Wishing for wiser words

Wishing for wiser words

Dear Friends,

My throat was tight as I threatened, “You have until 5:00 to put me in contact with the person who can resolve this!” Then I slammed down the phone.

Slammed down the phone? Who does that? Certainly not me. But yesterday, I did.

The victim on the other end of the phone had called to explain to our front office (again) why his boss had failed to authorize payment of a bill now five months in arrears. Over the months, the excuses for non-payment had grown more and more creative, less and less convincing. I typically don’t interfere in the front office’s management of our day-to-day financial affairs, but this situation had to be resolved. So when he called I asked our office manager put him through to me—the Big Dog. The poor guy. He had no authority to pay, and I felt bad that he had been put in this position by his supervisor. He certainly didn’t deserve the Phone Slam. But sure enough, within the hour, his supervisor called and in the wary tone one might use to dissuade a rabid dog, she promised prompt payment.

It didn’t feel like a victory. I leaned back in my office chair, threw my glasses on the desk, ran my hands through my hair and surveyed my disheveled surroundings. I realized that that blow-up had been coming all week. My desk was littered with half-empty cans of Diet Coke and cold cups of coffee. Paper drifted across my desk, falling to the floor, littering every chair, creeping even into the Volunteer Center. Post-it notes had spawned post-it notes, reminding me of deadlines long past and promises not kept. Books to be read, music to be learned, reports to be written, meetings to be scheduled, scribbled notes to be deciphered. I had been disappointed, and had disappointed in turn. Time had been robbed by trivial matters. I usually have the radio on in my office as I work, and I wonder if the anger of the impeachment inquiry hearings had squirreled its way into my brain. It had been a train wreck of a week.

And what did I do—the seasoned pastor who prides herself on emotional equanimity, who listens carefully and asks insightfully, who trusts people to be well-intentioned and is forgiving when they are not? I raised my voice and slammed the phone.

Though I trust you will forgive me for having been a complete miscreant, I missed a tremendous opportunity with the young man on the phone. He had been placed in an impossible position and I only exacerbated the impossibility of his task. What do you imagine he reported at his supper table last night? That a frustrated client had been patient with him? No. He reported that an angry pastor had ripped him to shreds for something he didn’t do. What a witness I offered, huh? Do you suppose he’ll worship with us on Sunday, and that, if he is not Christian, he might consider it? Did I do Jesus proud?

Sunday brings us one step closer to the end of our church year, and presents us with texts filled with tension and angst and fear. It may well be that Jesus’ promise of false prophets, wars and insurrections, persecution, torture, public humiliation and death also contributed to my dark mood. (Luke 21.5-19) I’ve been pondering that dispiriting text all week.

But Jesus’ warning, now  two centuries old, reminds us that the danger and darkness of this time in our common life is new only to us. There has not been a generation in all of human history that hasn’t experienced the chaos, the corruption, the fear that plagues us. And, even as Jesus warned his disciples of the trouble to come—trouble multiplied by their faithfulness to him—he told them the trouble was an opportunity. An opportunity not to yell and scream, to accuse and judge, to quake and hide. But an opportunity to testify:

“Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Words and a Wisdom. What a lofty goal, a tremendous gift, an elusive outcome.

I promise not to yell at you when we gather on Sunday. I promise not to slam the phone down when you call. And I promise to listen with you, to you, as together we navigate these troubled times. Though we ought not be surprised at the depth of the darkness around us, I know we will be surprised by the opportunities it affords. Opportunities to do Jesus proud.

A little calmer today,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Self-Partnered No More

Self-Partnered No More

Dear Friends,

The All Saints antiphon “All of us go down to the dust” had barely stopped ringing in my heart, when I added the first name to our Book of Remembrance for next year’s prayers. My mom’s cousin, Velida, died Tuesday, after contracting pneumonia. She was 88 years old. Velida was gentle, kind, selfless, and, to borrow the actress Emma Watson’s head-scratching description, “self-partnered.” In other words, Velida never married. As was common among farm families a generation or more ago, she was the child “designated” to stay at home and take care of her parents, while her siblings were free to venture into the world and have families of their own.

As is true of my own never-married aunt, Amanda, who plays the same role in my mother’s family, Velida was the best daughter, the best sister, the best aunt, the best friend, the best neighbor, the best teacher anyone could want. But I have wondered, over the years, if these wonderful women ever wondered about a different life, a partnered life, a life far from the farm. If they did, they never let on to me. Their vocations were to be faithful, and no one has been more faithful than they.

How odd that the texts I’m working on for Sunday’s preaching describe an unnamed woman on the distant end of the “partnered” spectrum. (Luke 20.27-38) In a fictional scenario intended to expose Jesus’ flawed eschatology, Sadducees (legal literalists) posed a “what if.” “What if” they wondered, a woman was forced to serially marry each of seven brothers, none of whom produced an heir. This indentured matrimony was supposedly in keeping with a little-known law that requires: “if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.” (Deuteronomy 25)

The unnamed woman, seven times widowed, seven times declared “barren,” seven times forced into marriage, is a deeply tragic figure. Unlike my mom’s cousin who may have had no choice but to remain single, the weary widow in the Sadducee’s fable had no choice but to marry. Again and again and again. She would have looked on Velida’s “single lady” status with envy.

But the point of the Sadducee’s bizarre “what if” was to trip Jesus on the perennially disputed theory of resurrection of the dead. Sadducees did not believe in resurrection of the dead; some 1st century Jews did. What about Jesus? What about you?

Jesus’ answer is offensive to everyone who hears it, and to be honest, his reading of the law of Moses leaves me confused. Burning bush? Present tense verbs about the long-dead?

All of Sunday’s texts raise questions about being raised. Long-suffering Job trusts an unnamed “Redeemer” who will advocate for him. (Job 19.23-27a) Paul writes to the church in Thessaloniki to urge patience. Who knew Jesus wouldn’t return home for supper, but would tarry much, much longer? (2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17) There is no single image, no single answer to the question of our disposition after death. (Except that marriage will no longer matter. After all, we are married only until death parts us.)

Though All Saints Sunday has passed, we continue to find inspiration in the lives of the faithful departed. What happens to them when they breathe their last? Where do they go? What will the resurrection look like? We can only imagine the answer to those questions, speculate about the details. But as I imagine much-loved and much-loving Velida, self-partnered no more, I smile. She was a great gift to us in this life. How blessed the heavenly hosts are to welcome her into their midst. I imagine they are smiling, too.

Grateful for partnership with you,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

 

Up a Tree

Up a Tree

Dear Friends,

My Boston cab driver was in a chatty mood during our 45-minute airport ride. He asked why I was in Boston (to visit my younger daughter), how long I was staying (four days), what we had done (eat!), and what I did for a living (pause). I often hesitate to tell people I am a professional Christian, since the profession is currently much maligned. But I was a captive audience, and because I also could not assume any knowledge on his part, I offered this lame job description, “I’m a Christian. A Lutheran. A pastor. You know, like a priest.” To which he responded, “You’re a nun?”

Perhaps you see now why I do not offer information about my work to just anybody.

Taking his eyes off the road to meet mine in the rearview mirror, he said, “So, tell me. When will Jesus return?”

Realizing the cab had no escape hatch, I had no choice but to engage. “No one knows. But its interesting that you ask. I’ve been thinking about the end of our lives. This Sunday we celebrate a festival called ‘All Saints,’ and we remember the faithful who have died. We talk about life with God, even after death.”

“You mean Halloween?”

“No, not Halloween. Halloween is about death. All Saints is about life.”

And then, without hesitation or judgement, he witnessed to me about his beliefs as an observant Muslim. I could tell by the scripted nature of his testimony that he was used to defending his faith—a faith tradition more maligned, misjudged and misinterpreted than Christianity could ever be.  His tone was patient, respectful, reverent.

“Each of us stands before Allah on our own,” he said. “We cannot hide behind an imam or a teacher or a parent and say, ‘I did it because of them.’ Everything we have done will be judged. It will all be known.”

All Saints Sunday. What is it exactly?

Let me lead you on a quick romp through the appointed texts for All Saints. They are an odd collection.

Daniel 7.1-18: Daniel prophesied in the second century BCE, during a period of persecution of Jews. As is true of the book of Revelation in the New Testament, the book of Daniel is a collection of visions, coded messages to the faithful to endure. In Sunday’s reading, Daniel reports on a horrible vision, more of a nightmare, about a collection of mythical beasts that represent four great world powers. The beasts are finally destroyed by an “Ancient One” and “one like a human being.” In other words, dear persecuted siblings, Daniel promises, the power of God is great than any power on earth. And God’s power will never pass away. (But, oh my, the beasts are frightening.)

Ephesians 1.11-23: Enough with the power struggles, but this time, power belongs to God alone. The writer promises that, already, “God has put all things under his (Jesus’) feet.” The reading from Ephesians is filled with promise and light and gratitude and glory. There is no mention of dark beasts or looming armies. All has been subsumed by glory and hope and greatness. (But we know the beasts, the darkness, the powers of the world still lurk in the shadows.)

Luke 19.1-10: I am forgoing the traditional All Saints gospel reading (The Beatitudes in Luke 6) because I simply cannot get enough of Zacchaeus. In the appointed gospel for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus encountered a small-of-stature, larger-then-life guy in a tree. This is what we know: Zacchaeus was short, he was connected, he was rich, he may have been corrupt. Also, we can assume he was not well liked. Zacchaeus had climbed a tree to look down on Jesus and the crowds. Jesus looked up at Zacchaeus in his perch and issued orders: “Make dinner for me!” Zacchaeus practically fell out of his tree to obey, promising to repent of his lucre-loving ways. And the crowds upon whom Zacchaeus looked down? They were enraged.

How, you ask yourself, is this an All Saints gospel?  Luke gives us an All Saints gift: “Jesus comes to seek and to save all who are lost.” Even those on whom we might look down.

Before we parted at the airport, my cab driver said, “You have daughters? I do, too. Five of them!” And as we inched toward the United terminal in early morning traffic he pulled out his phone to show me photos of his oldest daughter’s wedding. She was a stunning Pakistani bride in a brilliant red wedding dress. “Four days! Four hundred guests!” he boasted. “I’ll be driving for a while yet—I have four more weddings to pay for!”

I am not well-versed enough in the theology of Islam to understand all they teach about life and death, sin and salvation. But I did not need to be an expert on either Islam or Christianity to share an honest moment with a faithful stranger. He loves his family more than his own life. He is curious about the lives of others. He seeks to live a responsible, moral life. He relies completely on the mercy of God. In all those ways, he and I are remarkably alike. Might he be among those whom, like Zacchaeus, Jesus seeks and finds? Would you offended if I dared call him a sinful saint, like me? Like you?

All Saints Sunday. We acknowledge the darkness. We grieve those who have died. We bask in the light of God’s mercy. And we give thanks that Jesus seeks and saves all who might find themselves up a tree.

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

What would Jane Austen say?

What would Jane Austen say?

Dear Friends,

Reformation Sunday is typically characterized by the familiar 16th century juxtaposition: Saint and Sinner. But this year I am drawn to another familiar juxtaposition from 19th century literature. This Sunday’s gospel reading (with apologies to Jane Austen) is a tale of Pride and Prejudice.

We have chosen to forego the traditional Reformation Sunday texts, because of the allure of the appointed lectionary texts for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time. After all, what could be more illustrative of the Reformation truism that we are saved by grace alone, than the odd couple we meet at temple this Sunday? (Luke 18.9-14)

They are wildly different, one from another, yet each in need of mercy. (Only one recognized that.)

The Pharisee is both prideful and prejudiced/The Tax Collector is both ashamed and abased.

The Pharisee longs to see and be seen/The Tax Collector cannot lift his eyes from the floor.

The Pharisee has no need of God, since he is fully self-justifying/The Tax Collector can barely whisper his, “Lord, have mercy.”

The Pharisee strides back to his paneled office smug and satisfied/The Tax Collector limps back to his peripatetic profession, his tail between his legs.

The Pharisee is isolated by choice as he “stands by himself” in temple/The Tax Collector is isolated by shame, “standing far off.”

Jesus is shamelessly direct in this assessment of the situation, since Luke tells us at the outset, “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt.” There is no secret about where Jesus’ sympathies lie.

To ask the Reformation questions: Who is Saint? Who is Sinner? We know what Jesus would do. But Luther? You?

For additional insights into Sunday’s gospel, I direct you to two articles I wrote for “The Christian Century.”

The first is a brief introduction to the text, written for the magazine’s on-line expression:

https://bit.ly/3626mGa

The second is a longer reflection which first appeared in the October 9 print edition:

https://bit.ly/2oYlfZN

Please join us for Reformation Sunday. The color of the day will be red. The hymns will be grand. The honesty breathtaking. The room will be full of Sinners and Saints, Prideful and Prejudiced. If you are honest in your self-assessment, you’ll find yourself in good company.

Blessed Reformation Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Whose “justice” is most just?

Whose “justice” is most just?

Dear Friends,

I am unusually overly prepared for Sunday’s preaching. I’m attaching links to two articles recently published in The Christian Century, a progressive, ecumenical magazine whose tag line is “Thinking Critically. Living Faithfully.” It’s a real honor to be included in their stable of writers.

This first link directs you to a brief reflection on the text, written for the magazine’s website. https://bit.ly/2BpQwHz

This second link directs you to the full article which is part of the regular series, “Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary.  https://bit.ly/2oJiz24

Though I wrote these articles mid-summer in order to meet the publication deadline, I’m thinking about the parable still (Luke 18.1-8). In the story, Jesus contrasts a wronged widow with a misanthropic judge. It is clear from the way Luke narrates the story that our sympathies are intended to lie with the widow. But the longer I live with these characters, the less clear I am about how we are supposed to feel about these characters, this parable, Jesus’ conclusion.

As I write, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is on strike, for a variety of demands. Their strike means 300,000 school children are missing school, though school buildings and park district facilities are open to receive and care for them. CTU’s demands seem as simple as those of the wronged widow to whom Luke introduces us. Teachers are striking for a better wage and benefit package, and improvements in the areas of staffing, class size and prep time. Why would the city not grant their request?

But it is not that simple. The city contends that it has been negotiating in good faith, but cannot authorize expenditures for which there is no money. To complicate the debate, Chicago will soon enter contract negotiations with police and fire unions, who will also, appropriately, make demands. Political commentator John Kass reflected on the dilemma this way: “In the drama of news coverage about a threatened strike, people don’t always connect the dots between the contracts that have to be negotiated for teachers, police and fire, and their property tax bills.” (“Taxpayers and the Chicago Teacher Contract: A Tale of Two Cities,” The Chicago Tribune, October 16, 2019)

If Jesus’ parable had been told in Chicago, he would have cast Chicago public school teachers in the role of the persistent widow, and Chicago’s political leaders as the unjust judge.  I don’t pretend to know the answer to the CTU strike, how to balance “just demands” with “real limits.”

Jesus concluded the parable with a “how much more” ending. If even a misanthropic judge finally hears the cry of the poor, how much more will God be listening?

The conclusion to the CTU strike? Stay tuned.

If only we lived in parables, that fictional place where the Just and Unjust are easily distinguished from one another. We live in a complex world filled with competing demands, murky motives, and torn alliances. But we know for certain that God hears those who, like the persistent widow, cry out, both day and night. Perhaps that is the only thing of which we can be sure.

Always seeking justice,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Which Way Do I Go?

Which Way Do I Go?

Dear Friends,

I grew up in flat northern Iowa farm country. The land is divided into square grids of 640 acres each called “sections.”  Each section is bounded by a road exactly a mile long, all of them perfectly oriented to the four points of the compass. Out there, among the corn fields, I have no problem distinguishing east from west, north from south. Out there, travel is timed by miles—one mile of car travel is one minute. (Unless you are driving a tractor, in which case, the rules don’t apply.) For example, the farm on which I grew up is five miles from the nearest town. It takes exactly five minutes to get there.

My father could never get used to the way we drive in urban areas. He would ask, “How many miles from your home to the church?” I would say, “I don’t know.” He would say, “Then, how long does it take you to get there?” I would answer “20 minutes,” depending on where I lived. He would say, “So its 20 miles to your office.” I would say, “No, Dad, miles and minutes are different where I live.”

We also gave driving directions by familiar land marks. “Turn left at the German Valley school,” (which no longer exists), or “Go one mile past the four-way bridge,” or “If you see that faded Pioneer seed corn billboard, you’ve gone too far.”

Because I grew up in flat, sectioned, predictable country, I am easily confused on any other terrain. I have no idea what direction Willow Road runs, or how to negotiate the surface streets from here to The Loop.  I live with Google maps on my dashboard, slavishly following its cheery prompts, oblivious to my actual location, unable to trust my instincts.

Though I’ve not lived on the family farm for 40 years, I still pay close attention to land and landmarks, I still crave certainty and clear direction. And I have discovered that I have an equally confused colleague in Luke, the gospel writer.

Sunday’s texts are rich and complicated. We meet a powerful military general afflicted with leprosy, who imagines he can order his disease and his doctors in the same way he orders his troops. (1 King 5.1-15c) Jesus orchestrates the healing of ten lepers—nine Jews and one Samaritan—thrown together by their common illness. (Luke 17.11-19)

Both these narratives involve travel through and to places. General Naaman traveled from Aram into Israel—a land he often raided with his armies—in search of healing. You could track his itinerary on a map. But the lepers? Luke can’t quite place them. He writes, “Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” The slavish map reader in me shouts, “What? There is no such place!”

Its true. Check your map. There is no “region between” Samaria and Galilee. Though divided by religious difference and ancient antagonisms, Samaria and the Galilee are contiguous regions that share a border visible only on a map. Luke’s map-reading is as obtuse to us as the calculation of my commute was to my Dad. So, either Luke was hopelessly directionally-challenged, or he was headed somewhere else.

Here’s where I think Luke is going. Jesus found himself in a place where national borders and religious identity and simple answers had evaporated. Ten men—diseased, displaced, dysphoric—lived there (unwillingly) also. They begged Jesus, not for healing, but for simple mercy. Their ailment meant they had to live apart from community and family, outside the city walls, isolated from all whom they loved. Apart from their shared sorrow, this mournful minion would never have met, never have roamed the countryside in search of a place to sleep, a meal to eat, a friendly conversation. They lived nowhere.  They had no future. They had no hope. They had no one but each other. Not one of them wanted to be there, wherever “there” was, in that region between Home and Hopeless.

But Jesus willingly entered that region between health and disease, safety and danger, welcome and mistrust. He cured them all of their disease. And one of them, the Samaritan, he also healed—restored him to full life, disease-free, faith-filled, homeward-bound. (We’ll traverse the road between “cure” and “healing” another day.)

You won’t find Luke’s leprous “region between” on any map. But those of us who have traveled with disease or isolation or differentness or fear, know how disorienting those in-between places are. And what a gift it is to be pulled back into familiar places, spaces, faces by one who loves us.

As we approach the second anniversary of my father’s death, I think of him often. His feet were firmly planted on the perfectly-sectioned Iowa soil. A mile was a mile. A minute was a minute. East was East and West was West, and if you questioned his certainties, you’d gone too far.  I also remember that, as he aged and his health declined, he abandoned some of that certainty, that rigidity, that predictability. He came to understand his world more and more through the eyes of faith; eventually, settling calmly into that region between known past and hoped-for future, that region between life and death.

None of us can know what lies ahead, what foreign lands we will enter, what direction our lives will take. In life’s uncertainty, I invite you to join me in that “region between” where Jesus is always to be found.

Still wondering about Willow,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

All I Need Is Here

All I Need Is Here

Dear Friends,

Our intern and I were sequestered at a Catholic retreat house near Rockford for two days this week, with two dozen other ELCA intern/supervisor teams from across the Midwest. The purpose of our retreat was to study and pray over this intentional process of raising up leaders for the church. We processed relationships and power dynamics, persistent racism, malingering misogyny and fluid identity. We kibitzed in affinity groups. Teams that were struggling sought support. Vicar Julie led evening prayer. I facilitated a workshop about the partisan/political aspects of preaching. We stayed up late eating and drinking. Sleep was in short supply.

Before departing for our homes, we gathered around a make-shift altar in a small conference room whose windowed walls looked out on the slowly shifting colors of the fall forest. Our presider invited us to sing as we received the Lord’s Supper: “All I need is here. All I need is here.”

The simplicity of his invitation took me by surprise. After intense discussions about what it means to be a faithful preacher in a polarized culture, after listening intently to the sorrows of a student whose internship is a train wreck, being immersed in difficult discussions, and struggling to sleep on the narrow retreat center cots, the melody into which he invited us was both stark and profound: “All I need is here. All I need is here.”

I had to ask myself: “Is it? Is it true? Is it true that everything I need is here?”

Sunday’s scripture readings are as stained with despair and sadness as the forest in which we met was stained with the first hues of autumn.

The prophet Habakkuk fears that God has gone silent. (Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4) The early Christian leader Timothy struggles to remain faithful to the shame-inducing message that the Lord he loved was crucified like a common criminal. (2 Timothy 1.1-14) In response to the disciples’ anguished plea, “Give us more faith!” Jesus invites them to regard themselves not as Daring Disciples but as “Worthless Slaves, who have only done what we ought to have done.” (Luke 17.5-10)

There is no glory in Sunday’s readings. No confidence. No fame. No certainty. No power. And yet I find myself humming that haunting refrain, “All I need is here. All I need is here.”

It is a daily struggle not to despair. Perhaps, like me, you cringe at each day’s news, saying to myself, “This can’t be happening.” But it is. So, instead of despairing, I have assigned myself the task of every day finding at least one shred of evidence that God is not silent, that we need not be ashamed of the gospel, that being a “worthless slave” of the gospel is a high calling.

On Tuesday, we witnessed The Hug Heard Around the World, as the brother of a murdered man in Texas gathered the police officer convicted of his murder into an embrace of forgiveness and compassion. “I forgive you. God forgives you. I pray you know the love of Jesus.”

During confirmation class Wednesday night, we studied the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi—a story of famine-forced immigration, heart-breaking sorrow, and unlikely alliances. The students, most of whom have never known a moment of lack, leapt into quick understanding of and compassion for the plight of immigrants and homeless persons in our own time. I was moved by the innate goodness of their hearts, the honesty of their concern.

For those brief moments this week, the noisy nonsense that occupies our attention was muted. I was reminded that forgiveness is possible, that compassion is strong. God is not silent. We have nothing of which to be ashamed. A life of humble service is a blessed life.

Please join us Sunday for worship and reflection. Whether we are homeless or landed, student or teacher, slave or free, when we gather at the Lord’s Table we thank God and remind one another that everything we need is already ours.

All I need is here.

Pastor JoAnn Post