After three years of planning and countless meetings and logistics, the ELCA National Youth Gathering kicked off in Houston this week.
As more than 30,000 teens and adults converged on the NRG Stadium on Wednesday night, it wasn’t the dazzling lights or enthralling pyrotechnics that excited us - well, maybe a little. And it wasn’t the two hours of speakers and musicians from around the world who shared stories of faith with us, either, although that was powerful, too. Instead, it was the people-to-people connections which were already giving us insight into the beautiful and diverse body of Christ.
When our bus broke down on the north side of Nashville, the bus drivers took us to the movies to help pass the five hour delay.
When two buses full of sleepy teens invaded the truckstop in a small Texas town, all we experienced were smiles and warm Lone Star state greetings. The hospitality was contagious.
Wearing our matching shirts and trying to understand the map, a life-long Houstonian struck up a conversation with us on the light rail and, after answering some of our questions about mass transit, went on to tell us about her love for this great city.
Presence. Presence is a present. We are gifts to each other. God designed us this way.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Isn’t it a delight, when we head out to serve and love people, and end up being enveloped by the Spirit of God which is loose in the world? We have no idea what is in store this week in Houston, but we know that God was here long before we came, and will meet us in all sorts of amazing places and people.
Thank you again for making this trip possible. This time is life-changing for each of us.
Nsanya Otis Kapya suffered major head injuries in a car crash on April 15, 2012. He wasn’t in his native land of Tanzania, but was working in Nairobi, Kenya. A few days later, he died there in the Intensive Care Unit. Although he was twelve hours from home, he wasn’t alone. Not only was he surrounded by medical staff who were attending to him with compassionate care and family who had traveled to be at his side, but the same love and breath of God that pulses in and out of your lungs as you read these words surrounded him in his final earthly moments.
A few weeks later on the other side of the world, two dozen of us gathered to celebrate his life in the sanctuary of Reformation Lutheran in Wichita where I was serving. Otis was a cousin and nephew to some of our African members.
The Christian funeral and memorial service do powerful things. Whether held in a church sanctuary, the chapel at the funeral home, or standing graveside in the cemetery, this ancient ritual crosses time and space to name our need and hear words of reassurance grounded in the enduring promises of God.
In the opening words of his memorial service, we announced, “We are gathered this day to remember before God our brother, to give thanks for his long and full life, and to commend him to our merciful redeemer. In our baptism, God claims us and promises that nothing can separate us from the love of God – not even death. We also gather to proclaim Christ crucified and risen and to comfort one another in our grief.”
Re-membering. Isn’t this what happens each time we are gathered for worship? God draws us from our many places of living and working, literally reassembling us as the body of Christ. If we are on vacation in a seaside town or on a business trip in a bustling urban center on another continent, these moments of Christian worship gather us, feed us with the Word and meal of God, and then send us out as agents of hope.
God is busy with the business of re-membering us on other days, too. From our fragile lives, fractured by the impact of sin, we are daily being re-membered as our loving Creator puts the broken pieces together again.
If you recall the children’s rhyme, Humpty Dumpty, “all the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty together again.” What a sad end to the shattered life – no hope of being put back together. But as followers of Jesus, we believe otherwise. Thanks to Pastor Bill Yonker for the bold declaration that “all the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty together again... but the King can! The King of kings knows how to do it!”
This bold declaration makes it possible for us to sing with hope on a day of sorrow and loss. With the opening lines of “Shall We Gather at the River” on our lips at Nsanya’s memorial service, we weren’t thinking about the shoreline of the Arkansas River that winds through the south central plains of Kansas or the Rufiji River pushing east through Tanzania and into the Indian Ocean. No! Instead, we were celebrating that Living Water that provides healing and life, recreation and renewal, nourishment and promise – the River of God where we are re-membered.
It was beautiful the way the Christian community around the world came together to celebrate Nsanya’s life and grieve his death. As we stood engulfed in the resurrection promises of God, we couldn’t deny the reality that in our living and dying, we are not alone.
Meet you at the water’s edge,
Spring fever is everywhere. Swings and slides are full at area parks. Bicycles and sports equipment have migrated back into the yard. Co-workers spend part of their lunch outside and then look for any excuse to blow out of the office early.
Nowhere is the itch of the season more pronounced than when you talk to a teacher. Students and teachers alike are counting down the days to the end of the school year. Final projects and papers are in the queue. Field Days are scheduled, not to mention year-end parties and graduation celebrations. Both children and adults lost focus weeks ago and they are marking time until summer release.
Just because class will be in recess doesn’t mean that learning will cease. Often, our greatest lessons come from beyond the traditional classroom.
We have a miniature chalkboard on our kitchen counter where we leave inspiring quotes, Bible verses, and notes for each other. This week, our 6th grader wanted a turn sharing some wisdom, so he grabbed a chunk of sidewalk chalk and scribbled,
“Thinking is not doing.”
BAM! What a word of challenge! I’m really good at thinking and contemplating. I’m a pro at praying and making plans. But too often that is where my response ends.
We’ve seen the backlash around these kind of impotent well wishes. When disaster strikes, some send “thoughts and prayers,” but are unwilling to send assistance or work for reform.
Jesus spent much of his time in thought and prayer. He was frequently found praying and connecting with God in quiet moments, but that was only part of his formula for loving. Equally as often, Jesus was in motion. He talked, healed, comforted, accompanied, led, equipped, and taught.
He even told one follower the importance of a holistic approach to ministry. Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
What if this summer, in addition to thinking about doing something, you would actually do something? What if you tapped into your passions and put something in motion?
We’re doing it at church. We aren’t just thinking about loving and serving God, but we’re leveraging dollars, muscle, and prayers for what God is up to in our corner of the world. We’re not only thinking about being drawn into a deeper relationship with God, but we make the effort to get out of bed and make worship a priority in our busy lives. We’re not only thinking about making our campus more welcoming and hospitable, but we’re committing three year pledges to a capital campaign for renewal and expansion. We’re not only thinking about making a difference for those with food insecurity, but we’re planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting vegetables for those who would otherwise go without. We’re not only thinking about helping the homeless population in Butler County, but we’re making beds, preparing meals, and spending the night with new friends. We’re not only thinking about the importance of equality, but we’re marching as allies with the LGBTQ community in the Cincinnati Pride Parade. We’re not only thinking about making disciples, but we’re sending twenty people to Houston for a transformational week of serving and learning.
For more than a month, now, we’ve been praying, “Lord, what do you want to do through me?” It’s time. Let’s step forward in faith and join Jesus in the restoration of the world.
This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine
Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!
This song is among my earliest musical memories. The repetitive lyrics and unforgettable melody, coupled with fun hand motions, made it an instant hit for me as a little person and burrowed deep into my heart and mind.
Many versions of this catchy tune swirled around me throughout my youth. We sang a certain set of verses for the Sunday School openings in the Fellowship Hall of my church. Some of the words changed when we used it for VBS (Vacation Bible School) and still other verses popped up in the rotation at Camp Mowana Lutheran Camp on hot summer days. “This Little Light of Mine” was a constant traveling companion.
Several resources note that it was originally written by Harry Dixon Loes around 1920 as a children’s song and then embraced by many during the Civil Rights Movement. “The song, which has simple, repetitive lines with only one change per verse, lends itself to learning quickly and singing along, perfect for bringing people together with a common cause” (operationrespect.org).
So what is this light? For Christians, this light is none other than the Light of the World, Jesus Christ, who brings light in our darkness, hope in our hopelessness, and peace to our pain.
This little light of mine…
God is for us and comes to us in the presence of Jesus. The Spirit of God intersects our lives and dwells with us. When we can’t find a way forward, God meets us and guides us into whatever is next.
Hide it under a bushel? No!
This little light is a gift given to us, but it cannot be hidden or stuffed away. The Light of Christ will always shine, so God invites us to allow it to diffuse through our lives. It wasn't designed to be hoarded or muffled, but to radiate into the neighborhoods and world around us. Jesus said that we are like city lights. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden… In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Even when I’m afraid…
This little light brings us hope when we’re hopeless. In our fear and trembling, the light comes to illuminate the shadowed places. When we’re anxious, the light offers a soothing calm. In moments of loss and sorrow, God dwells ever more fully with us in our pain. When we face an uncertain future, we move ahead with an informed traveling companion.
All around the neighborhood…
This little light isn’t intended to stay on our turf. Instead, the Light of Christ hops across imaginary property lines and shines everywhere and anywhere.
In reality, this little light isn’t little at all. The Light of Christ is a massive glow of hope and grace that dominates cultures and generations as it shines throughout all time. It brings together all people under the banner of forgiveness and freedom.
This weekend, we’ll launch the Share the Light capital campaign which puts a challenging goal ahead of us to jump deeper into ministry with one another for the sake of the world. God shines through us. Let’s continue to Share the Light!
Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!
Remember! Worship at 8 and 11 am
Celebration Event at 9:30 am
photo by Anton Corbjin
Several years ago, my family traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for a family wedding. Being so close to a fantastic array of historical destinations, we decided to add a couple of days on to our trip and sight-see our way around the Washington, D.C. area. That was all planned before the government shutdown. Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined that the key sites and acres around our nation’s capital and Gettysburg would be barricaded. The battlefields in and around Gettysburg, The National Zoo, all of the Smithsonian complexes, monument after monument, and even the public restrooms were all off limits to citizens and world tourists. How do you begin to answer children’s questions such as, “Why can’t we go to the Lincoln Memorial?” and “What does the Capitol look like on the inside?” I struggled to find words.
One afternoon, as we drove into Washington, there was a little scuffle in the back seat of our rental car. One kid wasn’t getting their way. A book or backpack had crossed the dividing line and quickly became a point of contention. None of the parties involved could agree on who was at fault or what could be done to resolve the issue. With no talk of reconciliation or compromise, irritation quickly turned into frustration and then into anger. Cruising east on the unusually desolate Constitution Avenue, the selfish stalemate of government was on full display among my own flesh and blood.
You may remember such a family fuss in your own vehicle or life. You may also recognize in this account a mirror image of our ongoing skirmish that is at the heart of our struggle against sin and the devil. We want things our way and we don’t want others to mess with “our” stuff.
One of the Bible readings at the Gettysburg wedding came from the popular words about love from First Corinthians – “Love is patient; love is kind…” The list goes on and on talking about selfless love, a love that is lived for others, an enduring love that is fueled by hope and patience. This love from God isn’t withdrawn and fortified apart from one another, but is a love that extends compassion and generosity to others. God’s love is a love that walks around barricades and dismantles walls for the purpose of love.
We see this love in action in the Holy Week stories of Jesus washing feet, sharing meals, and carrying the cross to the hillside where he will suffer and die. We also see this limitless love in motion with the bursting Easter tomb and Jesus’ visits to the disciples behind locked doors.
As children of God, we should always be wondering, “Where is God asking us to go? Are there places that we’ve closed God off or don’t expect God to show up? How is God seeking us?” Where is God knocking, trying to get in, but we continue to place hurdles and obstructions in an effort to avoid or elude interaction with the Divine?
Our last day in D.C., we had to make a parental choice. Do we obey the paper signs on the barricades and stand at the perimeter of the National Mall for a strained view the Vietnam and Lincoln Memorials or do we, like so many others in an act of civil disobedience, make a way forward? With words of assurance that we wouldn’t spend a lifetime in jail, we grabbed the hands of our children and walked boldly around the barriers that were intended to keep us out.
Hey, Lord of Life, let’s walk, sing, and pray together as we boldly step into our future, ready to share the light and love of our God who is alive and loose in the world!
Hand-me-downs are some of my favorite items. I have jazz records from my mom’s college years, theology books with my dad’s notes in the margins from his time in seminary, and drafting tools from my grandfather’s thirty-five plus years drawing and designing for Goodyear.
I have a set of six bass steel drums that were gifted to me after a late-night jam session in the basement of the college music building. I wear hats and T-shirts that were gifts from good friends to mark key moments in our lives. I currently drive a car that was a hand-me-down from my in-laws following the demise of my Corolla.
Our Yakima bike rack, scuffed and scratched from years of use by someone else, was spotted in the back corner of a D.A.V. Thrift Shop in Wichita for a mere $25! A drummer friend of mine left me a giant Paiste ride cymbal in her will. I have a stunning black and white picture of the Oregon coast that was a farewell gift at the end of my pastoral internship. That’s right, it came right off the wall of someone’s home and into ours.
One of my favorite stoles, the colorful fabric that drapes over my shoulders for traditional worship, was a gift from Shirley Wuchter on my ordination day. Her husband, Rev. Michael Wuchter, was one of my campus pastors at Wittenberg University and died suddenly while on a goodwill mission trip in Namibia. I remember seeing Michael wear the Guatemalan created garment on Easter each year. His sweat still stains the part that brushes against my neck when I wear it.
But I’m not only on the receiving end. Some of my childhood books and toys have made their way onto the shelves of my own children. Holiday recipes and traditions have been handed down from our generation to the next. Every time we gather with extended family in Northeast Ohio, we pass down clothes and other kid stuff to my nieces, whose children are a few years behind our own. It is like Christmas as they open the bags full of dresses, hoodies, pants, and shoes, alongside bins of stuffed critters, books, and toys. It is so fun to give those things away.
The contagious joy of hand-me-downs revolves around sharing. People share with you and you share with others. This ebb and flow isn’t driven by keeping score, but is activated by generosity.
Faith is a hand-me-down, too. Our hearts and minds have been shaped by traditions, words, music, and ritual that come to us as a gift from others. The gospel of Luke begins saying that the author is writing to pass along the stories of Jesus, “just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:2 NIV). How we think about God, care for creation, wrestle with issues of faith, and seek to serve one another are all legacy gifts, which have been shared with us by countless faithful followers from the past, as well as those who surround and encourage us now.
In a few weeks, we’ll be launching the Share the Light capital campaign. Share the Light is about handing down and passing along the hope that comes through Jesus. This invitation to share asks us to recognize and respond to all that God gives to us and the ways that make our lives better. It doesn’t come from compulsion, but grows out of faith, hope, and love.
Share the Light!
Several days each week, I wake early to drive a carpool of boys to the Freshman school. We leave with plenty of time to zip around, load up the car, and still arrive at the school by 6:45 am. For months, it has been so dark - pitch black. Even when I arrive back home and try to snuggle in for a few more winks, the sky still looks like it could be the middle of the night.
As I shuttle the boys around, various lights guide my way. Headlights on the car help me maneuver through the parked cars and twisty turns of the neighborhood. Streetlights and reflective signs lay out the path before me, as I jump onto some of the main area roads already bustling with morning traffic. Closer to the school, brightly painted road stripes and massive overhead lighting, as well as traffic signals, illuminate intersections and help create traffic patterns. I’m glad that everything is so well lit.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I like the nighttime. I enjoy darkness. An evening walk sometimes brings peace and clarity to my weary spirit. A darkened theater is better for viewing a concert or film. Sometimes, I even travel beyond the city lights in search for darkness for a better view of the stars. But the darkness in our lives, both literal and perceived, has the power to paralyze us with fear and anxiety about the unknown.
We have been spending time in the Gospel of John this Lenten season. One of the features of this gospel account is the presence of light imagery. Over and over, Jesus refers to himself as light and speaks to the realities that come with that brightness. He tells us that we won’t stumble, our vision will be transformed, and mobility will look different with the dominating light. Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life,” (John 8). The Lord of Light doesn’t say that the darkness is gone, but promises that darkness will not dominate the landscape of our lives. The Light of Christ shines into every shadowed corner and cranny.
Daniel Erlander describes it this way: “We do not find God. God finds us – in our darkness, our pain, our emptiness, our loneliness, our weakness... [For us, this] is a new way of seeing... It is here, on the cross, that God meets us. Here God makes Godself present: hidden in weakness, vulnerable, suffering, forsaken, dying... As God meets us where we are, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see the Cross is God’s embrace – the Cross is God’s victory!”
This line of thinking is called Theology of the Cross. In the cross of Jesus, we see forgiveness, reconciliation, power, hope, life, unconditional love, and triumph. In the cross of Jesus, we are reminded that the goodness of God is stronger than any evil. In the cross of Jesus, God declares that death does not have the final word.
In recent days, when dropping off my carload of boys at the school in the early hours, I have noticed a slight glow on the horizon. I still haven’t seen the sun, but the promise of dawn is on the horizon.
Looking to the light!
Share the Light.
You’ve seen our plans for our next steps and might be wondering, “What’s up with the chapel?” You are not alone. There have been many questions about that space. “Why do we need a chapel?” “What would we do with a chapel?” “Chapel... Huh?”
“Hey! What’s up? How are you doing?”
All too often, we ask these questions out of habit more than out of genuine concern for someone. We lob the inquiry out there without any intention of hearing a response. If we pose the question to a stranger on the sidewalk or an elevator, we only do so as a kind gesture. If we ask a friend, we don’t expect a thoughtful answer that might draw us into the real-life drama and trauma of their lives. It is more of a formality in the greeting moment. Before the question is even completely out of our mouths, we’ve already mentally moved on to something or somewhere else.
A few weeks ago, we started our senior high event by hanging a few giant pieces of paper on the wall. Across the top of each page, we wrote, “I am...” and asked each youth to complete the sentence however they wished. The honesty and vulnerability astounded me.
I am... Anxious. Chocolatey. Confident. Confused. Content. Curious. Dead inside. Disappointed. Excited. Exhausted. Full. Happy. Hopeful. Joyful. Looking forward to something. Loved. Okay. Out of patience! Overwhelmed. Prepared. Pumped. Sore. Stressed. Taking deep breaths. Thinking about a lot of things. Tired. Unique. Excited. Worn Out. Weird. Wondering. Woman.
Right there in our Fellowship Hall, these teens were willing to scribble down the real-life answers to where they found themselves on a Sunday night, no matter whether they were chocolatey, looking forward to something, worn out, or dead inside. Imagine how many other feelings must have been swirling around in their hearts and spirits that they didn’t share with the community? If we listen after we initiate conversation, we can discover exuberant joys and deep sorrows. If we pay attention, others invite us into their lives and experiences.
This Lent, we’ll spend our Wednesday worship times exploring a series of “I am” statements which show up in the Gospel according to John. As Jesus reveals himself to others, he says, “I am the Bread of Life. I am the Light of the World. I am the Door. I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Resurrection and the Life.” What is Jesus trying to tell everyone within earshot about who he is? What might Jesus be saying to us? How do these metaphors invite us into a greater understanding of how God interacts with us and embraces us with an everlasting love?
We have God’s full attention. God asks us how we are doing and sticks around to listen to our response. In our moments of thrill and celebration, as well as our despair and lament, the Creator of the Universe is attentive to the pleas of our voice and heart.
Living in hope,
“The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” Isaiah 55:12
I never understood this phrase. Singing hills and clapping trees? I’ve heard the passage in worship for years and read it occasionally in my own devotional life. I’ve savored the beauty of creation from expansive vistas and lush valleys, but I’ve never witnessed trees clapping their hands, except for the creepy scene in The Wizard of Oz when the trees cheer and jeer and toss apples at Dorothy and her traveling companions.
On Christmas Eve, we read some similar words from Psalm 96, which describes all of creation raising their voices at the coming of the Lord. The Psalm culminates with a rejoicing earth, roaring seas, and “all the trees of the forest singing for joy” (v.11 ff.). For some reason, on that holy night, the words of the psalm writer began to make sense.
Maybe they began to make sense because of the howling wind that blew snow and knocked around trees, as well as rustled Christmas Eve clothes and hair. Maybe understanding carved a path in the ringing hand bells and singing voices, the flickering candles and sparkling lights. Maybe, faith and understanding connected through spoken Scripture and sung refrains telling of the night that Christ was born. Maybe, clarity came in the hot chocolate and coffee which flowed freely and the warm greetings and hugs of reunions, as friends and family connected.
Thankfully, our “Jesus Christ is born!” declarations weren’t only contained within the walls of sanctuaries and worship spaces. Outside, all creation joined in the birthday announcement, too. The glistening trees, falling snow, whipping wind, and hush of bedtime led us into Christmas morning and beyond. Did I hear some trees of the field clapping their hands?
This side of the Christmas and New Year celebrations, the rejoicing isn’t as easily found. The cleansing, white blanket of snow has turned to black slosh on roads and icy clumps clinging to our wheel wells. Garbage cans are overflowing, neighborhood curbside recyclers have extra cardboard packaging to pick-up, and the lifeless, naked Christmas trees are discarded as they wait to be hauled off. Inside, many of us have already packed up decorations and crammed lights and ornaments back into their nests for an 11-month nap. For some, the happy buzz of glad tidings have given way to the daily grind.
As we jump into the new year, creation won’t allow our exclamations to end. Christ is born and the world is changed! All creation, including us, is summoned to declare it. We continue to celebrate and look for renewal. We continue to cry out for justice and peace. We pray for those who are ill, lost, or alone. We work to care for the Earth and one another. Could it be that all creation cannot help but respond to the arrival of God coming among us?
The very end of the Psalms says as much: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6).
Joy to the world!