Do Something Useful

I watched my mom go through a long period of adjusting to “not being useful” after a lifetime of sitting down only when there was desk work to do (she did sit down for meals, but then she’d jump up to replenish someone’s plate or drink). When Dad died and she moved into a place where meals were provided, she was left with hours of the day not spoken for, but she found it unnatural to do something during the day just because she wanted to.

She felt she wasn’t useful anymore—and, if not useful, then not valuable.

Maybe some of you reading this are feeling some of that right now. There is the basic reality that we can all be most helpful to each other by staying home, which is a pretty passive way to help. Then, for those of us who are on the older side, we’re really not even encouraged to shop for someone or stop by someone’s house to give a Zoom tutorial. Sidelined is how it feels. It’s like being patted on the arm and told, “You know what you can do to be really helpful? Sit over there and stay out of the way.”

In these circumstances, I’ve had to acknowledge that it’s time for me to take a piece of advice I’ve been handing out for years. That advice: Cultivate your prayer life.

Praying for God’s world and the people in it is something useful you can do in any circumstance. It’s a way to participate in the world even when you’re forced to be absent from the world. It’s a way to support loved ones even when you can’t make a casserole and drop it off. It’s a way to support strangers even if they’re on the other side of the world. And it has the side benefit of strengthening your own faith and lifting your loneliness, because you can always be in conversation with a God who cares, who knows you and loves you, who knows the number of hairs on your head and the number of sorrows in your heart.

While you’re praying, please pray for Esperanza Lutheran Church. Whatever’s most on your heart when you think about our church, lift that up to God and ask that God’s Spirit would flow through it to support and strengthen us in this oh-so challenging time.

And, if you’d like to join with other Esperanzans for a brief, weekly time of prayer, we’re meeting online for the next three Wednesdays (perhaps beyond that) to pray in support of Esperanza’s people and ministries. Call or email me for information at 224-422-9552 or  pastor.carol@myesperanza.org.

Many blessings and good health to you!

Pastor Carol

Stay In Your Lane

I had a strange experience earlier today. I was looking out the window at a row of wide-open yellow blooms on a cactus in our front yard, thinking about how they’d opened up in the sunshine, when the words “Stay in your lane!” popped into my head.

The tone of the words wasn’t scolding. It felt more like a reminder. I didn’t need to spend any time puzzling over what that “Stay in your lane!” was supposed to mean. With the words came the explanation. When the words came into my mind, while my eyes rested on those yellow blooms in the sunshine, I sensed the meaning: God’s doing so much more than you can even begin to imagine, and you are not the one who needs to figure everything out, plan everything out, or even wait everything out. That’s God’s lane, not mine.

“Stay in your lane!” meant “Live your life. Take responsibility for your life, your relationships, and your work. But remember: God has the God’s-eye view. God, who made these cacti and brought out their blooms, has his creating and redeeming eye on all this world. God’s “got the whole world in his hands,” as we used to sing.

The world weighs on us all these days. And it’s good and right that we should feel connected to all the world, care about all the world, and pray for all the world. But it’s also good and right that we then allow God to remain in charge and lift the weight from our shoulders. It’s good and right that we care about the near- and long-term future, pray about that in the midst of uncertainty, and then remind ourselves that, whatever the future holds, it’s God future, so, ultimately, it’s going to be OK.

We are called to do what we can and not what we can’t. We are invited to stay in our lanes and to recognize how distinctly limited is our perspective and how much greater is God’s. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

May you find, in prayer, strength to do the things you can do and peace about the things you can’t … and about all the world-full of things over which you have no control.

And may you feel God’s steady presence with you in your lane.

In Christ,

Pastor Carol

 

Communion in Absentia

For a long time when I was young, I thought it was strange that in the Apostles’ Creed we say that we believe in the communion of saints. After all the stuff about God, here’s something that’s about us. And it felt funny to say I believed in a human thing, a collection of human beings.

As I got older, I began to have a better understanding of what that phrase “the communion of saints” is all about—what it refers to and what it entails. Then I could see how it’s something we believe in although we can’t actually see it. For starters, it’s too big to see, being the communion of followers of Jesus across time (past, present, future) and space (Africa, Asia, etc.). But also, it’s invisible. The communion of saints is the invisible work of God’s Holy Spirit, connecting human beings who may or may not be doing a good job of visibly living out that connection, or even when they’re prevented from being physically together.

In the U.S., the church hasn’t been forced apart by an oppressive government or driven to meet in secret and in small gatherings for safety. But now we are forced apart for safety in this coronavirus era. We don’t know when exactly we’ll meet together in-person again or what size groups will be advisable even then.

A good number in the Esperanza family are embodying the communion of saints by connecting regularly online. But many aren’t. Not everyone is equally equipped for online gatherings or equally comfortable with that mode of connection.

We are called in a new way to believe in the communion of saints, to remind ourselves that Esperanza Lutheran Church is an ongoing reality, called and gathered into one body by the Holy Spirit, even if we drive by the building and there isn’t a single car in the parking lot. Our relationships are real, our fellowship continues. We even have a brand new ministry that’s thriving: people working together/apart to provide meals and protective masks for medical residents (see the article below).

I want to encourage everyone to keep up—maybe even increase—your sense of connectedness with your fellow Esperanzans during this time.

If you can, join in for Holy Communion and Coffee Hour on Sundays at 10:00am (invitation below). Just stop in briefly if you want to see what it’s like.

Pick up the phone and make a call if someone pops into your mind. It could be a nudge from the Holy Spirit.

If you can use a little help, please please please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me or with Joni. We have a list of people who want to be of assistance. I’m at pastor.carol@myesperanza.org or 224-422-9552. Joni is at esperanza@myesperanza.org.

Finally, include Esperanza and its members in your prayers. Pray for the whole congregation, that God will keep us strong and guide our leaders. Pray for individual members, staff members, preschool staff … maybe go through the directory person-by-person and family-by-family and pray for the people you know and the people you don’t know yet.

I am praying for you. Please reach out if you want to talk. And I hope to see you Sunday for communion and coffee hour!

Peace and health to you!

Pastor Carol

He is Risen Indeed!

Join us to worship the risen lord!

At 10 a.m. gather on Zoom  for a brief worship service with Holy Communion to be followed by coffee hour. The Zoom invitation is in the Words of Hope email newsletter. For security reasons we cannot publish it here. If you do not receive the newsletter contact Liz Farquhar at liz.farquhar51@gmail.com and she will send you the information. To participate in Holy Communion, be sure to have some bread and either wine or grape juice at hand before we begin.

 

A Brief Meditation for Maundy Thursday

Sisters and brothers, we’re gathered this evening because it’s a very particular Thursday in a very particular week, Holy Week, when we remember and contemplate what Jesus did and what happened to him in his final days before his death.

For a lot of us right now, the days are just running together in an indistinguishable flow. It’s hard to stay oriented.

But for Jesus and his disciples, in the days we’re remembering, their senses must have been on high alert each moment. Their attention laser-focused. Each one of them knew that Jesus’ life was on the line from the moment he arrived in Jerusalem. Jesus was clear with his disciples that each day brought them closer to his death.

They knew that the Passover meal they’d share on this night would be their last together.

Those disciples were pulled away from the day-to-day and drawn into a room filled with tension, fear, anticipatory grief, and, no doubt, a profound awareness that they’d all been on an amazing journey in the few years they’d been together, a journey that was headed toward its unavoidable conclusion.

Listen to the account as written in Matthew’s gospel:

On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?”

He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matt. 26:17-29)

We’re about to join in that meal that Jesus’ followers have eaten together an uncountable number of times since that first time in a house somewhere in Jerusalem.

Of course, we’re doing it in a new way—spread apart and yet together, with our own pieces of bread and our own cups of wine, but shared in one communion with each other and with the church across time and space.

We share something else with those disciples: an awareness that the world is changing, that things won’t be the same again.

We don’t know what our world will look like 6 months from now, but we know it’ll look different from what it looked like 6 months before now.

The disciples at the table with Jesus knew their world was about to change. They didn’t know exactly how.

But we, looking from where we stand, we do know this: that Jesus did give up his body and did shed his blood, that he brought us into a new covenant relationship with God forever, sealed by his death for us.

Even in the midst of the haze of days of unchanging boredom for some of us, unchanging stress for some of us—especially those of us who work in healthcare—in the midst of all that, may we keep, in these Holy Days, a heightened focus on our Lord Jesus as we share this meal in his name; linger with him in the garden; see him arrested, tried, and convicted; stand at the foot of the cross; and then wait, in hushed reverence, to see the stone rolled away.

 

Dali’s Last Supper

Each week during Lent a member of our congregation has looked at a piece of religious art and shared some thoughts. On this Maundy Thursday, Alice Schultze examines Dali’s famous painting, ending with a poem.

By Alice Schultze

This is a bit strange, but, when I was searching for a painting to talk about, a voice inside me said, “check out Dali.” I was looking at medieval paintings at the time and so had to skip over a few centuries but once I saw Dali’s interpretation of the Last Supper it took hold of me.

This painting is so full of beauty and symbolism and mysticism and questions!

So, first a bit on Salvador Dali, best known as a leader of the symbolist movement in art and literature as well as for his flamboyant handlebar mustache. Dali was born in Spain in 1904. His mother was a devout Catholic, his father was an atheist. Dali was named Salvador after his brother Salvador, who died at 3 years old, and was told he was his brother’s reincarnation. Dali had nothing to do with religion for years and years but returned with a passion – or perhaps was converted with a passion – to Catholicism in the early 1940’s. Pertinent to this painting is his affair with and marriage to Gala, a Russian woman 11 years his senior, married at the time he met her to the poet Paul Eluard.

The painting: Dali’s “The Sacrament of the Last Supper,” an oil on canvas, is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. According to Wikipedia (!), it’s the most popular piece there.

The Last Supper was painted in 1955 and from what I read was considered by some critics to be a mediocre work on an overdone topic (there are no footnotes to this claim). Many previous artists had interpreted the Last Supper, perhaps most notably Leonardo Da Vinci, who has the apostles seemingly gesticulating and talking loudly around a quiet Jesus. To the right of Jesus is a figure who some say is Mary Magdalene and others say is the apostle John in need of a haircut.

What the paintings have in common is a degree of controversy. In this sense, it reminds me of the church as a whole. What, a woman should not be a priest, should not serve communion?! We have no idea what the person in the church up the block thinks or even what the person sitting next to us thinks, and for sure we will have controversy when we get to talk about what sort of a pastor we, at Esperanza, would like to have.

What I see most in the painting is transcendence. The scene is ethereal, and it is as if Jesus is so light and transparent he will soon float away. Or perhaps he will soon be raised away. Look at the figure above him. Look at the hand of Jesus pointing upward. Is this where he says he’ll go to the Father? Is the figure above him Jesus himself ascending to heaven? Or is it a figure of God the Father? Jesus had said anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. Note, there is no face on the figure. Moses was told if you look upon God’s face you will die.

But look at Jesus’ face! He is effeminate and blond. It is unlikely Jesus was blond and some say the face is that of Dali’s love and muse, Gala. In any case, it speaks to and repeats the femininity of the Mary Magdalene/ John the Apostle figure in the Da Vinci painting. Dali had said he wished to be another Da Vinci.

The room where the Last Supper takes place is certainly not a closed door upper room the way we read about it in the Gospels. It’s an open, airy space filled with the light of Jesus, overlooking the sea, which is said to be the view from Dali’s home on the coast of Spain. The shape of the room is said to be derived from a Pythagorean concept having to do with pentagons – noted but far beyond my ability to understand.

What I love are the apostles. They are nameless, unidentified, cloaked and reverent. There are twelve of them, but their lack of specificity makes them fluid. They could be any 12 people. They could be male or female. They could be you or me.

Another thing I love is the starkness of the meal. The eye focuses on the two apostles sitting close to us, then is brought into the bread – broken in two – then to the wine, and from there to Jesus.

This last supper is not a feast, but it’s more than a feast. It’s a sacrament. It leaves no doubt that everything there and to come is about Jesus.

….and what do you make of the little boat?

OUR LAST SUPPER

I remember well our last meal together,

The restaurant  the wine, where we drank in

Tenderness and love.

We were happy,

On vacation.

Walking back to the hotel

We hugged,

As if saying

It’s been a good run.

As if saying,

This has been our own

Last supper.

Lenten Midweek Meditation: Seeing God’s Kingdom Again, for the First Time

Robert Elsaesser prepared this presentation for our April 1 Lenten worship service, cancelled due to the public health emergency. Please listen to the recordings (boldface links)  in order. Click on the boldface link first, then click back to the main website tab to look at the painting as you listen.

Introduction

Take a meditative journey through scripture and art: Looking with fresh eyes

First Reading — Genesis 1: 1-3

Spirit Moving Over the Water

Second Reading — 1 Samuel 10: 6

Preparation for God’s Change

Third Reading: Matthew 18: 1

Droplets of Change

 

Droplets of Change: Father and Daughter

Fourth Reading: Revelation 1: 7-8

Rhythms of God

Final Words

No Unopenable Tombs

The grief and stress of this COVID-19 pandemic is exhausting. Healthcare workers around the world are wearing themselves out doing everything they can with what they have to work with. But even those of us not on the front lines can feel exhausted by grief and stress from which distractions give us only temporary reprieve.

Speaking for myself, I go through emotional ups and downs. But, today, as I was getting my coffee and sitting down to write, the words that popped into my head were: “This is taking the wind out of my sails.”

Then, here come the readings for this Sunday, and they couldn’t be more fitting—not just for those of us who feel our sails are empty but for everyone affected by this pandemic, from the stressed all the way to the deceased.

Is the wind out of your sails? Do you feel depleted? Are you frightened by the increasing death toll? Sad for the medical professionals who are getting sick or who are unable to go home to their families for fear of spreading the infection there? Are you worrying about what will happen with your job, with your family, with your own life should the virus hit close to your home?

On a check-in call with pastors in our conference this past week, one pastor said she was in her car going to the grocery store when she was overwhelmed by a strong urge to run away—a feeling she hadn’t had since high school, she said. But then she realized there was no place to run to. This is a whole-world thing.

Where can we run to?

This Sunday’s readings prompt us to spread the map out a little farther, beyond the limits of this world, beyond the visible points on a map to the invisible reality that transcends all this. Our readings remind us of a reality and a power that preceded life, that made life, that enables life, that can and does recreate life even after death.

If ever we’re tempted to despair, we can open our eyes a little wider to see beyond the immediate, beyond both the physically present and the temporal present—to see God before, within, around, above, below, and after it all.

Our Old Testament reading is the amazingly stirring “dry bones” passage, Ezekiel 37:1-14. The prophet Ezekiel speaks to the people of Judah after Jerusalem has fallen to the army of Babylon, with many citizens carried off into exile. In this prophecy, he communicates a message of hope in that desperate time.

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’

Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

These bones were “very dry.” This is not a vision that can be misinterpreted to mean that God can awaken someone who’s dozed off. These fallen people are long since dead, flesh gone, bones bleached in the sun.

Why would that be a problem though? Why would that be an impediment to the God who created life from nothing in the first place?

That’s what God shows Ezekiel in this vision. And the point is: So that “you shall know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel and the people will know when God has brought them back out of exile and placed their feet back on their own soil. They’ll know that God is God, and nothing—not even the great Babylonian empire—can thwart God’s intentions for them.

God is God. We can’t say that and, in the next breath, say, “All is lost.” With God as our God, we are never at a dead end.

Which brings us to our gospel reading, the account of the last of the signs Jesus performed to let the world see who he was. This is the story of the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus and what happened after he was entombed.

You can watch the story unfold in a chapter from the Visual Bible: Gospel of John by clicking here (note: the video goes a little beyond our reading). If you prefer to read, the text is available here.

Finished?

You may have noticed, as you watched or read, that Jesus delays going when he hears that Lazarus is ill. In an echo of last week’s account of Jesus’ giving sight to a man born blind, Jesus gives this explanation: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Later Jesus says that his prayer to the Father as he stands by the now-open tomb serves the same purpose: it’s for the sake of showing that it’s God who’s at work in this.

Again, the love that leads to creation, the power that brings life from nothing, the power Ezekiel attested to, the love that sent the Son into the world: that love and that power flows through Jesus. This man who weeps at the death of his friend is also the Son of God who can change his friend’s tomb from a permanent to a temporary resting place.

Jesus’ final sign before his death shows him aligned with the creating, liberating work of the God of new beginnings, in a line that stretches from creation through Ezekiel to this point, where Jesus stands on the verge of his own death and reverses the death of another.

And with Jesus’ death, we’ll see that there are no dead ends, no final chapters, no unopenable tombs with this God.

Our current reality of worldwide fear and universal uncertainty will pass. For those of us who are living through it, our lives will be forever changed. And there will be those—already have been so many of those—who will not see the end of this pandemic. This chapter in God’s history will be remembered, no doubt, but the story goes on, for both survivors and casualties.

God is God. Dry bones, entombed friends, executed Messiah—all are deeply felt human events and occasions for God to demonstrate his power and for us to see and believe. Let that seeing and believing inform all our seeing, so that we can believe and not despair. So that we can believe in life and love always flowing from our Creator God and his Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

May hope and optimism live on in us, and, undergirding it all, faith and trust in the God from whom all things come.

I invite you to lose yourself in either or both of these musical expressions of the power of our Creator God:

“Thy Strong Word” (words by Martin Franzmann, music by Thomas J. Williams), performed by the orchestra and choir of Concordia University Irvine for a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (also in our hymnal at #511)

“Awake, My Soul” by Chris Tomlin, performed at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver, with spoken word by Lecrae

May God bless you in the week ahead with health, with faith, with patience, and with joy. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Pastor Carol

 

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