dead that they may live.” (Ez 37:9). “And Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Jn 30:22)
But how can we stop and sit in the midst of a chaotic world that is shaking our glitter jar and just breathe? How can we inhale God’s Spirit of life and wholeness and the peace that passes all our understanding even as we exhale our anger, fear, and anxieties? How can we just breathe when it seems there are so many voices telling us to just jump?
Over and over we hear, “just jump” back into the social and economic world the way it used to be. “Just jump” off the cliff into the mire of our dysfunctional political system (are you already as sick of the ads as I am?!). “Just jump” in front of the moving train that is Covid-19 racing through our country at barrel-neck speeds, putting our own breathing and the breath of others at greater risk.
I remember when I was a kid standing on top of the high dive for the first time at the Rolla, ND swimming pool. My knees were shaking, my heart was racing, and every instinct I had was telling me to climb back down the ladder. But the kids below were shouting “just jump you scaredy cat!” And my own brain, trying to be brave in its terror, was shouting, “You can do it, you scaredy cat. Just jump.”
And I did. And I survived…but not without experiencing an awful wedgie that I’ve never forgotten and learning my lesson that just jumping, especially when I’m doing it for no other reason than to prove my courage in the midst of terror or get my own way, isn’t often the good or right thing to do.
In fact, it’s well known that Jesus didn’t jump. In the Gospel of Matthew, the devil’s second temptation involved taking Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and telling him to “just jump.” “If you are God’s Son, throw yourself off and let the angels catch you. You won’t even stub a toe,” the devil says, even quoting scripture at Jesus to prove his point. (Mt 4:5-7)
“Don’t be afraid. It’s not real anyway. Don’t you trust God?! God will save you. Just jump.” Voices in our culture are saying versions of these words to us over and over again, tempting us through shame, doubt and fear to take unnecessary and even dumb risks to prove our bravery, often to try get their own way or seek their own purposes.
But Jesus didn’t jump. And neither should we. Jesus’ response to this temptation is to say, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Don’t test God by putting yourself in harm’s way unnecessarily. Don’t throw yourself in front of moving trains challenging God to save you when you have been given the ability and intelligence to protect yourself. Instead follow Jesus and just don’t jump.
Instead, just breathe. Take a deep breath and release the anger, the fear of being seen as afraid, the anxiety of losing control. Take a deep breath and let the Holy Spirit pray for you with sighs too deep for words. Take a deep breath and fill your whole self and your whole community with God’s life and wisdom and hope.
For yes, God will save us and does save us always! But we cannot receive God’s gift by making bad, unhealthy and unloving choices. We receive God’s salvation by trusting deeply in God’s ever-ready, eternal love for us and then living out that love in all we do and say.
So don’t jump. Instead take some time today and every day to “just breathe.” Learn from the kids in the film and let all the sparkling glitter of anger go to the bottom of your brain. And then just breathe with God, allowing the Spirit to be your diaphragm and lungs, reminding you that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In Christ’s love,
What are the most freeing words ever spoken to you? For me, the words that give me the most freedom in life are, “I am not God.” And a close second are the words, “And I don’t have to be God.”
“I am not God and I don’t have to be God.” Those words have freed me from myself and my need to fix things for people, from my need to save them from their pain, from my need to make everything right for everybody. Ask the congregations I served as an interim…what they heard on my first Sunday was this: “I’m not Jesus and I’m not here to save your congregation. Jesus has already done that.”
As a leader, even as a follower of Christ, not being weighed down by the expectations placed on me by myself and by others and letting God be God so that I don’t have to – that’s the greatest experience of freedom I can have because it allows me the freedom to focus on what I can do and be. I’m now free to be who Jesus calls me to be and to do what Jesus calls me to do.
However, being a human being who is not God and who doesn’t have to try be God does not mean that I get to abdicate my responsibility as someone created in God’s image. I don’t get to say “well, I’m not God so I don’t have to do anything. I can just sit around and let God do all the work.” That is not what it means to not be God. That’s not even what it means to have faith in God.
In Christ, God frees me from having to try be God. I no longer need to turn in on myself and focus all my attention on me being the center-of-the-universe superheroine who has come to save the world. Jesus has already taken care of that.
Now I can be the free me God creates me to be: a person created in the image of the God of love and new life, intertwined in God’s abundant creation with the diversity of all human beings also created in the image of God. I get to be the baptized follower of Christ who is called to participate in God’s mission of love and justice and hope for the world. I get to be free from my need to be God over others so that I can follow the Spirit’s life-giving guidance in the work in which God invites and encourages me to participate.
Also, it is here, in this space of not being God, of not even having to try be God, that I get to most fully live out my freedom to follow Christ and love others. How? Well, in human beings, there is this space between something that happens to or around us and our response to that something. For example, imagine someone says something mean to you. Now, before you respond to that something, there is a moment of freedom when you have the choice to choose what you are going to say or do next. Nobody else gets to make that choice for you; only you.
You can choose to react instantly without thinking or without recognizing the possible consequences of your words or actions. Or you can choose to sit in that moment of pure freedom and remember, “I am not God.” You can choose to stop in that moment and ask yourself “how God is calling me to respond to this moment?” You can take that moment and choose to let the Spirit be your guide into following Christ in love and compassion.
That moment of choice between event and response, that is where the fullness of freedom in Christ lives. For Jesus claimed that moment for himself and ultimately for us, when he prayed to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if possible, take this cup from me. Yet not my will but your will be done.” (Mt 26:39) In Christ, that moment of choice for God is God’s moment and it is in God that our true freedom stands.
“I am not God, thank God! You are not God, thank God! God is God, thank God!” Owning that truth deep in our souls and letting it burst forth every time we face a choice, any choice – that is true freedom. A freedom not found in any bill of rights but finally in the first commandment as God reminds us again and again: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me, including yourself.” (Exodus 20:2)
In the end, the first commandment is not really a command at all; it’s a promise and it’s a gift of a true freedom that comes only in God. So let’s let God be God and live in the truth of not being God, giving thanks always for the freedom that comes in Christ!
So, what is your pastor, SAM, and/or LPA called to preach to you from the pulpit during these interesting days?
The answer to that question seems easy on the surface but in fact, when we dig a little deeper into the response, we might not like the answer we hear. But nonetheless, according to scripture and the Lutheran tradition, your preacher has been called and ordained/licensed to speak particular things to you and it isn’t always what you might want to hear.
The simple answer to the question of what your preacher is called to preach is God’s Word. The preacher has been called first by God and second by the body of Christ represented in your congregation/ministry to preach God’s Word. Seems simple enough.
But what is God’s Word? Often when we hear that phrase, we think “Bible.” And we’re not wrong. The Word of God preachers are called to speak includes the Bible. But it is not only the Bible. In fact, God’s Word goes beyond the Bible and starts not with words on a page but in the fullness of a person.
God’s Word has three interconnected and incarnate forms. (There’s that three-in-one thing again!) The first form and the criteria for all the other forms of the Word of God is discovered in the Gospel of John, Chapter 1:1 -- “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This is the central way we understand the Word of God as Lutherans: as Jesus Christ!
Jesus Christ is the Word of God, made flesh, who dwelt with us, ministered to and taught us, died because of and for us, and rose again to give us new life. Everything Christ said, is and did is the fullness of God’s Word. And in Christ who lives, God’s Word is and always will be a living Word. Ultimately, Jesus – all he has done and all he calls us to do -- is the Word of God who your preacher is called and expected to proclaim.
The second form of God’s Word is Scripture. Scripture too is God’s living Word, inspired by the Spirit, written down by ancient preachers and proclaimers who were called by God to preach the Word. Scripture is God’s Word as it proclaims Jesus and the new life Christ brings out of death.
The third form of the Word is the proclamation from your pastor, SAM and/or LPA on Sunday mornings as well as the Word you hear in devotions, Bible Studies, prayer, testimonies of faith from your neighbor, creation and so many other ways. God’s Word is made real and present every moment of every day when we open our mind, hearts and spirits to him (Christ) through the words, experiences and lives of our fellow human beings and in creation.
When you hear the Word of God proclaimed, whether in Christ, in Scripture or in preaching, it comes to you in two ways: Gospel and Law. Both are necessary and useful to the life of the follower of Christ and the body of Christ in which they live.
First, the Gospel. The Gospel is the proclamation of the good news of what God does for you, directly, as a gift. You, singular and plural, only receive. You do nothing except open your self to the gift of love God pours into you.
In God’s Word as Gospel, God proclaims Jesus Christ who is the deep, abiding, agape love God has for the whole world and for you. The Gospel tells you: “God loves you. God accepts you. God passionately desires to be in life-giving relationship with you. God forgives you. God saves, redeems and reconciles you.” The Gospel is never what you do or think you should do. The Gospel is always what God does. And God has already done and continues to do everything you need or could want. (See Luther’s explanation to the Apostles Creed in the Small Catechism. http://bookofconcord.org/smallcatechism.php)
But there’s another part of God’s Word, a part that we don’t like to hear very much, at least not to apply to ourselves in this day and time, though we do enjoy applying it to other people. This second part of God’s Word is the Law. God’s Law. God’s Law spoken first and foremost to me, myself and I for my life here and now, not simply to someone else back then. And this is the part we resist when we come face to face with it.
In the Lutheran tradition, we believe that God’s Word comes to us as both Gospel and Law; neither should be forgotten, neither should be ignored. And God’s Law is all about what God calls, asks, and commands us to do and be; it describes how God wants us to live with each other in this world. The heart of this Law, the law that governs all of God’s Law, is of course to love and serve others – everyone. “…through agape love, become slaves to one another. For the WHOLE law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor.’”  (Gal 5:13b-14)
Why does God insist this Law of Love be preached? Well, first because we still sin. We still turn away from God at every turn and we still try to be god over others. “If we say we’re without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn 1:8) And so we need protection from our own sin and one another’s sin. God gives us the Law of Love to help us order our lives in the safest way possible in the midst of sin.
But the Law also functions on us another way, whether we want it to or not. It points out to us when we are not following God’s Law and invites, pesters and demands that we follow it.
And we don’t like to have the things we’re not supposed to be doing but do anyway (or the things we are supposed to do but don’t) pointed out to us, do we? We get defensive, feel guilty, push back because we think we’re pretty good people. And we are…in and through Christ. But alone we turn away from God into our self-centered ways and into sin.
This is the Word of God, the Law and Gospel that the pastor, SAM and/or LPA is called to preach to you. So before you get mad at the preacher for saying things you don’t want to hear, stop and ask yourself if they are in fact are proclaiming God’s Word by calling upon you to love and serve your neighbor – all your neighbors -- even when you don’t want to hear it or do it.
And if that’s the case, then don’t get mad. Instead, listen. Because they are doing exactly what God and the body of Christ has called them to do: proclaim God’s Word in both the Gospel and the Law, given to you in Christ, inspired by the Spirit, and guided by the Scriptures. For it is through listening to God’s Word in Christ that the Holy Spirit will transform you into who God calls you to be.
And then say “thank you pastor, SAM, LPA for reminding me that as a follower of Christ, I’m called to love everyone. And thanks and praise be to God that Jesus died for me and rose again so that I can be forgiven in grace, turn back to God, and live the life of agape love God wants me to live.”
In Christ’s love,
 Get used to me harping on this love thy neighbor command. God, Jesus, and the Spirit never stop harping on it so neither will I.
So how has the praying gone this week? In last week’s newsletter, I called upon you to pray a 500 Mississippi’s Prayer each day asking the Spirit to transform your life, asking God to open your eyes, ears, hearts, bodies, minds and spirits to the real suffering of our indigenous, brown and black siblings in Christ.
As you read that, you might have asked, “what about my own sufferings? I have sufferings too. Can’t I pray for God to relieve those?” Of course, you can. Placing our own sufferings before God is one part of our prayer life. But it is not the only part. Another part is praying that God will end the sufferings of your neighbor…and a part of that is praying that God will use you and me to do that difficult work. And in order for God to use you and me to help change the world so that people of color and the poor and the marginalized can live and breathe and seek the fullness of abundant life that God has promised for them too, we pray that the Spirit will transform us to be people of compassion, empathy and love.
But this isn’t just any love we’re called to be transformed into living. This is agape love. “Agape love your neighbor as you agape love yourself.” Whenever Jesus and Paul talk about loving God and loving neighbor as the core of all the law and prophets, the are talking about agape love. In fact, agape is actually the Greek word for love used throughout the New Testament. Whenever you see “love” in the NT, think agape.
What is agape love? It is selfless love, lose your self for others love, stand in suffering with your fellow human beings love, limit my rights and take on the responsibility Christ gives us to lift up the rights of those who suffer love. We as followers of Christ are called to agape love our neighbors no matter who they are. And today especially we’re called to agape love those whose rights aren’t being respected, especially those who aren’t being treated with justice, especially right now our indigenous, brown and black brothers and sisters. Agape love is the core of following Christ and is seen most fully in Jesus Christ who suffered and died selflessly so that the whole world might be saved from our sin and its never-ending consequences.
This agape love stands against the voices in this world who are telling us that selfishness – focusing only on “me and my own” – is a virtue. These voices of selfishness tell us that our only responsibility is to care for our own selves and our own lives. Other lives are to come second, if at all, and are there for me to use for my own gain. These voices tell us that life is one big game of King of the Hill for scarce resources and that helping and loving others is a waste of our time unless it serves the self.
But for followers of Christ, selfishness is never a virtue. In Christ we are called to self-less love. As Christians, we cannot follow both the voices of selfishness in our culture and the voice of Jesus Christ calling us to agape love at the same time. For these voices are going in opposite directions. As followers of Christ, we listen to Christ’s voice and follow him away from the bandits who would tempt us with selfishness and toward the agape love of our Good Shepherd (John 10). “And I lay down my life for the sheep,” Jesus proclaims in pure, selfless, agape love. That is the love we are called to live.
Even for ourselves we practice a self-less self-love that lives in the promise that each and every person is God’s beloved, created in God’s image. In that knowledge and truth, we care for and love all whom created, redeemed and empowered, other selves and our own, so that we can take this knowledge of God’s love of us to heart and turn it around to love our neighbors.
I close today with an old parable. Jesus was giving a woman a tour of heaven and hell so that she could see the difference between the two. First, they went to a room where a large group of people were sitting around a big table. In the middle of the table sat giant pots of delicious smelling soup. The people around the table had long spoons attached to both of their hands, so long and straight that they couldn’t bend them to reach their own mouths. As Jesus and the woman watched, the starving people bickered, yelled and screamed, raged and fought, bashing each other again and again with their spoons, demanding entitlement to get the delicious soup for themselves without caring about anyone else. The suffering, weeping and gnashing of teeth was horrible to watch. “This is hell,” Jesus told the woman.
Then Jesus took her to another room. A large group of people were sitting around a big table with big pots of delicious smelling soup down the middle. Each person had long spoons attached to their hands, so long and straight that they couldn’t reach their own mouths. But these people were happy, well-nourished, and filled with joy, laughing with each other and singing songs and celebrating life. “This is heaven,” Jesus said.
The woman said to Jesus, “I don’t understand. Why are the people here so happy while the others were so miserable when everything in both rooms is the same?” And Jesus said, “Ah, that’s simple. Here they learned how to feed each other.”
That is agape love. Blessed week to you all, Bishop Laurie
Eight minutes and twenty-six seconds. That’s over 500 Mississippi’s. Count them out…1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi…all the way to 500. Now imagine a knee on your neck as you count, each attempted breath one of those Mississippi’s, each breath harder to suck in than the last. Imagine that knee on the neck of your child, your parent, your friend as they try to breathe…1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi. Imagine.
That’s what happened to George Floyd – a son of God, a brother in Christ created in the image of God, a human being worthy of dignity and respect -- last week. A knee pressed George’s neck against the unforgiving cement of a Minneapolis city street not far from where the Mississippi River runs through and George died, another black person murdered by a white police officer while other officers ignored George’s cries for breath and the pleas of the bystanders watching.
It's hard for those of us who click the Caucasian/white box on our census form to understand the experience of George Floyd and other black, brown and indigenous human beings. It’s hard for us to understand being consistently singled out, stereotyped, threatened, and attacked for having a different skin-tone. It’s hard for us to understand why George Floyd might fear for his life as he is approached by four police officers in a city already known for the systemically permitted abusive behavior by some of its officers. It’s hard for us to understand Ahmed Aubrey’s experience of jogging in a middle-class neighborhood ten minutes from your home and being attacked and shot by two men who think you a criminal simply because of the color of your skin. It’s hard for us to understand the experience of indigenous women like Hanna Harris or Ashley Heavy Runner and their families in our state who are murdered, go missing or are routinely sexually assaulted in a social system that seems to want to do little about it.
It’s hard for us to understand. But we must try. We must imagine. We must do our best, even a little, to put ourselves into the shoes of these fellow human beings who, like us, are also beloved children of God. We must try to imagine what life is like for them. For that imagination is the heart of following the Golden Rule – to treat people of color as we as Caucasian/white people want to be treated…and probably already are.
This attempt to step into another human being’s shoes and feel their suffering is called empathy and for some reason it’s easier for human beings to do when the person looks, acts, thinks, and experiences life like we do. It’s much harder to empathize with those who we deem different, “other,” not like us. And yet such empathy and its partner, compassion, are an exercise in love.
Yes, I’m going to talk about love again.
Why do I and other Christian leaders keep harping on love all the time? Because love is the core of following Christ. To be a Christian is to love. “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.’” The whole law – all of it. Every law, rule, command, value, virtue, moral norm, guideline, social system, policy and way of living falls under God’s command to love. If it doesn’t love, it’s not a law from God.
What does this love look like as a response to the deaths and oppression, ignoring and ignorance, apathy toward and forgetting of our indigenous, black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ? For starters, I encourage you to go to the call to love by Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop the Episcopalian Church.
In this brief essay, Bishop Curry reminds us of what love can look like during this time of unrest and violence, anger and destruction, peaceful protests and riots (those are not the same thing). For example, participating in peaceful protest by and with people whose suffering has been hidden, ignored and forgotten is one way to love for it exposes the sin at the heart of their suffering that we are so unwilling to see. However, riots, violence, destruction, and purposely creating chaos to serve an agenda that has nothing to do with ending racism – that is not love. An unjustifiable act does not justify more unjustifiable acts.
But for many of us who check the “white” box, even what Bishop Curry speaks about love may be hard for us to hear. So I will propose that the Christian community’s love for people of color, and for all people similar or different than us, actually begins with prayer. Yes, prayer. To reject prayer as a part of our response is to reject the power of God’s love working in the world. Always remember who we are praying to: the God of the impossible, the Savior who brings life out of death, the Spirit who pours love into us and the world.
Now of course we pray for others: for people of color and their families who experience violence and the real threat of it every day. For those whose lives and livelihoods and places of daily life have been burned and destroyed by the rioting. For those shoved under the weighted knee of oppressive social, economic, cultural and political systems who cry out again and again to be able to breathe and seek the life, liberty, and happiness we all yearn for. We are always called to pray for others, to lament with and for them, to ask for God’s abundant life to be poured fully upon them and their communities so they can know God’s shalom.
However, even before we pray for others, we need first and foremost to pray for ourselves. Not in a self-centered “help them see that I’m right and they are wrong” way. Instead we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to transform us into the people of agape love, compassion, empathy and hope that God calls us to be. We need to pray for the Spirit to:
· open our eyes so that we can see the suffering of our black, brown and indigenous siblings;
· open our ears so that we will hear their cries for release so they can breathe;
· open our minds so that we can escape our ignorant not knowing about the depths of sin at work in our
· open our hearts so that we can step into empathy and compassion, and truly love our siblings of color in
· open our hands and feet and mouths so that our bodies can do the required-by-God’s-law work for
equality, equity and fairness for all;
· open our spirits so that we can be transformed into the image-of-God-in-Christ people God created us to
be, filled with the Spirit and empowered with forgiveness and grace to love beyond our sinfulness.
Conservationist John Muir once wrote this about seeing the landscapes around us in new ways, “All that is necessary to make any landscape visible and therefore impressive is to regard it from a new point of view, or from the old one with our heads upside down. Then we behold a new heaven and earth and are born again, as if we had gone on a pilgrimage to some far-off holy land and had become new creatures with bodies inverted; the scales fall from our eyes, and…we are made to see…new.
Ultimately, we who are white need to pray that God’s Spirit will help us see our social and cultural landscape and our suffering brothers and sisters of color from a “new point of view, or at the least with heads upside down” so that we can be born again into new creature with bodies inverted. But the only way such transformation will happen is if we ask the Spirit’s help and guidance to transform us the same way the Spirit changed those first Christians long ago, from a scared, anxious people with tendencies to complain, deny, betray, and crucify to the Spirit-filled new creation God wants us to be who lives and loves Christ into the world in all we do and say.
So, if you’re wondering what you can do in response to the struggles against racism happening around our country, I invite you to pray. Even if you don’t want to do anything else, I ask you to pray. And start by praying for yourself.
Pray a 500 Mississippi’s Prayer for eight and a half minutes each day that invites the Holy Spirit to fill you with God’s unconditional love that will transform you into God’s new creation, a follower of Christ who is willing and able to not only empathize but actually change your life and your corner of the world into an love-filled for your neighbors of color to live as beloved people of God. And then, as you are transformed by the Spirit, go out and live that love as the Spirit calls.
 John Muir, “John of the Mountains”
(Today is also my mom’s birthday so Happy Birthday, Mom!)
Pentecost Sunday is the day we celebrate the Church’s birthday. On Pentecost, a chaotic wind blew through the lives of the disciples hidden in a room in Jerusalem and changed their lives forever. That wind filled the disciples with the flame of the Holy Spirit and they began preaching the good news of Jesus Christ in languages they’d rarely heard much less spoken. “In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…”
And suddenly everything is changed. There is a new normal, a new way of relating to God, a new way of being God’s community. Even though some people dismiss the birth of this new way of experiencing God as the slurred speech of men drunk on new wine at nine o’clock in the morning, the Spirit doesn’t care! The Church, Christ’s Church, the body of Christ in the world is born through the power of the Holy Spirit! And throughout the book of Acts we watch the Church grow from 11 men plus some women hiding in a room (Lk 24:33) to 120 people (Acts 1:15) to 3120 people (Acts 2:41) to 8120 (Acts 4:4) and beyond. All by the work of the Spirit!
Today, over 2000 years later, we find ourselves in a similar situation that those disciples were in -- in a world of change and chaos, of new normal and transformation, of unpredictability and the uncontrollable work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
No, the Church is not dead as some might suggest. Nor has the Church been closed during Covid as others might suggest. The Church is alive – for the Body of Christ is risen and will live eternally! But the Church is changing. Whether we want it to or not, whether we dismiss it as the work of drunkenness or see it as God’s possibilities being made real, the Church is becoming new. This was already happening pre-Covid; it’s just that the virus and its consequences have moved up the timetable a lot.
During the past 2000 years, Christ’s Church has looked and functioned in many and various ways in different times and different places. We as the body of Christ, gathered and empowered by the Spirit, have explored, experimented with, even rejected different ways of being Church. Some of those ways needed to be rejected and buried for they were (and are) not images of Christ in the world. Other ways simply morphed into a new way of being Christ’s Church that was more able to fulfill its mission in the world.
The question before us today yet again is: What does it mean to be Church, the body of Christ? For the past weeks, we have been discussing this question publicly and privately (whether we knew it or not) as we struggled to determine how we were/are going to open the doors to our worship spaces. Even the president weighed into this conversation.
But as many Christians across the denominations have pointed out, Christ’s Church never closed. Church has been open and fulfilling its mission the whole time. Church has been worshiping and hearing the Word differently and serving others differently and helping the Spirit form faith differently and supporting and loving one another differently, but the Church never closed! Because Christ’s Church never closes! The Church lives as Christ lives!
What does it mean to be the Church, Christ’s body in the world, during and post-Covid? I think it is time we revisit this question as congregations as well as synods, as laity as well as clergy. We need to ask hard questions about things like: Where is the Spirit moving in the Church? How do we follow Christ as the Church? What is the role of our buildings and property as we live as Church? Is the church a place/space or is the Church a community empowered by a Spirit that blows us out of our doors like a chaotic wind so that we can proclaim Christ in word and deed?
One thing for sure is that the Church isn’t going to be God’s community in the same way as we were pre-Covid. The Spirit is working among us and yes, its frightening, uncertain, and uncontrollable, the same way it was for those disciples in that room 2000 years ago. But we do have choice in the transformation that the Spirit is bringing among us. We can choose to resist the Spirit’s work, putting up road blocks at every turn to hang onto what has always been done before. We can choose to leave or hide, pretending this isn’t happening. Or we can take faithful risks, stepping out little by little (or sometimes a lot) to explore and experiment with what God might be doing with Christ’s Church in 2020 and beyond.
Over the next week as you celebrate Pentecost (and search through your drawers for something red to wear that day), I’d like you to ponder and pray about what it means to be Christ’s Church in the world? And try to remove the building from the center of your definition. For the Church is not a place or a space. The Church is a community, the community of Christ through which we hear and (hopefully) experience how much God loves us and then in turn, loves God’s love into the world around us.
Happy Birthday Church! Come, Holy Spirit, Come! Bishop Laurie
What do we have to be grateful for right now?
For some of us, the answer to this question may sound like “not much.” We’re being attacked by a virus we can’t see, and some days it feels like the cure of staying distant from one another is worse than the disease. Our lives – economic, social, recreational, mental, and spiritual – have been disrupted to the point of not knowing what normal is anymore. We’re worried, afraid, and angry at the loss of freedoms we feel we’re experiencing. We’re sad at having to let go of our expectations and hopes for the spring and summer. We miss church and worship the way it used to be. And we’re sick of being told we have to innovate, to try something different, to change. What in that is there to be grateful for?
And yet gratitude lies at the heart of our faith in God. As Paul writes, “Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart.” (2 Cor 4:15-16)
We do not lose heart. Instead, we live in our trust in the God who saves us. Grace -- the free gift of God’s unconditional love for you and for the whole world in Jesus Christ -- creates faith which grows gratitude in us like a seed in springtime soil. To follow Christ in faith is to live life in the Spirit’s gratitude. This a gratitude that remembers the deep and rich blessing we’ve received in Christ and the power of the Spirit always working in our lives.
But this gratitude is hard to do when it feels like we’re being threatened at every turn.
So what does living in the Spirit’s gratitude look like even in the tough times? Well, it pays attention to what it does have or can do rather than what we don’t have or can’t do. The Spirit’s gratitude sees problems we face not as roadblocks but as opportunities to find other ways of living out the mission of the gospel that God calls us to fulfill. The Spirit’s gratitude gives thanks for the positives that can come even out of the toughest experiences. The Spirit’s gratitude sees everything as a possibility because nothing, even life out of death, is impossible with God. For in Christ, the glass is neither half-empty nor half-full; the glass is always overflowing with the abundant love of God and the power of new life that God shares with us every day.
In the Spirit’s gratitude, we see the world and the difficulties of life differently. No, our problems don’t go away, but we see them through Spirit-lenses rather than fear-lenses, through Jesus-lenses rather than anxiety-lenses, as “having enough in God” lenses rather than scarcity lenses. “If you’re grateful, you’re not fearful, and if you’re not fearful, you’re not violent. If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. If you’re grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people and you are respectful to everybody…” (David Steindl-Rast)
But more than just changing our view of the world and those around us, the Spirit’s gratitude leads and empowers us to act on that gratitude. A thankful church and its grateful followers of Christ looks at the many gifts and assets of the community and then asks, what can we do to serve God’s kingdom with the abundance we DO have?
Ultimately service to others is an act of gratitude. As Henri Nouwen proclaims, “We are so full of God’s presence, we are so aware of God’s promise, that we don’t want to hold it back. We want to share it…it is freeing to know that the presence of God is practiced by acts of grateful service.” And we want to do so with those who are most in need.
And you all have done that! I am grateful to you and to God for all that you have given for the sake of the ministry of the gospel, not only in and around the Montana Synod and your communities but also for the people of Bolivia. I am grateful for the monetary gifts you’ve given to your congregations, the synod, and around the world, but also for your kindness, patience and support you’ve given to your pastor, the synod staff and your bishop. I’m grateful for the many ways you have stepped up or stayed home to take on the responsibility of protecting your church and your community. I’m grateful for your wisdom, gentleness, and faithfulness in these times when too many are choosing to express their fears and frustrations through angry demands and hateful speech. Your generosity humbles me as you share your gratitude for all God has done with the world around you. Thank you for living out the Spirit of gratitude in everything you do and say.
I close with this reminder from Paul as we seek to follow Jesus during this time: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
· Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
· Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the
Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
· Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
· And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.
· And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all
wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
· And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to
God the Father through him.” (Col 3:12-17)
In gratitude, Bishop Laurie
 Henri Nouwen, “Following Jesus: Finding our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety, p. 130, 131.
“And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” This is the question Jesus asks his disciples in his Sermon on the Mount in a lengthy section about worry. (Mt 6:27) As I hear this question, Jesus seems to be asking an ancient form of Dr. Phil’s famous question: “So how’s that workin’ for ya?”
During these days of Covid19 and all the changes it is bringing, we spend a lot of time, energy, and resources on our worry, reacting to it, fearing it, managing it. But too easily anxiety can spiral us into hard places, leaving us feeling exhausted and out of control. The more anxious we are, the more we tend to react in ways that end up increasing our anxiety which in turn causes more unhelpful reaction which increases our anxiety…
Anxiety does strange things to human beings, especially if it’s chronic. When we’re faced with an immediate threat, anxiety can prepare us to meet that threat. In that way, it’s a helpful part of being human.
However, over time even a low-grade anxiety, such as wondering about the economy, worrying about getting Covid, planning ways to do safe worship, etc, can build up in our bodies, our minds and our spirits and start manifesting itself in harmful ways to ourselves and others.
When we’re in anxiety mode, our amygdala kicks into gear and it’s easy to panic. We act in fight, flight, or freeze mode, trapped in emotions of fear or rage, not able to think clearly if at all. High anxiety constricts us, arousing feelings of helplessness, decreasing our ability to learn, and simplifying our thinking into only “yes” or “no” reactions. Then, as we desire to ease our anxiety using certainty, we try to control others by criticizing and blaming them for all our problems. In these anxious states, we tend to demand quick fixes and become defensive, fast to stand against and over anyone who disagrees with us.
As the storm descended on their boat, Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (Mt 8:26) It doesn’t seem fair, does it? Asking human beings created with a built-in panic button to “be not afraid?”
Yet God continually calls us not to fear or worry. “Therefore do not worry…” Jesus says in his Sermon. (Mt 6:31, 34) In fact, again and again throughout scripture we are reminded not to fear, not to be afraid, not to worry or be anxious. “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God,” God says through the prophet Isaiah (41:10). “Do not worry about anything,” Paul tells the Philippians. (4:6) “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you…do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid,” Jesus says to his disciples. (Jn 14:27) In fact, God comforts us over 60 times in scripture with calls to “be not afraid.”
But how can we not worry in this uncertain and frightening time? Is God asking the impossible of us?
Kind of, but not really. “Kind of” in the sense that we can never completely get rid of our anxiety; it is part of our human make-up. God understands that. That’s why in Matthew 6:31 and 34, Jesus offers not a command to stop worrying but rather a promised-based challenge: “Don’t worry because you have no need to. Instead have faith in the kingdom of God and God’s deep relationship with you, and all that you need will be given unto you. After all, God knows that you need these things.” (Mt 6:31-34, paraphrase)
But there’s a “not really” here too. God isn’t asking the impossible of us because in faith and with healthy self-management skills, we have the ability through the power of the Spirit and the guidance of spiritual and mental health leaders to manage our anxiety through Christ rather than through our human abilities which by themselves will too often lead us into unhealthy places.
When we live through our faith in Christ, the “image of God” part of our brain is invoked: the neo-cortex and empathy centers. Empowered by the Spirit, we can take deep breaths wrapped in God’s grace when we feel anxious and think more clearly, respecting others and learning patiently through our faith. Living in the peace of Christ, we can listen to our neighbors and better practice love, kindness, and self-control. Filled with the wisdom of the Spirit, we can be curious, flexible, and open to alternative God-fed responses. Brimming with the words of God’s never-ending love and acceptance, we can talk sense and good news to ourselves, reminding ourselves and others that God is with us no matter what. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it’s your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Lk 12:32)
Anxiety, worry, fear – these will never work to save us from anything. Only Christ can do that. So as 1Peter 5:7 proclaims, “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you.”
Always and forever! In Christ’s promise,
 I know it doesn’t read like that in the NRSV but it’s an ancient Greek thing.
“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
How many of you are feeling like your hopes have been dashed? Like you’ve lost something important – an opportunity, an experience, an event, a plan, a person?
Many of us may be feeling this way right now. Losses of jobs, of livelihood, of lives. Losses of our plans for Easter or a birthday or graduation. Loss of a vacation or some time with far-away family or gathering for Sunday worship. Even the loss of the normal, of stability, or of the way things were. All of these losses are being experienced by people as our lives are inevitably changed due to Covid19. And as we experience these losses, it is normal to feel grief. Everything has changed and our hopes feel shattered. With such loss naturally comes grieving.
That’s what the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were feeling when they came upon the risen Jesus they didn’t recognize. Confusion, dashed hopes, grief. “We had hoped that he was the one,” they say in their sadness. When people go through a traumatic loss, they often have a hard time remembering details or making decisions or seeing the truth in front of their eyes. Jesus’ travelling companions on the road to Emmaus were no different. Despite the promise of the empty tomb, the disciples felt loss and grief and simply couldn’t recognize Jesus among them.
We too are experiencing loss. We had hoped we’d been able to worship by now; we had hoped for healing by now; we had hoped that things would be different, normal, predictable. But things haven’t gone as expected. Right now, despite the Easter promise of the empty tomb and whether we know it or not, many of us are suffering loss and grieving. And it’s important for us to name that, to take stock of our emotions and thoughts, and to recognize that we are walking on a journey of grief and all that comes with it.
Think of the various experiences of grief people go through: the shock that may still not have worn off; the denial while trying to avoid the inevitable; the anger and frustrated outpouring of emotions we’ve kept bottled up. Then there’s the bargaining, searching in vain for ways out, no matter how impossible. At some point we realize that the inevitable has happened and depression hits. Then, hopefully, we can start to seek realistic responses and find the way in our acceptance that what has happened is real and moving forward is our only possibility for life.
All of these apply to our lives now and can be easily seen in ourselves and others as we struggle to face the reality of the Covid virus and its consequences. And since each of us is different we may be in different places in our experiences of grief, sometimes dealing with more than one of these experiences at a time, sometimes bouncing back and forth between them depending on the day, the hour, the minute.
It is because of this grief and the ways we experience it that we need to take some time to care for our selves spiritually, mentally and emotionally right now. And we can start by inviting Jesus into our homes and lives. “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is nearly over,” the disciples ask of the risen Jesus they still don’t recognize yet, even though he told them all about himself on the road.
“Stay with us,” we can pray to the risen Christ so that our frustration doesn’t turn into anger or our sadness doesn’t become debilitating. “Stay with us” so that we can face the inevitable changes with courage and hope. “Stay with us” so that we can take responsibility for our neighbors instead of simply bargaining for our own rights. “Stay with us” so that in our need to get back to a normal that will never be again we don’t rush back to life expecting it to be as it was before.
And when, in prayer or meditation or devotions, we can invite the risen Jesus into our homes and break bread with him and open our hearts to the work only the Spirit can do, it is then that our eyes will be opened to see Christ’s new life working in us and our hearts will burn with the promises given to us on the road of our faith. It’s then, when Christ’s new life enters us, that we can move through the experiences of grief rather than around them and let the Spirit comfort us in grief, calm our fears, and lead us toward acceptance. It’s then that we can be transformed into Jesus’ disciples who see the risen Christ and follow him into new life on the other side.
For there is new and abundant life on the other side of grief. We may not know what it looks like yet, but God has promised it, and in faith we trust that promise as true. Our calling is bigger than any immediate freedom to worship we might demand. It is the call to live even now, even in our grief, in Christ. Until we reach that other side, we can cling to Christ on our road to Emmaus living out the fruit of the Spirit by practicing in all that we do for our neighbors “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23)
So hang in there, beloved, and take some time to grieve what you’ve lost. Here are some ideas from my fellow Bishop Laurie (Oregon Synod) for grieving while social distancing. But in your grief, never forget that Christ is walking that road with you to new life and love for your neighbor.
In Christ’s love,
“Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee…’” (Mt 28:7)
This is a week of stories. No doubt you’ve been hearing a lot of stories recently, mostly about Covid19. No doubt some of those stories are sad or frightening. No doubt some of those stories make us want to turn off the news and watch a 1980’s sitcom.
But I’m betting that some of these stories are good news stories. Some stories are about kindness and compassion as people share with one another and care for each other. Some stories are fun and full of the delight of people trying to make the best of a tough situation. (I’m noticing a lot of online dancing!)
On the evening of April 8, our Jewish sisters and brothers begin their holy days of Passover. These siblings from the Jewish faith also are focusing on story-telling this week, speaking the goodness of God into a time of suffering. They too are struggling to find ways to come together as families and friends across the internet and over the phone so that they can eat together and tell the stories of freedom and God’s deliverance.
What are the good news stories you’re hearing around your community or phone tree? What are the good news stories that are inspiring you this week? For me, one of the good news stories comes out of Libby MT where the members of Christ Lutheran put together an Easter Parade using their vehicles and drove past the church with signs wishing the interim pastor and the secretary a “Happy Easter.” Or the one from Powell WY where Hope Lutheran (Powell) and Trinity Lutheran (Cody) are using the local drive-in theatre for stay-in-your-car worship. (Honk your horn to share the peace! I love it!) If you have a good news story from your congregation, please share it with us. We’d love to hear it!
“Go and tell,” the angel says to the women at the tomb. “Do not be afraid. Go and tell,” Jesus says to them minutes later as they race to tell the disciples. (Mt 28:10)
This is the week we tell the core story of the Christian faith – the story of Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem and his meal with his disciples and the washing of their feet. The story of the new commandment that Jesus himself gave us: “Love one another.” The story of Jesus’ arrest with a kiss from his betrayer. The story of his so-called trial, his torture, suffering and long walk to his execution. The story of Jesus’ death on a cross in a garbage dump called Golgotha. And yes, the story of his resurrection. On Easter Sunday, we will shout “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!”
But this year, telling this story -- the story that someone once dubbed “The Greatest Story Ever Told” -- will be different. Many of us will be hearing this story from home, perhaps online or on the radio. Some will be reading it for ourselves from the Bible. In fact, I encourage you to read Matthew 26-28 and/or John 18-21 for the full “rest of the story.” Most of us will be staying at home to receive the story rather than “going and telling” anyone.
But one of the amazing things about this story is that no matter where we hear it and no matter where we tell it, the story remains our greatest good news story ever, the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this story we are reminded that Jesus went through suffering, death and resurrection to give us new life in him. We are also reminded that we too are called to take up our cross and follow him through this path of suffering, death and resurrection -- not to celebrate suffering and death but to stand up to it, face it and celebrate Christ’s victory over it.
In this Holy Week story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we hear the good news that Christ’s new life is our new life whether we congregate in the same physical place or not. And neither Covid19 nor the devil himself can take this new life away. We can walk through our own Holy Week journey – Christ’s journey – with him, trusting with our whole selves that just as “we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rm 6:5)
Blessed Holy Week to you all!
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod