“Christ has risen! He has risen indeed! Alleluia!!”
My wife Gretchen is an end of life advance planner. If she has been to your congregation you know her passion is for a full life and a dignified death. Once the question of healers was “How can we keep this person alive?” Now, when doctors can do so much, the question often is, “When does fighting death rob us of life?” Gretchen will tell you that you have choices you make, and that now is the time to make them. If you choose and plan, your dying will be a gift to you and all whom you love. If you don’t choose, your opportunity for a good death may disappear.
Christians do not fear death. Christians see in death the door to eternal life. It is not simply that we do not fear death, though. It is actually the case that we long for the more. In Christ we know that our life today is a glimpse of a greater gift yet to come tomorrow. This is what resurrection means. It is the promise of more.
Living at the “convergence of opportunity, need and change” as we do requires that we remember the giftedness of both life and death. If we forget either, the half-life we cling to will fail us. Fighting death can rob us of life. Do you believe that? I do. Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow. That’s what this is about.
So, how are we called to die? Let me speak as plainly as I can.
- I am of German descent. Experts anticipate that by 2050 the majority of U.S. citizens will no longer be of European descent – which is to say “White.” For some this is of concern. But why? It should not be! The Gospel did not start with Europeans and it is not dependent upon Europeans. “Red and yellow, black and white” as the old Sunday School song goes, “All are precious in God’s sight!” We must die to systemic racism if we wish to live. Right now, white-supremacy is a threat not only to our nation, but to our world. We must speak to this.
- Part of the presumption of White privilege is that all Americans should speak English. We do not, and we never have. My great grandparents never learned to speak English, and they lived in this country for several decades. The same is true for lots of Lutherans. It is not an imposition on me that I should have the opportunity to learn the language of new neighbors. Language is a gift. En Oregon hoy la capacidad de hablar español es un regalo. You could learn another language if you wanted to. So could I. Doing so would help our witness. We are called to die to ethno-centrism, and this is not new for those who would proclaim the Gospel.
- Congregations, like people, have a life span. Some small, rural Oregon towns struggle for survival. Many have Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, UCC and Episcopalian congregations all too small for effective ministry. Cities like Portland, Salem and Eugene may have multiple congregations of the same denomination. We can certainly do more together than they can alone.
Two Oregon Synod congregations have celebrated the completion of their ministries and closed since the Oregon Synod was formed in 1988. Bethlehem Lutheran in Portland returned their property to the synod to become a vital house church, not dying but choosing a new life. Their faithfulness has made new ministry possible. Redeemer Lutheran in Portland chose to die to be reborn as Salt and Light. Several synod congregations have merged over the last 30 years also ‘dying to live.’
There will be more ‘completions of ministry’ to celebrate in the decade ahead. Some will be sad. Others will be forward looking. Some may fight death to the point that they rob life. I am thankful to have both Health Insurance and some money in the bank. If I had an illness that was treatable I would use these resources for that purpose. However, I do not fear death and when my time comes I will not rob my children and grandchildren of what ought to be theirs.
With Gretchen I seek the fulness of life and a dignified and timely death. We should not fear this conversation. Death is not failure, not for us as individuals and not for us as congregations. I am never looking to close congregations. Yet when our life is done, we should return to God that with which we have been entrusted.
- Faith, and the way it is expressed by our children, is, and will be, different. At the “convergence of opportunity, need and change” we experience a tectonic shift. We are not all able to understand it. Perhaps none of us can. Yet, we have Oregon pioneers who have scoped out the Promised Land and go ahead of us. Creative synod ministries such as Wilderness Way, Together Lab, The Flame, our Mid-Willamette Latino Outreach, Story Dwelling and more have found Jesus waiting for them in the tomorrow we do not yet know. They offer us hope, wholeness and joy. In many and various ways we may feel called to die to some aspects of what has been. That is okay. What will be is glorious.
How, then, shall we talk about the change before us? What words shall we use to talk about life and death? We are children of the resurrection. Life, death and life are our story and our faith. Change is not failure. A book has chapters. Characters come and go throughout a story. The gift we have in Christ is the certainty that Creation belongs to God, and not just us. For us Creation is gift. For God it is victory. Ours is to have, to hold, to steward, love and release. God’s is to direct, to assure and fulfill.
Do not fear for tomorrow, for tomorrow belongs to the Lord. Watch with wonder. Live with awe and anticipation, for “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
Bp. Dave Brauer-Rieke