The Tree of Life Massacre – One Year Later

Yard Sign

It’s hard to believe that it’s been one year since the unconscionable slaughter of eleven innocent worshipers at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill (a part of the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). I’m reminded of my first feeble attempt to “do something” and to “take a stand” after a senseless tragedy that left me both numb and speechless each time I see the sign in the front yard of my home.

We have been challenged to think and to reflect in the last year. Many of us have grown and have been changed as we took a more honest look at ourselves in the mirror and as we’ve wrestled with what we believe about other people. Faith leaders in the Pittsburgh area have traveled for many miles – coming from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples – to join in both open and honest conversations that have helped us to better understand each other and the faith traditions that we represent. God has been at work in our communities to challenge us, to soften our hearts, to open our ears and hearts to the voices of others, and to stretch both our patterns of thinking and faith.

The last year has, also, been a time when leaders and members of spiritual communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania have worked hand-in-hand to create a Statement that we, as leaders of different faith traditions, believe expresses the principles and beliefs that we can embrace together. I am providing a copy of this newly released Statement to you, and am hoping that you will take some time to read it, to reflect upon it and even to pray about it. We, as faith leaders in Southwestern Pennsylvania, believe that our faith traditions challenge us: to recognize the dignity and worth of those around us; to speak boldly and clearly against racial supremacy, demonization of those from other cultures and religions, and the violent acts that grow from those bitter roots; to stand in solidarity with minority and marginalized communities; and to repent from our own complicity in words and deeds that have expressed individual and systemic bigotry, racial and religious supremacy, and oppression.

We have committed ourselves to building more loving communities and neighborhoods that uplift the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual, and that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times even as we continue to both recognize and accept the fact that we believe many different things about both God and our world because of our different faith traditions.

I am now presenting this Statement to you hoping that you will take some time to read it, to ponder it, to pray about it, and to allow it to both challenge you and lead you toward the new kind of life that God calls us to embrace in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Living Faithfully with One Another

As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to interpret and draw guidance from sacred texts and traditions.

The sacred texts of the world religions all affirm the created dignity and worth of each individual and our sacred responsibility toward those in need. As we interpret our own sacred traditions in preaching, teaching, meditation or prayer, we will lift up these values.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in support of the dignity and worth of each person.

With sacred texts and traditions as our guides, we reject the theories and rhetoric of racial supremacy, the demonization of those of other cultures and religions, and the violent acts which grow from these bitter roots. We embrace the right of all people to worship (or not to worship) according to the dictates of their own consciences, and we expect the government to respect this freedom.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in solidarity with those in need.

We turn with compassion toward those in our midst who have the greatest cause for fear and insecurity. We stand in solidarity with all marginalized and minority communities, especially those who have been targets of injustice, discrimination, prejudice, and hate. When any of us are attacked in word or deed, we promise our support, help, and protection.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak truth to those in positions of power.

Our voices must be spoken and heard in public discourse. We seek to bring the perspectives of sacred traditions to bear in our shared public life. We call upon and remind elected, appointed, and professional leaders throughout our community to uphold and enforce the values of justice, fairness, nondiscrimination, and dignity.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to high standards of self-reflection.

We call upon ourselves, our faith communities, and our institutions to acknowledge and repent for complicity in words and deeds that express individual or systemic bigotry, racial or religious supremacy, and oppression. We are committed to growing in wisdom and inclusivity as we learn from one another.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to live abundantly, joyously and harmoniously with one another.

We will work resolutely to strengthen the ties that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times. When and where we disagree in our understandings, we commit to acknowledge, listen to, and value the perspectives of others even as we respectfully present our differing opinions.

We covenant to create, expand and nurture a community of mutual support throughout Southwest Pennsylvania. Seeking Divine help and guidance, we commit to building the beloved community, a neighborhood of neighborhoods that lovingly uplifts the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual.

October 3, 2019
Pittsburgh, PA

When Your Prayers Seem to be Unheard

Provision

We’ve all asked God to intervene in our lives, haven’t we?

Some people ask for God’s help when they’re looking for a new job. Other people have asked God to help them win the lottery. I’m sure that we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve asked God for the gift of healing – either for ourselves, or for someone that we love. A woman told me that she once asked God to provide a parking place for her at a local shopping mall, so that she didn’t have to walk through the snow when she went there to finish her Christmas shopping.

Jesus once told a story about a widow who had been treated unfairly. She asked a judge to help her, but he didn’t. And so, she started going to the Courthouse to plead her case every time the judge came to work and every time he left the building at the end of the day. But, the widow didn’t stop there! She started following the judge home and beat on his door in the middle of the night. And the same thing happened night after night after night, until the judge (who really didn’t care about God or even about people) caved-in and granted her the justice that she sought.

Have you ever felt like you were beating on the doors of Heaven, but that God wasn’t listening to you?

Maybe you didn’t get the job that you asked God to provide? Maybe you didn’t win the lottery and couldn’t pay your mortgage? I remember a time in my life when I prayed and prayed and prayed for young man who had brain cancer – and he died. What if God does not provide a parking place for you at the shopping mall during the busy Holiday Season and you have to walk through the snow – just like everyone else?

Many of us think that prayer is about asking God to give us the things that we want; and, when we don’t get what we want, we get mad at God. “Where was God?” we sometimes say when bad things happen. “If I’ve prayed every day for a young man who had cancer and he died,” we might ask, “then what’s the use in praying at all?”

As I’ve journeyed through life and as I have matured as a Christian, I’ve come to see that prayer is about far more than asking God to give me something and, then, expecting it to miraculously happen. God builds our faith as we pray; and, sometimes, God gives us the strength we need to face things in life that we can’t change. God helps us to see things in different ways when we pray and God promises to journey with us even when things are going dreadfully wrong.

St. Paul once wrote (Romans 8:35-37): “What shall separate us from the love of God?” “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” And St. Paul answers that question by writing: “No! In all these things we are far more than conquerors!”

That’s living faith!

Faith is not about learning how to make our God jump through hoops. Faith is not about “doing something” to catch God’s attention; and, then, expecting God to bless you beyond your wildest dreams – even though that’s what the Prosperity Gospel proclaims.

God promises to journey with us through thick and thin. God promises to bless us with the gift of faith when we need it the most. God promises us that we will never be left all alone, and that God will never let go of our hand in the midst of a raging storm.

That’s the God that I meet and that I spend time with every day when I pray.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Why the Church needs Lutherans

 

Luther Rose Picture (1)

The last year has taken me in many interesting directions. I’ve spoken with bishops and pastors from many denominations. I’ve talked with Raymond Bonwell, an economist and Presbyterian pastor, who’s lectured at Princeton Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School, about time management, the challenges of ministry, and the laser-type of focus that pastors and church leaders must maintain in order to help congregations fulfill their mission. I’ve spent time with Eric Law, an Episcopal priest and executive director of the Kaleidoscope Institute, learning about six “Holy Currencies” that congregations need to consistently exchange in order to remain both missional and sustainable. I’ve talked with many people, who belong to the congregation that I serve, about our ministry in the 21st Century in Conversation Circles; and I’ve had the chance to talk with Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ELCA pastor who has discovered refreshing ways to reach people, who weren’t being touched by traditional ministries of the Church, through radical authenticity and embrace. And in the midst of all that activity, I’ve learned many lessons about life and faith.

But there’s something else….

The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary recently sponsored a “Being Church” conference that attracted Church leaders from across the nation and invited them to join in lively conversations about ministry. Nadia Bolz-Weber shared the story of her life; and then, she talked with us about why she’s a Christian. She spoke about God’s embrace and love for people that we often don’t understand. She talked with us about finding God’s presence in the midst of ordinary people and about watching the Spirit move in people’s lives. She spoke about the radical implications of “justification by grace through faith”—something quite familiar to me as a Lutheran. And then, Nadia Bolz-Weber invited us to gather in small groups to simply listen to each and to share ideas.

The small group that I attended was very diverse. We crossed our denominational lines, moved past racial barriers, embraced people of all ages, and intentionally tried to be as inclusive as possible. We talked about many of the things Nadia Bolz-Weber had lifted before us during her presentation. And then, a woman in our group surprised me when she said, “I found the ways that Nadia spoke about ‘grace’ to be both insightful and refreshing. I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘grace’ that way.” I smiled….

We live in an age where churches are trying all sorts of things to make themselves more attractive to new members. The pastor of a church in my community recently removed all of the crosses from the walls in the building—because “The cross is offensive to people in modern times.” I’ve seen many churches strip denominational affiliations from the name of their congregation and become a “Bible” church. I’ve seen other churches transform worship into a weekly self-help seminar designed to help ordinary people become both happy and successful in life. We want to find an easy fix. We want to believe that if we just change the style of our music—or the name on the front of our building—or, perhaps, get rid of our denominational affiliation altogether—people are going to flood through our opened doors and we’ll be happy again. We’ll even have to start setting-up chairs in the aisles, so that people have a place to sit.

But it doesn’t work that way.

I was reminded, once again, that the Lutheran congregation that I serve has a precious gift to share with the Church, and with the world, as I listened to the words of a woman in our small group at the “Being Church” conference. “I found the way that Nadia spoke about ‘grace’ to be both insightful and refreshing. I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘grace’ that way,” she said. The continuing Lutheran witness to God’s radical love and embrace is a gift to the Church. The continuing Lutheran witness to God’s power to forgive and to embrace people that we find hard to accept and understand is a precious “gift” that Lutherans have to share in a time when that message is not always clear. I don’t need to challenge the congregation that I serve to give-up its rich Lutheran heritage in order to help the Church to move into the future. I don’t need to listen to the voices of those who think that the Church needs to become “more generic” in order to appeal to the next generation. The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t change. We may need to find new ways to talk with people about God’s message of radical love and embrace, and we may need to embrace new ways of doing ministry in a changing world, but we don’t need to abandon “who we are” and become “what we are not” in order to become more appealing to the next generation.

I’ve been encouraged as I’ve spoken with other people about the future of the Church. We’re moving through quickly changing times—and that can be scary. But the Spirit’s alive and moving in our midst. It’s exciting to watch people, who don’t even know each other, talk about the evolving ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ in similar ways. This is a time when prayer is absolutely crucial. This is a time when we need to listen to each other, when we need to build each other up, and when we need to speak with each other in helpful and respectful ways. But this is also a time when I need to remember, and when I must continue to remind the people that I serve, that the Church of Jesus Christ needs the precious “gift” that faithful Lutherans bring to the table when we bear witness to God’s continuing love, forgiveness and embrace in our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ.

Do you know a child who’s grieving?

Waterbugs

The loss of a loved-one can be devastating to a child.

Some children travel through many years of their lives without experiencing the death of someone that they know. I wasn’t so lucky. One of my grandmothers died when I was four. Less than three years later, I lost one of my grandfathers – and two years after that, I lost my other grandfather.

It’s not easy to talk with children about death.

Children can have as many questions about death as we do. What happens to people when they die? Can grandma still see me even though she’s buried in the ground? Why does mommy cry so much, and why does daddy tell me to just leave her alone? Am I supposed to cry like everyone else? Am I going to die when I go to sleep tonight?

I have used Water Bugs and Dragonflies as a tool for many years. It’s a well-written story, and it’s a wonderful resource that can help adults to speak to grieving children. And now, it’s even available in an incredibly helpful coloring-book format!

If you know a child who’s struggling to make sense of the death of a loved-one, you may want to get a copy of Water Bugs and Dragonflies and spend some time reading a story, coloring, and talking about one of the hardest parts of life that we’ll ever face. 

God is Near!

Elijah

1 Kings 17:6-24

Life is filled with ups and downs, isn’t it?

We save money for a rainy day, and we invest our time and energy in relationships with other people. We plan for our future (often expecting the best) and we even go to church and pray – believing that God stands beside us.
But, life throws us curves, doesn’t it?

Children sometimes go astray when they grow up, and close relationships can end when people move to a different city – or even die. Today’s bad choices often shape tomorrow’s reality. Marriages crumble. Jobs can be lost. Sudden illnesses can bring us a mountain of unpaid bills. And, when any of those things happen, our faith can be shaken and we can even begin to ask hard questions.

In this week’s message, “God is Near”, we explore a brief moment of time in the life of a widow who experienced a roller-coaster of emotions. She watched the ground dry, crops wilt, and animals die after Elijah told King Ahab that God was going to withhold the rain because of Israel’s wickedness. The widow had seen her small barrel of meal and flask of oil provide more meal and oil that she could have ever imaged after she (in faith) baked Elijah a small loaf of bread and gave him a drink of water. She watched her only son die, and cursed the day she had met Elijah – because she blamed him for what had happened to her son. And then, Elijah wept and prayed and held the dead corpse of the widow’s only son; and, suddenly, he came back to life!
We experience a wide range of emotions as we travel through life as people of faith.

When everything’s going well and when we’re happy and prosperous, we feel like God is blessing us and we praise God from the mountaintop! But, when the pendulum swings in the other direction, we ask tough questions, don’t we? “Where was God when I needed God to be present?” “Why do bad things always seem to happen to good people?” “Why do little children face starvation and horrible diseases?” “Where is God when violence explodes at a local synagogue?” “Where is God when little children are being abused by priests?” Where is God when overdoses claim the lives of people that we love?” “Where was God when the widow of Zarephath’s only son got sick and suddenly died?”

We are reminded, in this week’s message (“God is Near”), that God is near to us in both good times and bad times. God was present as the widow of Zarephath wept for her son. God is present when people gather together to lift each other up and to stand beside each other in difficult times. Jesus promised us that He will always be found when we come together as God’s people to share gifts of Bread and Wine in Holy Communion. God will always be found in the love we receive from people who encourage us and hug us and whisper tender words into our ears, and God will be present every time we offer our love and support to other people – comforting others with the same kind words and actions that others extend to us during difficult times (2 Corinthians 1:4).
Our journey of faith teaches us to know that God is near in every circumstance.

It’s easy to see God’s presence when we experience times of blessing. But Jesus promises to be close to us even when the pendulum swings in the other direction – and when our lives become difficult.

Trust the Lord and know that God is near to you. Look for Jesus in every circumstance of life – whether it’s good or bad. And know that our God promises to draw near to us and to sustain us and to renew us in every situation that we face.