It has been a hard year.
It has been an apocalyptic year where things in me, in each of us as church, and in each of us as a country, have been uncovered. That is what apocalyptic means, “uncovered”. I was asked to write an article about our journey through COVID-19, so I have been reviewing my notes from Zoom conversations with our rostered and lay leaders, Facebook posts, etc.. Like the pain of childbirth fades out of mother’s and father’s memory normally, it is easy to forget the many chapters and pivots of this painful and surprisingly odd year’s journey. We are in our homes more than normal. We are alone more than together. We have been traveling through a wilderness of uncertainty, anger (old Norsk for grief) and longings for what we now realize meant so much in normal times. We know we will not go back to the old normal, but we pray God would lead us to be better normal after this exile in this novel coronavirus pandemic.
Robyn and I enjoy having a fire in our back yard these days, even in the cold. As I look into our fire pit, I think of things I am thankful for. For example, I am thankful for my ancestors who often faced illnesses they did not understand and that disrupted their lives. Particularly, I am grateful they faced and survived the 1918 flu virus.
I am thankful for our leaders and workers in government, health care and in the business world. Wow! Very hard and careful work is being done by so many.
When I think of our rostered and lay leaders I am so grateful as I think about the ways they invested themselves in the work of protecting the most vulnerable, the whole community of faith and kept faithful to the work of proclaiming the Good News. We know in Christ Jesus that our God is for us, with us and recreating and resurrecting life out of what seems hopeful. It has been something to watch. So many people are moving in their own contexts, faithfully innovating, adapting, doing hard work of discerning and making big decisions at speeds we had not imagined. I cannot help but smile when I think of the amazing ways you have changed to keep your community of faith moving forward and together while apart. Dr. Hill’s wisdom is true. I am thankful for the gift of collective wisdom.
We did not get it all right so, I am also thankful for the teaching of Jesus and our practice as communities of faith to follow him in forgiving one another. I am also thankful for the ways people and communities have engaged in the work of healing people who have been harmed or who are caring for the vulnerable. Some of the work I am most thankful for goes to the work of attending to communal and structural forms of sin. Like my root canal yesterday, they require deep burrowing, cleansing medicine, careful repair and then moving forward more deeply aware of our vulnerability to corruption and broken-ness of many kinds.
I am thankful for our congregations. I am thinking about all of them as I write this. I have visited most of these congregations after seventeen years of serving as bishop. All have been in my prayers and awareness. For the small, medium, and large membership congregations, I am thankful for your faithful and sustaining commitment and generosity. So many people make the life of all these congregations happen. For your work I am grateful. For the congregations full of wise elders who seek to nurture and sustain the faith I am thankful. For our multiple point parishes, I am thankful. For our solo congregations in open country and towns, I am thankful. For our regional center congregations I give thanks to God as well. For our larger congregations and their willingness to share their capacity and touch the lives of many I am thankful. You all have been amazing. I almost slide into bragging when I tell others about the ways you have moved to serve the Gospel in the last months.
I love the painting of Peter getting out of the boat to walk on the water, because it was in the front of my childhood church. I see it with new eyes now. God called us out of our buildings, like Peter was called out of the boat. We did sink like Peter at times in this season, but we also learned Christ reaches out to grab our hand. We trusted like Peter as Jesus pulled us through the days, weeks, and months of the past year. We can trust God will pull us through the coming days.
We are thankful for our mission partners who deepen, sustain, and encourage the faith. We give thanks for our camps, campus ministries, college partner Gustavus Adolphus, Lutheran Advocacy of Minnesota, seminary partner Luther Seminary and Shalom Hill’s retreat ministry. All these systems including Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota have been working in strange times and adjusting their ministry and work.
I am thankful for people living out their callings in offerings of love and hard work in their occupations and in their other callings as neighbors, mentors, and friends. So many have risked so much for the sake of our people and communities, we give thanks to God for you all.
I am thankful for the work that is being done to prepare our church body for the future. I am thankful for the new, younger, and diverse people God is calling into our communities and communities of faith. I am thankful for the steady and persistent leadership of middle-aged people and elders. As an elder, I also give thanks for all the work being done to intentionally pass on the faith and share the keys of control with people who are new leaders and receive the gifts of their experience and insights.
“The congregations and all the baptized who are the
Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
are claimed by this mission: God places us in cities, farms and towns
together under one prairie sky. The Risen Christ surprises us with opportunities
to plant God’s Word in the world.
“In cities, farms and towns” our mission statement reminds us that God calls us to plant the Gospel. In the coming days we will experience a Thanksgiving like no others. Know that you are all valued by God, your congregations and your synod. Know that your mission field matters whether you are in open country congregation, small town, a county seat or in a small city.
Someday I hope we will say, “You know, 2020 was really challenging. But you should have seen how we worked together. You should have seen how God provided guidance and inspired so many to love their neighbors and practice the faith.”
By God’s grace, we will get through this together.