Not Much of a Neighbor

Not Much of a Neighbor

Dear Friends,

I’d painted myself into a corner with deadlines and writing responsibilities. Correspondence for a non-profit board on which I serve. A magazine publication deadline. Prepping for a task force meeting and report. The only solution was to lock myself in the office for a three-hour block of uninterrupted time to write. Google calendar assured me it was possible.

But then at 8 a.m. our church internet provider had a “technical glitch” that wouldn’t be repaired for four hours. No phones. No internet. No access to my documents. How was that possible? I reacted badly. Weary of my whining, our office manager sent me home to work (and to get my toxic attitude out of the building). I packed my bag and stormed to my car, fuming at the loss of my writing window. On the way home, a freight train blocked my path. Grrrr. As I drove past Covenant Village, a gray sedan slowed traffic–weaving in its lane, stopping, signaling, lurching. Old people.

I loomed up behind the offending vehicle, ready to lay on my horn and/or call the police on the idiot ahead of me, who had no business behind the wheel of the car, who clearly needed to have their license revoked, who obviously . . .  (fill in the angry blank.) But as I got closer to the car, I realized the driver was not the idiot I had imagined, but a white-knuckled teenager, peering anxiously over the steering wheel, consulting mirrors and dashboard, accompanied by his equally white-knuckled mother. The driver who had driven me to thoughts of violence was just a kid learning to drive. Who was the idiot?

In a flash, I remembered practice driving with my daughters. The endless slow loops around our neighborhood, parallel parking in empty lots, learning to back and signal and gauge distances. And I remembered how grateful I was for all the other drivers who gave us room, who smiled at my daughter’s slow progress, who forgave us sitting through three red lights in a row because she didn’t have the courage to enter the intersection.

Later in the day, a conversation with our intern about Sunday’s texts convicted me further. Guess what we’re reading Sunday? The Parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10.25-37) Remember the moral of that story? “Neighbor” is not a designation of street address nor an evaluation of likability, but any person in need (remember the injured traveler in the ditch) AND anyone who offers assistance to such travelers—even, especially if the helper is unlikely (the Samaritan was of a “lesser” class).

I was a terrible neighbor that day—impatient, judgmental, self-important, anxious. The true neighbors I met that day were our staff who often talk me off the ledge, the beleaguered Comcast technicians who endured the ire of thousands of snitty customers like me, other drivers who gave the student driver (and road raging Me) wide berth and a friendly wave, and you, who are unflinchingly forgiving, kind and hopeful.

And what of other distant nameless-to-us but known-to-God neighbors who are in serious trouble. And who are the Steady Samaritans who come to their aid? We may bicker about the politics of it all, or where financial responsibility lies, or even doubt the veracity of their claims. But while cranky people like me render unkind judgments and form opinions without information, frightened travelers in our city and on our borders seek mercy from unlikely angels.

On Sunday, we will sing:

Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love,

Show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.

(ELW 708)

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus queried.

We know. We have always known. It’s just that we don’t always like the answer.

Grateful for good neighbors like you,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

Peace to All Houses

Peace to All Houses

Dear Friends,

Dogs are still hiding under sofas, and tanks are being hauled away from the National Mall after last night’s Fourth of July fireworks extravaganzas. As a dog owner, I have come to dread the explosive events of Independence Day—the sky-high booming of village fireworks and the “snap crackle pop” of illicit fireworks in my neighborhood are torture for our canine companions. But noise, cheering and chaos have become a necessary part of our celebration of the freedoms promised by our nation’s founding documents.

Our civic celebrations stand in stark contrast to Jesus’ advice to his disciples and their message of freedom. (Luke 10.1-11,16-20) Jesus sent them ahead of him into towns and villages in preparation for his arrival. The disciples traveled with no provisions and no plans. When they entered a town, they were to knock on a stranger’s door and say simply, “Peace to this house.” If their greeting was warmly received, the disciples would spend the night. If the door was slammed in their face, they were to knock on another.

No fireworks. No fanfare. A simple greeting of peace.

Today I give thanks for the freedoms promised since our nation’s founding, and pray that one day the promise of happiness and freedom would be realities for all who live here. Today I give thanks for peace in my own house and in this house of faith. Today I also give thanks for the freedom on the Gospel—that we are free to forgive, to serve, to love without reservation or expectation.  And, with you, I raise a prayer for peace especially for those who have no home, and no free country.

Peace to your house,

Pastor JoAnn Post

We want to DO something

We want to DO something

Dear Friends,

We just want to DO something.

When did I write that sentence? It could have been at any time in the history of God’s people. There has never been a time when we didn’t wade in a sea of need, face an unscaleable wall of trouble. But I wrote that sentence at 5:30 this morning, before I had either the stomach or the heart to read the day’s news. I’ve been troubled by the trouble at our southern border, the inhumane treatment of desperate people. What woke you?

Sunday’s gospel (Luke 9.51-62) describes a scene in which Jesus’ disciples also wanted to DO something. Some in Jesus’ inner circle thought the answer to the trouble around them was to blow the whole works up. Warships and drones and armies. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Fortunately, Jesus was considering a bit more measured, thoughtful approach than total annihilation of imagined enemies.

But others, who watched Jesus from a distance, also itching to make a difference, were intrigued by his energy. Surely this man who was casting out demons and healing the sick and stilling stormy seas, would give them the courage and the tools to DO something, as well. One after another they asked for an invitation to his entourage, and one after another Jesus reminded them that they could travel only one path. If they followed him, they might not be booking five-star hotels. If they followed him they might not be able to care for their aging parents. If they followed him, they might not be able to work full-time on the family farm. If they followed him, there might not be fireworks, but there would be work.

Did they follow anyway? The reading is unclear. All we know is that Jesus neither wants to destroy or delude. So, what can we DO?

In the middle of my frustration and heartache about detention camps and border control and asylum seekers and political posturing, I read this article in Wednesday’s Chicago Tribune. (Click here) I’m not advocating Huppke’s political stance, but keep reading for his carefully curated to-do list about the immigrant crisis on our border. None of those options is as exciting as blowing things up, but they provide a measured, thoughtful approach.

I add to his list of agencies that can DO something two Lutheran organizations: Lutheran Disaster Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Look them up. Send them money. Educate yourself about the underlying causes of our current crisis. A number of our members and friends are engaged with Refugee One and other agencies that care for refugees and immigrants both before they arrive on our shores, and once they are settled. Which of these organizations is “best?” It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Jesus’ disciples, then and now, engage the world in a thoughtful, measured way. That we DO something.

I know many of you are traveling, either for just a few days or for what has become “Fourth of July Week.” Blessings on your travel and your rest. But if, like me, you’re in town this weekend, please join us for worship, prayer and conversation about what we might DO to make a difference in this troubled world.

Its time for me to open the newspaper, and my mind and heart to this troubled world into which we are called. And maybe by the time I’ve finished reading the comics and drinking my tea, I will have mustered the courage to DO something. Ease someone’s pain. Listen to their story. Convey my convictions. Offer a helping hand. March with Pride. Follow Jesus, wherever he leads.

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

 

 

 

If Pigs Can Swim

If Pigs Can Swim

Dear Friends,

I was trained in Family Systems Theory, a theory of human behavior that maintains that “the family is an emotional unit and any change in the emotional functioning of one member of the family/emotional unit is predictably and automatically compensated for by changes in the emotional functioning of other members of that family/emotional unit.” (Murray Bowen, MD, psychiatrist and theoretician) In simpler terms, when one person in a system makes a change, the whole system is changed. I find Bowen’s theory helpful in working with individuals, families and congregations, identifying the place or person where a small change might make a significant difference.

An example. A family of my acquaintance was plagued, for generations, with alcohol addiction. When one of the family members went into treatment and curbed her addiction, the family’s delight in her accomplishment was short-lived. “We all got along better when she was drinking, too,” her brother told me. He and another brother actually tried to get her to start drinking again, because her abstinence made their addictions less amusing.

An example. A friend’s father was an unrepentant trafficker in crude, racist, sexist humor. On one occasion, when the patriarch launched into a string of disgusting jokes, my friend simply turned to the sibling beside him at the dinner table and started a quiet conversation. Rather than yelling at her father—again—he changed his behavior. His example gave other siblings courage to do the same, and without a voice being raised, their father lost his audience—and his appetite—for filthy jokes.

When one person in a system makes a change, the whole system is changed.

Jesus may not have been a practitioner of Family Systems Theory, but his actions had the same result. In Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 8.26-39) Jesus and his disciples have rowed to the “other side” of the Sea of Galilee—a dog whistle to Luke’s readers that Jesus was on the “wrong side of the tracks.” Encountering a demon-possessed man, Jesus first engaged the demons in conversation and then gave them permission to exorcise themselves into a herd of pigs. With a swiny squeal, the startled pigs panicked and hurled themselves off a cliff into the Sea of Galilee. When the waves closed over their heads, the no-longer-demon-possessed man was found seated at Jesus’ feet, “clothed and in his right mind.” Luke makes a snide aside, “and the people were afraid.”

Of course, they were afraid, “seized with great fear,” in fact. I’m sure no one in that village delighted in the man’s lifelong disabilities. But when Jesus cured him, the whole system shifted. The no-longer-demon-possessed man was a frightening sign of the norm-shattering shifts that Jesus brought with him. Demons who used to swagger in the darkness, drowned in the deep. Pigs formerly tethered to pasture, learned the backstroke. People enslaved in mental and physical disabilities were free. “Conventional wisdom” about disabilities was suddenly little more than “baseless bias.”

The villagers were terrified because the healing of one man changed their whole world view. How would they explain vandalism in the night if they couldn’t pin it on his nocturnal shenanigans? Who would they lift up as a cautionary tale for misbehaving children? Who would they demonize once the real demons were gone? What other norms would be broken, expectations shattered, “right” answers deemed wrong? Their lives made sense when the demon-possessed man acted like a demon-possessed man. But when he acted like one of them?

When one person in a system makes a change, the whole system is changed.

I know many of you are traveling and otherwise occupied these days. Know that I pray for you when you’re away. And if you are nearby and have an hour to spare on a Sunday morning, perhaps you could row with us over to the “other side” where Jesus is most often found, among those whom the world deems “different” or “frightening” or “demon-possessed.”

The demon-possessed are freed and pigs can swim. What will Jesus do with us if we join him on “the other side?”

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

Always on God’s Mind

Always on God’s Mind

Dear Friends,

My Mom kept a hardbound Birthday Book, a gift to her from a favorite aunt more than 70 years ago. In that palm-sized diary, my teenage Mom wrote in the birthdays of all her siblings, her parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The book was nearly full already, each named inscribed in my mother’s distinctive cursive. But the family grew—she added my Dad’s birthday when she fell in love with him. Over the years, the pages grew crowded with additional names—each of her eight children, then our spouses and our children, her nieces and nephews. Her handwriting slowly grew more spidery, the pages more ink than paper. Mom’s Birthday Book was the definitive source for all family information. And Mom never forgot a birthday.

When my parents moved from their home three years ago, we found drawers stuffed with greeting cards for every conceivable occasion. Either Mom had stock in Hallmark, or had mugged a greeting card salesperson, but she had enough cards for a century’s worth of birthdays, funerals and babies. Why so many cards? Mom loved a lot of people. And, more significantly, she selected a card for each person with great care—the text inside had to be just right. How many times did she pore over her card stock to find just the right sentiment for the recently-widowed neighbor, the grandchild’s confirmation, the wedding anniversary? Mom never forgot a birthday.

Until she did.

I turned 60 yesterday, and was overwhelmed by the cards and texts, Facebook messages and flowers. Thank you. How fortunate I am to be so loved. But one particular greeting card caught me by surprise, took my breath away.

Mom started not remembering things almost a decade ago. The first time she forgot to send me a birthday card was a hard day for me—not because my birthday is such a big deal, but because Mom forgot to remember. Reluctantly, we have all stopped expecting a birthday card or phone call—Mom isn’t herself anymore. But on Wednesday, I received a card in the mail—my address written in the familiar, perfect script of my school-teacher sister, and “Mom” written in the return corner of the envelope. It took me a moment to register what it meant. But then I realized that my dear sister had purchased a birthday card for Mom, placed a pen in my mother’s arthritic hand and coaxed her through a scribbled signature at the bottom of the card. Tears run down my face as I write this to you. Mom didn’t remember my birthday, but my sister knew how I deeply I wanted her to.

On Sunday, we celebrate Trinity Sunday—the oddest of church festivals. Trinity Sunday marks not an event, as do all other festivals (Jesus’ birth, resurrection, etc.), but an idea, a notion, a theory about how God functions. We believe that God is a single, joyful, creative entity, revealed to us most clearly in three distinct “persons”—Father, Son, Spirit. It is empirically unverifiable, intellectually challenging, and theologically complex. Trying to describe God is, as even the great theologian Augustine discovered, futile.  In 412 CE, he wrote, “I spent some years in writing fifteen books concerning the Trinity, which is God. Right away, we realize we are in over our heads. Fifteen books? Among Augustine’s many non-conclusions is this: “But in these three, when the mind knows itself and loves itself, a trinity remains: the mind, love, and knowledge.”

We mark Trinity Sunday at Ascension with song and scripture, silence and speculation. During worship, we will welcome our new intern, receive new members, and make room at our table for four children who will joyfully receive the Lord’s Supper for the first time. A festive reception awaits us after the last chord of the postlude fades away. I hope you will join us.

Great minds and hopeful hearts have pondered the mystery of the Trinity for centuries. I struggle with it every year when this festival appears on the calendar. But this year, I am thinking about it as Augustine did—that God is mind, love, knowledge. And the clearest image of the mindful, loving knowledge that is God on this day—the second day of my seventh decade—is the image of my sister guiding my mother’s hand through that nearly-illegible three-letter signature. Even now, I am on Mom’s mind. Even now she loves me. I know this to be true. Of Mom. Of God.

My family keeps track of personal data on a massive five-generation spread sheet, stored on googledocs. But I wonder if my older sister, who now has custody of the Birthday Book, has inscribed the name of mom’s newest great-grandchild, Cooper Nathan, on the already-crowded date of his birth. Though Cooper will never receive a birthday card from his beloved Grand-grandma Post, his parents and grandparents will certainly teach him what my parents taught me—God knows him; God loves him; he is always on God’s mind. Because, even though a mother may forget her children, the certainty that God cannot, will not, would not forget us brings joy to my heart. And to the world.

Blessed Trinity Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post

 

I Hear the Train A’comin’

I Hear the Train A’comin’

Dear Friends,

As you read this, I am shivering in a Tinley Park conference center, with about 500 of my closest Lutheran friends at the Metro Chicago Synod Assembly. This event happens every spring—it is the business meeting for our corner of the ELCA, and an opportunity to worship, think and study together. This year’s synod assembly is different from most, since we are electing a new bishop. Our current bishop, Wayne Miller, is retiring, after having served the synod ably, faithfully and creatively for over a decade. Who will our new bishop be? How many ballots will be cast before the answer is clear? What words will the new bishop have to offer at the beginning of a new term, in a wildly changeable, turbulent synod environment?

The selection of a bishop is unlike any election you’ve ever seen. The first ballot is called an “ecclesiastical ballot,” a handwritten ballot on which any ELCA pastor can be nominated. The number of names written in on that first ballot can run into the hundreds. (Some pastors are nominated because they might be good bishop material, others because their congregations would like them to move on. Being named on the ecclesial ballot can send a mixed message.)

As soon as the results of the ecclesiastical ballot are released, pastors who do not wish to remain in contention ask to have their names removed from consideration. In fact, most pastors remove their names before the second ballot, leaving only a handful of “live” candidates. From that point on, the assembly casts ballots for a quickly decreasing number of candidates, until a single candidate emerges as victorious. Who will that person be?

In preparation for the vote, six pastors in our synod were willing to go public with their willingness to be elected bishop, engaging in a series of public forums. They answered questions from across the synod, as voting members listened intently for themes and emphases, hints of how a particular pastor might lead as a bishop. While we are all grateful these six persons put themselves forward to start the conversation, it is very likely the next bishop will not have been among them. I’ve seen it happen time and again. Why do you suppose that is?

Sunday is the Festival of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, the festival which marks the gift of the Spirit to the first believers. (Acts 2.1-20) The story is familiar to us—the disciples were all gathered together in one place, when a violent wind, dancing flames and multi-lingual speeches erupted all around them. As with many biblical stories, we have heard it so often, the events no longer startle us. But I would not have wanted to be among them that day as the doors crashed open, fires combusted spontaneously, and words they did not know fell out of their mouths. Loud. Smoky. Vertiginous. Frightening.

While we credit those events with launching the gospel of Jesus Christ into the world, I imagine those in attendance were weak with fear, rushing for the exits. Jesus had promised the gift of the Spirit, but I imagine they hoped the Spirit would arrive more like a puppy with a bow around its neck, than as a freight train with faulty brakes.

It is that same Spirit for which we pray on Pentecost. That same Spirit to whom we appeal as we elect our next bishop.  Is that really want we want—a freight train of change and challenge?  Regardless of our desires, I can already hear the train approaching in the distance.

A friend and I have been talking about the rapid pace of change and the rampant uncertainty in each of our professional worlds—me in the church and he in agriculture. In both our spheres, current conditions were unimaginable even a decade ago. The way we worship has changed as dramatically as has the way we eat. The climate governing shifts in ecclesial engagement are as volatile as the climate that drowns some fields and parches others. There are fewer pastors and smaller congregations in my world, fewer farmers and larger fields in his. What does it mean? How will we survive? Who will lead us?

The old ways don’t work anymore, in either of our worlds. And, if the writer of Acts is to be believed, the old ways weren’t working in the 1st century either.

Please pray that we have the courage to trust the will of the Spirit in our bishop deliberations. Please pray that in our congregations and in our lives we will open the doors, rather than barricade them; sing a new song rather than hum the old one; stoke the fire burning in our church rather than try to extinguish it.

Sunday is the Festival of Pentecost. The church will be dressed in red. The readers will be cacophonous. The children will be radiant. And we will pray, “Come, Holy Spirit.” Freight train and all.

Blessed Pentecost,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

Happy Name Day

Happy Name Day

Dear Friends,
Today is our congregation’s Name Day. Established in 1959 as Lutheran Church of the Ascension, there was a time when Ascension Day was a big deal here. Sadly, Ascension Day has gone the way of all minor church festivals, becoming more “minor” all the time, little more than a footnote in a congregation’s life.
Among the many treasures we discovered while sorting our firesafe storage area (see my article in this month’s newsletter here) was a seven-page, hand-typed document titled, “The First Seven Years: The Lutheran Church of the Ascension.” It recounts the selection of our building site, the election of the first congregation council, review of the construction funding, and a biography of the first pastor, Harold R. Lohr.  In honor of our Name Day, I recovered that flimsy yellowed document, looking for wisdom about our name. Surely, something as pivotal as a congregation’s name would have been cause for great deliberation and prayer. Surely, since the name would be our first introduction to the community, our “brand,” it would be a serious decision. Instead, the naming process was mentioned only in a footnote at the end of “The First Seven Years:”
The name “Lutheran Church of the Ascension” was selected by Pastor Lohr because the ascension was what he regarded as the basis for the Church. The name was approved by the Central Conference of the Augustana Lutheran Church and also by the Board of American Missions.
They let the pastor pick the name? Because of a disputed, little-attested event in the life of the early church? Without a vote or a discussion or a prayer? Its not that I don’t like our name, it just seems it should be worth more than a footnote in our founding documents.
So what is this footnote of a festival, “Ascension,” after which we are named? The Ascension is celebrated 40 days after Easter, and marks Jesus’ departure from earth to be seated at the right hand of the God. You would think the gospel writers would make a big deal out of the gravity-defying, mind-boggling, credulity-stretching, orphan-making launch of Jesus from the earth into the clouds. But only Luke mentions it. Only twice. In Luke 24 and Acts 1.
Apparently, Jesus’ disciples were as underwhelmed then as we are now. Luke reports that, while staring silently at the bottoms of Jesus’ feet, two men in white robes (the same two men who were at the tomb Easter morning?) jerked them back to reality: “Why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” The disciples looked at each other, shrugged, “Alrighty then,” and traipsed back into Jerusalem.
That’s who we are too, sometimes. Loiterers. Lingerers. Disciples just standing around, looking around, waiting around. Disciples feeling as abandoned as we do empowered. Disciples who, left to their own devices, might have shrugged Jesus off as little more than an interesting experience.
Sadly, Jesus’ Ascension is little more than a footnote—in scripture, in our congregation, in the world.
On Sunday we will mark the Seventh Sunday of Easter with a portion of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer (John 17). Before stepping into the dark events of the crucifixion Jesus paused to pray. For his disciples. For the world. For us. It is noteworthy that when Jesus prays he prays not for himself or his family, for his own hopes and fears, but for us—generations of loiterers, lingerers and orphans who would stumble along in the world without him. And what did Jesus pray for us? Come and see.
Our children meet Sunday for Children’s Music and Godly Play at 9:30 and 9:45 a.m., respectively. We gather for Worship at 10 a.m. in the sanctuary marked by Jesus’ promise, “You shall be my witnesses,” and the angels’ question, “Why do you stand looking?”
60 years ago our congregation was named for a biblical event nobody remembers anymore. But our faulty memories don’t dilute the significance of that event or our name. God bless Pastor Lohr for saddling us with the reminder that the world is waiting for us as much as the world waited for Jesus’ first disciples to get a move on.
Blessings to you on our Name Day. Why are you standing around?
Pastor JoAnn Post