Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

“OTHER” LABELS by Paris Comentino, Second-year M.Div.

Citizens of the United States of America have a propensity to use labels. The assumption seems to be that white people are the only ‘true’ Americans. If one is not white, one is African-American, Asian-American, Native American, Latino-American, and the list goes on and on. In fact, US citizens often don’t recognize that there are many other “Americans” in the countries of North and South America.

People have spent decades coming up with the most appropriate label to place on people of color, especially black citizens, regardless of the fact that all are American. For example, if Euro-American is not a commonly used label in the United States, why is the label African-American so commonly used? Many African-Americans have as many ties to Africa as I, a Caucasian woman, have to Europe – none! White privilege and racism are still alive and well in America today and none of us can afford to deny it any longer.

Over the last few years the Black Lives Matter Movement has emerged and made waves all throughout America. This movement started from the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter after the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for his murder, even though he had no reason for shooting Martin except for the fact that he was a young black male walking around at night in a hooded sweatshirt. Zimmerman claims he thought Martin had a gun, but all he had was some candy and tea. This is just one more tragic story of a black life lost in recent history. Alicia Garza, one creator of the movement, says this movement is “…rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist … dehumanization. #BlackLivesMatter  is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.” blacklivesmatter.com/about/

Some media sources portray this movement as starting riots and causing more harm to neighborhoods than good. Many individuals portray this movement as anti-police and insist on picking sides; either one favors the Black Lives Matter movement or the local police force. This is fed through the historical lens of white privilege and the drive to label all non-European-whites as scary, violent, and harmful to society.

Besides the division the media has made between this movement and the police, another counter-argument that has emerged is that all lives matter. Ah, yes. This is beautiful and so very true. But the sad truth is that not all lives have mattered and all lives cannot matter until BLACK lives matter. How long is this country going to deny history, facts, and lived reality? Denial allows people of white privilege to live comfortably in a dream world where nothing is wrong, but this same denial that makes some people comfortable is killing black people. How long, O Lord, can people sit by in silence? How long, O Lord, can people keep these problems out of sight, out of mind?

Christians are called to insure all lives do matter. The Gospel places all of us in the midst of what is broken in this world. As Christ descended into the brokenness of humanity, we, too, are called to these places to walk with each other as brothers and sisters, and to bring the healing and hope of Christ to the world.

“In these trying circumstances, the black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

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“THESE WOMEN ARE JUST LIKE ME, ONLY MORE SO” by Rebecca Goche, Final-year M. Div.

“These women are just like everyone else, only more so.” These are the words that Pastor Paul Witmer, Minister of Congregational Care for Women at the Well told a group of us on the “outside” while at a gathering of people who support Iowan women prisoners. I really had no idea what he meant by these words at the time until I went “inside” and experienced the Women at the Well, a United Methodist congregation located with the walls of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, in Mitchellville, Iowa.

I first heard of Women at the Well when Pastor Lee Schott spoke at the ELCA Southeastern Iowa Synod Assembly about what it is like to pastor a congregation within a prison. I remember her passion and I knew then that I wanted to learn more about ministry with incarcerated persons. I took a group of 10 people from my internship congregation to worship with the Women at the Well congregation. I had no idea of what to expect. I was shocked at how full the Sacred Space (chapel) was with about 70 women worshipping with us that night. I was amazed at what I can only describe as “freedom” which I felt and saw as these incarcerated women worshipped. My brain wondered, “How can this be?” as I had not experienced such a freedom in a congregation outside prison walls. It was my wonderment over this freedom that urged me to go through the prison’s mandatory volunteer training and set up an independent study during J-term 2017 to delve deeper into the ministry of the pastoral staff with the Women at the Well and witness how God is moving in the women within the walls of the prison.

Some of my friends and family were concerned for my safety when they found out that I was going into the prison to work with the women. I had more than one person tell me that prison is “full of bad people.” After watching Pastor Schott interact with the women on my first day in prison, I realized that if I let others’ and my own fears get the best of me, I would be closing myself off to the women and to God’s work in them. As I opened myself up to the women and listened to their stories, I found most to be warm and caring despite what they had been through or what they had done. I still find myself wondering how any of them can be warm and caring knowing some of the statistics of the women who are incarcerated in Mitchellville: 60 percent suffer from mental illness, 80 percent have some type of addiction, and 90 percent have experienced some type of abuse whether domestic violence or sexual assault. For most of these women, the deck was stacked against them long before they ever entered prison. I find it deplorable that for many of these women, it seems that prison is Iowa’s mental health system.

With Pastor Witmer’s words, “These women are just like everyone else, only more so,” echoing inside my head, I quickly learned that pastoral care in prison is much like what I have experienced outside its walls, only the women’s issues seem to be magnified partly because of where they are. The women want someone who will listen to them and not judge them. They want to be able to share their joys and their sorrows just like the people I visited while on internship. Many of the women feel guilty for not being with their families, especially their children. Often times this guilt manifests itself in depression or acting out in an inappropriate manner. I had the opportunity to accompany Pastor Witmer on a visit with a woman who was on suicide watch. She was alone in a solitary cell wearing what I can only describe as a moving blanket-type gown. There was another offender outside her heavy glass and metal door whose sole job was to watch her in the event she tried to hurt herself. There were no moveable chairs near her cell, so both Pastor Witmer and I kneeled on the cold, concrete floor to talk with the woman through the small, 3 ½ inch by 10-inch tray opening in the cell’s door. It was uncomfortable and not ideal for holding a conversation. The woman was highly agitated and her mind and words jumped from one topic to another. She spoke about her mental illness and the difficulties she has had with various medications not working anymore because she has built up a tolerance to them. She talked about the abuse she has experienced from former partners and how she thought that was normal until she met and married her current partner who will not hit her even though she wants him to do so. The woman told us about having to relinquish her parental rights and had found out a few days earlier that her child had been adopted – the “final straw” that caused her to be transferred to the suicide watch unit. We spent just over 10 minutes with her simply listening. As we were walking back to the Sacred Space from her unit, Pastor Witmer said that he is still trying to figure out how to do better pastoral care with the women, especially in situations like we had just experienced.

Women at the Well tries to address some of the women’s needs by offering various pastoral care-type groups. I had an opportunity to sit in on a grief group led by two Methodist pastors/counselors. I listened with an aching heart as a woman in her late twenties shared her story. This woman had been raped at the age of 13 by a relative, became pregnant and gave birth to a baby. Five days later, she watched this same relative smother her child and then place the dead child into a garbage bag to throw away. Her child would have been 16 years old. The woman continues to feel guilty about not stopping her relative from killing her baby and grieves the loss of her child. In an effort to numb her pain, she began using drugs and did whatever she had to do in order to get them. I wanted to give the woman a hug, but touch is not allowed inside the prison. I watched as the other women in the group, who also could not hug the woman, enveloped her with their words of love and comfort. I listened to other women’s stories during the hour-long session. I cannot imagine the grief that many of these women must carry, buried deep inside of them because if they let it show especially in prison, they will be preyed upon by others for being weak. Women at the Well offers these women a safe space to share their grief in a community.

Roughly 10 percent of the population or about 70 women are released from the prison every month. Women at the Well offers a voluntary, faith-based re-entry program to the women for one year after they are released from prison. Volunteers from various denominations make up the re-entry teams located in communities around the state. These teams serve as an important resource to help the women move back into society. I had an opportunity to be a part of two sessions of the women’s preparation course for the re-entry program. Thirty-two women attended the four-week course. Many were looking for resources to help them once they got out of prison. Some were looking for a deeper connection with God. Others were looking for help in finding a church home once they are released. I heard much hope in their discussions sprinkled with a heavy dose of their current realities.

While participating in worship with the Women at the Well congregation, I found it surreal to look out the windows of the Sacred Space and see the orange glow from the security lights reflecting off of the razor wire atop the fence that surrounds the prison grounds. Once again I was mesmerized by the sense of freedom that I felt within the space, worshiping God with these women who could not be on the other side of that fence until society through the courts said they could, if ever (there are currently 39 women who will never get out and will die in prison). I sensed a palpable hope and a strong desire to serve their neighbors outside the walls of prison as evidenced by the congregation’s support of a different organization/charity each month. These women earn anywhere from $0.27 to just over one dollar an hour at their prison jobs which can be used at the prison commissary to buy phone cards to call loved ones, toiletries, and so on. I was humbled by their acts of stewardship as they eagerly shared their money with neighbors whom they may never meet.

Today, prison is big business and many in our society would rather spend money on building more prisons to house more people rather than spending money to help prevent people from being incarcerated or rehabilitate those already incarcerated so that they are not repeat offenders. I was naïve about how racially biased our criminal justice system is, but my eyes have been opened wide after reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and seeing the disproportionately high numbers of people of color within the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women when compared to the population for the state as a whole. I find hope in the ELCA’s Social Statement on The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries, but I wonder how many of our pastors and congregations actually read it and apply it to their lives. After my experience with Women at the Well within the prison walls, I can no longer close my eyes and block my ears to the cries of those who are behind bars and to those who must forever live with the label of criminal, as less than that of a second-class citizen. These women truly are just like you and me – they are beloved children of God.

A FRESH TAKE ON CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN MUSIC by Amy M. Heinz, Final year M. Div.

“I detest contemporary Christian music.” This comment, from one of my lunch partners immediately after I had finished presenting on that very topic at a worship seminar, drew me up short. I thought I had presented the case for utilizing truly new Christian music quite well, but I recognized that mind-set. Two years ago, that had been me. In my opinion, there was so much wrong with contemporary Christian music that I could not have imagined myself even investigating the topic, much less speaking about it.

Christian worship draws attention to the work of God in Jesus Christ by calling us out of our separate lives to participate communally in Word and sacrament. Worship is a bold statement that we as Christians place God above all powers of this world, including and especially our own. So, if worship is about the incarnate presence of God in our lives, I feel it should reflect the contexts of our lives…including geographical context, theological and denominational context, historical context, and global context.

With this in mind, I wanted to see if it would be possible to honor the past by utilizing a previously established—though by no means binding—Lutheran liturgical format for a service of communion, while inserting current popular contemporary Christian music (CCM) songs in place of those which are in the various collections of hymns and communion settings most often being used. I concentrated only on the songs Lutheran parishioners were sure to have heard on Christian radio stations, and focused on whether or not these songs could be utilized in a Lutheran worship setting containing traditional liturgical elements such as the Kyrie, the Hymn of Praise, and the Great Thanksgiving. The result was that I spent one month listening to and theologically evaluating the top songs from 2014 through 2016 as presented by Billboard Magazine on their website. Although the website categorizes Christian music in several ways, I utilized the category of “Christian Airplay,” as that would reflect the most popular songs on the radio during those years. I also chose to evaluate only the top 20 from each year, as there is some carryover from year to year in songs which ranked lower in the previous year.

It wasn’t an easy task. Much of Christian contemporary music is not gender-inclusive, and appears to use scripture either as “proof texting” or as a catchy sound bite. In addition, as Mark Allan Powell points out, it is permeated by “triumphalism, commercialism, [and] individualism…”.[1] Most bewilderingly of all, I found far less mention of Jesus Christ than I had expected in music labeled “Christian.” I discovered a tendency for songs of hope, stick-to-it-tiveness, and militant growth in a general “faith,” all without mentioning the reason for hope or how we are enabled to grow in that faith. In evaluating 59 songs (although I listened to far more than that number and read lyrics from even more)—20 from each of three years with one overlap—I found only 17 which could be useful in an ELCA worship service. Several of those which I deemed “Lutheran” in theology as well as “singable” would need minor rewrites in places. And although Christian contemporary music is a different subgenre from contemporary worship music (commonly referred to as “praise and worship songs), it is what parishioners who are interested in this genre are listening to in their homes, cars, and at work.

“Christian music often occupies a major, even defining role in the lives of its more ardent listeners. The music…becomes a soundtrack for people’s lives. Individualistic piety and crass sentimentalism can be innocent enough in small doses, but some fans and performers seem to think that faith consists of little else.”[2]

If one is a congregational leader in a place where many parishioners listen regularly to Christian radio stations, then I feel it is imperative to address some of the shortcomings of CCM with one’s congregation, just as it is important to celebrate and utilize those CCM songs which are familiar, easily learned and sung, and theologically faithful to the gospel (using a Lutheran lens). People need to know what they’re hearing and be able to evaluate it for themselves. “This requires teaching and has to bear some relation to the musical language that is in the ear of the people.”[3] That doesn’t mean one ought not to sing a rousing chorus of “Move (Keep Walkin’)” by TobyMac, but one should be able to discern the theological content and whether or not the song points to Christ and not to ourselves. I could even see this being an interesting small group or adult/youth education topic. Mark Pierson, a pastor in the Baptist Church of New Zealand, calls this discerning approach “slow church.” In this ideal, a congregation will take the time to discern prayerfully the central things of worship and what it means to worship in that particular place, at that particular time, with the particular resources of that culture.[4] Dr. Gordon Lathrop supports this view as well; “While the pattern of the action has a long history in many places, it always becomes local.”[5]

One of the better resources I discovered for the discernment process is Sound Decisions: Evaluating Contemporary Music for Lutheran Worship by Dori Erwin Collins and Scott C. Weidler. Published by Augsburg Fortress, this thoroughly Lutheran look at CCM is well-organized and accessible to anyone—whether or not they have a seminary background. The authors lay out a four-step discernment process:

  1. Agree upon foundational principles of Lutheran worship.
  2. Apply a set of questions to a specific song in order to determine its textual and musical characteristics. The purpose of this step is only to gather information, not to make judgements.
  3. Compare the characteristics identified in step 2 with the principles in step 1, always taking into account the particular worship context. (emphasis added)
  4. Discern the song’s suitability for use in worship.[6]

Collins and Weidler rightly emphasize the importance of correct performance practice which facilitates learning and singing CCM. This is an issue of great importance that needs to be fully addressed when considering adding this genre to worship rotation. As someone with experience in both “contemporary” and “traditional” performance practice, I will point out that there is a big difference between accompanying worship out of a typical hymnal such as Evangelical Lutheran Worship and deciphering the charts, lead sheets, verses, choruses, and bridges of CCM.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as “contemporary worship” as we tend to define it—worship utilizing musical instruments other than organ, and songs which have a more upbeat tempo and/or a back beat. Indeed, in my home congregation, contemporary worship for years was defined as the Saturday night service which was exactly like the Sunday morning service but accompanied on a keyboard instead of the organ! Contemporary worship is just…worship. I cannot overstate the importance of acknowledging this fact. Discerning the music used in our worship of God may need differing processes depending upon when the music has been written or where it has originated, but the criteria are still the same. Does the music we choose lift up the gospel message for all? Does it point to Christ? Is it singable within one or two iterations of the tune? Does the music address the culture, context, history, and personality of the particular congregation? Does it remind us that we are part of a global church and one body in Christ? These are questions which should be asked of all music used in worship, whether one toils over spreadsheets of the most popular CCM songs or chooses hymns based on the topical suggestions in the back of a hymnal.

It is extremely important to note that CCM is not a magic bullet that will “bring the young people back to church,” nor is it the only element of import in worship (that would be Christ and his real presence in Word and sacrament!). If congregation members are not inclined to listen to, and appreciate, CCM then it may not be the appropriate context for going “all in” on worship which features that genre of music. People respond to almost all types of music when performed to promote assembly participation. When worshippers feel confident in their musical participation (regardless of natural musical talent or familiarity with a particular genre) and the music reinforces the proclamation of the Word, then Martin Luther’s stance on worship is upheld: “We can spare everything except the Word.”[7] In the end, it is our enthusiasm for being brought together as a community of faith, our joy and sorrow expressed in honest ways through words and songs, our ears and hearts opened to the Word, our partaking of the sacraments, and our deep growth in faith and relationship through the work of the Holy Spirit that produces lively and enthusiastic worship.

[1] Mark Allan Powell, “Jesus Climbs the Charts: The Business of Contemporary Christian Music,” The Christian Century 119, no. 26 (December 18, 2002): 26.
[2] Ibid., 22.
[3] Paul Westermeyer, Paul Bosch, and Marianne Sawicki, What is “Contemporary” Worship?, vol. 2, Open Questions in Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 11.
[4] Mark Pierson, The Art of Curating Worship: Reshaping the Role of Worship Leader (Minneapolis: Sparkhouse, 2010), 72.
[5] Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 87.
[6] Dori Erwin Collins and Scott C. Weidler, Sound Decisions: Evaluating Contemporary Music for Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 6.
[7] Ulrich S. Leupold, ed., Luther’s Works: Liturgy and Hymns, American Edition, vol.53 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 14.

RECONCILING IN CHRIST CONVOCATION Compiled by Kirsten Lee, Second Year M. Div.

The following information was compiled from documents written by WTS student Rebecca Goche, staff member LisaMarie Odeen, Rev. Amy Current, Prof. Thomas Schattauer, and Prof. Troy Troftgruben.

Students, faculty, and guests gathered for a convocation this fall to mark the formal designation of Wartburg Theological Seminary (WTS) as a Reconciling In Christ (RIC) community. Reconciling In Christ is a program of Reconciling Works, a national Lutheran organization. Program and Development Associate with RIC, Ryan Muralt, presented the seminary with a certificate from Reconciling Works and shared in discussion with students and faculty during the convocation.

The WTS Board of Directors approved the designation of becoming an RIC community in June, 2016. As stated in the faculty proposal to become an RIC community, “This designation of welcome makes clear that people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer are welcomed and affirmed.” This welcome furthers “the seminary’s longstanding and enduring commitment to being an inclusive community that reflects God’s reconciling purpose in Jesus Christ.”  A copy of the news release about this designation can be accessed through this link: https://www.wartburgseminary.edu/wartburg-seminary-board-directors-approves-designation-ric-seminary/.

Through table discussions, participants had the  opportunity to learn about RIC and what it means to be an RIC community. In addition, Prof. Troy Troftgruben hosted a lively Zoom gathering of Distance Learning students. The following is a summary of the discussion:

Describe a time when you experienced abundant welcome in a worshiping community.

Many stories were shared of communities across our world who were exceptionally welcoming and friendly. One student mentioned a RIC church in Ann Arbor Michigan that had a sign in their entryway stating, “Everyone is a child of God.” Other students mentioned feeling embraced and included in places such as Holden Village and Namibia. Stories were also shared of those who were aware of being well welcomed because they were heterosexual and Caucasian. Many shared of feeling embraced and included in our seminary community.

Describe a time when you experienced exclusion or disregard in a worshiping community.

Stories were shared of how churches have changed after the 2009 ELCA resolution to allow men and women in homosexual relationships to serve as rostered leaders. Examples were discussed of how some churches have become less welcoming, whether the church chose to remain a part of the ELCA or leave the ELCA. Examples of exclusiveness were shared through stories of visitors feeling isolated from the worshiping community because of non-inclusive language and ethnocentric messages. Many stories were related of segregation and discrimination witnessed within worship communities, some of which included a refusal to share communion or a blessing to people who had differing beliefs.

If our seminary is already welcoming, why do we need to say so?

There was dialogue that this is a good reminder to proclaim a clear welcoming identity and keep complacency in check. We have an opportunity to serve as a witness for other communities and people who have previously been hurt by their worshiping community. Dialogue continued from the perspective that this is also a good reminder to maintain compassion for those who are still discerning what it means to be an RIC community. It is important to preserve humility and not use our welcoming identity as a badge of pride or weapon to be used against those with differing beliefs. Dialogue also included how we continue to progress as a church, seminary, and congregational leaders. One person pointed out that inviting is greater than welcoming and we need to show true friendliness and include communities outside our seminary and place of worship. Many participants voiced concern of a lack of awareness regarding RIC in some communities, such as rural areas or African American churches. There is a need for continued conversation and prayerful reflection, and discussion participants felt this convocation was a good place to begin the necessary dialogue.

Share ideas about how you might engage in or foster conversations about the Reconciling In Christ community in the WTS community and in congregations in which you participate or (will) serve.

Participants shared that there is a need for leadership with compassion to allow individuals to grow into this idea and foster relationships through dialogue. Questions were also asked, such as, “How are we each living out God’s call to love ALL of God’s children,” and “How do faith communities promote healthy and effective dialogue that welcomes all voices without shame or fear?” Some expressed that there is confusion and a need for education regarding the differing terms of identities included in this designation, and this kind of discussion can only be had in an open, safe, and inviting atmosphere. One participant also shared how the ELCA social statements can be helpful resources.

Wartburg Theological Seminary joins over 600 other ELCA communities, congregations, institutions, and theological seminaries that welcome and affirm the LGBTQ community. As we look forward and ask ourselves how we can progress, WTS Dean for Vocation, the Rev. Amy Current, offers this guidance, “As leaders of the church, we must continue the dialogue and continue engaging the conversation. There are numerous resources to assist in learning, listening, and engaging in this conversation.”

Here are a few resources to begin:

Good resources for everything to do with RIC
http://www.reconcilingworks.org/

Our Congregation is already welcoming. Why do we need to say so?
http://www.reconcilingworks.org/resources/ric/whysayso/

You’re an RIC. Now what?
http://www.reconcilingworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/RIC-now-what.pdf

WHY DOES “RIC” MATTER? By Luci Sesvold, Final Year M. Div.

Why does the designation “Reconciling In Christ” matter?  We often pride ourselves on the phrase “all are welcome,” so what’s the difference?

I was fortunate enough to work and serve in an RIC congregation for internship, and honestly, I didn’t understand what the big deal was.  I saw a congregation that really embodied the All Are Welcome motto, and that was cool.  And I went through the year hearing, “Oh, you work at THAT church.”  The RIC status seemed like just another identifier, that was, until the morning of June 12th when a congregation member informed the pastoral staff of the Orlando shooting.

I witnessed the ripple of that news throughout the congregation as they grieved, as they frantically checked on loved ones in the Orlando area, and as they sat overwhelmed in disbelief.

That Wednesday’s service was thoughtfully crafted as a healing service with an intentional focus on the heartbreaking reality of our world.  St. Stephen’s was the only church in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa area to publicly advertise a prayer service of this nature.  The welcome and invitation spread through the news and social media and it was stressed that all are really welcome.

At St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, each candle on the altar represented one life lost during the Orlando nightclub shooting on June 12

At St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, each candle on the altar represented one life lost during the Orlando nightclub shooting on June 12

I share some of the words from my supervisor, Pastor Ritva Williams’ reflection that evening:

“We live in a world where some people say that a person is not worthy of our love and acceptance, because they perceive him/her/them to be the wrong age, the wrong size, the wrong color, the wrong nationality, the wrong gender, they love the wrong people, hold the wrong economic, social or legal status, have the wrong disabilities, and so forth. We live in a world where some people seek to limit and prevent a person’s access to jobs, housing, medical care, and even restrooms for the same reasons. We live in a world where some people seek to justify opinions and actions like this by quoting biblical rules.

The good news, that Paul proclaims, is that Christ has put an end to all that. We do not need to spend our lives trying to prove to ourselves, or to anyone else, that we are worthy of love and acceptance by obeying rules, not even biblical rules. Our worth is not determined by how well we obey rules, or the work we do, or the groups we belong to. Our worth is based on the fact that each of us is created in the image of God.”

Candles in the corss represent the prayers of the members of St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa following the shooting in Orlando.

Candles in the cross represent the prayers of the members of St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa following the shooting in Orlando

And that is why RIC matters.  Because it’s more than saying All Are Welcome; it’s actually believing that every single person is created in the image of God.

30TH YEAR FOR INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE AND COMMUNITY CONVOCATION By WTS Prof. Nathan C. P. Frambach

The “Inclusive Language—Inclusive Community” Convocation was held at Wartburg Seminary earlier this Fall. Presenters were Professors Nathan Frambach and Thomas Schattauer, and final year M. Div. students Rebecca Goche and Chris Lee.  This is the 30th such convocation held annually in the Fall at Wartburg as the church continues to grow, ever expanding the meaning of inclusivity. Professor Frambach’s opening comments begin below.

This convocation is about our life together as persons in community who use language as a—if not the–primary means of expressing ourselves, both to one another and in our praise of God. Language reflects and forms human perceptions and actions. In worship, the language we employ has the comparable impact on our perception and understanding of God.

This community long ago adopted inclusive and expansive language commitments, as stated in the Student and Community Life Handbook (p. 84). This policy reflects an institutional value, a commitment to providing leadership in the movement toward inclusiveness in church life and the church’s use of language. This convocation is an occasion for this community to discuss this commitment and the leadership that we will provide.

In preparing for this convocation and perusing my own inclusive/expansive language resource file, I came across material–task force minutes and notes, convocation literature, papers–from Wartburg as well as from my own tenure in a seminary community as a student. I left Trinity and Columbus well over 20 years ago and we were working on this then. Will we still be working on it 20 years hence? When I first encountered, or was encountered by a commitment to inclusive and expansive language in my seminary community, it was disorienting, difficult and challenging. But I was open to it, or I was opened to it, and gradually I lived and practiced my way to somewhat naturally using language in a more inclusive and expansive manner. It is now a non-negotiable for me. For instance, using “he” to refer to God, while acceptable in some circles, is finally unacceptable because it is fundamentally inadequate. Most significant is how my perception and understanding of God has been broadened, deepened, and enriched. The impact of inclusive and expansive language on me has been such that without it, I suspect my conception of God would be genuinely impoverished.

Finally, this I will claim: The call to be a Godbearer, to convey the gospel, to be a messenger of Jesus Christ, contains within it the call to give up the right to use language in a way that people experience as excluding them. I will own that statement, but it is not my claim. It is a direct quote from a paper entitled “Pastoral Ministry: All Things to All People,” written by an esteemed colleague almost thirty (30) years ago. We’ve been working on this for quite some time. The mantle is passed to each new generation of those called to share and serve the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s our watch, God’s people, and continue this work we must.

A FLOOD OF REACTIONS By Rebecca Goche, Final Year M. Div.

The following comments are Becky’s from the convocation. Interspersed with her comments are several quotes (in italics) from the sermon she references. The scriptural texts were 1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a and Luke 8:26-39 (the Gerasene demoniac).

 

I want to share an experience with you from my internship this past year at St. John’s Lutheran Church in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. I had the privilege to preach the week following the mass shooting at the gay nightclub, The Pulse, in Orlando, Florida. I felt led by the Holy spirit to preach from my unique perspective as a lesbian.

I experienced a flood of reactions. I was angry. I was sad. I was numb. And I was afraid. Just like Elijah in our 1 Kings reading today, I wanted to find a cave and hide in it. I wanted to hide from the storm of emotions raging inside of me. I wanted to hide from the rabid, non-stop media coverage. I wanted to hide from those who condoned these killings in God’s name because they believe that homosexuals like me should not be allowed to exist. I wanted to hide from the trite statements about prayer from those who just weeks ago were spewing hate against my transgender siblings as to which public restroom they can use. I wanted to hide from those who were offering up another Muslim as another scapegoat to another mass shooting. And I wanted to hide from those people who feel that it’s necessary to minimize those who had died and were injured by saying, “All lives matter, not just LGBTQ lives”. But I heard a voice deep inside of me ask as I was searching for my cave, “What are you doing here, Becky?”

It was a gut-wrenching experience for me to both write and deliver this sermon because I knew that the words that I chose to use would elicit strong responses. These responses ranged from icy, cold stares to warm embraces that enveloped me with love that I can still feel today. I want to share a portion of an email that I received from a lesbian woman who heard my sermon. She wrote:

“Dear Becky…I want you to know how important it has been for me to hear sermons from you and Pastor Rachel that boldly proclaim God’s love and acceptance of LGBT people. I always thought I was lucky that while I was growing up my pastors never preached hate ad never told me I’d go to hell. I had other church members tell me that, but my pastors never did. But that wasn’t enough. I sat in the choir loft every Sunday, sometimes quite confused about my sexuality, and I just got silence on the matter. Homosexuality was not something we talked about in church. I had a couple of mentors in my church who made it a point to let me know that God loved me even if I was a lesbian and they never judged me – thank God for them. But it’s different to hear that message from a pulpit. Until I heard you and Pastor Rachel preach, I had never heard a pastor mention LGBT people and issues in church. Most of the time I just felt like that part of my life didn’t belong in church. But you and Pastor Rachel changed that for me. So thank you for being brave in your sermons and letting all of us know how loved we are.”

Inclusive language matters because words are powerful.

It is easy to view another’s life as not worthy and expendable if you do not see him or her as a human being in the first place. Throughout history we have examples of what happens when people are de-humanized – the witch trials and executions of women, the mass killings and corralling on reservations of Native Americans, slavery of Africans, the Jewish Holocaust, and the internment of Japanese Americans. And still to this day acts of violence happen at higher rates to people of color, LGBTQ people, women, children, and to those who suffer from mental illnesses, addictions, poverty, and homelessness. We push the “others” to the edges of society through our systems of unjust laws and through economic disparity. We sometimes even use or interpret the Bible in such a way that it seems to strengthen our case against those whom we perceive as other. And then we demonize the people even further by attaching names like “the savages, the blacks, the illegal aliens, the terrorists, the fags,” and so many other derogatory names. In this story, the man doesn’t seem to know who he is anymore and simply calls himself the name that’s been attached to him – Legion.

And then Jesus arrives on the scene in this amazing story. The Gerasene man asks, “What are you doing here, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” And really, what is Jesus doing there…ignoring social and religious boundaries to reach Legion?…Jesus does not show up to reinforce the way things are in this community…When Jesus shows up, the kingdom of God starts happening. The world is turned upside down…This man, who was once considered an “other” and known only by the name attached to him, has now become Jesus’ disciple in Gentile territory…Jesus met him right where he was at. Jesus will meet you and me right where we’re at, too.

As church leaders, you and I have a responsibility to take great care in the words that we use, and do not use—for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.