Tossed and Turned

Tossed and Turned

Dear Friends,

Tossing and Turning.

We most often associate those words with sleepless nights. But on Sunday, they belong to Jesus. We step away from Mark’s gospel for a week to dip a toe into John’s, nearly run over by Jesus who is on a mission. (John 2.13-22) The text for Sunday is typically called “Jesus Cleanses the Temple” and is used to indict ancient Jewish worship practice and, in a theological leap inexplicable to me, to prevent fund raisers in churches. I beg to disagree.

The story of Jesus Tossing and Turning requires some context. Jesus has just attended a wedding in Capernaum where he saved the groom’s reputation by turning water into wine. He and his disciples have traveled to Jerusalem, and make a side trip to the temple.

For complex reasons, Jesus pitched a fit when he saw the pilgrims exchanging currency and purchasing animals for the sacrifice. Contrary to what we have always been taught, the money changers were simply doing the work they did every day—making it possible for worshippers to offer their financial offerings in recognizable coins and to purchase sacrificial animals that would have been too difficult to carry with them. There was nothing irreverent or illegal taking place. Except Jesus. Who knew something they did not.

With a whip and a roar, Jesus tossed and turned the tables of the money changers. Coins of many realms clattered to the floor. Lambs fled. Birds flew. Cattle made a mad dash for the door. Jesus yelled at them, “Get out! Stop making my father’s house a marketplace!”

Yikes! No one present had any idea why Jesus had reacted the way he did. Only later, John tells us in aside, will the reason become clear. Only later, when Jesus’ body has been lifted on a cross, making of his own body a temple, will the victims of his vitriol look back and say, “Oh, that’s what that was about. We don’t worship a temple of timbers. We worship the temple that is Jesus.”

Jesus’ concern was that their worship lives had become impossibly entwined with a building, with a tradition, with a law whose letter they knew better than the spirit of the law, which had dissipated.

Tossing and Turning.

I cannot help but apply that image to what the pandemic is doing to all our lives, and to all our structures. Our forced absence from one another, and from the building that we love has forced our church to face issues we had hoped to put off for a decade or so. But the pandemic has burst into our lives as violently as Jesus burst into the temple. And while I don’t think God sent the pandemic to teach us a lesson, I do think God might use this uncomfortable opportunity to toss and turn our traditional way of being “church.” We now ask questions Jesus first raised in Jerusalem:

How does our building support or inhibit our ministry?

Does our worship adequately praise God and equip us?

What does “community” look like?

Is our financial generosity used for God’s purposes?

We ask these questions without the goad of whip and roar, but urged on by the upending of all the structures, patterns and routines we once knew.

Please join us for Worship on Sunday, as we continue to be “church” on many screens. We will also tell you more about our Lent Challenge with Holy Family Ministries.

After worship, we will leave the zoom link open for Coffee Hour—a chance to virtually visit one another.

Though we are now a full year into remote worship and congregational life, it still makes me sad. I miss you more than you can know. I know that we will, one day, be together for worship and congregational life. But it will not be the same. Thank goodness, it will not be the same. We are being tossed and turned for good.

“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post

On to Tomorrow!

On to Tomorrow!

Dear Friends,

I’m so tired of television, I could scream. I know the pandemic has been a windfall for streaming services, but I feel as though my brain is rotting from the inside out. I’ve watched more TV in the last year than in my whole life combined. Series! Mini-series! Mysteries! Documentaries! Films! PBS! The ends of series I stopped watching years ago and now remember why I stopped watching. “All Things Bright and Beautiful!” was a momentary respite, but that’s ended. (Will James and Helen marry in Season 2? How sad is it that I care?) (I’ve also read enough books, worked enough cross words and baked enough bread for a lifetime.)

One of the reasons I’m so delighted that the days are growing longer and warmer, is that I won’t be trapped inside my house in the evenings. We will be able to go for long walks again. We will be able to sit on the deck again. We will be able to chat with neighbors in our driveway again. We will be able to . . . anything but television.

But the darkness and cold will continue for a while longer, so we went in search of something that wasn’t insipid or offensive or tedious or violent. (Those four qualifiers knocked most cable and streaming services off the list.) What did we find? At least for now? “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., streaming on PBS. I doubt we’ll watch all seven seasons, but Gates is up to something that has me intrigued.

Using genealogical research, DNA analysis, social research, interviews and highly-educated guesses, the show explores the genetic past of famous people. Gates is a renowned, remarkable historian, who has used his gifts and fame for enormous good. And while most of the current fascination with DNA and ancestry makes me nervous (I’m not sure I want my mostly-German genes under a stranger—or marketer’s—microscope), “Finding Your Roots” is more than prurient interest in the past. Gates invites his guests to study their past to inform both the present and the future. He typically asks at the end of each episode, “What are you going to do with this (information) now?”

Rather than dwelling in a newly-discovered Yesterday, Gates pushes his guests toward an enlightened, purposeful Tomorrow. He has chosen a hard task. We would much rather parse a past, making meaning out of information we can verify and control, than peer into a future that belongs only to God.

During Lent, we have chosen to preach on the appointed Old Testament texts. Last week we studied a familiar story that I dubbed “God Cries a River.” (Genesis 9.8ff) This Sunday we dig into the story of Abraham and Sarah, a 17-chapter saga about an immigrant family who trusted God’s leading. Like Noah, who we met last week, there is nothing obvious about Abraham, that he and his family would catch God’s eye, would be worthy of the title “Father of Nations.” But, like Noah, who built a boat in the desert, Abraham was asked to place his feet on a path that couldn’t be seen.

Here’s the conundrum. Abraham was a wealthy herder, surrounded by servants and slaves and sycophants. He wasn’t looking to leave home. He wasn’t looking for an adventure. He was happy to count his cash, brand his sheep, admire his concubines.

What was it that intrigued Abraham enough to leave his home and country (though not his wealth, herds and servants)? We can’t know. But he did. And I have often wondered if, miles and years down the road, Abraham and Sarah sat on the deck at night and wondered, regretfully, about the life they had left behind. Were they as obsessed with the past as we are? Did they spit in a test tube for 23andMe? Did they subscribe to Did they hire researchers to discover distant relatives? Did they “what if” long into the night?

Apparently not. Abraham and Sarah kept looking forward, putting one foot in front of the other, trusting God’s GPS to guide them. Their comfortable past was not nearly as interesting as God’s uncomfortable future, so they went. And, to their credit, they also waited. They waited 25 years for the fulfillment of the promise that they would be parents. We will tell you more about that Sunday.

On Sunday morning, I invite you to Worship with us (by live zoom, of course). By the light of ancient texts, we will search for the trailhead of the path God wants us to follow.

After worship, we invite you to remain for our Annual Meeting, on the same zoom link at 11 a.m. Annual meetings are funny things—they invite us to look back on the past with gratitude and imagine the year ahead with hope. They invite us to emulate Abraham and Sarah, whose antenna were always turned for Tomorrow.

The pandemic has driven keen interest in the past. (Admit it, haven’t you sorted that box of old family photos in the basement?) After all, the present is, at best, troubling, and the future is, sometimes, terrifying. The past, on the other hand, feels somehow manageable. At least, we can put it away when it gets difficult. Instead, God calls us not to replay the past, but to be patient with the present and hopeful for the future. As the hymn of the day for Sunday sings, “In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” (“Hymn of Promise,” Natalie Sleeth, 1986)

Meanwhile, I’m silently screaming at the TV until the weather warms and I can be outside on an evening. Thank goodness for Dr. Gates, who points even the rich and famous toward a future God alone can see.

“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post

Acutely Chronic

Acutely Chronic

Dear Friends,

Which is worse? Chronic pain or acute?

Which is worse? To live everyday with debilitating pain, or to suffer crippling pain only on occasion?

Which is worse? To be so accustomed to pain you hardly notice it anymore, or to be a stranger to pain, surprised when it strikes?

Which is worse? The question or the answer?

It is, perhaps, a silly exercise. No one would choose pain, of any sort. And, even if we had a choice, pain does not send us a survey, asking about the best way into our lives. Sudden or gradual? Site-specific or global? Lingering or intermittent? Daytime or nighttime?

What prompts this odd question, you ask? Here’s the thing.

I saw something in Sunday’s gospel reading (Mark 1.9-15), I’d never seen before. Every year, on the first Sunday of Lent, we read about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Fresh from his baptism, three of the four gospel writers toss Jesus immediately into the wilderness for a sort of 40-day vision quest. The story is familiar to you, I’m sure.

But here’s what I noticed this year. In Mark’s gospel, the first and shortest of the gospels, Jesus is tested for the duration of his wilderness wanderings. For 40 days, Satan plagued him with unspecified trouble. What’s news about that? I had it in my head that Satan appeared only at the end of the 40 days, when Jesus was at his weakest. But that acute, sudden-onset testing occurs only in Matthew’s gospel. In both Mark and Luke, the testing is chronic, for the duration. Here’s what Mark writes, “Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan.”

Apparently, the testing was endless. Like the torture that has since been declared illegal, in which the subject of torture is barraged day and night, sleep-deprived and starving, Satan never let up. For 40 days.

Yikes! Which would be worse? A steady drum beat of torture or an explosive burst?  Like us, Jesus didn’t get to choose.

Though the specifics of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness are sketchy, I can’t help but compare his 40-day wilderness ordeal to our almost-12-month pandemic ordeal. For some of us, the trouble started a year ago and has not let up. In the first month of the pandemic, more than 20 million jobs were “lost;” most of those jobs have not been “found.” Millions of school children and teachers were tossed into Zoom Hell. Evictions started almost immediately, as otherwise-reliable renters were suddenly unable to make rent. We could describe their pandemic pain as chronic. Relentless. Endless.

Others have us have been largely untouched by the economic fallout of the pandemic, but suffer instead from isolation and anger, uncertainty and angst. Among this group, there is a fair amount of Survivor’s Guilt—aware that others are suffering, ashamed to be so consumed with their own, relatively modest discomfort. We could describe their pandemic pain as acute. Occasional. Surprising.

Are those our only choices? If Door #1 is chronic and endless pain, and Door #2 is acute and occasional pain, isn’t there a Door #3, a “no pain” path? Sadly, not. As a funeral director friend quips, “Nobody gets out of this life alive.” Same with pain and sorrow. They are equal opportunity offenders.

Ask Jesus. He knew both, as well. Tortured by Satan for 40 days at the beginning of the gospel, and tormented on the cross for a brief three hours at the end, Jesus experienced all of human pain. Chronic and Acute. And bore it all. Still does.

Ash Wednesday was a hard day for me. I am all about ritual and liturgy, marking the beginning and ending of things, praying familiar prayers, singing familiar songs. But not this year. There was no in-person worship. (Before the pandemic, no one modified “worship” with “in-person.” What other kind was there?) No nods to shoppers in the grocery store who bore the same ash cross on their foreheads. No confessional comradery. No quiet gathering at the Lord’s Table.

But the experience of an ash-less Ash Wednesday has become a chronic condition for us. We suffered the same emptiness on Easter, Pentecost, Reformation, All Saints, Christmas, Epiphany, and all the Sundays, holy days and weekdays in between. As is true for those who live with chronic pain, the emptiness of our isolation from one another feels almost normal now. We do the best we can—in worship and in all other aspects of our lives, but . . .  Well, you know. It’s not the same.

Please join us Sunday, as we learn more of Jesus’ chronic wilderness suffering in Worship. Please remain with us after worship for a special edition Vitality Talk, introducing our Lent Challenge, and to new ways with words like Advocate, Anti-Racist, Ally.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that suffering and sorrow can fall more heavily on some than on others. Whole zip codes have been traumatized by the virus, while others can count the trouble on one hand. That is not accidental. Those who are privileged to still be standing, have an obligation to recognize the systems and patterns of behavior that contribute to the inequity of this national tragedy. And if this undeniable reality and our conversations about systemic racism and its accompanying ills makes us uncomfortable, that’s a good thing. Like the irritation that accompanies a closing wound, our discomfort means healing is happening.

Which is worse? Chronic pain or acute trauma? Systemic racism or random violence? Sinful nature or sinful acts? Do we get to choose? Isn’t there another option?

I’m deeply grateful for the honesty with which we have endured this pandemic. It’s not been easy, and it’s not over. Suffering together—both the acute and chronic kind—is easier when we suffer it together.

“See” you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

A Founding Mission

A Founding Mission

Dear Friends,

It started as a kitchen-table enterprise, quickly becoming a multi-million-dollar creative hub, connecting starving artists with monied art buyers. My friend was one of a second wave of hires, helping to move the business from the founder’s kitchen table to beautiful offices and production facilities in the most business-friendly city in the country. They worked hard, every day, all day, pursuing the founder’s relentless dream. Amazing people clamored to work there. Growth was exponential. They bet big, every day, and never lost.

That was ten years ago. The industry has changed. Competitors now bite into their market share. The creatives who were first drawn to the intensity of the mission, are now seeking work that is more predictable, income more steady, an environment less volatile. But the founder cannot let it go, cannot live without the adrenaline rush of meeting impossible deadlines, exceeding unreasonable expectations, overwhelming the odds. Even before the pandemic, the best and brightest on the staff were already looking for the exit. After the pandemic, lay-offs became necessary and some of those laid-off—including my friend—were relieved. Being laid off was an escape hatch from the founder’s maniacal drive, dogged determination, unwillingness to listen.

We can all tell stories like this, stories about amazing organizations that faltered or failed because the founder couldn’t imagine any other way but theirs, refused to craft succession plans, ignored the signs of change. It happens in congregations, too.

High atop a bluff in northeastern Iowa, the Lutheran church steeple still casts its long shadow across miles and miles of rich farmland. Founded in 1853 by a visionary Norwegian immigrant pastor and his wife, the congregation exploded with activity and interest. They built a stunning edifice that welcomed hundreds of worshippers—worshippers who first travelled there by horse and buggy, and later by car. The founding pastor turned leadership of the congregation over to his eldest son, who later turned leadership over to his eldest son. In 1949, the congregation was voted one of Twelve Great Churches in America, according to a poll of 100,000 pastors conducted by The Christian Century.

Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a vibrant congregation? Who wouldn’t want to learn the faith from a three-generation clerical dynasty? What could possibly go wrong with an organization left unchanged for 100 years? You know the answer. Though rural congregations have all suffered cultural and demographic shifts, the fall of this particular congregation was fast and furious. Because the pastors and leaders refused to envision any vision but that of the founder, the congregation plummeted from being one the Great Congregations to being a mostly empty building.

As I write, the impeachment hearings are playing in the background in my office—hearings occasioned by catastrophic failure to imagine a new vision, to understand the need for orderly succession, to heed the painful truth that leadership needs to change if an organization—even a nation’s government—is to thrive.

And, as I write, Sunday’s gospel is bouncing around my brain. On Sunday we mark the Transfiguration of Our Lord—the backdoor of Epiphany and the gateway to Lent. Our texts speak of orderly succession, transfer of power, a shared and dynamic vision, an unchanged mission.

Elijah, the greatest of biblical prophets, passed the mantel to his associate Elisha in dramatic fashion. Though Elijah was tired and happy to be done with it, Elisha begged him not to go. Elijah was undeterred, clicking his heels together three times as “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen” carried Elijah into the clouds. (2 Kings 2.1-12)

Jesus, the only Son of God, dragged three disciples to the top of a lonely mountain to hobnob (virtually) with Elijah and Moses. The three disciples, terrified, would learn only later that they had been allowed to witness Jesus’ transfiguration so that they could carry on Jesus’ ministry post-resurrection. (Mark 9.2-9)

Every founder needs a successor. Every vision needs re-vision. Every organization needs re-organizing. Here’s the thing: though the vision might shift, and the face of leadership might change, the mission does not.

Our mission? As a congregation, as disciples? Though we might gather differently than did the first disciples, differently than we gathered even eleven months ago, the mission of our founder, Jesus Christ, has not faltered. That’s why, two millennia after that transformative Transfiguration, the church of Jesus Christ continues to thrive on every continent, in thousands of languages, under many names. What is that founding mission? Join us on Sunday for live zoom worship, and we’ll talk about it more.

After worship on Sunday, we ask you to remain for our February Vitality Talk, a compact, honest and insightful discussion with Vicar Phillip Potaczek of a recent article in Living Lutheran magazine: “Unpack White Privilege: The Important Work of Making Church Less Harmful.” Download the article here . If part of you says, “I don’t remember talking about White Privilege before,” you would be right. Every generation addresses that generation’s central issues as part of its mission. We have deemed discussions of race and class to be central to the unfolding founding mission of Jesus Christ.

Can my friend’s former employer, that creative enclave, survive the founder’s myopia?

Can a storied, venerable congregation become a novel, nimble one?

Can a nation survive violent attempts to overturn a central tenet of its mission?

Can Ascension trust the Transfigured Jesus to transform us, again and again?

One more thing. In the midst of this protracted weather pattern, leading to frigid temperatures and frequent snow, I remind us to give thanks for those who work in the cold to protect us, and to pray protection for those who live in the cold because they have no place to go. They are part of Jesus’ mission, our mission, too.

“See” you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

You Noticed!

You Noticed!

Dear Friends,

Every day, unless it is raining or snowing, she walks Founders and Kamp Streets in Northbrook. Elderly, petite, bent double over her walker, I’ve never seen her face. But her slender, curved, determined figure is so familiar, I feel that I know her.

Most seasons, she walks on the sidewalk, separated from the street by a grassy berm. But now that snow banks have closed the sidewalks, she walks in the street, hugging the snow-packed curb.  Her proximity to traffic terrifies me. When I see her, I slow way down and give her a wide berth, sending evil stares at drivers who disregard her.  Does no one notice her but me?

That question was answered earlier this week in a big, Blue way. As I turned onto Kamp Street at the end of my work day, I was slowed by a Northbrook police SUV inching down the street ahead of me, straddling both lanes of traffic. It seemed odd. I couldn’t see an emergency; the officer hadn’t turned on the flashing lights; there were no geese crossing the road, as there so often are in the spring and fall.

What was the officer doing? Protecting the Walking Woman as she pushed her walker in the street. Traffic piled up behind the cruiser as the officer shielded her from inattentive drivers, while my elderly friend maintained her steady, stooped pace. I was moved almost to tears as I crept along behind the police car—she had been noticed and deemed worthy of protection. Protection from impatient drivers who might not have noticed, who might have, inattentively, harmed her.

In these angry days in our community and country, I have tired of the things we choose to notice: other peoples’ faults, wingnuts in positions of power, inconsistencies in action, failures in judgement, petty slights blown out of proportion. We attack one another with “Yeah, but . . .,” creating false equivalencies. We condemn one another for the things we ourselves have done. We dwell on the darkness in others, imagining ourselves to be the only reliable arbiters of truth and justice. Have you noticed?

That’s why that kind police officer, shepherding a strolling citizen to safety, caused me so much joy. Rather than ticketing the Walking Woman for impeding traffic or loitering in a public place, the officer honored her daily walk with a slow-moving vehicular parade. The officer noticed her.

Sunday’s gospel reading calls us to “notice,” as well. (Mark 1.29-39) Jesus, fresh from a synagogue sermon that went viral, stopped by a disciple’s home for Sabbath Dinner. But there was no dinner on the table. Though the pot roast warmed in the oven, fresh pies cooled on the counter, and the table was set for guests, there was no host. Where was the disciple’s mother-in-law, who had extended the invitation in the first place? Mark tells us she was sick in bed, fighting a fever, completely unable to welcome her guests. I am sure that some in attendance were irritated with her for potentially exposing them to illness. I imagine others poked at the pies with a fork, quietly helping themselves. Others might have picked up the phone to order take-out. But Jesus? Jesus wondered about the woman, worried about the woman. Jesus stuck his head into her bedroom to check on her, as a parent checks on a feverish child. Seeing her abed, unable to rise, Jesus touched her hand, helped her to her feet, cooled her fever. Jesus chose to not notice the rudeness of his disciples or the rumbling in his stomach. He noticed her.

Both the Northbrook police officer and Jesus have reminded me this week to notice. To care. To imagine the other’s need, rather than dwell on my own. Its not really that hard. To simply notice.

Though the weather outside is frightful, we will gather for live zoom Worship on Sunday, as we have for the eleven months of the pandemic. Eleven months. Sigh.

On that note, I have called a meeting of our Community Life Team, the wise women and men at Ascension who have been guiding our response to the pandemic. Now that our region has moved to Phase 4, and vaccine distribution accelerates, I want us to start imagining the day when we will resume in-person worship and congregational life at Ascension. It won’t happen for a while, but it finally feels as though our pandemic-driven distance from one another will, eventually, lift, and I want us to be ready. We’ll keep you posted.

Today I ask you to do a simple thing—notice. Notice something good. Notice someone in need. Notice that, today, the sun will shine three minutes longer than it did yesterday. And to flip a fear-based trope, “If you see something, say something.” Something good. Something kind. Something hopeful. Today let’s choose to notice the things, the people Jesus notices.

I still worry about the Walking Woman in this horrible weather, on these slick streets—there might not always be a kind officer to protect her. But perhaps others are noticing her, as well, shielding her from danger, shepherding her to safety.  Maybe that “noticer” will be you.

“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post

Says Who?

Says Who?

Dear Friends,

“Says who?”

“Says me.”

“Oh, okay.”

Though my playground days are long past, I remember exchanges like this at recess. Whether choosing sides for pick-up ball games, or taking turns on the swings, or batting the tether ball around the pole, some child was always challenging some other child’s authority. And if the challenger was older, or bigger, or more popular, or meaner than the one being challenged, the challenge was short-lived.

“Says who?”

“Says me.”

“Oh, okay.”

I continue to ruminate on the troubling events of Epiphany Day in Washington, DC. Under the guise of ownership, armed militia stormed the nation’s capital shouting, “Our house! Our house!” Theirs was the authority of arms and anger, and they wielded it without mercy. Does it matter to them that five people died and 140 police officers were injured as they exercised their misguided authority?

“Says who?”

“Says me.”

“Don’t hurt me.”

Sunday’s texts are all about “authority:”

God says, “I will put MY words in the mouth of the prophet; you will listen to the prophet because of MY words.” (DT 18.15-20)

Paul writes, “Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 COR 8.1-13)

Mark writes, “Jesus taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (MK 1.21-28)

If scripture is to be believed, true authority is conferred by God, not claimed by us.

True authority means that we moderate ourselves for the sake of another.

True authority is a clear word, unencumbered by footnotes and academic citations.

“Says who?”

There are many ways to describe sources of authority. One system I have used describes five sources of authority:

Legal or formal (office or position)

Traditional (“father knows best” or “because I said so”)

Consent (mutual agreement)

Competence (leadership by virtue of skill)

Charisma (think “Pied Piper”)

None of these sources quite describes the authority of God in our lives, or the authority we exercise among each other, though I suppose God could be shoe-horned into each.

Instead, God exercises authority that we accept because we know it is exercised in love. Even the discipline we sometimes know from God is intended for our good, for our growth. We do not follow God, love Jesus, emulate Paul and other early church leaders out of fear, but because we trust their wisdom, their experience, their competence, their compassion.

We meet on Sunday morning for live zoom Worship to study these texts, to consider the authority of God and how that might guide our use of authority.

After worship we meet for the second session of “All Ascension Reads,” discussing parts 3 and 4 of “Stamped: Racism, Anti-racism and You” (Reynolds and Kendi, 2020). The book convicts me as I consider how blithely I have exercised authority in my life, never realizing how much of my authority is conferred simply by the color of my skin and the place of my birth. Join us. And if you haven’t read it, you’re welcome to listen in.

As I consider authority—God’s and ours—I am reminded of Jesus’ sharp rejoinder to his bickering disciples at the Last Supper: “The rulers of the gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. It is not so among you. Rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (LK 22.25-27)

Though all around us are vying for power, sometimes earning it and other times snatching it, it is not so among us.

“Says who?”

“Says God.”

“What a relief.”

“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post

What Shall I Write?

What Shall I Write?

Dear Friends,

Writing is a refuge for me. Sitting down to a blank screen, my mind full of words and wondering, is as restful and invigorating to me as running is to an athlete or cooking is to a chef. The inability to write, to put keys to keyboard or pen to paper, is always a sign that something is out of whack with me. Only this morning did I realize that it has been weeks since I’ve written anything but “work” related projects: sermons, reports, emails, notes. When is the last time I sat quietly for hours at a time, undistracted, creative, calm? I can’t even remember.

Fortuitously, I have been asked to contribute to a national religious publication this spring so I will soon be forced out of my malaise. And, of course, Sunday’s sermon has yet to take shape—maybe this week the writing will be life-giving for me (and for you) rather than burdensome, as it has been recently.

What is your refuge? In what project can you get lost? Where do you retreat for restoration?  If, like me, you write, I extend an invitation to a brief Lent writing project.

Four area Lutheran congregations will produce a collaborative Lent devotional this spring. We are inviting writers of any age (eight from each congregation) to participate in this project. Our end result will be a complete printed devotional resource for Lent, with a daily email option, from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday.  Each writer will be given a one-word “prompt” around which you will write a short reflection. The writing pattern will be 1-1-1: ONE Bible verse of the writer’s choosing, ONE 3-4 sentence reflection, and ONE prayer of 1-2 sentences. More information will be shared with writers once our docket has been filled. Please let me know by Wednesday, January 27, if you’d like to join our small stable of writers.

Here’s what I’ll be considering as I write Sunday’s sermon. In these tender post-inauguration days of recovery from violence and division, on Sunday we will read about God’s call to follow. Not a political leader or pop idol, not an ideology or fad, but Jesus—the world-changing, sin-forgiving, plain-spoken human form of God in our midst. The Prayer of the Day sums up the texts’ trajectory:

Almighty God, by your grace alone you call us and accept us into your service.

Strengthen us by your Spirit, and make us worthy of your call . . .

We are called not because of our intrinsic value, disarming charm or area of expertise. We are called to follow even though (or perhaps because) we are weak and unworthy. I wonder what words will land on the preaching page about God’s unusual strategy for assembling an entourage.

Often when I cannot write, I read good writing. Today I’m inspired by the stirring words crafted by inaugural poet Amanda Gorman in “The Hill we Climb.” Her reflection begins:

When day comes we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade,

The loss we carry a sea we must wade. 

We have braved the belly of the beast.

We have learned that quiet isn’t always peace,

And the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.

And yet, the dawn is hours before we knew it.

Her words thrum in my brain (and stir jealousy). Perhaps when day comes I will have found the words to say, the ideas to pursue, the image that will rouse us all to follow Jesus. All I know today is that God is calling each of us. To what? For what? We’ll pursue answers to those questions together.

“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post

God’s Power

God’s Power

Dear Friends, 

In a week during which we witnessed extraordinary exercise of power—for both good and for evil—it is somehow prescient that Sunday’s texts address the exercise of power, as well. God’s power.

I am late writing to you this morning. Images of domestic terrorists scaling the walls of the nation’s capital, worry over a friend hospitalized with Covid-19, our ongoing efforts to be a vital congregation while absent from one another, occasional impulses to indulge in righteous rage—these things make it hard to still my mind, to slow my heart, to steady my words.

With all these images and thoughts and fears crowding around me, around us, on Sunday we will read of God’s enormous power. Power that, in any other hands, could be used to destroy, demean, dominate. But that is not God’s way.

We begin in the beginning with Genesis 1. When there was nothing—no stars, no creatures, no time—there was God. And what did God do with the blank slate of the universe, the endless possibilities at God’s fingertips? God tamed the deep. God created light. God pursued goodness. 

Psalm 29 praises God who is powerful enough to snap cedars, make mountains skip rope and shatter the sky with lightning, but who chooses the path of peace.

In Acts (19.1-7), the apostle Paul comes upon a handful of disciples, isolated by geography, who have not yet experienced the promised Holy Spirit. With a touch of his hands on their heads, the Spirit pours over them and they speak and sing and prophesy like professionals.

The gospel reading (Mark 1.4-11) situates Jesus at the Jordan River, checking his watch, chatting with others, apparently unaware that God is about to open a whole can of WOW on him. Suddenly the skies are torn open, a dove-like Spirit dive bombs him and a heavenly voice says, “You! I choose you!”

That this God, who snaps trees like toothpicks and directs the dance of the stars, chooses to use this limitless power for creativity, for peace, for good, is music in our ears.

Meanwhile, the world’s wild dance continues to leave us breathless, frightened and confused. “What can we do?” you ask. One of the things we are doing at Ascension is schooling ourselves on the ways in which we are complicit in the misuse of our power, and gifted with the opportunity to do good.

On Sunday, after live zoom worship, we invite you to stay on the line for our January Vitality Talk. We will introduce you to our ambitious, focused and unflinching plans for reading, watching, advocating and acting in ways that address systemic racism and pervasive inequity.

Click here for information about our next All Ascension Reads. Our assigned book “Stamped” will open up conversations and offer insights meant not to punish we who have power, but to speak the truth of an unjust system in which we are often unwitting participants.

Later today I will get a first look at our year-end financials, and projections for our 2021 ministry budget. Even before we dig into the numbers, I know that you have been extraordinarily faithful and generous to our ministry and to all those in our care. I often get personal notes of thanks from our community partners for the ways we support their work. Earlier this week, I received a personal call from the ELCA’s director for World Hunger—Ascension is in the top 50 of ELCA congregations (there are over 10,000 congregations in the US) for financial support in 2020. Who knew? I did. Ascension is always working to use our power for great good.  

In a week during which we witnessed extraordinary exercise of power—for both good and for evil—it is somehow prescient that Sunday’s texts address the exercise of power, as well. God’s power.

Thank you for your faithfulness in these difficult times. Thank you for exercising your personal power for good. Thank you for trusting God’s power to be greater than all else.

“See” you Sunday, Pastor JoAnn Post

Seen and Sent under the Stars

Seen and Sent under the Stars

Dear Friends,

I was surprised at the number of conversations sparked by last Friday’s eblast in which I recounted an unpleasant encounter with a rude stranger at the UPS store. To refresh your memory—an unmasked, package-laden interrupter broke into the long line of people waiting to ship packages. In response to my meaningful throat clearing and steady stare, the person muttered, “Get over it,” and I went silent.

What should I have done? You had thoughts. Some thought I should have been more assertive, that I shouldn’t have allowed a bully to prevail. Others applauded my restraint— “you never know who has a gun.” Many of you told your own stories of watching bullying behavior in a public place, and being either proud of or pained by your own response.

I’ve been thinking about that chance encounter and your reflections. And I’ve done some research. Bullies have always existed—their presence among us is not new. Remember Skut Farkus, the yellow-eyed, raccoon-hat wearing town bully in the movie “A Christmas Story?” Of course you do. He was terrifying. And far too familiar. Farkus’ appearance on the screen frightened children everywhere; standing up to him was certain death.

Though bullies are not a new phenomenon, their current brazenness is breath-taking.  Whether mocking a hijab-wearing train passenger, or taunting persons because of skin color or gender identity, or flouting mask recommendations, or weaponizing social media, a bully is born every minute. And they move among us shameless and unchallenged. (“You never know who has a gun.”)

In the movie, Ralphie Parker’s dad encouraged him to fight back, to protect the younger kids, to give Skut what he deserved. Turns out that was bad advice. It usually is. So, what should Ralphie have done? What should we do?

Current research on bullying advises that when we witness bullying behavior, we ignore the bully, and tend, instead, to the one being bullied. Instead of standing up to a potentially dangerous assailant, it is wiser to stand beside the victim, to humanize them, to tend to their needs. Depriving the bully of attention and granting the victim agency is, some say, a far better strategy.  “See the victim not as a victim, but as a person,” one commentator advises. “And deprive oxygen to the bully’s fire.”

To see the vulnerable other as a person worthy of our attention, our protection, is a skill worth learning, a sensitivity worth cultivating.

Though not exactly an instance of bullying, the presence of the Angel Gabriel in Sunday’s gospel reading is startling. (Luke 1.26-38) (I once described Gabriel’s sudden appearance as an assault on Mary. It was an unfortunate image which I won’t commit again.) Swooping in on an unsuspecting Mary, the angel announced a perplexing truth: “Greetings! God favors you!” In other words, “Hey, Mary! God sees you!”

Here’s the funny thing about this story. Mary was largely unruffled by this angelic encounter, taken back instead by two seemingly innocuous pieces of information. The first unexpected data point? God saw Mary. “Greetings, favored one!” Me? God sees and favors me? It was perplexing.

The second thing that caught Mary’s attention was not the amazing identity of the child she would carry, or that he would continue the ancient Davidic dynasty or that he would be a king, but that she would be pregnant at all. “Wait, Gabriel. Pregnant? Not possible.” It was a conundrum.

The Angel Gabriel gave a couple of odd First Christmas gifts.

Mary was seen. That’s the first gift the angel gave.

And the second? “God has plans for you.”

I am eager to pursue this familiar text with you on Sunday. After three Advent Sundays of apocalyptic doom and more John the Baptizer than anyone really needs, we finally arrive at the main event. God sees us! God has plans for us!

Awkward Segue to follow . . .

Speaking of seeing, on Monday evening we have opportunity to see something no one has seen for 800 years. I’m attaching a link to an article in the Chicago Tribune:  ‘Christmas star’: Jupiter and Saturn align on Dec. 21 – Chicago Tribune about this celestial event.

Though astronomers at the Adler Planetarium have hard data to support their scientific findings about the “Great Conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, some wonder if this fabled phenomenon might be what the Wise Ones saw after Jesus’ birth. Might the Christmas Star have been the Great Conjunction, a once-in-a-millennium stellar event? I’ve marked my calendar for Monday, December 21, during the Winter Solstice, to step outside just after sunset to witness the “Great Conjunction.” And if, as the stars align in the night sky, their brilliance causes me to remember Jesus’ birth and its cosmic implications, I will consider it another gift from God.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent brings simple gifts from God. We are seen. We are sent. Stars still shine.

“See” you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

I Am Not

I Am Not

Dear Friends,

They’re calling it V-Day across the pond. The “V” stands for “Vaccination,” and was celebrated on Tuesday in Coventry, England. The first life-giving needle stick was granted to 90-year-old Margaret Keenan; the second to 81-year-old William Shakespeare (not THAT William Shakespeare) from Warwickshire. Though all of Great Britain shouted a big “Woohoo!” at the news, health experts were quick to point out that though these first vaccinations are important and worth celebrating, the pandemic is not over. Not even for Margaret and William.

“This is an incredibly important moment on the march out of this pandemic,” said a health minister, “but we’ve still got a long march to go this winter.”

Sometimes it is as important to know what something is not as what it is.

If John the Baptizer’s message to us last Sunday was “not yet,” (Mark 1.1-8), this Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, he offers another negative assessment: “I am not.” (John 1.6-8,19-28)

Why the negative self-assessment? After all, John the Baptizer (JB) was many things: outspoken, poorly dressed, bombastic, quick-to-judge, eloquent in an edgy way.  He was almost as famous as the “one whose sandals I am unworthy to untie” whom we know as Jesus. Almost.

But people wanted JB to be something he was not. Cities and towns emptied as people ran to the Jordan River to check him out. “Maybe? Maybe its him?” they asked each other. But, no. He was not the vaccine against sin and darkness that so many had hoped. So, before they got their hopes up, JB had to tamp down the expectations: “I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not a Prophet.”

Then who the heck was he? He was a Voice. That’s all. Just a Voice, directing our attention to the only One who can cure our diseases, forgive our sins, and restore our hope. JB was only the first shot in the arm; Jesus is the cure.

You might be disappointed by JB’s humble self-assessment, but I find it refreshing. The pandemic has forced us all to face our limits, our failings, our inability to affect meaningful change for ourselves or others. And whether than punish ourselves for our powerlessness and weakness, we might do well to give thanks for all the things we are not.

Knowing our place, knowing who and what we are not is, in fact, a gift. We are relieved of the burden to always be strong, to always be right, to always see the way forward. That burden belongs to others. In the case of the pandemic, it belongs to the scientific researchers, policy makers and medical professionals whose life’s work is to save lives. That is not our responsibility. What is our responsibility, we who are not so many things? Ours is to be, like JB, only a Voice. A Voice—of kindness, of caution, of hope.

I was on the receiving end of some unpleasantness this week—a harried UPS customer, mask dangling under their chin, broke into the line (which extended out the door and down the sidewalk), arms filled with unwrapped packages. When they cut into the line I cleared my throat meaningfully, hoping to draw attention to me and my fellow customers, but the person sniffed at me, shouldered into the line and muttered, sotto voce, “Get over it.” Like you, I’ve been biting my tongue a lot lately, forcing myself to be patient with others, as I hope they would be patient with me. But this was almost too much. I could feel nine months of frustration and anger burbling into words. And had I launched at this clueless, selfish person, everyone in the line would have secretly cheered. But I quickly reminded myself of who I am not. I am not That Person—That Person who treats people like trash, who says whatever hurtful thing comes to mind, who cares nothing for the needs or lives of others. So, I swallowed my scathing judgment, my clever comebacks and withering wit, in order to not be all the things That Person was. And I waited a little longer to send my packages of good cheer to friends and family across the country.

I’m looking forward to that third Advent candle on Sunday—just a little more light in a dark world. Please join us for Worship, either by live zoom or by watching the recording later. Please stay on the screen after worship Sunday for a Vitality Talk, during which we will tell you more about our Advent Challenge with The Night Ministry.

Today I give thanks for Margaret and William, and for the thousands of others like them who have donned a mask, rolled up their sleeves and taken the (needle) plunge. We have been patient for a long nine months, and we are being asked to be patient a little longer. We can do that. Because, though the end of the pandemic is far away, the end has begun. But that first vaccination was not the answer to anything, only a hopeful hint.

This Advent “V” stands for Voice. JB’s Voice. Our Voices. Patient Voices lifted in praise of the One for whom all the world is waiting.

Blessed Advent,

Pastor JoAnn Post