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My mother loved Mother Teresa and that made a big impression on me as a kid. The poor mattered a great deal. There are amazingly good people on earth. A nun I worked with for years at Children's Hospital in Boston hated Mother Teresa. I didn't think that was possible but she said when she worked with the Missionaries of Charity in South America, she found the recently canonized saint to be dictatorial, cold and even mean to the sisters of her order. Indeed we are saints and sinners at the same time which applies even to Mother Teresa, and here was a nun telling me so.
I was pleased that the new saint's well known doubts did not disqualify her. We learned of the darkness she struggled with in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. The woman who was hailed as a “living saint” during her lifetime also was tormented by doubt. It seems that for years on end she doubted the existence of God.
Many of those who have greatly admired Mother Teresa as a shining example of faith in action found these revelations unsettling, but not me. Many of the towering examples of believers within the Christian tradition were not people who were free from doubt. Belief and doubt are not found in isolation within human lives, even in the lives of the saints.
As a preacher I am called to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has drawn near (this was Jesus' basic sermon) and that God is with us. It's just as important for me to acknowledge the absence of God. Sometimes we think that if we work hard at our spiritual practices we are bound to experience God, to feel God within us. But not everyone feels God, no matter how hard they try or how much they want to. Many know the ache of absence. The truth is that God is hidden, often silent, dark, and distant—so much so that it can be annoying to be around people for whom God is cheerful, close, and chatty.
Jesus knew the 23rd Psalm "Surely goodness and kindness will follow me all the days of my life" as much as he knew Psalm 22: "I cry to you, but you do not answer."
James Martin, a Jesuit priest, reported in The New York Times that Mother Teresa eventually concluded that her doubts actually aided her ministry. They helped her identify with the abandonment of Jesus on the cross and the abandonment that the poor face every day. He also made the point that Mother Teresa’s doubt helps us identify with her. Her self-sacrificial ministry can seem so distant from our daily life, yet she harbored some of the same doubts that may touch our lives. Martin was also quoted in Time as saying, “Everything she’s experiencing is what average believers experience in their lives writ large.”
The Christian life isn't about feeling feelings or acquiring spiritual experiences. Baptism ushers us into a life of greater depth than that—a life of faith. And faith is almost always a journey through the desert and the dark. Knowing the absence of God doesn't make you a second-class Christian. It can be a gift. A hard one, but a gift all the same. Your heartache—faith's heartache—can lead you straight to the heartache of others, to neighbors whose abandonment is human, not divine.
Mother Teresa not only kept company with the dying but also the doubting.
Hidden One, they say you are still speaking, and even if it isn't to me right now, give me faith to trust that you are as real as the poor, as close as the suffering, as audible as the cry of the abandoned; and let me find you there.
Your Work as Your Ministry; Remembering Karen Fischer
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Your Work as Your Ministry Remembering Karen Fischer
"Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamation of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart." Philippians 1:3-4
I've never met a dental hygienist I didn't like. The odd thing about being in the chair with someone inside your mouth is it's hard to talk. I can get a garbled word or two out every now and then and a full sentence after rinsing. Years ago there was one who began a non-stop monologue that lasted for the entire cleaning. I appreciated how all her interesting stories took my mind off of the strange sounds and sensations inside my mouth. The one I have now is precise and highly competent.
But there is one dental hygienist I always wanted but was too afraid to ask, because I didn't want a member of my congregation putting her fingers in my mouth. Karen Fischer, a member of Saint Paul who died recently worked for almost 50 years in the same Lexington practice. She was famous for her gentleness. The teenager in braces on her first day of work would be retired by her last day. The work itself came pretty easy for her and I'm sure it got boring at times. What she loved the most were the people she cared for and the parade of co-workers over all the years. She became the one constant person in that practice and brought stability and dependability. Karen was also a terrific mother, raising three children, demonstrating great sensitivity to each of them at all their various stages of development. She stopped work at 76 to care for her dying husband whom she adored. She had a sense of calling in all her various jobs and found joy in all of them. Her manner and attitude made a difference in the lives of all those she touched.
Karen's life offers a beautiful reminder that every type of work can be a ministry. Anyone who deals with people can be a loving pastoral presence, even someone wearing a mask and sticking sharp things in your mouth. Think of all the people you encounter on a given day and the work they do to make your life good.
Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of summer. Labor Day is a holiday from work that is meant to celebrate work, honoring contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our communities and country. Work can be good for the soul and I hope you see the work you do (paid and unpaid) as a form of ministry. May the work each of us do bless the lives of others.
Congregational news for the middle of August
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It could be the slowest time of the year here in the middle of August but many newsworthy stories have been ripening all spring and summer. I am delighted to share the good news that Alissa Oelson was elected last Sunday to serve as pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in North Quincy. The congregation will be greatly blessed to have her and it is especially poignant for me as I was the pastor there for ten years before coming here. Alissa is the first intern I've had to get a call before she completed her year here. We will continue to cheer her on.
She will be ordained with two new pastors on Saturday, September 17 at Concordia Lutheran Church in Manchester, CT, about an hour and a half away, just east of Hartford. It's a beautiful church setting and just happens to be the congregation where former vicar Douglas Barklay has been serving this past year. I hope many from Saint Paul will be able to be a part of this moment in Alissa's life, almost eight years in the making, or as she would say, "since my baptism!" She is a firm believer in the priesthood of all believers.
In other news, the search for a new director of children, family and youth ministry has gone slowly with no good candidates identified. We are fortunate that new member Crystal Rowe came to St. Paul having been in full time ministry at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Marietta, Georgia before moving here with her family last December. We have called upon Crystal to provide direction and leadership to this important ministry, especially as the new program year begins soon. She has already begun and is being supported by a newly formed Christian education team. Please welcome her into this interim position and support her work as we have been blessed by a record number of children and youth at St. Paul. Rally Day is on September 11 when we move to the fall schedule of two worship services at 8:30 and 10:30 with the learning hour at 9:30.
We also welcome to the staff Cher Koor, our new parish administrator. Cher worked in a similar role at the Friends Meeting at Cambridge, the Quaker congregation in Harvard Square. She not only brings her organizational skills, but also a knack for writing and an entrepreneurial spirit as she began an aromatherapy education company in 2002. She will prepare the bulletins and e-news each week as well as maintain our website, facilitating many important forms of communication. We are grateful to Helen Schmidt, life-long member of St. Paul, for serving in the role since June. She returns to college in Texas soon.
August 21 will be Vicar Alissa's last Sunday with us. I know how grateful she is for this year with a congregation that has had an almost famous ministry nurturing and forming new leaders for the church. Please come to bid her farewell and Godspeed, knowing that our good work together for the sake of the gospel will continue to grow and multiply.
The Church for the World--Taking Responsibility
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July 14th, 2016
In her book The Church for the World, Bonheoffer scholar Jennifer McBride reminds the church that it does its "redemptive work and becomes a vehicle of concrete redemption when its mode of being in the world is confession unto repentance." What does that mean? The church's task of confession is not to feel bad about itself, but to play an important role in our society toward the redemption that has seemed especially important as violence and racism rage. As a matter of faith, McBride notes that Christians who benefit from various degrees of social, economic, and political power should hold themselves accountable for the injustices that plague our society.
What did Jesus do in the end? We forget that the cross was his way of accepting guilt and taking responsibility for sin and evil. That's right, he chose to take the blame for everything that was wrong with the world, even as he spent his life preaching, teaching and healing. The church as the body of Christ in the world today still has the task of accepting guilt and taking responsibility for social sin. We often think of guilt in a narrow, individualistic way, but part of Dietrich Bonheoffer's legacy was to think of guilt in the broader sense of responsibility, along the lines of Abraham Joshua Heschel's idea that "few are guilty, but all are responsible." We live in a society of scapegoats. With so much blaming going around, always aimed at the other person, group, race, party, etc. What a moment for the church to stand up and say, "Blame me! Let us try to take some responsibility."
A focus on confession and repentance in the middle of summer? For the church, they are always in season. It is an ongoing defining element of the church's character and mission. In courage and hope we know that repentance is really the path to human wholeness and faithfulness to God.
Late last week I received a letter from the president of our seminary in Chicago, John Neiman, that is worth a wider reading. I admire his attempt to accept guilt and take responsibility. It is one example of some deeper truth-telling that I see happening after the events of last week. I find myself thinking and reading and reflecting on truths that have been out there, but my own comfort with the status quo or lack of interest kept me from them. Repentance comes in the form of some soul-searching, reading, finding a new openness to the experience of others, growing in deeper self-awareness and praying for lasting change in ourselves and the world. I commend this letter and his three suggested readings to you.
To the Lutheran Seminary community in Chicago,
The events of the past week in this country have culminated an escalating, sickening cycle of violence. This cycle has been inflicted predominantly upon African Americans and became more visible and acute since Ferguson, but in fact stretches back for decades, let alone centuries. Recently, others have been subjected to hate crimes (at Pulse in Orlando) or targeted for killing (the police in Dallas), and these atrocities also deserve our sober reflection and mourning. Consistent about a topic I have raised many times before, though, my focus in this letter is specifically about the role of white privilege and racism in creating the heinous harm consuming us these days, and how our school can play a part in dismantling it.
In particular, I am writing this mainly to white people like me at our seminary. I am convinced that we are in denial about the racism that saturates our society and from which we directly benefit. That denial produces predictable twin reactions from white people: either silence about the racism that plainly reinforces our way of living or surprise at the frustration and outrage African Americans and others express at how they are treated. I believe this denial, with its attendant silence and surprise, is nothing other than a refusal to acknowledge the privilege we hold and the degradation it inflicts on others. If we as white people have any conscience left, if we at this moment feel any distress at all with recent events, then we should at least have the moral courage in a seminary to admit that how we live is destructive for other people and ultimately unsustainable for ourselves. As white people, we must acknowledge our racism.
From various quarters there are calls for religious communities to pray or speak or march, and of course there is a place for all these actions. I am proposing, though, that white people like me must first engage the more basic, disturbing work of thinking and confessing. These practices are not at all neat and tidy, for taken seriously they are actually agonizing. But without first thinking about who we are and then confessing how we have benefitted, all of our praying and speaking and even marching become an insubstantial, self-serving charade. My point, then, is to share with white people at our seminary three resources toward a more disciplined kind of thinking and confessing. I assure you than none of these readings is easy to absorb.
First, I urge you to read “Death in Black and White,” an opinion column by Michael Eric Dyson appearing in The New York Times (click here). Second, I urge you to review recent postings on the seminary’s “We Talk. We Listen.” diversity blog hosted by Linda Thomas, including Dr. Thomas’s own excellent, poignant essay from this morning (click here). Third, I urge you to consider “White Fragility,” a scholarly article by Robin DiAngelo published in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy (PDF attached). All three readings are like a relentless mirror reflecting back to us the white privilege and racism in which we are embedded. May these be aids to your thinking and confessing about racism.
I realize some readers may find this letter harsh and uncomfortable, while others may think it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Isn’t reading articles just another kind of intellectual escapism? Can thinking and confessing ever be potent practices that make a difference? My aim, though, is theological – and theology in the name of the Crucified begins with telling the truth, both about ourselves and the evil that envelops us. As white people within the LSTC community, let us (as Luther put it in 1518) “call the thing what it is,” honestly name our complicity in racism, and commit to meaningful repentance. Only then will all our other words and deeds – and yes, even prayers – hold any promise for those whom our white privilege has persistently destroyed.
Signed, James Nieman, President
I pray for us to be the church in the world. May our confession lead to repentance, may some serious soul-searching lead to lasting change.
It Takes a Church
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June 9, 2016
"Think of the church. What's remarkable is that there is one. I just find that remarkable. That's the Holy Spirit for sure."
Stanley Hauerwas, one of the great theologians of our times, said that in an interview about leadership in the church that I found recently on YouTube. He was echoing Martin Luther who in his explanation of the third article of the Apostle's Creed said that it is the Holy Spirit who "calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith." The church is an ongoing activity of God. In many forms.
Churches are buildings. Churches are people. Those of us who belong to one probably focus most of our time and attention at the local level where we live and worship and gather. Vicar Alissa and I, along with Paul Corneilson and Beth Frasso, are heading out to Springfield tomorrow morning for the New England synod assembly which gathers in early June each year. It is a larger expression of the church somewhere between the local congregation and the national denomination. The simple definition of synod is a group of church leaders who are in charge of making decisions and laws related to the church. We live out that definition for the next three days.
I am grateful for our synod because it is able to do important things that are beyond the resources and abilities of a local congregation. The synod is embodied in our bishop Jim Hazelwood and a staff of some nine wonderful and faithful clergy and laypeople. The synod is a matchmaker for pastors and congregations. It is a voice that speaks to the world and to other parts of the church. For example our synod led the way to the larger church's decision in 2009 to develop a process in which congregations that chose to do so could call pastors and other officially recognized church leaders who were in publicly accountable same-gender lifelong monogamous relationships. The synod is also a creator of new congregations and supporter of congregations facing challenges. It is also a place, if you will, where we struggle to discover where the church is going and what it will become in these changing times. Our congregation is one of the synod's most generous supporters. Thank God for our synod. (This Sunday at the forum, I look forward to sharing news of the assembly at 9:30)
And now back to the local level.
This Sunday June 12 is Commitment Sunday for our capital campaign: Our Journey Continues. I am so grateful for all the efforts of the steering committee and work groups that have brought us to this moment of decision, fulfillment and rejoicing. Please bring your commitment form this Sunday. You can find it here and we will have extras available. After a special prayer at the end of sharing the peace, simply fold your form in half and place it in the offering plate during worship. I hope all of you are ready to respond generously this Sunday.
Finally, local churches like ours are the foundation stones for the whole Christian church. There would be no church at all if the Spirit did not call, gather and enlighten relatively small groups of people who gather around the Word and Sacraments in worship. Thanks be to God for Saint Paul Lutheran Church.