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May 3, 2018, 11:20 AM

The Marathon of Grief and the Promise of Easter


Easter is often seen as a joyous and celebratory time in the church year, and indeed, we do have much to celebrate: Christ’s victory over sin and death is something that gives us the “complete joy” that Jesus speaks of in John 15:11.  And yet, even as there are signs of spring and new life bursting forth around us, I am also mindful of the recent deaths of loved ones in our congregation as well as the way in which Holy Week and the Easter season can remind us of deaths and losses in our pasts.

Indeed, there is no simple way to just “get over the grief” nor is that really an advisable thing to do. If we try to suppress emotions like grief, they have a way of coming out in other ways in our relationships and interactions with others.  Sadness can easily become anger.  Pain can become isolating.  But it doesn’t have to—because even amid grief, there is grace. Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (NRSV).  Grief reminds us we are not in control of our lives, and that we “cannot save ourselves” as our Confession & Forgiveness in worship regularly reminds us.  But we have a Savior in Jesus Christ who can save us.  Indeed, he already has.

So as we continue in the fifty days of this Easter season, I treasure the language of abiding that we hear in John 15 over the 5th and 6th Sundays of Easter.  Jesus spoke these words on Maundy Thursday evening, and I think Jesus was using them not only as preparation for dealing with the emotional roller-coaster of fear and grief and joy that the disciples would soon experience with his death and resurrection, but also as a way to understand how to deal with grief and loss over time.  It’s as though Jesus is preparing his disciples for a spiritual marathon, and the best way to do that is to abide…to remain in his love and keep his commandment to love one another (John 15:9).   

Jan Borgman, a grief counselor at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital says, “Dealing with grief is a lot like training for a marathon. No matter how hard the journey is, it begins with a single step. Some days you may feel that you can handle whatever the course presents and other days it takes all you have just to get out of bed. Along the way there will be celebrations for how far you have come and there will be frustration that you are not further along than you think you should be…. There will be peaks and valleys, paved and unpaved paths along the way. What works for one person on the grief journey will not be helpful for someone else. It takes a lot of hard work to establish a new routine and to figure out the best way to deal with your grief. It’s important that you not compare yourself to someone else on the journey but to keep your own pace and rhythm.”[1]

To extend her metaphor, I like to think of the Easter season as a whole as a refreshment station in the marathon of grief. And attending regular worship is like the crowd cheering the runners along the way. It’s the support of the community that helps the runners keep going and not give up when they think they cannot go another mile.  Ask any marathon runner and they’ll tell you—there is always a wall when you think you cannot keep going, when you want to just give in, but it’s the crowd and/or the other runners who encourage them onward.  A marathon runner cannot “go it alone.”  And neither can someone who is grieving.

Borgman continues with some lessons we can learn from marathoners when dealing with grief, which are worth our consideration.  She writes:

1) Don’t force yourself to go too fast. If you force yourself to get through the grief experience, you may overlook or deny some of the issues related to your grief.

2) Reflect on your experience. Take the time you need to deal with your grief. Notice the mile-markers or the accomplishments you have made in order to see how far you have come.

3) It is important to refresh yourself along the way. Take a break from your grief. Give yourself permission to enjoy life and to find pleasure in things you use to enjoy.

4) Allow others to help and support you. You can’t do this alone. Reach out to others and let your needs be known.

5) At times the journey of grief can be lonely and isolating. As time passes, you might find that those who initially supported you are no longer there for you. During those times, be aware of your feelings and the challenges you are facing. Remember that the course is long but you need to keep going. Slow and steady wins the race.

6) There will be new joys and hopes along the way. You will find new meaning in your life as you learn to live your life. Each step along the way will lead you to a new experience, if you can be open to it. It will take time and at some point you will look back and wonder how you made it through your most difficult day.[2]

This Easter, I encourage you to continue “running the marathon” or as Hebrews 12:1-2 says, “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Because one day, the marathon will come to an end, and grief and sorrow and pain will be no more.  Then we will find ourselves with Jesus and those who have gone before us—celebrating before the throne of God.  And just imagine what a complete joy that will be.

 

[1] Jan Borgman, “Dealing with Grief: the Marathon of a Lifetime.” Accessed online at: https://centering.org/magazine-articles/article-library.html/article/2017/02/06/dealing-with-grief-the-marathon-of-a-lifetime

[2] ibid.




March 7, 2018, 10:49 AM

Seeing God At Work Around You



This past Sunday, I challenged the congregation in my sermon to take a picture of where they saw God working in their life and put it up somewhere they would see it, or make it a background or screen saver for their cell phone. Below is one of the images that prompted me to think about that.

It is from the previous Sunday’s Confirmation class. We were talking about those who have gone before us and passed on the faith to us, and as part of that, the youth helped set up tables for a funeral luncheon later that week. I am grateful for all those who work “behind the scenes” - both young and old (many thanks to those who helped with the service and luncheon too!) - to show love and care to those who are going through grief and loss.

This coming Sunday, we will hear some very well known Bible passages, but today, part of the second lesson came to mind: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of life.” -Ephesians 2:8-10 (NRSV)

Update on 3/7/18: I continue to be surprised in where I see God at work this week.  Early this morning, I received an email from my children's principal inviting students to wear yellow today and blue tomorrow in recognition of two young students in the larger community who died this past week, one from SADS, and the other as a result of cancer.  Offerings will be collected to help each family with medical expenses and their families continue to be in the prayers during the weekly services at school (as well as in the prayers of intercession of many area congregations including Holy Spirit).  Such actions remind me that in spite of all the division and discord we see portrayed on the news, there are still communities that gather and support each other.  There are still communities that gather and pray together--trusting that God will work through them to bring healing and comfort to those who grieve, hope and justice to those who are opproessed, and joy and gratitude to those who are met with unexpected grace.

That brings me to another story worth sharing--one from another Lutheran congregation in Evanston, Illinois I read about on Monday morning.  These words are authored by my uncle's brother-in-law, Sam Lewis:
"In the mid 90’s we sponsored a refugee family from Bosnia. The mother had been wounded in a mortar attack. The family of four came off the plane and were greeted by a number of church members who took them to an apartment in Evanston, donated by one other member. I helped load and unload a truck with donated furniture. We supported the family until they got on their feet. Our pastor even went to parent/teacher conferences, since the parents’ English was so poor.
... I was reminded of all this because one our members was talking to a co-worker last week. Our member mentioned that she was Lutheran. The woman said ...”Lutherans saved my family”. It was the eldest daughter of the Bosnia family. She came up to our church retreat this weekend to reunite with the people who saved her.
Trinity works also in both Chicago and Evanston giving kids and teenagers their chance to succeed. But we are committed to helping people fleeing terror and destruction. We don’t expect to convert people. We are not doing this for self-aggrandizement. We are doing this because it is right. 
The church has money set aside to sponsor another refugee family. And when the political winds have turned, and they will turn, we will sponsor another family, and another, and another. Because that is what this community of believers is all about." 

Ultimately, I realized with these stories (and even more I have not shared) this exercise can be distilled down to one simple realization: "When you see God at work around you, you see grace in action."




February 2, 2018, 4:03 PM

The Book of Forgiving by Desmond and Mpho Tutu



During Lent, our Wednesday evening worship will focus on the theme of forgiveness.  In particular, I will be drawing from an excellent resource I read last summer as part of my Doctor of Ministry work: The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond and Mpho Tutu.  In the book, father and daughter share personal experiences—Desmond drawing from his stories of living in apartheid and later as Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and Mpho sharing about the murder of a close family friend.  From these experiences, the Tutus discuss the significance of forgiveness, how it works, why everyone needs to know how to grant and receive it, and why granting forgiveness is one of the most important gifts we can give to ourselves when we have been wronged. 

As one of the key parts of the book, Desmond and Mpho Tutu outline a “Fourfold Path” of forgiveness: “Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, and Renewing or Releasing the Relationship.”   Indeed, we all know that we need to forgive and be forgiven because Jesus tells us to (see Mt. 6:9-15, Mk. 11:25, Lk. 6:37 for a few examples), but it is much harder to practice forgiveness—unless you have been taught how to do so.  That is what the book offers some very practical exercises, meditations and prayers to help us practice forgiveness along the way.

During Lent, we will gather for dinner at 6:00 pm, Ringers and Singers and Children’s choir rehearsal at 6:30 pm, and evening prayer at 7:00 pm.  The midweek services will be approximately 30 minutes long (the Ash Wednesday services on February 14 will be at noon and 7:00, and will be closer to an hour).  For your convenience, a few copies of the book will be available for purchase at Holy Spirit, or you can download a kindle version of the book from Amazon for $1.99.  I encourage you to read it over Lent and try some of the activities that they recommend. 

Until then, here are a few quotes from the book to get you thinking about forgiveness:

“In our own ways, we are all broken. Out of that brokenness, we hurt others. Forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing the broken parts. It is how we become whole again.” 

“Transformation begins in you, wherever you are, whatever has happened, however you are suffering. Transformation is always possible. We do not heal in isolation. When we reach out and connect with one another—when we tell the story, name the hurt, grant forgiveness, and renew or release the relationship—our suffering begins to transform.” 


“Forgiveness is truly the grace by which we enable another person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew. To not forgive leads to bitterness and hatred. Like self-hatred and self-contempt, hatred of others gnaws away at our vitals. Whether hatred is projected out or stuffed in, it is always corrosive to the human spirit.” 

“We are not responsible for what breaks us, but we can be responsible for what puts us back together again. Naming the hurt is how we begin to repair our broken parts.” 


― Quotations from Desmond & Mpho TutuThe Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015.




January 9, 2018, 8:04 AM

Talking and Walking with Christ


In my preparations for Christmas, I came across an article online from a few years ago, the title of which caught my
attention: “Walking Santa, Talking Christ: Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?” Expecting some sociological commentary about why people are more likely to attend church around the holidays than other times of the year, I decided to read it—only to discover that my expectations were completely wrong.

The author, Shankar Vedantam, begins by citing well-known data: 40 percent of Americans claim to attend church regularly. 90 percent of us believe in God. He continues: “There is only one conclusion to draw from these numbers: Americans are significantly more religious than the citizens of other industrialized nations.
Except they are not.”

A quick extrapolation of the numbers would suggest that about 118 million Americans would be in church every Sunday, and every major denomination would be growing. That’s simply not the case. Instead of asking about Church attendance as a measure of “religiosity,” social scientists have started to measure what people actually do. The results are surprising. Americans are not much more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. In actuality, the number of people in worship on Sunday mornings are about half of what Americans report. Yet Americans consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are. Vedantam writes:

Religion in America seems tied up with questions of identity in ways that are not the case in other industrialized countries. When you ask Americans about their religious beliefs, it's like asking them whether they are good people, or asking whether they are patriots. They'll say yes, even if they cheated on their taxes, bilked Medicare for unnecessary services, and evaded the draft. Asking people how often they attend church elicits answers about their identity—who people think they are or feel they ought to be, rather than what they actually believe and do.

I share this not to chastise those who don’t come regularly to worship, or to say “good job” to those who do, but to pose the questions, “what is your religious identity?” and “what do you do to live out your faith?”

As we move into a new year, many of us set expectations and goals for what we want to do in the year ahead. We resolve to lose the weight, eat healthier foods, pay down debts, spend more time with family, reconnect or mend broken relationships, etc. but what do you expect from religious practices like worship, Bible Study and prayer? What do you hope to do that will help you grow in
faith?

If one of those items on your list is “be more involved at church” or “read the Bible more” what specifically will you do? And if you don’t have a list, (or anything related to your faith on it,) what will you do to hold yourself accountable to growing as a disciple of Christ in 2018?

As the Christmas season ends and the season of Epiphany begins, the church moves into a time of “doing.” In the gospel lessons we will encounter magi from the east who take significant risks to worship an infant king. We will see how that infant king made baptism not only a sign of his identity, but a marker for the beginning of his earthly ministry. We then will have a chance to live out our own baptismal callings as we hear Jesus call his own disciples and heals those who are suffering before the beginning of Lent (on Valentine's Day this year!)

It’s a time that is meant to help us “talk the talk and walk the walk” with Christ. And that’s my prayer for us all in the year ahead—that we talk and walk with Christ throughout this new year. 

-Pastor Nathan

The full article “Walking Santa, Talking Christ: Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?” is available
online at: http://www.slate.com/id/2278923/

 




November 30, 2017, 8:32 AM

Four Truths for Every Congregation


Rev. Dr. Dave Daubert is an ELCA Pastor, writer and consultant for “Day 8 Strategies.”[1]  I have known him for years and was in seminary with his wife who was studying to become a Deaconess in the church.  A week ago, I came across some thoughts he shared on the future of the church which are true in every setting—no matter the size, context or health of the current congregation.  I thought these four truths are worth sharing especially as we begin a new church year and look to the future ministries that we will undertake together in 2018. Dr. Daubert writes:

  • The future of your church depends on your willingness to be neighbor.
  • You can only do evangelism with people who aren’t Christian (yes, some of these may already come to church!).
  • The future of your church depends on people you haven’t yet met.
  • You will only meet those (future) people if you are willing to meet them.[2]

The simple fact is that no congregation can ignore any of these and remain faithful or even viable long term—no exceptions. But intentionally responding to these truths with action not only brings hope for a bright future, but the opportunity to be a part of God’s mission in the world today.

Building on the first truth above, Dr. Daubert says, “Every person has multiple “mission fields” in their life. Sometimes they overlap like when a person lives, works and goes to church in the same neighborhood. This used to be pretty common. But often they don’t overlap completely. People may live in one place, work in another, and worship and attend church in another. In each place there are different people and our call to be neighbor exists in each one. We need to know and relate to the people around our homes, in our work (or retirement) place, and yes, [around] our congregation.”[3]

The key is seeing each one as a “mission field”—as a potential place for inviting people to come join us not just on Sunday mornings, but for dinner and study on Wednesday nights, or line-dancing on Tuesdays, or food distribution on Saturdays (just to name a few possible invitations one could extend).  So what mission fields exist in your life that you could explore more fully?  If you don’t think you have any, then remember the last two truths listed above: “The future of your church depends on people you haven’t yet met,” and “you will only meet those (future) people if you are willing to meet them.” 

This is a great time of year to not only meet new people, but invite them to come to our community of faith.  Personally, I have two new neighbors on my street, so I plan to bake some cookies, bring them by their homes, introduce myself… and bring along a card inviting them to the Christmas Cantata on Dec. 17 and our Christmas Eve services.  (There are extras in the Narthex if you want to take some!)  If they say “we already have a church home,” great!  It is always good to know another brother or sister in Christ.  If they say, “we don’t believe in that stuff” or “I’m spiritual but not religious” or some other way of saying “thanks but no thanks, ”then let it go gracefully and with an open-ended invitation.  You might consider saying something like: “I just want you to know, you’re always welcome at Holy Spirit, even if it is not for worship, and if you ever feel like you are in need of prayer, let me know, and I can share it with our church’s prayer team.”  They may never take you up on it, but then again, they might find themselves in need of prayer (we all need prayer at least once or twice in our lives, right? J) and remember your offer—or seek out a church because they encountered the grace and love of Christ in you.

This Advent, that is my prayer for us all—that we would not only encounter, but also be the embodiment of God’s love and grace to our neighbors as we wait for the coming of Christ at Christmas.

-Pr. Nathan

[1] For Christians, the “eighth day” represents the day of resurrection—the start of a new week—and thus the start of us being a new creation grounded in Christ.

[2] From: https://www.day8strategies.com/blog/four-truths-every-church-must-face

[3] https://www.day8strategies.com/blog/the-future-depends-on-your-willingness-to-be-neighbor


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