News and Resources from the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
facebooktwittergoogleyoutubepinterestphotosinstagram

Tag Archives: the lutheran

Spruce up our spiritual house

Disciplines help us glorify God while serving in ways that are abundant, clear

Bishop05p.jpgBy Elizabeth A. Eaton

“I’m spiritual, not religious.” How many times have we heard that, usually from people who consider their unchurched status a mark of honor. When I heard this as a parish pastor, I became frustrated, especially when folks waxed lyrical about a spiritual experience engendered from contemplating the beauty of a mountaintop. This was perplexing because I served in Ohio. There are no mountains. I was tempted to
dismiss it as laziness. But now I think they are on to something.

This coincides with what I am thinking after a year in office. The four “emphases” or “strategic intents” or  “things” I’ve identified—we are church, we are Lutheran, we are church together, we are church for the sake of the world—have resonance across the ELCA. It’s how I’m organizing my work.

A clear sense that worship is at the heart of what we do together and at the heart of our worship is the crucified and risen Christ—this is the essential foundation for our life and work together. Being clear about our confessional Lutheran identity facilitates our witness to the gospel and makes possible authentic ecumenical, interreligious and secular engagement. Being church together is a manifestation of the unity we have through baptism into the body of Christ. It is a source of strength. It is scriptural. Being church for the sake of the world is the natural extension of being church, Lutheran and church together. We get to participate in God’s renewing and reconciling work in the world God so loves.

I’m still developing these emphases, but the “we are church” is claiming my immediate attention.

We are church. We do many wonderful things as the church. We feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick. Why do we do these things and how are we able to do them? As I have written before, we are not the American Cancer Society or a nongovernmental organization. Peter instructed us that “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5). We are ekklesia—an assembly called out from the world and to God.

There is nothing wrong with employing the best practices of the business world, but before the strategic planning, goal-setting and program implementation we need to be about tending our individual and corporate spiritual life. As a church we need to engage in basic spiritual practices: prayer, silence, corporate worship, Scripture study, giving, service. These are ways God comes to us. These disciplines create a space in us, an openness, for God’s Spirit. They chip away at our willfulness. They make us aware of God’s
presence in our lives.

These spiritual practices aren’t magic or a kumbaya fad. They have been part of the Christian tradition for millennia. They are part of the Lutheran tradition. Martin Luther’s morning and evening prayers are precious models of spiritual practice (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 1166). Unfortunately, we’ve lost this part of our tradition. We’ve become religious, not spiritual. There is strong evidence that tending the
spiritual life is what millennials are longing for. I think the rest of us are too.

However, the intention must be there also. We are such active, useful people. We are “distracted by (our) many tasks” (Luke 10:40). We might mean to practice spiritual disciplines, but there is real work to do. Attending to God is our real work. Set aside the time. Mark it on the calendar. Then show up. Show up with our whole selves. Give God our complete attention. Practicing these disciplines is not about
productivity—it’s about being fully and expectantly present to God. Spiritual life is not multitasking.

We might shy away from this whole business because it seems so inward focused and self-absorbed. It’s not. It’s the spiritual equivalent of putting our oxygen mask on first before assisting others. Practicing these disciplines is so that we can glorify God and serve in ways that are abundant and clear.

We have a rich tradition as Lutherans: theological rigor, liturgical worship, musical excellence. Engaging in spiritual practices doesn’t supplant any of this. It’s part of our life as church. We can be spiritual and religious.

A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the ELCA. Her email address bishop@elca.org. This column originally appeared in the November issue of The Lutheran. Reprinted with permission.

See Each Other As Brother, Sister

This is most certainly true: Remember Eighth Commandment explanation

Bishop05p.jpgBy Elizabeth A. Eaton

I remember a particularly contentious meeting with a church council when I was a synod bishop. It didn’t start out that way, but bit by bit the mood changed. Council members began to question my motives, then my veracity, then my character. Finally I said, “Hey, I have a mother you know.” That broke the tension. My point was that I was a human being just like them, not a bloodless functionary. I had become “The Man,” which made me sad and was hugely confusing for my husband.

I would like to say this was an isolated incident in my experience of life in the church, but it was not. Nor is it confined to the church. Suspicion and blame aren’t new. Bearing false witness was around way before Moses received the commandments. But it seems that the climate of distrust and accusation in society has become more heated. It’s just more disappointing when it happens in the church.

Many theories can be put forward about why we behave this way: people feel threatened or discounted, people feel deeply about an issue, the topic at hand is critically important, truth is at stake. When the discussion or letter or email reaches this level of intensity, it’s no longer possible to hear one another. And as the tension and the volume increase, our vision becomes impaired. We are no longer able to see the other as a brother or sister, someone for whom Christ died.

This constricted conversation is becoming a habit. It is the default setting for us when our position is challenged or when we challenge someone else. It is a bad habit. And like all bad habits it is, in the short run, a lot easier and more fun to practice than its corresponding good habit. I’ll admit it, there is something satisfying about being so certain. It’s easier to ascribe motive than to engage in an open dialogue with the sincere intent of seeking understanding. Righteous indignation feels good.

In the church this is called “prophetic,” as if being prophetic only takes the form of scolding. I have received letters and emails suggesting I do things that are anatomically impossible and certainly not appropriate to reprint in a church publication. These epistles sometimes end with “In Christian love ….” I know a conversation is going to head south in a hurry when it starts with these words: “With all due respect ….”

There is another way.

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther gives us this explanation of the Eighth Commandment: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”

What a beautiful and generous way of being. The self is no longer at the center. The focus is no longer on justifying or defending one’s own position. All attention and care can be given to the other. As the volume is turned down our sight improves—we now see a precious child of God. Paradoxically this gentle approach makes it more possible to have difficult conversations.

We believe baptism makes a difference and makes us different, that our lives are now hidden in Christ, that we are inseparably joined to the love of God in Christ Jesus. We believe that in baptism God has set us free from sin, death and the devil. God has also set us free from ourselves. Because of this it is possible to engage in a new way of being together.

The church can model respectful dialogue. Instead of contributing to the static of suspicion that fills the airwaves, we can be a community that creates an open space where questions really are questions, not accusations, and disagreement doesn’t devolve into discounting. If we were to do this, congregational meetings might actually be fun.

Let’s try this: the next time we find ourselves on the giving or receiving end of less-than-graceful communication let’s recite Luther’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment.

This column originally appeared in The Lutheran’s October 2014 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Divine Foolishness

Christ crucified is God’s clearest and most complete act of love

Bishop05p.jpgBy Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, Presiding Bishop

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart (1 Corinthians 1:18-19).

Uh oh.

Paul wrote this to the Corinthians who were going astray. They were quite smitten with the elegant formulas of the Greek philosophers. The wisdom of the wise was a good thing. Foolishness, on the other hand, was considered a moral defect. They had become boastful, and Paul had to remind them that not many of them were wise or powerful or noble according to the standards of the world.

The Corinthians had begun to believe that their own effort and understanding was the basis of their life and faith. It’s clear they had not read Martin Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed.
Their cultural context is not so different from our own. We value knowledge and power and privilege. And while it might have been true that not many in the Corinthian church were “wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (verse 26) we are now. We can’t claim to be the 99 percent. We are the 1 percent. So what does that mean for the church today?

I remember the moment in a lecture hall in divinity school when I came to the abrupt and shocking realization that theology was not rocket science. This was quite disappointing because I was in a university full of actual rocket scientists. How could I hope to be taken seriously by other disciplines in the university—by the law school, the medical school, the business school—when what I was studying was the life and times of a Galilean preacher? I longed for a lab coat, a briefcase, even a calculator—anything that would demonstrate that my discipline was just as sophisticated, and therefore valuable, as any other.

I wonder, sometimes, if the church is a little embarrassed by the foolishness of the cross. The foolishness is not just that the brutal and humiliating crucifixion of Jesus is actually the way God’s love was manifested, but that God’s love is so complete. This is the overwhelming simplicity of God. God loves us completely. There is no way or any need to dress that up. It just is.

A contemporary Christian mystic said, “The relationship with God is so simple and deep and true and the church just wants to glitz it up.” Because this simple, deep, true relationship does not rise to the level of a complicated, technical, theoretical system.

We often obscure God with our “realistic,” “wise” and “clever” schemes. So we set about launching programs. We develop five-year plans. We make sure that all of our congregations are fitted with correct signage. We look for synergies and metrics. Then we think out of the box, push the envelope, put language to it and circle back so that, at the end of the day, we’ve achieved a critical mass.
This is not to discount secular best practices or expertise. Heaven knows the church can learn a lot from the business world. But it is to say that our starting point is our helplessness. Our starting point is to get human agency out of the way.

In a sense, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a “come to Jesus moment.” Do we want wisdom? Well, here it is—Christ crucified, God’s clearest and most complete act of love. Come to Jesus. Do we believe it? Can we live it? This is what people are looking for—to be completely loved by the One who knows us completely.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that discipleship is “not hero worship but intimacy with Christ.” Strangely, that intimacy actually propels us out into the world. In God’s love we have been given our life so that, in love, we can give our life away. That is a divine foolishness.

This column originally appeared in The Lutheran’s September issue. Reprinted by permission.

Great Expectation Not Novel

Signs of life to be found across this church if we take the time to notice

By Elizabeth A. Eaton

Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves.” Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” She answered, “Your servant has nothing in the house, except a jar of oil.” He said, “Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbors, empty vessels and not just a few. Then go in, and shut the door behind you and your children, and start pouring into all these vessels; when each is full, set it aside.” So she left him and shut the door behind her and her children; they kept bringing vessels to her, and she kept pouring. When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” But he said to her, “There are no more.” Then the oil stopped flowing. She came and told the man of God, and he said, “Go sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest” (2 Kings 4:1-7).

Stephen P. Bouman, executive director of the ELCA Congregational and Synodical Mission unit, often uses this Bible story when talking to groups about the possibilities for mission and ministry in their neighborhood. He asks them what catches their attention in this story—some say the desperate poverty, others say the anguish of children being forced into slavery. Everyone says the miracle of the oil.

What people rarely notice and what Bouman always points out is Elisha’s question to the woman. His point is that no matter how bleak a congregation’s circumstances seem to be, there already exists some capacity in that congregation for mission and ministry. We are not helpless people without agency. God has already given us what we need to participate with God in the work of God’s kingdom.

Too often we lapse into a paralysis of grief or anxiety or nostalgia that renders us incapable of seeing anything but scarcity. We don’t have enough money or members or young people. The creditors are at our door and we don’t even have any children to give them. The end isn’t near, it’s here.

One of the most frequently asked questions after I was elected was “What is your plan to reverse the decline in membership?” There are some major assumptions packed into that question—that I have the power to change the church, that there exists some miraculous plan or program that, if applied correctly, will save the church, to name just two. The question also assumes that all of our ministries and all of us live in absolutely empty houses, that we are helpless and completely lacking to be able to participate in God’s mission. That is not true.

Recently I have been hearing stories about sightings of life across this church. Bishop H. Julian Gordy of the Southeastern Synod reports that some congregations that reduced or completely cut mission support in 2009 are now increasing or reinstating it. At its assembly this spring the South Carolina Synod welcomed three new congregations that grew from mission starts. Bishop James E. Hazelwood of the New England Synod challenged folks at that assembly to make up a $25,000 budget deficit. By the end of the assembly they had pledges for more than $63,000. It seems when asked, “What have you in the house?” they were all able to find something that God could work with.

All of these sightings remind me of the first green shoots that poked up through this winter’s snow. There weren’t many at first and they didn’t immediately overcome one of the bitterest winters on record, but they were there.

When I read the story of the widow and the oil I noticed something else—Elisha told the woman to gather vessels “and not just a few.” God was going to provide abundantly and she had better be prepared for that abundance. How often do we expect too little if we dare to expect God will act at all? The ELCA is God’s house and in it is everything we need—word and water, bread and wine—to participate in God’s mission. I challenge all of us to notice signs of life and send them in. Join the conversation at Facebook.com/Lutherans or twitter.com/ELCABishopEaton and post your #signsoflife.

This article originally appeared in The Lutheran’s August issue. Reprinted by permission.

Shout-out for Team ELCA

Bishop05p.jpgA call to all for greater, deeper and unapologetic participation in this church
By Elizabeth A. Eaton

We are in the middle of synod assembly season. All synods will meet, vote, discuss, worship and sing. I will be at five of these and can assure you that, though there are delightful regional flavors, they will be remarkably similar. If we were to take a voting member from the Pacifica Synod meeting in Hawaii this year and plunk her down in the hills of Pennsylvania at the Allegheny Synod Assembly, she would recognize what was going on.

Each year from April to June a remarkable thing happens across this church. We come together. Members of synods participate together in the work of the ELCA and like it! Congregations see the work we do together as the ELCA all across this country and around the world and have a sense that they are part of something greater than themselves and are proud of it. For a few shining days we believe and live the words of Paul: “So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:5).

And then we go home.

In the Dr. Seuss story Horton Hears a Who! there is an entire civilization existing on a speck of dust. The moral of this story is that, though it might not be part of our experience, we shouldn’t discount the experience of another. After all, “a person’s a person no matter how small.” But I think there is another less perky lesson to be drawn, and that is, until they got into trouble the citizens of Whoville were quite content to believe their speck of dust was the whole world.

We’re not so different. Congregations can, and often do, fall into the trap of believing that they are the church, the whole church, all by themselves. Coupled with some of the most frequently asked questions usually raised around budget time—“What do we get from the synod?” and “What does the synod do for us?”—this understanding of church becomes what I call “Transactional Whoville Ecclesiology.” Transactional because the motivation for participating in a relationship is what can be gotten out of it. Whoville because the individual or the congregation or the synod or the region or the churchwide organization believes it is entirely the church.

I’m not sure which part of Transactional Whoville Ecclesiology is most distressing. This ecclesiology arises from a transactional understanding of our relationship with God. If I go to church, if I keep the commandments, if I follow Jesus, then God will do something for me. The gift of resurrection itself becomes a transaction. It’s like someone saying to his or her spouse, “I love you honey, but I’m only in this marriage to get your pension when you die.” It’s the opposite of “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19). It’s “we love so God will love us.” This is a grace-less ecclesiology.

The question should not be “What does the synod do for us?” or “What do we get from the synod?” Rather, transformed by the love of God in the death and resurrection of Christ, the question should be “What are we able to do together as synod?” or “What do we get to do as synod or as the ELCA?”

Whoville ecclesiology is isolating. It’s also really American. We celebrate the concept of the rugged individual. We value self-determination. Autonomy is prized. We are suspicious of claims on us by a greater whole. The concept of church as the body of Christ and that we are members one of another, then, is very countercultural.

But the baptized aren’t just a collection of individuals in the church for what they can get out of it. We have been claimed by Christ. Paul reminds us, “You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19). The Marine Corps has billboards that proclaim: “Serving something greater than themselves.” How is it that they are better at articulating what it means to be church together than we are?

This isn’t a plug for institutional survival or mindless loyalty. It’s a call to each of us and all of us to greater, deeper and unapologetic participation in the part of the church known as the ELCA. We can have a little pride in who we are without irony. I believe I’ve established my theological heft so I am allowed a little hokeyness. Here it is: We are Team ELCA.

A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her email address: bishop@elca.org.

This column originally appeared in the June issue of The Lutheran. Reprinted with permission.