Aware, but Unalarmed

Aware, but Unalarmed

Dear Friends,

“Paradise Lost” was once only the title of a 17th century narrative poem. Now it describes a California community torched out of existence by wildfires. One of the morning news shows cautioned hearers that footage from the burn site might be disturbing. It was. I have added to my daily prayers the search teams, combing through ash and rubble for evidence of those who did not escape the fire. Some of you have been touched by this inferno through friends and relatives who lived there. I’m so sorry for their loss, for your burden of grief.

How odd that Sunday’s gospel reading seems to predict this unsettled time. (Mark 13.1-8) While strolling through the temple compound with his disciples, Jesus warned that every stone in the temple compound, even the holiest of places, would be torn to the ground. In the same breath, he warned his disciples not to make too much of it: “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Nation will rise against nation; there will be earthquakes and famines.” Of course, we know that he was forecasting the destruction of the temple and its attendant unrest in 70 CE, only a few years later. But if he was trying to make them feel better, it didn’t work.

His dire forecast is as apropos today as it was then.  As a friend’s Thousand Oaks grandniece said after the shooting there last week, “There is no safe place.”

There are many ways to think theologically about our own troubled times. Some try to make “sense” of them by placing blame on policies or practices or people, as though having someone to blame makes the burden lighter to bear? Others imagine God’s hand in this trouble, either in confidence that these are signs that the End is coming soon, or that God is impotent and unable/unwilling to intervene. Still others go through life with shrugged shoulders, muttering “meh” in the face of the world’s troubles.

What do we say to these things?

On Sunday mornings, we’ve been reading through the book of Hebrews, and I find the final verses of Sunday’s pericope particularly potent.  “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, meeting together often, encouraging one another all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10.24-25)

What a great turn of phrase: provoke one another to good deeds.

Might I provoke you to good deeds? Supporting relief efforts is an immediate opportunity; I’m particularly fond of working through Lutheran Disaster Response or Thrivent (which is matching up to $250,000). Refraining from blame, speculation and easy answers is always a good strategy. Engaging public policy discussions about climate, development and federal relief efforts is difficult but critical. Meeting for worship, as the writer of Hebrews suggests both comforts and empowers us. Imitating the good deeds of others is also an avenue open to some of us: one of our members, whose elderly aunt escaped with only the clothes she wore and her purse is assembling a photo album to replace family pictures lost in the fire. And Jesus’ advice? Be aware. But unalarmed. Hmmm. I need to think about that.

Though the city of Paradise may be lost, hope is not. Today I give thanks for the relative safety and security of our life together, knowing that temples will topple and the earth will shake beneath our feet. I look forward to worshipping with you Sunday, as we receive pledges of support for our 2019 ministries, and heed Jesus’ ancient advice to his troubled disciples.

Aware but Unalarmed,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

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What are we going to do now?

What are we going to do now?

Dear Friends,

More than once I have cautioned my now-adult daughters to be careful as they move through the world: “Trouble will find you; it finds us all. Please don’t go looking for it.” What useless advice. The dead in Pittsburgh and Jefferson, KY, Tallahassee and Thousand Oaks were stretching and shopping, dancing and praying. They weren’t looking for trouble. Trouble found them.

My younger daughter is the same age as some of those killed at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, CA on Wednesday night. The slain police officer was the same age as a friend who wears the badge. Though this was the fourth “soft shooting” in two weeks, this one clutched at my heart more than the others. Is it because I identify so painfully with the victims? Or maybe it is that the unbearable weight of this inexplicable carnage finally tipped my equilibrium.

The vitriol and violence, the unhinged demeanor of so many in the public eye leave me limp. Unable to form a thought. At a loss for words. Always on the edge of tears.

Two weeks ago I attended the funeral of a friend who died of a catastrophic health event in his wife’s arms. When we saw each other at the funeral, she fell into my arms sobbing, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do now?”  It is an excellent question, the cry of a broken heart.

What are we going to do now?

Sunday’s scripture readings are filled with trouble, as well: impoverished widows, economic inequity, natural disasters, theological puzzles. When you are feeling up to it, you might read ahead: 1 Kings 17.8-16, Hebrews 9.24-28, Mark 12.38-44. But if your heart is as heavy as mine, you will cling to the words of the Psalm: “Put not your trust in rulers, in mortals in whom there is no help. The Lord gives justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down.” (Psalm 146)

But, as we mull and grieve the ways of the world, life continues to roll on. So, let me highlight a few events and opportunities to focus our attention elsewhere for a moment.

On Saturday afternoon we welcome The Lucky Trikes to our concert series. Our Sunday School children were paid a surprise visit by these musical story tellers last Sunday, and could not get enough. You will be equally enthralled—no matter how old or young you are.

On Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m. we host our second Vitality Talk—a fast-paced, information-filled, coffee and donut-fueled conversation about new strategic directions at Ascension. This month we welcome staff members of The Night Ministry to describe their life-changing, heart-breaking ministry with Chicago’s homeless youth and adults.

After worship we invite you to stay for a Town Hall Meeting and Lunch. Our financial leaders will describe the proposed 2019 ministry budget and invite you into the exciting opportunities ahead of us.

We continue to Shine! The kitchen awaits the arrival of countertops, sinks and appliances. The door project is almost completed—trim will be painted as the weather allows; new locks and keys are being cut.

And on Monday, our nation marks Veterans Day and the centenary of the First World War.  My grandfather was stationed in France at the end of that war, fresh off the farm and naïve about the wounding of war. He once reflected on that grim tour of duty: “I’ve never seen people so hungry in my life.”

What are we going to do now?

Please join us Sunday morning. In dark and dangerous days like these, we need to be together, reminding one another that the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down and provides for the needs of the poor.  And don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Naming Names

Naming Names

Dear Friends,

All week we have been naming names.

In Pittsburgh: Irving, Joyce, Richard, Rose, Jerry, Cecil, David, Bernice, Sylvan, Daniel, Melvin.

In Jeffersonville, KY: Maurice, Vickie.

In Chicago: Deshawn, Kenjian, Peter.

These are just some of the names of those who died this week, victims of senseless violence (is there such a thing as sense-full violence?). At vigils and funerals all over the country, these women and men were remembered by name by those who loved them.

On Sunday, we will name names, as well.  On the Festival of All Saints, we give thanks for all those who have gone before us into the Kingdom of Heaven. It is our custom at Ascension to record the names of the recently deceased in our Book of Remembrance, so that we might announce their names during worship. Phil. Audrey. Erwin. Donna. Each of the more than 50 names in our Book of Remembrance belongs to a brother or sister, husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter, friend or neighbor whom we miss.

On Sunday, we will call out another name—the name of a man none of us has met, but whose name is known around the world. He is known not because of what he did, but because of what Jesus did through him. Lazarus!

We are honored to welcome Metro Chicago Synod Bishop Wayne Miller to Ascension on Sunday. Bishop Miller doesn’t “read” the gospel in worship. He “tells” it. And in his telling the story of Lazarus, he will shout Lazarus’ name just as Jesus did. (John 11) But unlike our naming of the dead, when Jesus called Lazarus’ name, something happened. Life happened. Nothing like it had been seen before or since, but when our names are on Jesus’ lips, life happens.

I imagine that after Jesus’ shouted his name and linen-wrapped Lazarus lurched from the grave, his sisters wept his name. Lazarus! We missed you! Lazarus! You’re alive! Lazarus! Come home!

It probably seemed as foolish to call the name of the dead then as it does now. The dead can’t hear. The dead can’t respond. But, when we name the dead they come to life in our imaginations and hearts.

Sometimes we hesitate to name the dead, for fear of stoking grief in the bereaved. But I have learned that it is a gift for the grieving to hear their loved one’s name again. To know that others remember. To have opportunity to tell a story. To lighten the burden of grief that accompanies them, regardless of what we say or do.

Please join us on the Festival of All Saints. We’ll be naming names.

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

Leaning toward grace

Leaning toward grace

Dear Friends,

He was a member of a Lutheran congregation I once served—member by necessity, not desire. He had been raised as a Southern Baptist, but his wife was our congregation’s organist and they wanted to worship as a family. Barry and his wife had two small children when I met them, and he was more-than-modestly confused about our practice of infant baptism. Where he was from, baptism was a decision made at an older age. “How can an infant love Jesus? How can an infant confess sin or profess faith? How can an infant make a decision about living a faithful life?”

We had one particularly intense conversation about it, during which we both learned something. I learned about the importance of intentionality—making decisions about discipleship that change the way we live. He learned about the gift of grace—that God loves us unconditionally, without regard for age or intellect or intent.

Barry never faltered in his conviction that faith is a decision that dictates a whole life. But he also got Grace. And now he has died.

Barry died in his wife’s arms of a catastrophic health event last Saturday morning, a year younger than I. As you read this, I am on my way to his funeral, where I will offer a remembrance of this gone-too-soon mostly-Baptist-but-a-little-Lutheran much-loved disciple of Jesus Christ.

Some say that we should never talk about either politics or religion in mixed company—that such debates lead inevitably to bloody brawls or pouting estrangement.  That may be true for those who stand at arm’s length, who regard either topic as an academic debate, a winner-takes-all battle of wits that has only one right answer. But people of good will who understand “politics” as an umbrella under which people of good will seek to serve, don’t arm wrestle over it. And those for whom “religion” translates into lived faith, who desire to know God more deeply and serve more fully, don’t fight about it either.

Though fiercely doctrinal, Lutherans don’t fight about what we believe. We don’t beat each other to a pulp in Jesus’ name. Instead, we lean. We emphasize. We wonder. We honor our beliefs, knowing that others hold their beliefs with equal intensity. (Though, sadly, many were brutalized in Jesus’ name in Luther’s time. The events of the Reformation were not unmitigated mercy and love—ask our Anabaptist brothers and sisters who suffered mightily at the hands of Luther’s followers.)

Grace is not a winning hand, a smack down to all other faith traditions; Grace is not an “answer” to anything. Grace is a perspective, an emphasis, a way of imagining God’s ways with us. Grace is something we learn and lean into, not something we load into a gun.

That is why my friend could hold firmly to his Baptist beliefs about responsibility and intentionality and decision, and, at the same time, bring his children to the font when they were small. He loved his children. He loved God, too, and trusted God’s love to be even more passionate than his own.

Please join us for worship on Reformation Sunday. We will speak of the sin that enslaves and the truth that frees.  (John 8.31-36) We will sing of God’s Mighty Fortress. We will pray God to continually re-form the church and our lives. Our purpose in remembering the complex events of the Reformation is to be faithful, not “right;” to emphasize the saving acts of God rather than our efforts to obtain salvation. As we teach in the Small Catechism’s meaning of the Third Article of the Apostles Creed—“I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him.” We believe that God is the primary actor and we the acted upon. We believe in Grace. For all.

How appropriate that friends will gather to remember Barry in the shadow of this shamelessly Lutheran festival, and that on Monday his body will be transported to the cemetery of his childhood Baptist church in South Carolina.  Barry lived it all—relying completely on the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ AND deciding anew every day to live a Christ-like life. And now he is free.

Leaning toward grace, even in grief,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

At your service

At your service

Dear Friends,

My daughter took ten dresses into the dressing room, in search of the perfect prom gown. Ten times she stepped out of the dressing room to look in the mirror, ask my opinion (which she ignored) and stepped back in to try on another. But each time, before she tried on the next, she put the rejected gown on its hanger and handed it to me to return to the rack. Another mother watched our interaction and said, “What are you doing?” “Shopping for prom dresses?” I asked, confused. “No, what are you doing putting dresses back on the rack?” “Being helpful?” I wondered in response.

As we spoke, I noticed the expensive pile of sequins and tulle growing on the floor of her daughter’s dressing room. I began to understand her befuddlement.

The other mother pursed her lips and corrected me, “You shouldn’t do that, you know. They have people who do that. These people are paid, you know.”

At that moment, my daughter stepped out of the dressing room to assess another cupcake-like creation and I announced, “Its time for us to go,” shooting her the look that said “We’ll talk about this later.”  To the mother-too-good-to-pick-up-after-herself I called over my shoulder, “They don’t get paid to clean up other peoples’ messes,” and rushed out of the store.

In Sunday’s gospel (Mark 10.35-45) we have a run-in with the similarly super-sized egos of Jesus’ disciples, James and John. Typically, these brothers are dubbed the “Sons of Zebedee.” But because they remind me so much of my dressing room nemesis I wonder if we should instead call them “Sons of Entitlement.”

Three times Jesus’ disciples have been told of his impending suffering, death and resurrection. Three times the disciples have chosen to misunderstand. On Sunday, in a breathtaking display of hubris, James and John march up to Jesus and announce, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

Where I come from, such brashness would have been met with a swift, “You don’t talk to me like that.”

Instead, Jesus engaged their folly, amused at their arrogance. “Sure, what do you want?”

Without a hint of irony in their voices, they said, “To sit at your right and left hands in eternity.”

Seems logical, at least in their entitled world.  If we can treat underpaid retail clerks like slaves, why not extend the courtesy to Jesus and ask him to wait on us? Why not ask for the best seat in the house, the longest title, the largest portion, the acceptable (to us) answer?

Please join us Sunday to hear Jesus’ patient but pointed retort. But, if you know Jesus, you can probably guess at his response. Like Jesus himself, he expected his followers to regard themselves not as masters but as servants, not rulers but citizens, always putting themselves beneath/behind/below others.

Also on Sunday we launch our annual stewardship appeal, asking you to support our ministry in the coming year. Two humble servants of Jesus have been invited to tell you, not why Ascension is the greatest church on the face of the planet and you ought to give us all your money, but why they have chosen Ascension as the venue for their service in the world.

Maybe I’m too sensitive to signs of entitlement, but nothing riles me more than the person who leaves an empty grocery cart in the middle of the parking lot, or treats a restaurant waiter like cheap help, or cuts into a line of people because “I have important things to do,” or leaves a rat’s nest of unwanted clothing on a dressing room floor. “Great” and “Important” are not titles we crave nor attitudes we adopt. Instead, we imitate Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve. To pick up after the world’s messes and always regard others as better than ourselves. After all, what would you rather be called, “Son of Entitlement” or “Servant of All?”

Always at your service,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

Lumbering Trouble

Lumbering Trouble

Dear Friends,

Which is worse? Trouble that lumbers slowly but steadily in your direction, or Trouble that explodes at your front door and then vanishes? We’ve seen both kinds of Trouble lately—not at Ascension, but in the air.

Our older daughter and her husband moved to North Carolina two weeks before Hurricane Florence started her clumsy, halting plod toward the Carolina coast. They had days to prepare for her arrival and then, when she finally landed, she was tired and wouldn’t leave.

Hurricane Michael, on the other hand, struck before we had time to learn his name, and then raced breathlessly up the coast to my daughter’s home. Rain poured. Lights flickered, then failed. And Michael? Michael ghosted his victims like a bad boyfriend.

Which is worse? Trouble that takes its time and then refuses to leave, or Trouble that destroys and then disappears? But, what does it matter? We don’t get to choose Trouble’s velocity, only the way we welcome it.

Yesterday, I talked to a friend whose father died 18 months ago. The time stamp on that death is important as I approach the first anniversary of my own father’s death. I’ve been surprised at how often he comes to mind these days, how often I think about the last months and weeks of my dad’s life, as he slowly, steadily slipped from our grasp. Grief and Gratitude compete to own the real estate of my heart, and I am often distracted. I asked my friend what it had been like for him as he had approached the year mark of his father’s death last May. He laughed. “I was so busy with work last spring, hardly thinking about anything else, that I didn’t remember it until my sister called to remind me.” He stopped laughing. “And then I couldn’t breathe.”

Usually by this time in the week my mind is filled with biblical images, cultural connections, words I might preach to describe the life of faith. Goodness knows, Sunday’s lectionary texts are rich with challenge to people like us—Amos warns of the dangers of economic inequality, Jesus gently chides a rich man for missing the point of his prosperity. In a political and economic climate that is daily more bizarre and bifurcated, those texts reach out and shake us. “Pay attention! You can’t go on like this!”

But, instead, my mind wanders. To Titonka, where Mom grieves as though Dad died yesterday. To North Carolina, where a week’s worth of groceries slowly rots in my older daughter’s warming refrigerator. To Boston, where my younger daughter races sleeplessly against end-of-quarter deadlines at work. Sometimes Trouble lingers. Sometimes it lunges. Regardless of the pace, Trouble always comes.

But Joy does, too. At the opening of every day, I pray that at the end of that day I will be able to say “thank you” to God. For something. Even for something small. And, guess what? Every day I can. Every day holds some surprise, some comfort, some recognition that I have more reason to rejoice than to rant.

By Sunday morning, a sermon will have assembled in my mind, and whatever Trouble or Delight the week revealed will have drawn us together in the sunlit safety of our church home. Amos will shake an ancient finger at our luxurious lives. The Psalmist will urge wisdom. Jesus will warn that the wealthy have a tougher time threading the entrance to eternity than the poor. (As a refrigerator magnet in my kitchen muses: “The fact that there is a Highway to Hell but only a Stairway to Heaven should tell you something about anticipated traffic.”)

As I write you, the day has barely begun, and I wonder, as I do every day, what this day will bring. Lumbering Trouble or Breathtaking Joy?  Laughter or Tears? Calm or Chaos? Only God knows. But I know, from long and faithful experience, that when this day ends I will have reason to be grateful.

See you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How, exactly, do we do justice?

How, exactly, do we do justice?

Dear Friends,

“That’s not what justice looks like.”

Those words greeted me this morning as I tuned to my favorite morning radio show while making breakfast. The speaker was referring to the quandary we face in these #metoo#believewomen days as those who have been harmed find their voices, and those accused of harm struggle to be heard, as well.

By day’s end we will have been bombarded by competing claims of “justice” as we await a verdict in a downtown police murder trial, a supreme court nomination cloture vote in the US Senate, and remembrances of a year ago today when the first allegations against a powerful Hollywood figure came to light.

What does “justice” look like?

A year ago, our congregation was invited to be part of a national study of “congregational vitality.” Since that invitation was accepted we were part of a survey in December, that led to the formation of a Strategy Team to analyze the results of that study and move our congregation toward greater vitality and sustainability. What did we learn? Ascension is energized for the future, confident in its leadership, financially stable, cognizant of our many gifts, eager to make a difference in the world in Jesus’ name.

Our Strategy Team, whom you will meet Sunday, now lays a biblical challenge before us: “Do Justice. Love Kindness. Walk Humbly.” (Micah 6.8) Please join us at 9:30 a.m. in Fellowship Hall for a fast-paced, informative, coffee and donut fueled introduction to that challenge. And for a first pass at our own answers to the question, “What does justice look like?”

On Sunday, I will also launch a four-week preaching series on that theme, using the appointed texts for the day. Sadly, Jesus doesn’t make my Sunday preaching task any easier.

In a gospel reading that has haunted us for centuries, Jesus takes on the matter of divorce. (Mark 10.2-16) In response to a challenge from the Pharisees: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus first shames them and then burdens us. Jesus bore down on an ancient law that allowed a man to dismiss his wife for any reason with a piece of paper. In Mark’s gospel, he expanded that law to allow women to sue for divorce, as well as men. He equated the marriage of divorced persons with adultery. He elevated marriage to an eternal edict: “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” For those of us whose lives and families have been touched by divorce, Jesus’ words sting. And shame.

What does “justice” look like when our marriages are troubled, our hearts divided, our families in crisis? What does “justice” look like when we know that God intends for us to live in helpful partnership with one another (see Sunday’s Old Testament reading: Genesis 2.18-24), but too often those partnerships are flawed?

There are no easy answers to these questions—not in our homes, our congregation, or our country. Instead, people of faith answer those questions with Micah’s question: “What does God require of us?”

But tucked into these angst-filled days, is one small glimmer of light. That light’s name is “Louise.” On Sunday morning, we wash tiny Louise McCall Weatherford in the baptismal waters. We promise to support her loving, faithful parents in their parenting. We promise to pray for and nurture Louise in the faith. We lay aside our differences and doubts to embrace them and one another with Christ’s peace.

For a brief time on Sunday morning in an unassuming brick building at the corner of Willow and Sunset Ridge, we will rest in an oasis of justice, mercy and humility.  We will wade into the ancient question, “What does justice look like?” And we will trust God to hear all our questions, shape all our answers, comfort all our confusion.

See you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post