We remember it all wrong

We remember it all wrong

Dear Friends,

More than four years have passed since last we hosted a wedding in our church building. Its not that we haven’t had weddings; it is that most of our weddings take place in venues other than the church building. Ascension is not unusual. Fewer than 30% of weddings now take place in houses of worship. Why?

Church-going couples are often able to take their beloved clergy person and musicians with them to destinations, rather than being confined to the church building. These “destination” venues market heavily (and successfully) to engaged couples. Many couples want their weddings to be custom-built, reflecting their unique personalities and aspirations. Fewer people in the traditional “marrying” demographic have faith commitments and, therefore, would not seek a church, synagogue or mosque for their vows. Additionally, fewer people choose to marry or even partner at all: more American adults now live alone than at any time in our history. That’s a lot of reasons for fewer church weddings.

The internet is filled with hand-wringing speculation about the long-term, dire consequences of this marriage trend. Blame is spread evenly across the unsuspecting spectrum. It’s the church’s fault. It’s women’s fault. Its men’s fault. It’s society’s fault. It’s capitalism’s fault. It’s the internet’s fault. Eydie Gormé would “Blame it on the Bossa Nova.” (You’re welcome for the ear worm.)

Much of this hand-wringing is fueled by a longing for a remembered past when, according to our faulty memories, all weddings were held in churches and everyone was gleefully married and family structures were stable and we all lived happily ever after. Both research and experience tell us that we may be remembering wrong.

As I prepare for both Saturday’s wedding and Sunday’s preaching, I am amused to learn that misremembering is an older tradition than any “traditional” wedding you can name.

In the Old Testament reading, the Israelites, who had been slaves for 400 years in Egypt before being freed, remember their slave lives as idyllic.  (Numbers 11.4-29) “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the garlic! Those were the days!” Though we know that their slave days were horrible beyond description, that fact didn’t prevent them from misremembering it. (This text was the inspiration for a clergy friend’s coining the phrase “The Back to Egypt Committee,” referring to those church members in every parish who remember with great fondness a past that never was.)

Jesus’ disciples, uniformly clueless and selfish, get all wrapped around the axle because they overheard somebody speaking “in your name who is not following us!” (Mark 9.38-50) Gads! This faux indignation fell from the same mouths that only ten verses before had bickered about which disciple Jesus loved best. They remembered themselves as far more faithful than they actually were.

What do we willfully misremember? Besides weddings, slavery and our own smallness?

There is one thing we are not misremembering. Our lives pre-pandemic were significantly different than they are now.  To imagine that we will one day return to those lives is, at minimum, naïve. And, as unable as we are to accurately remember the past, so are we equally unable to imagine the future. For ourselves. For our families. For our careers. For our church. For our country. That is why we continue to gather for worship and community life—both in-person and virtually—to remember and to hope together. We need to hear again the simple, timeless message that we will read on Sunday: The load is lighter when it is shared (Numbers); prayer heals (James); the giving and receiving of small kindnesses is its own reward (Mark). 

I invite your prayers for Matt and Amanda, soon-to-be-married, that, in all the joys and sorrows that lie before them, they will not forget their vows, or the loving support of those who will witness their vows, or, most important, that God watches over them with love. Even though we may misremember God, God always remembers us.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Can you hear me now?

Can you hear me now?

Dear Friends,

My friend complains that her spouse has “husband hearing.” That is, he hears everything just fine—TV sports, telephone conversations, supper table banter—but her. I don’t think there is an audiologist in the world who would wade into that to offer a second opinion.

Years ago, when I was diagnosed with cancer, I experienced first-hand the chilling factoid that, after your doctor says, “Cancer,” you hear only 5% of what follows. A bit of advice—always take a friend with you to medical appointments.

One of the side effects of our current political polarization is that we hear only those things that support what we already believe. That is, it is entirely possible for a person to be completely unaware of expert advice about pandemic behavior because their ears hear only what they want to hear.

I’ve long been interested in the difference between “hear” and “listen.” The definitions are not interchangeable. To “hear” is a passive act—words and noises fall into the auditory canal like snow on the ground, requiring no effort on our part. To “listen” is to attend to and understand those words and noises—requiring effort on our part. These differences make me wonder about the old question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make any sound?” (Do squirrels count?)

Whether it is because they have “spouse hearing,” or because the news is too hard to receive, or because they’ve already made up their minds, in Sunday’s gospel reading (Mark 9.30-37), Jesus’ disciples are unable to hear him, and, consequently, unable to listen. Repeatedly.

Three times in Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers that “the Son of Man (i.e. Jesus) is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 8.31, 9.30, 10.33)

Three times, Jesus offers this prediction of his passion, and the disciples look at him as though he were a circus freak.

Three times, though they may have “heard” the words, when put together in a sentence, the words made no sense. Jesus could as easily have said, “11 green baby 47 miles.” What? In spite of Jesus’ clarity, the words that fell from his mouth into their ears had no meaning.

What was Jesus trying to say, and why was it so hard for the disciples to comprehend?

In order to fully appreciate the disciples’ selective auditory failure, we need to fully appreciate the culture in which they lived. The disciples had started following Jesus because he was different from all the other street preachers; they had a sense that Jesus was “going places,” that he was destined for greatness. The disciples started following Jesus because they hoped Jesus’ fame and fanbase might possibly rub off on them. Had they known at the beginning that Jesus’ ministry was a non-starter, a certain failure, a death sentence, they might have politely declined his offer to follow. Early indicators of success were all positive. They couldn’t, wouldn’t hear otherwise.

A young family friend is co-founder of a blockchain start-up. (There. I’ve exhausted everything I know about his work.) He and his partner work non-stop, night and day, pushing themselves beyond reason. When I asked him what drove him, he said, “If we are able to sell this thing in a few years, I’ll be the youngest multi-millionaire you ever met. If not, the next thing you’ll hear me say is, ‘Do you want fries with that shake?’” There will be no in-between—he will either succeed or fail in epic fashion. And he’s okay with that.

Though Jesus is rarely described as an entrepreneur, the risk level of his venture is the same. He faced equal chances of attaining stunning power and shaming failure. The disciples were counting on the former. Dismal, soul-crushing, reputation-ruining failure never crossed their minds. Or their ears. Can you blame them for failing to hear? To listen?

Though good news may fall on our ears, like snow on the ground, can we hear it? (Let alone listen to it.) Or will we turn on our Spouse Hearing, our Bad News Buffer, our “Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts” filter? Please join us Sunday as we hear, and maybe even listen to, the Word.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Twenty Years Ago

Twenty Years Ago

Dear Friends,

Twenty years ago today, September 10, 2001, none of us could have imagined the events that would wake us the following day. Each of us has a memory, and some of us a very personal link, to the fall of the World Trade Center a day later. In the ensuing twenty years, a war was waged and ended. We have all changed jobs, zip codes, marital status, hair color and family size. Loved ones have been born and loved ones have died. Many of our children know of 9/11 only from the historical record, with no way to know the terror and devastation we suffered that day. Or the reason this 20th anniversary is so complicated for many of us.

To those of you who suffered the deaths of loved ones on that day, or because of that day, know that I hold you in my heart and prayers today.

To those of you whose faith in the goodness of human nature was shaken, know that you were not wrong to believe in it.

To those of you who cared for the many who suffered because of that attack, and who continue to provide care for victims of crisis and terror, know that your work is not in vain.

To those of you who used the horror of 9/11 as a spring board into greater service of community and country, know that we are grateful.

Some boast “Never again!” No one can promise that.

Some plead, “Never forget!” But we do.

Some challenge, “Where was your God?” It is a fair question.

On Sunday we will be challenged to let go our concerns for our own lives, our own needs, our own well-being by Jesus, whose life, needs and well-being were poured out for others. To his disciples’ selfish concern for safety and certainty, Jesus says, “Those who want to hold on to their lives, will lose them. Those who are willing to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel, will find them.” (Mark 8.27-38)

Whose life are you holding on to today? Your own life? The life of a loved one? A life you imagine? Regardless of the life we cling to, in every sorrow we know that we can cling to Jesus’ life. After all, commitment to his life is, for us, the only authentic way to live.

Though the trauma September 11, 2001 may have eased for some, each day brings new reason to fear. And the momentary resilience and purpose we experienced in the immediate aftermath of that tragedy need to be re-learned after each new sorrow. These are hard days for us all. Tears flow easily. Anger erupts unexpectedly. Fear interrupts our sleep. As Jesus’ disciples, we consider all these things a natural and necessary part of the life we have chosen. A life lived for the sake of others, in the name of one whose life was given for ours.

Tomorrow morning, as we wake on the 20th anniversary of the greatest trauma of our generation, I invite you to linger over the poetry and honesty of Sunday’s psalm:

I love the Lord, who has heard my voice,
  and listened to my supplication,
for the Lord has given ear to me
  whenever I called.

 The cords of death entangled me; the anguish of the grave came upon me;
  I came to grief and sorrow.
Then I called upon the name of the Lord:
  “O Lord, I pray you, save my life.”

 Gracious is the Lord and righteous;
  our God is full of compassion.
The Lord watches over the innocent;
  I was brought low, and God saved me.

 Turn again to your rest, O my soul.
  for the Lord has dealt well with you.
For you have rescued my life from death,
  my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling;

 I will walk in the presence of the Lord
  in the land of the living.
  (Psalm 116)

We have all been brought low. But even here, in this life so filled with death, tears and stumbling, our life is held in God’s hands.

Pastor JoAnn Post

That Kind of Crisis

That Kind of Crisis

Dear Friends,

Mine was the first blood donation appointment of the drive, and I arrived at the donation site Wednesday morning while the staff was still prepping for the day. Because I was there early, I had the staff all to myself, and peppered them with questions about their work during the pandemic. What had changed? What were the challenges? Were blood donors plentiful or scarce?

As the nurse effortlessly slid the needle into my vein, I asked, “I imagine there is an extra need for blood donation in Louisiana because of the hurricane?”

He taped the needle in place, gave my vein an encouraging tap and said, “No, it’s not that kind of crisis. The thing they need most? Air conditioning. Fresh water. Not blood. Not yet.”

“Its not the kind of crisis.” What a fascinating way to view the world.

I thought about that conversation all day, wondering what unique needs might be required in other “kinds of crises.” I’m guessing that following an earthquake, the greatest immediate need is for searchers and earth-moving equipment. There was a story in the Chicago Tribune yesterday about the critical role of search-and-rescue dogs after the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001. What is the greatest need during the Covid crisis? What about the greatest need as a wildfire bears down? I can’t begin to imagine the greatest need in the recent crisis in Afghanistan, because there was (and is) so much need on so many fronts. So many different kinds of crises in our world.

But I thought also about the personal crises suffered by those we love. What is the single greatest need when a loved one dies unexpectedly, when a cancer diagnosis looms, when a family disagreement gets ugly, when dormant depression roars to life, when the money runs out and the cupboard is bare? These are crises that cannot be calmed by generous blood donors, or well-trained dogs, or tanker trucks filled with potable water.  Our private sorrows are “not that kind of crisis.”

Jesus addresses two different kinds of crises in Sunday’s gospel reading. (Mark 7.24-37)

In the first, when accosted by a desperate, foreign mother whose daughter was tortured by demons, Jesus was dismissive. The reason for his arrogance is unclear, and deeply troubling. But eventually, because of her persistence, Jesus granted her request and stilled her daughter’s storm. The mother’s crisis was two-fold—she was both unwelcome and terrified. Images from Afghanistan of exhausted mothers clutching crying children, as they begged for a seat on an outgoing plane, come painfully to mind. The Syrophoenician mother’s crisis was clear. The need enormous. Eventually, Jesus met it.

In the second, we meet a man whose “crisis” had been unfolding for his whole life. Unable to hear or speak clearly, his life would have been a daily torture. Unable to work. Forced to beg. Kicked to the curb. Deemed “unclean” and unwelcome in worship. Every day brought new indignities, new terrors, new crises. This time Jesus didn’t hesitate to respond, but did so in private. “Ephphatha,” Jesus whispered into ears that could not hear the word. “Be opened.” And they were—the man’s ears, lips and life were opened. In an instant. Crisis resolved.

Though none of us faces these particular kinds of crises, we understand the desperation, the resignation, the terror each of Sunday’s characters suffered. Because we have each faced some kind of crisis in our own lives.

Again, I urge us all to consider ways we can respond to the current crises around us—virus, hurricane, earthquake, wildfire, flood, refugees, add to the list. I also invite you, as you are able and comfortable, to join us for worship each week. When we are together, the burdens are lighter and the crises a bit calmer. I am grateful for all of you who join us for worship in-person, by zoom, or by YouTube. I know how hard it is to be hopeful, to be kind, to be present.

56 days from now I will again lend my vein to blood donation. It is a small gift I can give to people I will never meet, but whose needs are great, who face their own kinds of crises. I know you are also giving such gifts (small and large) to address all kinds of crisis around us. Thank you for being that kind of Christian. You do my heart good.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Like Haircuts on a Ham

Like Haircuts on a Ham

Dear Friends,

She was a proud, self-identified Southern Belle, daughter of generations of Georgia farmers. As the oldest daughter of her family, it fell to her to host Sunday dinners for the clan after her mother became unable and unwilling to do so any longer. The crown jewel of every Sunday dinner was an enormous baked ham, purchased from a particular butcher, smothered in a particular glaze, each week. One Sunday as she prepared the ham for the oven, a nephew watched with great interest as she carefully sliced the top inch off the ham before placing it in the roaster. “Aunt Dottie, why do you take that little bit of ham off the top? Its like you’re giving it a haircut.”

His aunt paused, knife in midair, to ponder his question. Why did she give the ham a haircut? It took her a moment, and then she laughed out loud. She realized that she was simply doing what her mother had always done—and for no good reason. She remembered that her mother’s roasting pan had been too shallow for a whole ham, and thus the Sunday Swine had needed to be cut down to size. Dottie’s roaster, on the other hand, was sufficiently sizeable to hold the whole ham, and needed no trimming.

“I did it because your Grandma did it,” she admitted to her confused nephew. “I didn’t even think about it. Trimming the ham is just something we do.”

Its just something we do. A reflex. A habit. Though you may not be a ham-trimmer, we all engage in behaviors or patterns because, well, its just what we do.

On Sunday we return to our regularly-scheduled march through Mark’s gospel. (Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23) After five weeks with our noses buried in John’s bread texts, we are startled to look up and discover Jesus and his disciples meandering toward Jerusalem, sampling food in open-air markets, irritating the religious leaders. It appears that some of Jesus’ disciples ate their snacks without properly washing their hands. “Proper” hand washing was more than using simple soap and water, it was an elaborate process outlined in Levitical law—the so-called “tradition of the elders.”

Why didn’t all the disciples practice “traditional” hand washing? We don’t know. But just as the Pharisees delighted to find fault with the disciples, Jesus wasted no time finding fault with them. Throwing Isaiah’s words at them like a brick, Jesus pointed a finger and yelled: “You honor me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me!” Without pausing for a breath, he continued: “In vain you worship God, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

Here’s the back story. From their days in the wilderness, centuries before, a defining feature of what it meant to be “God’s people” was to obey an elaborate series of commandments, laws, statutes and ordinances. (613 to be exact.) The intent of this complicated legal system was to demonstrate to outsiders that God’s people lived ordered lives, that God cared about even the minutiae of their lives, and that outward practice was evidence of inward faithfulness. In short, their obedience to the law of God was to stand as public witness to those who did not yet know their God. (Deuteronomy 4.1-2, 6-9)

Sadly, as is true of all of us, over the centuries, God’s people had forgotten the intent of the law, and simply went through the motions. Washing hands in a particular way. Eating meals in a particular way. Worshipping in a particular way. We do it, too. We act without understanding. We cling to the way things used to be done, rather than serving God in ways that resonate now. (A friend has named the tired complaint, “We’ve never done it this way before,” the Seven Last Words of the Church.)

In a previous parish, I was delighted to learn from an usher that an older couple who had stopped worshipping years before I arrived, were sitting in the pews that morning. I looked forward to greeting them after worship, maybe enticing them back into community, but instead at the door, their anger blistered the paint on the wall behind me. “What happened to the green hymnals? Who moved the piano? Why aren’t you using the little communion cups we used to use? Church shouldn’t change! You’ve ruined this congregation!” And with that, they turned and stormed off, never to be seen again.

Is it awful of me to admit I was not sad? Or hurt? Merely bemused. Their sense of church was tied to the way things had been done decades before. Hymnals. Communion Cups. Furniture.  Somehow, they had confused “outward appearance” with faithful practice. I imagine they gave their Sunday ham a haircut, too. Whether it needed it or not.

In the introduction to the hymnal “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” (ELW), we read, “The Holy Spirit gathers the people of God around Jesus Christ present in the word of God and the sacraments, so that the Spirit may in turn send them into the world to continue the ingathering mission of Jesus’ reign.”  It goes on to say, “We use patterns, words, actions, and songs handed down through the ages to express our unity and continuity. . . . And because the worship that constitutes the church is also a fundamental expression of the mission of God in the world, worship is regularly renewed in order to be both responsible and responsive to the world that the church is called to serve.”

In other words, the foundational function of public worship does not change, but its forms might. In fact, they have to.

Please join us Sunday, under circumstances no Pharisee or disgruntled Lutheran could have imagined two years ago. Though much about the way we worship and work has changed, the heart of it is the same. We worship for the sake of witness. Please join us. (And now I’m hungry for ham.)

Pastor JoAnn Post

A Pastoral Postscript

Today, I carry a burden of grief for our office manager and friend, Ami, who grieves the death of three cousins this week, all of them to Covid-19. Two of the cousins were fully-vaccinated, but extremely medically fragile. A third cousin was unvaccinated, but continued to circulate among those whose health was precarious. And now they are all dead. The family’s grief is beyond measure. Please, if you are able to be vaccinated and have not yet done so, get vaccinated. If not for yourself, then do it for those you love whose health is weak, and for those who would be left behind to grieve your death should Covid-19 strike you. Ami will be unable to attend any of their funerals, because of the risks involved in travel to the Southeast, where the virus is running rampant and millions refuse to be vaccinated. Please hold her and her family in your prayers. And, for Ami’s sake, please get vaccinated.

Angst by the Alphabet

Angst by the Alphabet

Dear Friends,

When my daughters were moving into their teenage years, gaining independence and testing limits, I warned them, “Don’t go looking for trouble. Trouble will find you. You don’t need to invite it.” Those words have repeatedly proven true in their lives, and in all of ours. Trouble finds us; we don’t need to go looking for it.

Trouble has found us. On every continent, in every time zone, in every home, trouble is stirring. Some of the trouble is public, and some of it is deeply personal. Some of the trouble is violent, and other heart-wrenching. I have a hard time keeping track of the troubles, so I’ve devised a tracking system I call Angst by the Alphabet, categorizing trouble from “A” (Afghanistan) to “Y” (Yemen) and every letter in between. (“D” is for Delta Variant. “H” is for Haiti.) Name a letter of the alphabet and I’ll name a corresponding sorrow.

A public school teacher in our congregation recently told me she cries every day on the way home from school. The children in her classroom are painfully ill-prepared for this new school year, through no fault of their own. They demonstrate behavior issues and emotional trauma and learning deficiencies and deep-seated fear, all of it the result of pandemic isolation and its side effects. She told me the other day that at the end of a particularly awful day for her children (and for her), she walked down to the principal’s office to talk, and found the principal lying silently on the floor in a dark, quiet office. There was no question about the reason for the principal’s posture. The teacher simply said, “May I join you?” (“S” is for Sadness.)

On Sunday, we read the final of a five-part lectionary series from John 6, “Jesus, Bread of Life.” The first four weeks of our series was a compounding of images and metaphors for Jesus as vital sustenance for his followers. True Bread. True Life. True Strength. In this wrap-up text (John 6.56-59), Jesus’ hearers have had enough with the Bread. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they query. Jesus responds, “Did I offend you?”

Because of the opacity and offense of Jesus’ teaching, many of his followers gave up, turned their backs and walked away. They had decided Jesus was either irrelevant or insane. He was no help in their troubled lives.

Jesus looked at the handful who remained and asked, “Will you leave me, too? Have you also had enough?” To which the disciples answered, “Lord, to whom can we go?”

I’m not sure how to feel about that statement. Was Jesus simply a last resort, the end of the road, the only option? Or were they saying that, in the midst of the trouble around them, they had come to believe in Jesus as the only safe place?

“You have the words of eternal life,” they continued. “We believe in you.”

The pandemic and its associated issues have caused some of us to adopt troubling behaviors, to compensate for the lack in our lives with unhelpful excesses. In other words, some of us have courted trouble. I say that with no judgment. These last months have stretched us all to the limit of our patience and coping ability. We sometimes answer the question, “To whom shall we go?” with a host of unhelpful, sometimes destructive answers.

Some of us have chosen (or maybe resigned ourselves to) Jesus’ invitation to be enough for us. Some of us have decided Jesus is the only place we can go, that all other routes out of our current trouble are dead ends. In recent months, I have often wondered if faith in Jesus is a bold decision or simply desperation. “Lord, to whom shall we go?”  Have you asked that question?

Returning to my mnemonic scheme to categorize the trouble among us alphabetically (“G” is for Gun Violence. “M” is for Misinformation), I invite you to turn, with me, toward faith- based partners, who have chosen to turn to Jesus.

If you are shaken by earthquake, fire and hurricane damage around the world, Lutheran Disaster Response (www.ldr.org) may provide avenues for action.

If you are troubled by hunger and homelessness around the world and in the U.S., Lutheran World Relief (www.lwr.org) will be helpful to you.

If the refugee/immigration crisis in Afghanistan (and other places) is keeping you awake at night, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (www.lirs.org) may provide alternatives.

If your heart is moved to care for children and families upended by the pandemic, and its troubling aftermath, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (www.lssi.org) is your friend.

In times of trouble, we turn to Jesus, Bread of Life, and to Jesus’ disciples who find themselves with no other place to go. Please join us Sunday for in-person worship or by zoom. Remember that the recording of our worship service is also posted later in the day for delayed viewing. We continue in conversation with our community partners, who multiply our ministry. Though trouble lurks around every corner (“E” is for Economic Inequity), we find strength in Jesus’ presence, surrounded by other disciples who have chosen to stay. Where else can we go?

“J” is for Jesus, Bread of Life.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Chew on This

Chew on This

Dear Friends,

Bread of Life? Again? This Sunday we chomp through the fourth in a five-part series of texts about Jesus, Bread of Life. (John 6.51-58) I think most of us got the point a few weeks ago—Jesus cares about our physical, spiritual and eternal needs, providing enough for all who hunger. But we have two more weeks to go in this series, so there must be more in these texts than we first taste.

In fact, on Sunday, Jesus seems heaven-bent on offending his hearers. He uses imagery of “eating flesh and drinking blood” that would later be used as evidence of cannibalism among the early believers. We, of course, know that Jesus was speaking metaphorically, rather than actually, about consuming his body. Or do we?

It is tempting to consider Jesus and his ministry little more than a “good idea” or a “role model.” But Jesus was not a metaphor for anything; Jesus was not a hologram or spirit or poltergeist. Jesus was real—flesh and blood. And in this long series of texts about Jesus, Bread of Life, we learn that Jesus expects more than a casual, passing relationship with us, more than intellectual assent or bland appreciation.

“Eat me! Drink me! Grind me in your teeth until you have to floss me out!” Jesus expects us to engage him and his ministry with everything we have. The verb that the NRSV repeatedly translates as “to eat” is far more nuanced and aggressive: chew, gnaw, nibble, munch, eat (audibly, like animals). Jesus expects us to deal with him as one deals with a cut of meat so tough you have to tear it with your teeth, an entrée so spicy-hot it makes your eyes water, a dessert so cold it freezes your esophagus, a wine so bold it coats the glass.

Jesus is flesh and blood, and cares about our flesh and blood concerns. Eat me! Drink me! Chew! Gnaw! Grind! Select a mastication metaphor and engage it.

A friend who is as frustrated as I am with the overly-used “spiritual not religious” dichotomy, quipped recently, “I’m religious, not spiritual.” That is, his faith in Jesus Christ means that he is deeply engaged in the day-to-day, frustrating, heart-breaking structures and realities of human life, rather than in a hyper-personalized, made-to-order metaphysical imagination of a higher power whose name we get to choose and whose rules of engagement are ours to craft.

“Eat me!” Jesus says. “Drink me!” he commands. “Take me seriously!” On Sunday, we will.

Speaking of bread and wine, I want to give you advance notice of a (hopefully temporary) change in our communion practice. I have come to realize that the most “dangerous” moment of in-person worship during the pandemic, is that moment when you and I are face-to-face, eye-to-eye over the bread and wine of communion. Masks down for eating and drinking, leaning toward one another to hear the words, we are in closer proximity to one another than is wise. For that reason, we have purchased pre-packaged individual plastic “chalices” that contain both a wafer, and a sip of wine or juice. (There are many versions of this communion method available on-line; we will use the TrueVine model.) You will be given a chalice along with your bulletin before worship starts, and we will commune from our pews, rather than coming forward to receive the bread and wine. I am not wild about either the amount of plastic packaging involved, or the impersonal mode of delivery, but if we can prevent even one potential exposure by keeping our distance during communion, it will be worth the trouble.

As is true of every organization, we monitor evolving scientific/health information and best practices. Every week, every variant brings new questions and challenges. How long will we worship as we are now—masked, distant, mildly wary of one another? I don’t know. But I am deeply grateful for your willingness to worship with us anyway. As I said earlier about the need to take Jesus seriously, to engage him in flesh and blood, it doesn’t get any more serious than this—thoughtless, casual, unprotected contact threatens lives.

If you are traveling these days, blessings on your time away. If you are able to join us for worship in-person, we are honored to welcome you. And if you are not yet ready to venture inside for worship with other flesh and blood believers, you can zoom in on Sunday mornings or worship with us on YouTube later in the day.

Bread of Life? Again? Yes, and always. Jesus wants to get stuck in our craw.

See you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Listen and Learn

Listen and Learn

Dear Friends,

When I was studying to be a pastor in the 1980’s, I received a significant amount of push-back in some quarters for wanting to do a “man’s job” (i.e. be a pastor). When I look back on that time in our church, when women pastors were an unwelcome novelty, and when I remember that I was only 25 years old (and looked 13) when I was ordained, I have a bit of sympathy for my detractors.

Push-back came in a variety of forms. Complete strangers would challenge me on the street, or in a public setting. I imagine it felt good to throw verbal bombs at me from afar, but those bombs did no damage.

Others took the time to actually strike up a conversation. I am happy to listen to and learn from any who wish to engage more directly, but I’ve learned to quickly identify those who have no interest in returning the favor, who have no interest in listening to or learning from me. I glean anything valuable they might offer, and keep moving forward.

But some who had concerns about my vocational path were close, worthy of serious attention. I took their questions to heart. I worried over their worries. I trusted that their concerns came from a place of love and compassion. I tried to understand them, and to be understood in turn. There were many tearful, sometimes angry, conversations, but every tear, every raised voice was worth it—we wanted to remain in relationship. And, to a person, we did.

But the call to ordained ministry, and the encouragement I received from many quarters were stronger than the opposition. That said, even on my ordination day in my home church, a woman who had known me all my life, pulled me aside before worship and said, “Isn’t it enough that you’re married to a pastor? Do you have to BE one, too?”

Sunday’s scripture readings are all about impediments to call—impediments far more significant than any I faced.  Sunday’s scripture readings also remind us that the loudest voices may not be the voices to which we ought to listen. Anger is easy. Understanding is hard. Understanding takes time.

The Old Testament reading (Ezekiel 2.1-5) eavesdrops on God’s call to Ezekiel, an Israelite priest turned prophet-in-exile. The impediments to Ezekiel’s ministry didn’t come from angry, mean-spirited strangers. The impediments were baked-in to his call:

•God addressed Ezekiel as “Mortal.” In other words, “I am God and you are not. Remember your place.”

•God warned that failure was certain: “These people are impudent and stubborn, rebellious and sinful. Don’t get your hopes up.”

•God refused to let Ezekiel speak for himself. Every time Ezekiel spoke, he was to say, “Thus says the Lord God.” Ezekiel had no authority; he was nothing but a mouth.

The second reading (2 Corinthians 12.2-10) indicates that limits on Paul’s ministry were not external, but internal. And painful. He wrote, “To keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.” We don’t know what that “thorn” was, but every time Paul got too far ahead of himself, put himself forward, that thorn would prick him—whether in the flesh or in his conscience—and he would be jerked back into line.

Jesus himself was impeded in ministry (Mark 6.1-13). Not by God, but by those who knew him best. Like the woman in my home church who tried to hold me back, Jesus’ hometown crowd wasn’t having it. They mocked him and his family. In a verse that continues to confuse, Mark writes, “And Jesus could do no deed of power there.” What prevented Jesus from doing all the miracles he had done everywhere else? Did their disbelief rob him of power, or did their disbelief make them impervious to it? We don’t know.

In a fit of pique, Jesus turned his back on them, gave a share of his power to his own disciples, and sent them into the surrounding villages to do the work he was doing. Jesus gave them permission to guard their time and energy against those who only wanted to dismiss or disregard them: “If any place refuses to hear you, save your breath; shake the dust off your feet and move along.”

Please know that I am not equating my call to ordained ministry with the difficult calls of Ezekiel, Paul or Jesus and the disciples. But I am heartened by Sunday’s texts, by biblical reminders that God will do what God will do. We may try to impede God’s welcome, God’s mercy, God’s expansiveness. We may try to put words in God’s mouth, attributing to God our own selfish ambitions or baseless fears. We may be distracted by angry voices that divide and demean, but they do not speak for God—only for themselves.

I’m trying to find a way to thread together the challenge of these texts, the import of this Independence Day Weekend, and our ongoing hesitant and hope-tinged steps toward post-pandemic life. Is there a thread? I don’t know yet. Its only Friday.

But I do know that one of the greatest challenges for the church in our time, is the discerning of God’s voice among all the competing voices in our ears. That is why we gather for worship—to listen together, to wonder together, to seek together. It is an immeasurable privilege to be worshipping in person again. I trust you will join us as you feel comfortable and when you are able.  We will listen to and learn from one another, and, certainly, from God—who speaks to us in surprising ways.

See you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

When all seems lost

When all seems lost

Dear Friends,

What do we do when all seems lost? If you have never had to ask that question, you are most fortunate. If this question has ever been on your lips, I invite you to join us Sunday as we learn from, grieve with, and go forward with biblical figures for whom that question was lively.

The writer of Lamentations, in a set of five poems of which we read the third, decided to trust God’s faithfulness, because “God does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” (Lamentations 3.22-33)

Mark’s gospel introduces us to two who have lost everything: Jairus, a temple elder whose daughter has died, and an unnamed middle-aged woman who had been unwelcome in society for 12 years because she was “unclean.” (Mark 3.22-33) Each of these characters believed in Jesus’ power to heal, because, to be honest, they had tried everything and everyone else. Sometimes “faith” and “desperation” look a lot alike.

Please join us Sunday for worship as we, who have lost so much, find comfort and hope and purpose together.

On another note, we have been promising an update on our “resume protocols.” In concert with the Congregation Council, the Community Life Team provides these updates, effective immediately:

Worship Reservations: we will discontinue advance reservations. Electronic attendance-taking will resume as soon as possible. Until then, we will ask people to sign in at the door, simply for the sake of our records

Masks: fully vaccinated people need not mask; unvaccinated people are asked to mask indoors, in accordance with state and CDC guidelines

Seating: restricted seating will be removed

Communion: we will continue using individual communion cups for the time being

Hymnals, hand sanitizer, pens and offering envelopes have been returned to the pews

Offering: an offering plate will be placed at each sanctuary entrance; we will resume “passing the plate” at a later date

Food: we will offer food and beverages for the first time on Sunday, August 8, Vicar Phil’s last Sunday (besides, it’s really difficult to find coffee hour hosts in July)

Building use: internal and external groups may meet in the building, but must coordinate with Office Manager Ami Frick

Thank you for your patience as we have moved deliberately, cautiously and hopefully through the pandemic and its aftermath. Some of my pastoral colleagues report tremendous anger and impatience in their congregations as they resume in-person worship and congregational life. That has not been my experience at Ascension, and I am deeply grateful. These days are hard enough, without adding internal conflict and accusation to the mix. You are “good people.”

There is a lot happening in our lives—as individuals, as a congregation, as a community. We are always mindful of those whose lives are difficult, whose losses are immeasurable. So, like disciples gathered around Jesus as he restored Jairus’ daughter to life, we both witness to and tell of God’s power and mercy, even when all seems lost.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Jesus in Our Boat

Jesus in Our Boat

Dear Friends,

I’m sure you don’t remember, but when I arrived at Ascension seven years ago, I sported a very short haircut. It suited me fine—haircare has never been a priority for me. But when my new hairdresser gently broached the subject of a change, I was reluctant. I successfully fended her off for several months, but, finally she took the plunge: “Your hair cut is perfect. For 1987. Can we try something new?”

I was surprised at my visceral reaction to her professional (and accurate) assessment of my antiquated hairstyle. Was she criticizing the work of the wonderful woman who had cut my hair for the previous ten years? Was she making fun of my look? Had others been making fun of my look? Had I turned into the elderly family friend whose enormous hair-sprayed beehive hadn’t been ruffled by wind or opinion in 75 years? If I was so wrong about my outdated “do,” what else was I wrong about? And what’s wrong with 1987? It was another couple of months before I acceded to her request, and another two years to grow my hair from stubble to the style I now sport. (I’m still not sure about it.)

But what was so upsetting about it to me? She’s the expert on hair, not me. What harm could it do to try?  After all, its only hair. What was I so afraid of?

Sunday’s gospel reading (Mark 4.35-41) is about many things—weather, wind, sailboats—but it is, finally, about fear. Fear of something far more significant than hair. Fear that is irrational and unreasonable. And I am reminded of other things we have feared.

In the 1970’s, women sought equal access to employment, healthcare, self-determination and a host of other rights that are now (mostly) mainstream. But the word “feminism” came to mean not empowerment and access, but danger. Feminists would abandon their families and marriages. Feminists would advocate for all sorts of sexual abominations. Feminists would threaten the very foundation of democracy, Christianity and decency. None of those accusations was accurate or fair, but, to this day, a movement that positively changed the lives of millions—including this feminist—is, in some circles, associated with selfishness and depravity. What are we so afraid of?

The same has been true of many social and cultural movements in our lifetime. Remember when “divorce” was an unforgivable sin, and “divorcee” was a slur? Remember when our gay and lesbian siblings were deemed mentally ill? Remember when “historical critical method,” a literary tool for the study of scripture, divided the Lutheran church beyond repair? What were we so afraid of?

We never seem to learn, do we? Wise and reasoned advice from health care professionals about the value of mask-wearing during a pandemic, has erupted into dangerous conspiracy theories and, last week, murder in a Georgia grocery store. An academic discussion called “critical race theory,” has been taken completely out of context and is now deemed a threat to public school children and the rule of law. Fearing “critical race theory” is akin to fearing “the theory of relativity.” They are discussions, lenses, ideas, questions, not public school curricula. We have much to learn and much to consider, in every avenue of our lives. What are we so afraid of?

Meanwhile, Jesus was sleeping in a boat while his disciples fought hurricane-force winds and bailed sinking ships. They were terrified. Jesus was comatose. They roused him with an accusation, “Don’t you care about us? We’re drowning over here!” What was Jesus supposed to do? He wasn’t a sailor or a meteorologist. But their fear drove them to irrational accusations and unreasonable expectations.

Grumpy from having been so rudely awakened, Jesus stretched, stood, scanned the horizon and shouted at the sea, “Stop!” To the wind he roared, “Shut up!” And they did. Mark writes, “Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.”

Suddenly, the disciples’ fears about the storm seemed small and short-sighted. It wasn’t the weather they had to fear, it was Jesus and his limitless power. Mark writes, “They were filled with abject fear, and said to one another, ‘Who is this, then, that even wind and sea obey him?’”  And they were left to row their listing boats, through the “dead calm,” to the other side of the sea, casting terrified glances over their shoulders at Jesus. “Who is this guy?”

Whether it is a change of hairstyle (modest) or a change in our understanding of race (world-changing) or any other change, our failure to pause, to ponder, to imagine another possibility leads to all sorts of irrational accusations and unreasonable expectations. What are we so afraid of?

As Jesus’ disciples, we have nothing to fear. Except, maybe, Jesus himself. After all, if Jesus can still the sea and stop a storm, if Jesus can cast out demons, raise the dead and forgive the unforgivable, imagine what he can do with us. I suppose, we should just keep rowing, trusting that we will be guided safely through the storm.

Unafraid with Jesus in my boat,

Pastor JoAnn Post