Contextual Clues

Contextual Clues

Dear Friends,

Our confirmation students are immersed in a year-long conversation about what it means to be a Lutheran Christian.  (Next year we will study Lutheran theology, doctrine and practice.)

In the fall, we studied “Lutherans Living in the World.” We talked about our theological and ethical obligation to be civically engaged, to pray for our leaders, to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves.

This winter we are studying “Lutherans Active in History.” We have learned about Martin Luther, and considered the name-change of another Martin Luther (King, Jr.) We shared our findings about the lives of other famous Lutherans, living and deceased (e.g. Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Lou Gehrig). Had I been thinking, we would also have studied Rev. Sally Azar, the first Palestinian woman ordained in the ELCJHL (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land). She was ordained just two weeks ago.

Their homework before next week’s class is to view and consider the most recent of the ELCA’s “Talks at the Desk” video series, produced by the ELCA African Descent Ministries for Black History month (available for viewing at www.elca.org or on YouTube “Talks at the Desk”). The first episode of the second season is called “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” and spends time with the leaders of Cross and Hephatha Lutheran Churches in Milwaukee. Both congregations serve in the city, and are deeply engaged with their neighborhood’s issues and their neighbors’ lives.

One of the most moving segments of this episode is an interview with Aidan Branch and his mother, Deanna. Aidan has been hospitalized twice for lead poisoning and will always live with developmental delays. He and his mother co-wrote “Aidan: The Lead-Free Hero.” They are Lutherans writing history.

Though we lived in a very old house when our daughters were small, we never worried about lead poisoning. Our home had been tested and remediated; our water was filtered; the soil around our house was uncontaminated. One of Aidan’s cautions in the interview is troubling: “Don’t drink water from the sink!” No child should have to worry about that. But too many do.

These congregations are driven by powerful images and issues. Water. Homes. Health. Community.

Though Ascension, Cross and Hephatha all belong to the ELCA, our congregations could not be more different. Why? Because of the context in which we serve. Ministry is always contextual. Always has been. What issues or images drive us?

That’s why, in Sunday’s gospel reading, Jesus provides ministry images vital to his context. (Matthew 5.13-20) I have never really resonated with his admonition to be “salt” and “light,” a “city set on a hill.” The teaching about law-keeping that follows is equally opaque. Why does Jesus demand absolute fidelity to the commandments in chapter 5, and in chapter 22 condense the ten commandments to only two?

Salt. Light. City. Law keepers. In Jesus’ context, these concerns make perfect sense. Salt was vital for life, physical and financial. Light was fragile and dim. A city set on a hill was both attractive and unassailable. Well-written laws provided protection and structure.

In the 1st century, Israel worried about salt, light, witness, law.

In 21st century Milwaukee, Lutherans worry about water, homes, health, community.

What issues demand our attention? What images excite us? Where do our gifts uniquely lie?

Though our confirmation students may not be aware of it, we are laying a foundation of active and engaged faith lives for them. They may not be martyred for the faith, as was Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Lutheran theologian). They may not give away $4 million of personal property for public housing, as did Rick Steves (Lutheran travel writer).  They may not compose world-changing, heart-breaking cantatas, as did J.S. Bach (Lutheran composer). But they may be called on to protect a neighbor in danger, to cast an unpopular vote, to endure suffering, to “speak truth to stupid” (quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber, another famous Lutheran). Our children are most certainly watching us for clues about how Lutherans live in the world. I wonder what they see.

Jesus named his disciples Salt and Light. What might Jesus name us?

See you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post

You can keep your “blessings”

You can keep your “blessings”

Dear Friends,

Who could have imagined, a year ago, that the unprovoked assault on Ukraine would still be underway? Estimates of the global cost hover around $3 trillion. Estimates of the dead vary between 50,000 and 250,000.

Who could have imagined, a month ago, that our country would experience 40 mass shootings, leaving 70 persons dead, in the first month of the year? What does it mean that there are 120 civilian firearms for every 100 people in our country?

Who could have imagined, in any January, our unusually dry streets and abnormally warm temperatures, while California is drowning?

Who could have imagined any of the events we are experiencing now, both publicly and personally? (When we lived on the farm, my family raised chickens, both to butcher for meat and for eggs. Mom sold farm-fresh eggs for 50 cents a dozen. $7 eggs?)

“Nothing is as it should be.” What hubris. Who gets to determine how things ought to be? My “normal” isn’t the same as your “normal.” And my “what?!?!” is barely a blip on your radar. A favorite bishop told me years ago about necessary changes in the synod and the pushback they received, “The train has left the station. You can get on or not. Your choice. We’re moving ahead. You don’t have to like it.”

Nothing is as it seems. And I think, sometimes, that is God’s intention. After all, God is God and we are not. And that’s a good thing. We don’t have to like it.

On Sunday we read three texts that turn reality on its head.

The prophet Micah recalls a combative conversation between God and God’s people. (Micah 6.1-8) God announces, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you!” God goes on to lament the people’s lack of gratitude, lack of purpose, lack of heart, in spite of the fact that God has done everything for them. The people respond, “What do you want us to do! Sacrifice whole herds of sheep? Kill our children?” After a deep breath, God says, “No. Don’t be ridiculous. You know what I want: justice, kindness, humility. Is that too much to ask?”

Apparently so.

The apostle Paul writes to the congregation at Corinth to further berate them. (1 Corinthians 1.18-31) Though they imagine themselves wise and strong, Paul mocks them. “God’s dumbest day is smarter than your smartest. God’s wimpiest day squashes your strongest.” Paul further insults them by asserting that have been called not because they are wise and worldly and strong, but because they are foolish and peevish and weak. Why? So that anyone who dares boast, boasts only of God, not of themselves.

Don’t try this at home.

The gospel writer Matthew opens Sunday’s curtain on Jesus sitting on a mountain, disciples gathered eagerly around his feet. (Matthew 5.1-12) Jesus offends and confounds them in the same way Micah and Paul offend and confound their audiences. “Blessed are the cursed. Joyful are the grieving. Rich are the poor.” How is this good news? Its good news dropped on its head. When Jesus’ disciples see the world the way Jesus does, when nothing is as we imagine it should be—that’s God at work.

Or as the late pastor and writer Eugene Peterson imagines in his Bible translation, “The Message:”

“Count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.”

Lots of us are uncomfortable with Jesus’ inverted blessings. We are supposed to be.

I’m forwarding a contemporary rendering of the Beatitudes by ELCA pastor and writer Nadia Bolz-Weber. She wrote this version for the funeral of a friend whose tragic, untimely death destroyed Bolz-Weber and all who loved the deceased. Meditate on the wincing specificity of this version, the blessings pronounced, through tears, on the heads of those whom we choose to ignore or simply don’t see.

Nothing is as it seems. To us. But to God? God gets it. God gets you. Blessed are we.

Blessed in a million, unlikely ways,

Pastor JoAnn Post

New Beatitudes for a Hurting World

Nadia Bolz-Weber

July 3, 2018

Blessed are the agnostics.

Blessed are they who doubt,

  those who aren’t sure, those who can still be surprised.

Blessed are those who have nothing to offer.

Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.

Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears could fill an ocean.

Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.

Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.

Blessed are they who can’t fall apart,

  because they have to keep it together for everyone else.

Blessed are those who still aren’t over it yet.

Blessed are those who mourn.

Blessed are those who no one else notices,

  the kids who sit alone at middle school lunch tables,

  the laundry guys at the hospital, the sex workers,

  and the night-shift street sweepers.

Blessed are the forgotten,

  blessed are the closeted,

  blessed are the unemployed,

  the unimpressive,

  the underrepresented.

Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break,

  the ones for whom life is hard, for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them.

Blessed are those without documentation.

Blessed are the ones without lobbyists.

Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people.

Blessed are the burned-out social workers

  and the overworked teachers

  and the pro-bono case takers.

Blessed are the kindhearted NFL players

  and the fundraising trophy wives.

And blessed are the kids who step

  between the bullies and the weak.

Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me

  when I didn’t deserve it.

Blessed are the merciful,

  for they totally get it.

You are of heaven, and Jesus blesses you.

Sounds fishy to me

Sounds fishy to me

Dear Friends,

It seems all my age-mates are either retiring or can’t stop talking about when they will be able to retire. Are we really old enough to be having these discussions? Have no fear, though I won’t be Ascension’s pastor forever, retirement is not yet on my horizon.

The talk among already-retired friends and those contemplating the condition is that you can’t only retire “from” something. You also have to retire “to” something. If not, you wake up on the first day of retired life with no plans but binge watching “Real Housewives” and consuming that freezer-burned pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Or, as my beloved late father-in-law (who retired three times) used to say, “Golf is only fun if you don’t have to do it.”

You can’t just retire “from.” You also have to retire “to.”

The same two-step process applies to Sunday’s gospel reading, in which Jesus lures his first disciples. (Matthew 4.12-23) When brothers Peter and Andrew, James and John stepped away from their fishing nets, Jesus offered only a cryptic hint of what they were swimming toward: “Come, you’ll be fishing for people.” Though I’m not sure I would have taken the bait (pardon the pun), the two pairs of brothers didn’t hesitate. “Immediately” they followed, Matthew reports.

The effortlessness with which they abandoned their work makes me wonder how awful their work must have been. After all, if they were well-compensated, deeply satisfied and fairly treated in good working conditions they might have paused before taking the bait. But they didn’t. What’s up with that?  A couple of things.

One: The work was brutal. They weren’t fishing with the high-test graphite rods and light-weight reels from Bass Pro Shop. They weren’t teasing fish with whip-fast wrist flicks and hand-tied flies. They weren’t at the helm of commercial fishing trawlers, equipped with motorized winches capable of bringing in tons of fish. They were wading naked into briny water with hand-knotted circular cast nets, or furling seine nets hundreds of feet long from boats, dragging fish to shore with brute strength. Fishing was also the insomniac’s sport—most fishing occurred at night. Why would they leave such a leisurely occupation?

Two: They weren’t working for themselves. Fishing in the 1st century rendered fishers little more than wage slaves. The fishing industry was heavily-regulated, burdensomely-taxed and deeply corrupt. Ordinary fishing families turned their catch over to wealthy landowners or royals, retaining only enough trash fish to sell cheap or to feed their families. Why would they leave such a lucrative industry?

Three: There was no future in fishing. Simon and Andrew, James and John were fishers because their fathers were. If they had sons, they would grow up to be fishers, as well. Perhaps the ordinary 1st century laborer didn’t dream of more and better, as we do, generation-to-generation. But Jesus’ offer of another way of life, a new way to fish would have been more than a little appealing.

Random wonderment. I wonder how many others Jesus invited to follow him before he hooked these four?

Here’s the catch. It was clear what they were “retiring from”—back-breaking, poverty-wage, inherited labor. But what were they “retiring to?”

My grandfather was, in retirement, a hobby fisherman. When he wanted to do some serious fishing, he and his brother would disappear in the early morning to launch a small fishing boat on a lake in an undisclosed location. They said nothing to one another as they fished, instead sitting silently, cigarettes dangling from their lips, drinking Hamm’s out of cans, as they filled their boat with fish. But when he was in the mood to fish for fun, Grandpa would pile as many grandkids as would fit into his rusty reeking-of-unfiltered-Camels Ford pickup truck, drive to the nearest shallow lake and spend the day threading worms, drying tears and freeing misguided fishhooks from trees and toes.

Both farming and fishing rank among the world’s most dangerous occupations. I wonder what that old farmer-turned-fisherman thought of Jesus’ invitation to fish for people. I wonder if my grandfather was able to see past the danger and drudgery to see something more lifegiving and rewarding in those equally taxing vocations. But then, Grandpa was a faithful follower of Jesus all his life. Farmer? Fisher? Just different names for “Disciple,” as far as he was concerned.

It is one thing to be called “from” a responsibility, a way of life, a profession. But what does it mean to be called “to” a life that offers only the vaguest of job descriptions: “Follow me. Let’s catch some people.” The gospel writer Matthew will spend the rest of his book describing the challenges and joys of fishing with Jesus.

I feel myself being lured into a bottomless pool of tasteless fishing puns, so I’ll close now. Join us Sunday—it will be a demonstration of your so-fish-ticated taste.

Pastor JoAnn Post

All are welcome

All are welcome

Dear Friends,

My next door neighbor, an observant Muslim, died last Saturday after a long illness. On Sunday, his son contacted me and other neighbors to say, “Dad’s azza will be Tuesday at 4 p.m. at the Northbrook mosque. There will food and prayers. Please come.” I was honored to be asked, but was filled with questions. Azza? Would I cover my head, remove my shoes? Would I be able to pray? What sort of food? How long would it last? I felt foolish for knowing so little of the faith practices of my nearest neighbor.

Its always humbling to me to recognize the number of times an event in my personal or pastoral life corresponds with an issue in the scriptures I am studying at the time. In this case, my ignorance about the faith practices of one of the world’s great religions has been answered by Sunday’s preaching texts. Specifically, the second reading (1 Corinthians 1.1-9) which includes the greeting of Paul’s first letter the church at Corinth. There are hints of an answer in the Old Testament reading, as well (Isaiah 49.1-7).

There was a time in the life of the church when Christians drew a tight circle around themselves. Initially, it was believed that only those who had known Jesus in person had authority to teach and preach in his name. The circle was soon expanded to include those Jews who had been baptized in Jesus’ name in one of the small house churches popping up all over the Middle East. It was not long after that non-Jews were invited into the household of faith. None of these changes was easy or welcome. The circle continues to grow even in our time, as the Spirit of God opens our hearts and minds to the expansiveness of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

A seminary professor used to say that whenever we draw a circle, erect a boundary around those whom God loves, you can be certain God will choose to stand outside our circle, to scale the wall and stand on the other side. Though our imagination about the limits of God’s love might be constricted, God is not bound by our imaginations.

Paul writes to the church at Corinth: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, the sanctified saints, and to all those who in EVERY PLACE (i.e. not just Corinth) who call on Jesus’ name . . .”

Already, in the first century when Paul was writing, only a generation after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the idea of who was included in the household of faith was being challenged. Jesus was not the private property of Jews who believed in him. Or of citizens of Corinth who believed in him. In fact, even our Muslim siblings believe Jesus to be a prophet. Not THE prophet, but a prophet worthy of respect.

Isaiah writes to Jews in exile to gently chastise them for imagining only they were chosen. “It is too light a thing that you should seek to restore only the Chosen People. You are a light to all the nations (i.e. the world) and to the ends of the earth.”

That is why my primary task it not to convert my Muslim neighbors to Christianity, but to live beside them and work with them and learn from them about the expansiveness of God. In being invited to my neighbor’s azza they witnessed to me about God’s welcome—even in times of grief, even to those whose faith may differ from theirs. How do I witness to my experience of God’s love to them?

The gospel reading for Sunday is further reflection on Jesus’ baptism (John 1.29-42).Will I preach on the gospel? Don’t know. I haven’t yet determined the trajectory of Sunday’s sermonizing. But if you like to be prepared for worship, please read the gospel reading, as well.

Since you’re wondering. The azza was lovely. I arrived too early. I was overdressed, though I didn’t have to cover my head or remove my shoes. I didn’t budget enough time. Women did not pray with men. The food was fabulous and abundant. The conversation was wonderfully multi-lingual. My neighbor’s family and members of the mosque could not have been more gracious to me and other non-Muslim guests.

I am reminded of one of the petitions we offer on Good Friday:

Almighty and eternal God, gather into your embrace all those who call out to you under different names. Bring an end to inter-religious strife, and make us more faithful witnesses of the love made known to us in your Son.

I am grateful that I continue to be invited into new ways of gathering, of thinking, of worshipping, of grieving.  I am grateful that the circle of God’s care is far wider than any of us can imagine. And, as the greeters at the mosque said to us as we left the azza, “Ma’a salama.” (“May you be accompanied in peace.”) It is a prayer we share.

Pastor JoAnn Post

The Light Shines

The Light Shines

Dear Friends,

Our Christian siblings in the Global South and in the Orthodox traditions are celebrating today. Though most of us in the North have already packed Christmas away in boxes, much of the church is celebrating today: January 6, the Epiphany of Our Lord. The church calendar has settled on this date each year to mark both the arrival of the Wise Ones at Jesus’ home and his Baptism in the Jordan River. For Christians of other traditions, Christmas Day is a lesser festival, interesting but not central.

Why the different emphases?

Only Luke’s gospel records the birth of Jesus. That he was born does not merit even a footnote in the other three gospels. The same is true of Epiphany—only Matthew’s gospel describes the visit of the Wise Ones and its ramifications. But all four gospels celebrate Jesus’ baptism, in which he both identified with us and was identified as the Child of God.

The event we have named “Epiphany” (Matthew 2.1-12) is a watershed event in the experience of God’s interaction with humanity. The fact that Mary welcomed these pagan visitors (unnumbered, unnamed) into her Jewish home means that Jesus was born not only for Jews, but for all. Wise and foolish. Jew and Gentile. Rich and poor. Though this may not blow your mind to bits, in Jesus’ day the idea that all would be welcome in God’s mercy, God’s realm was blasphemous.

Epiphany continues to challenge us as we struggle to keep the doors open to all God’s people. Though we no longer quibble about Jews and Gentiles, we do get twitchy about persons who make us uncomfortable—those who worship other gods, refugees and migrants, persons of color, those with whom we differ politically, those whose sexual orientation or gender identity fail to conform to our own experiences and expectations. Jesus welcomes all. Our discomfort doesn’t affect God’s welcome. That’s what the visit of the Wise Ones means.

On Sunday we will mark the Baptism of Our Lord (Matthew 3.13-17). As I mentioned earlier, all four gospel writers include this event—one of the few events in Jesus’ life to which they all attend. Why was it deemed important enough to be mentioned by all four? What does it mean? If Jesus was the sinless Child of God, why baptism for him? Why baptism for us? We’ll talk about it more on Sunday.

Today, January 6 is important for other reasons. I remember a friend’s daughter, born on Epiphany years ago, who did not live to adulthood. We collectively remember the assault on the U.S. capital on this date two years ago—an epochal event in our nation’s life. As I write, the U.S. House of  Representatives has not yet elected a speaker—a debacle that has not occurred in a century. What does all of this mean? All of this grief, this violence, this division? And what difference does it make that we, the baptized children of God, are called to live in and witness to this grieving, arguing, divided world?

A couple of notes about life together:

Calling all Christmas Elves! Volunteers are invited to help dismantle the Christmas decorations at church Saturday at 9 a.m. We are grateful for the beautiful decorations that graced our sanctuary this season. Our Advent and Christmas were merry and bright. Thank you.

Its Girl Scout Cookie Season! The Conaway Clan will be taking cookie orders Sunday after worship. Remember, if you don’t order cookies for your own home, you can purchase cookies to be given to our military personnel. Imagine the gift of a Thin Mint for a soldier far from home.

Its Advent Challenge Season! Once again, Ascension opened its heart to the students at Holy Family School. Your financial gifts to our challenge to purchase uniforms, chrome books, experiences and desk/chair sets exceeded $18,000. I continue to be humbled and moved by the goodness of your hearts. Thank you.

Its Financial Pledge Season! I just finished writing thank-you notes to those who pledged for our 2023 ministries, and indicated in that note that we had missed our goal by three pledges and $15,000. Just today we received three additional pledges, attaining our goal of 90 pledges. The dollar amount is being calculated, but we are very close to reaching our goal of $500,000 pledged. Thank you.

In the non-profit world, we often say, “No money = no mission.” Your financial support is critical to our ministry. And as important as the dollar amount itself is what that dollar amount represents. We know that you support our congregation’s missional direction. We know that you trust our leaders to be wise stewards of your gifts. We know that you are hopeful about our congregation’s future. We know that this congregation is making a difference in your life. Thank you for your faithfulness, generosity and trust. Imagine what we can do with this faithful financial support and the energy and hope that lies behind it.

Today is Epiphany, the day on which Jesus was revealed as Savior of All. If we were to gather for worship this day, we would pray:

O God, shine the light of your justice always in our hearts and over all lands, and accept our lives as the treasure we offer in your praise and for your service. Amen.

Blessed Epiphany. I see Christ’s light shining in you.

Pastor JoAnn Post

A New Year Blessing

A New Year Blessing

Dear Friends,

As this year draws to a close, I leave you with a blessing. It was written for The Longest Night, December 21, but also speaks to the end of a year.

We will meet in the New Year for Sunday worship at Ascension with our partners from St. James the Less Episcopal Church and Northfield Community Church. After worship, we will gather around a festive reception, and toasts to a new year of ministry.

Thank you for your friendship and partnership, for the sharing and bearing of burdens, for confidence that, in both the dark and the light, God is at work.

Blessed New Year,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Blessing for the Longest Night

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.

It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.

So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.

You will know
the moment of its
arriving
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.

This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.

So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

Jan Richardson
from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

The name on our lips

The name on our lips

Dear Friends,

“Messi! Messi! Messi!” Do you suppose they heard the soccer shouts in outer space? On Sunday morning, Lionel Messi’s name was on the lips of billions of people all around the world, as he led Argentina to its first World Cup victory in almost 40 years. The enthusiasm around Messi was heightened by the fact that this was his “ultimo Copa do Mundo.” His is a name worth shouting.

“Gloria! Gloria! Gloria in excelsis deo!” Do you suppose they will hear our singing in outer space? On Saturday evening, the angels’ song will be on the lips of billions of people, as we gather in living rooms and cathedrals, on open plains and street corners to celebrate the birth of Christ. In a victory as stunning as that of the World Cup, God defeats hate with love, darkness with light, war with peace. Our praise is praise worth shouting.

Isaiah writes, “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9.2-7)

The psalmist sings, “The trees of the field shout for joy!” (Psalm 96)

The epistle writer promises that “God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” (Titus 1.11-14)

And as the world leans in a little closer to listen, angel choirs shred the sky, startling both shepherds and sheep, “All people hear good news! Christ, the Savior is born!” (Luke 2.1-20)

Please join us as, with billions of believers, we lift our voices in song at the birth of Christ our Lord.

On Saturday evening, Christmas Eve, we will gather in-person for worship at both 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., and will offer carols, candles and communion at both services. At about 1 p.m. that afternoon you will receive an email with information about worshipping with us remotely. Both services will be live-streamed.

On Sunday morning, Christmas Day, you will receive an email at 8 a.m. with information about logging in to a pre-recorded Christmas Day service at Ascension (there will be no in-person worship here), a zoom link for remote worship with St. James the Less Episcopal Church at 10 a.m., and a reminder that at 10:30 a.m. we are invited to Northfield Community Church, 400 Wagner Road, for carols and a festive reception afterward.

What is the name on your lips this Christmas? A famous soccer player? The name of a loved one who is no longer with us? The name of Jesus, born to bring peace and goodwill to all the earth?

Of all the gifts I have received this season, chief among them is the privilege of being your pastor and partner in this ministry. Thank you for your faithfulness, your kindness, your hope. You are a gift to me and to many.

Blessed Christmas,

Pastor JoAnn Post

I wonder

I wonder

Dear Friends,

On Sunday morning our Godly Play children will tell the story of the first Christmas in song, scripture and costume. Under the wise and creative direction of our Sunday School Coordinator, the Godly Play curriculum has drawn our children into faithful wondering about God’s work among us. Each Sunday after a Bible story is shared, the leader poses a prompt that ignites their imaginations. “I wonder . . .” the teacher begins, and the children do.

“I wonder” has proven a helpful question for me in my work, as well. Rather than jumping to conclusions or assuming outcomes, I am training myself to pose an “I wonder” to myself. For example:

A year ago this weekend we welcomed an Afghan refugee family to Chicago. We met them at O’Hare with balloons and posters and hope, and remained with them for an intense six-month period. Though our formal co-sponsor relationship with them has ended, we are still engaged with them in small, practical ways. I cannot begin to imagine the trauma and fear, and on the other hand, the hope and excitement this last year has held. I wonder how they look back on this eventful year?

For six months Ascension leaders and I have been meeting with the pastors and leaders of the other three ELCA congregations in Northfield township. Each of our congregations faces unique challenges and opportunities. We are pondering ways to support one another’s ministries, and how to multiply them. The future for each congregation and for our four-congregation team is filled with possibility. I wonder what the Lutheran witness in Northfield township will become?

This week our office manager opened a pledge return envelope and, instead of a pledge of financial support for our 2023 ministries, found a flyer. The sender forwarded information questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, anonymously and without explanation. I wonder how that information was intended to be “support.”

A beloved retired pastoral colleague is facing a host of health changes. This pastor, who has carried and comforted thousands of parishioners through times of joy and sorrow, now needs to be carried and comforted. I wonder what it will be like to receive care rather than offer it?

I wonder . . .

Please join us in this season of wonder. During worship on Sunday our Godly Play children will light the fourth candle on our Advent wreath and will tell the story of Jesus’ birth.

After worship we invite you to stay for a Cookie Walk in support of our Advent Challenge with Holy Family School. Ascension’s bakers will provide beautiful home baked holiday cookies, which may be purchased for $10 a box. Once the cookies are boxed, we will linger a bit for coffee, cocoa and carols in Fellowship Hall.

We continue to receive faithful pledges of financial support for our 2023 ministries. We have been blown away by your engagement with our Advent Challenge, providing financial support for particular needs of Holy Family School. We are only days away from our celebration of Christ’s birth, when we will gather with candlelight and carols to ponder the mystery.

Ascension is filled with hope and laughter, purpose and generosity. As I peer into the future, I find myself asking the children’s question. I wonder what God is imagining for us. I wonder what our ministry will become. I wonder how we will face the challenges that face all congregations. I wonder how God is using each of us for good.

Thank you for being part of this energetic, hopeful, intentional ministry. And because we can neither replicate the past nor control the future, let’s adopt the faithful curiosity of our children: “I wonder . . . “

I wonder if I’ll see you Sunday . . .

Pastor JoAnn Post

By another road

By another road

Dear Friends,

I doubt the Angel Gabriel expected to be locked in negotiations with the young woman to whom he announced, “You will bear a son.” Mary wasn’t going to agree to anything without thinking it over carefully. The thing that convinced her? “With God nothing is impossible.” (Luke 1.26-38)

Another angel drew the short straw, and had to tell Joseph that he really didn’t have much choice in marrying his fiancé, pregnant by another. Like Mary, Joseph didn’t give in right away, imagining that he might just ease quietly out of the engagement and get on with his life. But when the angel reminded him that this child was “of the Holy Spirit,” Joseph agreed to go ahead with the marriage and to raise the child as his own. (Matthew 1.18-25)

Angels don’t get enough credit for the way Jesus’ birth unfolded. Because, from the moment Jesus was conceived until the moment King Herod died, years later, the angels did a lot of heavy lifting.

Sunday marks the Third Sunday of Advent and the third in our preaching series, “Holy Family: Agents of Change.” Though the biblical events we will study involve exotic Zoroastrian priests from a distant land, it is a dreamy angel that catches my eye. (Matthew 2.1-12)

You know the story of the Visit of the Magi. We read it every year on Epiphany, and it occupies a prominent place in our imagination. But the gospel writer Matthew is spare in his details. How many wise men were there? How long had they traveled? How did they travel? How old was Jesus when they found him? Scripture says little of these matters.

On Sunday we will consider the radical nature of the wise men’s visit, but today I am thinking about an angel. After seeing a regal star in the eastern sky, this group of astrologers travelled in search of the king whose birth, according to their charts, was heralded by the stars. King Herod, a wicked, petty ruler learned that the astrologers were on his turf, and summoned them. Their quest for a king startled him. “I’m the king!” Herod announced. And, in an attempt to coopt the astrologers, Herod underwrote the rest of their journey. Events unfold. Mary opens the door to strangers who did not speak her language, did not share her race or ethnicity, did not worship her God, and did not know quite what they expected to find.

Change, the theme of our Advent, is erupting all around. But here’s the change that intrigues me today. Matthew writes, “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the astrologers left for their own country by another road.”

“By another road.” Those three simple words redirected not only the Wise Ones but also the trajectory of Jesus’ life. Had the Wise Ones gone back to Herod to report their findings, Jesus’ life would have been immediately in danger. Instead, they heeded the angelic voice, giving Herod and his wicked plans wide berth. Going home by another road might have added many weeks and considerable expense to their journey, but as Mary and Joseph learned before them, angels typically know what they’re talking about.

How often have our plans been short-circuited?  How often have our much-loved ideas about our futures been re-routed? How often have we had to travel “by another road?”

Please join us Sunday. In addition to lighting the third candle on our advent wreath, and studying this familiar scripture text, we will welcome seven young people to the table for the first time. As they receive the Lord’s Supper in this familiar place, surrounded by people who love them, I wonder about all the places their faith journeys will take them, about all the roads they will travel. I pray an angel always accompanies them.

We also continue to receive pledges of financial support for our 2023 ministries, and gifts toward our Advent Challenge with Holy Family School.  Thank you for your faithfulness and generosity to our congregation and to this valued ministry partner.

Mary did as the angel asked. Joseph did as the angel asked. The Wise Ones did as the angel asked. All of them accepting unexpected changes, traveling unfamiliar roads, playing their part in God’s plans for them and for us.

Grateful to be traveling this road with you,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Footprints in the sand

Footprints in the sand

Dear Friends,

Its “shorts weather” here in Clearwater, FL; 80 degrees and sunny. I’m here for three days as part of our synod’s executive team, establishing a working relationship with our counterparts in the Florida-Bahama Synod, our synod’s domestic partner. We have had a fabulous time together—getting to know one another, sharing common concerns and considering future projects, eating seafood and eating seafood and eating seafood. I fly home tonight and will be with you on Sunday. (Fortunately, I remembered to pack a coat with me for the cold drive home from the airport.)

I’m writing you in a break between meetings, so my Friday note to you will be a bit shorter than usual.

Please join us Sunday morning for the Second Sunday of Advent. We will light the second candle on our wreath. We will welcome Chaplain Leslie Hunter of Holy Family School as our guest preacher, and receive a greeting from Cyn Schmidt, Holy Family’s Chief Development Officer. Chaplain Hunter will preach the second in our Advent series, “Holy Family: Agents of Change,” with a focus on Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father. Or course, Chaplain Hunter may also choose to go other directions in his preaching—his preaching often takes us on insightful, unlikely journeys.

The Advent Tree is waiting for you with opportunities to provide financial support to Holy Family School for an item a student might need (uniform, Chromebook, etc.). You may also choose to contribute to our larger goal of providing desk/chair sets for the school ($2500 each). The cost of each item is included on the gift tag—you are invited to gift that amount or any amount up to the cost. The Advent Challenge ends December 18.

We are also receiving pledges of financial support for our 2023 ministries. We have been very pleased with the response so far—you are remarkably generous and hopeful. If you have not yet had opportunity to pledge, you may do so by returning a pledge card or pledging on Realm.

As much as I enjoy my Gulf-view room and challenging conversations here in Clearwater, I am always aware of what’s happening at home with you. Know that when we are apart I speak of you often, pray for you regularly, worry about the needs and sorrows so many of you carry. It will be good to be with you on Sunday, refreshed and energized by discussions about the future of the church—both particular congregations and synods, and the larger church we all love and serve.

I need to get back to a meeting. I trust you are well, staying warm while I rock flip-flops.

See you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post

PS If you haven’t done so yet, check out the photos from last Sunday in our Midweek Update and on our Facebook page. It was a great day of ministry at Ascension.