FAILURE AS AN UNDERLYING NARRATIVE by Christa Fisher, 3rd year M.Div. Student

“Your son is at a high risk for failure.” The school principal’s words settled on my chest like a leaden mantle. Unprepared for this phone call, I stammered a confused response. “What? Why? You must be mistaken.” My three-year old son was sitting at the kitchen island coloring, his small fingers gripping a fat red crayon. The principal assured me the call was not an error – she was speaking about my son, about Jacob. A week prior Jacob had participated in a 60-minute early-childhood education readiness assessment and according to the principal, Jacob’s test results warranted the phone call.

In the days following the call I was consumed with the need to understand how Jacob could be at a “high-risk for failure.” After Jacob was born I left my career to stay home and care for him. Needing order and predictability in my life, I created a schedule of activities to fill our days. We attended play groups, visited museums, hiked in the woods, baked cookies, made blanket forts, painted self-portraits, learned the alphabet, numbers, shapes and colors, and spent hours upon hours reading. As Jacob became older and craved more time with other children I enrolled him in a highly respected preschool program. His preschool teachers were perplexed by the school district’s assessment. Not only was Jacob doing fine in preschool, they assured me his skills were age appropriate, he came from a safe, loving home, with two devoted parents, who were both college educated. I shared my confusion with a neighbor, a professor of early childhood education. According to her, there was nothing about Jacob which suggested he was at a “high risk for failure.” My husband and I did not enroll Jacob in the specialized program the school district had created for “kids like him.” Instead, we continued to do what we were already doing and hoped this label would not follow him into kindergarten.

After much thought I deduced the school district’s assessment was colored by racism. You see, Jacob is biracial. My husband is black and I am white.

I should not have been surprised by the school district’s assumptions about Jacob. I grew up in a community of people who showcased their racism with pride and am therefore keenly aware of the assumptions we white people make about people of color. As a young mother I worked hard to ensure people had no reason to make such assumptions about our family.  As I focused on maintaining our image, however, I worried my efforts to shield my children from racism were actually depriving them the opportunity to claim their true character. I also worried that my actions were born, at some level, out of my own racism.

My mother-in-law once told me that by marrying her son I was black by association. At the time I didn’t take her seriously. Andre, my soon to be husband, and I were in our early 20’s and living in Berkeley, California. As a biracial couple in the San Francisco Bay Area we were in the norm. Surrounded by the appearance of racial unity I speculated within a generation or two racism would cease to exist. It was easy for me to be so hopeful. I had not yet experienced racism.

When Andre and I moved to Wisconsin I became acutely aware of the differences between the ways people treated us as compared to my previous relationships with white men. When the waitress escorted Andre to one table and me to another, we pitied her for her ignorance. When the mechanic refused to service our vehicle, we moved our business elsewhere. When Andre was defamed at work and offered no recourse, we swallowed our anger and bemoaned small town life. But when our children were born we could no longer simply joke about ignorant behaviors or tolerate inequality at work. Our precious children deserve better than that.

Shortly after Jacob started kindergarten we began receiving notes from his teacher, all assuming parental incompetence. In addition to urging us to read to Jacob for “just 5 minutes each night,” we were also cautioned to limit Jacob’s exposure to television, and to provide him a healthy diet, among other things. Though she did not know us, the teacher assumed our parenting skills were inadequate.

I met with the school principal to discuss the notes, which she quickly dismissed. The teacher was acting out of concern, the principal insisted, and I was over-reacting. In retrospect I should not have expected her to understand – she was the one who informed us Jacob was at a “high risk for failure.” Unprepared to fight this battle, we chose to ignore the teacher’s notes and continue parenting Jacob as we always had.

Andre and I are now more proactive regarding our children’s educations. At the start of the year we meet each of our children’s teachers to tell our story, beginning in the Bay Area where we received our educations and continuing to our present situation in Madison, Wisconsin. By the time we finish, the teachers know us well enough to refrain from applying stereotypical ideologies to our children or making uninformed assumptions about us as parents. Thankfully, both of our children are thriving in school – academically and socially.

Though I am concerned our children will suffer for having a white mother, I recognize that my race can work to their advantage. We are welcomed into places and conversations and afforded greater choices and opportunities due to my whiteness. Teachers and doctors, people who hold critical information, are generally more comfortable communicating with me than with my black husband. I am the primary driver in our family and do not fear racial profiling on the road. As long as our children are with me, I do not worry they will be attacked, physically or verbally.

Yet my whiteness will only benefit our children as long as they are dependent upon and near me. Eventually they will be functionally independent. Then when people look at Jacob with suspicion, whether a police officer, a college professor, or a vigilante citizen, Jacob will have to fend for himself. Under great pressure and amidst intense emotions, Jacob will be responsible for diffusing their anger by demonstrating that he does not warrant fear and is someone worth befriending rather than attacking.

While I still disagree with the school district’s assessment of Jacob, I now recognize a truth in their conclusion. Jacob is at a “high risk for failure” though not for anything he or we have done or failed to do. Jacob will likely experience failure in his life – we all do. Unlike Jacob’s white peers, however, his failure will be inseparable from an underlying narrative of antagonistic racial bias. This insidious evil, which began sabotaging Jacob’s potential before he could even write his entire name, will never just disappear. It is embedded in our institutions and communities, increasing peoples’ risk of failure by limiting their opportunities and choices. Racism, the underlying cause of racial disparities in incarceration, unemployment, poverty, and serious health conditions, justifies racial profiling and minimizes hate crimes. Whether or not Jacob recognizes it, he is in an abusive relationship with racism, from which there is no escape. Unprepared to battle this exhausting, humiliating, and dangerous intruder, we can only hope we are providing him the skills he needs to manage this relationship, so it is unable to consume his life, robbing him his true character and potential and ultimately rendering him a failure.

SERMON SEGMENT By Cynthia Robles, Final Year MA Diaconal Ministry Student

From a sermon preached by Cynthia Robles at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Dubuque, IA using the gospel text Matt. 25:31-46 

In a Seminary class on Ethics, we read a book called Lest Innocent Blood be Shed about a community in France during WWII that took in Jewish immigrants that were fleeing from Germany. The church in their town of Le Chambon had engraved over the door the words, “Love one another.” In watching a short clip from a movie about these people, when asked why they put themselves at risk by giving German immigrants refuge, they looked at the camera and said, “It’s what we do.” It was as if they wondered why one would ask such a strange question. The truth is, “Love one another” was not only written on their church, but also written on their hearts. It was woven into the fabric of their being.

As I thought about this, I began to see how this way of thinking is so similar to how I feel being called to a ministry of Word and Service. I cannot tell you how many times I am asked, “Why not become a Pastor?” I say, “I know it is not my call. My call is to Word and service.” When explaining this call to some of the men in the “Almost Home” shelter [At St. John’s] last week, one man said, “After all, it is about getting the word of God out there.” I said, “Through actions, right? And he nodded his head, yes.

As I have pondered my call to service, I wondered where it came from in my life. Was there something that happened that made me begin to think this way or is it just who I am? I tried to figure it out, because this sense of call is so strong for me. It came back to thinking about the great role models I had in my life. My Grandparents and my Dad. From the time I was small, I can remember going to church every Sunday, many times with my grandparents.

However, what I remember most about them was their home, only blocks from St. John’s here on Jackson Street. You could show up any time of the day or night and be welcomed. Not only would you be welcomed, but loved. They would give you something to eat or drink or even a warm bed in which to sleep. Their home was the place we gathered during the holidays, small, but filled with laughter and joy. If they knew they weren’t going to be home, we knew where the key was and we were still welcome to come in. If the light was on, you knew they were home and you were welcome. Although they did not have the words “Love one another” written on their home, it was certainly written on their hearts.

The Greatest Commandment written in the Gospel of Matthew is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

In today’s gospel the sheep depict God’s people. They participate in God’s mission. They have responded to Gods call and respond by expressing deeds that manifest God’s Kingdom in a sinful world. Jesus identifies with the poor and desperate. On the other hand, the goats, which have not welcomed the proclamation with positive response, are condemned. They have not “served” Jesus. Disciples live lives of service among those who are living on the margins. This is what is difficult about this text and what I think we all may wrestle with a bit. We know that we do not have to do good works to earn our salvation, but here God is condemning the ones who do not serve.

“Perhaps Jesus says in this parable what he has been saying all along through his teaching and actions and what he will soon say: that God loves us and all the world so much that God has decided to identify with us fully and completely. “We recognize God most easily in the face of our neighbor, meet God in the acts of mercy and service we offer and are offered to us, and live in the blessing of God as we seek to serve as Christ served.”[1]

Two years ago I was asked to resign from my job. I had been in management for over 25 years and for many years worked at making a difference in a community as a Parks and Recreation Director. Once I resigned, I did not know who I was, because I found all my value in my job. It was who I thought I was. Once that was gone, I thought I had nothing. This was a very dark place. I felt like I had no worth, like I was powerless. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.

Each night there are men who walk through the church doors of “Almost Home,” many who have no job, many who fight addictions and come hungry and thirsty and cold. Many of you may have been through something in your life that has brought you to a dark place, and if you think back, this is where you may have seen Jesus. In this darkness and in this powerlessness we find power, not in ourselves, but in Jesus, the one who has given us this gift of Grace, by living and dying on a cross for you and for me. Because God did this for us, we are justified by Grace through our Faith and because we are given this gift of salvation we are free to serve our neighbor. I know this is true, because I have felt suffering in this life and I am here today to preach the Gospel as a broken, but saved Child of God. I am claiming my baptism, I am living out my Christian Vocation, and I no longer find value in what I am doing, but I find value in what has been done for me. All of you have value too, because this Grace is for you, saints and sinners. I look in the eyes of the men who walk through these doors each night and see Jesus, because Jesus says when you feed the ones who are hungry and you give the ones who are thirsty something to drink, clothe them and give shelter to the ones who need it, you have done this for Jesus. So, I ask, what do you have to give? You have what has been given to you….LOVE. You can love one another, just as God loves you.

And, just as important is a community that loves. When we love one another it spreads. You can see it here in the ministry that is connected to this building that you steward so well. I have seen volunteers from the community who have come forward to open the doors and show hospitality to the men in the shelter, and the neighbors who come to find clothes for the winter months to keep from freezing in their homes where many cannot afford heat. The men from the Shelter help those neighbors and I heard them bless one another over and over. Students from Wartburg made winter hats for the men. The young lady who we heard from at the beginning of the service has a mission in this life to make this community a better place by loving others. She has coordinated with several families to bring food for the men who are hungry, “And God said, let the Children lead,” This is the gospel in action; we have God’s love woven into the fabric of our being, in St. John’s and in this neighborhood community that God has given to us as a gift. Pure gift.

So, let us share this gift with others, tell the story of what has been done in the name of the one who loves us. We are sent out to tell this story to ones who may not ever hear it. “Mission itself becomes redefined when we consider the move outwards as a move towards God!” [2]”The community is sent out from the Lord’s Supper as body of Christ only to discover that the body of Christ is already waiting for the community in those suffering in the world.”[3] This is what I call discipleship; this is what we do. You can do this here or like my grandparents, in your own home, or in your work, or on the playground, in whatever you do. Let us etch the words over our door: “Love one another” and imagine then, that it will be etched in our hearts.

“I know that I want to have a door in the depths of my being, a door that is not locked against the faces of all other human beings. I know that I want to be able to say, from those depths, “Naturally, come in, and come in.””[4]

 

[1] “Christ the King A: The Unexpected God | …In the Meantime,” n.d., accessed December 4, 2014, http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/christ-the-king-a/.

[2] “Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46 by Dirk G. Lange,” accessed December 4, 2014, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=173.

[3] “Christ the King A.”

[4] Philip P. Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There, 1st edition. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), 287.

ADVENT POEM By Will Layton, 2nd Year M.Div. Student

Prepare the way, O Zion! Ye awful deeps, rise high;
Sink low, ye lofty mountains, The Lord is drawing nigh.

The wise man in the pulpit says,
“This isn’t going to be easy.”
His white hair and his reputation for truth-telling
(A prophet, maybe?)
Make us all suspect he’s right.
Wars and rumors of wars,
Wars and rumors of wars.

That night, in a bar downtown, a woman sings:
“A change is gonna come.”
She sings as if she knows
The change will be right,
But we suspect it won’t be easy.
Wars and rumors of wars,
Wars and rumors of wars.

A young woman, expecting
Watches out the window,
As the streets of Detroit boil
Rebellion, riot, protest,
Change. Suspicion.
A people divided,
Uniformed bodies
And uninformed arms.
Her little boy—will be a month late–
Not easy, coming into a world like this.
Wars and rumors of wars,
Wars and rumors of wars.

On the too-familiar bench outside the courtroom,
Already suspect, easy to condemn,
Another one waits for judgment.
Something needs to change.
Wars and rumors of wars,
Wars and rumors of wars.

Beneath the throne, the saints cry out,
“How long, O Lord, how long?”
Do they think this will be easy?
Wars and rumors of wars,
Wars and rumors of wars.

These things must come to pass.

On the morning the stars fell,
It caught us off-guard.
We were all afraid,
So we all went outside together.
And as Jesus Christ passed by on the street,
We suspected things wouldn’t be easy,
But there was a rumor of peace.

A CONGREGATION BETRAYED: BOOK RESPONSE by Jennifer Dahle, Final Year M.Div. Student

As I read When a Congregation is Betrayed: Responding to Clergy Misconduct (Alban, 2006), a series of essays edited by Beth Ann Gaeide, I was struck by the extensive work that needs to be done in churches before any kind of misconduct possibly occurs. It really forced me to think about how I could help a church to prepare for an eventuality like misconduct, but it pushed me even more to think about my theology surrounding misconduct and the office of pastor. On page 26, the essay author, Patricia Liberty, suggests thinking about the far-reaching extent of damage that accompanies sexual misconduct in particular by envisioning the following exercise. “Think of your favorite hymn, your favorite Bible verse, your favorite sacred space. Are they written down? Now, look at the hymn you chose. Your pastor hummed that tune while he/she had sex with you; cross it off your list. The favorite verse you wrote down? You pastor quoted that verse to you when he/she was justifying your actions together; cross it off your list. That sacred space was entered by the pastor while you were there and you had sex; cross it off your list.” The extent of damage is astounding when framed by this exercise.

The essays I read invited me to think about sexual misconduct not as an “affair” but as an abuse of power within the pastoral office. “Clergy sexual abuse is often referred to as ‘sexual sin’ or ‘adultery’…these terms are too narrow to name the damage done to the entire congregation…Further, they encourage a privatization of the behavior that keeps the focus on the sexual activity of two individuals rather than on the betrayal of the sacred trust of the office and the pain caused an entire congregation.” (Patricia Liberty, 16-17)  Trying to heal from a misconduct case needs to involve re-examining how we define sin and evil.

Theologically, clergy misconduct violates trust and poses a potential stumbling block to faith for those involved. It is vital to have clear, open communication around the event and to support the victims and the rest of the congregation. No church that finds itself in the midst of a case of clergy misconduct is going to have an easy time of it, but the more the procedures are in place for such an event, the more potentially effective the healing.

I have much thinking left to do around this topic. Having met someone who is still feeling the effects of clergy misconduct 20 years later has made me feel particularly drawn to trying to actually being prepared should something like this occur near or where I am serving. My thoughts are still racing, but this is a starting point at least.

THE PERSISTENT VOICE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT By Jean Peterson, WTS Archives Volunteer

I give my daily thanks for those special saints in my life, remembering mostly those living, but also those who have gone before us throughout all generations.

I gave thanks:
“For all the Saints who from their labors rest,
“For saints still living
By whom our lives are blest,
Alleluia!”

How grateful I am to those mentors who have encouraged, healed, and inspired me throughout my lifetime!   These include one who taught John Bowlby’s theory of Attachment. There was a time when I thought that my vulnerability was a cause for shame and rejection, but this professor taught that attachment relationships of trust with living mentors are a human universal need.

From several living mentors I respect highly, I have learned that they, too, have been influenced by other saints in their lives. From reading assignments and continued research into the lives of the earlier generations, I find that the “human universal” that emerges is that all of us, not only in the present, but throughout the years past, have had attachments to, or been influenced by other saints or mentors who have inspired, encouraged, or motivated us. Some of these were family members, but nearly all people name at least one or two non-family members – teachers, professors, or pastors—by whom they were influenced.   Wilhelm Loehe and Martin Luther also had mentors by whom their lives and service were guided.   Even the disciples of Jesus were greatly influenced by other living human beings (Jesus himself) in the direction of their lives.

Insight: Those who inspired those who came before us, those now living who have inspired us, and those whose lives we affect (knowingly or not) of generations still to come are all vessels of the Holy Spirit, reaching all the way back throughout all generations, to the Day of Pentecost, and forward until the end of Creation. This is the “Persistent Voice” of the Holy Spirit who works through trusted relationships and attachments with kin, mentors and contemporaries we have all encountered throughout our lives, who have carried the message of the Word of Scripture throughout all generations!

We may not know individually what seeds we have sown, but gratefully, the Holy Spirit still uses us to carry, and plant, the seeds of the Word and healing and caring and support to others.

THRESHOLD OF LIVING By Tami Groth, final year MA Diaconal Ministry

Standing in front of the strips of paper I read the directions again: write the names of the saints in your life. The names of the saints that have died and gone before us on the white paper. Use the strips of colored paper to write the names of the saints in your life that are still with us. I began writing.

I wanted it to be something I did quickly before the next thing on my growing “to-do” list that day. I could not. Here in the space between Chapel and the refectory, and on my hurried way to the library, this request moved me outside of the carefully accounted for and scheduled moments of my day. I lost track of the slips. Name after name. Moment after moment.

I put down the marker, and held time still with my breath as I remembered standing in deafening silence surrounded by life and yet alone with death — unable to move out of the between and back into time.

I am standing in front of her fresh grave. We buried her exactly a week after I birthed her still body. In all respects it was a glorious sunny mild November day. I was told later that an eagle flew overhead right as the silence fell. The silence that deepened my numbness.

The moments I had not been able to imagine had come to pass  — the awful processional out into the world Emily wouldn’t know. First she was carried by her father in that tiny casket step-by-step down the church aisle, then the drive to the cemetery. We survived watching that tiny pink casket go into the ground next to her great-grandparents. We listened numbly to prayers.

In the first second of quiet we put single roses on top of that casket before it was1117_close buried in earth. Emily’s older sister, Megan, gave me the gift of being her 4-year-old self when nobody could convince her to give up the rose she was holding. In that moment I wanted to take her and gather her in my arms and twirl her around and around until we were both dizzy. I wanted to be in her moment of joy in the beauty of the rose.

Instead I continued to stare at her sister’s fresh grave–the still green grass, the black dirt, and pink. An eternity of quiet; holding my breath on the threshold of living into a reality of “forever changed.”

Just mere hours ago I had been encouraging the stream of people entering the church to look at her: “she’s so beautiful.” My heart ached to hold onto that beauty like a 4-year-old with her hands on a rose stem.

“I can’t do this anymore” I said not realizing my thoughts had broken the silence.

“Then don’t,” my mom said as she took my arm and gently guided me across that threshold.

I wiped my wet eyes and gulped in deep breaths of fresh air as I made my way from one Wartburg building to the next attempting to return to place and time — 13 years of living later — on my way to the library and the life of to-do lists. A glance at my watch claimed the moments connected in minutes.

The next week in chapel names were read, candles were lit, Gospel was spoken, and those slips of paper — white and colored — hung together in sunlit windows and air stirred them as if with the dance of eternal life.

ALL SAINTS DAY REMEMBERED by Josh Johnson, final year M.Div.

Homily given at Wartburg Seminary Chapel November 3, 2014

Today is All Saints Day, a day in which we remember and honor the saints of our lives. Saints are far and near, and both living and dead. As part of preparing for today’s message, I reflected upon experiences of this day since coming to Wartburg.

My first All Saints day here at the castle was the type of day that I had grown accustomed to. We celebrated those who had gone before us with familiar hymns, the reading of the names of the recently deceased, and the lighting of candles. It was a celebration of all those who had touched us throughout the years.

The following year was quite the opposite. As some of you know, my second year here on campus was marked by the death of our son Josiah. Shannon and I found out 2 weeks prior to school starting that his heart had stopped beating. Josiah was stillborn at 37 weeks.

All Saints took on a much different meaning for me. I remember yearning to hear his name read with the other saints.

This wasn’t the planned path; baby’s names are to be read at baptisms and other celebrations, but this was it for me.

Death gave us this one the last milestone.

This past All Saints service was also marked with a death in my life. Last summer my grandfather died at 80 years of age. He lived a long, fruitful life and was very special to me.

All Saints Day was a day of fond memories as I remembered my special relationship with him.

This is how I imagined All Saints Day to go, a sad, yet joyous commemoration.

Today’s gospel lesson comes from Jesus’ familiar teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes. I don’t know about you, but there’s something about these blessings that doesn’t settle with me.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, and so on. How are the people who experience these blessed?

There’s no way Jesus is telling us that some of the most challenging and miserable situations in life are blessings. It has to be a problem in translation.

So let’s try out some alternative meanings for this Greek word:

How about, favored are the poor in spirit… no that’s not it.

Oh, fortunate are those who mourn… that’s not any better, fortunate is the last word that comes to mind when I think about the death of a loved one.

Ok, how about this one: privileged are the meek, or happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… no, those don’t work either

So, if blessed is the right word here, what is Jesus trying to tell his disciples?

The next question that begs to be asked from the text, is about the “wills” in the second half of the statement. They will be comforted; they will inherit the earth; they will be filled; and so on. So, when will this take place? When will those who mourn be comforted?

Death is an unavoidable reality of our world. Death sneaks in and takes away a loved one out of nowhere; death also comes for those for whom we expect it to come.

Nevertheless, death separates us from those we love. It stings. It hurts. It’s unfair. You know this. I know this.

When Josiah died and every hope and dream was dashed away in an instant, I was beyond crushed. I had nothing.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Sisters and brothers, I am here today to tell you that Jesus’ words are true. No, it’s not because Shannon and I were the “lucky” recipients ofa new angel baby watching over us in heaven.” Moreover, it’s definitely not because we were young enough to try to have more children. I love Noah beyond measure, but he is not God’s comforting answer.

God’s comfort came to us by other means.

God’s comfort came to us through two friends that showed up at a moment’s notice when we found out this dreadful news.

God’s comfort came to us through a supportive community that was present in our time of need.

God’s comfort came through the ones who finally treated us as a human beings rather than as a pity case.

God’s comfort continues to come through supportive friends who continues to be there.

In our time of desperation, we were blessed by the loving presence of those that God sent to comfort us. In our deep grief, in our most vulnerable state, we were blessed because all we had was God, and God was there.

The hurt and pain did not go away, and its memory still resides. Nevertheless, it is not to be borne alone.

We bear it in one another and we bear it in the one who experienced great agony on the cross.

This is the promise of our text today. No matter how crappy life feels, and no matter how far life beats you down.

God promises stand the test of time.

Christ is there when you are stripped of everything else.

The Spirit surrounds you with a witness of saints.

God is with you. Amen