Dear Friends,

Tomorrow my husband and I will witness the Enthronement of and Installation of His Eminence Metropolitan Nathanael at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago. As exciting as it will be to worship in the Cathedral on this august occasion, I am most eager to see our Greek friends.  You may recall that in 2016, on behalf of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), we returned an ancient New Testament manuscript to its rightful home in a mountain-top Greek convent. We never imagined we would see our hosts again, but as can happen with brief but intense encounters, my husband and I now have a clutch of fast and faithful friends among the leadership of the Greek Orthodox Church. It is because of their generous hospitality that we will be seated in places of honor for this event.

I hesitated when we first received the invitation, only because tomorrow is the day before Passion Sunday—the beginning of the longest and most hardworking week in a pastor’s life. I scratched my head at the scheduling of this event, but then remembered that our Greek brothers and sisters will not celebrate the Sunday of the Passion until April 1, a week after our celebration. So my hesitation was short-lived—the Enthronement is a once in a lifetime opportunity and my work always gets done eventually.

The juxtaposition of the Enthronement of the Metropolitan and the readings for Passion Sunday is stunning. As you remember, our liturgy Sunday morning begins with the reading of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11.1-11), and quickly turns to the reading of his suffering and death at the hands of those same no-longer-cheering crowds. (Mark 14.1-15.47)  The reading will end with Jesus’ “enthronement” on a cross, surrounded not by adoring fans but by nameless soldiers.

Sunday will be a significant liturgical day for us. Worship will begin outside the sanctuary with raised palm fronds and one of my favorite prayers: “Bless these branches and those who carry them.” After processing into the sanctuary, the day takes a sudden dark turn as a Readers Choir leads the extended reading of Jesus’ Passion in the Gospel of Mark. During communion, you will have opportunity to receive anointing with oil and prayer for healing—an acknowledgement at the beginning of Holy Week of the illness (physical and spiritual) we all suffer. We also continue to receive gifts of financial support of our Holy Family Lent Challenge. (Because of the convergence of school Spring Break and Holy Week there will no Sunday School this Sunday or next.)

I can already smell the incense in the cathedral. Men’s voices will sing haunting, ancient melodies. I recall the sense of being dwarfed by bearded men in elegant liturgical garments, wearing tall black kalimavkion on their heads. I may not understand a word of the liturgy (it will be all Greek to me) but will recognize the pattern of the ancient liturgy we share.  The lunch following worship will be celebrative but sparse in the way of Greek Orthodox Lenten fasting. It will be a tremendous joy and honor to witness the Enthronement of the new Metropolitan. But as with all servants of the church, his ceremonial robes will be quickly changed into the working wardrobe of his daily work and ministry.

Please join us Sunday as we celebrate the enthronement of Jesus—honored first by adoring crowds as he rode atop a donkey and then jeered by armed soldiers as he suffered atop a cross.

Pastor JoAnn Post


Almost Seed Time

Almost Seed Time

Dear Friends,

My grandfather’s farming benchmarks were all weather-related. Corn should be “knee-high by the Fourth of July.” Harvest should be completed “before the snow flies.” Potatoes should be planted on Good Friday, because the combination of cool temperature and soft soil created ideal conditions. Far more reliable than any calendar, nature itself structured his work.

Would my grandfather have understood Jesus’ agricultural reference to himself? “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.”

This Sunday marks the last Sunday in Lent, a final opportunity to wrap our arms around the reasons for Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion and death. So far this season, Jesus proved triumphant over the temptations of Satan. (Mark 1.9-15) He whispered his true identity to his disciples. (Mark 8.31-38) On the third Sunday of Lent he breached temple security with a frightening display of righteous anger.  (John 2.13-22) Last Sunday he compared himself to the ancient “snake on a pole” which, when gazed upon, protected life. (John 3.14-21) And this week, this last week before we mark the solemn events of Holy Week? Jesus is not the farmer, but the farmed—the seed which must be buried in order to live. (John 12.20-33)

Though we have the advantage of retrospect—that is, we know at the beginning of the Jesus story how it ends—neither his disciples nor his opponents had any idea what he was about.  This Sunday’s oblique reference to “buried seed” provided them no clues. But we know exactly what Jesus means. For himself and for us.

Jesus’ death was necessary for the sake of our lives.  And though we are not called upon to forfeit our physical lives for the sake of the gospel, we are expected to die to sin, to turn our backs on the world’s ways, to recognize God as the only one worthy of worship. We are to become like seed, planted in the world’s soil, sprouting hope and life and love.

I am keenly aware of the “life planted for the gospel” as my husband and I prepare to attend a friend’s funeral tomorrow morning. Our friend and colleague died after months of suffering from an incurable cancer. He was a pastor of the church who had an uncanny knack for seeing God at work in unlikely places, in unlikely people. And when he was too sick to mount the pulpit or visit the sick or petition politicians, his dying witnessed as powerfully as his living. Our friend is that planted, dying seed that springs to new and abundant life.

On Saturday afternoon, we welcome Arcomusical and their berimbaus to our concert series. Their music will blow you away.

Soon it will be Good Friday, and farmers all over the Midwest will be plugging potatoes in the ground.  Join us this Sunday, a few days shy of the Good Friday benchmark, to receive the planted word of the Gospel.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Snakes on a Plane? Plain?

Snakes on a Plane? Plain?

Dear Friends,

Do famous actors ever wince when remembering  failed projects? For example, does the film “Snakes on a Plane” (2006) keep Samuel L. Jackson awake at night with remorse? Yes, that Samuel L. Jackson—the highest grossing film actor of all time—starred in a remarkably campy, implausible movie about exactly what the title implies—snakes on a plane. What was he thinking?

Forgive the awkward segue, but this Sunday I’m tempted to tweak that unfortunate film title and apply it to a wincingly bad idea on God’s part.  But here goes. “This Sunday only! The world premiere of ‘Snakes on a Plain!’ You won’t want to miss it!”

Yes, snakes on a plain. In the wilderness, actually. (Number 21.4-9) After being freed from slavery in Egypt, protected as they wandered through foreign countries, fed and nourished with food from heaven, the Israelites still could not be pleased. En masse, they whined about everything from the bar tab to the thread count. Their pettiness rubbed God the wrong way, so God increased their suffering. He littered the desert floor with snakes. Flying, flaming, poisonous snakes whose bite was lethal. I imagine God thinking to Godself, “I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Again, the Israelites cried out to God—this time about a real threat. And God, still piqued, didn’t remove the snakes but gave them the antidote. God instructed Moses to craft a serpent of bronze, affix it to a pole, and promised that whenever the victim of a snake bite looked at the pole, he would live. It was the reptile equivalent of “the hair of the dog that bit you.” What?

That head-scratching solution may have saved the Israelites from death by snake bite, but it created problems centuries later. In 2 Kings we learn that that snake-encrusted pole (which bore a remarkable resemblance to the asherah of Israel’s pagan neighbors) had itself become an object of worship, a ritual rabbit’s foot they named “Nehushtan”, which was destroyed by King Hezekiah.

What do snakes on a plain have to do with the Fourth Sunday of Lent? Or with us? Thanks for asking. On Sunday we will read the second half of Jesus’ tutorial with Nicodemus, a prominent religious leader, who sought answers but received only more questions. (John 3.14-21) Jesus, knowing that soon he would be lifted on a cross, compared himself to that snake pole: “So must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Nicodemus would have known the reference, but how would Jesus’ elevation in death provide life for those who were dying?

The invitation still stands: “This Sunday only! ‘Snakes on a Plain!’”

Please grant me a moment to list a number of things you might want to know about the weekend at Ascension:

  • Daylight Saving Time begins–turn your clocks ahead one hour.
  • The “Ascension” signs at each driving entrance have not been filched, but are in the shop for refurbishing.
  • Nine of our confirmands and two chaperones will be at Lutherdale Bible camp Friday night through Sunday morning.
  • Members of “Arcomusical,” a coming attraction on our concert series, will be with us Sunday morning for worship.
  • We welcome special guests from Holy Family School to encourage our support of their vital ministry.
  • Congregation Council members will be installed Sunday morning.
  • Congregation leaders will “retreat” for the afternoon with ELCA consultants about congregational vitality.

Please join us for a busy Sunday as we ponder difficult biblical images of salvation, and celebrate all that God is doing among us here at Ascension.  And rest assured—no snakes.

Thinking about watching a Samuel L. Jackson film tonight,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Danger is All Around

Danger is All Around

Dear Friends,

A small team of us from Ascension attended a seven-hour conference on church safety yesterday. We were among 300 North Shore and Lake County church leaders who crammed into a Libertyville church sanctuary to put brakes on our deepest fears. Armed intruder. Roaring tornado. Crazed Arsonist. At one point during the morning’s debriefing, a seasoned FBI agent described the profile of school shooters. I leaned over to one of my teammates and whispered, “This is really dark. How does he live in that world every day?”

It was really dark. Though the real threats to most congregations involve weather, utilities or technology, the thought of a violent intruder in our safe space made my stomach hurt. To their credit, most of the speakers addressed those more realistic threats with tested advice about planning and practicing for disaster. We’ll be implementing some of their advice in the coming months.

But the image of the armed intruder hung over all our conversations.

As I’ve told you before, I live with Sunday’s preaching texts all week long, wondering how they inform our daily lives. If you know what’s coming in Sunday’s Gospel (John 2.13-22) you’ll understand my quick transfer of the image of an armed intruder into our sanctuaries to Jesus’ shocking intrusion into the Temple.

It was an ordinary day in Jerusalem, pilgrims streaming into the Temple compound to pay their taxes and make their offerings. These pilgrims were aided by money changers and livestock salesmen, who changed currency and provided the requisite birds for sacrifice. It was a system as old as the Temple itself. Enter Jesus, frenzied and violent. “Making a whip of cords he drove all of them out of the temple.” Yikes! A whip of cords?

He was completely unhinged, shouting orders and pelting innocent travelers and temple employees with his knotted homemade weapon. What was he so upset about? Where was Temple Security? Would Jesus be enraged with us? What if he had had a gun instead? We’ll talk about that on Sunday.

We are in the middle of our Lent Holy Family Challenge. On Sunday, we are privileged to welcome Holy Family School Principal and CEO-Elect Cheryl Collins to worship. She will bring a greeting and co-host coffee hour. (You’ve always wanted to own a Holy Family coffee mug, haven’t you?) Our Sunday School children will offer “Grateful Prayer Bracelets” for sale. We will coach people interested in serving as Prayer Buddies. We will offer an incentive for gifts to our campaign (Bulls and Cubs fans take notice!). There is still room in my car for another reader at Monday’s Dr. Seuss Day event at Holy Family School. All this activity provides an opportunity for us to make an enormous difference in the lives of school children who don’t need to attend seminars to learn about violence—they live with it every day of their lives.

My sleep was troubled last night by images of yesterday’s discussions. The face of a retired Navy Seal, his skull etched by a six-inch shrapnel scar, assuring us that gun fire is survivable. Derailed trains. Burned church buildings. Flooded neighborhoods. On-line terror threats. Overturned tables and chairs in a shot-up school library. Occasionally, Jesus’ angry face appeared there, also.

Today I am grateful for my quiet home, our safe neighborhoods, our beautiful sanctuary. And I look forward to seeing you Sunday, where together we bravely face both the dangers and promise in our lives.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Just As I Am

Just As I Am

Dear Friends,

In the Dark Ages, when I was a child, we had a single television in our home. It was the size of a lunar landing craft, receiving distant rays from an antenna array bolted to the roof. The word “remote” referred to distance rather than television, but it didn’t matter. We had only three channel choices and somebody was always willing to jump up to change channels during commercial or bathroom breaks.

Then as now TV is a powerful tool to shape perceptions and attitudes. What did I learn from TV? The aw-shucks kindness of Andy Griffith, and the “good guys always win” narrative of Matt Dillon resonated with me. The Robinsons, always lost in space, frightened me. The Douglas family (“Green Acres”) and the Clampett’s (“Beverly Hillbillies”) confused me—they weren’t “rural” the way we were “rural.” (Though I still nurse a crush for Jethro Bodine.)  Archie Bunker and my Dad bore striking resemblances. We kids didn’t watch a lot of television—we had a whole farm to explore—and my mother watched even less.  But when “The Billy Graham Crusades” aired, we watched nothing else. I can still hear my Mom singing along with Ethel Waters’ “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” and George Beverly Shea’s “How Great Thou Art.”

Rev. Graham’s death this week (at the same age as the patriarch Abraham of whom we will read Sunday) brought a rush of memories. And respect. Though Rev. Graham was part of the evangelical strand of the church, his message about God’s relentless grace and mercy transcended denominational boundaries. I read an obituary in a secular news source that said (my paraphrase), “Rev. Graham was unlike all other evangelical preachers of his time. Their God was angry and judgmental. The God Rev. Graham knew loved sinners and forgave them.”

How fitting that Sunday’s texts would reacquaint us with Abraham and Sarah, the elderly couple to whom God promised progeny and power. (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16) The God who led Abraham and Sarah from the safety of their homeland to a new land was characterized not by demands or judgements, but by magnanimous grace. Without putting any expectations on Abraham, God promised, “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations; I will make you exceedingly faithful.”  As in so many of the biblical covenants, God does all the heavy lifting with Abraham and Sarah, asking only that they walk with God. (And not giggle. They each laughed to think they would have a child “though as good as dead.”)

Sunday’s epistle reading delivers that same message of grace, but with a hammer. (Romans 4.13-25) Contrary to the assumptions of the Christians in Rome, Abraham was to be revered by them not because he upheld legal commitments but because he trusted God to the point of foolishness—“hoping against hope.” Abraham was a model for the early church of trusting God when there was no evidence to support that decision.

Jesus veers from the path of grace and mercy after Peter completely misreads Jesus’ intent and mission. (Mark 8.31-38)  Accusing Peter of being in league with Satan, Jesus turns to the crowds and invites them to submit to death. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What? This would have seemed a bizarre request on the face of it, but to ask them to pick up a cross? The cross was an ancient method of execution, like the firing squad or lethal injection in our time. “Take up your electric chair and follow me,” would be a fair corollary. I’d like to hear Rev. Graham soften and shape that message.

Please join us this Sunday, if you are in town. Our Sunday School children will be singing and beading prayer bracelets during Sunday School. We will extend Worship modestly to call our annual meeting to order. We will invite you to take up our Holy Family Lent Challenge to provide a full year’s education cost for three students. And we will learn again of God’s grace and mercy, God’s relentless love of and welcome for sinners.

In another week over-full of news about violence and corruption, the endless capacity of human beings to harm one another and shame themselves, I’ve been grateful for the gift Rev. Graham gave me and my Mom and millions of others—the gift of grace.  If you need to be reminded of the mercy of God and share the song in my heart today, log-on to “Just As I Am Billy Graham Crusade Choir” on YouTube.

God welcomes sinners and forgives them. Though unverifiable and completely counter-intuitive, I believe it. Me and Abraham and Sarah.

Pastor JoAnn Post


Sometimes the boat barely floats

Sometimes the boat barely floats

Dear Friends,

I laugh at odd things. Like this verse from Sunday’s story of Noah and the Ark: “God said, ‘Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.’” (Genesis 9.8ff)

What’s funny about that? God hedges bets. God never says, “Wow, that whole ‘destroy all living creatures’ was a bad idea. I’ll never do that again.”  No, God says it won’t happen again by water.  Catch the difference?  I may be reading too much into that verse, but over the years I’ve tried to imagine other ways the world might be destroyed: fire, earthquake, asteroid, volcano.  But not by water! And it makes me laugh. Or at least, it used to.

The murder of a Chicago police officer in the Loop on Tuesday and the slaughter of school children in Parkland, FL on Wednesday (the 18th school shooting this year) make me wonder if the aforementioned hypothetical destruction of all living creatures might come at our own hand.  The mother of a child who witnessed the shooting in Parkland said, “Who do I blame? Not the shooter—he is irrelevant. I blame the NRA. I blame politicians. I blame greed. I blame everybody who forgot about Columbine and Sandy Hook.”

Whether you agree with her assessment or not, she is on to something. The most insidious of all the dangers that lurk in the world fester in the human heart. Today, as a Chicago family grieves the death of a father and husband, and Florida parents start the day without their children, I wish God had said something a bit more definitive, “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by willful apathy or faux compassion or blatant self-interest.”

The First Sunday of Lent always finds Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. (Mark 1.9-15)  What would tempt him in our time, in this wilderness? The list is long (and doesn’t include flood). We also read the rainbow conclusion of the Noah story, and the lovely credal statement of 1 Peter 3.18-22: “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous.”

As people of faith, we always seek to see the ways God is at work in both our joys and sorrows. One of the ways we see God’s hand here is in our Lent Challenge to raise $30,000 for Holy Family School. That we have both the will and the capacity to make such an enormous difference in the lives of children is nothing short of breathtaking. Please join us Sunday as we launch the challenge. Holy Family Chaplain Leslie Hunter will preach. We will tell you more about ways to meet the challenge. During coffee hour you’ll be asked to sign up to be a Prayer Buddy with a second-grader at Holy Family, and purchase “thank you bracelets” made by our Sunday School children. The theme for our challenge is “Grateful for it all.” And we are. (We are looking for those who might be willing to make a challenge gift, or to offer incentives–sports tickets, dinner out. If you want to hear more about those opportunities, please talk to me.)

At 9 a.m. Sunday we’ll offer a preview of our February 25 annual meeting. Though Sunday School is not officially in session because of the Presidents Day hiatus, we invite children and parents to the education wing at 9:30 a.m. Sunday to string beads into bracelets. And, of course, on Saturday afternoon I hope you’ll join us for “Pipes, Hammers and Strings” which features the remarkable gifts of our Director of Music Minkyoo Shin on both organ and piano.

Might I urge you to take some action with regard to the pervasive violence and shoulder-shrugging around us? Write your congressperson. Take great care with firearms in your home. Pay attention to those who are troubled. Refuse to accept evasive or easy answers from our elected leaders. And pray. Pray for victims of violence, for the perpetrators of violence, for those sworn to protect us, and for all who could move the needle a little closer to peace.

I wish my mood was brighter, my words more hopeful, my heart less heavy, but the self-inflicted wounds of the world weigh heavily on me, as I know they do on you. But we know what Noah knew, that God floats our boat and nothing can overwhelm us.

Pastor JoAnn Post

What If?

What If?

Dear Friends,

When I turned 50 (almost nine years ago now), a friend announced that I had officially entered Middle Age. I hope his prediction is not true. If 50 is “middle,” 100 is “end” and, as a wizened old friend once said, “Who would want to get that old?”  I suppose we are only able to identify the mid-point of our lives when they have ended. But I think it is safe to say the mid-point of my life is long past—you really don’t want to imagine me at the age of 116.

Speaking of middle age, a therapist of my acquaintance deals almost exclusively with “middle-aged” men. He didn’t start out counseling only soft-in-the-middle men, but word has spread that he “gets it.”  One of his observations is that men who struggle most in the middle years of their lives are those who have regrets, those who look back on their lives through a lens of “what if.” What if I had chosen a different career, married a different spouse, invested in a different fund, driven a different (aka faster) car, believed in a different god? He spends hours each week with men who wonder what might be different now if they had chosen a different then. It is an unanswerable question, but haunting nonetheless.

This Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, marks a definite midpoint. Exactly half-way through the gospel of Mark, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain outside Jerusalem serves as a hinge in Mark’s narrative. (Mark 9.2-9)  The story began for Mark with Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, when a heavenly voice announced, “You are my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Mark’s version of Jesus’ ministry ends at the cross when an unnamed centurion, a pagan soldier, recognizes Jesus and grieves, “Surely, this man was God’s Son.”

And in between Jesus’ watery beginning and his bloody ending lie multiple attempts to name him, understand him, to “get” him. Demons know him. Sinners know him. Haters know him. Pagans know him. But those closest to him haven’t got a clue. So how is it that, in the very middle of Mark’s gospel Jesus ascends a mountain and is transfigured there his disciples leave scratching their heads: “Gosh, I wonder what that was about?” Even though, as at this baptism and his crucifixion, a voice names him, “My Son. My Beloved.”

Even when clues as obvious as Hansel’s breadcrumbs dropped on their path, Jesus’ disciples failed to recognize him. And they would spend the rest of their lives asking the regret-filled question: What if? What if we had known? What if we had asked? What if we hadn’t been such dunder-heads?

Please join us Sunday at 9:15 a.m. (before Sunday School) as we burn last year’s Palms into Wednesday’s Ashes. During Worship, our Sunday School Choir will sing. We’ll bellow our last “Alleluia” before Lent. We will wonder, with worshippers at all points in their lives of faith “what if?” What if that event was God’s doing? What if this stirring is God’s nudging? What if these tears are God’s sorrow?  What if this thing that looks like an ending is really a beginning?

I write this on Thursday afternoon, in anticipation of the office being closed Friday because of the Monster Storm headed our way. (We were going to be closed anyway because of an off-site continuing education event, but that has been cancelled, as well.)  What if, as you read this, the snow failed to fall, and everything was cancelled for no good reason?  Oh, well.

Here’s a “what if.” What if you chose to Lent with us this year—Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday, the Sundays and Wednesdays of Lent? How might your heart, your outlook, your life be changed? I’d be happy to answer those questions with you.

Let it snow! See you Sunday.

Pastor JoAnn Post