Words ‘Over the Grave’

“Epitaph” is the fancy word for it.  It’s sort of two words in Greek: “Epi” and “taph” from the Greek preposition epi meaning “over” and the word táphos meaning “tomb.”  Perhaps it’s not by chance that it doesn’t take much to get the word for “tomb” (táphos) confused with the word that means “humble” or “lowly” (tapeinós).

ImageThere are other words “over a grave,” of course, but they are not the epitaph.  A name given.  And then other things given and taken.  A date to mark the gift of first breath and a date to mark when the last breath was finally taken once and for all.

But once you list these basic identifiers, how then do you sum up the fulfilled hopes and unrealized dreams, the great successes and hidden failures, the trusts and offenses given and taken in a single life?  Enter the epitaph.  The most basic of poems.

Some are short and to the point.  Take for example, Rest in Peace or the epitaph of Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig): That’s all folks.  Some are amusing.  Like Winston Churchill’s epitaph: I am ready to meet my Maker.  Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.  Some are short and funny, such as comedian Spike Milligan’s: I told you I was sick.  Some are more about the living than the dead.  Think W.H. Auden’s epitaph for the “unknown soldier,” which asks the reader: To save your world you asked this man to die: Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?

At a recent conference for pastors the presenter, Rev. Dr. Susan Briehl, confessed what she hoped her epitaph to be – a simple paraphrase of the promise Jesus makes in chapter fourteen and verse eighteen of John’s Gospel: She was not orphaned.

As trees begin to put on their autumn colors these days, it recalls the great and marvelous beauty confined in these brief, humble lives of ours.  We trust that after months of standing naked and shivering through the winter, the trees will once again be dressed in spring blossom.  So too, from the first breath to the final, we are called not only to ask what legacy we will leave on this earth; but also to trust in the great promise that life and death alike are somehow unfolding in the fullness of God’s mystery and grace.  Even in our deaths, God’s love will blossom through us.

It is a promise that stands not just “over a grave,” but over death itself: that God’s love is stronger than death.  That if we have been united in a death like Christ’s, then so too we will be united in a resurrection like Christ’s.  And that we are not orphans in this life, no matter what death does in our lives.

Blessings to you and yours this fall and may your epitaphs be a long time in coming.

Mission trips and the Body of Christ

Earlier this month I returned from an eight day mission trip to Washington D.C. after serving in the city with eighteen high school students and three other adults from Custer Lutheran Fellowship.  We prepared meals that were distributed to homeless shelters, packed canned goods in a massive grocery distribution warehouse, visited with people who were living in the local parks, had a conversation with one of our South Dakota senators about U.S. food programs, and saw many monuments.  But why did we go?

                Did we go because it was good for the high schoolers to learn to raise money by the sweat of their own brows with their firewood sale?  Partly.  Did we travel so far from home to get us out of our comfort zones so that we might see the world from a different angle?  Yes, I suppose.  Did we go to learn about Christian service and to learn that our attitudes toward poverty and toward voting matter?  Of course.   But what is the primary purpose for these trips?

                In recent years, service learning and mission trips have become very popular in congregations throughout the United States.  Custer Lutheran Fellowship is one of these congregations, routinely packing our bags to serve people in other places.  Whether we are going to Pine Ridge and to St. Dysmas at the penitentiary in Sioux Falls or making trips to Washington state, Denver, New Orleans, and Washington D.C., we have covered some serious miles.  Some have gone to Nicaraqua, Colombia, and Guatamala to serve, witness, and learn.  But why?

                A single line in our weekly worship bulletin provides a clue.  Each week, we list the names of the staff of CLF.  Pastor Kent and I are named as the pastors, Donna McConnell as the office administrator, Sara Janson as the office assistant and so on.  For years, however, this listing has included seven words that help define who we are as a congregation.  Ministers: All members of Custer Lutheran Fellowship.

                Of course different people have different reasons for traveling to do ministry.  But I think these congregational travels train us to be a ministering community in the same way that gathering for family reunions helps us to be better families or going away to basketball camp helps a basketball team play better together when they get back home.

                These travels are rarely ends in themselves, but instead help to equip us to serve better as the body of Christ when we return home.  In the same way that I am a more connected family member when I visit with my cousin at the intense 4th of July reunion, I learn to minister better when I chop fifty pound of onions standing next to two high school ministers of CLF at the D.C. Central Kitchen. (Yes, we did cry like babies.)  Yet, going to the family reunion can’t replace the routines of sitting down to supper as a family, or cleaning the house, or saying bedtime prayers.

                Now that this particular service trip is done, we return to the life-sustaining routines of Sunday worship, faith, prayer, service, forgiveness, love, witness — of being the Body of Christ where we live.  The Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described congregations as, “Jesus Christ existing as the church community.”  Christ himself exists and is present for the world as we gather to be this wonderful thing called a ministering community.  May our life of faith away from home strengthen our life of faith at home.

Forgiveness. A Matter of Life or Death?

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”  — Luke 23.34 —

Forgive me.  I know there have been plenty of pastoral articles written already about forgiveness.  Forgive me; but please, keep reading.

chalkboardCan we start with this?  Forgiving is not something you either do or don’t do.  It’s not something that you keep track of on a chalkboard.  Write a mark when someone sins against you.  Then forgive with the eraser.  Then repeat?  Neither sin nor forgiveness works like that – with every fifth line a diagonal.

Forgiving is something you practice (and for most of us, most of the time, not very well).  As Martin Luther King said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.”  Perhaps life is less about choosing between good and evil, and more about choosing between things that lead to forgiveness and things that lead to revenge and resentment.

If resentment really is the opposite of forgiveness, then listen to Nelson Mandela’s take on it: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”  If that’s resentment, perhaps practicing forgiveness begins when you finally despair of your foolishness and dump the poison down the drain.  Step two is offering your enemy a glass of water.  It might help to offer to take a sip first, to prove it’s not poison.

Then again, you forgiving an enemy might be easier to practice than you forgiving you.  If it’s true that you are your own worst enemy, then it’s even more tempting to think that a drink of that resentment-poison just might ‘do in’ your worst enemy.  But that’s just it.  In the case of you forgiving you, it will.  Once again, step one is despairing of your foolishness and dumping the poison down the drain.  Then take a long drink of water.

But hardest of all might be forgiving God.  It’s told that the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spent most of his life asking God, “Where were you, God of Kindness, in Auschwitz?”  In a moment of practicing forgiveness, Wiesel finally realizes, “Watching your children suffer at the hands of your other children, haven’t you also suffered?”  And so, Wiesel says, “Let us make up, Master of the Universe…”

But in the end, if you want to practice forgiveness, God is not a bad place to start.  The God revealed to us in the scriptures (Old & New) and the God revealed to us in Christ Jesus is not a cosmic-chalkboard God who keeps track of every sin and stands ready with eraser, if only you pray the right prayer or say the right words or suffer enough.  God has suffered too.  God drinks your resentment-poison and dies until death can do no more.  Then God comes back from the dead and offers you a new way of living.  The way of forgiveness-living.  Thanks be to God.

Forgive me if you’ve heard all this before.  But please, keep forgiving.

Labyrinths, Lent & Prayer

If I were to say “prayer,” what’s the first image that comes to mind?  A pair of folded hands?  Kneeling by a bedside?  That picture of the white-haired, white-bearded guy sitting at the table with soup and bread and bible with his head resting against his folded hands?  I’d hazard a guess that whatever the image that comes to mind, for most of us it is a static image without movement.  But prayer can be movement.

What if I were to ask what prayer sounds like?  The Lord’s Prayer spoken by a congregation?  A family saying, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest…” before a meal?  Driving to work with an inner-monologue grocery-list of petitions bouncing around in your head?  I’d hazard a guess that whatever the sound that comes to mind, for most of us it is the sound of a human voice (or inner-monologue).  But prayer can be listening.

CLF LabyrinthOne of the ideas that sprouted out of my sabbatical travels and grew into a project which was completed last fall (with the help of the Rap Group and a dozen or so talented painters) was to create a labyrinth on the floor of the ‘DownUnder’ – located in the basement below the sanctuary.  When Pastor Tom and I were talking about the project before it was completed, one of our main concerns was that it would actually ‘get used’ and not just be a decoration.

With this in mind, throughout the season of Lent (that’s the rest of the month of March) on Wednesday afternoons and evenings the labyrinth will be “set-up” for use.  I say, “set-up” even though it’s available for use just about anytime that there isn’t something else going on, but this is a time when it is intentionally set-up with quiet music playing and a request that during this time the area be reserved for quiet prayer.

Don’t worry if you think that using a labyrinth might “stretch” the way that you’re used to praying.  If you’re used to prayer as a “static” thing, then it’s true, it might challenge you a little bit to pray and walk at the same time (although it’s about as difficult as walking and chewing gum at the same time).  If you’re used to prayer as something that’s primarily the human voice talking (whether aloud or as an inner-monologue prayer), then it might stretch how you think about prayer being a time to “listen” for God’s voice as you walk the labyrinth.  But isn’t Lent a perfect time to stretch or challenge how we pray?

Still, I know that many people have questions about labyrinths and/or what they’re supposed to do when they walk a labyrinth.  Here are a few frequently asked questions and answers…

  • Is a labyrinth the same as a maze?  No.  A maze has dead-ends, but a labyrinth has only one path, which you follow all the way in to the center and then all the way out.
  • Aren’t labyrinths just “new age” or pagan?  No.  Labyrinths are extremely old.  They were a standard part of European churches in the Middle Ages.  One of the most famous labyrinths (which is the model for the labyrinth in the ‘DownUnder’ at CLF) is at the Chartres Cathedral in France.
  • What am I supposed to ‘do’ when I walk the labyrinth?  The simple answer is “walk” and “pray.”  The rest is up to you.  Some walk faster, some slower.  Some pray the traditional grocery-list, inner-monologue prayer, some try to quiet their thoughts by praying a simple, repetitive phrase like, “God is love” or focusing on a single image like the cross.  The only other thing you might try to do is to ‘pay attention.’  Listen.  Look.  Relax.  Breathe.  And don’t forget to watch out for other people walking the labyrinth.

If you didn’t already know, you might also be interested to know that Custer Lutheran Fellowship has had an outdoor labyrinth by the outdoor worship area (located to the northwest behind the parsonage) for several years, which was built by the Health Ministry Team.  This labyrinth is open year-round too!

If you have any other questions, I’m happy to visit with you and please know that Lent isn’t the only time that you can use a labyrinth for prayer. You might find that a labyrinth stretches and challenges the way you’re used to praying, but you also might find it feels like a very natural form of prayer for you.  It might not be for everyone, but I encourage you to give it a try this season of Lent as we meditate on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who walks with us in all our prayers.

Naming Rights

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

— Luke 2:21 —

As you read this, odds are pretty good you could turn on your TV and find a football “bowl” game.  Odds are even better that the name of the “bowl” game will sound more like advertisement than entertainment (although the line is often hard to draw, isn’t it?).  Some of my favorites are the “Tostitos Fiesta Bowl Game,” the “Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl Game” and the “Little Caesars Pizza Bowl Game.”  Kind of makes you hungry doesn’t it?

Naming is a big deal.  There’s a certain power that comes with a name.  Corporations know this, but so do we as Christians.

We’ve been naming hurricanes for quite some time, but apparently the powers-that-be have started naming winter storms as well.  A recent powerful storm that dropped more than a foot of snow on Minneapolis was named “Caesar.”  Other storms were named Brutus and Athena (one commentary wished that they would’ve named the first storm “Agrippa,” if for no other reason so that he could hear weather-forecasters say that “the Upper Central Plains were in the grip of Agrippa”).

Naming is a big deal.  There’s a certain control that comes with a name.  Name something and you’re one step closer to harnessing it’s power.  Weather-forecasters know this, but so do we as Christians.

One of the earliest stories in the Bible tells of God giving an earth creature named Adam the privilege of naming all the animals on the earth.  It reminds us as Christians that with privilege and power, we’re entrusted also with responsibility.

Then there’s the story from Luke, which many churches celebrate on New Year’s Day.  The story goes that eight days after Jesus was born (coinciding with Jewish laws of the time) Jesus was circumcised and named.  I guess it goes without saying that “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”

It’s a simple little story that often goes unnoticed, but it’s quite a coincidence that the eighth day of Christmas is the first day of our New Year.  We might ask with more than a little trepidation what it means for us as Christians to remember the “name of Jesus” as a way of starting a new year.

Paul wrote to the early Christians in Philippi that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).  This is right before Paul’s version of the Christmas story, “though [Christ Jesus] was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7).

To our American ears it sounds nice and fine that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend”.  To the ears of a first century Jew living in the Roman Empire it meant heresy.  Or at least heretical to the Roman Empire – where everyone knew that it was “at the name of Caesar” that every knee should bend (if you wanted to keep your knee attached to your body, that is) and that every tongue should confess that “Caesar is Lord” (if you wanted to keep your tongue attached to your mouth, that is).

We as Christians aren’t always that good at following the recommendations of the empire though.  We know that there’s power in a name, that there’s power in a child who came to save and that this God-child whose name is Jesus entrusts us with responsibility to serve the least among us.  It’s a different way of living than we’ll learn from the TV as we watch the “Capital One Bowl Game” or hear about the latest Caesar of a storm that has us in its grip.  But as we begin a new year, we know as Christians that it is God’s grasp which holds us and it is love which holds real power.

Speaking of the weather

It is the time of year that we in the northern climes talk about the weather.

“How much snow did you get west of town?”

“Six inches.”

“Hmm, only got two in town and none at that church.”

“Really, they got nine inches up on the Limestone.  Probably won’t melt under those trees until May.

“Yep.”

             Not exactly the deepest (pun absolutely intended) conversations, but I will admit that I really like talking about winter weather.  A simple comment about an upcoming snowstorm will get people remembering notable storms of the past.  Just recently Pastor Kent told me about the Concordia College Choir being snowed in at a chain motel for several days during a blizzard while on tour.  No power, no heat, no food.  Just as they were debating cannibalism, the ingenious tenor section upended a vending machine to shake the candy out.  Great story.

Or a cold snap will bring out the memories of old cars with heaters that blew only cool air or of throwing a pan of boiling water outside and watching it all evaporate before it hit the ground.  Mention the thermometer, snow-packed roads, or the value of Carhart overalls and the conversation will go on for hours – at least in the rural, male, Lutheran circles that I often travel in.

I think if God would’ve chosen for the messiah to be born a little farther north that Jesus would’ve told parables about lake ice and wind chill to go along with the sowing, harvesting, and fishing themes that he used so often.   Jesus painted lofty theological images with his words, but he also spent plenty of time discussing wind, water, and rain – the weather.

Jesus knew what people really talked about — the beauty of mild weather, the fear and anxiety that damage from violent storms can bring, the ability to raise a crop from the right weather at the right time.  Snow and rain gives us a way to talk about things we like and things that make us a little worried.  Weather conversation helps us sort out memories and pass on stories that help us to be better friends and to pass on history.  We have parables around us all of the time.

No wonder we will soon be hearing the story of a cross-country winter trip on the back of a donkey.  The traffic was terrible, and there was no room at the hotel.  And you know what happened?  God showed up.  Now, that’s a good weather story.

Falling out of Summer in Youth Ministry

Our high school youth group is transitioning from a wonderful summer with trips to the ELCA National Youth Gathering in New Orleans and a service project with Extreme Community Makeover in Denver.  The adults and high schoolers are now transitioning from the big trips of summer to the more routine tasks of fall.  I was impressed that our group of high schoolers put into place some very solid disciplines to help them bring home the things they learned in New Orleans.  One of their ideas was to meet a couple of Wednesdays each month for breakfast and a devotion before school.  I’m looking forward to our first  WMBC (Wednesday Morning Breakfast Club) this week. But a part of me is still lingering on the fun of the summer, so I pulled together a short video of the to trip to Denver and New Orleans.

The music in the video is from Rachel Kurtz and Dave Scherer (AGAPE)  who created a song based on the theme “Citizens with the Saints.”  Here is the link for the video.

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