My Dear Augustana,
Last summer, 31,000 ELCA Youth Gathered in Houston around the theme, “This Changes Everything.” It may be obvious to some, but it needs to be said, the “This” that changes everything, is Jesus. You see, change is kind of a Jesus thing. Christ changes brokenness into wholeness, unbelief into faith, death into life, sickness into health, enemies into friends. Kind of amazing, this Jesus.
Because we serve such an agent of change, I wonder if we ought to change the name of our Annual Meeting (Feb. 10) to something else. “Annual Meeting” sounds a little too parliamentary, legislative, transactional. When we gather as a community, we usually have way more fun than Robert’s Rules of Order would allow. We eat together (thanks Anne and Donise!). We share stories. We make plans to serve our neighbors in new ways. We pray. Might even break into a song or two! How about we change February 10th to, “Augustana celebrates Jesus the Change-maker”? or “Rejoicing in the Holy Spirit of Change”? or “Jesus Changes Everything—let’s Party!” Just a thought.
I admit that maybe those names are a bit weird. No big deal; everything is open to change. That said, there are at least a couple of important things going on with this idea. One is celebration. There is a lot to celebrate around here. On February 10th, we celebrate things like our worship life—how, week in and week out, faithful and flawed folks gather around Word and Sacrament. We’ll also celebrate our outreach ministries that touch lives in our neighborhood, lives around the world, and lives in our congregation. And we’ll celebrate our community our faith, how we connect with and care for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, that’s a lot to celebrate!
And, one could say, there’s a lot to change. We gather on the 10th of February to make changes in the name of Jesus. What will allow us to minister more effectively in 2019? How can we more faithfully participate in God’s mission to the world? All kinds of folks all around us don’t know much about Christ (and what they do know is often skewed). So, how can we connect in a meaningful way with our friends we haven’t met yet; even invite them to become involved with us? In some areas of our lives and ministry, it’ll take change, maybe a lot of change. That probably shouldn’t surprise us. After all, Jesus, don’t ya know, changes everything.
P.S. The next ELCA Youth Gathering, in 2021, will change our neighborhood. 35,000 young people will meet for a week, right up the street, at US Bank Stadium. No theme yet.
My Dear Augustana,
For many years, our Synod has partnered with the Leipzig District of Saxony, Germany. It’s a wonderful relationship, with deep and strong connections. Pastor Paul Rogers has been our point-man, our visionary, our leader in this endeavor. A year ago, he stepped down from this post and the synod asked me to service coordinator this partnership. So now I spend some of my time recruiting individuals and church groups from the M.A.S. to participate.
As I talk with folks from our synod about Leipzig, I regularly work into the conversation that they should be careful about getting involved: this partnership could very well change their lives. We focus our trips, not so much on sightseeing, but on relationships—opportunities to connect and to share our lives, our stories. This takes trust and time. It takes openness to express an increasing closeness and a willingness to grow even closer. Such connections can be life-changing.
One memorable moment last summer typifies this:
A couple of Leipzigers—both pastors—and I were chatting in the square outside the St. Nicholai Church. Our group was to gather at the peace pillar that so wonderfully defines that area. As we waited for our friends to assemble, I asked Horst, “What was life like for you during the time of the GDR [German Democratic Republic—what we Americans used to call “East Germany”]? Horst said, “Bill, it was like this…” And he told me a joke. It’s a joke from the 1980’s, a political joke. And its punch line is a bit off color to Americans (but not nearly so impolite to Germans), so if you are easily offended, skip the next paragraph.
So, now back Pastor Horst’s story:
Ronald Reagan from the USA, Mikael Gorbachev from the USSR, and Erich Honecker from the GDR all die and go to heaven. St. Peter meets them at the gate and recognizes them as leaders of their countries. The Apostle says, “Greetings gentlemen, I have a special treat for you. See that pool over there? If you jump off the diving board, the water will turn into the beverage of your choice before you land in it. So, go ahead, jump off the diving board, say the name of your favorite drink in midair and enjoy.’ Reagan goes first. He hits the end of the board and catapults upward, yells “Scotch!” and lands into a pool of 16 year old single malt. Then Gorby stands on the board and looks at the pool of scotch left by Ronnie and heads down the board; in midair he yells, “Vodka!” and does a swan dive. Finally, Hoenocker, as a good German, heads down the board, excited to yell, “Beer!” Awkwardly, he slips as he is about to take off, stubs his toe, and says helplessly as he tumbles toward the pool, [I leave this in German] “Ach Scheisse.”
We laughed. We talked some more. And things got serious: “How things have changed,” said the third pastor, Wolfgang, “If anyone from the government would have overheard that joke and seen our laughter, we could all be arrested and sent to jail for disrespecting the people’s president” (Volkspraesident). And the joke teller added, “And you know, it wasn’t just the government. If someone on the street would’ve overheard us (or thought they’d overheard us) and filed a report, we could’ve been arrested. We could not trust anyone but our closest friends and family. That’s what the Stazi [the state secret police] wanted—to keep us guessing, to keep us from trusting one another.”
The poignancy of that moment was profound: Three old men, born and reared worlds apart—Cold War kids taught by our governments not to trust the other. At that moment, though, we were brothers in Christ standing together in the shadow of a monument to peace swapping stories, grateful for God’s grace, proud to be partners.
The moment had snuck up on us. I suppose we weren’t cautious enough. And for that, I’m thankful—such conversations, don’t you know, can change a person’s life…
[adapted from the sermon delivered on Pentecost, 2014]
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
On Tuesday before Pentecost, about nine a.m.…
My son John and I were driving to the Interact Center (his day program, in Minneapolis’s warehouse district—a short drive from our place in Loring Park). Per usual, he cued up a CD. As we eased around the Lyndale Ave curve in front of the Basilica of St. Mary, “You’ve got a friend in me,” from Toy Story, began. The light turned red. We stopped, but the song kept going—with intro rolling toward lyrics, John put his hand on my arm.
Nice, but not extraordinary. John does similar things fairly often. In his post-Leukemia world, words still don’t come easily. John often lets gestures and nods, other folks’ words (even song lyrics), speak for him. In the car, when he plays disc-jockey, he’ll connect a song with a feeling and reach over to give my arm a tap. These moments are always nice—and this moment could have stayed, simply, “nice.”
But that morning, John moved WAY beyond nice. In the shadow of that big old church, John did something amazing—even sacred. It happened like the rush of a mighty wind. This time he held my arm. No mere pat would do. No little rub. This was different. John touch lingered. His gesture grabbed my attention.
So I looked at him.
But I wasn’t ready for what I saw: John Russell was beaming! His bright grin, strong wave, powerful posture, twinkling eyes emphasized, even outshone, his words. The way John held my arm got my attention. And my surprise turned to astonishment. John was filled with a new kind of energy, an enthusiasm he hasn’t had in a long time. It’s been years since he’s glowed like that.
That would’ve been enough. But John wasn’t done. He spoke! He didn’t mumble. He didn’t hesitate. He didn’t let the CD say it. He used words. He looked me in the eye and spoke so clearly and strongly that, if the car were filled with “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans and Cappadocians…,” and all the rest, then each could have understood, in their own language, what John was saying.
His energy touched me as palpably as his hand. There may even have been a tongue as of fire resting on him. At that red light, the Spirit moved John and he spoke. And he spoke with power! The profundity did not simply follow from the words in his sentence, though they certainly moved me.
It’s about that cascading holy happiness. He was so unmistakably happy that he could not help but share his joy. The Spirit, yes the Holy Spirit, touched him and John touched me.
It was a blessed moment—with power and energy and wonder to spare. In fact, I think the statue of old Father Hennepin (on the pedestal in front of the basilica), with his cross of benediction held high, might’ve even given us a wink and a thumb’s up from his lofty perch—you know, the kind of thing a statue in a Disney movie might do…
Of course this doesn’t mean that now life will be a smooth, easy ride of good energy and sappy songs and sweet smiles. John’s life is not a made-for-TV-movie. There will be stops and starts, bumps and potholes. Even some washed out roads and breakdowns. But as real and as difficult as those things are, they don’t define him.
John Russell has a sacred source of strength, a well of hope that defines him beyond and in spite of Leukemia. Moments like this provide a glimpse at, a reminder of what can be. That, on the other side of all the hell he’s known these last three years, John can be happy again. He’ll touch others. He’ll listen to music that he chooses. He’ll speak his truth.
Yeah, there’s something holy about those things. And there’s something holy about the words he spoke that day:
“I love you, papa.”
My Dear Augustana,
I’m grateful for the Sunday off, yesterday, but I sure miss worship at Augustana. I think of the liturgy now underway. I think of our community of faith gathered around Word and Sacrament–the heart of what we do as a church. I can imagine Pr. Rogers preaching strong words of law and gospel, the choir singing beautifully, the hugs of support, the prayers of intercession, the benediction for one another, after the kids’ dismissal. And the whole event bathed in the bright colors of Jesus praying, streaming through the stained glass.
I want you to know that John asked last night, “I go papa’s church tomorrow?” Actually, it may have been more of a statement or command than a question. We’re both sorry that the sub-zero temps make an outing–even to church–unwise for him. Still, his sense of Augustana as a group of folks who welcome and support him is right on target. That is our calling, isn’t it? To invite and welcome all folks into our fellowship, beginning with our neighbors within walking distance to CES. John represents part of that mission: to minister to folks who have economic challenges, illness, and special needs. And, as John has taught us, the directions of ministry move both ways. John’s ministers to us as we minister to him. And we welcome his gifts–and the gifts of everyone in our wonderfully diverse neighborhood–into our ministry. When we do that, the light of Christ not only shines on us, but through us.
We are thrilled that John’s a member with his sisters at Edina Community Lutheran, where my wife served as pastor in the early ‘90s. It’s another place that knows John and embraces him with Christ’s love. But I sometimes think Augustana could “steal this sheep” (I’m not recommending that, of course. I’m just sayin’…). The warmth he feels at Augustana is real and it means that Christ is present among our community as we seek to engage in God’s mission.
And who would not want to be part of such a church?