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.
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod