From the Bishop

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‘No other gods’

January 21st, 2020

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

I was privileged to meet Drew Hart, religion professor at Messiah College, when I sat next to him at dinner last Tuesday before his lecture at Luther Seminary. Impressed with his grace and approachability, I wasn’t exactly expecting the challenge his lecture would bring.

Oh, his words came with that same grace and humility; no fire and brimstone.

Still, I was challenged to think in a way I’d never done before. And I was grateful for this experience on the cusp of celebrations of Martin Luther King, Jr., a prophet who challenged a whole nation/world to think in a new way.

Both King and Hart call the Christian church to address racism in response to God’s call to love the neighbor. We work to dismantle racism because of the tragic evil and suffering racism has caused neighbors today and throughout history.

 

BUT HART DOESN’T stop there. The Christian church needs to address racism because God calls us to have no other gods. It’s not just the command to love our neighbor that calls us to dismantle racism, it’s also the command to love God above all else.

And, at least since the doctrine of discovery was signed by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, Christianity has been intertwined with racist anthropologies. More specifically, Christian theology has been entangled with a worldview that puts white people at the top of a false, humanly constructed racial hierarchy.

“How has our understanding of God been shaped by a history steeped in white supremacy?”

The Papal Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and “that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”

Similar church documents justified slavery. Martin Marty recalls a fellow historian noting that the white southern Protestant clergy prior to the Civil War “came across as moral, devout, pastoral, learned, caring, informed, and generous preachers. And also to a person they defended human slavery, claiming that it was a response to divine mandates and divine will, biblically authorized.”

 

EPISCOPAL BISHOP AND South African activist Desmond Tutu called apartheid a heresy. Because all people are created in God’s image, all have intrinsic value. However, in apartheid, “[r]ace is the principle which determines your value,” Tutu said. The policy of apartheid is “totally un-Christian, evil, and a heresy.”

How has our understanding of God been shaped by such history? What is our responsibility to look deeply and honestly at Christian churches in this country and dismantle all that has worked to collapse Christian faith with white supremacy?

“It’s not just the command to love our neighbor that calls us to dismantle racism, it’s also the command to love God above all else.”

Yes, love of neighbor calls us to dismantle racism. And, so does love of God. May we have the courage to question when our other gods – like white supremacy – obstruct our understanding of the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jump in

December 23rd, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

How did Joseph do it? Where did he find the courage?

We focus a lot on the courage of Mary, but what about Joseph? Engaged, but not living with Mary, he discovers that she’s pregnant. And the child isn’t his.

Whoa, … Joseph was an upright Jew. And so was Mary. As an upright Jew, he had some options: a public divorce, even a public stoning. But Joseph chose a more compassionate way, deciding to divorce Mary in private.

Joseph trusted the angel from God.”

But, even that choice wasn’t enough. An angel intervened. “The child Mary carries is the work of the Holy Spirit. No man had anything to do with it. Make a home with Mary, and adopt this child as your own by giving him a name – Jesus.”

Joseph trusted the angel from God. In his shoes, I would’ve hoped for some reassuring sign from God for my choice. But, no, the circumstances just seem to worsen. He must travel to Bethlehem, watch his wife give birth in a stable, flee to Egypt to avoid Herod’s killing, and live there as a refugee. I imagine there were moments when he wondered if that angel’s voice was even real.

 

IN OUR CULTURE WED to the values of progress and growth, it’s hard not to think that faithful choices will lead to a better life. But not for Joseph.

He reminds me of a dear friend. Forty years ago he began his training as a doctor. He wanted to make a difference, to serve the common good. His specialty was infectious disease. Actually, he admits choosing the specialty, in part, because most diseases could be cured – as opposed to oncology at that time.

Well, he became a doctor just as AIDS was discovered. And, you guessed it, infectious disease is the specialty that treats patients with AIDS. Many of his patients died. My friend became one of the most respected and beloved physicians among people with AIDS.

“Discipleship is not a spectator sport.”

Following God’s leading will not mean standing on the sidelines. Discipleship is not a spectator sport. We’re not asked to tip-toe around the edge of the pool, afraid of the water. We jump in – following Christ, serving our neighbor – not sure how the waters will feel, not sure how we’ll navigate them. Discipleship means jumping in – for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of love and justice.

For God didn’t stay on the sidelines. God entered into our world, even into bleakness of sin and evil. In the middle of the night, God became vulnerable, a tiny baby. And, in the Word made flesh, we recognize the very presence of God – in our midst, at our sides. It’s no coincidence that Matthew begins and ends with this promise:  “Emmanuel, God with us” and “lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

Like Joseph, we rest our lives on that promise. As we enter 2020, filled with uncertainty about the journeys before us – personally, nationally, globally – we walk like Joseph trusting that God is with us. And we leave the sidelines to enter deeply into God’s beloved world, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of love and justice.

The signs are already here

December 2nd, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

During my last year of seminary, I had an 8:00 a.m. class on the Gospel of John. I was also three months pregnant – a bad combination for wakefulness. I’ve kept my notes from that class. For a few pages, they’re clear and coherent. But, after a while they start to make little sense – kind of dreamlike stream of consciousness. Then the writing just stops as the ink drops off the page. Clearly, I’ve fallen asleep.

“What does Jesus mean when he tells the disciples to stay awake?”

What does Jesus mean when he tells the disciples to stay awake? It’s not about attentively trying to calculate a timetable for Jesus’ return. Jesus doesn’t even know this.

But Jesus provides some hints in the next chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. He tells four stories, all about attentiveness. Tenants are left to steward the landowner’s property. Some do well; others don’t. Bridesmaids attend a wedding – five prepare, five don’t. When the party finally begins, five missed the whole thing because they had to go buy more oil.

 

THE FINAL STORY IS the most vivid of all. Now, the one who returns isn’t the master in some parable, it’s the Son of Man, with all the nations gathered before him. And, if you wonder who’s stayed awake, who’s been alert in the time before the Lord’s returned, you get this answer: “You were awake if you fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited the prisoner.” And, what is more, when you were awake and doing those things, you were not only doing them for the person suffering, you were doing them for Jesus himself.

“Being awake doesn’t mean trying to figure out when Jesus will return.”

Stay awake. Keep alert. Be alive and responsive to the needs of this world, this broken but God-so-loved world.

Being awake doesn’t mean trying to figure out when Jesus will return. Being awake means loving the neighbor. It means stewarding the gifts God has given us. It means using our talents and lighting our lamps and doing our jobs so that God’s love is made known in thousands of ways – large and small. And how much more exciting is that than watching the skies and looking for signs?

The mystery of faiths

November 18th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

A couple in Chicago recently told me about their practice when visiting dear friends who are Jewish. “When we’re in their home, we’re invited into the prayers of their faith. When they visit our home, we invite them into the prayers of our Christian faith. We’ve found it to be both respectful and authentic.”

Our Fall Ministerium this Thursday invites the synod’s rostered leaders to reflect more deeply on such inter-religious relationships. Hosted this year by the Saint Paul Area Synod, our Ministerium will be led by Bishop Lull who chaired the Task Force that wrote the ELCA’s “Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment.” Her vital role in that endeavor was not only a great honor – but it also made it much more likely we’d get to hear Dr. Rahuldeep Gill, our featured speaker and fellow Task Force member with Bishop Lull.

 

BEYOND THE ELCA, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) is committed to interreligious dialogue. Guided by the question of how religious communities live together in “a shared public space,” LWF engages in theological dialogue – but also is committed to “equal rights for all” and “collaboration with interreligious partners in humanitarian work.” Such efforts for mutual understanding and shared humanitarian efforts “constitute a strong public witness” in a world marked by division and strife.

Going to dinner at your friends’ home is not a “shared public space.” In fact, I think private spaces present some of the hardest challenges to our inter-religious commitments:

  • What does evangelism look like? What witness do I give to friends, relatives, colleagues of other religions?
  • How does one plan an authentic and respectful Christian-Hindu wedding?
  • How does one raise children in a Muslim-Christian household?

“An integral part of [our] calling is to be witnesses to Christ – to evangelize. … This sharing occurs in many ways, in word and in deed – always respecting the dignity of the other and always offered in love.”

The ELCA’s Declaration speaks to the question of evangelism: “An integral part of [our] calling is to be witnesses to Christ (Acts 1:8) – to evangelize. … This sharing occurs in many ways, in word and in deed – always respecting the dignity of the other and always offered in love. … We [share] in ways that honor our convictions that every human is made in the image of God and that all of creation is good.”

Questions about evangelism and hospitality and interfaith families are important and significant, ever-present for some families. Our synod’s rostered leaders will be touching the surface of these concerns at Thursday’s Ministerium. I hope that these same questions also arise within our congregations; the conversation will be rich and help us all faithfully live out our Christian vocation in the world in this age.

Reforming and reformed

October 28th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

As a kid I would never have imagined that Lutheran Church would play such a key role in the ecumenical movement. We weren’t especially ecumenical in Shelby, Montana. And yet, before I entered fourth grade, Lutherans were beginning to lead.

I’ve always imagined that the more mainline churches would take the lead: Congregationalists, Presbyterians, or Methodists. But, perhaps our liturgical and sacramental understandings made Lutherans distinctively equipped to encourage ecumenism from the “middle of the road.”

Whatever the reason, Lutherans have developed full communion agreements with six denominations: Episcopal, Moravian, Presbyterian, Reformed, United Methodist, and United Church of Christ.

“I was surprised at the leadership role of Lutherans in the ecumenical movement.”

What is more, Lutheran-Catholic dialogues began in 1967, only two years after the Second Vatican Council concluded. The dialogues have continued until this day – authoring 11 different reports about the basic issues that separate and unite the two churches.

Only 12 years after Vatican II, Minnesota’s Lutheran and Catholic bishops began meeting together at an annual retreat, convened by ALC District President David Preus, LCA Bishop Herbert Chilstrom, and Archbishop John Roach.

 

I JUST RETURNED FROM the 42nd such retreat. Luther Seminary Professor Dirk Lange led participants in a review of the impact of 52 years of dialogues. Again, I was surprised at the leadership role of Lutherans in the ecumenical movement.

Last March, on the 20th anniversary of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), delegates from all five communions who have affirmed JDDJ met and issued the Notre Dame Consultation Statement. (The World Methodist Council affirmed JDDJ in 2006; the Anglican Communion in 2016; and the World Communion of Reformed Churches in 2017).

At our last conference of bishops meeting, we heard hopeful updates about ongoing ELCA dialogues with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“Perhaps our liturgical and sacramental understandings made Lutherans distinctively equipped to encourage ecumenism from the ‘middle of the road.’”

It’s pretty amazing to see what ecumenical fruits have been born by the leadership of Lutherans. Oh, a sticking point for me in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogs – as you could easily predict – is the issue of women’s ordination.

But, recently, I was given a new glimpse of hope. A Catholic priest said to me: “Jesus said, ‘You will know them by their fruits.’ We are seeing the fruits of the Spirit in the churches around us through the leadership of women as bishops and pastors. Who knows what that might mean for our future?”

Yes, for many reasons, I give thanks for the Spirit’s fruits born through the ministries of all our synod’s rostered leaders. Today, I give thanks for one more.

Checking in

October 14th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

It didn’t take long before tears came to his eyes. We were sitting at the pre-game lunch last Saturday before Homecoming at Concordia College in Moorhead. My table mate had come to watch his son play football.

I told him about my work as a bishop in the region that includes North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota. The bishops had been discussing ways our church could support farmers – challenged by tariffs, low commodity prices, and weather too wet for harvesting. (While eating our lunch, we could see student workers heave shovelfuls of snow to clear the bleachers).

“Just keep checking in with me.”

That’s when the tears came. “We will lose some family farms for sure this year; farms in the family for four generations. It’s horrible to be a fifth generation farmer – and to lose the land on your watch. There’s so many things a farmer can’t control. Even working your hardest and smartest isn’t enough.”

After a moment or two, he continued, “I guess I’d like the church to offer counseling and mental health support. Farmers don’t express their feelings too much – and that can get us in trouble. One of the hardest things to do is to ask for help.”

 

MANY OF US HAVE experienced times when we’d done all we could – everything just right – but the outcome wasn’t what we’d hoped. Many of us have experienced deep loss, but couldn’t bring ourselves to ask for help.

Recently, I was with someone in such a situation. She told me about her friends who, in her time of loss, continued to ask her: “How can we help?” Never sure what specific help she needed at the time, she replied, “Just keep checking in with me.” I love that answer. I wish I’d thought of it for the seasons of loss in my life.

“It’s horrible to be a fifth generation farmer – and to lose the land on your watch.”

“Just keep checking in with me.” The farm crisis may also compel you to advocate for policy change or the reorganization of seed production monopolies.

During the 1990s farm crisis, the Northwestern Minnesota Synod had trained counselors available within 20 minutes of any farm in the synod. And they were used. Next Tuesday, a group of Lutherans leaders will gather at the Lutheran Social Service office in Fargo next week to brainstorm ways to support farm and ranch families. I hope to join via Zoom and will share what I learn.

In the meantime, I encourage all of us to “check in” with the farmers we know.

Inspired by scripture

September 10th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

From the beginning of my Reformation, I have asked God to send me neither dreams, nor visions, nor angels, but to give me the right understanding of God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures; for as long as I have God’s Word, I know that I am walking in God’s way. (Martin Luther, Commentary on Genesis, Vol II)

The Scriptures … are inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world. (ELCA Constitution)

Does your daily life include the devotional reading of scripture? Are you part of a regular Bible study?

I can still see the closet in my childhood home where my parents kept the massive notebooks needed to participate in the Bethel Bible Series. I’ve served congregations where Crossways and Search Bible studies were regularly offered.

“Though worshipers appreciate the Bible, few hold it in quite the same esteem as our forebears.”

In 2008, the ELCA launched the Book of Faith Initiative, a five-year collaborative effort to “raise to a new level this church’s individual and collective engagement with the Bible, yielding greater biblical fluency and a more profound appreciation of Lutheran principles and approaches for the use of Scripture.

The five-year initiative ended in 2013. Does anyone think we accomplished our goal? Do we have greater biblical fluency? Is there a greater appreciation of Lutheran hermeneutics?

 

LAST WEEK, Pastors Tania Haber, Babette Chatman, Martha Schwehn Bardwell, and I met with Dr. Michael Chan to prepare for the Bishop’s Theological Conference (BTC), which coincidentally is titled “Does Scripture Matter? Engaging the Bible in the 21st Century.”  We talked about the realities in our churches:

  • Though Bible studies are offered and found meaningful, the number of people participating is sometimes less than hoped for.
  • Though worshipers appreciate the Bible, few hold it in quite the same esteem as our forebears.
  • Even with a steady diet of Biblical preaching, we believe faith is also nourished through deeper, communal discussion and engagement with this “rough manger” that holds the Word made flesh.

Are these things also true in your congregation? We are delighted with the number of registrants for BTC; we’d also love to hear insights from those who won’t be there.

  • Why does Scripture matter? For you? For your congregation?
  • What are effective ways you’ve led your congregation to engage scripture – both in individual devotional reading and in communal study?

You’re welcome to comment on the synod’s Facebook page posting of this blog (scroll down until you find the posting) or email John Mai at j.mai@mpls-synod.org and type “Scripture matters” in the subject line. And, I promise to share the insights gleaned from the BTC in one of my future blogs.

Reflection on Churchwide Assembly action

August 14th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

What a blessing it was to attend the 2019 Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee!

We worked hard on the decisions facing our church; we worshiped and studied scripture together; we celebrated and communed with people across the ELCA and around the globe. I will not soon forget the long procession during Friday’s worship of female pastors who until 50 years ago could not have been ordained.

I encourage you to become acquainted with a summary of the important actions taken in Milwaukee. I wish to write about one particular decision – something that’s garnered lots of public attention: In its plenary on August 6, the assembly voted to declare the ELCA a sanctuary church body

Though the vote was clear, our understanding of what becoming a sanctuary denomination is not as clear. In fact, the resolution included an amendment specifically asking the church council to provide guidance about what this means.

In my heart and mind, I believe the action was taken as a way to respond to our great sorrow around what feels like unprecedented threats facing refugees and undocumented immigrants in our country:

  • ICE raids in Mississippi leaving hundreds of children separated from parents and guardians, awaiting pick-ups from schools or day care centers or returning to empty homes.
  • Alarming reports of negligence, abuse, and deaths of migrant children in U.S. detention facilities.
  • Rumors of federal proposals that will reduce the quota of visas from 30,000 this year to zero in 2020 for those seeking refugee resettlement status. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services offers a helpful explanation.

One might say that the ELCA decision to become a sanctuary denomination is largely symbolic. Nothing in the action binds synods or congregations. It doesn’t require congregations or individuals to engage in any particular action. Primarily, I see the resolution as a way to “go on record,” challenging the brokenness and injustices we see in our immigration system. And it’s part of the Lutheran story in America.

Our church has a long history of both helping refugees and working for just and generous immigration policies. We believe our country has a calling to welcome our fair share of refugees and to welcome them to the U.S. without discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin.

I invite you to read the entire sanctuary church body resolution, which also calls us to:

  • Reaffirm the long-term and growing commitment of this church to migrants and refugees and to the policy questions involved, as exemplified most recently in the comprehensive strategy Accompanying Migrant Minors with Prot ection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities (AMMPARO).
  • Develop a plan for additional tools that provide for education and discernment around sanctuary. (some of our synod’s congregations have discerned a call to provide resources and/or housing to those fearing deportation; they would  welcome conversation with other congregations exploring such a calling).

The 145 congregations in our synod are amazingly diverse in how they will receive this action by the churchwide assembly. As you reflect on this decision, please keep in prayer all those who are anxious about deportation – members of our congregations and communities.

And, please also pray that the Spirit will guide us — individuals and congregations — as we seek to faithfully love the neighbor and the stranger in our midst.

Steps toward forgiveness

June 25th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

The year our son was born, a friend asked if I would co-lead what we came to call a “Shalom Group.” Using the 12 Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) and Al-Anon as our guide, we gathered weekly for prayer and support – trusting that our work together would help us live more “shalom-filled” lives.

I was in my first pastoral call, and though I still wrestle with that first step of admitting my “powerlessness,” I began to see the deep wisdom in AA’s philosophy. In addition to its unabashed call to vulnerability and radical trust in God, it provides one of the most rigorous processes for confession and making amends to those we’ve wronged.

“AA provides one of the most rigorous processes for confession and making amends to those we’ve wronged.”

Reading the headlines this past week brought that philosophy to mind. Could the 12 Steps have something to say to:

  • Harvard’s decision to revoke the admission of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School graduate, Kyle Kashuv, after it discovered that Kyle had made deplorably racist comments as a 16 year old, and
  • The testimony of a panel of prominent African Americans before Congress about creating a commission to study the legacy of slavery and make proposals on reparations.

Could the rigorous nature of AA’s wisdom have something to say to such issues? Steps four through ten call us to:

  • make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves;
  • admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs;
  • become ready to have God remove all these defects of character;
  • humbly ask God to remove our character defects;
  • make a list of all the persons we’ve harmed;
  • become willing to make amends to them all;
  • make direct amends to people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others; and
  • continue to take personal inventory and when we are wrong promptly admit

 

KYLE KASHUV APOLOGIZED for his racist comments and asked for help to become a better person. Instead of revoking admission, what if Harvard gave Kashuv a year on probation or a gap year where he engaged such a rigorous 12-step process?

The question of reparations for a systemic injustice doesn’t fit so easily into the 12 steps. It’s clearly for individuals. But, is there wisdom that can be adapted for communal problems?

“What if Harvard gave Kyle Kashuv a year on probation or a gap year where he engaged such a rigorous 12-step process?”

To be sure, only I can do my own 12-Step work. We’re not called to take another’s “moral inventory.” Or as Jesus said, “you without sin cast the first stone.”

And, the 12 steps say nothing about the hard work of forgiveness. That’s a topic for a whole new blog (or, perhaps, several). If you can’t wait for that, I commend Lewis Smedes’ book The Art of Forgiving.

Maybe, I will attend the Addiction and Faith Conference in Bloomington in September with a two-fold vision – to look at myself and to look for lessons from the recovering community that guide us to corporately confess, make amends, and seek reconciliation.

A spirit of change

June 11th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Did you feel the winds shift this month? Maybe it was the same wind that inspired Peter’s Pentecost sermon, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”

We’ve heard a few more daughters prophesying in synod assemblies around the ELCA this spring. Seven women were called as bishops – six serving as the first female bishop their synod has elected.

When I began my term in 2012, there were seven female bishops among a conference of 65 bishops. In 2018, there were 14. Now there are 21. This represents an increase from 10% to 32%, a significant shift.

“We’ve heard a few more daughters prophesying in synod assemblies around the ELCA this spring.”

Peter proclaims the radical generosity of God – pouring out the Spirit on all flesh. The ELCA still has a long way to go in reflecting the diversity of our world. When I began serving as bishop in 2012, we had two bishops of color. Today, there are six.

I just returned from the Metro Chicago Synod Assembly where those gathered elected the Rev. Yehiel Curry, an African-American pastor from the southside of Chicago. The practice in the ELCA is to invite a current bishop to serve as an informal mentor to each incoming bishop. I am thrilled to be invited to serve in this role with Bishop-elect Curry.

 

AS WE SEEK TO reflect the Pentecost vision of diversity that God intends for the church, we need to be boldly intentional about raising up leaders who look like the people in our world. Growing as communities of radical welcome and inclusion depends on it. And, so does our understanding of God.

One of my all-time favorite stories from my ministry comes from my time at Edina Community Lutheran Church (ECLC), now 25 years ago. Elizabeth was four years old and a member of ECLC. The Rev. Erik Strand and I had been her pastors since she was baptized as an infant. When I announced that I was leaving the congregation and moving to Iowa, sometime after she heard the news, Elizabeth turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, isn’t it sad that God is moving to Iowa? But,” she said, “at least Jesus is staying here.”

Though her theology was then a bit suspect, Elizabeth showed how imagination can be opened, and how she will see God as much more than an old man with a white beard. That rich understanding of God – in Elizabeth and countless others – will shape our ways of being … as leaders and as communities.

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