Dear Ones in Christ,
I find myself praying for you with with my sighs, my steps, my search for sturdy touchstones like morning walks and quiet evening moments on the porch as the crows fly home. What a complicated time to live! The pandemic continues to ravage nations and families, wildfires and hurricanes are worse than ever, murders continue as systemic racism comes to light more and more on the streets of Portland, and in these days when our nerves are taut and frayed, we cannot get together indoors in church to sing, pray, hug, commune, weep, encourage and serve one another.
Every day there seems to be a new tragedy. How then are we to live?
Professional musicians and athletes know that when in doubt, when the music or the opponent is challenging, it’s time to come back to basics. The repeated lay-up and jump shot, the relaxed hold on the violin bow, the breath and posture as the music begins… For those of us seeking to follow the Way of Jesus, we too hold on to the fundamentals. Paul lines them up well in his “Faith Life 101” letter to the Romans. When he writes to that community, full of new believers eager to learn what it means to walk the Way in difficult and dangerous times, he says:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good.
Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Our call in Christ is to renounce violence — anything that physically harms any other human child of God. Period. In this moment we think of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Aaron Danielson and so many others. We are called also to be curious about all that lies under the violence – to ask “How has my behavior or my lack of action contributed to the ongoing silencing or pain of others?” Jesus’ life of compassion, healing and resistance points me toward an expanded notion of violence that includes anything that violates the dignity of another. My first instinct too often is to see violence as “individual,” but Jesus helps me see how systems, powers, principalities, and empires can also perpetrate violence. Because what violates human dignity so often operates within the structures, it quietly, stealthily becomes the norm and is overlooked by those of us in power. By naming and renouncing the ways that institutions dehumanize a race, we are also working against deadly violence, and FOR Christ’s peace/salaam/shalom.
A friend’s fourth grade teacher yesterday started her class by saying, “Today’s pandemic has two two faces: the coronavirus which is harming our earth and our bodies, and the virus of racism which has harmed our community and our spirits.” Yes!
Paul reminds us of the basics: following the Way means acting with courage, rejecting all evil and dehumanization, accompanying the stranger, blessing the persecuted, weeping with the weeping, listening to the “lowly,” and holding fast to what is good. It is not a recipe for popularity, for ease and comfort, or for being widely understood in a time of deep division. It IS a way of faithfulness that transcends human understanding.
So, writing from Portland, a city in turmoil but not a city without hope, perhaps a city being cracked open into a new and deeper humanity, I call upon you to pray, listen to voices whose stories have been hidden, reach out via phone or zoom to the lonely, extend hospitality, live humbly, and give time to considering what “wisdom” and “nobility” and “peace” look like in your life. Perhaps you’ve never memorized these verses in Romans, or any verse in the Bible. I would dare to bet, though, that you can name someone whose life exemplified these values. It may not have been written on their intellect, but it was written on their soul, their choices, the bones of their lives. Perhaps their life changed yours. These are the fundamentals of faith, in times good or bad.
Siblings in Christ, may we too grow in grace, mind, heart and soul.
May we be brave in Christ’s love,
Your bishop, Laurie
Bishop Laurie Larson Caesar interviews Rev. Matta Ghaly, new pastor at The Flame and Mt. Carmel in Portland, on their call to ministry in the Oregon Synod.
Rev. Melissa’s July 5 sermon:
Re-membering & Re-membered
A few words on reopening as we see rates of confirmed cases and deaths rise again, and as Gov. Brown mandates masks in all public places statewide. While each county and context is different, I urge us to slow down. Cases in Oregon are again rising. Our Oregon health leaders are reminding us that those with pre-existing conditions, any sign of illness, or are over 60 or 65 should stay home. Masks will be required in all public spaces beginning July 1.
If you and your leadership choose to return to in-person worship, develop a team of detailed planners, use the synod guide and hold your attempts at reengaging lightly. If you resume, call the worship services “experiments” that you will revisit after a month or six weeks, taking a look at the overall experience and number of cases and deaths in the county and state. Are they declining or increasing? Are the sick and elderly listening to your cautioning them to stay home? The last thing we want is to host an outbreak.
You have demonstrated a wide variety of approaches to creating community in this time. Some of you have decided you won’t meet again in person at all through phase I-III, and are worshipping exclusively online, with Facebook Live, YouTube, Zoom or some creative mix of two or three of these. Some of you are planning an in-person gathering (without communion, singing or hugging of course), with masks and distance, in July or August, outdoors on a grassy lawn, some in cars in parking lots, and some of you have decided you will not meet again in person until ALL are able to come in person.
Thank you for letting us in the Bishop’s office know your plans as they unfold, for your safety teams and protocols, and for your care and attention to the health of those you serve. If you haven’t yet communicated with me your reopening plans or your congregational decision not to, please do.
Jesus replied to [the Pharisee]: “‘Love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-39
A reflection on PRIDE month from Juan Carlos la Puente.
There is hope when we remember
that we are all beloveds of God,
made in the divine image,
and that we are all called to metanoia work.
Dear Beloved of God,
Today is the Tuesday after Pentecost. And Spirit? She is swirling! Now, as then, we stand at a tense moment in history: hearts burn and protesters pray and unexpected preachers preach and a spirit of change blows with hope. Those who serve the status quo watch, smirk, and ask, “Aren’t you just drunk, foolhardy, angry, entitled, or all of the above?”
I am a bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American, the whitest denomination in the United States. I serve the Oregon Synod, perhaps the whitest synod in the ELCA. I have been long marinated in my privilege. So as I light a candle and pray for racial justice and the long-deferred dream of wholeness, I have more questions than answers:
- How do you kneel on a human being’s neck for nine minutes?
- How many precautions are needed before a brown or black bodied person can jog unarmed down a street?
- How can the dignity of entire groups of people, in a nation, a church, a region I love so much, be so willfully overlooked for four-hundred years and counting?
- How have I benefited from silence, and what does truly liberating action look like?
- What would it look like for the ELCA to “take a knee”?
I don’t know. But I do know some things:
- White Supremacy reigns, and it isn’t simply about individuals, it’s about systems and institutions which consistently privilege one race above all others.
- Racism and white supremacy are sins. Though I am committed to an anti-racist life and learnings, having been marinated in the white supremacy of my culture and, by virtue of the color of my skin, I am racist.
- All people are God’s beloveds and to be able to see that we need to help center the experiences of those who’ve been marginalized and silenced for eons.
- The violence we see all around us is dangerous, and yet is a response to a culture which violates, and has violated, black and brown bodies for centuries.
- It’s time I learned to listen. It’s time the institutions I love learn to be open to radical transformation.
- None of this work toward justice, peace, and transformation, which is God’s work, will be easy.
Christ’s redeeming, liberating love will lead the way if we are truly open to its capacity to be a light, set on a hill, making visible what has not been visible – the dignity of black and brown bodies, the sins of past and present racism and the transformational work ahead. Please join me in responding out of that divine mandate to courageous love in difficult times.
I ask you consider giving one month’s worth of your congregation’s mission support which would otherwise go to the Oregon Synod and donate it to a trusted local organization working toward racial justice and the dismantling of white supremacy.
This will impact the synod office, yes, but it will also be sacramental; body and blood, given for the world. Pray for your neighbor. Educate yourself. Challenge racism wherever you see it. And believe in the power of Spirit to change this world.
Dear friends in Christ,
As June approaches, it is time for us to check-in about in-person gatherings. The messages coming from our elected leaders can be contradictory and confusing.
- Governor Brown has allowed 31 of the 33 Oregon counties (not the Portland-metro area) to begin phase 1, which allows for groups of up to 25 people to gather with social distancing.
- President Trump has deemed churches and other houses of worship “essential” and has called on governors across the country to allow these places of worship to reopen.
- Public health experts warn us that the nature of the virus has not changed; it is still highly contagious and our communities are still vulnerable.
More troubling news comes from those churches that have already attempted to reopen.
- At least 107 people became infected after attending or coming into contact with someone who attended a service at a German baptist church, despite church officials insisting that social distancing and hygiene guidelines were upheld during the service.
- A Baptist church in Georgia stopped in-person services two weeks after reopening as several families came down with coronavirus. Again, the church states that all modes of social distancing were practiced and followed by the families attending.
- A Catholic church in Texas also closed after it was discovered multiple members had contracted the novel coronavirus and one leader had died. Again, the parish had followed cleaning, sanitation and social distancing guidelines prescribed by State health officials.
Here in Oregon, we are blessed with the opportunity to learn from these churches experience and protect our ministers, lay leaders, members and communities from risk. In-person, indoor gatherings of people from different households are high risk and they are a risk we do not have to take. We know we are essential, but it is not essential to gather in person at this time.
Our priority is protecting the well-being, health and safety of ALL members of the Oregon Synod: congregants and staff. Therefore, we advise that church buildings remain closed to all but essential staff for as long as in-person, indoor gatherings remain high risk.
Thank you all for taking care of each other during these troubling times. Let us continue to pray for those who are sick, those who have died, and for the good health and welfare of all members of our communities.