Happy Earth Day!

by the members of the Delaware-Maryland Synod Creation Care Ministry

Even though 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, this year’s Jubilee Celebration honoring God’s creation will likely be overshadowed in the public’s mind by the fearsome changes wrought by the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic.

As members of the Creation Care Ministry trying to encourage congregations to move towards actions that will renew the water, sky, and earth, we see a profound realization coming from the shocking speed with which this virus has brought the human world’s whole economy to its knees. All at once, even the rich nations of the world have been awakened to the stark truth that our existence on this planet is fragile, dependent upon maintaining the balance between competing industrial economies and earth’s inescapable natural economy.

Encountering this pandemic of 2020 has required us all to submit humbly to caring for one another through the imposition of social distancing policies based on scientifically recognized best practices enacted for our collective health. In an awesome way, during this Jubilee year, we see the nations momentarily required to pause their headlong expansion of fossil-fueled activities – and in that moment we can see the planet breathe. On the first Earth Day, we marveled at the then-brand-new photographic images of our beautiful blue home from space … on this 50th Earth Day, we observe satellite images dramatically depicting how the atmosphere has cleared around the globe after just a month of reduced pollution.

Is the planet showing us that by uniting and working together we can mitigate our present crises, both short and long term? This year, on Earth Day, we pray that our response to the viral pandemic will become a dress rehearsal, transforming our ability to overcome the denial which has blocked us from taking the actions necessary to achieve a carbon-neutral future.

We can only hope and pray. But, as Easter people, we know that the damage which has been done to our common home through human carelessness is not the inevitable end of the story.  It is the ongoing birth and renewal of Creation itself which gives us new hope.  That is what we are celebrating this year on Earth Day.  As stated on the Earth Day website:

Earth Day 2020 will be far more than a day. It must be a historic moment when citizens of the world rise up in a united call for creativity, innovation, ambition, and bravery that we need to meet our climate crisis and seize the enormous opportunities of a zero-carbon future.”

At the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2019, the Earth Charter was endorsed. We, the Creation Care Ministry, have created a 2020 Eco-Justice Resolution to implement several articles of the Earth Charter specific to ecological integrity. These include energy efficiency and reducing, reusing, and recycling the materials used in production and consumption systems. We ask congregations to prayerfully consider becoming a Creation Care Covenant Congregation. This covenant is a pledge by each congregation to take tangible steps toward better caring for God’s creation. It further encourages congregations to create a plan with actions and practices that are appropriate for and tailored to their members and their church. A document providing guidance on how to become a covenant congregation can be found on the Lutherans Restoring Creation website.

And although we are being responsible and caring for each other by practicing social distancing, there are some Earth Day observances we may be able to participate in from our homes:

  • Plant some native pollinators like purple coneflower (echinacea) and butterfly weed (Asclepias). Both of these do well in gardens and in containers.
  • Spend quiet time with God in nature. Go outside if you are able and take time to experience and celebrate the beauty of this world.
  • Pray for people who are currently affected by sickness, economic challenges, and environmental degradation.
  • Looking forward to the day when we can again work together side by side, bookmark this page for information about future stream cleanups.

We pray together: Dear Lord, you created all things and redeem all things. We pray for the earth, for the whole of creation, as together we work for the day in which all things will once again be brought to life and wholeness in you. Give us the will to be agents of your healing and redemption – for ourselves and for the blessed world in which we live, now and forever. Amen.

What does this mean?

by Bishop Bill Gohl

a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline… – 2 Timothy 1:7

The ELCA Church Council, the highest legislative body between Churchwide Assemblies, acted this last week to end the use of “Visions and Expectations for Ordained Ministers.” That action is described in this press release. Bishop R. Guy Erwin (Southwest California Synod) shared this Facebook post reflecting on “What does this mean?” +bg

Bishop Erwin writes:

The ELCA Church Council took action today to permanently end the use of the “Vision & Expectations” (V&E) document that in its original form was written to (and indeed did) long block the ordination of non-celebrate gay and lesbian pastors in our church. Though revised after Churchwide Assembly decisions in 2009 to remove those specific prohibitions, it continued to be an object of offense to many—for whom the changes made seemed insufficient.

 

V&E blocked my own ordination for 20 years, so I am not at all unhappy to see the end of it. Its redeeming features as an expression of aspirations for ordained ministry had—in my view—been completely obviated by its notorious history.

 

The possibility of a new aspirational document for those seeking ordination as pastors and deacons in the ELCA has been lifted up by the Church Council, but no firm timeline for that has been set. If it happens, it will take some time.

 

In the meanwhile, the ELCA’s disciplinary document for officers, rostered leaders, and lay members of the church, called “Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline,” will continue in force without substantive change, and it will likely continue without change until a wide-ranging Churchwide conversation can occur. Again, there is no timeline for that. The “Definitions & Guidelines” document articulates the same rules as “Vision & Expectations” did, so there has been no substantive shift in ELCA expectations for the life and conduct of rostered ministers.

 

The Church Council also made it explicit by amending the ELCA Candidacy Manual today that the rostered ministers portions of the “Definitions & Guidelines” document have now immediately become the church’s expectations for those in the church’s candidacy process, and that candidates’ familiarity with and assent to that document will be required in all the steps of the candidacy process in which the “V&E” document had previously been used.

 

Thus there will be no interruption in the church’s expectations of conduct for its rostered ministers, which remain largely unchanged. Still, the disappearance of Vision & Expectations is, in my opinion, a great good thing.

 

I am happy to have had a small part in the decision making process. But the conversation is far from over.

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. – 2 Timothy 1:6-7

Worship in the time of Coronavirus

by Bishop Bill Gohl

You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…do not fear, for I am with you. – Isaiah 43:4-5, selected

International attention to the COVID-19 Corona Virus has raised a number of questions across our synod about safely assembling for education and worship. Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Worship Team, headquartered in the Presiding Bishop’s Office, has updated a resource titled “Worship in Times of Public Health Concerns.”

While I don’t wish to add to a sense of panic or pass myself off as expert in matters that we would do well to gather information from sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; it does seem right and salutary that our clergy and lay leaders should be proactive to be well-informed of the situation in their local areas and to examine worship practices with regard to the spread of pathogens, perhaps making small changes that would help alleviate the anxiety of the gathered assembly. Now is also a good time to make plans in case circumstances change: a pre-prepared prayer service bulletin and devotion that could be shared if a clergy person becomes ill; a protocol for checking in with people who are absent from worship; making provision for streaming connection to the worshipping community – or recommending other streaming communities to those who make the decision to stay home.

The three most critical suggestions that I believe would be easily implemented:

  • Encourage people to stay home when they are sick, including clergy, please.
  • Leverage this moment to teach people about consent with regards to touching. In our synod there are many practices of touching – at the Peace, sometimes holding hands for the Lord’s Prayer, etc. I believe this is an opportunity to teach people that there are perfectly legitimate ways to participate in the liturgy without physical contact with others. Teaching people to ask before presuming touch, and respecting that there are many reasons why others might not wish to participate in touching, would be a blessing in the midst of the outbreak, and long beyond.
  • Encourage frequent handwashing with soap and warm water, and not perpetuate the false sense that hand sanitizer is as effective a substitute.

Apart from that, I encourage us to be thoughtful about dramatic communion practice changes; largely because they are hard to reverse – and how does one decide the timing of returning to previous practices? An assurance that the fullness of the holy communion is received in either element, and even in the very words of distribution – given for you, shed for you – would be good catechesis in the midst of panic about the sharing of the sacrament.

Corporate worship is an essential response to a health crisis; the community gathering around Word and Sacrament is an important sign of hope in the midst of fear.

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,

I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” – Isaiah 43:1-7

Feasting versus fasting

by Bishop Bill Gohl

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? – Isaiah 58:6

William Arthur Ward (1921-1994), an American author, teacher, and pastor suggested that there was sometimes a shallowness to the typical Lenten fast from meat, chocolate or alcohol. Dr. Ward pressed those in his care to think more deeply about fasting from something intrinsically destructive cultivates renewal of the heart, mind, and spirit.

Feasting versus Fasting, This Lent

Fast from judging others; feast on the Christ dwelling in them.
Fast from emphasis on differences; feast on the unity of life.
Fast from apparent darkness; feast on the reality of light.
Fast from thoughts of illness; feast on the healing power of God.
Fast from words that pollute; feast on phrases that purify.
Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger; feast on patience.
Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism.
Fast from worry; feast on divine order.
Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation.
Fast from negatives; feast on affirmatives.
Fast from unrelenting pressures; feast on unceasing prayer.
Fast from hostility; feast on non-resistance.
Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.
Fast from personal anxiety; feast on eternal truth.
Fast from discouragements; feast on hope.
Fast from facts that depress; feast on verities that uplift.
Fast from thoughts that weaken; feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from shadows of sorrow; feast on the sunlight of serenity.
Fast from idle gossip; feast on purposeful silence.
Fast from problems that overwhelm; feast on prayer that undergirds

I don’t pretend to believe that this is easy – or even consistently humanly possible – but there are pieces of Dr. Ward’s sermon that deeply resonate, challenge and encourage me to fast a bit more purposefully this Lent.

May your Lenten fasts lead to genuine Easter feasting – not in 40 days, but for all your days.

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. – Isaiah 58:1-12

Practicing silence

by Bishop Bill Gohl

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength… – Isaiah 30:15

It’s hard to believe that Ash Wednesday is only days away. I feel as though we blinked at Thanksgiving, Christmas came and went, and bam, it’s Ash Wednesday.

Last year, Lent felt somewhat impoverished for me. I was in the midst of a weighty piece of synodical business, and my Lenten disciplines got away from me – and I felt like I was always trying to catch up to my aspirational hopes for reading, prayer, self-denial, and service. A spiritual director friend suggested that, perhaps, I had bitten off more than I could chew. The result is that since the New Year, I’ve been thinking about Lent and Lenten discipline. I recognize that I am looking forward to Lent, that I need that little springtime, with its themes of death and new life, mortality and eternity, of faith, piety, and transformation.

I have heard some compare Lent to baseball’s spring training, a metaphor for renewing our Christian faith commitments and tradition, akin to a New Year’s resolution; others, connecting Lent to Advent – a more hopeful anticipation of Easter. I appreciate Lent for how it was passed on to me from those who taught me the faith. Spiritual reading, renewed commitment to prayer, self-denial for something larger than the self, service for the sake of Christ and neighbor. My mom, in particular – and her mom, too – were especially attentive to these disciplines and had expectations that we kids would follow suit!

One self-denial I am working toward for Lent is silence. Lest this sounds especially spiritually noble, I’m not talking as much about silent meditation (which is a significant part of my regular spiritual discipline), so much as I am talking about maintaining silence in places and at tables where my voice tends to dominate – by expectations, real or imagined!

I’m thinking about tables like dinner with my spouse and children, the Bible study table I share with colleagues, the staff meeting I lead each week, the gathering of the Conference of Bishops. I would like to leverage a gift of myself – to listen better to those that I love, those I deeply respect and admire, those whom God has given me the privilege of sharing time, table and ministry.

My spouse has been deeply invested in both her ordained ministry and her teaching career – I never cease to be amazed by her experience and observations of church and classroom. My children are all of an age where conversation is deeper and I learn so much from their developing world-views. The pericope Bible study group I have participated in for the last 20 years is becoming increasingly younger, richer in diversity and larger in attendance; and we are learning at a wider table how to listen more deeply to one another. I have been learning from our Lutheran Youth Organization to know my staff colleagues as “leaders among leaders,” and trying to live more fully into shared authority. At our ELCA Conference of Bishops, as this church calls more diverse people to this ministry of oversight, I try to speak less and amplify the voices of others whom this church desperately needs to hear.

Some know that there was a time I tested a vocation to a religious community. After a time, it was suggested that, perhaps, religious community was not the way God was calling me into pastoral ministry. The member of that community who accompanied me in discernment did their level best to help me live into the gift of silence, but I found it maddening, challenging and isolating.

This Lent, I am longing to rediscover that gift and discipline of silence. Not monastic, off to a quiet place silence (which I know in other ways as part of my spiritual life); but the kind of silence that gives way to more clearly being gifted to listen and hear those with whom I share beloved community.

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. But you refused and said, “No! We will flee upon horses” — therefore you shall flee! and, “We will ride upon swift steeds” — therefore your pursuers shall be swift! A thousand shall flee at the threat of one, at the threat of five you shall flee, until you are left like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain, like a signal on a hill. Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him. – Isaiah 30:15-18