He Will Return

He Will Return

Dear Friends,

We last saw each other in person 18 months ago, before the pandemic fell, never dreaming it would be our last visit. My old friend, Irma, died in March, after a brief illness, at the age of 85. Her death was a tremendous blow. But one of the ways in which I am comforted is confidence that she and I will be reunited in the life to come. How will that work? What will we look like? No one knows, but I am confident we will be reunited.

That said, I hadn’t expected to see her so soon. On Tuesday afternoon, I opened a letter her widowed husband had sent, and a photograph of my friend fell out of the envelope. And there she was! My old friend just as I remember her—smiling, kind, beautiful. I dropped the envelope as though I had been burned, and burst into tears. I had not known how much I had missed her, how hard her death had been, how much I longed to see her. Until I saw her again.

Somehow, seeing her face when I did not expect, was as much of a shock as her unexpected death. Somehow, seeing her face when I did not expect, brought back a flood of fond memories, and I cried tears of both joy and sorrow.

Yesterday, the church celebrated The Ascension of Our Lord, 40 days after Easter. While Ascension Day is considered a minor festival, rarely remarked, it serves as a letter, a promise from an old friend. On Ascension, we are reminded that we will see Jesus again. Just as he said.

The Ascension is an unusual event. Following the significant drama of the Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection, the Ascension is easy to miss.  Standing with his disciples on a hilltop outside Jerusalem, Jesus offers a few parting remarks to the disciples, and then the gospel writer Luke writes, “When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1.6ff)  Just like that, like candle smoke ascending from the flame, Jesus rose and was gone. Poof!

The disciples couldn’t quite believe their eyes; they just kept looking at the sky. Where did he go? Later, they remembered that the last they had seen of their risen Lord was the bottoms of his feet. Two men in white robes (the same two men in white robes who had been lounging in Jesus’ empty tomb?) snapped them back to reality: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come to you in the same way you saw him go into heaven.”

Jesus’ Ascension is an odd little imagining of what it will be like when we see Jesus again, and perhaps, when we will see one another again. Maybe that grand reunion will be underwhelming in its ordinariness—like a puff of smoke, like a sunbeam through a cloud, like a smile we had almost forgotten. With the church, we long for that day when Jesus will return, in the same way we saw him go. And, with the church, we long for that day when our loved ones will be restored to us.

Sunday morning marks the Seventh Sunday of Easter. We will read from Acts, about the selection of a disciple to take Judas’ place, and we will overhear Jesus pray for us. After worship, we invite you to remain on the zoom call for “All Ascension Reads: Redlining.” It is a fascinating book and, even if you’ve not been able to read it, you are welcome to listen in.

Today, in the afterglow of Jesus’ Ascension, I give thanks for the promise of reunion—with Jesus, with loved ones who still live in our hearts. Today, we trust the Easter/Ascension angels: “You will see him come just as you saw him go.”  But, will the bottoms of his feet still be dirty?

“See” you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Enraged Elmers

Enraged Elmers

Dear Friends, Elmers everywhere were enraged.

 For decades, ham radio operators had had to demonstrate proficiency in Morse Code in order to move beyond the most basic licensing level of “technician.” On a dare, I had studied for that first license and, much to everyone’s surprise, passed with flying colors. KB1MPM (my first call sign) was on the air! I lingered at the “tech” level for months, terrified of having to learn a language composed of only dots, dashes and spaces in order to advance. But my Elmer (the person who mentors a new ham radio operator is called an “Elmer”) convinced me I could do it. I purchased the practice software, and night after night, for three months, I tapped my answers back to the on-line prompts. Dots and dashes haunted my sleep, but I was determined—as was my Elmer—to attain the “general” license, with all the rights and privileges thereunto pertaining.   

But intrigue was afoot. Even as I sweated through my exam prep, the FCC was re-evaluating licensing for ham radio operators. After a lengthy period of study, they determined that Morse Code would no longer be a prerequisite for the higher license classes. They determined that Morse Code was not as useful as it had once been, and served as a barrier to greater engagement with ham radio. I was delighted.

Elmers everywhere were enraged. “So now just any idiot can be a ham?” they bellowed in on-line chat rooms. “Does the license mean nothing anymore?” they moaned. “This is the end of ham radio!” they wept. (All of this was tapped out in Morse Code, of course.) 

My delight didn’t last long. My Elmer made a convincing argument that I would always feel like a fraud if I operated my radio with a general license, without actually knowing Morse Code. Though I would gladly have felt like a fraud if it meant I didn’t have to take the exam, he persisted. And I passed. Barely. By about two dots and a dash. But I passed. I earned my general license the hard way, the old-fashioned way, the right way. My Elmer and all the old guys in my ham radio club snapped their suspenders with pride. 

In fact, removing Morse Code from the general licensing exam was a tremendous boost to the hobby. Requests for study and licensing materials doubled in the months following the change in the rule. But more than a few of the old duffers died and went SK (Silent Key) without ever forgiving the FCC, or accepting those lazy hams who obtained their licenses the “easy way.” 

Does anyone welcome a change in the rules, a perceived “relaxing” of the standards, abandonment of the cherished ways we’ve always done it? 

Please join us Sunday to learn about the ways the early church “relaxed” the rules. Though neither ham radio nor Morse Code had been invented in the 1st century CE, there were other ways to irritate the old timers. Shortly after Pentecost, as more and more Jews were being welcomed into the first faith communities, somebody threw a wrench in the works and invited Gentiles, too. (Acts 10.44-48) Did that mean almost “any idiot” could be a disciple? Jesus himself, on the night before he died, upended the rules, refusing to be called “Master” by his disciples, preferring to be their “friend.” (John 15.9-17) What sort of movement calls their leader “friend?” Doesn’t somebody have to be in charge? 

Speaking of movements, I suggest a “change the rules” about another cherished tradition: Mother’s Day. While I am deeply grateful for my own mother and all the women who have been as mothers to me, the observance presents an opportunity for a deeper message. As part of your Mother’s Day observation this year, you might take time to read two very different “Mother’s Day Proclamations.” The first was written by Julia Ward Howe in 1870, a post-Civil War call for mothers to unite for the sake of peace. (click here). The second was printed in The Chicago Tribune on Wednesday, a call for mothers to unite against violence in our streets. (click here) With Julia Ward Howe and Nortasha Stingley and women everywhere, I pray for an end to violence. As Howe wrote, “We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” 

Though Elmers everywhere are enraged, ham radio has made changes necessary to keep the hobby vibrant and vital for another generation. The same was true in the early church, among Jesus’ disciples, on Mother’s Day, and in the life of our congregation. Our eyes must be focused on the future, not on a fondly-remembered past or an uncomfortable present. After all, we can trust Jesus, our friend, to lead us well. ­ ­

–……– ­­ (Best regards)

Pastor JoAnn Post (KD9HXX)

We Are All Connected

We Are All Connected

Dear Friends,

We are all connected.

Last night my husband and I learned that a professional colleague in India, teaching in a Lutheran seminary in his home state of Faridabad, has contracted the corona virus, along with countless members of his community and family. While news reports of unspeakable Covid-19 sorrows in India—for both the living and the dead—daily shock us, my family can now put a face on the suffering.

We are all connected in suffering.

My neighbors are Pakistani Muslims, among the first home owners on our street, 40 years ago. Ordinarily, during Ramadan, their home is the place where all their friends and family break the daily fast. Ordinarily, during Ramadan, their driveway is filled with cars each evening, their deck overflowing with laughter. But not this year. This year my neighbors break the fast each evening quietly, in the same muted way our Jewish and Christian neighbors celebrated a remote, isolated, quiet Passover and Easter.

We are all connected in celebration.

President Biden’s address to Congress on Wednesday evening connected the dots between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, urban and rural voters, citizens of every hue. He spoke of our common concerns for women and children, for peace and prosperity, for health and safety. Though much divides us as a nation, even more unites us—if only we will put down our weapons and our rhetoric and consider the ways we are connected, rather than the ways we have been dispersed.

We are all connected in citizenship.

On Sunday morning, we will read from Jesus’ Final Discourse (John 15.1-8), in which he names himself “Vine.” “I am the true vine, and you are the branches,” he tells his soon-to-be-abandoned disciples. How will they remain connected, after Jesus is no longer physically present with them? They will bear fruit. They will live for the other. They will curb their own desires to care for the needs of the other. They will stay connected with each other, and all for whom Christ died. Like a branch clings to a vine, that’s how disciples cling to Jesus.

We are all connected in service.

On Sunday morning, after live zoom worship, we will welcome a member of the Northbrook Board of Trustees to our Vitality Talk, to tell us about Northbrook’s recent affordable housing initiative. She comes to us as part of our year-long discussion of racism, and our most recent focus on “Racism: A Chicago Perspective.” While “affordable housing” has been falsely maligned as the certain ruin of our pristine and privileged neighborhoods, it is, in fact, a way to make it possible for the firefighters and police officers and nurses and teachers who work with us to also live with us.

We are all connected in neighborhoods.

After a long, isolated winter, Ascension is inching back toward in-person worship and congregational life. Months ago, our staff and leadership agreed on a set of principles and protocols to guide our deliberations; we agreed to put aside our personal desires and intuitions for the sake of a mission- and data-driven greater good. And though it seems that Covid-19 infections and deaths might be on the decline, the fact that some still contract the virus, that some still suffer and die, affirms our decision to be deliberate. In that cautious-yet-hopeful spirit, we invite you to join us in a first step toward in-person life together, by joining us for “Come as You Are Communion,” every Saturday in May at 4:30 p.m. Please bring a lawn chair, a mask and appropriate weather gear (we will meet rain or shine) to share the Lord’s Supper. I thank you, in advance, for respecting and understanding our cautions and our precautions. Our necessary distance from one another has been both burden and blessing for us all.

We are all connected in communion.

With Covid-sufferers world-wide, with neighbors across the street, with citizens across the aisle, as a branch is to a vine, we are all connected.  As Jesus told his disciples on the night before his crucifixion, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”

It is still true. Apart from Christ and his mission to love, to serve, to die for the other, we are Nothing. Instead, connected in and through Christ, we are Something. Something Faithful. Something Kind. Something Hopeful. Something Fruitful.

We are all connected.

Pastor JoAnn Post

The Best Shepherd

The Best Shepherd

Dear Friends,

I lived in a majority-Roman Catholic city in the early ‘90’s when the “priest scandal” broke over all our heads. You may recall that, like an errant asteroid, accusations of sexual abuse at the hands of priests and other religious exploded on the church. Decades of pent-up anger and fear and confusion rained down on the church, providing a long-denied arena for those harmed by the church to be heard and believed. The guilty and their protectors are now punished; restitution is attempted; changes continue to be made. But the stain remains. There is no excusing or explaining away the abuse perpetrated by the church and some of its leaders.

You may also recall that the justifiable and overdue outrage was broad-brush and unnuanced, often painting all religious groups and all religious leaders as predators and posers. It can be difficult, in the heat of the moment, to distinguish between those organizations and individuals who act with callous and dangerous disregard, and those organizations and individuals who are faithful in their calling. And, to those who have been harmed, those distinctions are meaningless.

Do religious organizations and pastors cause harm? Absolutely. Do those corrupt organizations and pastors represent all religious organizations and pastors? Not by a country mile. But all of us are affected by the violence and depravity in our ranks. And all of us who lead in Christ’s church, even those who have not caused or covered harm, bear responsibility for the corruption among us. Though few may have committed a crime, many are complicit.

The results of the Chauvin murder trial in Minneapolis threw me back into those dark days of the sexual scandal that rocked the church, decades ago. Though only one person was on trial in that Minneapolis court room, it has been difficult to avoid painting all law enforcement officers and agencies with the same broad, unnuanced brush of corruption and violence. Do law enforcement agencies and officers cause harm? Absolutely. Do those corrupt agencies and officers represent all agencies and officers? Not by a country mile. Those of us who both support law enforcement officers AND decry the ways some misuse their authority bear responsibility for positive change and honest disclosure. Though few may have committed a crime, many are complicit.

On Sunday morning, we will read a familiar and often misunderstood gospel reading, in which Jesus names himself “The Good Shepherd.” (John 10.11-18) That he names himself “good” leads us to the immediate assumption that some shepherds are “bad.” In addition to the implied “bad shepherds,” Jesus names other potential perpetrators of harm against the sheep. He warns of “hired hands” who do not care for the sheep and who, predictably, run at the first sign of trouble. He warns of “wolves” whose only interest in the sheep is as lamb chops on the supper table. Jesus even indicts the “owner of the sheep,” whose interest is purely financial. The sheep are unaware of the mixed motives of those who circle around them, but Jesus knows the danger they face. And he knows that he is the only trustworthy shepherd among them.

With concerns about corruption in all human institutions—including church and law enforcement—I find myself wondering about those sketchy characters in Jesus’ story. Might he be speaking of us? Are we the sheep or the wolves? Are we the good shepherds or the bad? Are we weak-kneed hired hands or profit-driven owners? Though we know, with perfect biblical hindsight, that Jesus was speaking of corrupt religious organizations and leaders, Jesus’ hearers had no idea what or who he was talking about. John writes, “Again the Jews (i.e. religious leaders) were divided because of these words.”

Were some among Jerusalem’s religious elite Canis lupus in costume, licking their lips in anticipation of loin? Had some of them been sent by a temp agency, interested only in a pay check? Were some of them stock holders, who regarded those in their care a matter of mere profit and loss? Were some of them the “bad shepherds,” who shirked their duty with blithe disregard?

Certainly, not all the religious leaders to whom Jesus spoke were corrupt, nor was all Temple practice shameful and scandalous. But some of them were. Some of it was. And it was Jesus’ task, as the only “good shepherd” in the room to do what was best for the sheep.

At Ascension, we continue to study and explore ways to be more faithful to all the sheep in our care, and to confess that we are part of systems that fail to do so. Please join us for Worship on Good Shepherd Sunday, to hear more about the “Best Shepherd.” Please remain on the line for “All Ascension Watches,” as we screen and discuss a 27-minute documentary about the jobs/housing mismatch in Chicago. After all, not all the sheep have a place to sleep.

It is my prayer that corruption in every organization, in every heart is exposed and extricated. It is my prayer that those tasked with promoting the public good do so without regard for skin color or zip code. It is my prayer that the “shepherds” among us are protected and provided with all they need to do their work. That said, there is only one shepherd whom we name “Good.” It is our privilege to follow him.

“See” you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Too good to be true

Too good to be true

Dear Friends,

The last time I was able to visit my grandson, I hummed an old Frankie Valli tune to him as he drifted off to sleep, “You’re just too good to be true. Can’t take my eyes off of you.” Though the Four Seasons were probably not singing of a sleep-heavy toddler, their lyric put words to the melody in my heart. Some faces, some people, some events, some moments, are just too good to be true. It is certainly the case with my little Theo.

Many years ago, my family moved from Iowa to Connecticut, uprooting our then eight-year-old daughter from the only home she had known. The summer after we moved, we visited Iowa again to see family and friends after a year’s absence from one another. I had arranged a visit between my daughter and her best friend, Devin, without either of them knowing about it. On the morning of the visit, we walked up to Devin’s house and rang the bell. When the door opened, the girls gaped at one another through the screen door, speechless. The friend’s mother said, “Honey, its Madelene. You remember Madelene.” Devin said to her mother, “Have you ever wanted something so much that when it happened you were afraid it wasn’t real?”

You’re just too good to be true . . .

So much of the news around us seems too bad to be true, even though it is, sadly, very true. Usually a voracious consumer of news from both radio and newspaper, I have lately been turning the radio’s volume down and skimming the morning paper. There is so much sorrow in the world, in our lives—I can’t bear it for it all to be true.

This Sunday marks the Third Sunday of the Easter Season, and once again, Jesus has to prove himself to be true. (Luke 24.36b-48) We have had 2,000+ years to make peace with the idea of “resurrection,” but Jesus’ followers had three days. No one had ever been resurrected from the dead before, so even though Jesus had told them it would happen, when they saw him, they only gaped. Like long-time friends staring at one another through a screen door, they had no words.

On Easter morning, Jesus was, for some reason, unrecognizable to Mary Magdelene, one of his most faithful disciples. It was not until he said her name, “Mary!” that she allowed herself to believe it was him. (John 20.11ff)

On Easter evening, Jesus walked all seven miles of the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus with two disciples who, inexplicably, did not recognize him. It was not until they gathered at the table, and Jesus was asked to offer the blessing that they saw his face. (Luke 24.28ff)

Later that same evening, Jesus made an appearance to other disciples back in Jerusalem. In one account (John 20.19ff) Jesus emerged bodily through a locked door. It was not until the disciples saw the wounds that they would be convinced it was him. In another take on that same event (Luke 24.36ff), Jesus seemed to them a ghost; their doubt relieved only when Jesus ate something in front of them. “A ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

It was simply too much to believe. Jesus alive. Death defeated. (Cue Frankie Valli.)

Please join us on Sunday for live zoom Worship, as we remind one another that Jesus is alive; that death has been defeated; that some things are not too good to be true. Though violence and illness and disparity and willful ignorance roar all around us, we know a greater truth.

All the world is on the edge of its seat, as evidence of the pandemic’s gradual waning becomes more convincing. Though hot spots, like wild fires, continue to threaten, and it is far too soon to declare victory, the trajectory of the recovery—in terms of both public and economic health—is slowly moving in the right direction. And we are learning that as hard as it was for some to believe the virus and its violence were real, it is as hard for us to believe the crisis might one day be tamed. I find myself afraid to hope, as anxious now that our conversations turn toward a hopeful future, as I was when the days were so dark.

Our leadership teams and staff are in discussion about a gradual return to in-person worship and community life. Our staff and leaders are getting vaccinated—both for our sake and for yours. It is as though, like the door slowly opening between my daughter and her friend, the thing for which have longed is about to take place. What will we say when we see one another again? Or will we have no words? Only smiles? Only tears? Only song?

Forgive me for planting that ear worm Frankie Valli tune in your head, but, of all the songs to accompany our day, we could have chosen worse. To one another, to Jesus we sing, “You’re just too good to be true. Can’t take my eyes off of you.”

“See” you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Wounds that Witness

Wounds that Witness

Dear Friends,

Every once in a while, I am reminded of my age—even without the prompting of a birthday card in the mail, or the casual glance of the grocery clerk who decides not to check my ID before ringing up my wine purchase. Though I feel younger than my years, my body doesn’t always agree. As they say in trauma studies, “the body keeps the score.”

I have been privileged in recent years to be part of research and writing about the lingering effects of physical, emotional and spiritual trauma on both body and mind—the body’s “score keeping.” I was invited into these projects because of my own body-borne trauma nine years ago—the diagnosis and treatment of a rare, usually terminal cancer. Though the cancer barely crosses my mind any more, it took a lasting toll on me. Chemo-induced nerve damage is now affecting my balance and gait. The port scar on my chest is prominent in the mirror. Occasional brain fog floats over me. When I asked my primary care physician why, after all these years, some side effects are more prominent, she smiled and said, “You’re getting older. It happens. And it beats the alternative.”

I have never been one to fear birthdays—having come perilously close to having no more birthdays at all, I celebrate every one. But my body is keeping the score of the battles, wounds and challenges I have faced.

On the Second Sunday of Easter, Jesus’ body keeps the score, as well. (John 20.19-31) Fresh from the resurrection, appearing to startled disciples in unexpected places, Jesus’ body tells a story that puzzles us still. On Easter evening, Jesus appeared in a locked room where his disciples were hiding for fear of those who had killed him. We don’t know what they said to him, but we know what Jesus said to them, “Peace to you.” Then John records one of the most troubling details about Jesus’ death and resurrection, “After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced.”

Wouldn’t one imagine that the resurrected body of Jesus would be pristine, perfect, unmarred? Wouldn’t one imagine that the resurrected body of Jesus, having already defied all the laws of nature, would have been erased of evidence? Wouldn’t one imagine that the disciples would have been more encouraged to see Jesus’s body pristine as a new car, rather than bloody and bruised? Apparently not, because it was in the wounds of Jesus—not his face, not his voice, not the familiarity of his step—that they knew it was him.

The defining impact of Jesus’ wounds is apparent even in American Sign Language, in which Jesus’ name is signed by touching the middle finger of one hand into the palm of the other—silently placing a finger in the mark of the nails: ASL sign for JESUS (handspeak.com)

What does it mean for us that the resurrected Jesus still bears the wounds, the marks of the struggle, the evidence of torture? It means that though the wounds may have been his most defining feature, they did not destroy him. The mark in Jesus’ side, the nail marks in his hands and feet, the thorn gouges on his forehead make us confident that all our wounds, all our sorrows, all our scars are also known to him. And that our wounds, our scars also become part of our testimony, the way we are known in the world. Jesus’ wounds witness to ours.

We live in a deeply wounded world, evidence of the struggle is everywhere apparent. Please join us for (live zoom) Worship Sunday morning, as we welcome Metro Chicago Synod Bishop Yehiel Curry as our guest preacher (remotely) who will tell us more about the saving wounds of Jesus. Please remain with us for our April Vitality Talk during which we bring the discussion of racism closer to home, learning about the ways neighbors and neighborhoods in Chicago have been wounded by generations of inequitable economic practices.

We have all been wounded. What do the wounds teach us?

Though deeply and permanently affected by cancer and its treatment, the wounds on my body and memory offer an unusual opportunity to witness to the possibility of life. Just this week, a friend who walked with me through that year of medical disability, called to be reminded of a particularly harsh period of my year-long treatment: “Our neighbor is going through a horrible round of chemo. He’s losing hope. How did you keep hoping?”

Another long-time friend recently asked, on behalf of a friend who is facing a similar treatment, about the subcutaneous injections I daily self-administered: “She’s afraid. What can I tell her? What will it be like?”

Though I am reluctant to share all the gory details of my medical history with those interested only in prurient prying, I don’t hesitate to speak candidly with those who walk (and stumble) the road I walked. The same is true when people ask about the life of faith, when they wonder about what it means to be a disciple. I have no interest in defending my faith to those who seek only to belittle or mock. But when pressed by someone who has never encountered Jesus, or one who fears Jesus is hopelessly irrelevant, or one who has been harmed by Jesus’ disciples or Jesus’ church, I have all the time in the world. My wounds witness to theirs.

Trauma researchers teach us that the body keeps the score, that the body does not forget. Jesus’ wounded, resurrected body teaches us that Jesus does not forget, either. As the prophet Isaiah wrote: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53.5)

“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post

A Familiar Script

A Familiar Script

Dear Friends,

“It’s a familiar script.”

The mayor of Boulder, CO, in an interview with NPR, was trying to describe the aftermath Monday’s mass murder of shoppers at a local grocery store. He sighed and said, “It’s a familiar script.” Colorado has witnessed a terrifying number of such tragedies—Columbine school children (1999), bystanders killed in a failed assassination attempt on a member of Congress (2011), Aurora theater goers (2012), Planned Parenthood clients (2015), and countless police officers and security guards who attempted to protect them. Though the excuses given for each incident differ, the pattern of the aftermath is the same. Horror followed by community solidarity followed by outrage followed by finger-pointing followed by inaction. Rinse and repeat. I lived 45 minutes from Newtown, CT in 2014 when 26 lives were taken at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a person armed with a military-style assault weapon. If you remember that event and the days that followed, you’ll have to acknowledge that it’s a familiar script.

Lives were taken by a human carrying a weapon whose only purpose is to take lives.

“It’s a familiar script.”

On Sunday we open the door into the holiest of weeks for us, as we gather around the story of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death for our sake. The story is so familiar, we may fail to comprehend the enormity, the brutality, the cruelty of what happened to him.

If an assault weapon is notable for its violent efficiency, the cross is notable for its vicious inefficiency.  In Jesus’ day, when a person was convicted of a crime deemed worthy of capital punishment, the goal was to publicly execute them in the most humiliating, agonizing, shaming way possible. Jesus was not the only person murdered in this fashion. Though he was crucified for a sham conviction of “treason,” he hung in a long line of murderers, thieves and political enemies. “Perp walked” through the city. Stripped and beaten in public. Nailed or tied to a cross-beam. Hoisted onto a pole (who first imagined weaponizing a tree?). Left to die slowly and publicly of blood loss, asphyxiation, or the elements. In the same way crowds used to bring picnics to watch lynchings in the American south, crowds gathered at the foot of the crosses to watch “criminals” die. 

It’s a familiar script: Lives were taken by humans crafting a weapon whose only purpose is to take lives.

The events of Holy Week have always raised more questions than answers for me. And each year, as we trace Jesus’ steps, as we eavesdrop on his last meal with disciples and his interrogation by both religious and political leaders, as we avert our eyes from the cruelty of his death, I am left wondering “why?”

One of the many sorrows of our pandemic-necessitated absence from one another is being denied the ability to raise our voices in song of either praise or lament. Especially in Holy Week, when the violence and cruelty of our world is mirrored by the violence and cruelty of Jesus’, we would typically come together to sit silently in wonder and to sing softly in awe. As I write you, the haunting words and melody of “Wondrous Love” (ELW 666) accompany my work:

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?

What wondrous love is this, O my soul?

What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss

  to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,

  to bear the dreadful curse for my soul?

What wondrous love. Words of a script familiar to generations of the faithful, who grieve Jesus’ death and marvel at his death-defying resurrection “for our souls.”

Please join us for the events of Holy Week (all of them remote):

Passion Sunday, framed by virtual processions of palms and crosses

Maundy Thursday, offering absolution and holy communion,

Good Friday, inviting us to kneel at the Stations of the Cross.

After worship on Sunday, we invite you to remain on the zoom call for All Ascension Reads’ second opportunity to discuss “Dear Church,” by Pastor Lenny Duncan. How telling that as we prepare to walk the familiar but uncomfortable road to the cross, we walk the familiar but uncomfortable road of racism in our own ranks with a sibling in Christ.

I encourage you to consider a gift to our Lent Challenge with Holy Family School. Holy Family has invited us to support their initiative to become an accredited Trauma Responsive School. I was encouraged to learn that Chicago Public Schools is following Holy Family’s lead in preparing teachers and staff to deal with trauma in the lives of its students. (“After a year of pandemic losses, and civil and political unrest, CPS launches new initiative to address trauma in students,” Chicago Tribune, March 22, 2021) Trauma is not unique to victims of gun violence; it haunts us all.

On Saturday evening, our Jewish siblings light the first candles of Passover, as they remember, with sorrow, centuries of slavery in Egypt, and with gratitude, the miracle of freedom.

“It’s a familiar script.” Violence. Corruption. Trauma. Racism. Slavery.

We who follow Jesus seek to flip that script: we believe that lives are saved by One who gave his life for those who took his. And in both life and death, that familiar faith script is punctuated by praise: “What wondrous love is this?”

“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post

Parking by the Audibles

Parking by the Audibles

Dear Friends,

It was a San Francisco-based friend who first used the phrase “parking by the audibles” with me. I must have looked confused, so he went on to describe what a nightmare it is to park on San Francisco’s steeply inclined and narrow streets. Apparently, some cars come equipped with sensors in the front and rear bumpers, so that when the bumper nears an obstacle, the sensors chirp. “It’s the only way to parallel park in San Francisco,” He reported. “You inch forward until the bumper chirps. Then you inch backward until it chirps again. Parking by the audibles.” Who knew?

Though I have never attempted to parallel park in San Francisco, I have witnessed “parking by the audibles” in other settings.

Imagine the person who, in conversation, withholds comment until everyone else has weighed in on the issue. They want to know where the limits are, inching into the discussion rather than risking a misstep. This person often nods along in agreement even if they don’t really agree, idling quietly on the conversational side street for fear of bumping into something.

Imagine the person who obeys laws and abides by rules, only when others are looking. When there are no state troopers present, this driver careens down the expressway like a maniac. When the teacher leaves the room, this student creates an uproar. When the cat looks away, the mouse goes glibly astray.

Imagine the person who is completely externally motivated, who has no inner compass, no internal ethic. This is the person who, when caught in the act, is sorry they were caught, not sorry for their behavior. I have a friend who is a strict vegetarian—except when a slice of bacon is left on a friend’s plate at the diner. When no one is looking? BACON!

Parking—and living—by the audibles. Relying on external clues to guide our daily lives. It’s exhausting.

We have been preaching on five Old Testament covenants during Lent. You might remember Noah and the Rainbow, Abraham and Sarah’s Long Wait, Moses and the Unwelcome Rules, Snakes Below and Snakes Above. In each case we read about God’s seeming relentless willingness to forgive, to bless, to protect, to heal. Sunday’s Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 31.31-34) varies from that pattern a bit.

Deep in exile, God’s people fear they will never see their homeland again. As is true of many of us, though they trusted God, God’s timing made them tense. It was there—deep in despair and doubt—that God described a new covenant. A covenant unlike any they had known before. In Sunday’s reading, God promises that the sign of the covenant will not be external—rainbow, offspring, stone tablets, elevated reptile—but internal. Where no one can see or hear. 

“I will put my law within them,” says the Lord. “I will write it on their hearts.”

No longer would God’s people be expected to “live by the audibles,” responding to only what they could see and hear.  They were to “live by heart,” where God would etch truth. Previously, their lives had been marked by strict adherence to external obedience—food laws, worship regulations, social customs. Now, under the new covenant, obedience would be so deeply embedded into their lives as to be written on their hearts. This new way of being would be so thoroughly known, that teachers would become irrelevant.

“No longer will they teach one another or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord.’ Because they will all know me.”

This new covenant has been offered also to us, who, as Sunday’s hymn of the day sings, “Change my heart, O God. May I be like you.”  There is nothing wrong with external obedience—traffic laws and table manners are good things. But God cares about what happens in our hearts, because it is from our hearts that all else proceeds.

Please join us Sunday for Worship and discussion of this New Covenant.

We invite you to remain after worship as All Ascension Reads, “Dear Church,” by Pastor Lenny Duncan (Part 1). All are welcome to the discussion, even if you haven’t read the book. (But, as is true with all book clubs, those who haven’t read the book might wish to listen more than speak.)

My San Francisco-based friend has since left the terror of city traffic for a home in the Sonoma valley. Does his car still have sensors in the bumper? I don’t know. But if it does, he doesn’t need them. Now, he can park anything, anywhere, any time, the only “audibles” being nosy neighbors or tipsy tourists on a wine tour.

People of faith delight in the law of the Lord, even when no one is looking. Or listening.

“See” you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Look Up and Live

Look Up and Live

Dear Friends,

As a young person, my friend vowed to never succumb to the spinal contortions common in his older relatives. Everyone on his mom’s side of the family bent like trees in a high wind, having to support themselves on walkers or in wheelchairs as they aged. It seemed inevitable that he, too, would suffer their fate. But he wasn’t going to go there without a fight.  He worked out regularly, ate well, maintained a healthy weight, did all the right things. But gradually, over a period of many years, his spine turned on him, too. By the time he retired, he was bent double, wracked with arthritis and always in pain.

His spine was not the only thing that turned. His personality twisted, too. Formerly a gentle man with a positive outlook on most things, as he aged, he became increasingly negative and judgmental. Everything made him angry. Everyone irritated him. His world grew smaller and smaller. “A man too unhappy to be kind,” a mutual friend once remarked. 

There were occasional moments when he was his old self, when he could tease or converse, sometimes even able to acknowledge that his physical posture had changed his emotional outlook. It was in one of those rare, honest moments that he said to me, “I hate that I always look at the ground. What I wouldn’t give to look people in the face, to look up at the sky. Walking this way, always looking down, has changed everything. All I see now is dirt.”

Most often when we use the image of “looking down” on someone or something, we imagine an unrepentant snob looking down their nose, as though examining a distasteful substance on their shoe. But my friend was no snob. He had no choice but to look down. Every day. At everything. And it made him angry.

I was reminded of my bent friend while studying Sunday’s preaching texts. In a little-read but enormously significant Old Testament text (Numbers 21.4-9), the people of Israel, freed from slavery, find themselves wading in snakes. Poisonous snakes. Actually, the Hebrew word for these particular snakes is “seraphim,” which are flying, flaming, venomous vipers. These horrible snakes bit them, killed them, terrified them. Worst of all, these biting seraphim meant the peoples’ eyes were always focused on the ground. Dancing. Tiptoeing. Leaping to avoid the snakes that slithered everywhere. All they could see was snakes. All they could see was trouble. It changed them. In one of the weirdest prescriptions ever written, Moses, at God’s instruction, fashioned a snake of bronze and hoisted it on a pole. God said, “Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

In other words, get your eyes off the ground. Stop looking at the snakes. Look up and live.

Jesus mentions this odd text in Sunday’s gospel reading (John 3. 14-21) as he attempted to describe his mission to Nicodemus, a night time visitor. Jesus said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

In other words, get yours eyes off the ground. Stop looking at your sin. Look up and live.

As I write I am reminded of the gospel song “Turn Your Eyes,” whose refrain sings, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus; look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” (Helen H. Lemmel, 1922) I first heard that hymn years ago, at the funeral of a man born blind. Though he had never seen anyone or anything because of his visual limitations, he believed that, in the next life, he would be able to see. He had insisted that we sing that song at his funeral. His greatest desire, in both life and death, was to see Jesus’ face.

Though we’ve already selected the hymns for Sunday, and this particular gospel tune doesn’t entirely fit the trajectory of the texts, I am humming, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus.” It was the antidote to snakes on the ground. It was the purpose of the cross. It is the posture of the faithful. “Look up and live.”

Please join us for Worship on Sunday, as we “look up and live.”

Following worship, we will host our March Vitality Talk with James Nieman, who will describe the ELCA’s “Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent,” (2019) as part of our ongoing discussion about racism and anti-racism. You can read the document here: Slavery_Apology_Explanation.pdf (elca.org)

Our Lent Challenge with Holy Family Ministries continues, as we support their initiative to become accredited as a Trauma Responsive School. Our Lent Pen Pal Project with Holy Family’s 3rd and 4th graders is underway, as 23 of our correspondents exchange a first letter with their new friends at Holy Family.

Don’t forget that on Sunday we turn our clocks ahead an hour for Daylight Savings Time.

I would be more than remiss not to mark this dark anniversary—a year since the WHO declared a pandemic because of the corona virus. No one could have imagined the tragedies that would occur, both worldwide and close to heart, because of the virus. With you, I pray for quick vaccinations, for economic recovery, for comfort for the millions who have suffered immeasurable loss. Our president reminded us last night that there is, finally, reason to hope. I’m taking him at his word.

“Look up and live.” If only it were that simple—for my twisted friend, for snake-bitten Israelites, for Nicodemus, for all whose lives have been upended this last year. That’s why, when we can’t do it ourselves, God lifts our eyes toward life.

“See” you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Tossed and Turned

Tossed and Turned

Dear Friends,

Tossing and Turning.

We most often associate those words with sleepless nights. But on Sunday, they belong to Jesus. We step away from Mark’s gospel for a week to dip a toe into John’s, nearly run over by Jesus who is on a mission. (John 2.13-22) The text for Sunday is typically called “Jesus Cleanses the Temple” and is used to indict ancient Jewish worship practice and, in a theological leap inexplicable to me, to prevent fund raisers in churches. I beg to disagree.

The story of Jesus Tossing and Turning requires some context. Jesus has just attended a wedding in Capernaum where he saved the groom’s reputation by turning water into wine. He and his disciples have traveled to Jerusalem, and make a side trip to the temple.

For complex reasons, Jesus pitched a fit when he saw the pilgrims exchanging currency and purchasing animals for the sacrifice. Contrary to what we have always been taught, the money changers were simply doing the work they did every day—making it possible for worshippers to offer their financial offerings in recognizable coins and to purchase sacrificial animals that would have been too difficult to carry with them. There was nothing irreverent or illegal taking place. Except Jesus. Who knew something they did not.

With a whip and a roar, Jesus tossed and turned the tables of the money changers. Coins of many realms clattered to the floor. Lambs fled. Birds flew. Cattle made a mad dash for the door. Jesus yelled at them, “Get out! Stop making my father’s house a marketplace!”

Yikes! No one present had any idea why Jesus had reacted the way he did. Only later, John tells us in aside, will the reason become clear. Only later, when Jesus’ body has been lifted on a cross, making of his own body a temple, will the victims of his vitriol look back and say, “Oh, that’s what that was about. We don’t worship a temple of timbers. We worship the temple that is Jesus.”

Jesus’ concern was that their worship lives had become impossibly entwined with a building, with a tradition, with a law whose letter they knew better than the spirit of the law, which had dissipated.

Tossing and Turning.

I cannot help but apply that image to what the pandemic is doing to all our lives, and to all our structures. Our forced absence from one another, and from the building that we love has forced our church to face issues we had hoped to put off for a decade or so. But the pandemic has burst into our lives as violently as Jesus burst into the temple. And while I don’t think God sent the pandemic to teach us a lesson, I do think God might use this uncomfortable opportunity to toss and turn our traditional way of being “church.” We now ask questions Jesus first raised in Jerusalem:

How does our building support or inhibit our ministry?

Does our worship adequately praise God and equip us?

What does “community” look like?

Is our financial generosity used for God’s purposes?

We ask these questions without the goad of whip and roar, but urged on by the upending of all the structures, patterns and routines we once knew.

Please join us for Worship on Sunday, as we continue to be “church” on many screens. We will also tell you more about our Lent Challenge with Holy Family Ministries.

After worship, we will leave the zoom link open for Coffee Hour—a chance to virtually visit one another.

Though we are now a full year into remote worship and congregational life, it still makes me sad. I miss you more than you can know. I know that we will, one day, be together for worship and congregational life. But it will not be the same. Thank goodness, it will not be the same. We are being tossed and turned for good.

“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post