Friday, September 30, 2011

The Next Generation: "The 2020 Crossover"

The Next Generation:  “The 2020 Crossover”

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb is a reward.  Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth.  Psalm 127:3-4 (NKJV)

Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.  Deut. 5:16

One of the privileges of my ministry is the opportunity to meet and learn from other leaders across our state and nation.   Last month, as I retreated for 24 hours with other “heads of communions” that are part of the Minnesota Council of Churches, we heard a compelling presentation from Mr. Tom Gillaspy, the state demographer for Minnesota.

Statistics or “Sadistics?”

Now, I realize that statistics aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.   (When my daughter took a college class in the subject, she deliberately mispronounced “statistics” as “sadistics!”)  But we can learn much, for the sake of mission and ministry, about what statisticians study on a daily basis.   Demographers like Gillaspy carefully count the “trees” so that we can discern how the “forest” seems to be growing or not growing, as the case may be.

In the midst of a wide-ranging presentation on the U.S. Census of 2010, Mr. Gillaspy dropped one  factoid that has been exercising my imagination.   As I reported in my Next Generation column last March, it may surprise us to realize that in 17 of the 21 counties of our synod there are more children and youth under the age of 18 than there are senior adults who are age 65+.    In fact, this is and has been true across our entire state of Minnesota, as well.

But in less than a decade all of this will change.   Gillaspy shared a chart that revealed the population trend-lines, for youth and seniors, as crossing over in 2020.   When this “2020 Crossover” hits, our state will have more seniors than youth.

Awareness of this reality is already influencing political debate in Minnesota.   Two of the biggest portions of our state government’s budget involve education aid to public schools offering K-12 education and support for long-term care for needy seniors.   In this regard, Gillaspy pointed out that what it costs us to educate one K-12 student for one year is roughly what it costs us to maintain one senior adult in a long-term care facility for one month.

Pause for a moment, and let that sink in. 

Having recently served as power-for-attorney for a frail elderly adult, I can testify to the truth of Mr. Gillaspy’s observations.  I was startled at how quickly my late mother’s financial resources were drawn down by each monthly rent check paid to her assisted-living facility.  Yikes!

Inter-Generational Competition

One of the implications of these demographic trends is the disturbing specter of inter-generational competition and even strife.   Frail elderly persons (whose ranks many of us will be joining!) will need more and more from a system whose resources are not infinite.   Young workers will be supporting—through their Social Security and Medicare taxes—a burgeoning number of senior adults, making it all the more challenging to save up for their own retirements.

Precisely at this point we as people of Christian faith are called to speak up and enter the political discussions swirling around us.   Perhaps even more vitally, we need to engage deeply in the cultural conversation about the place and role of all the generations on our planet—from the youngest to the eldest.

Getting In A Word Edgewise
We come to these encounters with some deep convictions, drawn from the wellspring of biblical wisdom.   

First, we have a bias against viewing the world solely through the lens of “what’s in it for me.”    We have been fashioned by a generous Creator who bestows gifts in just one way:  abundantly.  There is enough to satisfy everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.   Living as Christian disciples we are called to speak out from the profound apostolic perspective that “you are not your own…you were bought with a price” (I Cor. 6:19b-20a).

Second, we will resist every effort to pit the interests of one generation over against the interests of another generation.   The scriptural witness is that God values the whole human family and the whole human being in every stage of development from the dawn of life to the sunset of earthly death—and, indeed, God’s care extends beyond earthly death, in the power of Christ’s Resurrection!  

The psalmist rightly calls children a heritage from the Lord (Psalm 127).    We have a profound stake in the Next Generation of disciples.   But we also care deeply about those who have walked long in Christian faith.  The Fourth Commandment was given, originally, for the sake of older parents—an injunction to adult “children” not to abandon or dis-respect the generation that brought them into this world.   When we exercise proper care for all the generations, we will taste the fruits of the Fourth Commandment, which includes a promise:     “so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you”  (Deuteronomy 5).

Third, we will cling to the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus.   These are sobering, even desperate, times.   If we stare right into the teeth of the awful truth that demographers bring to our attention, we will lose heart. 

But, as I am fond of saying, demography is not necessarily destiny.  We believe, teach and confess that the God in whom we trust is the God who specializes in “hopeless cases.”   The great British writer and Christian apologist, G.K. Chesterton, hit the nail on the head when he observed:  “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

Beating Back Paralysis

As I write this column, I have fresh memories of our two weeks with five visitors from the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC).   The AELC carries out its mission and ministry on the teeming sub-continent of India—with 1.2 billion citizens of the world’s largest democracy.   A signature ministry of the AELC involves youth and education; church-sponsored schools are one of many “open doors” to India’s “seekers” who want to find out about the way of Jesus Christ.

As we visited some of the splendid long-term care facilities in our synod that are affiliated with our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, our AELC friends talked about the fact that they don’t have anything comparable to our long-term care system.    All too often, the elderly in India are reduced to begging—and their families end up abandoning them.   (This isn’t necessarily as cruel as it sounds; some families are forced to choose between feeding the children or caring for the seniors, as a matter of economic necessity.)  This is a source of piercing pain for our sisters and brothers of the AELC.

 As we express care for all the generations on Earth, let us not allow paralysis to keep us from pondering the ministry implications of the “2020 Crossover.”   Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ cannot sit out this critical discussion in our political life and in our wider culture.   God calls us to give voice to the convictions that arise from the Word of God, for this time and place.   God invites passionate Jesus-communities to enter the fray and ask ourselves:  “How might we reshape our ministries to respond to the challenges that will come with the ‘2020 Crossover?’”

 Walking together into God’s tomorrow,

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

For reflection and discussion:

1.      What feelings do you experience as you read about the “2020 Crossover?”

2.      Where do you already see signs of inter-generational competition in our communities?

3.      The column lifts up three implications from biblical wisdom for how Christian disciples will engage in the cultural conversation about the “2020 Crossover.”   What other implications for this discussion do you draw from God’s Word?

4.      What is one way your congregation might start preparing now for the ministry challenges that will come with the “2020 Crossover?”

This is the tenth 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, September 10, 2011

Renewing Strength

NW MN Synod Women’s Organization Convention
Redeemer Lutheran Church, Thief River Falls
September 10, 2011
Isaiah 40:31

“…those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

When I turned 40 my dear sister sent me a birthday card that I’ve never forgotten.   I don’t remember the artwork or the sassy verse that was on the card, but I do remember what my sister wrote to me, inside that card.

She was trained as a nurse, you see, and for some reason she thought that my turning 40 was a good time for her to remind me of all the ways that life declines at that point—to remind me that age 40 truly is “over the hill.”  

My sister poured it on pretty thick…mentioning the loss of brain cells, loss of visual acuity and hearing, loss of muscle tone, loss of bone density.  You name it—everything starts falling apart, heading downhill after age 40

“Gee, sis—thanks for bringing this to my attention!”  Thanks for making sure I remember all the ways that as I age, I lose the strength I once enjoyed.

I thought of that as I pondered your theme verse about “renewing strength.”   Yes, that’s what we’re all looking for—isn’t it?  A way to regain lost territory, recover lost ground, get back in the game, be restored to what we once were.  

But how does that happen?

A couple of years ago my physician gave me his answer, in the form of a book entitled:  Younger Next Year.    It’s a book about how one can halt, even reverse the effects of the aging process.   Not by going on a particular diet.  Not by taking a special pill.  Not by resting or doing yoga or engaging in some sort of mind-over-matter meditation.

No, the way to restore strength is to exercise, pure and simple….to be so committed to regular, vigorous physical activity that you make plans now to spend some time exercising on the morning of the day you die.

Strength is restored, not by resting, not by reposing on a feather bed, not by taking it easy.

Strength is restored by regularly encountering, bumping up against, “pushing yourself” against some form of stout resistance.  

You get stronger when you work, even over-work, your muscles.   When the coach yells “make it hurt,” he’s doing you a big favor, urging you to take a step toward restoring your strength.

In short you restore your strength by expending your strength.

Now, you might be thinking:  that’s all well and good—if we were here for advice on our physical health, here to think about restoring the strength of our bodily muscles.

But what’s the connection between all of this and the “things of God?”   What if the “muscle” that needs to be worked happens to be your soul, your faith?

Strange as it might seem, ask the question that way and the answer is still basically the same:   if  your soul has grown weak, if your faith is flabby, if your spirit is what needs to be restored, the best thing that can happen to you is to exercise it by encountering some resistance—especially resistance that God allows to come your way—maybe even resistance that God actually brings upon you.

There is a deeply biblical pattern in that, and we see it in spades here in Isaiah 40—the source of your theme verse about “Renewing Strength.”

In the first 39 chapters of Isaiah we see how God allowed, how God handed over his chosen people to come up against some of the worst resistance they ever experienced:  the soul-robbing, strength-draining resistance of the Exile.  

After centuries of disobedience and waywardness, God allowed his precious people to reap the fruits of their faithlessness by permitting their enemies, the Babylonians, to kidnap them, remove them from their home in the Promised Land and haul them off to a far country.

Talk about “encountering resistance!”   Exile like that wiped out most other ancient nations and tribes—and by all accounts the Exile nearly spelled the end for the people of Israel, too.

But if God allowed the extremity of exile to come upon them, it was not in order to bring Israel’s life to an end.  

No.   God, instead, tested and tried the temper of his people, in the refining fire of persecution and exile, to bring them up against the kind of resistance that could have killed them—all of it, in order to bring them out of exile, restore their strength, and give them wings to soar like eagles once again.

That’s what Isaiah starts to sing about starting here in this hinge chapter—chapter 40 of his book.  Here in chapter 40 the prophet hones in, like a laser, on the two questions that dogged the people of Israel as they languished for years in Exile, far, far from home.

First, they wondered if God still had the stuff to help them, to bring them out of the hole they had dug for themselves.   Israel wondered, in the first place, if God could help them….

…which is why Isaiah goes to such lengths earlier in this chapter to magnify the immensity and the incomparability of his God: 

Have you not known? Have you not heard?...

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,

   and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;…

who brings princes to naught,

   and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

Could God help us?   That was the first question the exiles asked themselves…but it quickly led to a second, even more poignant question:  if God indeed could help us, would God actually do so?   Does God still care enough about us, to give us a second chance?

If the first question inquired into God’s power, the second question delved even deeper, into God’s mercy….which is why just two verses before our theme verse, we read this hinge sentence in this hinge chapter of Isaiah’s book:

[God]  does not faint or grow weary;

   his understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint,

   and strengthens the powerless.

Isaiah is sure of two things—two things his exiled sisters and brothers longed to know for themselves.  Isaiah recognizes the incomparable power of God….a power that is seen most clearly in the unfathomable mercy of God.

God can help them in their weakness—with one hand tied behind God’s back.

But the even better news is that God will help them in their weakness.   God’s power is made known chiefly in showing mercy.

….those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

   they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

   they shall walk and not faint.

Notice please, the deep comfort of all these “shalls.”

But notice also the strenuousness of these “shalls.”

God restores strength to his people as they exercise the strength that God alone gives them.   Faith’s muscularity is restored as we flex the faith-muscles that God has already given to us.  

We realize that we’re not weary—because we’re already running.  It dawns on us that we no longer feel faint—because we’re up on our legs, walking  brisklytoward God’s tomorrow.

This is a peculiar business, isn’t it?  It’s about God’s ways, not our ways.   It’s about God trying and testing those whom God loves.   It’s about faith more precious than gold, being purified in the Refiner’s fire.   It’s about Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the … joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame…”  (Hebrews 12:2).

I don’t know that we should think of ourselves as living in an Exile time.   But I do know that these are scary, unsettling days on our planet.   Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of 9/11. 

Over this past decade it has come to seem as though everything we thought we could count on is up for grabs—my goodness, even the post office is ready to go belly up!   In our country, across our world, even in our church—everything we used to just take for granted seems to have evaporated.   The only constant is change.   What can we count on?   Who can restore us?

Can God get us out of this mess—does God have the power to do that?   And even more importantly, will God save us—does God still care about us enough to draw us up out of the soup we’re in?

Listen to Isaiah as he pours the gospel into our ears!

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

   the Creator of the ends of the earth….

He gives power to the faint,

   and strengthens the powerless…. 

 …those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

   they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

   they shall walk and not faint.

The resistance you feel, the obstacles you’re up against just may be how God is restoring your strength in your exercising of it. 

Why are eagles so good at flying?  Because they fly a lot, every day, in the strength that God freely gives to them.

God can give you this same strength.   Better yet, God will give you this same strength.

In the name of Jesus.


Untying the Knot

Dedication of Church Entryway
Faith Lutheran Church, Wolverton, MN
September 11, 2011
Matthew 18:21-35

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

So what’s so special about the number 77?

Here in this gospel lesson, Peter comes to Jesus with a very good question:  “If another member of church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”

And like an eager-beaver, impress-the-teacher student, sitting in the front row of a classroom, straining to be noticed….Peter offers an answer to his own question.   “Should I forgive someone ‘as many as seven times?’”

What you may not know is that Peter was being pretty generous here.   The great rabbis of his day taught that Jews owed one another three gestures of forgiveness.

But Peter had been hanging around Jesus long enough to sense that Jesus would want to raise that number… Peter doubles the rabbi’s number and adds one more for good measure.

Seven!   Is seven the number of times I should forgive someone who does me wrong?

Peter comes off like a young man who really wants to impress the adults.

But Jesus immediately deflates Peter’s pretentiousness, upping the ante elevenfold.

“Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times” (some ancient manuscripts read:  seventy times seven).

Wow!   Peter undershot that one by a country mile.   Forgiving someone seven times—really quite a feat, when you think about it—but that doesn’t even come close to what Jesus is after here.    Jesus increases Peter’s seven by a magnitude of eleven.

So I ask you, what’s so special about the number 77?  

We could come up with all sorts of answers, most of them having to do with seven being the perfect number in the mindset of first-century Jews….but I don’t really think this particular number matters all that much.  It’s not a password or a PIN number or an access code to deep mysteries.

I think Jesus hit upon 77 as the number of times we need to forgive someone, because if you even try to do that—to forgive someone 77 times--sooner or later you will lose track.  You will forget what the “count” is—in fact, you’ll probably chuck it all and simply stop bothering to keep score at all.

And then you will understand that the number “77” is a placeholder for “countless.”

“If another member of church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter asks.

And Jesus, in effect, says:  forgive count-lessly….forgive so many times you lose track of the score….forgive as God forgives….anything less than that will be the death of you…”

So now the question becomes less about arithmetic, and more about the very heart of forgiveness, and here’s where we hit pay-dirt.   Because at its core, the biblical notion of forgiving someone has to do with freedom….with setting someone  else free, and in the process yourself also being set free.

Because in God’s Word, the root-word for “forgiveness” conjures up the image of untying a knot.  

Have you ever been stuck, annoyingly delayed, trying to untangle a pesky knot in a thread, a shoelace, a cord, or a rope?   When that happens, time stands still.  Everything grinds to a halt until you untie that pesky knot.  

Then you are free.  Free to move on.   Free to be, once again.

THAT’s the picture I’d like to imbed in your brain, your heart, your soul today.   Forgiveness is about getting unstuck, it’s about untying a deadly knot in your life, it’s about moving out, moving ahead again into a vast sphere of freedom and a new future in which God intends for you to love and live and have your being. 

And freedom is what this day is about, isn’t it?

Freedom is the red thread that draws together all that’s on our minds on this September 11, 2011.

“Freedom” helps us understand the deep meaning of this accessible entryway that you have labored long and hard to make happen.  

I trust that you made this investment for the sake of freedom, freedom for everyone to find their way to this house of God, where the liberating Word and the future-opening Sacraments of our Lord Jesus Christ can be accessible to, available to ALL.

Several years ago, I was in another congregation of this synod—a church that had recently constructed their own accessible entryway—and the pastor told me about an elderly man who came to that church on dedication day, with tears streaming down his old wrinkled face.

That man proudly drove his motorized wheelchair up the street, onto the sidewalk and through the front door of his church—a sacred space he had not been in for decades….and now he could be where his heart had always longed to be, in HIS church, once again.

It was about freedom for that dear old soul—freedom from all the barriers that had tied him up in knots.   Freedom to feed again on the precious Gospel, as it was proclaimed from a pulpit he had not sat beneath for ages.

This day is about freedom—the “untying-the-knot” freedom that is Jesus’ specialty, God’s forgiveness that drives our sin away from us, as far as the east is from the west, that restarts the clock, that sets aside the stumbling blocks and other obstacles between us and God’s overflowing goodness.

And in a way, that red thread also ties us to the other story that’s on our minds this morning:  as we recall the tragedy of ten years ago, what for a decade we have called “9/11.”

Most of us who were alive in 2001 will remember where we were and exactly what we were doing on that fateful morning.

I was living in Redwood Falls, MN, where I had been on the synod staff for over a decade.   I was returning to my home from my morning workout at our community center….and as I got out of my car I caught just a word, just a phrase, about a building being hit by an airplane in New York City.  

When I got home, I dished up a bowl of breakfast cereal and went down to our family room to turn on the TV….and two hours later I noticed I still hadn’t eaten that bowl of breakfast cereal—so mesmerized was I, so “stuck” in watching the cascades of heart-rending images that poured forth from my television set.

9/11 was for many of us, the scariest day of our lives—the day we began to wonder if the whole world had gone mad, if everything we thought we could count on had simply evaporated.

It was easy, as I recall, easy to get stuck on 9/11:  stuck in our fears and anxieties and hatred for those who did this vile thing—murdering over 3,000 innocent Americans on one day, the worst attack on our homeland in our nation’s history.

But thank God, we did not remain stuck for long.   We roused ourselves, took action to restore a measure of safety and security to our lives, and brought justice to those who perpetrated this outrage.

But still, I wonder, if we Americans have truly gotten ourselves completely “unstuck” from the events of 9/11.   I wonder if at times we still allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear and anxiety, tied up in a quest for revenge that has taken us beyond the pursuit of justice, drawn ourselves into ourselves, made us less open to our neighbors, to the world, and to the future.

Our great country--and indeed every people and place on the face of the earth--we still all need to know what brings joy to the heart of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ….and that is the freedom that only God gives to us, the freedom that is centered in the astonishing forgiveness we have received and in which we are invited to live every day of our lives, in Jesus Christ.

It’s really the red thread that ties it all together this morning:  it’s about freedom.   God intends for us a life that is unshackled by paralyzing fears, smoldering resentments, and foreboding about the future.   Jesus came to untie all those “knots.”

And this freedom is meant to be shared, pure and simple.   I take that to be the central point of the parable of the two debtors that Jesus tells in the second part of our gospel lesson.   The freedom that comes from forgiveness is something for us to receive—but never to keep, for ourselves.  

Try to “freeze” it or hang on to it selfishly, and it melts in your hand.   Share it, as lavishly as God forgives you, and it keeps coming back to you, eleven-fold, a full measure heaped up, pressed down, and overflowing, right in your lap.

Freedom.   God created you for that.   And Jesus Christ is recreating you, even now, to bask in, to receive, and to pass on this freedom.   The freedom that is forgiveness.

In the name of Jesus.