Thursday, January 22, 2009

Impossible But Not Hopeless

A pastoral letter to God’s people in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. II Cor. 4:8-10

In the last few months we on the synod staff have been overhearing conversations linking funerals and finances. Such conversations are happening so frequently, in so many places on our territory, that we can’t help but notice. Something is happening. Our little world is “turning” right before our eyes.

For years and years there’s been a kernel of conventional wisdom—dressed up as a “fact”—making the rounds. “For every church-going ELCA member over the age of 65 who dies, it takes twelve (or fourteen or sixteen or more) younger members to replace that now-deceased one’s giving toward the mission of the church.”

I’ve heard that kernel of truth, and I’ve passed it on, more than once. Heads nod, shoulders shrug, and murmurs of concern always follow. But fortunately it’s not really happening yet…at least not in a major way. It’s in the future, it’s coming at us, it’s still around the corner….
Lately, though, it feels as though we’re turning that corner right now.

The awful prediction is coming true and it’s catching us up short—right in the middle of a global economic downturn to boot! Recently a pastor-friend told me about a death of a parishioner that resulted in the congregation instantly losing 1/3 of its income. One death—one third fewer dollars in the offering plate the very next Sunday. Wow!

If this is happening (and I need to check this out with you—is it happening?), how shall we live and serve in the face of it? To what is God calling us?

First, I believe God is calling us to honesty. If the patterns of financial support for God’s mission are indeed “turning”-- we best acknowledge that, directly and fearlessly. Now is not the time for denial or diversion or getting lost in the busy-ness of the mundane. If we are turning a corner in how we “do church,” we need to name that fact. (We on the synod staff sense that people in our congregations are realizing that this is happening. We are detecting a fresh, palpable readiness especially in small town and rural ministry settings to imagine new ways of doing God’s work.)

And while we’re being honest, let’s add that although this seems like a financial crisis, it is deeper than that. Money problems are always spiritual problems. God’s lavish generosity somehow has not caught on among us.

Second, I believe God is calling us to give thanks and repent. Let us not forget to give thanks for the members of the Greatest Generation who are passing from our midst. Thanks be to God for their faithfulness. In many respects our church, at least in its institutional embodiment, continues to run on the momentum these senior saints provided.

But, just so, God calls us also to repent. As Dr. David Anderson of the Youth and Family Institute has said, “The Greatest Generation, the most faithful church-going generation in recent memory, gave birth to the least faithful generation, the Baby Boomers. “ (Both Dr. Anderson and I are Baby Boomers!) The ball was carried by today’s senior saints—and dropped by their offspring. As another pastor-friend observed recently, “In our congregation there’s a whole generation essentially missing.” It’s that missing generation, and the generations they have spawned, that you and I are called to preach to, inspire, and lead. How daunting is that, I ask you?

Third, I believe God is reminding us that he works best when things seem most desperate. I’m writing these words on retreat at St. John’s Abbey of Collegeville. The Benedictine monastic community is mourning the death of Br. Dietrich Reinhart, OSB, (pictured above) who served as president of St. John’s University from 1991 to 2008. Br. Dietrich was diagnosed in late October with stage four metastatic melanoma in his lungs and brain. He described his health situation as “impossible but not hopeless.”

That gets it just about right, doesn’t it? “Impossible but not hopeless.” God is always leading his people through such desperate territory. And God continues still to woo and win us, to guide and drive us, through the wilderness of “impossible but not hopeless” realities.
And as God does that you and I are not left empty-handed. God may always work with stuff that is fundamentally flawed, with crooked planks and warped beams-- that is, with you and with me. But God does wondrous things with the resources at his disposal.
And God lavishes those resources upon us, abundantly, generously. Here’s what I’m talking about:
· The Word, enfleshed in Jesus the Epiphany Light-Bearer, proclaimed and sacramentally enacted, and woven deeply into the Scriptures—the Book of Faith.
· Faith practices that prepare us for the Word and open us up to the Word. Make no mistake about it—only the Word can save us and send us. But God also graciously gets the wax out of our ears so that we can hear this Word of Life. So God gives us prayer and worship and Bible reading and faith-filled conversations and simple service and soaring music and hungry neighbors and everything else that opens us up to God’s saving, sending Word.
· The community of sinner-saints, with all their foibles and failings—freed and forgiven, washed and fed, saved and sent. Through this community God provides all that we need to do his work. Even in this time of global strife and desperate economic turmoil, God is still providing far more resources than we need to do God’s work in the world
· The mission—God’s mission (missio Dei)—that will keep us out of mischief until Christ returns one last time to finish up the New Creation. Nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing in this desperate time and place need keep us from moving ahead in God’s mission.

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed,” wrote the Apostle Paul. Cancer-ridden and dying, Br. Dietrich described his situation as “impossible but not hopeless.” May such fierce faithfulness be the prism through which we read the signs of our times and respond accordingly, in the name of Christ the Epiphany Light-Bearer.

Your brother in Christ,
Larry Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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