We weep, we work, we rise

So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. -Galatians 6:10

This photo and the title of this blog post come from The Church of the Nativity and Holy Comforter in Baltimore, Maryland.

Like many of you, I was horrified by the experience of watching the fire that consumed the roof and spire of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in France. So fast and swift was the news carried across social media, I became overwhelmed by the same devastating images again and again.

The armchair quarter-backing was just as fast, some suggesting that this catastrophe was a metaphor for the collapse of Christianity in Western culture. As one who visited Notre Dame on more than one occasion, I found that an unhelpful conclusion to have drawn, as that parish community is vital, diverse and engaged. Daniel Collins, one of our seminarians at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, said it well: “Notre Dame Cathedral parish was one of the most diverse that I have ever attended, hearing confessions in several world languages, their priests from diverse and multiethnic backgrounds, with active advocacy and ministry for immigrants and the poor. As a symbol for the French in general, who are now by and large a multiethnic people, Notre Dame had long ceased to be a symbol of White French Catholic supremacy (as it was during the Reformation) into a model for multicultural, ecumenical, and interfaith engagement.”

The day after, we know that Notre Dame will be rebuilt and that, already, $350M has been committed to the reconstruction. With the irrepressible song of the French faithful still ringing out in Paris, Good Friday gives way to Easter, again.

Still, while the world’s eye is turned toward Paris, I join those who remind us that, while not iconic as Notre Dame, three historically black churches have burned in less than two weeks in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, where officials have charged the son of a sheriff with hate crimes in the intentional settings of these fires (if you would like to help support these churches as they rebuild, you can do so through this GoFundMe campaign). In each of these cases, while not nearly as expansive of a global ministry, each of these congregations are a vital part of the fabric of the communities they serve, and each one a devastation for its parishioners, neighbors, and friends. The FBI reports that racially-based crimes are up for the third year in a row, and my sense is that while these kinds of crimes against communities of color was newsworthy a few years ago, we are becoming increasingly numb to these realities, and are accepting such overtly racist activity as part of the normative fabric of our American experience.

And, even while Notre Dame was burning, Al-Aqsa Mosque, a faith community closely linked to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict in Jerusalem, was on fire, too. While there was no evidence of any link between the two fires, Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam and its desecration is a devastating blow to the world Muslim community.

I don’t wish to rob us of our collective mourning around the fire at Notre Dame, but to be reminded that every time a church, synagogue or mosque burns – accidentally, or, compounding the trauma, intentionally – it is just as devastating to the community it serves and it is a loss to the whole of this world that God so loves.

So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. –Galatians 6:9-10

I thirst for justice, I hunger for hope

Oops! The E-Letter sent on April 16, 2019 linked to this blog post instead of the correct one. To read Bishop Gohl’s blog for April 16, click here.

by Bishop Bill Gohl

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! – Lamentations 1:1a

NB: There are occasions when I speak on behalf of the Church to emerging events in the life of particular places across our territory. Last year, I spoke at a ministerial association prayer service in Emmitsburg when the Ku Klux Klan was advancing a white supremacy agenda in that community; I represented our synod in Charlottesville, and twice on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. While I strive to live outside of a perceived Baltimore-captivity in our Delaware-Maryland Synod, today’s blog comes as my response to something that is happening in that city, the city where my spouse, children and I make our home.

Violence in schools and on the streets, communities whose poverty is devastation, places across the metropolis where a lack of political power has left a populous with a real sense of having been forsaken by the very leadership who were elected to serve us. We are those for whom the words of Lamentations gives voice.

In recent years, Baltimore has had such tremendous turnover in our mayor’s office: O’Malley, Dixon, Rawlings-Blake, and now Pugh; and we’ve had more than twice that many police commissioners in that same time period. Amidst that revolving door, suffering is palpable, lament and pain are daily companions. Violent crime is out of control, eclipsed by apocalyptic murder rates. Our schools are struggling under the weight of old buildings and decreasing populations. The very city itself is physically collapsing on top of its aging infrastructure.

And while many of us are not able to much to alleviate the ongoing pain and increasingly frequent violence suffered by those of this great city, we are called to accompaniment. In our listening – and truly hearing the pain of our siblings, by entering into deep empathy with our neighbors – we join our prayers to theirs, we hitch our collective wagons to our neighbors’ needs. We implore God together, offering lamentations for those who are numb, who cannot hear their own voices over the din of their own anguish.

As a citizen of Charm City, and as a leader of faith communities ready to partner with neighbors in accomplishing life-changing transformation of the hard and desolate places tucked throughout our beloved Baltimore, I long for something more than the cacophony calling for Mayor Pugh’s resignation; I thirst for justice, I hunger for hope.

For I know that the God to whom we cry out is already here. May we be opened to alleviate the brokenness and suffering of the city, out of love for Christ and neighbor, in this world our God so loves.

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. – Lamentations 1:1-3

Who’s your angel?

by Bishop Bill Gohl

Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. – Luke 1:26-38

Icon of the Annunciation by Laura Fisher Smith

Had I been Mary, I would have run away — either literally or emotionally — but she stands fast, “Here am I.” Simple, yet profound, holding the course when things get rough, standing with God even in the face of great fear and uncertainty.

We are not our own, we are God’s. And in Mary’s answer to God’s call, both heaven and earth were changed.

So, what are you going to do when your angel comes? God’s call to us is usually more subtle than the bodily presence of the Seraphim cherubim, indeed it is more likely that God will call us through the angels of everyday life.

Who’s your angel? Is it “those people” in the community that your congregation serves who remind you of your need to serve, of how more blessed it is to give than to receive?

Who’s your angel? Is it the friend who lovingly calls you out and accompanies you toward healing and recovery?

Who’s your angel? Is it the nameless, faceless one who begs your attention and your contribution at the corners of the highways and byways beseeching us to care, to not let this happen to others?

Who’s your angel?

What message do they carry from God?

How will you respond, in the face of shame or embarrassment, fear or uncertainty?

If we are open to God’s call and reflect the faithfulness shown by Mary, the angels will and do come – whether we like what we hear or not.

May we find the courage to answer from deep within, “Here am I; let it be with me according to your word;” knowing that heaven, earth – and we – will be changed.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. – Luke 1:26-38

Pastor Russell Fink, Remembered

by Bishop Bill Gohl

I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. –Romans 8:37-39

I preached this sermon for the funeral of Pastor Russell Edward Fink
on Saturday, March 16, 2019 at Our Shepherd Lutheran Church (Severna Park)

Won’t you pray with me?

♫ Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so!
Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong!
Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so!

I welcome you to this place of grace, here at Our Shepherd, where Russ and Barbara have found and made a home in this season which Pastor Fink referred to as the “third season” of his ministry; the first being his baptismal ministry which began over 90 years ago; the second was his 42 years of active ordained ministry; and the third was these last 24 years of retirement and rediscovering God’s call as pastor, spouse, parent, and grandparent apart from a regular call to a congregation.

I’ve only known Pastor Fink in this “third season” – and for all of it. When Pastor Fink retired from his last regular call to St. John (Hagerstown), the associate and then-interim Pastor Ellie Doub, hired me as the Director for Christian Education and Youth. I literally moved into his office. When my time at St. John was completed, the women of the church sent me back to seminary with a copy of Barbara’s book, Daily Readings with Martin Luther. After St. John, I knew Pastor Fink through his work as the developer of the South Anne Arundel Mission, Redeemer in Deale; as a popular and well-appreciated guest preacher in many congregations within a two and a half hour radius of his then-Gemini Road address; and as a friendly, yet fierce tennis player – competitive with his friend Pastor Gilroy, whom he once referred to in my ear-shot as having been “still a youth!” At St. Martin’s and here at Our Shepherd, he has been a faithful Bible Study leader and a strong and supportive colleague for both Pastor Janssen and Pastor Oravec. Before I go any further, I want to publicly thank Pastor Earl for his ministry to Russ, Barbara and the family these last hard weeks. He has been so faithful to our friend and colleague.

Apart from the time that Pastor Fink gave an impromptu sermon to the Synod Assembly on his 65th Ordination Anniversary, I’ve only heard him preach one time! It was Reformation Sunday, about fifteen years ago, and we were having an Anne Arundel Conference Service where he connected Jesus Loves Me, this I Know to the three great Sola slogans of the Reformation.

That sermon has stuck with me for lo these many years. Reformation Sunday doesn’t come or go without me remembering, borrowing or thinking about Pastor Fink’s thoughtful insights. To honor his commitment that today wouldn’t be a string of eulogies extolling his long and outstanding ministry, and that Law and Gospel should be preached, let me share with you a bit of classic Russ Fink, as I remember it:

Jesus Loves Me embodies Luther’s words, Sola Gratia, Grace. Grace alone. Russell knew grace in life and faced it, with faith, in death. His own life and witness is the story of a humble servant of God who was continually overwhelmed by God’s amazing grace which saw him through many struggles. His pastor’s reports over the course of 60+ years spoke of his own sense of grief and loss tempered by hope. He reflected deeply on his struggles as a spouse and father and could point to his own sense of being a workaholic as culpability in the strain of those precious relationships. I don’t know the conversations he might have had with district presidents and bishops past, but his reports are really clear: this situation is not helpful for my family, perhaps I need to step away and find something less taxing on my time and energy. Later reports spoke of the grace of reconciliation, and how he was working harder at being intentional about being a better father and grandfather. But, even in these last days, he counseled me and others to do what we needed to do, now, to make sure we didn’t have some of those regrets. He loved his family, this whole family; and your love and support were not lost on Russell, he knew grace in you and through you, too.

Jesus loves me, This I Know Sola Fide, Faith Alone! Despite the struggles of life and relationship, of discernment and dreams that didn’t come to pass, Russell knew Jesus loves you, and Jesus loves him, too. Russell knew it in life and faced it, with faith, even in death. Cancer, he told me, would not ever have the last word. And, as recently as last Friday, he told me it hadn’t. While ready to fight like hell to be open to new treatments and courses of therapy; he knew that his life and strength was in the hands of God. His own life and witness is the story of a humble servant of God who was continually overwhelmed by God’s amazing grace which saw him through many struggles.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so! – Sola Scriptura, Word alone! Even in this “third season” of ministry and call in retirement, Russell shared that Our Shepherd was a home and family for him and Barbara, too. He was no Sunday Christian – or pew sitter; he gave himself, time, talent and treasure to the work of the church, throughout the years, in any way that he was able. Even at Ginger Cove, he jumped right in – Bible Study, worship and thoughtful witness at the table, the mailbox and in the lobby. Today, as we gather in beauty and dignity of this place and service, we do so surrounded by the scriptures and hymns that Russell himself selected for this day. We find bold and blessed assurance in Russell’s strong sense of faith, hope and love. Though we come in the presence of these earthly remains, we take courage in his sure knowledge that he would visit us today from this urn, but with his Lord, alive again in God’s kingdom; with us again and again as we gather at Christ’s table of grace.

Yes, Jesus loves me; Yes, Jesus Loves me; Yes, Jesus Loves me! Sola Christe, Christ Alone! But I wouldn’t be telling the whole truth, if I also didn’t confess that while I know that Pastor Fink delighted in his family, and so many of us whom he and they count as family, have gathered, Pastor did have a soft spot for being the center of a celebration – and that is rightly what we are here to do today, to celebrate a life well lived and God’s promise well kept. Russell Fink was God-loving, grace-filled, a fed and forgiven servant of Christ.

So many of you knew Russell better than I ever did. You knew his more “vital and active” years, which I can’t even imagine, where my own memory is confined to this “third season.” But I am here to celebrate with you, nevertheless, because no matter how we knew Pastor Fink, God knew him best. I am here to remind you, that because Jesus lives, Russell lives – because Jesus lives, we live, also.

For you see, Russell Edward Fink was not simply a colleague these last 25 years, he was a friend; a trusted, wise elder; a man whose strength, even in trial and struggle, continued to be a source of strength and hope for us, too. It was a privilege to know and to love him, it was an honor to be one of his pastors. Emerson, whom I’ve quoted over other such giants’ funerals, said it well: You taught us well, dear friend, you showed the way and we shall not forget you.

Will you pray with me?

♫ Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so!
Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong!
Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so!

Friends, do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  For indeed, I am convinced as Russell was too, that neither death nor life, not things present nor things to come, not anything, not anything, can separate us from a love so great that was, is and will be ours in Christ Jesus our Lord, forever. Amen.

So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them. Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us. Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. –Romans 8:31-35, 37-39

Do better

by Bishop Bill Gohl

If we claim, “We don’t have any sin,” we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. –1 John 1:8-9

mi·sog·y·ny
[məˈsäjənē]
1. ingrained prejudice against women.

I find myself in a strange position.

After behaving poorly as a leader, colleague, and friend – publicly, no less – at least three times over; I did what I was taught to do by my parents, mentors, and what my spouse and I have attempted to teach our children: I took responsibility.

Because my gaffes were made in public, and publicly diminished my colleagues and friends, I sought their consent to apologize publicly. It gave me the opportunity to “right my wrong,” correct myself “on the record,” and the space to reflect on and accept responsibility for my own misogyny. The intent behind that blog post was to take responsibility, apologize, and then publicly point folks to the pastors and ministries I failed to lift up when I had the opportunity to do so earlier. The ensuing conversations astonished me.

Women in ministry publicly shared stories of institutional misogyny, experienced sexism and daily microaggressions that caused me to weep. These stories, they assured me, had been told and diminished by others more than once, many times dismissed as their being “too sensitive,” or “unable to take a joke.” These colleagues were not complaining or asking for any particular response; they were simply reporting a common and all-but-universally shared experience for women who exercise public ministry in this church. I’ve been fairly disgusted with myself for not recognizing this hidden-in-plain-sight experience of these colleagues, which includes my own spouse. (Simultaneously, I heard from exactly six male colleagues, all but one off-line, all of whom admitted to having committed the same systemic sin of which I am guilty. Six. I was surprised by that, too.)

Still, with a collegial largesse greater than my own, these women colleagues were quick to offer forgiveness, accompaniment, and here’s the sticky wicket, accolades for my “honesty and vulnerability” in apologizing.

It’s humiliating; being affirmed for apologizing, when I was obviously and admittedly in the wrong, it feels as if my apology was at the repeated expense of those to whom I was apologizing in the first place!

A Facebook comment from on a friend’s post sharing the blog summed-up my intent: “This is so helpful to hear from a person in power for many reasons, and yet my main takeaway was to be inspired by the awesome ministry these three pastors are leading! (Pastor Courtney Erzkus, emphasis mine)

And then, just when I thought we had moved on, and I had learned something more of my women in ministry colleagues’ experience; unbeknownst to me, the editors of The Christian Century lifted me a little further out of my middle-judicatory anonymity and weighed in on my blog by reporting it to the larger mainline-Christian community which snowballed a bit into a new referendum on how “brave and vulnerable” a misogynist I am. I would have liked to crawl under a pew and hide!

Pastor Lura Groen, with whom I belong to a weekly pericope Bible study group and who I know to be a (hard) truth-teller, gave voice to my discomfort in another Facebook comment: “I know our Bishop thinks he deserves no praise for this apology, and that it ought to be routine. And he’s right, on one level. But it isn’t routine. And so we need to lift it up as a model. Also, it is so far from routine that men acknowledge the harm caused by these sorts of comments. So unusual, and so needed. That again, we need to hold it up as an example…” And, despite the humiliating discomfort it causes me for this moment, I know that she’s right.

Some of the deepest pastoral relationships were forged in relationships where I made mistakes, took responsibility for them, and apologized. I cannot count the number of times someone has told me they’ve “never heard a priest/pastor/minister/bishop apologize before.” “How sad,” I always think, knowing how many times I get it wrong.

To my female colleagues: I see you. I hear you. I’ve been honored by your testimony, witness, vulnerability and trust. I receive your offer of accompaniment as a graceful gift; hold me accountable to my commitment to do better.

To my male colleagues: we can do better, and we are rightly expected to.

One might say I’m the “sorriest” bishop in this Church; but what I’m aiming for is to be one who screwed up big and, usefully chastened, changed his ways.

We announce to you what existed from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have seen and our hands handled, about the word of life. The life was revealed, and we have seen, and we testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. What we have seen and heard, we also announce it to you so that you can have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy can be complete. The message: God is light. This is the message that we have heard from him and announce to you: “God is light and there is no darkness in him at all.”  If we claim, “We have fellowship with him,” and live in the darkness, we are lying and do not act truthfully. But if we live in the light in the same way as he is in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin. If we claim, “We don’t have any sin,” we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. If we claim, “We have never sinned,” we make of God a liar and the Word is not in us. –1 John 1:1-10

My Lenten discipline

by Bishop Bill Gohl

…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ… –Ephesians 4:12

Arwyn and I have different approaches to parenting. She is patient and thoughtful about how she teaches our children how to do things, and then when they don’t do it right, she teaches them to do it again. On the other hand, I teach them something, and when they don’t do it the way I want it done, I go behind them and fix it; and I think they have figured out that if they continue to do a poor job, I’ll just do it myself.

Doing it myself because it’s easier than getting my kids to do it well themselves. It’s a position that I find myself defaulting to – not just at home, but more so at work – particularly when I am tired or feeling under pressure to get something done. It’s such a crippling mindset, and only hurts me, and us in the end. It’s like the time equivalent of pennywise and pound foolish – minute-wise, and hour-foolish.

Doing it myself because it’s easier than getting them to do it themselves. It is what creates resistance to instructing and delegating to other people to do what I usually do. It slows me down from creating systems to manage things better in the future. It’s the fear that keeps me from trying new products and new technology and keep on stumbling along using what “works” instead of leveraging what might work better.

And here’s the problem: When urgent gets in the way of important.

I find myself reminding colleagues, and myself, that expediency and convenience are the greatest enemies of the gospel; that when we cut corners, slide-by, “do it ourselves,” we are disenfranchising the people of God from the ministry that belongs to the whole Body of Christ.

It’s not about doing more, it’s about prioritizing discipleship over pragmatism, equipping the saints over getting the job done. It’s not easy, but it’s not to be burdensome, either. The ultimate goal is ministry shared, even if it means ministry that looks different or iterates in ways that leaders that cannot necessarily see from our vantage point – or even imagine in the moment.

I don’t expect this to happen overnight. In fact, I can’t expect this to happen overnight. Equipping one another for this ministry we share is a process, and if it’s done correctly, it takes time, commitment and intentionality.

This is going to be my Lenten discipline: do it myself less, equip more intentionally; do it the way I want it done less, and delegate more faithfully; holding it close less, and discipling more effectively – even if it would seem “faster” to do it myself.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. –Ephesians 4:11-13