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

On to Tomorrow!

On to Tomorrow!

Dear Friends,

I’m so tired of television, I could scream. I know the pandemic has been a windfall for streaming services, but I feel as though my brain is rotting from the inside out. I’ve watched more TV in the last year than in my whole life combined. Series! Mini-series! Mysteries! Documentaries! Films! PBS! The ends of series I stopped watching years ago and now remember why I stopped watching. “All Things Bright and Beautiful!” was a momentary respite, but that’s ended. (Will James and Helen marry in Season 2? How sad is it that I care?) (I’ve also read enough books, worked enough cross words and baked enough bread for a lifetime.)

One of the reasons I’m so delighted that the days are growing longer and warmer, is that I won’t be trapped inside my house in the evenings. We will be able to go for long walks again. We will be able to sit on the deck again. We will be able to chat with neighbors in our driveway again. We will be able to . . . anything but television.

But the darkness and cold will continue for a while longer, so we went in search of something that wasn’t insipid or offensive or tedious or violent. (Those four qualifiers knocked most cable and streaming services off the list.) What did we find? At least for now? “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., streaming on PBS. I doubt we’ll watch all seven seasons, but Gates is up to something that has me intrigued.

Using genealogical research, DNA analysis, social research, interviews and highly-educated guesses, the show explores the genetic past of famous people. Gates is a renowned, remarkable historian, who has used his gifts and fame for enormous good. And while most of the current fascination with DNA and ancestry makes me nervous (I’m not sure I want my mostly-German genes under a stranger—or marketer’s—microscope), “Finding Your Roots” is more than prurient interest in the past. Gates invites his guests to study their past to inform both the present and the future. He typically asks at the end of each episode, “What are you going to do with this (information) now?”

Rather than dwelling in a newly-discovered Yesterday, Gates pushes his guests toward an enlightened, purposeful Tomorrow. He has chosen a hard task. We would much rather parse a past, making meaning out of information we can verify and control, than peer into a future that belongs only to God.

During Lent, we have chosen to preach on the appointed Old Testament texts. Last week we studied a familiar story that I dubbed “God Cries a River.” (Genesis 9.8ff) This Sunday we dig into the story of Abraham and Sarah, a 17-chapter saga about an immigrant family who trusted God’s leading. Like Noah, who we met last week, there is nothing obvious about Abraham, that he and his family would catch God’s eye, would be worthy of the title “Father of Nations.” But, like Noah, who built a boat in the desert, Abraham was asked to place his feet on a path that couldn’t be seen.

Here’s the conundrum. Abraham was a wealthy herder, surrounded by servants and slaves and sycophants. He wasn’t looking to leave home. He wasn’t looking for an adventure. He was happy to count his cash, brand his sheep, admire his concubines.

What was it that intrigued Abraham enough to leave his home and country (though not his wealth, herds and servants)? We can’t know. But he did. And I have often wondered if, miles and years down the road, Abraham and Sarah sat on the deck at night and wondered, regretfully, about the life they had left behind. Were they as obsessed with the past as we are? Did they spit in a test tube for 23andMe? Did they subscribe to ancestry.com? Did they hire researchers to discover distant relatives? Did they “what if” long into the night?

Apparently not. Abraham and Sarah kept looking forward, putting one foot in front of the other, trusting God’s GPS to guide them. Their comfortable past was not nearly as interesting as God’s uncomfortable future, so they went. And, to their credit, they also waited. They waited 25 years for the fulfillment of the promise that they would be parents. We will tell you more about that Sunday.

On Sunday morning, I invite you to Worship with us (by live zoom, of course). By the light of ancient texts, we will search for the trailhead of the path God wants us to follow.

After worship, we invite you to remain for our Annual Meeting, on the same zoom link at 11 a.m. Annual meetings are funny things—they invite us to look back on the past with gratitude and imagine the year ahead with hope. They invite us to emulate Abraham and Sarah, whose antenna were always turned for Tomorrow.

The pandemic has driven keen interest in the past. (Admit it, haven’t you sorted that box of old family photos in the basement?) After all, the present is, at best, troubling, and the future is, sometimes, terrifying. The past, on the other hand, feels somehow manageable. At least, we can put it away when it gets difficult. Instead, God calls us not to replay the past, but to be patient with the present and hopeful for the future. As the hymn of the day for Sunday sings, “In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” (“Hymn of Promise,” Natalie Sleeth, 1986)

Meanwhile, I’m silently screaming at the TV until the weather warms and I can be outside on an evening. Thank goodness for Dr. Gates, who points even the rich and famous toward a future God alone can see.

“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post

Acutely Chronic

Acutely Chronic

Dear Friends,

Which is worse? Chronic pain or acute?

Which is worse? To live everyday with debilitating pain, or to suffer crippling pain only on occasion?

Which is worse? To be so accustomed to pain you hardly notice it anymore, or to be a stranger to pain, surprised when it strikes?

Which is worse? The question or the answer?

It is, perhaps, a silly exercise. No one would choose pain, of any sort. And, even if we had a choice, pain does not send us a survey, asking about the best way into our lives. Sudden or gradual? Site-specific or global? Lingering or intermittent? Daytime or nighttime?

What prompts this odd question, you ask? Here’s the thing.

I saw something in Sunday’s gospel reading (Mark 1.9-15), I’d never seen before. Every year, on the first Sunday of Lent, we read about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Fresh from his baptism, three of the four gospel writers toss Jesus immediately into the wilderness for a sort of 40-day vision quest. The story is familiar to you, I’m sure.

But here’s what I noticed this year. In Mark’s gospel, the first and shortest of the gospels, Jesus is tested for the duration of his wilderness wanderings. For 40 days, Satan plagued him with unspecified trouble. What’s news about that? I had it in my head that Satan appeared only at the end of the 40 days, when Jesus was at his weakest. But that acute, sudden-onset testing occurs only in Matthew’s gospel. In both Mark and Luke, the testing is chronic, for the duration. Here’s what Mark writes, “Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan.”

Apparently, the testing was endless. Like the torture that has since been declared illegal, in which the subject of torture is barraged day and night, sleep-deprived and starving, Satan never let up. For 40 days.

Yikes! Which would be worse? A steady drum beat of torture or an explosive burst?  Like us, Jesus didn’t get to choose.

Though the specifics of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness are sketchy, I can’t help but compare his 40-day wilderness ordeal to our almost-12-month pandemic ordeal. For some of us, the trouble started a year ago and has not let up. In the first month of the pandemic, more than 20 million jobs were “lost;” most of those jobs have not been “found.” Millions of school children and teachers were tossed into Zoom Hell. Evictions started almost immediately, as otherwise-reliable renters were suddenly unable to make rent. We could describe their pandemic pain as chronic. Relentless. Endless.

Others have us have been largely untouched by the economic fallout of the pandemic, but suffer instead from isolation and anger, uncertainty and angst. Among this group, there is a fair amount of Survivor’s Guilt—aware that others are suffering, ashamed to be so consumed with their own, relatively modest discomfort. We could describe their pandemic pain as acute. Occasional. Surprising.

Are those our only choices? If Door #1 is chronic and endless pain, and Door #2 is acute and occasional pain, isn’t there a Door #3, a “no pain” path? Sadly, not. As a funeral director friend quips, “Nobody gets out of this life alive.” Same with pain and sorrow. They are equal opportunity offenders.

Ask Jesus. He knew both, as well. Tortured by Satan for 40 days at the beginning of the gospel, and tormented on the cross for a brief three hours at the end, Jesus experienced all of human pain. Chronic and Acute. And bore it all. Still does.

Ash Wednesday was a hard day for me. I am all about ritual and liturgy, marking the beginning and ending of things, praying familiar prayers, singing familiar songs. But not this year. There was no in-person worship. (Before the pandemic, no one modified “worship” with “in-person.” What other kind was there?) No nods to shoppers in the grocery store who bore the same ash cross on their foreheads. No confessional comradery. No quiet gathering at the Lord’s Table.

But the experience of an ash-less Ash Wednesday has become a chronic condition for us. We suffered the same emptiness on Easter, Pentecost, Reformation, All Saints, Christmas, Epiphany, and all the Sundays, holy days and weekdays in between. As is true for those who live with chronic pain, the emptiness of our isolation from one another feels almost normal now. We do the best we can—in worship and in all other aspects of our lives, but . . .  Well, you know. It’s not the same.

Please join us Sunday, as we learn more of Jesus’ chronic wilderness suffering in Worship. Please remain with us after worship for a special edition Vitality Talk, introducing our Lent Challenge, and to new ways with words like Advocate, Anti-Racist, Ally.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that suffering and sorrow can fall more heavily on some than on others. Whole zip codes have been traumatized by the virus, while others can count the trouble on one hand. That is not accidental. Those who are privileged to still be standing, have an obligation to recognize the systems and patterns of behavior that contribute to the inequity of this national tragedy. And if this undeniable reality and our conversations about systemic racism and its accompanying ills makes us uncomfortable, that’s a good thing. Like the irritation that accompanies a closing wound, our discomfort means healing is happening.

Which is worse? Chronic pain or acute trauma? Systemic racism or random violence? Sinful nature or sinful acts? Do we get to choose? Isn’t there another option?

I’m deeply grateful for the honesty with which we have endured this pandemic. It’s not been easy, and it’s not over. Suffering together—both the acute and chronic kind—is easier when we suffer it together.

“See” you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

A Founding Mission

A Founding Mission

Dear Friends,

It started as a kitchen-table enterprise, quickly becoming a multi-million-dollar creative hub, connecting starving artists with monied art buyers. My friend was one of a second wave of hires, helping to move the business from the founder’s kitchen table to beautiful offices and production facilities in the most business-friendly city in the country. They worked hard, every day, all day, pursuing the founder’s relentless dream. Amazing people clamored to work there. Growth was exponential. They bet big, every day, and never lost.

That was ten years ago. The industry has changed. Competitors now bite into their market share. The creatives who were first drawn to the intensity of the mission, are now seeking work that is more predictable, income more steady, an environment less volatile. But the founder cannot let it go, cannot live without the adrenaline rush of meeting impossible deadlines, exceeding unreasonable expectations, overwhelming the odds. Even before the pandemic, the best and brightest on the staff were already looking for the exit. After the pandemic, lay-offs became necessary and some of those laid-off—including my friend—were relieved. Being laid off was an escape hatch from the founder’s maniacal drive, dogged determination, unwillingness to listen.

We can all tell stories like this, stories about amazing organizations that faltered or failed because the founder couldn’t imagine any other way but theirs, refused to craft succession plans, ignored the signs of change. It happens in congregations, too.

High atop a bluff in northeastern Iowa, the Lutheran church steeple still casts its long shadow across miles and miles of rich farmland. Founded in 1853 by a visionary Norwegian immigrant pastor and his wife, the congregation exploded with activity and interest. They built a stunning edifice that welcomed hundreds of worshippers—worshippers who first travelled there by horse and buggy, and later by car. The founding pastor turned leadership of the congregation over to his eldest son, who later turned leadership over to his eldest son. In 1949, the congregation was voted one of Twelve Great Churches in America, according to a poll of 100,000 pastors conducted by The Christian Century.

Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a vibrant congregation? Who wouldn’t want to learn the faith from a three-generation clerical dynasty? What could possibly go wrong with an organization left unchanged for 100 years? You know the answer. Though rural congregations have all suffered cultural and demographic shifts, the fall of this particular congregation was fast and furious. Because the pastors and leaders refused to envision any vision but that of the founder, the congregation plummeted from being one the Great Congregations to being a mostly empty building.

As I write, the impeachment hearings are playing in the background in my office—hearings occasioned by catastrophic failure to imagine a new vision, to understand the need for orderly succession, to heed the painful truth that leadership needs to change if an organization—even a nation’s government—is to thrive.

And, as I write, Sunday’s gospel is bouncing around my brain. On Sunday we mark the Transfiguration of Our Lord—the backdoor of Epiphany and the gateway to Lent. Our texts speak of orderly succession, transfer of power, a shared and dynamic vision, an unchanged mission.

Elijah, the greatest of biblical prophets, passed the mantel to his associate Elisha in dramatic fashion. Though Elijah was tired and happy to be done with it, Elisha begged him not to go. Elijah was undeterred, clicking his heels together three times as “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen” carried Elijah into the clouds. (2 Kings 2.1-12)

Jesus, the only Son of God, dragged three disciples to the top of a lonely mountain to hobnob (virtually) with Elijah and Moses. The three disciples, terrified, would learn only later that they had been allowed to witness Jesus’ transfiguration so that they could carry on Jesus’ ministry post-resurrection. (Mark 9.2-9)

Every founder needs a successor. Every vision needs re-vision. Every organization needs re-organizing. Here’s the thing: though the vision might shift, and the face of leadership might change, the mission does not.

Our mission? As a congregation, as disciples? Though we might gather differently than did the first disciples, differently than we gathered even eleven months ago, the mission of our founder, Jesus Christ, has not faltered. That’s why, two millennia after that transformative Transfiguration, the church of Jesus Christ continues to thrive on every continent, in thousands of languages, under many names. What is that founding mission? Join us on Sunday for live zoom worship, and we’ll talk about it more.

After worship on Sunday, we ask you to remain for our February Vitality Talk, a compact, honest and insightful discussion with Vicar Phillip Potaczek of a recent article in Living Lutheran magazine: “Unpack White Privilege: The Important Work of Making Church Less Harmful.” Download the article here . If part of you says, “I don’t remember talking about White Privilege before,” you would be right. Every generation addresses that generation’s central issues as part of its mission. We have deemed discussions of race and class to be central to the unfolding founding mission of Jesus Christ.

Can my friend’s former employer, that creative enclave, survive the founder’s myopia?

Can a storied, venerable congregation become a novel, nimble one?

Can a nation survive violent attempts to overturn a central tenet of its mission?

Can Ascension trust the Transfigured Jesus to transform us, again and again?

One more thing. In the midst of this protracted weather pattern, leading to frigid temperatures and frequent snow, I remind us to give thanks for those who work in the cold to protect us, and to pray protection for those who live in the cold because they have no place to go. They are part of Jesus’ mission, our mission, too.

“See” you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

You Noticed!

You Noticed!

Dear Friends,

Every day, unless it is raining or snowing, she walks Founders and Kamp Streets in Northbrook. Elderly, petite, bent double over her walker, I’ve never seen her face. But her slender, curved, determined figure is so familiar, I feel that I know her.

Most seasons, she walks on the sidewalk, separated from the street by a grassy berm. But now that snow banks have closed the sidewalks, she walks in the street, hugging the snow-packed curb.  Her proximity to traffic terrifies me. When I see her, I slow way down and give her a wide berth, sending evil stares at drivers who disregard her.  Does no one notice her but me?

That question was answered earlier this week in a big, Blue way. As I turned onto Kamp Street at the end of my work day, I was slowed by a Northbrook police SUV inching down the street ahead of me, straddling both lanes of traffic. It seemed odd. I couldn’t see an emergency; the officer hadn’t turned on the flashing lights; there were no geese crossing the road, as there so often are in the spring and fall.

What was the officer doing? Protecting the Walking Woman as she pushed her walker in the street. Traffic piled up behind the cruiser as the officer shielded her from inattentive drivers, while my elderly friend maintained her steady, stooped pace. I was moved almost to tears as I crept along behind the police car—she had been noticed and deemed worthy of protection. Protection from impatient drivers who might not have noticed, who might have, inattentively, harmed her.

In these angry days in our community and country, I have tired of the things we choose to notice: other peoples’ faults, wingnuts in positions of power, inconsistencies in action, failures in judgement, petty slights blown out of proportion. We attack one another with “Yeah, but . . .,” creating false equivalencies. We condemn one another for the things we ourselves have done. We dwell on the darkness in others, imagining ourselves to be the only reliable arbiters of truth and justice. Have you noticed?

That’s why that kind police officer, shepherding a strolling citizen to safety, caused me so much joy. Rather than ticketing the Walking Woman for impeding traffic or loitering in a public place, the officer honored her daily walk with a slow-moving vehicular parade. The officer noticed her.

Sunday’s gospel reading calls us to “notice,” as well. (Mark 1.29-39) Jesus, fresh from a synagogue sermon that went viral, stopped by a disciple’s home for Sabbath Dinner. But there was no dinner on the table. Though the pot roast warmed in the oven, fresh pies cooled on the counter, and the table was set for guests, there was no host. Where was the disciple’s mother-in-law, who had extended the invitation in the first place? Mark tells us she was sick in bed, fighting a fever, completely unable to welcome her guests. I am sure that some in attendance were irritated with her for potentially exposing them to illness. I imagine others poked at the pies with a fork, quietly helping themselves. Others might have picked up the phone to order take-out. But Jesus? Jesus wondered about the woman, worried about the woman. Jesus stuck his head into her bedroom to check on her, as a parent checks on a feverish child. Seeing her abed, unable to rise, Jesus touched her hand, helped her to her feet, cooled her fever. Jesus chose to not notice the rudeness of his disciples or the rumbling in his stomach. He noticed her.

Both the Northbrook police officer and Jesus have reminded me this week to notice. To care. To imagine the other’s need, rather than dwell on my own. Its not really that hard. To simply notice.

Though the weather outside is frightful, we will gather for live zoom Worship on Sunday, as we have for the eleven months of the pandemic. Eleven months. Sigh.

On that note, I have called a meeting of our Community Life Team, the wise women and men at Ascension who have been guiding our response to the pandemic. Now that our region has moved to Phase 4, and vaccine distribution accelerates, I want us to start imagining the day when we will resume in-person worship and congregational life at Ascension. It won’t happen for a while, but it finally feels as though our pandemic-driven distance from one another will, eventually, lift, and I want us to be ready. We’ll keep you posted.

Today I ask you to do a simple thing—notice. Notice something good. Notice someone in need. Notice that, today, the sun will shine three minutes longer than it did yesterday. And to flip a fear-based trope, “If you see something, say something.” Something good. Something kind. Something hopeful. Today let’s choose to notice the things, the people Jesus notices.

I still worry about the Walking Woman in this horrible weather, on these slick streets—there might not always be a kind officer to protect her. But perhaps others are noticing her, as well, shielding her from danger, shepherding her to safety.  Maybe that “noticer” will be you.

“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post

Says Who?

Says Who?

Dear Friends,

“Says who?”

“Says me.”

“Oh, okay.”

Though my playground days are long past, I remember exchanges like this at recess. Whether choosing sides for pick-up ball games, or taking turns on the swings, or batting the tether ball around the pole, some child was always challenging some other child’s authority. And if the challenger was older, or bigger, or more popular, or meaner than the one being challenged, the challenge was short-lived.

“Says who?”

“Says me.”

“Oh, okay.”

I continue to ruminate on the troubling events of Epiphany Day in Washington, DC. Under the guise of ownership, armed militia stormed the nation’s capital shouting, “Our house! Our house!” Theirs was the authority of arms and anger, and they wielded it without mercy. Does it matter to them that five people died and 140 police officers were injured as they exercised their misguided authority?

“Says who?”

“Says me.”

“Don’t hurt me.”

Sunday’s texts are all about “authority:”

God says, “I will put MY words in the mouth of the prophet; you will listen to the prophet because of MY words.” (DT 18.15-20)

Paul writes, “Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 COR 8.1-13)

Mark writes, “Jesus taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (MK 1.21-28)

If scripture is to be believed, true authority is conferred by God, not claimed by us.

True authority means that we moderate ourselves for the sake of another.

True authority is a clear word, unencumbered by footnotes and academic citations.

“Says who?”

There are many ways to describe sources of authority. One system I have used describes five sources of authority:

Legal or formal (office or position)

Traditional (“father knows best” or “because I said so”)

Consent (mutual agreement)

Competence (leadership by virtue of skill)

Charisma (think “Pied Piper”)

None of these sources quite describes the authority of God in our lives, or the authority we exercise among each other, though I suppose God could be shoe-horned into each.

Instead, God exercises authority that we accept because we know it is exercised in love. Even the discipline we sometimes know from God is intended for our good, for our growth. We do not follow God, love Jesus, emulate Paul and other early church leaders out of fear, but because we trust their wisdom, their experience, their competence, their compassion.

We meet on Sunday morning for live zoom Worship to study these texts, to consider the authority of God and how that might guide our use of authority.

After worship we meet for the second session of “All Ascension Reads,” discussing parts 3 and 4 of “Stamped: Racism, Anti-racism and You” (Reynolds and Kendi, 2020). The book convicts me as I consider how blithely I have exercised authority in my life, never realizing how much of my authority is conferred simply by the color of my skin and the place of my birth. Join us. And if you haven’t read it, you’re welcome to listen in.

As I consider authority—God’s and ours—I am reminded of Jesus’ sharp rejoinder to his bickering disciples at the Last Supper: “The rulers of the gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. It is not so among you. Rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (LK 22.25-27)

Though all around us are vying for power, sometimes earning it and other times snatching it, it is not so among us.

“Says who?”

“Says God.”

“What a relief.”

“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post