Remembering 9/11 – Lost and Found

The fifteen year anniversary of 9/11 causes me to remember how I was a young pastor that struggled to find words to place this attack into any sort of narrative that made sense to me. I was in the third month of being the new pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Niagara Falls, New York. On that day and the days afterwards, I found that Western New York felt both very far away and very near to New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

I was driving north on the 190 towards Niagara Falls. I was about to go over the north bridge off of Grand Island when I heard on the radio that a plane had struck a building in NYC. I was just a few minutes away from my office at Grace. When I entered the church building, I immediately went towards the garage sale donation pile. I remembered that Carl had donated a television for the upcoming garage sale. I plugged the television into the wall. Lisa and I tried to get the antenna positioned to receive the signal from one of the news channels. Lisa returned tried to get some work down, what could we change by staring at the fuzz on the television. I went to my computer to see if I could find out more information. Every page was loading painfully slow. I knew we had slow internet, but every moment I pressed refresh on the browser I waited and waited for any news that this was just an accident. 9/11 was not an accident.

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Randy called and asked me to find a way to join the community in prayer. He wanted his kids to place their trust in God. He understood that trust would be easier to find if we were together. We quickly made calls and arranged for a prayer service. I don’t remember much about the prayer service. I do remember that none of us tried to fill the moments of prayer with cliches, people were honest in silence. Words cold not fill this moment unless there was trust. The trust we had in God did not require that answers would be found. Our trust required that we were not alone.

That same week I was scheduled to host the monthly gathering of local Lutheran pastors. The circuit meeting begins with a worship service. After the service, there is a Bible study and chance to share about our unique contexts. At the service I was expected to preach a sermon. This was the first circuit meeting I had either attended or hosted as a pastor. Remember, I was only three months into the ministry. I expected that pastors who host the circuit meeting would plan to use the sermon from the previous week or test out on the brothers the sermon that would preached on the upcoming Sunday. I knew that last week’s sermon seemed odd to use and I still did not have a bead on the upcoming sermon. Before I left the house, I looked one more time at the upcoming gospel lesson from Luke 15:1-10. Jesus shared with his followers the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. I did not think I could preach about the celebration after the sheep is found or the coin is discovered. I didn’t see anything in the text besides the celebration. I looked one more time and then I prayed for the Holy Spirit to bring wisdom to my heart and words to my lips. I left the house for the meeting at Grace.

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When the circuit meeting worship service began the words of the liturgy carried us into God’s promises. We confessed our sins, and we received the promise that we are forgiven children of God through the mercy of our savior Jesus. I spoke the the words of Ezekiel 34:11 and following, “For thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.”

I shared the words of St. Paul to Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinner, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 15).

It was time for the gospel reading from Luke. I spoke the words of the shepherd searching for the lost sheep, and the woman that searching for the coin. I knew we were not yet in a moment of celebration because the rescuers were still frantically searching the rubble where the planes brought destruction. I knew that there were people around the world feeling lost and disconnected from any narrative of hope. This disconnection did not just come from 9/11. Too many people are living disconnected from hope and are just ghost walking to the next day. How can we bring people back towards seeing tomorrow and the next day as moments kept safe by God?

It was in the words of God I found my story that day, and it remains my story whenever I am feeling disconnected. God is looking for you. I know that this sounds simple. Knowing that God desires to be with me takes away so much anxiousness. We are not alone. The first responders that walked into danger on 9/11 were not alone. The people descending staircases to nowhere where not alone. The people on the plane flying over Pennsylvania were not alone when it was time to act bravely to save lives on the ground. Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, taken upon himself the very loneliness of our suffering, so that we never have to stand alone against Satan and his evil minions.

God is searching. Now you may imagine your story is too small compared to the big stories that others are living. Even if you imagine your story too insignificant, remember the woman searching for the coin. I wonder what her friends thought when she called them all together to have a party after she found the one missing coin. To those friends the coin may have sounded silly. To that woman searching for the coin, the lost coin was worthy of a party. God wants to find you, and you are not insignificant to him. No one has a story too small to be include in the story of God. God is searching for you, and he want to hold a party for you.

Truth Telling in Community

Telling the truth in a community involves a vulnerability that not everyone is comfortable exposing. I enjoy telling the truth when I have good news to share. When I have bad news, I am fearful of how the bad news will be received. I believe we will be a stronger community when we can share the wholeness of our lives. When I can trust you with both the good news and the bad news of my life, I know that we have a bond that will not be easily broken. Communities of people who love the truth, live faithfully, and respond gratefully are wonderfully safe places to grow and unfortunately remarkably rare. The church is called to be exactly such a community.

David wrote in Psalm 86, “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. I give thanks to you, O LORD my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love towards me.”

David prayed these words with gratitude to walk in God’s truth. In these words from the psalms, we are also invited to walk in God’s truth and revere His name with an undivided heart. You do not need to hide a part of your life from God. Trust God with your whole life and discover how He cares for all of you. God is not only interested in your piety and wholesome works. God is interested in your sins, struggles, shames, and sorrows.

PrintBecause we want to be good, or at least appear to be good enough, we will compare ourselves to others. When we compare ourselves to others, we will sometimes come up short. In those moments when we do not measure up, we are prone towards hypocrisy and deception so that we do not fall too far behind. In the close connections of a community it can be difficult to keep up appearances and cover our failures. If we struggle with truthfulness, we will then either deceive in order to look better or we will find ourselves feeling more and more like an outcast. If everyone else around us is living life easily, is there room for us and our failures? Truth stumbles and honesty caves in when we feel like we need to pretend to have everything sorted out. I think that the bundles of lies, secrets, and silences that are necessary to appear okay can be very exhausting.

I believe that if our community was dependent on our own righteousness and holiness we would become a bunch of liars and deceivers so that we could still justify belonging to the community. Jeremiah wrote that the human heart is “deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our world is filled with deceit and lies in order to prop up our vanity. But our redeemed community of believers is called to be different. We can put away the lies and hypocrisy and speak the truth. Followers of Jesus are called to a
common life of grace and truth built on the promise that we are loved by God according to His grace and His truth.

Truth-filled communities are connected to Jesus because Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). When we trust Jesus to be the framework for our life and relationships, we are in a better position to address our sins and failures. We can confidently face our need to repent because we truthfully respect the gap between our goodness and God’s righteousness. Paul told the Colossians, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9-10). We do not need to lie to hide the threadbareness of our own deeds. We can confidently tell the truth that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God because we trust that we are clothed in the love of Jesus Christ.

When we confess our sins, we are being honest with God that we have sinned. We can be clear with God, because in Jesus, we have received the clear promise of God’s love. Not only can you be clear with God, you should be clear with one another in our community. Our community should be held together with something more substantial than a facade of goodness. Our community should be held together by truth and love.

This is article is a part of a series of articles written with inspiration from the book Living into Community, by Christine D. Pohl.

Promise Making and Keeping are the Stud Walls of Community

This month we continue our look at practices that cultivate and sustain community. Last month I wrote about the importance of enacting the practice of gratitude. This month I encourage us to live into our community with the practice of making and keeping promises.

I know I have become more cynical in my expectations for fidelity. My own parents divorced when I was seven years old. As a child I did not understand all the adult things that they were working out. All I knew was that my parents were no longer together. For a while I thought it normal that promises made would become promises that would become broken. As I grew up, I found that they both worked hard to make and keep promises to my brothers and myself. My parents divorced from each other. They did not divorce themselves from their responsibility to be parents. I am thankful for their fidelity to parenthood.

God is faithful even when we are unfaithful. Promise-making and promise-keeping are central to how God relates to us and how we relate to Him. Promises are the internal framework for the relationship we have with God. When we hit rough patches, we turn to God. We turn to God because the commitments He has made to us have been tested and proven. I trust in God. I trust I can put myself fully into His hands and He will do what He has said He will do.

handshakeI understand that we make promises in different ways. Some promises are formally made. When I was a kid, I would spit in my hand and shake my friend’s hand to secure our bond. When our oaths involve rituals, we raise our expectations for faithfulness. Now not all promises are formal, we also bind ourselves to one another in unspoken ways. Expectations can be set up by what we have previously said or done. The unspoken expectations in a community can be confusing because they are not shared on both sides. What unspoken expectations do you have of the people at this congregation? What unspoken expectations do you have of me as the pastor of this congregation? If I break the bonds we have together, please let me know. I understand how important faithfulness is to our relationship together.

We are not always faithful. When we break promises, we betray our relationships and weaken our community. When we are down in the pits of betrayal, the love of Jesus is the scaffolding upon which we will climb up to fresh air. The love of Jesus in the face of our betrayal and desertion is a part of our redemption. In this congregation we make and keep promises. In this congregation we will also experience betrayal and desertion.

9780802849854Christine Pohl, in her book Living into Community, wrote about how a troubled congregation that was trying to rely on its own strength found rebirth when they relied on the promise keeping of God. The pastor at this congregation was experiencing the meltdown of the church after the misconduct of a previous pastor. The congregation was suffering greatly from diminished prayer, attendance, gifts, and service. The mission of the church was largely abandoned. The remaining members felt burdened and hurt. They were wounded by those who left the congregation during the times of difficulty. In order to move forward, the congregation needed a way to forgive friends who left. They found redemption as a congregation from their time of crisis when they sought to rebuild their congregation on the strength of the forgiveness of Jesus.

We will be a stronger congregation when we practice making and keeping promises. Though it seems ordinary, consistency in showing up for worship and supporting the Gospel proclaiming ministry at this congregation is a part of the internal framework that supports us. During times of crisis and confusion, it can be helpful to be faithful to the tasks we know that need to be done. When the storms subside and the crisis is over, you will find that the damage is limited by your consistency in daily tasks. Keep centered on Jesus, and the swirling confusion around you will not appear as dangerous.

Grateful Hearts

Christine Pohl, in her book Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, identified four practices that should be noticed and celebrated by congregations as they seek to live around the love of Jesus. I think it will be good for our community to get in the habit of noticing and celebrating the practices of gratitude, making and keeping promises, living truthfully, and hospitality. This month I am going to focus on the practice of gratitude. In future articles I will discuss the other three practices.

Remembering to say “please” and “thank you” is an important lesson of childhood but it is also an important practice for community life. Gratitude is vital to a community because this practice demonstrates that the grace of God is foundational to our community’s life. Our lives are redeemed from the debts of our sin by the grace of God. When our Christian lives are lived in gratitude, we recognize the starting point for our lives is the undeserved love from God. I am grateful for every dawn I see because I know that everyday is a gift from the Lord. I love the idea that our gratitude follows God’s grace like thunder follows lightning. Paul told the Ephesians to have gratitude at the center of their life together, “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).

Gratitude and ingratitude are connected to what we notice. When we focus on the flaws in our community we will develop contagious ingratitude. Beneath our critique and complaint about people in the congregation will be doubts about God’s faithfulness. General grumbling and dissatisfaction exhausts a community. We will have more strength to move forward in our mission as a congregation when we acknowledge that God is faithful to His promises.

Gratitude can be undone when we covet. The ninth and tenth commandments talk about the danger of coveting. Coveting is the unhealthy desire for what God has provided to someone else. I know that it is unhealthy to always want more possessions or money. I am also discovering that it is dangerous to always want more success in ministry, greater spiritual growth in myself, greater spiritual growth in others, or some dramatic experience. Success in ministry and spiritual growth are good things. It is dangerous when my desire for success and growth makes me blind to the small blessings.

Christine Pohl comments in her chapter on gratitude, “When our lives are shaped by gratitude, we’re more likely to notice the goodness and beauty in everyday things. We are content; we feel blessed and are eager to confer blessing.” I believe that our congregation community can find participation in the divine graces of God when we reach to one another from a place of gratitude. I celebrate what God is doing daily to develop us into a community gathered by grace.

As we marvel at God’s love and faithfulness to His promises, we can pump oxygen into our community by noticing and celebrating the good. Communities and families flourish in environments of positive affirmation. We are strengthened when we express appreciation to one another on a regular basis. We will face difficult moments. We will find ourselves discouraged when people we serve are unresponsive or ungrateful. Communities that make it through difficult moments continue to embody gratitude and celebration.

Our Lord God rested on the seventh day of creation. He took time to notice what is good. This moment of resting and celebrating the good is baked into our creation. We may see celebrations and moments of thankfulness as extras to life in community. Yet we are called in the very orders of creation to pause and give thanks for all that has been made. This month take a pause and celebrate the extraordinary and the ordinary good that God has done in our community. We are blessed and redeemed by our Lord God Jesus Christ. We are living in the days the Lord has made for us.

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Photo: Woodley Wonder Works

Living Into Community

Families are not perfect. Poor decisions can be made and other people respond poorly to the poor decisions. Without ever intending it, families can become broken. I also know that no congregation is perfect. A cycle of decisions can lead to wounds that just don’t seem to heal. A congregation can become like a broken family with shattered relationships, stalled projects, and a divided future. Families and congregations are not perfect, but do they have to become broken?

We are all broken in our sin, but in the full grace and truth of Jesus we find healing and restoration. I trust that God has made us to live together in community. We find community in our homes. We should also be able to find community in this congregation. At my congregation we are renovating our space this fall to help people not familiar with churches feel expected and welcomed. The inviting design and experience of feeling invited will be a part of our renovations. Living into community will be cultivated by more than just the design of our facility.

In our congregation I want us to be purposeful about certain practices that will help us live together. Christine Pohl wrote in her book Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, “Good communities and life-giving congregations emerge at the intersection of divine grace and steady human effort.” At this intersection of grace and truth we can be purposeful about living into community.

There is no room for complacency or despair in this congregation. God is at work in this congregation. The promise of the good news of Jesus draws us into the kingdom of God. The presence of Jesus has been forming communities for two thousand years. We are building and maintaining a healthy congregation upon the promises of Jesus. In every community there are practices that hold it together. In our community we will continue to build and maintain the practices of hospitality, making and keeping promises, truthfulness, and gratitude.

The response of our community to the gospel of Jesus Christ will be embodied as we live purposefully these four practices. These four practices are written about in more detail by Chrstine Pohl in her book. Over the next four months this space will include some of the contemporary challenges related to responding to strangers or dealing with our own messy lives as we approach shaping our community joined together by a shared response to the gospel of Jesus.

I want us to get in the habit of noticing and celebrating these practices of hospitality, making and keeping promises, truthfulness, and gratitude. We are not going eliminate complacency and despair by wishing for them go away. Our congregation community should be a living testimony of the life-giving power of Jesus.

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Suffering for Community

Mark 9:38-50
Proper 21

How much do we value community?

I find in Mark 9 that Jesus struggles with his disciples understanding of community. He talks about the fracturing of community that is going on in the world when describes how the son of man will be handed over to men and killed. He then found them arguing on the way about which of them was the greatest. Jesus places a little child in their midst and tells them that whoever receives such a child, receives him, and not him but the one who sent him.

Then the disciples get frustrated that someone, besides them, is driving out demons in the name of Jesus. Jesus reminds the disciples that someone working in the name of Jesus is not outside their community.

Jesus talks again about the little child that he had earlier placed in their midsts. This child is a reminder of the powerless or the weak in faith. He warns the disciples that if anyone entices such a child to sin, it would be better him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea.

Jesus then asks the disciples to consider the cost of community.

Jesus talks about a hand that causes you to sin, a foot that causes you to sin, and the eye that causes you to sin. With all these very important parts of the body, Jesus says with a quick imperative, “Cut it off!”

It is better to enter life, the kingdom of God, lame, crippled and with only one eye then it is to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

We must stop vying for power and privilege for ourselves. Freedom is ahead for us in the life of Christ and we get so pre-occupied about our own positions that we forget the community that Jesus is building for us. I would rather be crippled, lame, and blind in the kingdom of God then I would to be whole and thrown into the unquenchable fire of hell.

Jesus moves from the gruesome image of cutting of hands and feet and plucking out eyeballs but he does not move away from the uncompromising importance of living in community that is not compromised by sin.

Jesus also uses the image of salt. Salt works as a preserving agent. But when salt has lost its saltiness there is no way to season with it. Salt loses its saltiness when it gets so mixed with foreign substances that in the resulting mix there is too little salt for the seasoning work to occur.

Our saltiness, our preservation as a community, can become ruined when we allow our own desires for greatness to get in the way of having peace with one another. The imperative is to be salt, to keep peace.

What are the stumbling blocks to living in community with one another? It is not the powerless, weak in faith, lame, crippled, or blind.

Preaching as the Proclaimed Word–Day 5

Today the class session was only in the morning and yet was still intensive.

We talked about the way that oral, literary, and electronic cultures shape the way the Word of God is shared. We used Walter Ong to frame the conversation.

Oral Culture

We utilize sound more than any other sense.

From voice to the ear.
Time and space bound
Community and tribe building
Learning becomes a shared event

Knowledge is connected to the experience of the body and person. Memory becomes a marker of wisdom. Communication happens in memorable forms of narrative and image.

Limits in oral cultures exist in the demand of time and experience. It takes time to listen to someone and hear them share the information in a memorable format. Sound and space is local and so learning exists in a local context and can struggle to move beyond that local context.

Literary Culture

Two eras 1) Papyrus (handwritten) and 2) Moveable Type (quickly formatted writing)

Literary culture especially uses the the eye. Eyes to the page.

Time boundaries are variable. You can go back over the same page.

Learning is individual/solitary.

Community that is built in the literary culture builds through who shares the book, not through who shares the space. You can build a communal connection to people across time periods by sharing their book

The alphabet captures the sound and the idea. Narrative takes place in time and reading occurs across time. The page breaks the constraints and allows ideas/constructs/logic to be put down apart from the narrative.

Knowledge is not found in memory but accrual of information.

Individuals learn in silence, thought goes silent. Information exists beyond a person’s death.

The book is given reverence. Who is the writer writing to? The audience is diffuse in space and time. The presence of information exists beyond time/space.

Electronic Culture

In this culture we are hearing and seeing. Time constraints are back but not space constraints. Information exists strongly in a particular time context, although information does not disappear in the same way it did in an oral culture. A picture/video online has sticks around. We can be present anywhere in the world through electronic media but can’t affect what we see. Multi-tasking, fast changing technology. The information on paper had a weight to it because it was on paper. Electronic Culture information carries no importance because of what it is written on, but because it is shared. Is a tweet a tweet if it is never sent?

Knowledge does not require memorization. How important is it to memorize the capital of the states in America? You can just look the answer up on your smartphone. Knowledge is searchable and can be from around the world and from anyone. The weight of information becomes equal without preference for who uploaded the information.

Communication is in images with and without sound. Videos allow a person to be present in the story of another person.

Information and knowledge are divided. Wisdom is measured in the ability to bring together information from multiple stories and shape the information into a narrative.

Electronic culture is limited by the absence of a physical neighbor. Can we be human without memory and touch with another?

What are the implications for the church? We live in all three cultures in the church. Oral, literary and electronic cultures affect life in the church unlike they do in any other community. We speak/sing the liturgy and it is a shared sound (unless the liturgy is frequently changed ((which is a result of a fear of the oral cultural memorable forms))). The Scripture readings are read aloud but are also recorded on paper for people to follow along. Media includes art, screens, and video clips.

We can be in touch with people but not necessarily in community. A church though has the power to bring the being of the body of Christ into each cultural framework.

Indeed we live in a time when the forms for public discourse are diverse.