Monday, December 5, 2011

The Next Generation: Going the Distance

The Next Generation:  Going the Distance

“In [Jesus Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.  And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him…”   Colossians 1:19b-22

The offense of the Cross began with the offense of the Incarnation.  The bloody public death was foreshadowed by a bloody stable birth.”    Virginia Stem Owens, “A Hand in the Wound”[1]

Once more we enter the season that remembers how far God has gone to embrace us, to melt away our distrust, to enter deeply into our fleshly lives.   Advent and Christmas reveal a God who goes the distance from highest heaven to the lowest spot imaginable:  a crude cattle shed.

And there is nothing airy or vague about this.   It is a shockingly physical, jarringly specific, jaggedly concrete thing that God does:   taking on “bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh” (Genesis 2:23) in the wailing newborn son of Mary.

Isolating Ourselves from the Incarnation

Recently, in my daily devotions, I read a piece that woke me up to this reality in a fresh way.   Reflecting on her regular visits to the sick, writer Virginia Stem Owens observes:  “We are not so familiar with freaks as Jesus was.  He daily handled as bad or worse than what I see weekly in the hospital.  People coming to him for healing were maimed, mutilated, and desperate.  They didn’t even have on clean pajamas.  It is we who have isolated ourselves from the Incarnation.  Our fear of the flesh is so deep that we institutionalize death and decay wherever it breaks out.  There would be little chance of Jesus meeting a leper on the road today.  Any kind of freakishness, whether physical, mental, or emotional, must be put away from our midst.  People on public view must be at least superficially healthy.  The lame, the halt, and the blind may not have had Medicare in the first century, but neither were they incarcerated for their offense against the sensibilities of the whole.”  

Although they sting, Owens’s words also ring true.  And perhaps such reflections can help us resist the urge to reduce our December holy days to the gauzy, disembodied sentimentality so prized by our culture.   Owens seeks to recover “our ardor for the Incarnation and…our sense of the profundity of our Lord’s bodily death and resurrection.”   Encountering real live persons in the extremities of life—mental confusion, chronic illness, horrible abuse, tragic death—makes plain the lengths Christ went, going the distance for us and our salvation.  

“Are we not already a little secretly ashamed of the stripes that heal us, wishing instead for an unscathed savior, Jesus Superjock, borne aloft by teams of angels unwilling to let him stub his well-shod toe?” Owens asks.   “As I struggle to insert the purple swollen foot of a [hospitalized] diabetic into his slippers, I am also asserting my allegiance to the flesh, loved and not rejected by our Lord, who did not hesitate at the unhealthy, the flesh he clothed his own glory in, thus sanctifying it forever.”

The same Lord Jesus Christ who went the distance for us in his Incarnation, invites us to go the distance for our neighbors—including a willingness to enter deeply into their embodied lives.    This, too, is part of the Next Generation vision we’ve been pondering over the past year.     “Calling forth, raising up, forming in faith and spiritual leadership, and sending the next generations of disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ” is not a vague, airy enterprise.    There is nothing disembodied about it.    Our Lord invites us to roll up our sleeves and be ready to address the particularities of fleshly life, including the fleshly lives of our precious children.

The Safety and Well-Being of Children and Youth

Here’s a recent, disturbing example.  In the last weeks we’ve been stunned by revelations of long-term sexual abuse of young people by a coach associated with one of the most successful programs in Big Ten college football.    As a forty-count indictment is being drafted, new reports of abuse surface daily.   Most shocking is the fact that some responsible adults had some awareness of the abuse that was happening—but they did little or nothing to stop it.

Our Lord’s incarnation among us, deep within the flesh of Jesus, son of Mary, commits us to care about things like the safety and sexual well-being of children and youth.  Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America stands squarely on the side of “the least ones” in such matters.   In social statements like Human Sexuality:  Gift and Trust[2] our church has identified specific ways in which we will pursue the health and well-being of the Next Generations among us.   For example:

·        Safety within and outside the family is of overriding importance because the damage done to children and youth through sexual abuse or molestation can be remarkably deep and lasting….”

·        “This church supports the prosecution of any individual who commits a sexual crime against a minor, including people in leadership positions in the church….”

·        “The ELCA also recognizes that congregations and other ministry sites must continue in their efforts to be safe places for children and youth….This church calls for the adoption of preventive measures, including educational programs, appropriate policies, and screening of individuals who care for, supervise, or work with children within this church. It expects that all church leaders will report all instances of suspected child abuse….”

·        Commercial sexual exploitation is widespread throughout the United States and around the world. It continues to grow and involves surprising numbers of youth by taking advantage of their vulnerabilities….The ELCA regards the over-exposure of emotionally maturing children and teens to adult sexuality as a failing on the part of adults and society….”

·        Expanding cyberspace and other electronic media create new challenges to the protection of children and youth….How to address this problem is one of the most important child-protection issues of our time, and our church will be an active participant in this important conversation….”

·        “The sexual education of children and teens will be supported as a priority by this church. Anecdotal evidence among teens suggests that few parents or congregations meaningfully engage young people in either sex education or healthy conversations about sexuality, even though teens would welcome them….”

·        “…the ELCA reaffirms its interest in and responsibility for the care and protection of vulnerable children and youth. It understands itself as called to this mission through the vocations of its members, its own institutional practices, and its public policy positions. This work involves all adults, not only parents, since all contribute to the well-being of children and youth in untold creative ways. It understands that all children and youth, both inside and outside the church, are deserving of this church's concern.”

Going the Distance, Despite our Discomfort

You may be chagrined that I’ve dwelt on such an uncomfortable topic at such length—at the start of Advent, no less.   Yuck!  Not very “Christmasy” is it?

Oh but it is, my dear sisters and brothers.   The Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ is about God entering deeply into the thorniest, most anxiety-producing, disturbing aspects of human life.  This includes all the joys and perils of human sexuality.   While it might seem that we’ve been paying too much attention to this topic in the life of our ELCA over the past two years, in truth we have focused so narrowly on one aspect (same-sex relationships) that we’ve virtually ignored all the other facets of human sexuality.   And we adults have--in my experience in many congregations--largely left our children and youth out of this critical conversation.    

Our God, who has gone the distance in becoming flesh, calls us to go the distance with our children and youth—to wrap them in a crucible of safety, to share with them our core values about human life in all its splendor and perplexity, to listen deeply to their piercing questions, to pick them up when they fall and reassure them of God’s unconditional love, and to walk with them and engage them in honest conversation about how we might faithfully incarnate the life of Christ in our flesh—including our sexuality.

In the name of the Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ,

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

For reflection and discussion:

1.      Why do we tend to isolate ourselves from the Incarnation?    How do you see this played out in today’s world?

2.      When you read news stories about abuse perpetrated against children and youth, how to you respond?

3.      How does your congregation foster the health and well-being of the Next Generation?   How many of the seven topics mentioned on pp. 2-3 of this article have been engaged, in some way, by your congregation?   How might your congregation do more?      

This is the twelfth and final 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.

[1] “A Hand in the Wound,” by Virginia Stem Owens, quoted in For All the Saints:  A Prayer Book For and By the Church (Volume IV) 1996, American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, pp. 980-982.
[2] Available at    All quotations in the following portion of the column come from the section of the social statement entitled “Protecting children and youth in and for trusting relationships.”

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