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.

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.

Sabbatical – Lying Fallow, Wading in Baptismal Waters

The following is the first entry from Pastor Kent’s Sabbatical blog.  You can check out his blog on the Blogroll or by clicking here.

An old familiar proverb says the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Another version of the same proverb says the journey must begin where you stand.  With the wisdom of Confucius, my father used to tell me no matter where you go there you are.

On May 27 after Sunday’s worship, I begin a several-month, several-thousand-mile sabbatical journey that will take me from worship at our sibling congregation of San Pablo Lutheran Church in Bogotá, Colombia all the way to the Christian worshipping community in Taizé, France.  God-willing, the journey will take me from a concert performance by world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell at the Oregon Bach Festival all the way to a music and worship conference led by well known hymn writer John Bell on the Isle of Iona, Scotland.

I’ll admit, it’s kind of funny to take a sabbatical journey.  After all, the Hebrew word for rested is where we get Sabbath.  But Sabbath is so much more than just taking a nap.

The idea of “sabbatical” and “Sabbath” can be found as early as the second chapter of Genesis.  After God’s Spirit “brooded like a bird above the watery abyss” (translated from Eugene Peterson’s The Message) and after God spoke, named and pronounced the cosmos “good,” chapter two says that God rested, blessed and thus hallowed or ‘made holy’ all creation.  Sabbath is about more than God taking a nap in the shade of a tree because God was tired.  Sabbath has to do with a little bit of distance – a little bit of stepping back from work so what is, can be and in this (according to our holy scriptures) things are made holy and blessed.

Everything needs a break, needs to be “stepped back from” now and then, says God.  After a commandment not to take advantage of a “stranger” (after all, says God, you’ve been a “stranger” yourselves) and before a commandment to observe three festivals per year (the festival of unleavened bread called Passover, the festival of summer harvest called Pentecost and the festival of fall ingathering called Sukkoth), God says in Exodus 23:10-11 to let the land rest and lie fallow and to do the same with yourselves and your possessions.

Sabbath is about letting the work-worn parts of all creation lie fallow.  After all, even God… even God took a rest, stepped back and lied fallow.

It’s funny the way things sometimes fall.  The day that my sabbatical begins just happens to fall on Pentecost Sunday.  Remember Pentecost, it was one of those three festivals back in Exodus that God said to observe.  One of three times throughout the year to intentionally stop and remember and experience the abundance of God’s saving and nourishing grace.

The day that my sabbatical begins also just happens to fall on the thirty-third anniversary of my baptism Image(I’m the one being held just next to the cross in the attached photo taken on May 27, 1979).  How funny, since we as Lutherans say the Christian journey begins and ends with baptism.  No matter where you go, the promise spoken over baptismal waters is there.

I give thanks for your prayers as I begin this journey, which will take me around the world and back to Custer Lutheran Fellowship.  Even as I pray that the next few months might provide you opportunities for Sabbath rest, that you might take a step or two back from work-worn parts of your lives and let them lie fallow.  It’s amazing, after all, how God’s abundant grace often springs up in the fallow places of our lives… with a well-placed promise and some water of course.


I recently realized that the subscription to a magazine we receive had expired.  I hurried to “renew” it in time so that we didn’t miss an issue.  We were joking at the recent Custer Lutheran Fellowship annual meeting (not your average annual meeting, but then again, not your average congregation either) that someone’s term on one of the ministry teams had “expired” – as if they were salami accidentally left on the counter – but fortunately the individual was willing to “renew” another term on the committee.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “renewal” since Custer Lutheran Fellowship was humbled to receive a National Clergy “Renewal” Grant from the Lilly Foundation.  Through the work of a four person committee (never think that a committee can’t accomplish amazing things!), Custer Lutheran Fellowship was awarded about $36,000 for “renewal” activities.  Much of the funds will pay for a sabbatical for me and my family this coming summer, however about one quarter of the funds are designated for congregational “renewal” activities.  Hopefully, you’ve heard about these activities – a Spanish language learning group; Dakota Road Music leading a workshop, concert and worship the weekend of January 21-22; and an exchange trip from Pastor Jairo Suárez and another lay leader from our sister church, San Pablo Lutheran Church in Bogotá, Colombia.

Our friend, Mr. Webster, suggests that “renew” means “to begin or take up again;” “to make effective for an additional period;” “to restore or replenish;” “to make, say, or do again;” and “to revive; reestablish.”  The bible too has a few things to say about being made new again.  Especially in the letters of the New Testament, it seems as though being found “in Christ” has to do with “renewal” (check-out for example: 2 Corinthians 5:17, Colossians 3:9-12, Romans 12:1-2). Unfortunately the “in Christ” part reminds us of the difficult mystery that often renewal comes only after a “death.”

So what does “renewal” look like to you? …a day off? …a hike to Little Devil’s Tower? …a week at home? …or maybe in Jamaica? …a good night’s sleep? …a few uninterrupted hours with your partner? …or with a good book? …or just alone? …in silence?

There is often a sense of “getting away from” something or someone or somewhere as we talk about “renewal,” but sometimes it’s just as much about “getting in touch with” something or someone or somewhere that’s been lost.  In all of it though, there seems to be a simple reality that comes with a recognized need for “renewal” – we are people who expire.  We don’t “last” long without certain things.  We get thirsty and need a renewing drink of water.  We get hungry and long to be satisfied.  We work too hard and yearn for Sabbath.  We are dust and without the renewing breath of life, to dust we shall once again return.

The season of Lent begins with this reminder on Ash Wednesday.  This Lent, you might ask what ways you yearn for renewal? …in your life? …in your health? …in your body? …in your mind? …in your spirit? …in your relationships? …in your community? …in the whole cosmos?

Someone once told me: “Not working is part of your job too” and quoted the commandment regarding Sabbath-keeping to back it up.  May we remember that “renewal” is part of the fabric of who we are.  May we be reminded that God’s gracious gift of “renewal” is part of the fabric of salvation as much as anything else.  And may you be renewed like a salami sandwich left on the counter, which ends up in the compost heap and turns into new soil that feeds the seeds of spring.

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself – Part 2

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,

and with all your soul, and with all your mind…

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

 — Matthew 22.37, 39 —

A Sunday not long ago these words of Jesus from Matthew 22 made an appearance in the Gospel reading.  When faced with the task of preaching on these words, I couldn’t help but think of a story I had heard this fall about a church near Memphis Tennessee.

It all started when the members of Heartsong Church put up a simple sign on their front lawn (pictured here).  While another Christian pastor was making news in Florida because he was threatening to burn the Qur’an, Pastor Steve Stone of Heartsong Church heard “love your neighbor as yourself” and decided to offer a word of welcome to a new mosque that was being built across the street.  Sometimes we call it The Golden Rule, I like to think of it as The Shoe Rule – if you were in your neighbor’s shoes, how would you like it? …or maybe that doesn’t go far enough.  Maybe we should call it The Skin Rule – if you were in your neighbor’s skin, how would you like to be treated?

The story doesn’t end there.  With the holy month of Ramadan approaching, the new mosque was behind schedule and they needed a place for prayer.  The leaders of Memphis Islamic Center approached the leaders of Heartsong Church and asked for a small room in the back where they could offer prayers.  However, members of Heartsong Church decided they couldn’t let them use a small room in the back, instead they told them, “No, you’re going to pray in our main worship space.”

It’s probably not a decision that a lot of churches might make, but it sure does make you think twice about The Golden Rule.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  The story of Heartsong has haunted me ever since I heard an interview with Pastor Steve of Heartsong and Danish Siddiqui, one of the leaders at the Memphis Islamic Center.  It haunts and it challenges because Pastor Steve points directly to The Golden Rule as a reason that Heartsong did what they did.  “I think it was just more that one of the basic tenets of our faith is to love our neighbors… really it was a no-brainer for us…” (from an interview on All Things Considered, 08/21/11).

So this is part 2.  When you type The Golden Rule into Wikipedia you learn that just about every faith tradition (Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, Baha’i, Hinduism, Sihism, Taoism, Wicca, and lots of others!) has some version of The Golden Rule as a central tenet of its teaching.  Where does that leave us as Christians?  Does the heart of Jesus’ moral teachings have to be unique to be true? 

Besides asking why we are often so concerned with being “unique,” we might also ask if maybe The Golden Rule or The Skin Rule has something to do with the “uniqueness” of the Christian gospel.  The good news on which we as Christians focus has to do with an audacious God who was willing to love us better than we can love ourselves by taking on our skin as humans in order to teach us to love our neighbor and remind us of God’s love.  It seems to me that this is good enough news to share with anyone, using words at times… and at other times just putting a sign on our front lawn and seeing what happens.