Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. –Philippians 4:8

Last Sunday, as we lit the “pink” candle on the Advent wreath, with its call to joy, these encouraging words of St. Paul in writing to the Philippians reverberated in my heart and have served as a “watchword” for this week when the consumer culture of our times seems to speed up even time itself. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

While it’s easy to allow things to spin out of control, there’s a holy pleasure in taking time to do as Paul admonishes: think about these things.

And so, I think about this last year and all the ways your partnership and generosity have made this ministry we share possible:

+ I am renewed by the work of our new mission congregations and those congregations who are discovering a new life in redevelopment, for a God who continues to say “yes” to possibilities and futures filled with hope! From Lauraville to Crisfield, in French, Tamil, Korean, Fars, and Burmese, we are learning to sing a new song!

+ I think about my visits with our Campus Ministries across the territory at College Park, Delaware, Morgan, Towson, and UMBC, where our campus ministers make personal sacrifices that are often unseen for the exercise of our strongest synodical young adult ministry. Lives are being transformed in worship, fellowship, learning and service at a critical young adult milestone.

+ I am reminded of being at Mar-Lu-Ridge, where a life-changing experience is offered to “kids” of all ages. This is truly a “loaves and fishes” ministry, where many small gifts become something great for God and kingdom. On a personal note, it’s my son Andrew’s (age 15) “favorite place on earth” – words that make my heart sing!

+ I think of the congregations of so many sizes where I’ve preached, worshipped and had a glimpse into community this last year. From the 1000+ folks on Easter Sunday at Evangelical (Frederick) to the five people that gathered at Bethel (North East) one early service when I was on route to Delaware, worship was rich, the Gospel was shared and the Sacrament celebrated! Small and large, urban, rural and suburban, there are incredible signs of God working through our congregations to bless the communities we serve, this church that we love and the world which God so loves.

+ I smile as I remember our youth events – large and small – where, frankly, our synod shines brightly with a ministry that is of, for and by our students! RoadTrip, Transformers, FreeRide, High School Leadership Event, and the Advent Family Events – all signs of a gracious and loving God who provides leadership and life for a church that is, and was, and is still to be.

+ I am humbled by the work of the Racial Justice Ministry Team, the Creation Care Ministry, the Hunger Ministry Team, as well the Synodical Women’s Organization and the African Descent Lutheran Association; every last one of whom added light and leaven, challenge and truth, partnership and hope to our common life this last year.

+ I am touched by the work of our Continuing Care Communities in Rockville, Hagerstown, Westminster, Ellicott City and West Baltimore; impressed by the work of Hilltop Lutheran Services and Lutheran Community Services Delaware; cautiously optimistic for the work of our seminary campuses at Gettysburg and Philadelphia; and hopeful for the work of our schools in Fullerton, Laurel, Wilmington, Towson, Charles Village, Middleborough, Westminster, Newark and Annapolis. God’s faithfulness knows no age or experience, there is love for all.

+ I am grateful for the collegiality of my staff colleagues, our deans, Synod Council, and Mission Teams, empowered and blessed to bless this church.

Our synod is supported entirely by the gifts of congregations, ministries, and individuals who believe in these ministries I’ve shared and so many more. As a sign of our partnership and faith, we share 50% of what we receive from our congregations with our churchwide organization making the work of seminaries, missionaries, new starts and congregational vitality possible across this church and world. This Christmas, I invite you to be generous again and to join us in finishing the year (which for us ends on January 31, 2019) with strength and irrepressible hope for what God is doing in this corner of the church and world. Write to me at 575 S Charles Street, Suite 202, Baltimore, MD 21201 – or for impact that will be put to work today, you can donate online right now.

Thank you, dear partner in ministry and fellow follower of Jesus. Your gifts, your time and your talents make a difference, in this time and for eternity. Thanks be to God for the indescribable gift of love in Jesus Christ!

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. –Philippians 4:4-9

What then shall we do?

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” -Luke 3:7

The crowd was largely the poor, the powerless and those living in the margins. Surely there were some who were rich, powerful or influential – but they were likely far and few between, and of course there were some of the religious authorities on the edges, paying close attention to this itinerant preacher, this Levite gone rogue, gathering their testimony against him.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

In such a time, when the empire was in a place of unchallenged power, what bound this crowd together was unfettered fear. And into this scene comes John with his accusation of being vipers, demanding to know who warned them to flee the wrath that was still to come.

It’s a germane question in this day, too. Those most in the margins of our society – the poor and the powerless – are scrambling over rapidly diminishing resources. There is less and less certainty about the future and the ability to keep up with the many strata of society that are in constant flux. Washington is in legislative gridlock. Every intersection, in some communities, has become a place of hustle and solicitation. Last night it was 19 degrees in Baltimore and the steps of the church I belong to had at least three people who slept there, sheltered by a small porch.

And so, like Luke’s telling, there were in John’s “congregation,” the poor, powerless and marginalized, but not all of them; some were also rich, powerful and influential – a crowd not unlike those of us who gather in Any Church, USA, too.

“What then shall we do?”

This Sunday, in many of our homes and congregations, we will light the third candle on the Advent wreath. It is a visible way of marking time on our Advent journey; it’s a tangible sign of God’s light breaking into the gloom and doom of our unjust and cruel world through the birth of Jesus Christ – and in the hopeful promise of the Christ, who will come again. When I was growing up, that third candle was pink – or in the liturgical color code, “rose.” It was the Sunday that marked a turn from the endtimes to the incarnation, it was the Sunday of “joy.”

That tradition, which is a vestige of an older lectionary – the appointed scripture readings that many Lutherans follow ecumenically with other Catholic and reformed churches – works especially well this year with our second reading from Philippians:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. –Philippians 4:4-7 (NRSV)

So many of us are embroiled in the work of “making joy” for our loved ones and others in this season of preparation. We are leaning into this admonition to “rejoice” – trying to talk ourselves down from worrying about those things done and left undone, as our personal worlds seem to be spiraling out of control towards December 25.

Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) was a German theologian and Lutheran pastor. Niemöller was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1938 to 1945 having been convicted for “activities against the state.” He narrowly escaped execution. After his imprisonment, he expressed his deep regret about not having done enough to help the victims of the Nazis. He turned away from his earlier nationalistic beliefs and was one of the initiators of the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt. He is best known for his widely-quoted sermon, said to have been said like this:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Of course, he spoke these words 20 years after his silence in the face of atrocity.

And so, with John’s courage and renewed starch in our own backbones, we speak up and we speak out – with and for the vulnerable and marginalized. The time for silence is long past, the mechanizations of oppression are continuing to crush the nameless and faceless neighbor in need.

That is not to say there isn’t danger; let’s not hide the reality of wrath still to come. There was certainly such danger and wrath for the crowds who came out to hear John; there was for Niemöller and the average citizen of Germany in the midst of the rise of the Nazi party, and there surely is danger – social, political, relational danger for us, too.

As people of faith, we beat the drum of justice, we sacrifice of ourselves for mercy. At least that’s what John presses. His familiar figure cuts into our Advent experience pointing to the humility of a child laying in an animal’s feeding trough, the child of parents who embody, even two thousand years later, what it means to be poor and powerless, living in the margins; he will spend his own all-too-short life making a way in the hearts of many for a betrayed, condemned and crucified “criminal” who called and calls us to our best selves, sharing of our abundance and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

In such a time as this, when empire is in a place of unchallenged power, when the poor, powerless and marginalized, as well as the rich, powerful and influential gather around John’s reminder to do as Jesus does, Paul attaches the beautiful promise of our second reading to encourage and bless us as we travel together this challenging Advent journey: The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. -Luke 3:7-18 (NRSV)

Hope in a new season

“From the fig tree learn its lesson…” – Mark 13:28

The world becomes more and more urgent to bring about a cultural advent sooner and sooner each year, replete with store displays after back-to-school, and round-the-clock music on the radio before Thanksgiving, all trying to convince us that it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas; this is one of those liturgical “leap years” where we are in deep opposition to the world. With the Feast of Christ the King falling the Sunday after Thanksgiving, as the world races toward Christmas, the Church is jamming on the parking brake and waiting for December to begin our community’s journey toward the manger. One pastor friend was telling me that she came into church last Sunday to see the whole place decked out in blue, greens in place, Advent wreath at the ready to light – and when questioning the kind altar guild member as to why, the dear member said, “My grandkids always help me set up the Advent wreath the Saturday after Thanksgiving, don’t they?!”

Still, even with our schizo-Advent-phrenia, these Christ the King “leap years,” there is one thing that doesn’t change – and that is World AIDS Day falling on December 1. I don’t know the history or significance of it being on this day, but since 1988, this is when communities around the world stop and take stock of the state of HIV/AIDS, remember our blessed dead and resolve anew to fight alongside the living.

World AIDS Day is quintessentially Advent, with those Advent themes of preparation and expectation, we are reminded that we are a world and we are a church who is forever changed by the AIDS pandemic. Respectfully, and irrepressibly hopeful for a cure, World AIDS Day has deepened my own commitment to the necessity of the Advent season and has shaped how I preach, teach and cultivate a sense of waiting, expectation, preparation, and hopefulness.

The Gospel reading speaks to a both/and experience of Advent and World AIDS Day, of Christ and community, of longing for Christ’s return and the expectation of a cure: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.”

George Evans, once pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in McLean, Virginia, was to have said at the funeral for one of his parishioner’s spouses, who had died from HIV/AIDS complications: “I am, at my heart, a fundamentalist; and fundamentally the church needs to do a better job of loving.” In essence, he was gently and firmly chastising the Church and, perhaps his own congregation, to do a better job of accompanying, loving and caring after those who experience HIV/AIDS in life, not just at their death; to be a part of redeeming the social death that HIV/AIDS was exacting on great swaths of the community, not contributing to it with our own fears and actions, even in public worship; to name and claim countless men and women who experience HIV/AIDS as our own, even as they are beloved children of God. It was a message that I’ve taken to my own heart since I heard him share it over 25 years ago. Cork, Ireland-born Mary “Mother” Jones coined a phrase that says it well: “Remember the dead, fight like hell with [for] the living.” From the fig tree learn its lesson…

On Friday, I paid a small tribute to George H. W. Bush, 41st President of the United States, as the nation gives tribute for his life and service and mourns his passing. I said a word of personal gratitude for his example of civility and bipartisan leadership in a time when such things are but quaint memories. Often named “the last moderate Republican president,” it’s easy to long for the brand of politics he championed throughout his career; still, like all of us who are saint and sinner, the elder President Bush did not rise to leadership at the onset of the AIDS crisis. As Vice President, he did not wade into the fray when AIDS burst on the scene and some were content to allow “Gay Cancer” to affect its due course of “natural selection.” Moreover, as President, he never gave significant national leadership to claiming a world leadership position for the United States in the fight for a cure. Some attribute that to him being a “man of his times,” or having been limited by his own experiences and understandings. Nevertheless, his lack of leadership is one of the reasons we gathered at St. Mark’s in Baltimore on World AIDS Day, one of the reasons why the timeline for finding a cure has been so protracted and the social death exacted on those who have and are living with HIV/AIDS has been so cruel and devastating. For as much as I am grateful for his example, we cannot hyper-mythologize the man and forget the failures of his life and times, too.

And lest, Church, we look down our noses at President Bush, we are not without blood on our hands. We gathered at St. Mark’s Church, which for many years we were content to call “the Gay Church,” and rarely before recent times had we accompanied this congregation on its journey to care for and accompany people living with HIV/AIDS over a generation. In fact, we concluded our service at the Memorial Shrine in the Narthex, reminding us week by week that this congregation was decimated by the AIDS crisis and calling to mind the countless friends who hallowed this place by their worship even as they were fully received into the death and resurrection of Christ in baptism, and prematurely in death. Even as we have become more “enlightened” with our processes of becoming Reconciling in Christ, the community gathered at St. Mark’s was walking the walk and talking the talk long before any other congregation had the moral courage or fortitude to begin the conversation; in an ironic twist, the proliferation of RIC congregations in the metro area has, to a certain extent, added to the decimation of this St. Mark’s community; a former bishop of our Delaware-Maryland Synod observing, “it’s no longer niche enough to be a congregation that welcomes gay people.” Yikes! Saint and sinner, both/and – from the fig tree learn its lesson…

Many around us will tell us what season we are in. Some say it is the end times, some have been saying that for 2000 years. Some will say that it is time to celebrate Christmas. Others say it is time to observe a holy season of preparation in our hearts and world for the reign of Christ. On World AIDS Day, the message of Christ’s redemptive power and presence in the world can instruct us how to be people of Advent, people who are about to receive once more the powerful promise of Emmanuel, God with us.

In this season of expectation, we await Jesus’ powerful ability to unite the children of God from all four corners of the world. And in that vision, may we stand with those who hope for one more season of life and a new season where HIV/AIDS will be no more.

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” – Mark 13:24-31

The inaugural ELCA Young Adult Discernment Retreat

My name is Adam Fairchild, and I am a student at the University of Maryland. I recently had the opportunity to travel to Tallapoosa, Georgia for the first-ever ELCA Young Adult Discernment Retreat. This retreat was attended by 50 young adults and representatives of ELCA Seminaries and other service programs like Young Adults in Global Mission, Lutheran Volunteer Corps, and Urban Servant Corp.

This event was organized by Savanna Sullivan, Program Director for ELCA Young Adult Ministries and Matthew O’Rear, from Wartburg Theological Seminary. While in Tallapoosa, we gathered under the theme of, “Why Me, Why This, Why Now,” and discussed discernment of our senses of vocational call. Among the attendees, there were individuals discerning calls to ministry in the church and those discerning calls to other fields of work.

At the retreat, we spent time in large group sessions, including a Q&A with Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. We also spent time in small group discussions, led by current students of ELCA seminaries. In our small groups, we talked about the intersections of our identities, gifts, and values to create personal mission statements and identify our “next most-faithful step” in ongoing personal discernment. There was also plenty of time available for us to talk individually with others about the questions, decisions, and stresses we were bringing into the weekend. I went into this retreat knowing that I feel a call to ordained ministry, but I had questions about different graduate schools, service year programs, and other aspects of professional life. Throughout the weekend, I determined my next most-faithful steps in personal discernment to be planning visits to seminaries and divinity schools and reflecting on my sense of call through conversation with family, friends, and mentors.

I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to attend the ELCA Young Adult Discernment Retreat earlier this month. It was incredible to meet and talk to other college students who are also discerning their vocational callings and to learn from other young adults about their stories and post-college experiences. It is not every day that I can talk for hours with other young adults about vocational call and discernment. While 50 of us gathered in Tallapoosa at the ELCA Young Adult Discernment Retreat, there are hundreds of other young adults in the ELCA who are eager to have similar opportunities to come together as a community to reflect on where they feel God calling them and how they can respond to those feelings of call. I look forward to continuing discernment of my next most-faithful steps and to future gatherings of young adults across the ELCA.

Opportunity for thanks-giving

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. – Luke 17:15

When I was serving as a pastor at Epiphany in Baltimore, Thanksgiving morning was always one of my favorite liturgies of the year. The church was beautiful with flowers and gifts of the harvest, the hymnody was rich with its images of praise and thanks-giving, and it was a well-attended liturgy not out of a sense of obligation, but out of joyful and thankful hearts.

No one “had” to be there Thanksgiving morning (well, except the choir, ushers and altar guild!). I’m sure a lot of people have other things to do — trips to make, turkeys to stuff, tables to set. Somewhere, there’s a football game waiting to be watched and a Macy’s parade to experience. In the middle of all that, going to worship isn’t required; there’s no “obligation” like Christmas or Easter, or Sundays for that matter! Rather, it was an opportunity.

An opportunity to think back on what we have been given and to give something in return: thanks, and even more so gratitude; to honor, with grateful hearts, what God has done for us. And in thankfulness, we discover, a measure of faith. A measure of our dependence on God, and of our own humility.

The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that will suffice.”

Pray those words, and make them matter. Most of us know someone who is having a difficult time this Thanksgiving. The one who is spending their first holiday without their beloved. The parent who lost a job and is worried about where Christmas gifts will come for the children. Friends and neighbors who are sick, sorrowing or alone.

So taking a cue from Meister Eckhart, let’s make this something more than a holiday, more than an excuse to have a second slice of pie, take a long nap in front of the TV or prepare to shop until we drop. Make Thanksgiving Day a kind of prayer. Don’t simply pray grace over a turkey, recognize that in your abundance and in your want, you are gift God has given to be shared with others. God has given us life; extravagant, wonderful, painful, tumultuous, challenging lives meant to be spent and shared with others. Be reminded of God’s blessings, wherever you find them, however they come; and give thanks in worship, in fellowship and service.

Thanksgiving is a day of opportunity, not obligation; worshipping God with thanksgiving and gratitude, serving Christ and our neighbor.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” – Luke 17:11-19

2018 Youth Leadership Summit

At the beginning of November, the ELCA hosted the annual Youth Leadership Summit at Carol Joy Holling Camp in Ashland, Nebraska. Each synod is able to send two youth and one adult advisor, funded by a special grant that covers the costs of the program. The Delaware-Maryland Synod was represented well by Matthew Fairchild, the Lutheran Youth Organization Overall Leader Among Leaders; Deborah Tadesse, member of the LYO Small Groups Team; and Colleen Carpenter-Gonia, one of the LYO Worship Team mentors. Today, I yield my blog post to Deborah and Matthew to share about their experiences at the Summit.

From Deborah:

No words can begin to express my attitude towards this event. Nonetheless, I’ll try. I felt a great altitude of comfort. Comfort in knowing that every soul there came, as a call sent by God. It was by his grace that I met the most wonderful people I could’ve ever known to imagine. I was surrounded by mounds of love, passion, and excitement. As I sat and looked around, I knew that there was a person there who was going to become an activist, someone who was going to be an astronaut, a teacher, a preacher, a president, a musician! I was surrounded by all of the people who were going to change the world. Who are changing the world. I feel this strong urge to become nicer, stand taller and be excited. I really hope that I never get off of this high.

As for attending with both Colleen and Matthew, it was genuinely an amazing time. They both have remarkable leadership skills. We started the travel to the summit with a bit of awkwardness, but by the end of the trip, we were laughing together. Those two are true superheroes and I’m so lucky to have experienced all of this with them.

From Matthew:

My name is Matthew Fairchild and I am an active member of Grace Lutheran Church in Westminster, Maryland. This year, I have the honor of serving as the Overall Leader Among Leaders in the Lutheran Youth Organization of our synod. Earlier this month, I traveled with Deborah Tadesse and Colleen Carpenter-Gonia to represent the Delaware-Maryland Synod at the ELCA Youth Leadership Summit at Camp Carol Joy Holling just outside of Omaha, Nebraska. The Summit’s theme was, “Through Christ, we can,” and programming was centered upon practicing effective advocacy and learning how to best accompany others. I specifically learned about advocating for racial justice in a workshop led by Nicolette Faison and about the ELCA’s AMMPARO (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation, and Opportunities) task force in a separate workshop led by Alaide Vilchis Ibarra.

Aside from the programming, I enjoyed connecting with other leaders of the church and learning about what youth ministry looks like in other synods. One of my biggest takeaways from the event was just how blessed high schoolers in the Delaware-Maryland Synod are to have such an expansive, developed youth program. After talking with high school students from synods around the country, I have a much fuller appreciation for how unique the opportunities for youth leadership are in Delaware and Maryland. Every person who learned about what our synod is doing with youth through retreats and the LYO was blown away, and several expressed interest in developing similar youth leadership programs in their home synods. The Summit helped me to learn about what resources are available in terms of advocacy and leadership development through the broader ELCA. I really appreciate having had the opportunity to attend this event and look forward to sharing with others what I have learned.