Monday, August 26, 2013

Luther Seminary "God Pause" Daily Devotionals (Brian E. Konkol)

The following reflections were published by Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN) for its "God Pause" Daily Devotionals. For more information, see: http://www.luthersem.edu/godpause/daily_view.aspx

MONDAY, AUGUST 19TH: Isaiah 58:9b-14

A prophet speaks honestly and openly about the probable consequences of a contemporary reality. Whether it involves personal activity or public priorities, a commitment to prophetic witness allows us to engage with the world as it is through God’s vision of what it ought to be. Along these lines, the 58th Chapter of Isaiah reminds us that if we “satisfy the needs of the oppressed”, then “light will rise in the darkness”, which in turns leads us to “do away with the yoke of oppression”.

The prophetic words of Isaiah remind us that although faith is personal, it is by no means private, thus it has a public bearing surrounding matters of justice and the pursuit of common ground for a common good. In the words of Cornel West, “Justice is love on legs, spilling over into the public sphere.” And so, in response to the amazing grace bestowed upon us by God in Jesus, we serve as present-day prophets in ways that are live-giving and life-freeing, so that our communities of faith are not only concerned with life after death, but also life after birth.

Gracious God, as you continue to offer freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, help us to be your prophets, and remind us that justice is what love looks like in public. Amen.

TUESDAY, AUGUST 20TH: Psalm 103

One of the common clichés of social development is “Give a person a fish, and they eat for a day, but teach them to fish, and they eat for a lifetime”. While there are kernels of truth in this statement, in reality the concept falls far too short, as we are led to wonder: “But who has access to the pond?”  In other words, those who work for “righteousness and justice for all the oppressed” are committed not only to relief and development, but also to the important and enduring ministry of advocacy.

As we receive the abundant grace and sustained presence of God, who is “slow to anger” and “abounding in love”, we respond with love in action that calls for justice in the relationships and structures of society. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring”. In other words, the praise of the Psalmist is intended not merely to anesthetize us from the pains of daily existence, but also to remind us of our responsibility to advocate alongside our neighbors in the pursuit of justice and peace. As a result, we are called to not only address the various needs of the present moment, but also to restructure the edifice which generated such need in the first place.

Gracious God, as we celebrate the ways you comfort and confront, may we be tormented by the ideal, yet set free by your grace. Amen.

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 21ST: Hebrews 12:18–29

If one were to conduct a nationwide survey to learn the most common human fears, it is safe to conclude that failure would be near the top of the list. Due in part to the high value our society places upon success and achievement, and also due to our conception of what actually defines failure, we often fret over falling short, we agonize about disappointment, and we even lose sleep from the potential shame of letting others down. When it comes to failure, many of us are “trembling with fear”.

The Gospels remind us that Jesus sets us free from the fear of failure and offers the freedom to embrace life in its fullness. While societal pressures can be cruel and unforgiving, in God’s eyes we are received as we are, accepted regardless of our shortcomings, and fully included as members of God’s all-encompassing beloved community. While these realities do not minimize or disregard the pains that moments of perceived failure can bring, the recognition of God’s love provides us with a larger-picture perspective to see that various failures do not make someone a failure. As a result, we are given the wisdom to learn from our mistakes, the guidance to resist repeating them, and the strength to live our lives to the fullest.

Gracious God, we thank you for setting us free from the fear of failure, and we ask that you remind us of the freedom to embrace life in its fullness. Amen.

THURSDAY, AUGUST 22ND: Luke 13:10-17

Are you religious? While a growing number of North Americans claim no religious affiliation, we are left to wonder what actually constitutes being identified as “religious”. While many associate religious life with the strict adherence of particular rules and regulations, to be religious is actually more about restoring relationships than promoting and policing specific spiritual customs. And so, as Jesus critiqued the regulation-centered religious authorities of his day and age, we are called to follow Jesus by embodying a relationship-centered way of religious life that brings people together rather than divides them apart.

The word "religion" comes from the Latin word "religio" which has a meaning influenced by the verb "religare", which means to bind or connect. And so, while Jesus was by labeled as sacrilegious by the religious authorities of his day, he actually modeled religion in its purest form by connecting others with God and one another as a participant in God’s mission. As a result, as we continue to discern the future of religion in North America and beyond, we also are called to remove that which divides and destroys, and thus be religious in ways that are life-giving, life-affirming, and life-freeing.

Gracious God, stir us up and shake us out, and remind us that religion is about relationships rather than regulations, and restoration rather than rupture. Amen.

FRIDAY, AUGUST 23RD: Luke 13:10-17

By definition, an anesthetic is a drug used to relieve pain (analgesia), relax (sedate), induce sleepiness (hypnosis), spark forgetfulness (amnesia), or to make one unconscious for general anesthesia. Among other things, anesthetics are generally administered by a specialist (anesthesiologist or anesthetist) upon a patient in order to induce or maintain a state of anesthesia and facilitate a procedure.  With such characterizations in mind, we recognize that anesthetic can be employed as a striking image for particular deficiencies in some of our communities of faith. As one can cite many examples where faith is proclaimed and practiced solely as an escape from – rather than engagement with – the numerous struggles associated with human life, we recognize that anesthesia is incomplete without corresponding acts of holistic healing.

While the New Testament does indeed illustrate a God who seems to provide anesthetic-like relief from the various aches and pains of life, we also affirm God as an Advocate who heals that which cripples the pursuit of life in its fullness. In other words, not only did Jesus remove pain from the “crippled woman” in Luke 13, but he offered liberation from all that kept her incarcerated. And so, in response to such divine action in our own lives, our reaction includes – but goes beyond – momentary pain relief, for we also seek corrective operation, healing of core injuries, and rehabilitative strengthening for the sake of the world. All together, as Jesus “set free” the crippled woman from her various “infirmities”, the same gift is offered for us, and through such grace we too many walk in solidarity with those in our world in need of repair.

Gracious God, as you set us free from all that keeps us in chains, may we be moved for the healing of our world. Amen.

SATURDAY, AUGUST 24TH: We are marching in the Light of God

One of the intellectual foundations of Western thought is “Cogito ergo sum“, or “I think therefore I am”. This statement from René Descartes has influenced a wide variety of North American life, as it assumes human existence can be self-reliant, and as a result, it gives birth to various terms in the English-language with “self” as a prefix. For example, we often hear of self-confidence, self-conscious, self-expression, self-criticism, self-deception, self-defeating, self-denial, self-discipline, self-esteem, self-expression, self-importance, self-improvement, self-interest, self-respect, self-restraint, self-sacrifice – and the list goes on! Amazingly, the equivalent of these “self” words cannot be found in many non-Western languages, which reveals a great deal about our continued fascination with (and celebration of) the so-called “self-made woman” and/or “self-made man”.

In wonderful contrast to “I think therefore I am”, the African philosophy of ubuntu states, “I am because we are”.  Among other things, ubuntu recognizes that individual autonomy is impossible, for a person is only a person through being in relationship with other persons.  In other words, all people are products of their environment, and thus all people have to rely upon others each and every day. While ubuntu recognizes personal initiative, drive, and the ability to shape our surroundings, it also acknowledges that relationships form existence, and thus connectedness is essential to a full understanding of life.  And so, as we proclaim Siyahamba ekukhanyeni kwenkos', we (siya-) are all marching (-hamba) together in solidarity and mutuality, for we are all intimately and intricately interconnected with all people in all places throughout the world.

May we march, sing, dance, pray, and live together, in the light of God. Amen.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 25TH: “Take My Life (And Let it Be)”

In order to orientate a variety of foreigners for residence in North America, L. Robert Kohls and his staff at the United States Information Agency constructed a groundbreaking article, “The Values Americans Live By”.  In specifics, Kohls felt that visitors to the US needed to understand “common American values”, for such insights would allow them to integrate more fully into the predominant cultural currents.  All together, “The Values American Live By” highlighted numerous ideals that most (but not all) US citizens possess, all for the purpose of awareness building and cross-cultural understanding.

Among the topics covered by Kohls was the importance of time, for people from the US often conceive of time in ways far different from others around the world.  In a striking observation, Kohls wrote: “Time is, for the average American, of utmost importance…It may seem to you that most Americans are completely controlled by the little machines they wear on their wrists…”

As we ask God to “take my moments and my days, let them flow in endless praise”, we recall the words of Mother Teresa: “Yesterday is gone.  Tomorrow has not yet come.  We have only today.  Let us begin.”  In other words, instead of allowing time to manage us, and rather than placing predetermined plans as a higher priority than potential possibilities, we recognize that time is not merely that which can be measured, but time is an opportunity to experience God’s presence and respond to the needs of our world through an outpouring of mutuality and service.  All together, as we turn our calendars from yesterday to today, may we remember that each day is a gift, every instant is an opportunity, and every breath that God continues to pour into our bodies provides an occasion for us to embody the Gospel and serve as instruments of divine reconciliation. 

This is the day that the Lord has made.  Let us begin. Amen.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The ELCA at 25: Always Being Made New (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was written in response to an invitation to reflect on the 25th anniversity of the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The article was published on the ELCA site "Living Lutheran" on August 14, 2013, and can be found at: http://www.livinglutheran.com/blog/2013/08/the-elca-at-25-always-being-made-new.html#.UguFP21m6kM

As we celebrate twenty-five years of the ELCA “always being made new”, one is inspired to wonder what will become of this denomination in the generations to come.

One option for the ELCA is to be made new into a “concrete” church. Among other things, a concrete church perceives itself as unchanging and fixed, and thus refuses to compromise, adapt, or flex. A concrete church is firmly grounded in the belief that it moves faithfully with the Holy Spirit and fully comprehends God’s mission, and because of such unbreakable views it will not waver, regardless of the setting and potential consequences.  In other words, a concrete church cries “Here I Stand”, is immovable, solid, and resolute, and as a result, nearly impossible to bend or twist.

While there is much to be admired in a concrete church, there is also much to be criticized.  For example, while concrete may be strong and resolute, it is also fixed in time, stiff, and inflexible, and is thus unable to change in response to conditions, societal advances, and circumstances.  In other words, concrete – sooner or later – will crack.  And so, as future followers of Jesus will likely experience cultural and technological changes at rates far greater than any before them, a church that refuses to be made new will allow the Holy Spirit to pass it by.  Therefore, while a concrete church may appear to be one of strength, it is ultimately weak, vulnerable, and unsustainable. 

In contrast to the concrete church, another option for the ELCA is to be made new into a chameleon church. In literal terms, a chameleon is adaptable, flexible, and because of its ability to assimilate quickly, it can survive situations that many larger and stronger beings cannot.  In metaphorical terms, a chameleon church is one that can alter quickly and dramatically based upon its conditions and observations, and it cries “semper reformanda”, ("always to be reformed”). As a result, such a church is nearly impossible to back into a corner, and thus it seems to find ways to survive.

While there is a great deal to be affirmed in a chameleon church, there is also a great deal to be rebuked, as those that continually change colors are – in many ways – unreliable and unable to face opposition.  In other words, the (literal) chameleon changes color primarily for survival, thus churches that display a chameleon character not only lack faithfulness but are also untrustworthy during times of social conflict.  In the context of massive shifts in religious preferences, the chameleon churches are on full display in a large number of communities in North America. 

In order to move past the two options of concrete and chameleon character, the ELCA is drawn toward the image of Isaiah 64:8, which reads: “…We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  While a full biblical exegesis is not intended here, what is significant is the profound image of clay, for it can be firm when needed, but it can also be flexible and thus can be shaped when necessary.  In other words, a clay church can be both firm and flexible, it can cry out “Here I Stand” and “semper reformanda”, and in light of the biblical image, it moves based upon the ways in which God seeks for it to be.  In contrast to the immovable and static nature of concrete and the inconsistent and wavering form of chameleons, the ELCA “always being made new” as a clay church is a exciting future for the next twenty-five years and beyond. 

Gracious God, you have promised through your Son to be with your church for all times. We give you thanks for your faithfulness to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and we praise you for the signs of your presence within this community of faith. We ask that you increase in us the spirit of faith and love, and make our fellowship an example of solidarity, justice, and peace. We pray through Jesus, your Son, who sets us free and sends us out. Amen.