A Deserted Place

Now when Jesus heard [that John the Baptist had been executed], he went away in a boat to a deserted place by himself…

-Matthew 14:13

Earlier this week, I took my kids to the playground for the first time in months. I made sure to pick a time when the playground would be deserted, so we wouldn’t need to worry about wearing masks. They ran and yelled and climbed and jumped and laughed and slid. After a while running around with them, I sat down on a swing and began to swoop gently back and forth.

I have always loved swings. When I was a kid, I’d stand in line at recess for my turn on the four swings available to forty kids. When I was a teenager, there was a church with a playground at the end of my block. I’d walk over any time I needed to clear my mind and swing as hard and high as I could. Flying back and forth through the air gave me a sense of peace and simple joy. Even as an adult, there is something about swinging that makes my worries and problems seem smaller. Up in the air, I am focused on the joy and the fun. Even when my feet touch the ground, the sense of peace remains.

Jesus was no stranger to taking a few steps away from everything when he needed to find peace. When he heard that his cousin John had been murdered by King Herod, Jesus needed a moment to himself. He hopped on a boat and sailed off somewhere quiet to collect himself. Of course it never lasted long. People needed him. Still, Jesus knew the power of taking some moments to rest and reset, doing something he loved. He knew that even a few moments of peace would give him endurance for the next journey.

One of the places I find that peace is on a swing set, as childlike as it might sound. I’ve heard people describe the same sort of peace and renewal from going fishing. I’ve heard people say that they find that peace while they get a pedicure. Others get that peace from jogging, from singing, from yoga, from gardening. In another part of the gospels, Jesus finds peace by taking a nap, which is a model many of us could stand to try.

Taking time to seek peace is even more important when it feels like there’s no time. I guarantee that nothing you are doing is more important than the ministry of Jesus. If he took breaks, so may you. The pandemic will not be ending tomorrow, or the next day, or the next month. Neither will social and political division. Neither will your work. Neither will your emails. Neither will the housework. Working harder without any breaks will not make your problems be resolved faster. All it will do is deplete your sense of peace.

So consider these words the sign you were waiting for, telling you to pause. Take the time and do the thing that brings you the peace that passes understanding and the joy of the Lord. Let that peace be a gift to you from our Lord Jesus Christ, who showed us we can take a break.

God, too often I feel like I can’t rest. I have so many worries, responsibilities, and commitments. Help me to heed your example and take a break. Give me the peace and joy that only you can give. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Determined

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” – Luke 18:1-8

The most determined people I know are three-year-olds. When they want something, they do not give up. They’re unburdened by such considerations as prudence, politeness, or perspective. Persistence and determination propel them to get what they want or throw an ear-shattering tantrum in the middle of Target trying.

The persistent widow in Luke 18 knew a thing or two about determination, even imprudent and reckless determination. Faced with a judge who admitted to himself that he cared nothing for God or humans, she was determined. She would not desist until she received her justice.

Some days, when I consider the immensity of injustice in the world, I don’t feel determined; I feel overwhelmed. I look at all the problems, all the unjust leaders, all the systems of oppression, and I doubt that I can do anything to move toward justice. Even if I narrow the focus to one area of problems— whether it’s racism, human trafficking, accessible healthcare, hunger, abusive relationships, climate change, drug addiction, or something else— well, those are all pretty big problems all by themselves. Is being determined really going to make a difference?

When I think of the persistent widows and toddlers, though, I realize that determined people accomplish more than I usually give them credit for. It takes determination to get the job done, whether the job is organizing a canned food drive or passing anti-trafficking laws. What if we called on each other to be determined to be antiracist, whether or not it’s polite and prudent? What if we were determined to make sure every person has a safe place to sleep at night? A determined person— or better yet, group of people— can make a difference.

Being determined isn’t comfortable or easy, though. Think of that widow in Jesus’ story. What must it have felt like the third time she went to the judge for justice and was turned away? The tenth time? The twentieth? How many appeals did it take? Did she perhaps begin to experience what Martin Luther King, Jr. so clearly expressed: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied”? Did it take weeks or months or even years to wear down the unjust judge? Determination is in it for the long haul.

Do you and I act like we believe this? Do we persist when it’s inconvenient? Are we recklessly determined to resist evil and work for justice? When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? Or will we simply have given up on “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” to bide our time until someone else fixes things? Worse yet, will we trade in our determination for complacence?

When God’s people are determined, following God as we’ve been called, justice happens. When we persist, like three-year-olds or like the widow in Jesus’ story, justice happens.

God, give us holy determination, that we might persist toward justice. When we falter, forgive us. Encourage us to be determined in following you until justice is real for all people. Amen.

What is the church?

What is the church? Perhaps you think of the old rhyme:

Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people!

If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that the church isn’t the steeple, doors, or building– the church is the people, called by the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ. And yet, it’s so easy to wonder: are we really being church right now? Is it enough? Without the regular ways of worshiping, learning, and serving, does it count? Are we still church? Doubt creeps in.

Nearly 500 years ago, the church was arguing about how to define “church,” though for different reasons, as Martin Luther and other reformers distanced themselves from the Pope and his supporters.

In the Augsburg Confession, one of the foundational statements of the reforming church, they declared, “The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly… It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere.” (Article VII, Latin text)

Did you catch that? The church is the assembly (community) of saints (forgiven sinners) among whom the gospel (good news about Jesus Christ) is proclaimed and the sacraments (baptism and communion) are given. When those characteristics are present, so is the church– with or without particular liturgies, worship styles, music, or prayers.

The reformers felt so strongly that human traditions couldn’t be required for the church that they went on to defend their statement: “Human traditions, whether universal or particular, contribute nothing to this giving of life. Nor are they caused by the Holy Spirit, as are chastity, patience, the fear of God, love of one’s neighbor, and works of love.” (Apology to Augsburg Confession, Articles VII & VIII, 31) The Holy Spirit causes love, patience, and other good things among the church (remember, that’s still the people, not the building), no matter how worship happens. The church is still the church, even when it looks different: “But just as the different lengths of day and night do not undermine the unity of the church, so we maintain that different rites instituted by human beings do not undermine the true unity of the church…”’ (Apology to Augsburg Confession, Art. VII & VIII, 33)

Many congregations have worshiped exclusively or primarily online for the past four months. Others have gathered in parking lots or spread out in lawn chairs. Were they still connected? Was the gospel proclaimed? Was the faith that brings forgiveness active? Were baptism and the Lord’s Supper being made available to people who need them? Yes? Then the church was church-ing!

Several years later, Martin Luther felt it was necessary to expand the definition of the church slightly. In an essay called On the Councils and the Church, he identified seven marks of the church: 1) the Word of God shared and proclaimed; 2) Holy Baptism given for the forgiveness of sin; 3) Holy Communion given for the faithful in accordance with Christ’s command; 4) the “Keys,” by which he meant that Christians both confess and forgive sin, publicly and privately, 5) that the church raise up and recognize ministers to lead it; 6) prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God, in other words, that worship occur both individually and collectively; and 7) “the holy possession of the sacred cross,” by which he meant that the church would endure suffering for the sake of the gospel.

When I look around at congregations facing up to this pandemic, I see all those marks. Are we finding new, creative, faith-filled ways to share God’s word? Yes! Are we continuing to baptize and commune in safe ways so that grace may abound? Yes! Are we forgiving each other, confessing our sins publicly and privately when we have done wrong? Yes! Are leaders being raised up for the sake of the church? Yes! Are we worshiping, in our living rooms and our lawns and our pick-ups? Yes! Are we suffering and struggling, yet never losing sight of the cross of Jesus Christ? Yes!

Even four months deep into a pandemic, we are figuring out that we have been the church all along,. That didn’t change when we left the building. Building or not, programs or not, you, dear people of God, are the church.

God, we thank you for making us the church in a way that does not depend on where we are or we do, but instead depends on your grace abounding for us. Banish our doubt and give to your whole church the faith we need to face the future with hope and trust. Amen.

Play to Your Strengths

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…

-Romans 12:4-6a

What are you good at? Or, to put it another way, what are you gifted at? Too often, I hear people answer this question in the negative: “Well, I’m not as good at this as so-and-so,” or “I wish I were better at this-and-that.” That’s no way to answer the question. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, insists that we do have a variety of different gifts. So what are your gifts?

This is a question to answer as individuals, and also to answer as congregations. What are our gifts within a particular congregation? What do we have going for us and our ministry?

Too often, I hear small churches bemoan that they don’t have the resources, the programs, the staff available at a big church. I’ve thought it myself on occasion: if only we had more people, or money, or, or…

I’ve realized that this is just the wrong attitude. All of these complaints are versions of one question: “What are we missing?” Instead, we should be asking: “What has God given us?”

Let me tell you what I see. In this pandemic, small churches might not have all the latest and greatest audiovisual equipment to produce professional-quality online worship, but we’ve got determined and creative people who are used to figuring out how to make do with what we have. Right now, we don’t have to figure out how to get hundreds or even thousands of people back to in-person worship; we’re talking about several dozen worshipers. We have a big enough lawn and plenty of street parking to make outdoor worship logistics a breeze. We can get feedback from everyone impacted by decisions in a matter of hours, not days or weeks. We can borrow a portable sound system. We can make a couple dozen spare masks and be sure that’s enough in case anyone forgets. We can borrow an electric keyboard for music. We can still livestream for worshipers who choose to remain at home. We live in a place with weather that we can stand sitting outdoors for 40 minutes on Sunday mornings in July.

These are gifts. These are strengths in a time of change. These are evidence of God’s grace given to us. These are the things we need to focus on in trouble– not what we think we need, but what we already have from God.

When we focus on our strengths, our gifts, we begin to see that those strengths are exactly what we need in adversity. We begin to see how to use our gifts to rise to the challenges ahead of us. We begin to see that we have had what we needed all along because God has provided all along.

Small churches, we’ve got this. God’s got this, and God’s got us, and God’s getting us through. God’s grace is enough to carry us through a pandemic to the life awaiting us on the other side.

God, in my life and in my congregation, help me see the gifts and strengths you give. Let those gifts be used in service you to and to my neighbors for the sake of the gospel. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.

Free from Judgment

[Jesus said,] “But to what will I compare this generation? … For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” -Matthew 11:16, 18-19

If Jesus had lived two thousand years later, he might have said something more like this: “But to what shall I compare these Millennials and Gen Xers? These Baby Boomers and these Zoomers? And these whatever we’re calling kids born after 2015? For when one comes wearing a mask they say, ‘Look, a coward, afraid of a little flu!’ and when one comes without a mask they say, ‘Look, a fool, who doesn’t understand science!’ Or when one comes in defense of a statue they say, ‘He doesn’t know history,’ but when one comes to remove a statue they say, ‘She’s erasing history!’ Yet wisdom is known by the outcome.”

There is something timeless about division and judgment, unfortunately. We are very good at it, us humans. Once we make up our mind about anything, from the trivial to the critical, we settle down, dig in our heels, and plant roots.

Now, there is a time and place for discernment, by which I mean the process of considering one’s positions and asking curious questions, being open to changing our minds. When we discern, we put judgment on hold so we can gain perspective and information. We reflect, coming back to old convictions and reconsidering them. Discernment is necessary. That’s not what this devotion is about.

No, this devotion is about what comes after discernment. Even after thoughtful consideration, we disagree. Perhaps it’s because we had different information to guide our decisions, or because we had different values impacting us, or because we honestly were too worn out to think about another thing. So one says “He’s a demon” and another says “He’s a glutton and a drunkard,” or one says “Snowflakes” and another says “Ok boomer,” and what could have been a conversation swiftly turns to name-calling, anger, and hurt.

Sometimes this is because we jump to judgment without discernment. We use ideas like weapons and hurl our words like stones, never wondering why we’re carrying those stones in the first place. Other times we jump to judgment in self-defense, preferring to attack others rather than consider we might be in the wrong.

The leap to judgment always has one cause at its root: sin. It’s sin that leads us to presume we’ve got it all right. It’s sin that eggs us on when we only look for voices that already agree with us. It’s sin that pulls us away from loving our neighbor. For that matter, it’s sin that narrows our view of who really is our neighbor. It’s sin that heaps us up with the weight of judgment- both our own and that someone else dumped on us. It’s sin that whispers that changing our minds is weak. It’s sin that yells over other perspectives to drown them out. It’s sin that burdens us with all judgment’s weary weight.

Do you know what Jesus had to say about burdens just a few verses later? “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Mt. 11:28) Jesus takes away our burdens, including our judgment.

When he forgives, it’s not a half-hearted, “It’s okay this time but try not to do it again.” When Jesus forgives us, he commits grand theft judgment, taking the stones from our hands and throwing them to the cross. When Jesus forgives us, he takes our treasured sense of being self-righteous and replaces it with God’s righteousness. That’s the only way. Otherwise, we like judgment too much to give it up on our own. We need the Holy Spirit in our lives, prying judgment out of our hearts and words and fingertips. We need to be set free from judgment’s power over us.

The band Jars of Clay put it this way in their song “Eyes Wide Open:”

So God bruise the heels we’ve dug in the ground

That we might move closer to love

Pull out the roots we’ve dug in so deep

Finish what You’ve started

Help us to believe

Keep our eyes wide open

(Love is kind and love is daring everything we need to keep our eyes)

Keep our eyes wide open

(Love is kind and love is daring everything we need to keep our eyes)

We can’t go on, seems this conversation’s done

It’s so hard to win these fights and love you at the same time

So take my hand ’til grace makes a way to bend

‘Til the things I said to ruin only lead to my own end

So God bruise the heels we’ve dug in the ground

That we might move closer to love

Pull out the roots we’ve dug in so deep

Finish what You’ve started

Help us to believe

Let us pray: God, take away our judgment. Take the burden of judging and being judged. Open our eyes to the daring love you give. Amen.

The Wilderness

Surely the Lord your God has blessed you in all your undertakings; he knows your going through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing.

-Deuteronomy 2:7

Well, that’s one way of looking at things! These are the words of Moses, reflecting on God’s promises and provision while the Israelites were in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. After forty years of wandering, it’s quite a statement!

There are, after all, a lot of things to remember going wrong in the wilderness. There wasn’t always enough water to be had—but then God provided water from a rock. The Israelites turned away from God to worship a Golden Calf—but then Moses demolished the idol and the people repented. Their food supplies ran out—but then God provided manna and quail. The Israelites complained that the food was better in Egypt—but Moses reminded them they were slaves in Egypt. The camp was infested by venomous snakes—but God provided healing. The list goes on.

After forty years of trouble, homelessness, and hardship, there’s plenty to complain about. Moses doesn’t, though. He certainly doesn’t forget. The whole ordeal is written about in excruciating detail. The wilderness experience forms the backbone of who the Israelites are as a people.

Somehow, at the end of forty years in the wilderness, Moses looks back and sees that God was present with the Israelites every step of the way. In fairness, God sent a giant pillar of cloud/flame to guide them, so it was probably easier to say that God was present. Even so, Moses could have seen that as mere guidance, not blessing.

I’ve heard quite a few reflections that this pandemic feels a bit like being in the wilderness. We don’t know how long it will last. We long for the way things used to be. We see people who are sick and dying, and we cry out for God to heal them. We know where we want to be but don’t know how or when we’ll get there.

I hope and pray that when we reach the end of the pandemic we’ll be able to see all the ways God was with us. That we’ll be able to say that we lacked nothing, for God provided. That we’ll declare that our God blessed us in all our undertakings.

We’re not there, yet. In the wilderness, well, the complaints were many and the bad days outnumbered the good. It’s okay if it takes us months or even years to reach the point of making a statement like the one Moses offered.

Instead of getting bogged down in the troubles of this pandemic wilderness, we can take the long view. We know that things will not be back to normal this month. They may never return to exactly what they were. We’ll have disappointment and losses, no question. In the moment, we may wonder where God is. The Israelites did.

Our lives are not confined to this moment. When we look back, we can see how God has been faithful to us in the past. Why should we doubt that God is being faithful to us right now? We have received blessings, so why doubt that God’s generosity will continue? Instead, like Moses, we can remind each other that God has been with us every step of the way.

God of past, present, and future, I thank you for being with me wherever I go. In this pandemic wilderness, help me to see how you have blessed me and others. Make me a witness to your presence in the world. Amen.

Serenity and Courage

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Do you know that prayer? It’s often called the “Serenity Prayer.” It was originally written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who first prayed it like this: “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”

The “Serenity Prayer” became widespread through its use by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups, and now it’s so common that I’ve seen it printed on everything from greeting cards to home decor. I had never seen the original before this week, when I went to learn more about the “Serenity Prayer.”

You see, I’ve been having about one new thing go wrong every week for the last three months. Some are small and easy to handle, like the air conditioner leaking in the basement. Some are personal problems that don’t have a quick, easy fix; a covid case identified at Grandma’s nursing home or a family member getting laid off. Some are the shared disappointment of events canceled due to the pandemic. Some are big-picture problems, like the systemic racism uncovered by George Floyd’s murder or learning that more poor people are dying from covid just because they can’t get the medical treatment they need promptly enough to save their lives. Sometimes what goes wrong is that I just can’t figure out why the darn computer isn’t doing what I want it to when it did it just fine last week! (Anybody else?)

I am sure I am not the only one who has had a season like this, where there are new worries or sadnesses arriving like clockwork. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that many of us are experiencing this right now, as there’s enough going wrong in the world around us that even one minor personal problem can feel unbearable.

After a month or two of mounting stress, I realized that most of these weekly problems fell into one of two categories: either I could do something about it, or I couldn’t. So I called a repair shop to look at my air conditioner. I looked up solutions to my computer problems. I watched the news and told God, “You’re going to have to do something about that.” I started thinking of the “Serenity Prayer” and patting myself on the back when I sorted things between “my problem to fix” and “someone else’s problem.”

Just as I got comfortable with my sorting system, I got the idea to look up the “Serenity Prayer” and learn where it came from. As a side note, if you want to stay impressed with yourself as a Christian, never learn things. “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”

First of all, this prayer starts with courage, and not only that, but it is courage to change “what must be altered,” not just courage to change what “can” be changed. I was so quick to distinguish between what I thought I could handle and what I couldn’t that I never stopped to ask what must be changed. I thought of my sorting problems as faith in God to do the work needed, but now I wonder if it was also laziness and complacency toward facing bigger challenges. I wonder if the tumult of the world made me want serenity so much that I skipped right past the courage and wisdom parts of the prayer.

Am I as eager for courage as for serenity? Are you? Are we willing to do the work of applying our wisdom to discern where we should or should not act? That sounds a lot harder than serenity. Besides, what if we get it wrong, and we act courageously when we should have accepted with serenity? Will God get mad at us? Will other people?

When the Israelites entered the Promised Land after escaping slavery in Egypt, God spoke to Joshua: “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9) Now, if you read the rest of Joshua and Judges, you quickly learn that the Israelites did not always choose correctly where to use their courage. Even so, even if they made the wrong choices, God promised to be with them.

Dear people of God, hear this: God’s presence with you does not depend on you discerning wisely between courage and serenity, between acting and accepting. You will, at times, choose wrongly. I know I have. God is with you and me.

God is with us. If that is enough to make us brave, then let that courage empower us to change what must be altered. Even if it is big. Even if it is hard. God is with us.

You see, I also noticed that this prayer isn’t just for one person. “Give us…” he prayed. We must be brave together in the face of what must be changed, serene together in the face of what cannot be changed, and wise together in the discernment between the two. God is with us.

Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other. Amen.

Beloved and Loving

The following is a letter to the editor, printed in June 10th’s Tipton Conservative, signed by several pastors in our community. Because our faith influences our daily lives, it also impacts our relationships with our neighbors, both near and far. Church needs to be a place where we can talk and listen about hard, important topics. We who know we are beloved by God should share that love with our neighbors.

Beloved people of God,

Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ. We write to you today in the tradition of St. Paul, whose letters called the believers to repentance and encouraged them in lives of love for God and neighbor. We write this letter out of love for this community, lament for brokenness in the world, and hope for the days ahead.

Together, we affirm that Christians are called by God to renounce the forces of evil, sin, death, and the devil. Accordingly, as Christian leaders we renounce injustice. We renounce white supremacy. We renounce violence against our fellow humans.

We affirm that in Christ, we are one family. In our personal and public lives we often fall short of loving our neighbors as we ought. We confess that we have sinned. We have been silent in the face of prejudice. We have looked away from injustice. We have valued our own comfort over the lives of our neighbors. We repent, and we ask God to have mercy on us.

We affirm that God hears us when we pray. We call on Christians in this community to join us in prayer. We pray for justice. We pray for repentance and reconciliation. We pray for healing. We pray for understanding. We pray for God’s mercy on us when we fail. We pray for the strength to persevere in this journey toward God’s will.

We affirm that a Christian’s personal faith affects their public life. We call on Christians to live in public what they profess in private: that Jesus Christ bids us lay down our own lives for the sake of our neighbors, particularly those whose cries for justice have gone unheard. As Moses commanded Pharaoh to release God’s people from captivity, we cry out for God’s people to be freed from discrimination and racism.

We affirm that the people of God are one body in Jesus Christ. Unequal treatment of some of those members hurts the entire body, and we will not sit idly by as members of this body are harmed or devalued. We pledge ourselves to resist discrimination, prejudice, and evil of every kind. We pledge to love our neighbors, even when it is hard. We pledge to pray for our enemies.

We affirm that God’s will is for abundant life for God’s people. We affirm that God’s will is for people everywhere to turn from sin. We affirm that God’s will is for followers of Jesus Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves. We pray for the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s will in us.

In Christ,

Rev. Beth Wartick, Pastor, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Tipton

Rev. Stephen Pudinski, Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Tipton (retiring)

Rev. Father Richard Okumu, Pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church, Tipton, and St. Mary Catholic Church, Mechanicsville, Iowa

Rev. Jay Amundsen, Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Tipton (incoming)

Would you like to continue this conversation with me? I would like to hear what you’re thinking. One opportunity is this: ELCA pastor Lenny Duncan has written a book, Dear Church, specifically for Lutherans who want to have these thoughtful conversations about racism through the lens of faith. You can buy a copy online, or I can lend you mine. Let me know if you’re interested in a discussion of the Dear Church, and we’ll find a date in July.

Holy Ground

Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” – Exodus 3:5

Almost a year ago, I stood on the Mount of Olives, looking down at Jerusalem at sunset. It was just a few hours and a short bus ride after landing in Tel Aviv. Gazing over the lights of minarets, the graves of a preeminent Jewish cemetery, and the crosses at Augusta Victoria hospital, we were asked: “What makes a land holy?” It’s a good question, for a place called the “Holy Land” by so many. Is it holy because of what happened long ago? Is it holy because God is more present than in other lands? Is it holy because we expect it to be?

I have recently revisited the question of what makes a place holy. As you’ve no doubt noticed, worship feels different at home through a screen than it does in our building. I have noticed that leading worship in the sanctuary feels different by myself than it does when you’re here! Can we worship outside of the holy ground we know?

When I teach kids about what “holy” means, I tell them that “holy” is another word for special to God. We describe our worship spaces as holy because we have set them apart as special to God. And yet, it’s not just church buildings that are holy. Any place where we listen for God or feel God’s presence is holy.

I have been getting quite a lesson in holy ground lately. For one thing, I have been walking around Tipton in the cooler evening hours, noticing as I walk past the homes of people I know. I often pray as I walk, so I started to pray for the people whose homes I passed. Two weeks ago, I began to vary my route, deliberately going past the homes of people in our congregation. By now, I’ve walked and prayed my way past many of your homes. In between the homes I know, I pray for people who don’t live close enough to walk past. I still need to get to the southwestern quarter of town. Then, I’ll start over again. When you see me walking past your house, know that I’m praying for you.

As I have prayed and walked, I have realized that the sidewalks and streets of Tipton are holy ground. They are special to God. When I pray in the street, God hears me as well as when I pray in the sanctuary. As strange as it might sound, I realize that the streets of our cities and towns are holy ground. God considers them just as special as our sanctuary.

In my own home, I have realized, a bit to my surprise, that the holiest place appears to be the kitchen. I call it the holiest place in my house because that is where God seems to speak most clearly to me! It is often the place where my ideas come together to form a sermon or a devotion. It is where, over the past week, I have cried to God: “Your children are behaving badly, God, and we need you to sort us out.” It is where I have most strongly felt the presence of God when I am worried or sad.

Where is your holy ground? Where do you know that you are in God’s presence? Maybe it is our church building, and you are missing it right now. That’s okay. Maybe it’s a place in your home, like my kitchen. Maybe it’s your garden or front porch. Maybe it’s being in your car, windows down, radio blasting.

What I have come to understand is that holy ground is all around us. God makes it holy by being present with us, and we accept its holiness by recognizing God’s presence. If we learn anything from being apart so long, may our awareness of God’s presence on these holy grounds grow.

God of sanctuaries and streets, kitchens and cathedrals, be present with us wherever we are. Show us your holy ground wherever we stand. Amen.

God of sanctuaries and streets, kitchens and cathedrals, be present with us wherever we are. Show us your holy ground wherever we stand. Amen.

Listen (again)

I thought I would be relieved when the coronavirus headlines were replaced with anything else. I was wrong. For days now, my news has been filled with updates of what has happened in Minneapolis. On Monday, George Floyd, a black man, was killed with the knee of a white police officer on his neck. Then protests. Then clouds of tear gas. Then graffiti. Then broken windows. Then buildings on fire.

There is a Lutheran church a block away from the police precinct where the protests began. The pastor and other leaders were contacted by organizers of the protest, asking if the church would be willing to provide storage space for bottled water and first aid supplies, should they become necessary. The pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran, Ingrid Rasmussen, wrote yesterday that when the organizers approached her, she wanted time to think, to weigh her options, to analyze the risk and benefit. Instead, she listened to the organizers telling her that drinking water and first aid kits could save lives.

I wonder if you have heard or read this quotation from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. (“The Other America,” 1967)

Dear people of God, there is no easy, fast way forward. A centuries-old problem will not be resolved overnight. And here, at a distance, it is tempting to pass judgment without truly listening to the experiences of those who are suffering. This, by the way, is true for all of us, in any situation, any time we think we can understand our neighbors without listening to them.

And yet, when you were baptized or affirmed your faith, you were asked: “Do you intend… to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?”

The first step toward justice and peace is listening to victims of injustice and unrest. It is not easy. It sometimes makes me uncomfortable to listen and understand just how deep the pain goes. And yet, as a Christian, I am convinced that following Jesus and loving my neighbor requires me to listen to my neighbors.

Will you join me in listening?

If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you start with Dear Church by Rev. Lenny Duncan. Dear Church is written for Lutherans, and it’s a short but powerful read about how our churches can resist racism. Other book recommendations can be found on this list, or I’ll give you my ideas. https://www.charisbooksandmore.com/understanding-and-dismantling-racism-booklist-white-readers

We can’t do this on our own. And yet, we are not on our own. The Spirit of grace and truth is with us, revealing brokenness and bringing healing.

God, give me ears to listen to you and to my suffering neighbors, your dear children. Let my listening bring transformation so that my life and community reflect your will. In Jesus’ name, Amen.