It's been raining for days, almost without pause. Of course, we're getting what we asked for. After such a dry end to the summer, most conversations in early September included talk about our dead lawns and the rain we so desperately needed. Now we're getting it, to the point of flash flooding. Roads are closed due to debris and standing water. Schools closed early to get children home before the conditions got even worse. It's a strange day to sit in my office and see the object of a prayers go from a blessing to a burden.
When one member of our community tells us he plans on being somewhere, he often says, "God willing and the creek don't rise." I've never before seen firsthand how true the second part of that statement is. This old saying is truly taking on new meaning today, as multiple meetings are now in flux because, as the creeks around us rise, even the short mile or two trip includes a significant amount of danger.
Yet, even the flash flooding doesn't necessarily make the rain a bad thing. Some gifts are dangerous. We must learn to use them wisely and treat them with respect. Our lands need this rain to refresh the parched soil, to restore our water supplies, and even to cleanse our air. In times like this, we must rearrange our lives to accommodate the gift. For rains like this, we must travel only when necessary, and at that point, take the safer, drier route, no matter how far out of our way that might be. While even this doesn't ensure our safety, it provides us with a best way forward amidst the conditions, with a way to accept the gift graciously and responsibly.
Many other gifts that come at us this way, and especially in this quantity, entail different sorts of dangers. Love is chief among these gifts. Like rain, when love comes to a soul that's not seen or experienced that kind of care for a long time, it often runs like a flashflood, not sinking in at first. Like a parched soil, sometimes people aren't prepared to receive love. This gift arrives as a dangerous deluge, not because it is a bad gift, but because we don't necessarily know how to respond.
Yet, like this rain, that love also helps to prepare the soil of our hearts to receive more love. Eventually the dry soil of our hearts becomes enriched by the presence of love, permeated by that love, and made able to hold even more of that love. Love still retains the potential to bring us pain, and often brings with it danger. But it becomes a pain that hurts on behalf of another. It becomes the danger of learning to love others.
Just as we must learn to accept the gift of this rain, so too we must learn to embrace the gift of love from God and others. As we receive that love, we learn not only that we are loved, but how to love others, how to give of ourselves as we take the risks involved with loving and being loved.
I've been blessed to be a part of the Virginia Council of Churches Young Clergy Task Force in the last year. Recently, we convened a group of fifty clergy under the age of forty to discuss what ministry is like in our present day. Our catchy title, "Ministry in an Age of Apathy," brought lots of discussion itself on whether this was indeed an age of apathy, and if so, whether that apathy was a condition or a symptom of something deeper. This all inspired numerous valuable conversations about the future of the church, not just for clergy, but for all Christians.
One of these that interested me most was an extended conversation on the nature of vocation. We talked about the common teachings on vocation from a Christian perspective, namely that our vocation lies where our passions and gifts meet with the needs of the world. We talked about the joy of that, but also the struggle to discern that at various points, especially when we carry various vocations at the same time. At the same time, someone may be a pastor, a mother, a sister, a wife, and who knows what else? In the increasing possibility of bivocational pastors, this person may also be a counselor, a professor, a web developer, or a business owner. This is exciting and exhausting and complex and life giving, all at once.
This helped me realize something. As I learned about vocation growing up, something was omitted from the syllabus. Where my passions or gifts and the world's needs meet sounds like a neat place to do ministry, but no one told me how desperately difficult it can be to exercise your vocation. Just like going to the gym or learning to play an instrument, vocations require significant time and energy of us. We must practice our vocations, hone our vocations, sharpen our vocations, prune our vocations. To be who we're called to be, we must explore the dynamics of who we are and develop ourselves in the trajectory of our vocations.
So, if you haven't heard this before, let me say it clearly. Your vocations require something of you, something difficult and painful. But just as regular exercise produces a healthier body, and just as regular practice produces more excellent music, so too honing your vocation will help to grow your identity toward those areas that God is calling you to use your passions and gifts to meet the needs of the world.
You need to know that following your vocation doesn't mean finding the path of least resistance. It may be deeply difficult. It likely will challenge you personally, and perhaps it should. The beauty of God's call on our lives is that it is decided not only internally within ourselves, but externally as well. We're called into vocations by a voice outside of us that sees a potential in us that needs nurtured and worked, needs pulled and stretched, in order to come fully alive. This doesn't mean vocation requires us to run headfirst into concrete walls, but it may mean that we need to develop the tools necessary to overcome the obstacles, whether a ladder to climb over or a different path to go around, to fully discover and live out the vocations we're called to live.
So, yes, you're called to live life where your deepest passions and giftings meet the needs of the world. Just remember that, to live that life well, you must give the effort, the practice, and the drive to make that vocation come alive for you and for the world.
There's a quote attributed to Mahatma Ghandi that goes something like this: "I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." From a Christian theological perspective, this is of course problematic, since the church lives as the Body of Christ in the world.
But from a practical perspective, there are days where I couldn't agree more with Ghandi.
All too often as a pastor I hear stories about how people were ostracized from a community for absurd reasons. One friend, a devout Christian, has found physical and mental benefits from the practice of yoga, a discovery that led a church to publicly denounce that family in worship. Two different friends in two different states were asked to leave worship in the congregations where they worked, all because their small children were fussing. You know, children being children. Another friend remains closeted because of an unfortunately well founded fear that, should he come out of the closet, the denomination he calls home will quickly expel him. Each of us carries stories like this, where the Body of Christ has failed to look anything like the Christ we see in the Gospels. My heart grieves for my friends, and for these communities that are losing such wonderful examples of God's image amongst them.
But this post isn't meant to bash the church at large or particular communities, but instead to call us all to that place where Christ commanded us, "Don't judge, so you won't be judged, for you'll receive the same judgement you give." Of course, when I critique other churches and Christians for their harsh judgements, I'm making a judgement as well. It's a vicious cycle!
But let's apply Jesus' words. When we use judgement to expel others from our midst, that's the judgement we'll receive from God. When we use judgement to embrace others, that's the judgement we'll receive from God. I'll take my chances erring on the side of grace here.
And that's just the point. Jesus fell constantly on the side of grace. That's not to say he didn't execute harsh judgements, for tossing over tables in the temple and condemning Israel's religious elite as "whitewashed tombs" are pretty poignant judgements. But the example Jesus invites us to follow is one of inclusion rather than division, one of embrace rather than denial.
As Christians, we're called to be little Christs, living the life of Christ in the world. That means a radical hospitality that invites others to come in to relationship. From that common place and mutual care, we may together seek sanctification, the process of becoming more like God. But we can only do that if we're committed to doing it together. What we've got to learn is that we're not called to judge, and any act of judgement we employ is the same standard we set up against ourselves. Instead, as little Christs ,we're called to come to the world first in love, leading in compassion, seeking healing, and pursuing relationship.
If yoga isn't your thing as a Christian, that's fine, but that doesn't mean it's unholy. If children being children bothers you, take your cues from Jesus, who invited the little children to come to him. If you're ready to cast out a sister or brother because they love someone with similar biology, remember that Jesus tells you not to judge, and if you do judge, that the very same standard will be used in your own judgement. God's heart isn't for a perfect community, but for a human community deeply seeking God.
And there's no way we're going to see God if we judge every image that God placed before us as unworthy.
As the plight of Syrian refugees becomes a more common knowledge to us here in the West, we've seen some shocking responses to the deep needs of these displaced people.
Hungarian and German families stand beside the road to greet refugees with food, water, and words of welcome.
The Pope welcomed two refugee families into the Vatican, and called on European Catholics to follow his example.
An Egyptian billionaire offered to buy a deserted island from Italy or Greece to provide both temporary housing for those who wish to return to Syria, as well as a new permanent home for those wanting to start anew.
These supererogatory moves warm my heart. But, of course, others move away from the posture of welcome and instead deny any assistance at all.
Here in the U.S. we have the infrastructure to welcome thousands more, but we've capped it at only 2,000 for this year. The president is considering an increase, but nothing is assured.
Perhaps most depressingly, some countries are actively turning away refugees, including Israel, who is building a border fence on the Jordanian border to prevent immigration and refused to welcome any of their Syrian neighbors as refugees. Israel already has a fence at the Golan Heights, where the borders of Israel and Syria meet.
This is heartbreaking on a number of levels. The Torah, the holy book of Israel, has a number of things to say about immigrants and refugees.
Deut 27:19 - “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
Lev 19:33-34 - "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."
Now, I don't mean to proof text here, because someone might bring up the fact that Israel was called to eradicate foreign peoples from the land of Canaan when they inherited it. This is true, and something we have to wrestle with theologically and culturally as people of faith. But once the land was theirs, God called them to become a bastion of hospitality to the nations, to treat those who came to the land as people of God, to welcome strangers as family, to give immigrants the same justice due to the Hebrew people, precisely because Israel knew what it was like to be strangers when they were deprived of justice in Egypt!
As this crisis continues, I think we must repent of our own refusal to inhabit this welcome to strangers. We too are building fences to keep out people in need, many coming from Central and South America. We too have the resources and the abilities to alleviate the suffering faced by those whose countries are torn apart by war, poverty, and natural disaster.
We must repent, not of our good fortune, but of those times when we've refused to share our comfort, our affluence, and our privilege with those who desperately need it. Now, that means Syrian refugees, displaced people all over the world, and victims of too many recent storms, wildfires, and natural disasters.
Repentance includes a change in response. We not only admit our wrong and ask for forgiveness, but we commit to changed behavior as well. How can we as a people make a difference? Trying to influence our government is surely a step in the right direction, but we may also provide tangible functions of relief with our daily lives. We can partner with organizations like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service to sponsor refugee families and help them navigate the cultural differences they face. We can work with Lutheran Disaster Response to provide immediate relief and Lutheran World Relief to provide long term care and community development. We can commit to political and economic practices that value the lives of others rather than prefer our lives first. We can, like the Pope encouraged, become hosts ourselves to welcome people into our homes and provide safety for displaced peoples in order to offer relief and restoration in the name of Jesus.
As the needs arise, let us respond in the image of Jesus, with open arms and a future of hope.
Late last week, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, issued a call for the entire denomination to take part in "Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday" on September 6th. This makes me both excited and nervous.
I'm excited because appreciate her leadership, which comes as a response to the invitation from leadership within the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal denominations. These historically black denominations invited people of faith across the country to join them in this initiative on September 6th, and Bishop Eaton ensured that Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations would be amongst those to heed the call.
I'm also excited because, in our congregation, we've been working to confront racism head on. We're not to shy to speak about it, to name it as a sin, or address the effects of institutional racism in the structures of our government that have led to the endangering of black lives. This is exciting because it's a pitch in our wheelhouse, a place where we're becoming adept.
But where we're adept, we're also becoming comfortable, and that's why I'm nervous. It's incredibly easy to pray about something, even to confess and repent of a sin, and then do absolutely nothing about it. If we go on living the same way, then our prayers and our confessions yielded no true repentance at all. If we use this day to assuage our guilty egos rather than foster a swell of support to make concrete decisions and actions that combat the racism in our world, then we've failed to understand the holy urgency faced by our sisters and brothers of color.
We all know that we can't be satisfied with #hashtagactivism. Neither can we stop with postures of prayer. We must also undertake postures of action to help reflect the reign of God, who promised that no sectarian or ethnic or racial or gender or sexual division could separate us from the love of God in Christ. In the words of a former pastor of mine, who I'm sure paraphrased someone else, "Pray like it all depends on God. Work like it all depends on you." As Lutherans, we live in this tension where we know that ultimately all good comes from God, and yet God calls us to become the avatars through which that good comes to life. As we pray for the end of racism, we must also work toward that end. And we must do both with a relentless passion, expecting God and ourselves to act in unison with the Gospel.
So, as many of us across the country across from within our own faith communities enter this event called "Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday," let us prepare not only to use our words, but our bodies, to confess and repent of our roles in fostering racism, as well as recommitting to working for world where there's simply no room of hatred, oppression, or bias, based on race or any other God-given piece of our identity in Christ.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.