Sunday, March 27, 2016

Speaking Truth in Love: Death and Resurrection

Northwestern Minnesota Synod ELCA
Bishop's Monthly Bible Study
April 2016

When death intrudes into our lives we often become tongue-tied.

Someone we loved dies, and we don’t know what to say.   We know we should say something, especially to those who mourn, but what words fail us.

Too often we murmur trite comments that reflect a sappy, “greeting card” sentimentality:
·        The Lord only takes the best.
·        God needed another angel.
·        Your loved one is still with you, looking down from above.
·        It’s just her body that died--her real self, her soul still lives.

In our tongue-tied state we rely too often on comments that sound consoling but simply are not true.  None of these four oft-repeated comments reflect the deepest witness of Holy Scripture.

Faithful speech is always both loving and true.   This month’s study suggests some alternatives to the untrue things we find ourselves saying in funeral homes and at gravesides.   We’ll also draw out some implications of all this for our corporate life in the Body of Christ.

What’s Untrue Here?

If you’ve read this far you may already be offended, because you’ve not only said one of the four comments mentioned above—but you actually believe these words.   Please take another look at each of these four statements, in the light of our biblical witness:

The Lord only takes the best.   Nowhere does the Bible speak in this fashion.   I we stop just for a moment and think deeply, this statement cannot be true.   It is not only “the best” who die.  All of us—the best and the worst--die.    Moreover, what does such a statement really tell us about the Lord?   A Lord who “only takes the best” sounds more like a sadist than a Savior.

God needed another angel.   These words tug at our hearts, especially when we say them at the death of a child.   But there isn’t even a smidgen of scriptural truth in this statement.   Nothing in the Bible even implies that you and I are angels-in-waiting.    Angels are another order of beings within God’s vast creation; we humans are not “promoted” to angelic status when we die.  You and I always have been, always are and always will be human beings.   Created in God’s image, beloved by our Maker, redeemed by Christ, we are destined for “the life everlasting” (Apostles’ Creed) as resurrected human beings.

Your loved one is looking down from above.    This statement also taps into our emotions, seeking to bridge the chasm between the living and the blessed dead.   But again, this idea of our departed loved ones “looking down” on us is not found in the pages of the Bible.   Moreover, given the reality of sin and the complexity of every human relationship, the notion of a deceased relative or friend “watching” from on high may sound anything but comforting to some mourners.

It’s just the body that died—the real self is immortal.   This comment strikes at the very heart of the biblical witness about the nature of death and the “life of the world to come” (Nicene Creed).  Such thinking is rooted more in ancient Greek philosophy than in the history of God’s saving deeds in Israel and in Christ.   The Bible knows nothing of a disembodied human life—whether in this present age or in the age to come.  (For more on that, read carefully Paul’s magnificent 15th chapter of I Corinthians.)   Truthful, loving speech asserts that God has created us and will one day resurrect us as whole beings—a unity of body, mind, and spirit.

What’s At Stake Here?

Many of the comments people make when someone dies have no biblical basis.  What’s worse is that they downplay or even ignore God’s death-defying salvation in Jesus Christ.   When we say these sorts of things we settle for less—far less!—than what God reveals to us about death, resurrection and the life of the world to come.

So what if we took another run at the whole question of truthful, loving speech in the face of death?   What truthful, loving words could we utter when someone we care about dies?  

First, don’t assume that you have to say anything—at least not right away.   Often our desire to say something when a death occurs reflects our need (the need of the speaker) than the need of the grieving one with whom we’re conversing.  It’s as if we have to fill the void of grief with noise rather than live with silence in the face of death.    Such noise can even be one of the ways we deny death or avoid pain.  

Let us pause and simply embrace those who grieve.  Let us not hesitate to allow first words simply to articulate sorrow at the loss that has happened.  “I’m so sorry…this is so sad….we share your grief.”   What a mourner needs first is to know that you are present, walking together on the journey of grief—and that you will continue to be there for them long after the funeral.   Our Lord Jesus, in his sobbing at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35) and in his walking with two disciples from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) is our model here.  Notice how long Jesus the mysterious stranger simply walks with and listens to the two disciples in the Emmaus story.

Second, when we speak let us seek out words that are most congruent with what we know to be true in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.   For example:

Your loved one is in God’s strong, loving embrace.  It’s hard to top St. Paul’s simple but stirring words:    “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8)

Our God claimed (name)—and our God plays for keeps.  Speaking in such a fashion is possible because of our understanding of God’s claim upon us in our Baptism into Christ Jesus.  The funeral liturgy (ELW, p. 279ff)  is so helpful, especially as it reminds us that “we have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  (Romans 6:4-5)

Nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love.   Such words reflect one of the strongest, clearest promises in the scriptures for a time of grief:  “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39)

God raised up Jesus, and God will raise (name) to new life.   In the four gospel stories of Jesus’ resurrection we witness how God deals with death.   Jesus defeats death—by dying.   God defeats death—by raising up the crucified Jesus.   On the last day, God—not death—will have the final word:   “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”  (I Corinthians 15:20-22)

Death and Resurrection in the Life of the Church

There is so much more that we could say about how to speak truthfully and lovingly in the face of the encounters with death that are part of our lives.  Let us conclude these reflections by pondering the connections between how we think and speak about the death and resurrection of individuals and how we reflect on the ongoing experience of death-and-resurrection for Christian communities.

The church of Jesus Christ, of course, will never die.   Jesus promised that “the gates of Hades will not prevail against [his church].”  (Matthew 16:18)  But this stirring promise does not mean that the church will not experience death-and-resurrection in the dynamics of how it lives and works within the vagaries of space and time.   This is particularly true with respect to patterns for how the church organizes itself to serve God’s mission in the world.

The church may not die, but certain ways of “doing church” will come and go.   We are often reluctant to recognize this, though.   We tend to associate certain forms or patterns or structures or programs of the church with the very existence of the church.

Our denial of death—our discomfort in speaking about death—carries over into how we “do church.”  In fact, our fear of the death of the “church as we have known it” is one of the things that’s killing us.  What if we regularly proclaimed that when one way of “doing church” dies, we expect the God of the God who raised Jesus to raise up fresh pathways for being church on the next leg of our journey?  

What we believe and proclaim about death can re-root our Christian communities in God’s resurrecting action.   After all, we believe in the God who promises:  “See, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe serves as bishop of the
Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

For reflection and/or discussion:
  1. What are your earliest memories of a death of someone who had been part of your life?   What feelings did you experience?  What questions did you have?   What words of hope did you hear?
  2. The study mentions four comments that persons sometimes make to those who are in grief.   What other “trite-and-untrue” things have you heard (or said) when someone dies?   What other language have you heard (or said) that witnesses faithfully to God’s truth about death and resurrection?
  3. What in the life of your present congregation reflects a fear of death (the death of some structure or program or way of organizing for mission) that prevents your congregation from being open to God’s gift of fresh pathways to “being church?”

This is the fourth in a series of monthly bishop’s Bible studies during 2016 on the theme, Truth and Love at the Crossroads.  These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use each column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.   

Saturday, March 12, 2016

By Hook or By Crook, God Gets Through to Us

Installation of Pastor Edward Keith Lankford
March 12, 2016
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Henning, MN
I Samuel 3:1-10

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

You’d think that being called by God wouldn’t be so hard.   Hearing the voice of God speak—that should be easy, shouldn’t it?     If God can’t communicate clearly—well then who can?

If you and I can’t hear God talking to us—who will we hear?

And yet, it seems, hearing God is anything but easy.    For all sorts of reasons, “picking up the phone” when God decides to call is fraught with difficulty.

Take young Samuel in our Old Testament lesson.  Samuel has at least three strikes against him when God comes a calling.

First, the timing is all wrong.    When Samuel is trying to go to sleep in the temple where he’d been serving under the elderly priest, Eli…..when Samuel was first called by God, Samuel had nothing to compare that with.   “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (v. 1).

The timing was all wrong for Samuel to “get it.”   God came calling in the midst of a veritable drought—a long dry spell when no one was hearing God speak with any degree of frequency or familiarity.   No wonder Samuel missed his cue;   no one was expecting God to speak—folks maybe even thought that sort of business was a thing of the past, never to be repeated again.

Second, Samuel himself wasn’t exactly well-suited for hearing God.   Our text says that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”(v. 7)  Samuel was just a boy, after all.   He brought no seasoned wisdom, no depth of spiritual experience, no training in recognizing the things of God.    The conventional wisdom of that time was that God didn’t usually bother with one so young—God did vital business with elders, those long past their salad days.

The timing was wrong….and the recipient of God’s call was most unexpected….

And then, to make matters worse, Samuel’s guide, old Eli was over the hill, way past his period of useful service to God.    Eli was on the way out—God was removing the mantle of leadership from his tired old shoulders.     Eli’s days were numbered—his sins of omission, his failure to deal with his two rascally sons, was catching up with him.

And yet this flawed vessel Eli was the only one available to coach young Samuel in the ways of God.    It had been a while, a long while, since Eli transacted business with the Almighty One…..and yet even the passage of years had not totally dimmed Eli’s recollection of what to do.

Slowly it came back to Eli what was happening here.     Gradually, it dawned on Eli what was transpiring with the nocturnal pesterings of his young apprentice.

Eli—flawed vessel that he was!—Eli was the only one who could help Samuel—help him hear the rare and precious Word of the Lord.   So Eli coached Samuel, giving him the words, the formula to utter next time he heard the voice that was disturbing his fitful slumber:     Next time you hear him calling say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (v. 10)

Amazing!   You’d think hearing God call you would be easy as pie—like falling off a log.   But nothing could be farther from the truth.    The timing:  all wrong.    The hearer: way too young and untested.    The guide: a has-been, a leader in the process of losing his position, “for cause” no less.

All wrong—all of it wrong—but still God’s voice gets through.

And isn’t that, dear friends, how it always turns out to be?

Hearing God call, perceiving God’s intervention, receiving God’s invitation—it’s always fraught with difficulty…..which (when you think about it) makes God’s call all the more astounding, all the more precious.

Somehow, somehow God does get through to us…..and when we think about it, when we look back over how it happened, we’re glad, really, and thankful that it was through struggle that God’s voice was finally heard.

Keith, yours is one of the most striking “call stories” I have ever encountered.   It’s nothing short of miraculous that God has gotten you to this place, this moment, this ministry here as the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

Talk about taking the scenic route, Keith!   From growing up as a Southern Baptist in Athens, Georgia….to losing your faith…“becoming apostate” as you bluntly put it, in your college years.

OK, I guess that sort of thing happens to lots of young adults.  But you took it to the max!  You weren’t just any old garden variety kind of unbeliever.   You didn’t just fall from faith for a brief season—you actively embraced atheism and attempted to bring others along with you, forming a student group that promoted science and skepticism as alternatives to Christianity.   You didn’t just reject Christian faith---you fought against it, even debating the merits of Christianity in public settings.  You were a fighter, a pugilist for paganism!

Wow, Keith!  We white bread upper Midwestern Lutherans hardly ever run into that sort of thing!

And as if your situation were not already perilous enough, you soon descended into a morass of drug and alcohol abuse that left you “lost and confused.”   (Didn’t we just encounter someone like that—the Prodigal Son in last Sunday’s gospel lesson?)

I think I can safely say that at one point in your life, you were about as far away from hearing God call you as you could possibly have been.   Everything was wrong:  the timing—all wrong, you—all wrong, those who were guiding you—all wrong.

But somehow, miracle of miracles, God still got through to you in the depths of apostasy and alcoholism….called you through the 12 step movement back into a spiritual life that rediscovered God….called you through your studies, called you through something as basic as translating the letter to the Romans, into a fresh encounter with Jesus Christ….

God called you to realize (as you have written) “that God allowed [you] to experience the afflictions of [your] life in order that [you might] better minister to those undergoing their own afflictions and better preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The great German theologian Ernst Kaseman once said that the kingdom of God is fashioned from raw materials that are fundamentally useless.

God saw you, in your own depths, and it’s as if God said:  “Oh good!   Some wonderful crooked lumber, some flawed building material—my favorite kind!”

And so the call of God found you, Keith, revived your faith and convinced you that God had use for you—to turn you into a preacher and pastor, and to find your way from the hill country of Georgia to the lake country of northern Minnesota.

Who’d a thunk that could ever happen???

None of that came easily or automatically.    At times, everything seems to be wrong—the timing, the hearer, the guide….none of them are what we were expecting them to be.

And yet maybe, just maybe, those times—when everything seems most wrong—will be the opening, when God speaks most clearly and winsomely.  

But really now—should that surprise us?   For we follow and we belong to the God whose presence and identification with us has come through most memorably in that cry of divine absence, our Lord Jesus on the cross, crying out to the heavens:  “My God, my God where are you?  Why have you abandoned me?”

God is faithful, and God will get through to us.  Of that we can be sure!

The God who visited young Samuel in the Temple, the God who visited this world decisively in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the God who called you in your baptism and who keeps calling us in all the circumstances of life…

This same God has called you here and now, to bear his Word and help others hear it.  The timing will not always be perfect.  The hearers of the Word will often be distracted.   And you, Keith, would-be guide that you now are--you may be better than old doddering Eli….but you are not perfect…

And that will be fine, because what we’re counting on is that nothing will ever stop God from doing vital business with us, cleaning the earwax out of our ears, naming and claiming us in Christ, and calling us to be and to go wherever God wants us to.

In the name of Jesus.