From the Bishop

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Triduum tension

April 15th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Where I grew up, we had a festive pie reception after our Maundy Thursday worship. Homemade pies from every kitchen were brought to St. Luke’s and shared with the congregants. Yes, we did the stripping of the altar, symbolizing the abandonment of Jesus and his stripping before the crucifixion. Yes, we left in silence. Then, we had pie and coffee.

You might guess that we never talked about the Triduum at St. Luke’s Lutheran in Shelby, Montana. I’m not sure I truly heard about it until Erik Strand – one of my best worship “professors” – coached me in my second call as a pastor. In the congregation Erik and I served, we even went so far as printing one bulletin for The Great Three Days – inviting worshipers to enter in to the three days as one service, one deep immersion into the paschal mystery, the passing of Jesus from betrayal, death, burial, into resurrection life. A “pie reception” would have shockingly disturbed the flow of that experience.

“We live with the discomfort of the tension – sometimes leaning to one side, sometimes the other.”

In his book, Between Cross and Resurrection, Alan Lewis writes of the profound importance of holding these three days together:

In summary, the complex, multiple meaning of the (paschal) story will only emerge as we hold in tension what the cross says on its own, what the resurrection says on its own, and what each of them says when interpreted in the light of the other. It would not be impossible to graph the entire history of church doctrine and life by plotting the interpretations which have failed to give due weight to one or the other of these essentials in the story by which and for which the Christian community lives. We might discover that the second day, which serves both to keep the first and the third days apart in their separate identities and to unite them in their indivisibility, offers a useful stance from which to make one more effort at a properly multivocal, stereophonic hearing of the gospel story. (emphasis mine).

 

HOLDING IN TENSION the cross and resurrection, by definition, means we can’t resolve the discomfort. The tension in a game of tug of war is only resolved if one side wins. And, holding that rope in perfect and endless equilibrium is impossible. So, we live with the discomfort of the tension – sometimes leaning to one side, sometimes the other. The tension must remain.

Douglas John Hall speaks to this tension: “Gospel …  is good news because it engages, takes on and does battle with the bad news, offering another alternative, another vision of what could be, another way into the future.”

“In the resurrection witness, suffering is accompanied and challenged by a hope.”

The hope we have in Christ’s resurrection doesn’t just whisk away all the problems we have, all the suffering we face. Good Friday and Holy Saturday remain. We know they are still there. But, somehow, in the resurrection witness, suffering is accompanied and challenged by a hope – a vision of “what could be another way into the future.”

We hold all preachers, worship leaders, musicians, artists, and participants in prayer as we enter together the great mystery of the Christian faith.

Trustworthy Servants

March 25th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

When bishops ordain pastors or consecrate deacons, we ask if they will commit to being an “example in faithful service and holy living.” If their answer is yes, they respond: “I will, and I ask God to help me.”

To what, exactly, are they committing themselves? What, exactly, is holy living? Since it was formed, the ELCA has sought to provide further detail in its expectations about “holy living.” Our predecessor bodies – the ALC, LCA, and AELC – did the same.

Still, this is not a “once-for-all” endeavor. Our guidelines are not set in stone. Pastors and deacons can now divorce. LGBTQ pastors and deacons can now marry. While it was once permissible (and is still legal in some states) for men to rape their wives, that is not acceptable in the church’s understanding of “holy living.”

All that we do and all that we are, both at home and in the public square, is a witness. The shape of our faithfulness bears witness to a loving and just God, who has freed us to love and serve our neighbor.

The ELCA’s constitution gives the ELCA Church Council authority to approve the specific expectations included in our understanding of “holy living.” Currently, the expectations are articulated in “Vision and Expectations.”

 

AT ITS MEETING ON April 4-7, the ELCA Church Council will review the draft of a document, “Trustworthy Servants of the People of God,” which, if approved, would replace “Vision and Expectations.” The upcoming council discussion has provoked serious and lively debate. Questions include:

  1. Should rostered leaders be held to higher standards than other Christians? What about the priesthood of all believers?
  2. Why do we focus so much on sexual misconduct and not as much on failure in prayer, generosity and tithing, and a commitment to justice and the environment?
  3. Should the potential effect a behavior has on a congregation be considered when discussing expectations? (E.g., an affair with a parishioner affects a congregation in ways that a failure to tithe might not.)
  4. What policy most effectively prevents boundary violations?
  5. What is the process for developing such statements as “Trustworthy Servants of the People of God?” Could we advocate for a longer conversation with more inclusive representation?

Neither “Vision and Expectations” nor “Trustworthy Servants” are documents with authority to create new policy. Rather, their authority is to interpret the policy that is created in the ELCA’s governing documents and social statements. To be sure, “interpreting” policy requires making judgments and one could argue our church needs a longer, more inclusive process before making such judgments. However, if our church wishes to create a new ethic about sexuality or prayer or justice expectations, it will require a more involved process, including Churchwide Assembly vote(s).

 

JUDGMENT CALLS ARE also made in the application of documents like “Vision and Expectations.” Recently, the Conference of Bishops apologized for its failures in this regard:

As a Conference of Bishops, we recognize and acknowledge that [Vision and Expectations]’ application has been uneven and inequitable. We express our profound grief and deep regret for the times when Vision and Expectations has been misused to single out, marginalize, and block people seeking to be leaders in this church when their peers were not always held to the same vision and expectations.

If our church wishes to create a new ethic about sexuality or prayer or justice expectations, it will require a more involved process, including Churchwide Assembly vote(s).

The discussion of “holy living” is complicated, profound, and evokes strongly held opinions. All that we do and all that we are, both at home and in the public square, is a witness. The shape of our faithfulness bears witness to a loving and just God, who has freed us to love and serve our neighbor. People are paying attention. How, then, shall we live?

Please join with me in praying for our Church Council as they meet April 4-7. We are a theologically grounded, gospel-centered, deeply engaged, and interconnected church. May the Spirit work through all the charisms of the ELCA and our mutual discernment as we each seek to live counter-cultural lives as followers of Jesus.

‘A widening gap’

March 12th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Everywhere you turn you can find a survey about why young adults aren’t coming to church. I thought I’d conduct my own. In a comprehensive survey of two, I heard: “It’s hard to go to church all by myself,” and “I spend so much time keeping my kids quiet, I leave church more exhausted than inspired.”

From early on in scripture, people have asked: “Will our children have faith?”

Deuteronomy is clear about teaching God’s word to future generations:

Who has a god so near to them as the Lord our God is whenever we call? … But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as not to forget the things that your eyes have seen, … make them known to your children and your children’s children. (4:8-10)

You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand. … Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. (11:18-19)

The Psalmist writes: “We will recount to generations to come the praiseworthy deeds and the power of God, … that the generations to come might know, and the children yet unborn; that they in their turn might tell it to their children; so they might put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 78: 4, 6)

 

ROSTERED LEADERS IN OUR SYNOD have an extraordinary opportunity on Thursday, March 28, to hear from people doing real, qualitative exploration of “the widening gap between young adults and Christian congregations.”

“Augsburg is one of only 12 schools to receive funding and participate in Lilly Endowment’s Young Adult Initiative.”

The Augsburg Riverside Innovation Center is a “big deal” for our church. Sometimes, we’re cavalier about the remarkable wisdom from our own neighborhood (a prophet not welcome in her hometown and all). But, Augsburg is one of only 12 schools to receive funding and participate in Lilly Endowment’s Young Adult Initiative. The schools are located across the country and represent Mainline Protestant, evangelical, historic African American, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and independent congregations. Yes, for Augsburg to be selected is truly a big deal!

Now, two years into the project, we are invited to learn some of Augsburg’s discoveries. All rostered leaders are invited to join us for the conversation. This is not about filling our pews or assuaging our guilt. This is not about the survival of the church. It is about the story of God’s fierce love revealed in Christ – a love that forms beloved community and gives meaning and purpose to life.

Called to empathy

February 18th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

What a weekend! On Saturday I was honored to convey the church’s deep gratitude at the funerals of John Nelson and Orval Westby, two pastors who’d been ordained for 63 and 73 years respectively. Seventy-three years! I’d have to live past 2055 to claim that.

On Sunday, I was privileged to preside at the ordination of Ian McConnell, someone I pray will serve as a pastor well beyond 2055. In the ordination sermon, Pastor Tania Haber spoke of the importance of imagination – quoting the Harvard commencement address given by J.K. Rowling: “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation; it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Imagination – and its fruits of vision and empathy – are critical gifts for pastors. Empathy is central to emotional intelligence; one of the most important skills for effective leaders. Trust is built on empathy, and without trust it’s almost impossible to lead.

 

BUT, EMPATHY IS ALSO essential for preaching. Pastor Fred Craddock, preaching professor at Candler School of Theology, encouraged preachers to imagine what it’s like to be situations unknown to them:

When the pastor writes a sermon, an empathetic imagination sees concrete experiences. Others may display knowledge of “poverty programs” but the pastor knows what a bitter thing it is to be somebodys Christmas project. [The pastor] sees a boy resisting his mothers insistence that he wear the nice sweater that came in the charity basket. [The pastor] can see the boy wear it until out of mothers sight, but not at school out of fear that he may meet the original owner on the playground. There are conditions worse than being cold. Others may discuss “the problem of geriatrics” but the pastor has just come from the local rest home and still sees worn checkerboards, faded bouquets, large print King James Bibles, stainless steel trays, and dim eyes staring at an empty parking lot reserved for visitors. Others may analyze “the trouble with the youth today” but the pastor sees a fuzzy-lipped boy, awkward, noisy, wishing he were absent, not a man, not a child.

In his annual report to the synod, Pastor Orval Westby, then is his 90s, answered the question: What suggestions do you have for the ELCA? He wrote: “provide more opportunities for pastors to grow as preachers.”

“Even with all the vision and empathy in the world, regular preaching is a daunting task.”

I take his suggestion seriously. What opportunities encourage you in your preaching? What’s missing? Is there more our synod could do?

Even with all the vision and empathy in the world, regular preaching is a daunting task. I am eager to hear more about what sustains and stretches you. And, to explore ways our synod might be a stronger source of support.

We. Are. Fam-i-ly.

February 4th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

“My church is like a family!” It’s the most frequent answer I get when I ask what people like about their congregation. “We feel like a family.” There’s much to celebrate in that statement. We imagine families as places of care, deep and ongoing relationships, loving acceptance. “Family is a life jacket in the stormy sea of life,” says J.K. Rowling.

“Worship is the most public part of our shared life.”

However, there is a problem with this image. Christians are called to be a family with permeable boundaries – communities of gracious openness – welcoming people we’ve never met.

I am especially concerned when worship – the most public event of the week – seems like a family reunion. When a newcomer comes to worship in such a setting, she can feel like a stranger eavesdropping on a family dinner. Rather than experiencing welcome, he can feel even more on the outside looking in.

 

YES, MANY CHURCH activities can promote the sense that we’re family – support groups, small groups for prayer and Bible study, counseling, and spiritual direction. Worship, I believe, is something different. It’s the most public part of our shared life, so we must ask: How do visitors experience worship here? Think for a moment about a 28-year-old first-timer, someone new to this country, someone struggling with depression. How would they experience worship at your congregation?

“Christians are called to be a family with permeable boundaries.”

Little things make a difference:

  • Does the worship liturgy require that people recite things from memory?
  • How easy is it to get to coffee hour? Is it in the room down the hall, needing detailed directions, a place where everyone notices when you walk in the door?
  • Is the coffee good?

The congregation is a remarkable gift from God. We need the welcome and community it brings – surrounded by folks who share our greatest joys and sorrows, challenged to live lives of meaning and purpose for the sake of the world. And, we need the community of faith because Jesus has promised to meet us there – in Word and Sacrament, in the words of forgiveness, in the presence of one another.

Paul calls Christians to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” (Romans 15:7) Let that be our way of life – as disciples and communities in Christ.

Practicing Justice

January 15th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Each of the three congregations I have served included an aspect of social justice or social ministry in my job description. Zion Lutheran in Iowa City, Iowa, had a peace and justice group; Edina Community Lutheran has an expectation of regularly mentioned social issues in the sermons; and at Trinity in Moorhead we created an evangelism and social justice pastoral position.

As a pastor I have often asked myself how we can live out Micah’s call to “do justice.” How can we fulfill the promise we make in the affirmation of baptism “to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?” I believe both our congregations and individual disciples want to be faithful in this calling, but we often wonder how we make a concrete difference for the sake of justice.

This week, 44 people are attending faith-based community organizing training sponsored by our synod. I attended the same training a year ago and experienced an incredible “aha” moment. For the first time, I felt like I’d experienced a specific faith practice for “doing justice.”

Justice will not come to the neighbor in need simply because we’ve got a brilliant argument for a change that makes for justice.

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, Christianity has offered specific guidance on the practice of prayer (Ignatian spiritual exercises), the practice of Bible study (the ELCA’s Book of Faith), the practice of hospitality (The Order of St. Benedict). What if we could sense the same concrete wisdom for guiding us in the practice of “doing justice?” I believe faith-based organizing is just such a thing.

Key things are “deep listening” to the needs of the community through focused “one-on-one” conversations; discernment about a particular issue the community wants to address; identification and equipping of leaders; building a coalition of allies; assessing who has “the power” to make change; planning and implementing the process needed to convince those in power.

Christian practices are initiatives Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in the light of and in response to God’s grace within all creation through Christ Jesus. Our EcoFaith Network has used this practice around the issue of inclusive financing — making alternative energy solutions affordable for everyone. And, our synod is using community organizing in its efforts on racial and economic justice.

Christian practices are initiatives Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in the light of and in response to God’s grace within all creation through Christ Jesus.

Oh, some may be cautious about the use of community organizing — hearing in the media about confrontational practices or attention-seeking actions. The methodology we use at the synod is more sensitive to the culture of the church — and to its values.

Sometimes, we think our calling is simply to have a good idea; make a strong case. Organizing asks us a deeper question: How can you actually succeed in making a difference? Justice will not come to the neighbor in need simply because we’ve got a brilliant argument for a change that makes for justice. We also need strategies whereby, together, we act to convince those with power to make that change.

Wrinkled and Reddened

December 18th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

More than any time of year, it seems, Christmas is a season for remembering. The sounds, sights, and smells evoke memories of days gone by.

I remember singing carols with my cousins on Christmas Eve – all of us jealous that my older brother got the best solo. I remember my younger brother, newly able to read, sitting by my dad reciting from the second chapter of Luke. I remember my mom bringing out the table cloth she and I had made out of net and felt fabric, with probably a thousand sequins sewn on it. (Now, I’m lucky to sew on a missing button before six months have passed.)

Yes, this is a season for memories – looking backward to the holiday experiences of our past. How ironic it is, then, that the Christmas story has little to do with looking backward and everything to do with looking forward. It’s the story of a birth, the creation of a newborn baby who has a whole life ahead of him.

 

I’M REMINDED OF THE FIRST time I gave birth and held my seven-pound Sarah in my arms. Thoughts of the past quickly vanished. Looking into her eyes, I was overwhelmed with thoughts of the future. How would this tiny one grow? How would her life unfold?

And no birth opened the future more powerfully than the birth of Jesus. When we celebrate this birth, we celebrate not only the future of the baby in Bethlehem, we celebrate the future of the whole creation. In Jesus’ birth, we receive the promise of a new beginning, of fresh possibilities. For, if the God of all the universe can become enfleshed in a wrinkled, reddened newborn, then nothing is impossible. The future is thrown wide open. What seemed impossible yesterday might be possible today.

“The gospel message calls us to remember way back to the very first Christmas. Then, we are turned around and we look ahead to see God’s future opening before us.”

Oh, Christmas will always remain a season for memories. And I pray that God’s grace will enfold each of us as we are touched by memories of holidays past. But, the gospel message calls us to remember way back to the very first Christmas. Then, we are turned around and we look ahead to see God’s future opening before us.

It’s easy to believe that tomorrow will be just like today; to resign ourselves to thinking there’s “nothing new under the sun.” But the miracle of the incarnation unlocks our imaginations:

  • What might this God be up to in our lives, our churches, neighborhoods, our world?
  • How might this God – for whom nothing will be impossible – lead us to participate in God’s work of healing and reconciliation?
  • What gospel surprises await us in the year ahead?

May your Christmas celebrations be filled with fresh wonder, renewed joy, and enlivened hope in the God who opens the future in the birth of Jesus.

Hope in Togetherness

November 20th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

My husband has gotten a record number of “likes” for his Facebook post that includes a picture of me shaking hands with Pope Francis. It was on Reformation Day 2018, a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.

Probably even more emotionally moving was the gift of accompanying the “Together in Hope” choir in its ministry to foster church unity through music. Comprised of Lutheran and Catholic conductors and singers from the Twin Cities, the choir was privileged to sing in the Sistine Chapel (can you just hear the singing of “Ubi Caritas” in that sacred space?), at worship in St. Peter’s Basilica, and at the weekly Papal audience in St. Peter’s Square. The highlight of the trip was giving the inaugural concert at the 17th annual Festival Internazionale di Musica e Arte Sacra with the premiere performance of “So That the World May Believe” by composer Kim Arnesen.

 

Pope Francis (left) offers gifts to Bishop Ann Svennungsen and Bishop Peter Bartimawus (center) of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria while they were visiting Rome with the Together in Hope choir tour.

WHENEVER I COULD, I sat with the choir for their rehearsals. (My husband was chagrined when I chose rehearsals over a tour of Assisi.) Some of the emotion came from my own deeply felt experience singing with the Concordia Choir under Paul J. Christiansen. But most came from the sheer beauty of the music and its message. With poetry by Susan Palo Cherwien and the Apostle Paul’s words about unity in the body of Christ, the composer created something that touched our very souls.

“Though technology brings incredible good to our world, it can also make it less likely that we’ll sing in a choir or play on a softball team.”

Sitting through the rehearsals, I was reminded of the philosopher Albert Borgmann’s writing about focal practicesSinging in a choir is such a focal practice. So is playing on a softball team or making a family dinner. In my own lifetime, it seems that making such commitments has become harder. It’s easier for me to watch TV or engage Facebook than commit to hosting a meal with friends. Though technology brings incredible good to our world, it can also make it less likely that we’ll sing in a choir or play on a softball team.

Advent is just around the corner. We celebrate the miracle of God-become-flesh. Our incarnational theology has something to say, I believe, about our life together.

I will always be grateful for my recent trip to Rome. And, I especially thank the Together in Hope Choir for its witness to our unity in Christ and to our God-given need for focused, communal activities that bring us together and touch our very souls.

With One Voice

October 22nd, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Raised in a Lutheran home, I sensed that the biggest stumbling block in Lutheran-Catholic relations was the requirement that, if a Lutheran married a Catholic, all the children had to be raised Catholic. It wasn’t fair (and fairness was next to godliness for us). We were good Lutherans. We could raise good Christians in the Lutheran church as well.

I even remember someone telling me it would be better to marry a non-Christian than a Catholic. At least, you might be able to raise your kids as Lutherans.

Praise God, a lot has changed since my childhood. Oh, some of the changes are the result of secularism – where Catholic and Lutheran parents both simply hope their children will grow up as faithful Christians, regardless of denomination. And, at least one issue in Catholic-Lutheran relations still seems pretty unfair to me. (As you may guess, it is related to the role of women.)

 

THIS FRIDAY, ARCHBISHOP Bernard Hebda and I will accompany a 60-member choir on the “Together in Hope” trip to Rome – an ecumenical project working to advancing Christian unity through music and the arts. Led by co-conductors Mark Stover (formerly St. Olaf College music department) and Teri Larson (St. Mary’s Basilica music director), the choir will sing at:

  • The 17th annual Festival Internazionale di Musica e Arte Sacra on October 31 at the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls
  • The 4:00 p.m. All Saints Day Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on November 1

The Choir will perform both the Holy Spirit Mass, commissioned in 2017 for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation and the world premiere of the newly commissioned So That the World May Believe – a Motet for Unity and Service, dedicated to Pope Francis for his many initiatives of reconciliation.

In 2016, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly overwhelmingly approved the “Declaration on the Way.” Celebrating 50 years of Lutheran-Catholic dialogues, the declaration includes 32 statements of agreement, as well as 15 areas of difference, with encouragement that Lutherans and Catholics commit to the ongoing work toward unity.

“In 2016, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly overwhelmingly approved the ‘Declaration on the Way.’”

The Declaration on the Way concludes with several suggestions for that ongoing work, such as:

  • recommending that the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church create a process and timetable for addressing the remaining issues of disagreement;
  • establishing regional Lutheran-Catholic working groups, convened by the regional bishops; and
  • encouraging Catholic and Lutheran parishes to develop covenants for joint prayer and service.

I am delighted that Archbishop Hebda and I will both be on this trip. He brings wonderful gifts to the church, including a strong commitment to ecumenism. If the “Together in Hope” trip is intended to promote unity, I find great hope simply in the opportunities for conversation between the two of us.

Jesus prayed that “all may be one.” We join together to work and pray for the fulfillment of that promise.

Where do we find ourselves?

October 9th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

What does one say after the events of the past 10 days? What does one write when events have affected you more deeply than you could have imagined?

To watch the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh was heart wrenching for me. Though I have not been a victim of sexual assault, I have experienced sexual harassment. And I’ve spent hours with victims of both, as a pastor and bishop. Perhaps, the countless hours a bishop puts into protecting the church from sex abusers and working for restoration after a congregation suffers the agonizing effects of sexual misconduct have made the past 10 days especially heartbreaking.

Oh, I admit that any event can be used for partisan ends. And, I admit that I wasn’t following closely the hearings early on; I did not experience great passion over whether Kavanaugh was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice or not. But, I was pained by the way we handled allegations of sexual assault.

Though columnist David Brooks is often my “go-to” guy on issues of character, I struggled with his October 4 column. He writes: “[R]eactions to the narratives have been determined almost entirely by partisan affiliation. Among the commentators I’ve seen and read, those who support Democrats embrace Blasey’s narrative and dismissed Kavanaugh’s. Those who support Republicans side with Kavanaugh’s narrative and see holes in Ford’s.”

“The countless hours a bishop puts into protecting the church from sex abusers and working for restoration after a congregation suffers the agonizing effects of sexual misconduct have made the past 10 days especially heartbreaking.”

Brooks goes on to describe an epidemic of bigotry: It was bigotry against Jews that got Alfred Dreyfus convicted in 1894. It was bigotry against young black males that got the Central Park Five convicted in 1990. It was bigotry against preppy lacrosse players that led to the bogus Duke Lacrosse scandal.”

Did you notice which group (among many) who’ve experienced bigotry was omitted from Brooks’ examples? Women and girls. Kavanaugh can probably find himself in the lacrosse player example. Where would Ford find herself? In not one example. There are no women. Not one.

 

THIS THURSDAY I MEET with the Task Force drafting the ELCA’s social statement on Justice for Women – to be considered at the August, 2019, Churchwide Assembly. I am deep into reading responses from all the hearings around the church – including several in our own synod. The current draft begins:

We believe God’s intention for humanity is abundant life for all. This calls us to equity and justice for all with respect to issues of gender and sex. … In this statement we commit ourselves to the continual work of prayer, learning, reflection, discernment, and action to resist patriarchy and sexism.

Whatever your reaction to the events of the past 10 days, I hope we can join hands in the work ahead toward that day when we “live together in community into the promised abundant life God intends for all.”

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