Reformation

The new presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, wrote a humorous story in the Lutheran magazine that just came out.  She writes, “A first-call candidate assigned to the Northeastern Ohio Synod came to me about an interesting encounter she had with a waitress.  The waitress admired our candidate’s Luther Rose pendant and asked what it was.  “It’s Lutheran,” replied the candidate.  “Where’s Lutheran?” asked the waitress.

She said they chuckled that the waitress imagined a place of beauty and mystery called Lutheran and were also a little rueful that she had never heard of Lutheran before.

Growing up where I did in rural Minnesota, Lutherans were by far in the majority.  In my little town of 700 people there were three Lutheran churches in town plus three more in different directions out in the country.  So it was quite a shift for me when I moved to other parts of the country where people didn’t automatically know what a Lutheran was or were even still shocked to see a female pastor or failed to recognize what I was when I wore my collar.  I remember when I was on internship, I was still single, it was a Sunday I had worn a nice outfit and my clergy collar.  After church a family invited me to go to lunch with them and as we were escorted to our seats we passed a table with a couple really handsome, smart-looking fellows who looked to be around my age.  Like I said, I was still single, so I flashed a little smile as I passed their table and as I walked by I heard one of the guys say to the other one – “did you see her?  That nun was flirting with you.”

I didn’t go back and explain to him the error he had made – that I was not a nun – but I did begin to realize that the language I had been speaking my whole life – the language of Lutheranism – was one that not everyone spoke.  And over time I began to realize that even within the Lutheran church sometimes we can all get a little confused about our fundamental beliefs and what sets us apart from other denominations when we hear so many other theologies from various sources all the time.

So what does set us apart as Lutherans?

I’ll tell you right now what is particularly awesome about being Lutheran.  It actually has nothing to do with us or Martin Luther but it has everything to do with God.  It is God’s ridiculous, extravagant notion of grace.

There was a news story I heard earlier this week that illustrated grace perfectly:  Jessica Eaves was shopping in Guthrie, Okla., earlier this month when her wallet was taken. She spotted the man she suspected of taking it in a nearby aisle and wondered what to do next.

“As I saw him, a scripture came to me from the Gospel of Luke, which basically says ‘If someone should take your cloak, you should give them your shirt as well.”

The passage inspired her next actions.  She approached the man and said she would like her wallet back now but if he came with her to the front she would pay for his groceries.  And that is exactly what she did.

Was that what the man deserved?  Most likely we would say he deserved punishment for taking what wasn’t his – but instead of calling the police, the woman decided to bless him and give him a gift.

That is grace right there.

And God’s grace is receiving God’s love and forgiveness – but not because we deserve it.  While we believe that it is important to do good works and to give generously and to forgive others we also believe that it isn’t any of those things that earns salvation for us.  We can do nothing to earn God’s love – it is a complete gift.

We need God’s presence in our lives to bring about any good or blessing from us.  That’s why we confess every week, “we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against Thee by thought, word and deed.”  We are confessing that we are as Luther said – in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  Lutherans believe that all that could ever be done to achieve our salvation was done on the cross by Jesus.

That is why for the Lutheran – the language we hear much of the time throughout the Christian church about accepting Jesus and deciding to follow Jesus should strike us as not quite right.  Lutheran theology focuses on God’s activity, not ours.

For example, while someone from another denomination might say something like “I accepted Jesus into my heart” the Lutheran would say, “Jesus came into my heart”.  While others might say, “I have decided to live like a believer,” the Lutheran would say, “Jesus love compels me to follow him.”  Others might say, “I was saved when I answered an altar call when I was twelve years old.”  Lutherans would say, “Jesus saved me when he died on the cross.”  Do you see the difference?  Other denominations like to put the emphasis on what human beings can do to get to God but for Lutherans, it’s all about what God has done and still does to get to us or perhaps more appropriately, stay with us.

Even being able to say “I Believe” is a gift – Martin Luther wrote in the small catechism – “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

This is why we promote that babies be baptized and that one doesn’t have to have grown up or be able to believe anything in particular before they are baptized.  God’s saving work that happens through baptism happens regardless of what we are able to believe or not.  It’s all a gift.

And it makes complete sense when you think about it.  I mean, when my children were born, I didn’t think to myself, “now okay – when Owen and Jesse can accept me as their mother and start doing the things I tell them to do, then I’m going to love them unconditionally and forgive them for the bad things they do and give them the gift of being their parent” – no, from the moment I heard their cries, from the moment I felt them move, from the moment they were even a possibility Chad and I whispered to each other, I loved them and knew I would give them everything I ever could.  That is what a parent does.  My love is not based on what they will do for me now or someday.  It wouldn’t actually be love if I felt that way.  And if we are made in God’s image, then is it really so strange to think that God would do the same for us? God gifts us with love and mercy and kindness – God does not wait for us to deserve it or ask for it.

Reformation Sunday is not a day that we celebrate Lutherans – because what is particularly awesome is not Lutheranism or Martin Luther or any of us – it is what God has done and continues to do.

A Blessed Reformation Day to all of you!

Why Beer and Hymns? (Where Beer is Optional, Singing is Not)

A couple months ago, I went to the wedding of friends in the Twin Cities.  It was a beautiful event, as most weddings are, but this one was particularly delightful for numerous reasons.  One of the reasons was because the bride and groom have a large circle of friends who love music, are long-time church folks, and thus, participating in the singing of the hymns that day was deeply moving.  Our voices not only rose together in luminous harmonies, but as I looked around at the people gathered, everyone was smiling at the music we were making together. More than a few of us were also  wiping away tears as we grinned like fools.  It didn’t matter that some of us can hardly carry a note, we made a joyful noise along with those who were the professional singers and all together, the sound was not only breath-taking, but it was one of the most magnificent moments of spiritual harmony I have felt for ages.

I thought on the way home about how even though I sing hymns every week in worship with my congregation, it was so different singing at that wedding.  Surely, part of the reason was the pure joy of the wedding and seeing old friends, but I know it was also because I wasn’t leading the service.  I just got to sing for the love of singing and the love of God.  I wanted more of that feeling.

I talked with a pastor friend, the brilliant Dean Grier of First Lutheran in Audubon, and we decided that an opportunity for fellowship and song in our community could be a cool thing.  Yes, for us as pastors, because we would get to sing and enjoy the music in a way that is very different from Sundays when our minds are often cluttered with other stuff (is the scripture reader here? where did I put the stuff for the children’s sermon? maybe I should not tell that one story I was thinking about telling in my sermon…) and also as a form of evangelism.

In the church, we unfortunately tend to think of evangelism as getting people to come to church so they will worship just like we do.  We treat evangelism as a way to answer the problem of our empty pews and offering plates.

Of course, real evangelism is something quite different.  It is going out into the community where people already are and being the church there.  As Saint Francis of Assisi famously said, “Preach the Gospel always, if necessary, use words.” Sometimes this can look like doing service projects.  Sometimes this can look like visiting the sick and homebound.  Sometimes it looks like working at a soup kitchen or running a coat drive.  Sometimes it can look like gathering at a bar and singing hymns together.

Beer and Hymns at the Cormorant Pub will be very simple:  singing and fellowship.  Don’t expect a sermon.  Don’t expect structured worship of any kind and yet, don’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit chooses to move in that place.  I’m expecting it.

ireland-531137_640

Below is a blurb if you would like to share it with your church, Facebook page, or any news source:

Would you be surprised to walk into a bar and hear hymns being sung in four-part harmony?  Well, that is what is happening in pubs across the nation as Beer and Hymns takes shape in communities looking for faith, fellowship, and ways to share the joy of sacred music outside of sanctuary walls and Sunday mornings.

Do you like to sing? Do you, like Martin Luther, enjoy a nice, cold beer now and then?  Well, thanks be to God! Beer and Hymns is soon coming to a pub near you!  It’s simple:  we get together with friends and strangers and sing old hymns, eat food, drink beverages (beer is optional, singing is not!), and enjoy one another’s company.  We’ll gather from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 29th at Cormorant Pub in the center of Cormorant Village (10790 County Highway 5, Pelican Rapids, MN).  Invite your friends!  All ages are welcome.  For more information contact Ruth Hetland at  ruthehetland@gmail.com.

martin-luther-796247_640

Looking for Answers to Big Questions? Explore the “Prayer of Examen”

Should I go down this path or that one? Should I take the new job or keep my old one? What does God want me to do? What does God want me to change? How do I know where God is leading me? These are common questions that deal with the topic of discernment. Developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Prayer of Examen helps us become more aware of where God is in our lives. When we practice the Examen we begin to be attentive to times of consolation (what gives us life, joy, peace, love) and to times of desolation (what brings us anxiety, worry, fear, anger). When we notice desolation in our lives we begin to have a sense of what God is leading us away from. When we notice consolation, the fruits of the Spirit, we are actually noticing God. And once we begin to notice God our job is to follow wherever God is leading.

Practice the Examen:

  1. Choose a period of time to examine in prayer. This can be a day, week, or a specific event.
  2. Allow your mind to wander through that period of time. Some questions you might ask yourself about that period include:
    – What am I most/least grateful for during that time?
    – When did I feel a sense of love, peace, joy, life (the gifts of the Spirit)?
    – When did I feel exhausted, dead, drained, angry, mean?
    – What specific events, thoughts, or experiences draw my attention?
    – What aspects of that time repel me?
    – What moments from that time speak to me of my deepest desires?
    – What things feel out of place, uninteresting?
  3. Ask yourself, When did I notice God during this time? What felt like a time of God’s absence?
  4. As some answers to these questions arise, notice what this tells you about the future. How is it that God is calling you into being? Toward what actions, activities, or attributes is God drawing you?
  5. Repeat this prayer at regular intervals in order to see how God is working in your life.

Taken from Creating a Life with God by Daniel Wolpert

Artwork by Trey Everett

Check out more at http://www.micahprays.org/art/doodles.htm#deadplant

On Prayer – a sermon from September 27, 2015 at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church – Audubon, MN

Among the scores of articles written this week about the pope’s visit, one that particularly caught my eye was an article about some of the disciplines the pope has in his life.  The article says he hasn’t watched television since 1990, he takes regular naps each day, goes to bed early, and each day he wakes at 4:00 a.m. and spends the first two hours of his day in prayer and meditation.

We may think that’s nice and that sounds like a great thing for a pope to do, but prayer is a spiritual discipline accessible to all of us and the benefits of prayer extend farther than most of us realize.

In fact, prayer may be one of the very best practices to benefit our health and well-being.  Science backs this up.

The relationship between prayer and health has been the subject of scores of double-blind studies over the past four decades. Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiovascular specialist at Harvard Medical School and a pioneer in the field of mind/ body medicine discovered what he calls “the relaxation response,” which occurs during periods of prayer and meditation. At such times, the body’s metabolism decreases, the heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, and our breath becomes calmer and more regular.

This physiological state is correlated with slower brain waves, and feelings of control, tranquil alertness and peace of mind. This is significant because Benson estimates that over half of all doctor visits in the U.S. today are prompted by illnesses like depression, high blood pressure, ulcers and migraine headaches, that are caused at least in part by elevated levels of stress and anxiety.

A study of Tibetan Buddhists in meditation and Franciscan nuns in prayer showed prayer and meditation increase levels of dopamine, which is associated with states of well-being and joy.

So, while perhaps our first impulse when we think about the Pope getting up at 4:00 a.m. each morning to pray is to think about his selflessness to pray for others and the concerns of the world, but another way to look at this practice is that for him it is one of radical self care.

A Vatican spokesperson confirms this when he said, “Morning prayer is where he meditates and really connects to God. His deep relationship to God is what allows him the freedom he has, what sustains him through the day, Before anyone comes in, before the (Vatican) secretary of state tells of him of any crisis, he connects with the Lord.”

So if prayer is good for our health, gives us a greater sense of well-being and joy, and helps us deal with the stresses of our day with increased ease, why wouldn’t we do it?

Well, perhaps prayer is one of those things that we feel we should do and even want to do but we aren’t quite sure how to go about it in ways that feel natural or meaningful or even necessarily spiritual.  We know how to pray the Lord’s prayer and we hear the prayers being said in church, and participate in the prayer chain but maybe we never thought much about praying on our own or as prayer being anything other than a last resort when we really need something.  It reminds me of a quote by Oswald Chambers when he wrote: “We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but God wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do, but God wants us to pray before we do anything at all.”

God wants prayer to be our steering wheel and not just a spare tire – at least scripture surely seems to lift up the importance of prayer to us over and over.  In our reading from James today it reads, “Are you hurting? Pray. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.”

1 Thessalonians 5:17 Pray without ceasing

Philippians 4:6-7 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

These are beautiful Bible verses – and I think we all want to be people of prayer and have that peace that passes all understanding.

So it’s important to remember that prayer takes many shapes and there are a multitude of ways we can incorporate it into our lives, receive its’ benefits, and bless the world with our prayers.

One way is to get up early and pray just like his holiness.  Lots of books have been written about the benefits of getting up early to take care of the most important things first.  In the book Miracle Morning,  it reads, “It’s been said that the first hour is the rudder of the day.  If I am lazy or haphazard in my actions during the first hour after I wake up, I tend to have a fairly lazy and unfocused day.  But if I strive to make that first hour optimally productive, the rest of the day tends to follow suit.”

My mornings have rarely been a good example of how to start the day.  I love to sleep, I generally sleep as long as possible and then wake up, drink coffee, check e-mail and then bark at the kids to get ready.

Just in the last few weeks I’ve been trying this idea of getting up early and starting the day more intentionally.  I haven’t gotten up as early as the pope but early for me and the practice has been very satisfying. 

But if you can’t imagine the early morning thing, there are so many other places and ways to fit prayer into life.

One of my favorite has been during exercise – to walk and pray.  At my church in Texas, the cemetery was huge and it was right out the front doors of the church, just like here and I would walk the perimeter of it and pray.  There was a trail worn into the ground from how many times I had walked and prayed there and that became a very precious place and practice for me – especially as more and more people I loved were buried there and I would stop and visit their graves.  Or if I was stuck on a sermon and I didn’t know what to write, usually if I walked a few times around the cemetery and prayed about it, my mind would start working again.

Some people pray in the car – many of us spend a lot of time alone in the car.  Why not pray?  It may be important to note here that what prayer is – is a conversation with God.  We can do that with our eyes closed and our hands folded, but we can do it also with our eyes wide open and while we are doing anything.

I like how Frederick Buechner puts it, he writes, We all pray whether we think of it as praying or not. The odd silence we fall into when something very beautiful is happening, or something very good or very bad. The “Ah-h-h-h!” that sometimes floats up out of us as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the skyrocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy. Whatever words or sounds we use for sighing with over our own lives. These are all prayers in their way.”

So the most important thing to remember is to find a place and a way to pray –not how we do it.  We pray and we keep at it.  Be persistent in prayer. 

And be open to the surprising ways that prayer will work in our lives. Miracles do happen every day, but prayer is not a magic charm.  We can pray and pray and pray for rain but that doesn’t mean we won’t still go through months of drought.  We can pray and pray and pray for healing to come but that doesn’t mean the healing will come when we want it to, or even on this side of the grave.  We can pray and pray and pray for an answer but sometimes all we feel for seemingly far too long is deafening silence and confusion. 

And when this happens – which it does – this confusing business of prayer can leave even the most faithful feeling disillusioned with the practice and wondering what good it does, wondering if it is really much different than hoping or wishing. 

This is when we remember as John Heuss said, “Prayer is neither black magic nor is it a form of demand note. Prayer is a relationship.”

Keep praying.  Keep praying because the world needs it.  Keep praying because God wants to hear from you.  Keep praying because you need it. Keep praying not because we will ever understand all its benefits but because of how the spirit can work in the beautiful mystery of prayer.

I felt that mystery this week when my son, Jesse, was having ear surgery.  It was just a small surgery and he was fine – but as we sat in the recovery room afterward, a pastor friend stopped by to say hello, and before she left, she prayed for him, for us.  It was so wonderful – I forget too often how precious it is to hear someone pray for me.  To know that someone is lifting up my concerns, my hopes, my cares, my worries to God – it’s the most beautiful thing.

Keep praying for each other and for me, sisters and brothers.  And know that each day, I pray for you.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.