Monday, October 25, 2010

Life Overflowing: A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Life Overflowing: A Great Cloud of Witnesses

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2

“Our confession approves giving honor to the saints. This honor is threefold. The first is thanksgiving: we ought to give thanks to God because he has given examples of his mercy, because he has shown that he wants to save humankind, and because he has given teachers and other gifts to the church…..The second kind of veneration is the strengthening of our faith. When we see Peter forgiven after his denial, we, too, are encouraged to believe that grace truly superabounds much more over sin [Rom. 5:20]. The third honor is imitation: first of their faith, then of their other virtues, which people should imitate according to their callings…” Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXI

On the first Lord’s day in every November, most of our churches observe All Saints Sunday. This is a mark of the “conservative” nature of the Reformation that produced our Lutheran Church. Martin Luther, unlike other Protestant reformers, sought to retain (or “conserve”) the treasures of the medieval Catholic Church that were not contrary to the Gospel and that could encourage us in faith, hope and love.

This included a healthy appreciation for the “saints,” understood biblically and evangelically as all the faithful baptized children of God in every time and place who believe in and follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Lutherans do not invoke the saints (i.e. we don’t “pray” to deceased saints to help us), but we do honor their memory in three ways, according to our Lutheran confessions:

• We give thanks to God for all the saints, especially the “cloud of witnesses” who have lived and died in faith;

• We have our faith strengthened when we see God’s mighty deeds in and through the lives of the saints all around us; and

• We seek to imitate those who have modeled the faith or mentored us in discipleship—not for our own sakes, but to serve our neighbors and God’s mission in the world.

What an overflowing, abundant “cloud of witnesses” surrounds us all, in heaven and on earth—cheering us on, encouraging us, showing us the way to follow our Lord! This month I invited my three colleagues on the synod’s pastoral staff to join with me in sharing recollections of saints who have touched our lives.

Pastor Laurie Natwick, Assistant to the Bishop

Mrs. Ulness was larger than life and yet o-so-gentle and warm. Looking back, she was for me the first voice of God’s comfort and grace beyond that in which I was so securely nestled at home. She was the one who led the “opening exercise” (I think that’s what they called it then) before we went to our classes for Sunday School each Sunday morning.

We sat on those little chairs and Mrs. Ulness would begin, “This is the day which the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Throughout those pre-school years I remember feeling sorry for Mrs. Ulness that she didn’t know how to say “has” and always said “hath” instead. But even more than that, I remember that she started with those words and we went on from there with songs and Bible stories. We learned the songs from her and we sang. “Into my heart, into my heart, Come into my heart Lord Jesus. Come in today; come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.” There was ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and ‘Away in a Manger’ and Mrs. Ulness knew them all by heart! She was the best.

Five-year-old Laurie Natwick, was mentored by her
Sunday School teacher, “saint” Dorothy Ulness.

She was even there to pick me up when I was five and Jimmy Moe thought he’d be cute and pull my little chair away from behind me when it was time to sit down and hear another Bible story. It was not that far to the floor, but my pride was hurt. Not only did Mrs. Ulness pick me up, she held me for just a minute or two and brought me comfort. As I recall, she didn’t get angry with Jimmy Moe and, though firm with him, was gentle too.

It was years later (I don’t recall when) that I learned those words were from Psalm 118. I will admit that at first I was shocked. Now wait a me these words were good news according to Mrs. Ulness and now I was learning that they were hidden there in the 118th chapter of the Psalms. But, I came to see the wonder of what I had learned from the lips and heart of Dorothy Ulness (yes, I also came to learn she had a first name!) The words from Psalm 118:24 are engrained within me and I have Dorothy to thank for that. She was not only teaching me Bible stories. She was teaching me the words of scripture and I was only three years old when she began to teach me.

Dorothy was not only the Sunday School leader. I saw her in many leadership roles in the church and liked to go to her house. She was one who lived the faith both in her being and in her doing. She was one who came to the day and rejoiced in

Years later I was thrilled to find a red plate with Psalm 118:24 etched around the outside edge. It was in the King James Version so “hath” was there. It was the perfect gift for one of these first saints to touch my life in such seemingly simple yet profound ways.

There are many days when the morning seems to come too soon. On those days especially I find myself thinking of this saint who helped shape my life, not only as I began Sunday School, but throughout my years of growing in the faith--one of the many saints who have gone before us and for whom we can give thanks.

Pastor Steve Peterson, Assistant to the Bishop

When I think about special saints in my life, Gerhardt Semler comes to mind. In the late 1960’s and early ‘70s Gerhardt was the resident caretaker of Atlantic Mountain Ranch, a rustic Lutheran camp connected with Outlaw Ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota. During this time I spent several summers on the camp staff. Gerhardt and his wife Verna Mae lived at Atlantic Mountain Ranch because they loved Jesus, they loved the summer staff, they loved the campers, and they loved simple living in God’s service.

Gerhardt was an authentic cowboy. He could hand roll a cigarette while riding a horse. He always wore a cowboy hat. As far as I know he slept in it. He could fix anything as long as he didn’t have to spend money to do it. We joked we were pretty sure he could fix or build anything with recycled wood and bailing wire. He loved to get city kids into the barn when he was milking a cow, squirting milk into the barn cats’ mouths and challenging the kids to give it a try. His eyes would twinkle and his grin would light up our whole known world.

Steve Peterson on staff--with “saint” Gerhardt--at
Atlantic Mountain Ranch in 1971.

Gerhardt taught a whole generation of Atlantic Mountain Ranch staff the joy of hard work and discipleship. This camp’s several primitive “villages” had to be built from the ground up each summer; college kids setting up teepees, scraping fire breaks, digging outhouse holes. Gerhardt’s supervision-– his vast practical knowledge, wit and wisdom and passion for both hard physical work and relationships, always in service of the mission of Jesus at this camp-- formed us into, perhaps more than any other factor, the most passionate Jesus community I have ever been a part of. It was fun and it was transforming. Gerhardt taught us how to serve.

There were the hoedowns every week at camp. Verna Mae called the dances. Gerhardt played lead electric guitar. By the time Gerhardt got out his stick and started hammering and sliding on the strings of his guitar skeptical adolescent campers were whooping and hollering and wanting it to never end. And up on the hay rack was Gerhardt grinnin’ that million dollar grin that said, “see kids, there’s lots of ways to have fun…”

I remember once driving Gerhardt’s old beat up camp pickup while doing a work project in the woods. The tailgate was hanging down. I backed into something and put a big dent in it. He came over in mock disgust, put the tail gate up, backed hard right into a tree and straightened the tail gate. That grin and twinkle in his eye told me, “There is more than one way to fix things; you gotta think outside the box.”

I have treasured a cross he made out of old square nails taken from an old railroad depot we tore down under his supervision to salvage the wood. It reminds me of what he modeled about service and freedom in Christ.

Pastor Keith Zeh, Director for Evangelical Mission

Soon after moving into our new house in Las Vegas, a stranger came to the door on a hot August day in 1965. He was a pastor out door-knocking and welcoming new residents into the neighborhood. My mom invited Pastor Adolph Holm to come in for a glass of sun tea that had been steeping on the back patio.

This afternoon encounter between a Lutheran pastor and an unchurched family marked the beginning of a relationship that forever changed my life. Pastor Holm baptized me at age 12, along with my dad, mom, two brothers and sister, on August 29, 1965.

Keith Zeh at age 12, when he and his family were
baptized by “saint” Adolph Holm

Pastor Holm is one of my most precious mentors in faith. He would teach, preach and model the faith for me throughout my growing up years. He confirmed me and saw in me more than I saw in myself. He was the first one in my faith journey to see me as someone who could serve our Lord Jesus as an ordained pastor.

On a hot August day in 1982, I was standing outside the sanctuary of Calvary Lutheran Church in Las Vegas. I was preparing to process into worship for my ordination service. Pastor Holm would have been at my side had he not died of a heart attack several weeks before. I was thinking about him, when suddenly his wife Esther came up beside me as she entered the sanctuary. She hugged me and whispered in my ear, asking me if I remembered my baptism. Oh my! The realization washed over me that this date - Sunday, August 29 - was also the anniversary of my baptism. At that moment, I caught a glimpse of the great cloud of witnesses and knew that my mentor, Pastor Holm, was indeed with me for my ordination. His mentoring in the faith continues still to this day.

Pastor Larry Wohlrabe, Bishop

When I think of the “great cloud of witnesses” who have shaped me in Christian faith and discipleship, I think of Millie and Sue, two stalwart saints from First Lutheran Church in St James, MN.

Millie and Sue, along with their wonderful husbands, were deeply embedded in the congregation’s life and ministry. Faithful worshippers, eager Bible study participants, willing workers—a pastor’s dream.

The Wohlrabe family in May of 1988 while
Larry served at First Lutheran Church of St James, Minnesota
and appreciated “saints” Millie and Sue.

But what made me appreciate them most is that they were absolutely committed to making sure First Lutheran Church would be turned “inside out” in witness and mission in God’s world. I came to think of them (affectionately!) as our congregation’s “Mission Mafia,” and because of them I never needed to give a little speech that most pastors deliver once a year.

In my nearly five years as co-pastor of First Lutheran (1986-1991), I never had to nervously clear my throat and speak up at the annual meeting on behalf of the congregation’s “benevolence” giving to the district and national church body. When the coming year’s budget was being discussed, I didn’t have to give that speech—because every year Millie and Sue beat me to the punch! They were relentless (in a gentle Lutheran way) and “took no prisoners” in their approach to insisting that First Lutheran continue to grow its benevolence giving (a.k.a. “mission support”). And because Millie and Sue had such stature in the congregation—because they “walked the walk” in their own lives of discipleship and generosity—people listened to them and knew that they were right.

Millie and Sue also reminded me that the baptized people of God—the laity—often bear witness and speak-the-truth-in-love more creatively and persuasively than we pastors manage to do.

Surrounded by Christ’s saints,
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:

1. What memories of “saints” in your own life are triggered by these stories of “saints” Dorothy, Gerhardt, Adolph, Millie and Sue?
2. Right now who might be looking up to you for encouragement in Christian faith and life?
3. How might your congregation raise up more models and mentors in the faith, especially for the next generation of disciples of Jesus?

This is the tenth in a series of articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study or a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.

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