All Saints (a sermon)

(Written on the eve of All Saints, 2013)
Last night some of the youth from Our Savior’s and Trinity and St. Olaf’s met here for a cemetery walk.  We had done this before a couple years ago – it’s an opportunity to come together and learn more about the cemeteries here in this area and since it was right before All Saints Sunday we talked about the significance of that day.

Pastor Joan from Cranfills Gap shared a clip of the movie ‘Places in the Heart’.  It takes place in Waxahachie, Texas and tells the story of a group of people during the 1930’s.  The movie starts out with the hymn “Blessed Assurance” being sung and we see people going about their daily lives on a Sunday morning.  Many coming out of church after the service.  A family sits down to a noontime meal and while they are saying grace we hear shots ringing out.  Within moments, there is a knock at the door and the men at the door are asking for the husband of the family to come with them.  Turns out he is the sheriff in town and there is trouble down by the railroad.  A young black man – looks to be a teenager – he is drunk and throwing bottles up into the air and shooting at them.

There is a brief, good-natured exchange between the police and the young man.  They tell him to come on now – he needs to come with them, get sobered up.  The feel of the scene is that these are just two good policemen who know a youthful indiscretion when they see it  – they are chuckling as he throws one last bottle up into the air and the gun clicks – out of bullets. And the young man turns to go with them.  He’s been swaying a lot this whole time – you can tell he’s had a lot to drink – but there’s no worries now, the gun is out of bullets.  But as he turns, his finger hits the trigger again and there was another bullet.  It hits the sheriff in the chest and kills him.

In a heartbeat everything changes – for the family of the sheriff, for the young man – the young black man is actually killed by local folks enraged at what he has done.

The whole movie shares hardships of the people during this time –what the widow does to get by, how many need to move away from that town to find work, how more folks die.  It tells the story of the difficulties and challenges that many communities face over time. And the closing scene is back in the church.  The pews are probably only about half full now.  We know why – so many have died, so many have had to move away.

But the last thing is this: it shows the congregation having communion – and this is one of those churches where the sacrament is passed up and down the pews – and as the tray of wine is being passed from person to person, suddenly we see the pews are not half empty.  All the people who have left or died are there.  All of them passing the sacrament to each other and saying “the peace of God” to each other as they do it – even that sheriff and the young man who had killed him.

The communion of the saints.  I thought this movie painted a picture so perfectly of what we mean when we talk about that “communion of the saints” in church.  About how our life together and our faith in Christ connects us to each other in ways that time, distance, or even death cannot break.  How when we gather here, we gather not just as the people of God in 2013, but as God’s people throughout time.

Well, after we watched those couple clips from the movie we walked outside into the cool evening air.  We started out in the new cemetery shelter and I shared what I had read about in our history here regarding old funeral traditions and our cemetery.  As we moved out into the cemetery and walked among the stones in the increasing darkness, I told some stories I had collected about the cemetery and when we were nearly done and walking toward the gate, I heard one of the young girls say to her friend, “I hate cemeteries.  They give me the creeps.” She continued.  “Cemeteries and nursing homes.”

Please don’t think less of me when I say my first inclination was to turn around and slap her – because I didn’t.  Instead, I prayed that God could help her see in time, and I’m certain God will, that the sacred that is present everywhere – in every season of life and even in death.  I prayed that someday, when someone she loves is in the nursing home, that she will be faithful to visit and begin to see and understand that it is a place full of beautiful people with lifetimes of stories we are blessed if we get to hear.  And that even if they aren’t able to tell those stories anymore, that they are still the saints of God in that place, with worth and beauty and dignity. I hope she’ll begin to realize that what she hates is not nursing homes but the fear they stir up within her of her own mortality – that yes, someday, all of us – if we get the blessing of living a long time, someday all of us will need help.  Someday all of us will have hands that may tremble a little too much to take our own medications.  Someday, all of us will have minds that may not quite be able to remember the way home or be able to go for a simple walk alone.  And yes, that is not fun information to think about, but there it is.  And we don’t do ourselves or the world any good if we spend our lives doing things like casually dismissing an entire group of people and saying things like “oh, I just don’t like nursing homes.” And that if we are held in God’s hands, then there is nothing to fear – that somehow God will help all of us through the last seasons of our lives just as God helped us through the first ones and the middle ones.

And I hope that someday, when someone she loves dies, she’ll go to the funeral and then she’ll walk along with the casket, with her heart frozen inside her, out to the cemetery for the burial.  And she’ll feel the awful emptiness that comes with knowing her loved one will be sleeping in that ground that night and that’s all there is to it.  And it will feel like the period at the end of a sentence – final.  But then I pray she’ll listen to the words of scripture that the preacher reads. Words about a home prepared for all of us in God’s house – and that even through her grief – as the breeze floats over the cemetery she hear God’s whisper that this isn’t the end of the story.  That the one she loves dearly who is being buried that day is not simply being shut up in a tomb and that the ground upon which she is walking is not just a pile of bones and tears – but that it is a holy place where we linger over a promise.  It is a place full of stories of a thousand saints who lived, and yes, died, but even then God had a plan for them.  A plan we can only just glimpse – but one they have now seen face to face – and that if you really listen in that place, you’ll hear a song not of death but of hope – a hope in which we can rest, and rejoice.  I pray she’ll realize in that moment, that what she hates is not cemeteries, but her fear of the unknown. And that in time she’ll remember that she, and all of us, are held in God’s hands, and there is nothing to fear.

Living and loving God, the generations rise and pass away before you.  You are the strength of those who labor; you are the rest of the blessed dead. We rejoice in the company of your saints.  We remember all who have lived in faith, all who have peacefully died, and especially those most dear to us who rest in you.  Give us in time our portion with those who have trusted in you and have striven to do your holy will. To your name, with the Church on earth and the Church in heaven, we ascribe all honor and glory, now and forever.  Amen.


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.


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


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

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.

Anger (sermon from September 13, 2015)

You maybe heard the story about the little boy with a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he should hammer a nail into the fence. The first day the boy had driven thirty-seven nails into the fence. But gradually, the number of daily nails dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally, the first day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He proudly told his father about it, and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day he was able to hold his temper.

The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a person and draw it out, it won’t matter how many times you say “I’m sorry”, the wound is still there.”

Our scripture from the letter of James this morning reminds us how much our words matter. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”

These are words we can understand. There is no one here who has not been the recipient of pain through something someone has said to us or about us. Words that are spoken in anger are the ones that cut particularly deep.

I learned this young. My father was a good man, but he had a temper. It was rarely directed at mom or us kids but it’s sad that when I remember him, I cannot remember him apart from his anger. He was so angry about many things – mostly the things he felt powerless to control in his life. His health was so bad that he wasn’t able to work and this truth cut at him. He was in chronic pain most of his life and suffered from a head injury as a child that contributed to his anger also in many ways. Sometimes he would be sullen and stew for days and weeks at a time – that was hard, but it wasn’t as hard as when he would explode. He would start yelling – raging at the air seemingly. Because it wouldn’t matter if we were in the house to listen to him or not, he would just keep yelling. He would rage about the injustices he felt the world had given him. He would turn on the television and then rage about something happening there. Our house was very small and there was nowhere to go in it where we could escape listening to him. So I would walk up our country road, even on bitter cold winter days to breathe and see how far I could get away from the house so that I would not hear the yelling anymore.

This was a long time ago, of course and even though all this was hard for me to understand as a kid – I don’t harbor any bad feelings toward my dad because of this – I believe he hated his temper. I really think his temper was something he never learned how to control. It was like a beast that came to visit and it was too big for him to easily keep out. The problem was, his rage didn’t just torment him. It tormented all of us. It damaged our family. Children cannot help but be hurt by harsh words that are flung through the air. Spouses, no matter how understanding, cannot help but receive scars from living with someone with uncontrolled anger.

Anger hurts. We know it. But what can we do about it?

I’ve been reading about this lately and I have found some helpful wisdom here and there. I thought it would be especially helpful for us to look at what the Bible says about anger as we consider how to give it as small a place in our lives as possible.

First, it is important to remember that the emotion of anger is normal. Even Jesus himself acknowledged it. He felt it – I remember Jesus in the temple when he threw over the tables because he was angry that people had lost sight of the purpose of the temple. In Ephesians 4:26 it reads, “Be angry, but do not let the sun go down on your anger.” As long as we are human beings we are subject to feeling anger. We can’t be free of that and we don’t need to feel guilty for experiencing anger if someone hurts us or someone we love or shows us an injustice.

The sin comes in letting the anger have power over us and have a say in our thoughts and our words. The emotion of anger can be so sneaky – because after the initial shock or pain wears off, sometimes we can almost come to enjoy our anger – but that anger is no less harmful to us or to others. Taking a bit of pleasure in your enemy going through a difficulty of some sort, the bit of gossip about them that does not shine a good light on them and you get to pass it on. We’ve all been guilty of relishing and rolling around a bit in our anger sometimes. You know what I’m talking about. The conversations that usually start with something like, “I know I shouldn’t say this but…” or “I know it’s not very Christian but…” or does this sound familiar, “Oh, I just hate to say this about so and so…but it’s true!” – we all do this – and we put that disclaimer at the front or at the end because we know – even if what we are spreading is true – we shouldn’t be saying anything to hurt the reputation of another person. That simply isn’t the kind of behavior our God calls us to. That behavior doesn’t speak well of us or the One in whom we believe. I like how Martin Luther puts it in his explanation of the eighth commandment. He writes, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ not only encourages us to not speak badly about those who have hurt us, but tells us to take one step farther – and search for ways to speak kindly about them.

Oh man, that is so hard!

But Christ calls us to not let our emotions rule us. Anger can come so quickly and no matter how faithful we like to think we are, we are never beyond the temptation to get angry or to hold on to grudges. But God is slow to anger and we need to work to be the same way. Psalm 78:38 says “God turned his anger away and did not stir up wrath.” “Turned away” means God controlled it. Remember, self-control is a fruit of the spirit. It is an aspect of God’s character that God has shared with us.

One of the best ways to learn to control the flare-up of anger is the tried but true – counting to ten. Or counting to 100. Count to 1000 if you need to count that high to calm down. Let emotions subside and then decide.

Breathe deeply. Pause and focus on your breathing. It can be helpful to remember that the word in Hebrew for the Holy Spirit , Ruah, can also be translated as “breath” – picture the Holy Spirit’s presence filling you and granting you peace in that moment.

If your anger is about something big – write about it and get your feelings out, talk about it with someone you trust, if it is a long-term anger, pour energy into something constructive – train for a marathon, spend time doing an activity where you find real joy and with people who energize you.

If your anger is about something small – try to let go of who is right and who is wrong. I Corinthians teaches us that love doesn’t keep track of things like that anyway.

And remember that as Christians we cannot talk about anger without also talking about forgiveness. We are commanded by Christ to forgive one another because God has forgiven us.

How do we do this? First, we desire to do it. We know that desire motivates us to go through whatever we need to go through to reach our goal – but the desire will probably not come immediately. Our gut reaction after being hurt is not to forgive – but that’s when we must dig deep into God’s word which reminds us over and over of the importance of forgiveness – and the desire to be free of the poison of anger comes. When we are fed by God’s word it becomes easier to remember that we are to be people of forgiveness – it doesn’t mean we will change the way we feel right away every time we are hurt – but if we have decided to be people of forgiveness and gentleness and not people of anger, we slowly are shaped and molded into a more Christ-like form.

Another step in forgiveness is to depend on the Holy Spirit to help you do what you have decided to do. Deciding is important, but then we also need God’s help to do something as big as forgiving.

And finally – what do you think the final step in true forgiveness is? It’s this: Matthew 5:44-45 reads, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you to show that you are the children of your Father who is in heaven.”

Scripture is clear that we pray for blessing on our enemies. Oh, this Gospel of Jesus Christ. It demands so much of us! Keep in mind, it does not ask us to stay in relationship with those who have hurt us deeply or continuously – but it does ask us to pray for them. And in doing so, the damage that our anger has done to us begins to mend. As we learn how to lift all of it – that person, that relationship, that pain into God’s care – the poison seeps out of us and we are free.

Anger is something it is hard to talk about and even more difficult to feel. But we must choose to let go of it. And the good news is that we can do that. God will help us to do that if we keep turning to God’s word and turning to God in prayers for the well-being of our enemies, and the healing of our brokenness.

In the Harry Potter books, one of my favorite moments comes when Harry was worried that he might be bad because he was angry all the time and he had dark feelings. Sirius Black tells Harry to listen to him very carefully and said, “You’re not a bad person. You are a very good person who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That is who we really are.”
May we choose the Light today and every day. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Aylan (sermon from 9/6/15 at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church)

Dear Aylan,

I saw the picture of you in the news this week. I, along with the rest of the world, saw you there – lying on the beach, your body lifeless. Your little red shirt and blue shorts, tiny tennis-shoes. At first my mind didn’t understand what I was seeing until my eyes scanned the caption under the picture which read,

The two small boys whose bodies washed up on a Turkish beach Wednesday were Kurdish refugees from Kobane, Syria, whose family had been desperately trying to emigrate to Canada.

Galib Kurdi, five, and his three-year-old brother Aylan died along with their mother Rehan and eight other refugees when their boat overturned in a desperate flight from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos.

The boys’ father, Abdullah, survived. His family says his only wish now is to return to Kobane with his dead wife and children, bury them, and be buried alongside them.”

I suppose I did what every parent did at the sight of that photo. I gasped. I thought of my own dear boys. I thought about how I would give anything and everything to keep them safe – and how I’m sure your parents felt the same.

And then I went on with my day, Aylan. I had stuff to do. I had to run some errands and go to a Bible study and visit some people. Later that day when I was scanning facebook I saw someone had posted your picture again. Again, I felt sad. I felt helpless. I felt thankful my own boys were safe and I prayed for your father.

I went to sleep that night and woke in the morning to see your picture again in the newspaper. Aylan, I confess that I didn’t want to see it again. I didn’t want to see it because I felt bad when I looked at it. Even though I had only just heard about you the day before, your little red shirt and blue shorts were old news now. How long was I expected to feel sad for you? How long should I feel bad about your whole situation I knew nothing about? I had plenty other things to think about and plenty other news to read.

But then you started staying near to me. In my thoughts, in my heart.

I’m ashamed to admit to you, Aylan, that I knew so very little before these last days about what is going on in your homeland. I get so busy with my own life and my own cares that too often the news I hear from around the world becomes just noise and I don’t stop to pay attention to what is happening. Of course I had heard things about Syria, about ISIS, and while things sounded bad, I knew there was so much to pray about things right here in my own country. And you and your family sounded so far away. Until I saw you there with your little red shirt and your little blue shorts, tiny tennis shoes. For me and for many, You weren’t just another headline. You were far from the first child to die because of the civil war in your homeland but when I saw you I finally realized –You could have been my boys. My boys could have been you. Except they were born here and you were born there.

So when you started to stay near in my thoughts this week, sweet Aylan, I finally opened my eyes and ears. It’s astonishing how much I can learn when I actually pay attention to things beyond myself and my own zip code. I learned that there are 5.6 million children like you who have lost homes and lives and any sense of safety because of the civil war that broke out in Syria in 2011. Many are now living in over-stretched refugee camps, makeshift shelters or villages. Many have fled Syria on foot, taking only what they could carry. Most fled under the cover of night to avoid sniper fire and shelling. There are Millions refugee children just like you who are exhausted, hungry and terrified.

Thousands of Syrians still flee their country every day. They often decide to finally escape after seeing their neighborhoods bombed or family members killed. The risks on the journey to the border can be as high as staying. Families walk for miles through the night to avoid being shot at by snipers or being caught by soldiers who will kidnap young men to fight for the regime.

Aylan, I read the story of a young mother, Hiba – she recently fled with her daughter and her severely disabled son, following the destruction of her home.

Hiba said, “Once the shells started and we ran…I couldn’t take my son’s wheelchair so I had to carry him, and run. We thought it was better for us to die in the street than under the rubble of our house. We ran at three in the morning and we didn’t know where to go. We were just running because we didn’t want to die under the rubble. I wasn’t thinking – I just wanted to protect my children.”

In the morning we came back to our home but it was ruined…I cried and I shouted but there was nothing else I could do. There is no human being alive that wouldn’t be sad – we worked all our life to building our home and suddenly we lose it all. “

There is no place for us to go, no safe space to go to at all.”

I read about how the majority of displaced Syrians are living in Jordan or Lebanon – countries that are stretched beyond their breaking point now and unable to take care of the people who are there. Others have taken to the sea to try to get to other countries where there might be a future. Aylan, I know your family did what you had to do. You had to leave.

And then, not long after your journey began, we saw your picture. Dear boy, I am so sorry. I’m so sad that you had to leave your home and face that terrifying journey over the water. I can’t begin to know the kind of horror that you experienced in your short life.

But I’m so thankful that whoever took those pictures let the world see them. Forgive me that for even a moment I wanted to turn away and not see the picture. We need to see it. We need to hate your death and the violence in this world that caused it.

You were just three years old – but your life mattered in countless ways – to your parents, to your whole family, to God – and though we did not meet, now you are so near to me each day.

Aylan, you were with me when I was studying the texts from the Bible for this week. When I read the prophet Isaiah speaking the word of hope to the exiles in Babylon and talking about the waters breaking forth in the wilderness and the streams in the desert, I wondered where the hope was for you when the waters enveloped your sweet little head.

And when the psalmist sang of giving justice to the oppressed, I hung my head and contemplated how your young life knew of no justice. While other children were busy sleeping in a few more times before school gets started again, while other children were busy riding their bikes around the block or staring at a video game, you were dreaming of a safe place to live for your family, of being done riding in that boat.

Even when I read the gospel for today and heard Jesus talking to the Syrophoenician woman who came to him begging for help for her child and at first he turns her away and only helps her after she holds on tight and keeps asking him, not letting him get away with turning her away – because a parent will do anything to help their child – maybe then I thought of you the most. Sweet boy, you deserved better than what happened to you. You deserved safe passage and a warm bed to sleep in. You deserved a full tummy and to be able to grow up along with your brother, sharing memories and life with your parents. You deserved laughter and education and hope and a future.

Aylan, what can I do for you now? A 45 year-old white preacher in Minnesota. What can I do for you – for children like you? I feel so helpless sometimes. The gospel is so extremely clear about how Christians must care, not only care, but help those who lack anything. The gospel compels us to welcome you and all refugees – with no stipulation or hesitation. And yet, borders rise up everywhere – between lands, between hearts, between peoples – keeping us all in our place, until ultimately we feel threatened by anything or anyone different. I want to help, but I just don’t know how?

Of course, one thing I must do is never ever forget that my ancestors were refugees, too, in their own way. Aylan, it’s true. They left Norway because they were so poor and there was no land and no opportunity. They weren’t in the middle of civil war like your family was – but they did come with a hope for something better – just like your family did.

It was a different time, to be sure, but there’s nothing in the gospel of Jesus Christ that allows me to reserve compassion for when it is easy or when it makes sense or when it doesn’t put me out of my way too much. God doesn’t allow us to see your picture or hear the news about what is happening to you and your people without compelling us to take action. Wherever we are.

And Aylan, in addition to remembering that my own people were once people traveling on the sea looking for a new home, I’m going to do something else.

So, Aylan, I have been thinking about your picture and about how helpless I feel to really do anything for children like you. But then I realized how far from helpless I am. You actually were – you were a child fleeing a war-torn country. But I am not a victim here. I am not helpless. God help me if I act like I am. Because I can use my voice to talk about you. I can encourage others to do the same. I can use my money to help support organizations that can help other children like you. I can stop putting any energy at all into feeling so dang helpless and remember that I may not be able to do everything, but I can do something.

Aylan, when my boys were very little and they wanted me to hold them, they would stretch their arms up to me and say, “Hold you, hold you.” It was the dearest thing in the world to me. Those sweet, trusting faces and knowing they were looking to me for comfort and some sense of assurance in their world. I had the power to give that to them. And so I would reach down and pick them up and hold them close.

And when they are asleep, then and still now, I put my hand on their heads and I bless them and ask God to watch over them now and always. And I trust that no matter what, God will. It’s not trusting that they will always have good luck or that nothing bad will ever happen to them – it’s trusting that no matter what happens, God will be with them. That even on their worst days they will know they are loved – by God and by their family.

Aylan, you are loved, by God and by us. Your death showed me a glimpse of the worst of sin and evil in this world – and now I pray that as I remember you, I‘ll be moved to show a glimpse of something quite different. I will show love and mercy. Generosity and bravery. I’ll not just speak about how awful it is that you died, but I’ll do my best to help where I can because you lived.

I pray you rest in peace.

With love in Christ,


p.s. I’ve encouraged our congregation to support the work of Lutheran World Relief among the Syrians – to learn more or to contribute check out