Monday, March 28, 2011

Next Generation: They're ALL Our Children

The Next Generation: They’re ALL Our Children

“[Jesus said], ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” Mark 10:14-16

When it comes to words, the smallest ones are often the most important—prepositions and pronouns especially. In the Next Generation vision it’s critical that we define “our” very carefully. Just who, exactly are “our” children?

Let’s resist our natural tendency to narrow the definition of “our.” “Our” children must be more than the kids in “our” homes or “our” congregations. What if we considered all members of the next generation with whom we have any relationship whatsoever “our” children? What if we accepted radical responsibility for all of these children? What if we drew the circle as big as we might imagine it to be?

Starting with the Inner Circle

To talk this way is not to deny our responsibility for the children in our innermost circles of kinship and relationship. Surely we will think of the children we have birthed or adopted as “our” children. When a child comes into our lives the whole world changes for us. As followers of Jesus we will avoid spiritual child abuse or neglect; we will assume a profound responsibility to “help [our] children grow in the Christian faith and life.” (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 228)

But such “inner circle” responsibility cannot be borne alone by parents. For good reason the entire Christian community faces the baptismal font, everyone promising “to support [the baptized ones] and pray for them in their new life in Christ.” (ELW, p. 228) In Holy Baptism, all children—whether they are carried to the font or walk on their own two feet—become God’s children and “our” children. Several years ago, during a presidential election, folks asked: “Which does it take to raise a child—a family or a village?” What a silly question! It takes both a family and a village (or congregation) to raise a child in Christian faith and life. They’re all our children!

This has profound implications for our priorities. The older generation has always borne a special responsibility for the next generation. We undertake sacrifices, commit resources, and make huge investments in all our children. We do this together, cognizant of the fact that all Christian adults are also Christian parents. Our care for the children in our homes and churches is foundational for all the ways we tend the other children whom God entrusts to us.

And for how long do we bear such radical responsibility for all our children? When do Christian parents get to “retire?” Several years ago, on a Confirmation Sunday, I did something rather mean. I preached my sermon primarily to the parents of the confirmands. Recalling the promises they made when their kids were baptized, I asked them when they would be finished fulfilling those promises? (I’m guessing most of them thought they were finished that day—it was Confirmation Sunday, after all!)

Here’s the mean thing I did. I quoted the words from the liturgy of Baptism in the Lutheran Book of Worship, including these words: “As they grow in years, you should…provide for their instruction in the Christian faith, that, living in the covenant of their Baptism and in communion with the Church, they may lead godly lives until the day of Jesus Christ.” There’s the end date for our Christian parenting: when Jesus returns to usher in God’s New Creation. We’re not finished with our responsibilities to the next generation until then! Even if you have adult children, your calling to help form Jesus Christ in them (Galatians 4:19) is not finished until the Day of Resurrection.

The Next Generation in Our Communities

But is it enough for us to look after all our children in the inner circles of our homes and congregations? What about all the other kids in our “mission field?” Are they not, also in some sense, “our” children?

A pastor who used to serve in our synod loved to walk her dog through the small town where she served—attracting children who loved to pet the dog. The pastor’s dog helped open up ways to express love and care for all the children of her town.

Aren’t we always stumbling across such opportunities in our callings to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-14) in our communities? The next generation all around us—in our communities—they are also “our” children. And we tend to under-estimate how many of them are out there.

Question: in the 21 counties that make up our synod, who do we have more of—children and youth under the age of 18, or senior adults age 65 and older? Which of these cohorts in our region’s population is larger?

When I have posed this question in congregations up and down western Minnesota, almost always I have heard this answer: “Oh goodness, we have lots more old folks than youth in our community!” And almost always this answer is dead wrong! Here’s what we discover in the latest demographic data regarding the territory covered by our synod:

Age category            Numbers of such persons                Percentage of such persons

Under age 18           93,566                                            23.5%

Age 65+                  67,603                                             17%

Nearly one-quarter of the almost 400,000 residents of our synod’s 21 counties are under the age of 18. This holds true in 17 of the 21 counties of the synod. Truly, the next generation is all around us! And they are, in a sense, all “our” children: children to treasure, know by name, pray for, and invite into the Christian life.

What if our synod became known as “the church that cares passionately for all God’s children?” What if we bent over backwards to invite the children, youth and their families to all the good things God is doing in our congregations?

What if, when issues of public policy were being discussed, we Lutherans became identified as those who consistently stand on the side of what’s best for the next generation? Part of our callings in Christ entails our citizenship. Periodically we are faced with stark choices about our common life today and the kind of future that we can anticipate.

School referendum elections determine whether our education system will remain strong and vital—but often these turn into battlegrounds that divide communities. Empty-nesters and other older adults say things like: “I don’t have any kids in the schools” or “my kids have graduated—we’ve paid our dues.” But, my dear friends in Christ, are not all the kids in our communities “our” children, regardless of our own age or circumstances?

In an article that recently appeared in Newsweek magazine, Fareed Zakaria wrote: “American politics is now hyperresponsive to constituents’ interests. And all those interests are dedicated to preserving the past rather than investing for the future….There are no special-interest groups for our children’s economic well-being, only for people who get government benefits right now….That is why the federal government spends $4 on elderly people for every $1 it spends on those under 18. And when the time comes to make cuts, guess whose programs are first on the chopping board. That is a terrible sign of society’s priorities and outlook.”

Once we start asking who are “our” children, the circle just keeps expanding. It becomes only natural for us to claim as “ours”

• All the children and grandchildren of our homes and congregations who may have moved to other locales but who are still tied to us by bonds of kinship and care;

• All the children of Minnesota and the United States;

• All the children of God’s world, including the amazing youth of our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in southern India.

Before I close this article, I need to address a question you may be wondering about. Does all this attention to the next generation mean that we no longer care about the “elders” in our homes, churches and communities? Far from it! One of my seminary professors liked to say: “Preach to the eighth graders, and everyone else will listen.” When we undertake the great generational task of raising up our children, when we make our young ones our priority—lo and behold, all of society and all of the church is blessed. It’s about those of us who have walked long in faith leaving the best legacy for the ones who will replace us in serving God’s mission.

Your Brother in Christ,

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:

1. How do you and the disciples in your congregation keep the promises you make every time you participate in a Baptism? What more might God be calling you to do for the baptized?

2. What are some implications of the notion that Christian parents/adults never really “retire” from their responsibilities to the next generation?

3. Why do we tend to under-estimate the number of children and youth in our communities?

4. Besides school referendum elections, what are some other public policy issues that have a direct effect on the next generation?

This is the fourth in a series of columns on Bishop Wohlrabe’s “Next Generation” vision (available at'S%20PAGE.htm) for the NW MN Synod. These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry. Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Tuned to God's Praise

Lent 3/Year A/March 27, 2011
Faith Lutheran Church, Evansville
John 4:5-42

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

He wanted her.

And he intended to have her, no matter what.

So he left his path and went to her.

He crossed over into the no-man’s-land of Samaria...traveled to a place where he knew he’d find her.

He headed for the well, Jacob’s well.

It wasn’t his space–or any man’s space, for that matter. It was where the women-folk gathered, mornings and evenings, to trade gossip and fetch water for their homes.

He knew she’d come there, but only in her good time.

She’d come to the well only when the other women were far away.

She’d come at noon, lugging her heavy stone water jar.

She’d come when the sun was high overhead because then she’d avoid the sneering stares and piercing glares that always dogged her.

Jesus wanted her, and he intended to have her, so he–a man and a Jew at that–freely entered her Samaritan territory, sought her out in space and time, went after her.

This same Jesus wants you, and he intends to have you no matter what.

And so he has abandoned his own space and entered your space.

He seeks you out on your turf, in your time, in this moment.

Even when you imagine that you’re all alone, that no one else is around, Jesus is there–searching you out, tracking you down.

He wants you and he means to have you–and there is no stopping him! Jesus never likes to take “no” for an answer.

Jesus wanted her–this woman by Jacob’s well. He wanted her, and he intended to have her, whatever it might take.

When the woman wondered out loud why he, a Jew, was even speaking to her, a woman–and a Samaritan to boot!–when she wondered aloud what he was up to, he just came after her.

This woman had heard plenty of pickup lines before, no doubt.

Other men had sweet-talked her, offered her the moon, told her what she wanted to hear, flattered her in order to possess her for themselves.

But this man, this Jesus, was different.

He wanted her and he would have her, but in a way she’d never been “had” before.

Jesus wanted her for who she was and for who she would yet become. He wanted her for the possibility, for the promise, that was brimming in her—he could see it, even if no one else could!

And–miracle of miracles!–Jesus wanted her, even though he knew her better than she knew herself.

He wanted her, even though he knew and could name all the tough luck and tawdry truth about her.

She’d been unlucky in love. Five trips to the altar–all of them ended in death or divorce. And that man with whom she currently shared her life–he didn’t put much stock in marriage licenses.

Jesus just came out and named that...because he was familiar, intimately familiar, with the whole sorry business.

But he still wanted her, went after her, wooing her with his own winsome words.

This same Jesus wants you.

Astonishing, isn’t?

Jesus has read you like a book. Probed all the parts of your story you keep a lid on. Delved into all your dark secrets.

Jesus has been to all those places you thought no one else knew about.

Jesus knows about every last thing that shames you…

…and still he wants you and means to have you.

This same Jesus is on your trail. He has designs on you--warts and all. He’s after you, dogging you, tracking you down. Nothing you have thought or said or done can scare him away.

In fact, the more this Jesus knows about you–the beautiful, the ugly and everything in between!–the more he knows about you, the more he wants you.

And make no mistake about it: Jesus will have you, of that you can be sure!

Jesus had her in his sights: this Samaritan woman with her five times to the altar.

And he intended to have her….but only in his own way and on his own terms.

Others had flattered her and offered her the moon just to use her.

Still others had condemned her and thrown endless demands at her.

But this Jesus was different.

He wooed her as no other Lover ever had wooed her.

Rather than dumping condemnations and demands on her, he spoke to her with fearless truth and passionate promises.

Jesus just kept coming after her with promise upon promise–living water, an end to thirst, total intimacy with God, free and overflowing forgiveness, a future without end.

Every time the Samaritan woman tried to shift gears, divert his attention, change the subject....every time she tried to elude his grasp....Jesus just kept coming after her, filling her ears with hope, winning her with love the likes of which she had never known.

This same Jesus wants you….but only in his way and on his terms.

He’s not into deal-making or “trading up” or any other version of “you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours.”

He means to have you, but only on the basis of his own life--freely given for you and me and all people. Jesus doesn’t want you “beholding” to him; he prefers capturing your heart with unconditional promises. Only on the uncanny foundation of Jesus’ no-strings-attached love, forgiveness and freedom.

This Jesus comes to you with no fawning flattery, no my-way-or-the-highway deals.

This Jesus comes to you, grabbing you by the ears with the kind of Promise that can be uttered only by someone who has gone to death for you, risen again from the grave for you.

Jesus wanted her–this woman who’d known six men under her roof.

And he intended to have her–this woman by Jacob’s well.

But, when all was said and done, what he wanted from her most was her voice, her vocal chords. That was the end-product, the goal of all Jesus’ “courting” of her there by Jacob’s well.

To be sure, Jesus wanted to hear her speak words of love and trust to him.

But even more than that, Jesus wanted to shape on her lips words of love and grace she could speak to others.

And so, forgetting why she even had come to that well, the woman left her heavy stone water jar and hightailed it back to her town.

Having avoided the curious and condemning crowds for so long, having lived like a recluse, now all of a sudden she became a social butterfly.

This woman, who used to steer clear of all those nosy town-folk—now she could not wait to tell them, breathlessly: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Could he be–could he really be the one we’ve been waiting for–the Messiah?”

Jesus wanted her for that–for that astonishing word of winsome witness.

In order to draw out from her that breath-taking proclamation, Jesus had burned away all her shame and restored her voice in her community.

And the whole town believed because of her!

The whole blooming village declared: “We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

This same Jesus wants you, and he will have you–so that he can “own” your hands, feet, and voice—all devoted to Jesus and his promises, all tuned to his praise.

This same Jesus, as much as he wants you to believe in him, is after something even greater.

Jesus is working in you to go after others through you. As we like to say in our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: “God’s work. Our hands.”

Jesus’ good news, his gospel reaches its final destination only when it springs from your lips as naturally, as automatically as fruit grows on a tree.

He wants you, wants the work of your hands and your word of witness to fly into all those places where he has called you to live and move and have your being.

Jesus’ word for you, Jesus word to you, reaches its goal when it becomes Jesus' word through you, to others, to all the people he places in your path.

And, mark me well, Jesus will bring it to pass.

Somewhere, somehow there is another Sychar, a town, a community, a collection of human beings who will shout Hallelujah because of your witness.

Jesus wants you–and he will have his way with you and through you, until strangers become believers, until you and I become instruments tuned to his praise!

In the name of Jesus.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

"Children, Go Where I Send You"

Oak Ridge, Thief River Falls, MN; and Zion, Viking, MN
March 20, 2011
Lent 2/Genesis 12:1-4a

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Whenever I go somewhere I want to make sure I know where am I going.

So if I’m traveling outside the United States I call up a reliable travel agent who can help me with the details of the journey….

And if I’m going somewhere inside our country, I contact AAA (of which I have been a member since 1964)….and I request a AAA “triptik,” and maps, and tourbooks for the area I’ll be visiting….

And even if I’m just trekking from Moorhead up to Thief River Falls and Viking, as we did this morning, I like to know where I’m going. So I fuss around with Mapquest on the Internet, I call up folks to make sure I’ve got the right directions, and I calculate the mileage and time it will take to travel. I even build in a “fudge factor” for getting lost or running into bad weather.

Get the point? When I travel, I do not travel “blindly.” I want to know where I’m going….

….and just as importantly, I want to make sure I know how to get back home. So, I leave some of my travel information with my wife Joy. I give her an estimated time of arrival back home, so that she doesn’t need to start worrying about me until after that time has passed….though if that happens, I’ll probably give her a call on my cell phone or using the Onstar communications system I have in my Chevrolet.

Don’t I sound like a fun guy to travel with? Talk about a worry wart! That’s me….because I don’t like to travel “blind.” And maybe you’re the same way, too.

Which makes this wild story from our First Lesson in Genesis 12 so hard to swallow.

It’s about 2000 B.C. There are no GPS locators, no Onstar systems, no cell phones. Goodness—there aren’t even any maps because paper hasn’t been invented yet.

It’s 2000 B.C. and a man named Abram, living in place located in present-day Iraq…..Abram hears a voice—out of the clear blue!--telling him that he needs to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

It’s the LORD speaking to Abram, inviting him to take a flying leap of faith….to cut off all ties to the land he had known, the clan he had grown up with, and the immediate family whom he loved….to kiss all that goodbye in order to go to some mystery destination that the LORD should show him.

Talk about traveling blindly!

But here’s the kicker, in the final verse of our text: “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him…”

Abram went—along with his wife Sarai—they went “as the LORD had told him.”

And that turned out to be a very good thing because the whole world was counting on Abram to do what the LORD had asked of him…because “all the families of the world” would be blessed through Abram and Sarai and the amazing journey they were willing to take.

Because Abram and Sarai left their own land, clan and family…because they journeyed by faith in God’s promises to them…they opened themselves up to an adventure that took over 2000 years to unfold. You can read all about it in your Old Testament!—the story of Israel and Israel’s God and the wild promises they lived by and God’s mighty acts that kept them going, spurred their traveling, pointing them forward to a manger in Bethlehem, a cross outside Jerusalem, and an Empty Tomb on Easter morning….from which blessings burst forth that are still “falling” on us 4000 years after Abram set out on his perilous journey.

Wow! Who’d have thunk it, that it all could start, perhaps on a morning like this, when a man and his wife ventured forth to an unknown destination, simply because a Voice asked them to!

It takes our breath away….and I’m guessing that it also makes us a little nervous, because we live our lives much more sparingly, more safely, more cautiously. If we go somewhere we want to know where we’re going and how we’ll get back home—and even more so, we’re not about to abandon the familiar things of life: home and hearth, family and friends. The mere thought of such radical change causes us to shiver.

You’ve no doubt heard the old joke: “How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?” (Pause) “Change?”

But change is what God is after with us and with the whole human family. God has no patience with “stuckness”—especially when its sin we’re stuck in, faithlessness that’s holding us back, and fear of the future.

So God is always prying us loose from all the awful things that tie us down, and hold us back. God is always out ahead of us, restoring, reclaiming, and making all things new.

But it always begins with a first step….the first step that Abram and Sarai took from their home in “Ur of the Chaldeans” (Genesis 11:31)…the first steps that a toddler named Jesus took, in the village of Nazareth…steps that would bring Jesus to the Cross and the Grave, for us and for our salvation.

God is in the business of calling his people out of “stuckness” into such radical newness. God singles out Abram and Sarai and says: “Children, go where I send you.” God sends forth his one and only Son, wrapped in our flesh, tempted in every way as we are, feet on the ground, walking this earth, uttering God’s promises, and bearing the waywardness and rebellion of those he came to save.

Such journeys are terrifying, frankly, and God’s chosen travelers are tempted to turn back more than once (read the whole story of Abram and Sarai some time!) And even Jesus had some last minute doubts in the Garden of Gethsemane.

But there’s one thing that kept them all going, Abram and Sarai, all their many descendants, our Lord Jesus, and you and me. The one thing that keeps us going is our unshakeable conviction that although we may not know exactly where we are going, we believe God is at the end of the journey. And that is enough.

And what about you, my dear sisters and brothers here at Oak Ridge/Zion? What kind of journey are you on? I know that your path has been rocky of late. You’ve been wondering—with good reason!—whether you still have an earthly future, as a two-point parish. The disaffiliation vote at Zion that failed on March 6 has changed the landscape for you….has caused you to wonder: “Now what?”

And yet, as I have already heard from my colleague Pr. Steve Peterson who was with some of you last Monday evening…there are glimmers of light, fresh possibilities and new hope here at Oak Ridge and Zion. You have not “hit the wall.” Your trip is not over. God is not done with you. In fact, out of the pain and heartache of the last year or so…God seems poised to do a new thing in your midst. I’m told that it even feels fun again to come to worship, to be together with one another, to be here in God’s house.

Why should that surprise any of us? We belong, after all, to the God who loves to have the last laugh—the God who forgives sins, frees those who are “stuck,” and opens up a new future in Jesus Christ. This same God who has always been your God is not about to stop walking with you now…

….and neither will we, who are bound together in Christ Jesus, as fellow-travelers in our Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. God binds us together, not because we see eye to eye on everything, but because together we follow our Lord Jesus, into God’s mission field, into the adventure of blessing the whole world for Jesus’ sake, into all the tomorrows that are still before us…until we arrive in God’s New Creation.

So, my dear friends, Pastor Laurie and I got up at an ungodly hour this morning, simply to be with you on this Lord’s Day…and to point you once again to the promises of God that are truly enough for us, now and forever.

You are not alone. God is still leading you, and we will continue walking with you.

Please pray with me: Lord, God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 304)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Finding Ourselves in God's Hands

First Lutheran Church, Alexandria, MN
March 13, 2011
Lent 1/Year A/Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But [Jesus] answered, ‘It is written,  “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”,  and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,  “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Later this year I’ll mark the 30th anniversary of my ordination. When you’ve been a Lutheran pastor for three decades, you’re officially considered “long in tooth.”

So you’d think a guy like me would have things pretty well figured out by now…and yet I never cease to be amazed at how little I know and how much I still have to learn…especially about the Bible.

To make matters worse, it’s often the most familiar Bible texts that catch me up short….like this gospel lesson from Matthew 4. I have pondered and preached on the Temptation of Jesus many times over the years….but I fear I’ve missed out on just what makes this story tick.

You see, I’ve tended to regard the Temptation story as a one-of-a-kind episode….utterly unique to Jesus….an “Olympics of Temptations,” far-removed from anything you or I might ever face. I’ve placed this story in a class by itself, and in so doing I’ve missed the point—the point that in this episode we come up against the essence of every temptation that you and I face.

For, the nub of the matter in these temptations that the devil hurled at our Lord, the hinge on which the door of this passage swings is this: we, like our Lord Jesus, are constantly being tempted to take matters into our own hands.

That’s what I’ve tended to miss here in Matthew 4. These three temptations—dramatic and eye-catching though they may be—each of them reiterates the same, basic question: “Are you or are you not, Jesus, going to take matters into your own hands?”

• So, famished after 40 days and nights of fasting, Jesus is invited to take matters into his own hands by rustling up bread from stones.

• Then, plopped up on the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus is urged to take matters into his own hands by offering to others a dramatic demonstration of trust in God.

• Finally, catapulted to the peak of a high mountain, Jesus is cajoled into taking matters into his own hands by winning the whole world at the seemingly small price of one momentary act of homage to his tempter.

Taking matters into your own hands—living as if you are essentially alone in the universe: that is at the heart of the temptations Jesus faced and the temptations that you and I also face.

Temptation worthy of the name, is always about more than falling off the wagon or cheating on your diet or engaging in some other “sin of the flesh.”

Temptation worthy of the name is always about something far more dangerous: it is about abandoning trust, it is about living as if you were calling all the shots, it is about taking matters into your own hands.

Temptation, in other words, is about succumbing to the biggest lie there is: the lie that we have to look out for ourselves because no one else will!

And why is that a lie? It’s a lie because “taking matters into our own hands” never finally works. We may imagine that we can control or steer our lives, but something always catches us up short—forces us to realize that we are finally incapable of truly taking matters into our own hands.

Which is why every year the season of Lent begins with a sooty cross on our foreheads, accompanied by the most honest words we ever hear: “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Remember that, although you’re constantly tempted to take matters into your own hands, you are not finally the one calling the shots.

Other forces, other realities prevent us from ever being fully successful in “taking matters into our own hands.”

Sin—both our own sin and the sin of others—sin messes up all our best efforts, even our best efforts to do the right thing—to preserve our physical lives, to lead others to God, to win the world for Jesus….even our highest and our best is always tainted by sin.

And what sin doesn’t gum up, circumstances surely will. Our eyes have been riveted, our hearts have been captured—have they not?--by the devastating earthquake in Japan…which is only the latest natural disaster to stop us in our tracks and reveal to us how we are not finally responsible for all that happens.

And, as if sin and circumstances (like natural disasters) were not enough, death also stalks us, relentlessly reminding us that “taking matters into our own hands” is ultimately an illusion. This Lent has begun for you here at First Lutheran with the most sobering sign of that, as together we grieve the sudden and untimely death of our beloved Pastor Sherry Billberg.

But here, precisely here, God gets a word in edgewise with you and with me….God enters into our sobering realization that we do not possess life within ourselves, we do not call all the shots, we are not capable of taking matters into our own hands….

God enters into this moment of radical honesty about all the things that thwart us or hold us back, and we realize again that even though we are incapable of “taking matters into our own hands,” God has nonetheless taken matters into his own hands.

Three times our Lord Jesus points us to “the way out” here in Matthew chapter four. Three times Jesus declares himself NOT to be alone in the universe. Three times Jesus places himself into the hands of almighty God, by immersing us in the mighty promises of God that truly do hold us, when all else fails.

You and I aren’t so great at taking matters into our own hands—but have no fear. We belong to the One who has placed us into his hands for ever. And that is enough!

So…when you wonder what you shall eat or drink or what you shall wear….remember that God has taken your life--your whole life--into his hands…and that as you dwell in God’s trust-engendering Word, you have all that you will ever need.

And when you are tempted to think that it’s all on your shoulders--to be a model of perfect trust in God--remember that that trust-building is God’s business…that God has done, is doing and will continue to do all that is needful in pointing us and all people to the Cross and the Resurrection of our savior Jesus.

Even if you imagine that you somehow have to win others, your family or even the whole world for God, no matter what that might take…remember that God has already won this world and is even now winning this world through the forgiveness, the freedom and the future that our Lord Jesus Christ has opened up for us.

This dramatic story of temptation in the wilderness ends with the devil slinking away, and Jesus being served by a company of angels….a sign that--despite the blandishments of the Tempter--our Lord knew and trusted that he was not alone in the universe…and neither are we.

The New Testament scholar Frederick Dale Bruner reminds us that the word “devil” comes from a root word that has to do with splitting. The diabolos, the devil is the one who always wants to split us off from God, to create the illusion that we are all we’ve got—and so we must take matters into our own hands.  (Matthew:  A Commentary, Vol. 1--The Christbook; Eerdmans 2004; p. 119)

This “splitter”—this diabolos—could not penetrate our Lord Jesus’s defenses on this point. Jesus knew—and we know, my dear friends—that we are not alone in the universe. And that it’s not about us taking matters into our own hands. But it is about finding ourselves—always, in spite of our sin, in the midst of dire circumstances, in the shadow of death—it is about finding ourselves always in God’s hands.

And that is enough!

In the name of Jesus.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Response to "Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice"

Response to Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Reprinted with permission from the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, March/April 2011 edition.
Available at

[1] It is no secret that some members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) question the value of the social statements of this church. A proposed resolution from a congregation in our synod declares that "social statements have limited value to the ministry and mission of the ELCA, have been divisive, and are expensive to produce." Not surprisingly the resolution proposes that the ELCA "cease wasteful spending on the formulation and adoption of social statements."

[2] As I traverse this largely-rural synod on the Northern Plains, engaging in disaffiliation debates and defending the priorities of my church body, I am frequently bombarded by questions about our church body’s social witness. "Why does the ELCA seem to be so hung up on ‘political correctness,’ so focused on matters deemed non-essential to the church’s evangelical witness, so determined to wade into controversial issues on which people of goodwill regularly disagree?" Surrounded by such skepticism, I took up — somewhat gingerly — the invitation to review and respond to the recently-released study Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice from the task force developing an ELCA social statement on criminal justice.

[3] What I encountered immediately was the timbre of familiar voices, speaking from the heart, addressing realities that are deeply woven into the fabric of daily life in God’s world — a world in which we Christian believers regularly confess that we are "captive to sin and cannot free ourselves."1 The stories that begin each of the five chapters of this study reminded me of parishioners and neighbors I have actually known and loved over three decades of pastoral ministry:

  • Stuart2, a man I visited in a county jail after he was convicted of fraud;
  • Fran and Richard, an older married couple who never felt comfortable in church after the murder of their teenage daughter;
  • Phil, a police officer and parish leader, who frequently shared the highs and lows of working in law enforcement;
  • Sonja, who poured out her heart to me about the loneliness of raising her two kids while her husband was incarcerated for assault; and
  • Frank, a fellow I grew up with in our tiny Minnesota farming community, and with whom I rekindled a friendship after I preached at his "home" in the State Correctional Facility in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
[4] Such voices of folks connected to our criminal justice system "set the table" throughout this engaging study. Hearing them, it is hard to imagine that Lutherans of whatever political stripe, ethical persuasion or theological stance will be able to dismiss the topic of "faith and criminal justice" as irrelevant or peripheral to the evangelical witness and calling of the Body of Christ. We follow a Lord, after all, whose central saving act occurred in the context of a judicial execution. We claim as elder sisters and brothers all the prophets, apostles and martyrs who wound up on the wrong side of the law — arrested, imprisoned, punished for disturbing the peace. We worship a living Savior who has promised to meet us in the guise of the prisoners he enjoins us to visit (Matthew 25:36).


[5] The "voices" in these five chapters open the reader up to considering the various "contexts" of our criminal justice system. So we ponder the vocations of those who serve in law enforcement (Chapter 2). We consider the multi-faceted judicial system in America (Chapter 3). We delve into the world of corrections (Chapter 4), and in one of the best sections of the study (Chapter 5) we reflect on "life after crime" — for offenders, victims and the entire community. Attention to these contexts then leads into faith-based reflections and questions.


[6] I am struck by how this study achieves a balance between being both comprehensive and concise, as its various sub-topics woo participants into further study and deeper discussion. This is so critical in addressing a topic that usually is treated like one more political football, bandied about by the agenda-driven talking heads on the cable TV news networks. Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice can, indeed, set the stage for a fuller, richer consideration of an issue that touches all of our lives. This resource is ideal for a church that seeks to set a different tone, a congregation that desires to model the best of moral deliberation among persons of varied convictions and experiences.


[7] Let me spell out what I regard as some of the specific strengths and weaknesses of this study. In my judgment the strengths include:


  • Its comprehensiveness; the study truly touches most of the bases that need to be addressed to do justice to the topic of "faith and criminal justice." And this is so critical, given the truncated way too many of us think about matters of crime and punishment — far too influenced as we are by the compelling but partial views of our criminal justice system gained from TV shows like Law and Order, Crime Scene Investigation (CSI), and the various iterations of cable-TV cops-and-robbers documentaries. 
  •  The ways the study debunks myths and deepens the data pool on the topic at hand. For example, "When people think of crime, they tend to think of the kinds of violent offenses they hear about in the news; and most people believe that crime in the United States is increasing. In fact, most crime is not violent and crime rates have been declining in the United States since the early 1990s….[M]any people believe that courts treat offenders too leniently, but in fact, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world….[P]opular crime dramas…leave viewers with the impression…that most offenders are apprehended by police, when in fact the majority of offenses do not result in arrest. Another common misconception is that most cases involve jury trials, when only a small percentage does."3
  • How the study challenges congregations to view themselves as "social actors" in the arena of criminal justice. Perhaps more than some of the social issues addressed in previous ELCA social statements, members and congregations will be led (by this study) to realize that criminal justice isn’t just "out there" somewhere; it is as close to the daily lives of ELCA members as those with whom they sit in the same pew on Sunday mornings — victims of crimes, ex-offenders, law enforcement and corrections workers, etc. And the study — especially in its conclusion — makes clear the manifold ways that congregations as "social actors" can and must contribute to greater justice for all who are impacted by crime. 
  • The invitation, in Chapter 5 of the study, to focus on "Life After Crime." This chapter, in my judgment, is perhaps the finest, reminding readers of the long-term effects of crime and calling Christian disciples and communities to greater engagement in efforts to pursue restorative justice. There are no quick fixes or easy answers, but readers of the study are invited to continue the journey.

 [8] The weaknesses of the study are more subtle — tending more toward sins of omission than sins of commission:

  •  Although I find the study to be written with even-handedness and balance, I wonder about some biases that seem to creep through. The study could say more about the dangers and opprobrium faced by those who work in law enforcement and corrections, at the same time offering greater affirmation of these God-given vocations of protection and service. I also wonder whether the significant attention paid to issues of race and ethnicity (e.g., statistics linking incidences of arrest, incarceration, inordinate use of force by law enforcement officials) would not benefit from deeper analysis at some points.4 And, as someone who has lived his whole life in rural America, the tenor of the study seems to identify criminal justice as primarily an urban issue. I hope that the social statement yet to come will include at least some explicit attention to the unique challenges of law enforcement, judicial systems and corrections in rural America where so many ELCA congregations are located.
  • The "Faith Reflections" sections of the study are, by and large, satisfactory as far as they go. Key theological touchstones are addressed (e.g., theology of creation, human beings made in God’s image, the twofold reign of God in the world, the doctrine of vocation). I was surprised, however, that a study on criminal justice did not include a fuller, deeper analysis of human sinfulness (if word counts mean anything, the words "sin," "sins," and "sinfulness" together show up only ten times in the entire document). It seems to me that Genesis 1–11 is an archetypal text that could and should be plumbed more deeply to reveal the ways our contemporary concerns around criminal justice are as "old as the hills" in the foundational texts of our tradition. Greater attention to our Lutheran bias toward understanding sin as a condition infecting all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve would enhance the study’s efforts to demonstrate how everyone is caught up in a web of failure when considering the issue of criminal justice.
  • Only after my second reading of the study did it dawn on me that the study would be enhanced by greater attention to the whole complex of causes of crime in our culture. Causative agents are considered, of course, in passing throughout the study — but I believe that causation probably deserves greater attention, particularly in the social statement to come. Doing so will force us all to ponder the formative influence of homes and families in shaping the social fabric of America. I find it deeply regrettable that those of us who live and move within the framework of mainstream Protestantism have largely retreated from topics such as "family values" or "fatherlessness" — ceding this ground to the religious right in the culture wars. This, despite the fact that there are mountains of sociological data that point to a strong connection between the breakdown in homes and families and the incidence of crime in America.
  • Finally, as we look forward to the eventual ELCA social statement on criminal justice, I hope that attention will be paid to the narrow but critical question of the religious formation of those who are incarcerated. Although hardly an expert on the subject, I have seen firsthand the ways that the role of prison chaplain (a ministry for which Lutheran pastors are aptly suited) has — often because of cost cutting by state and federal officials — given way to roles such as "religious activities coordinators" in our jails and prisons. In far too many correctional facilities theologically-trained chaplains have been supplanted by administrators of religious programming with minimal if any formal theological education. Indeed, the religious pluralism of the prison population should be addressed so that the faith needs of all are met — but not at the price of losing the presence of mature spiritual leaders who are deeply grounded within the Christian tradition and/or other living faiths.

 [9] Members of congregations — like the one I mentioned at the beginning of this essay — will no doubt continue to raise questions about the value of ELCA social statements. But Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice can be an antidote to such suspicions in our church — by demonstrating the usefulness of thoughtful, informed, faithful studies that foster deep moral deliberation around issues that matter in God’s world.

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe is Bishop of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

1. "Confession and Forgiveness" in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW), p. 95.

2. The names of Stuart and the others that follow are not the real names of my former parishioners and friends.

3. Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice, p. 6.

4. Not to mention the broader question of whether the very constructs of "race" and "ethnicity" themselves are changing, and in some sense, disappearing from the scene. See, for example, articles like "Black/White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above," New York Times, January 30, 2011, p. 1.