The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Jayne M. Thompson's Blog

December 31, 2014


New Year's Eve! 

In the Gregorian calendar (a refinement of the Julian calendar), New Year's Eve (also known as Old Year's Day or St. Sylvester's Day in some countries), the last day of the year, is on December 31. Kiribati is the first country to welcome the New Year while Honolulu, Hawaii, is among the last. For Christians, it's also still Christmas.

Actually, depending on which tradition you keep; it would either be the sixth or seventh day of Christmas. In most of the Western Christian Church, the 12 days are from Christmas until the beginning of Epiphany (January 6; the 12 days count from December 25 until January 5, the Twelfth Night). In some traditions, the first day of Christmas begins on the evening of December 25 with the following day considered the First Day of Christmas (December 26). In these traditions, the 12 days begin December 26 and include Epiphany on January 6. Regardless of the tradition, it's still Christmas. 

Christmas is one of, if not, the only faith traditions' commemorations that span the breadth of two years; the ending of one and the beginning of another. Christmas is a celebration that nestles into that liminal (1 - of or relating to a sensory threshold; 2 -barely perceptible; 3 - of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition"space between." It's a holiday that reaches across space, time, history and into the realm of angels with their songs of Gloria in excelsis deo!  

Christmas calls us into another realm. It calls us away from the way the rest of the hubbub into a kairos time of peace and reflection amidst of the woes and worries of the world. Christmas doesn't compel us to forget the heart wrenching goings-on around us. Rather, Christmas invites us to rest suspended and cradled in that paradoxical God-space-between and listen to the angels sing. Jesus invites us to once again contemplate beauty, wonder; to remember the breathless shepherds in their rush to announce the good news and the first whispers and coos of a newborn baby. We pause to ponder the miracle of a mother's ardent love and a father's faithful watch; to pour our souls into the prayers, hopes and dreams for our families, neighbors and friends and - yes, for strangers, even enemies, around the earth.  

In the realm of campus ministry, whether at our colleges and universities of the church or at the public institutions across the country, we have often been described as the “church beyond itself,” (Donald G. Shockley, Campus Ministry: The Church Beyond Itself, 1989). By this, I mean that campus ministries are often those liminal places in which new movements for justice and peace are born. They are often the places where new and imaginative innovations in evangelism and worship are created. Wherever there are young people with a passion for following Jesus and loving others in his name, there are fresh new beginnings tempered by the wise counsel and guidance of campus ministers. Many times throughout the history of the Church, the young people have boldly called us forth to embody the strong and loving ways of Jesus – and mean it.

Into this liminal, space in between the years, I pour my humble, persistent, perhaps voice-crying-in-the-wilderness call to Christians everywhere. May we step out into 2015 with ardent and faithful courage in the name of our loving Savior Jesus to embrace and befriend the broken and crushed ones. May we urgently work for peace wherever we may be as we endeavor to serve as the Body of Jesus alive and loving the world. 

A blessed continuing Christmas celebration to you and a Happy New Year! 

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

December 24, 2014

Christmas kringla

On Christmas Eve, most campus pastors assist the local pastor(s) in worship service(s) or join congregations, sitting with their families to rejoice in the birthday celebrations for Jesus. Others travel over their school's break to see families and friends. Still others embark on trips oversees, perhaps as the beginning of a sabbatical or retirement. 

When I was a parish and campus pastor, I celebrated Christmas Eve with my congregation, family and friends. I loved creating the beauty of Christmas Eve worship and I do miss that. It has occurred to me that I might never preach and preside at a Christmas Eve celebration again. For pastors, this is—what it is?—an odd feeling, a feeling of letting go, of missing something, but knowing it cannot be. It's not a crisis, but it just "is."

Still, it's nice to rest and enjoy the worship services with others. My husband Jack and I were invited to join our friends, Michael and Becky Bray along with our friend, Kay Gray, at First Presbyterian Church, Greenville, Pa. We enjoyed our time with them and it was especially fun to gather at the Brays' for Christmas Eve festivities. 

I had intended to bake kringla before we left, but time slipped away and I baked them later. I have baked kringla every Christmas since my grandmother taught me how. It's an old recipe that dates back to who-knows-when in Norway. The thing about kringla is that they are hard to describe. I searched several websites and it was amusing to read others try to explain what a kringla was: cake-like, but not cake; pastry but not really pastry; cookie, but not that either. A kringla is just a—kringla. 

Kringle or kringla are a Nordic variety of pretzel, which arrived with Roman Catholic monks in the 13th century. The word originates from the Old Norse, kringla, meaning ring or circle. The shape of the pretzel, as legend would have it, is related to monks making a bread-like cracker to remind others to pray. It also may have represented a figure eight, the sign for infinity. Whatever the case may be, it's a spiritual thing and that's how I think about kringla. 

I make them because I love them, my family loves them and every college student I have served them to over 20-plus years has loved them too. The first thing I ever made for my grandson to eat was kringla. My daughter sent me photos of him relishing his kringla in his high chair. Kringla connect me with my grandma and all the relatives before me whom I've never met. I taught all of my children to make kringla—one time I had a Skype-kringla baking session with my son who wanted to make sure he made them right.  I've seen my cousins post Facebook photos of them attempting to make kringla with varying degrees of success. When our son and daughter-in-law were married last April, they asked me if I could make 200 kringla for the reception. For that feat, I enlisted my sisters, the aunties, to help!  

So I made kringla once again to keep a holy Christmas and to remember the blessing of family and faith, to remember to keep baking and sharing; to remember to feed others the way that Jesus did. For the infant boy Jesus would grow into a curious teen and then, when the time was kairos and right, Jesus would announce God's holy realm of love and peace to the entire world. On another holy night, he would lift bread, give thanks and break it for his friends, sharing his very life blood with them in a feast that goes on and on around the tables of grace across the world; a feast that connects us to Jesus and all the saints in light.  

But for now, on this day—I'll enjoy Christmas kringla. Fresh and warm from the oven, they are the best holiday comfort food on the planet—ever.   

Merry Christmas! Now, let the celebrations commence for the next 12 days!  

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

December 23, 2014


All is calm on the Thiel College campus in Greenville, Penn.

At 4 p.m., President Troy VanAken sent out an email to all the employees letting everyone, primarily the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. folks, know they could leave an hour early! Many folks were already gone or had left for the holiday. The Student Life staff folks are among the last to leave because we often have loose ends to tidy up and a few students who remain on campus over the break. I have one student who will be doing a little work for me in the chapel. I met with her today and gave her some instructions. Basically she'll be "putting Advent" to rest by putting all the blue things in a drawer until next year.   

In most campus ministries, Christmas worship services pass over the campus. Many-a-campus pastor has written, preached or blogged about the one, two or rarely the three candled-Advent we share with our students and the campus community. This is the nature and the rhythm of campus ministry.

We rest and we pray. I pray on this night for our alumni. Especially, I'm deep in prayer for one whose fiancé died this evening. Abby Kusserow, a 2013 graduate, and Cameron Dolansky fell in love and were engaged last February. In the midst of logging on to write and checking Facebook postings, I noticed many of my students posting sad notes of condolences to Abby. Scrolling down, I saw her reply to the many inquiries about what happened. She simply wrote, "Cameron has passed away tonight ...." There are no other updates or news about this sad passing—just loved ones and students posting notes of sympathy, prayer and support. Abby's dad, Kurt Kusserow, is the bishop of the SWPA Synod

Remembering that the holidays aren't all merry and bright for everyone, I will pray for all those in sorrow during the holidays; for all those who are missing someone dear; for all those whose Christmas will remain the color of Advent—blue. 

Into the stillness of the dark blue night, I’ll offer up my prayers.

Even though all is calm on the campuses, campus pastors keep the vigil and work wherever they may be; sending cards to lonely students, messages of support to faculty or staff members who are healing from surgeries and reaching out to alumni who have suffered great heartbreaking tragedies. Peace be with Abby and Cameron's families and friends in the midst of their grief, pain and shock. 

On this last day of Advent, may these hymn lyrics give solace:

"Comfort, comfort now my people; tell of peace!" So says our God. 

Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning under sorrow's load...

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

December 22, 2014

Nativity fast

Back in November, I took my Christian Worship class on a field trip of sorts. I had arranged for them to go visit an Orthodox worship service since we'd been studying about the Eastern Church. I thought it would be great for them to get a first-hand experience. 

We journeyed to Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Hermitage, Penn. Its heritage is of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate in America. The priest and the people were very welcoming and my students had a most enlightening time during worship and a marvelous conversation during the coffee hour. It turns out, though, some of our hosts had begun the Nativity fast and so, they couldn't really eat with us.

They explained that the six weeks before Christmas Eve are their holy times of fasting. They refrain from meat, dairy, fish, eggs, wine and oil. It's a joyful fast and is done with great anticipation and hope as they await Christmas Eve and the celebration of Christ's birth. Orthodox Christians don't have parties before Christmas. They wait and then really feast away when they break the fast on Christmas Day and keep partying for ten more days after that! 

I did more research and studying about the Nativity fast and decided that I wanted to practice a mini-Nativity fast for a few days before Christmas. It seemed like a good way to slow down, reflect more deeply on the worries of but also the wonders of the world. So, that's what I'll be doing for a few days...and like the Orthodox say, "The faithful do not get caught up in the 'letter of the law' and do not freak out if they have to have a piece of meat. The spirit of the practice is more important than what is eaten. There is no threat of eternal damnation."

It sounds like a lot of grace to me and I'll take these days in grateful anticipation of the birth of the One who calls us into a deeper communion with him and with the weary world.

O come, O come, Emmanuel...

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

December 21, 2014

Solstice and two vigils

The winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere begins at 6:03 p.m. (ET) today and marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. For many ancient people, the coming return of the sun and the subsequent lengthening of the days was a cause for celebration in the dark days of winter.

Ancient believers celebrated the rebirth of the sun god and days with more light. This took place annually around the time of the December solstice and lasted for 12 days. In Scandinavia, the Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed at the time of the December solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor.

According to the Time and Date website, Christmas is also referred to as Yule, which may have derived from the Norse word jól, referring to the pre-Christian winter solstice festival. By the early to mid-fourth century, after Christianity was no longer outlawed, the western church began to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus on Dec. 25. 

While it’s certain that the history and development of the traditions and celebrations of Christ-mass are complicated and variant, the deep human connections to fire and light and our spiritual urges to commemorate the light of Christ are irrefutable. For centuries, Christians have born witness to the light that shines in the darkness and proclaim that the darkness has not overcome it. Individuals light candles and honor the light of Christ born into the world long ago and born anew to light our hearts each day. But it’s this time during the longest nights of the year in which we are powerfully aware of the light that no darkness can overcome. 

We need to remember this, especially when all is bleak, dank, dreary and despairing. Goodness knows there is enough bad—I mean really bad—news that inundates us minute by minute nowadays. Last night as we were on our way to the march, I read on my Twitter feed that two of New York City’s police officers were shot while they sat in their squad car. We quietly bemoaned this news as we gathered together in the parking lot. With little details published, we could only say how terrible this was. Later the world would learn their names, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, and we would know the true details and the atrocity of their murders. 

At 6 p.m., the beginning of solstice, at the site where the police officers were executed, and at 6 p.m. at the site where 12-year-old Tamir was killed by a police officer, candlelight prayer vigils were held so those suffering deep sorrow could stand together and pray for the light to shine amid their deepest sadness. Whenever inexplicable and horrible things happen, human beings do this—light candles and pray. Last week, the people of Pakistan and hundreds of thousands worldwide did this in their mourning. Millions did this in New York City and around the world after Sept. 11, 2001. We have been doing this stubbornly because we must. As the saying goes, it is far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. I believe that’s true and it’s true tonight on the longest night of the year in New York City, in Cleveland, Ohio, and everywhere human goodness and care reach out toward the healing hand of God in the deepest nights of our existence.

The four candles of Advent have been lit, the season of waiting and watching is nearly over, and the coming of the light is nigh. As it looms each year, I think about Christ’s mass, Christmas, as a holy time to pray, “Amen, come Lord Jesus.” But it's not a prayer for Jesus to come and rescue us once again. He already gave his life and was raised to a new one so we might have life everlasting with him and all the saints in light.

I think of Christmastime as a time to pray that the light of Christ Jesus would be reignited, rekindled, relit and renewed in me. I pray that the forces of despair and all that tempts me to give up, to give in and to sit in a heap of resignation would be banished and kept at bay. I pray for healing in my life, in the life of others and in the world. Because healing is really what salvation is all about. Salvation is from the root word for salve, which is a balm, an ointment for healing and wholeness. When we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we ask that he come within us and that our hearts will be open wider to receive a love that is stronger than death and a salvation that truly brings us peace.

I pray I might receive the gift of God’s love more openly, more humbly, more lovingly and more carefully so I might love more deeply, work for justice more boldly and become a truly authentic peacemaker.

There are gifts hidden in the longest night of the year, as Peter Mayer sings:

For deep in the stillness, deep in the cold
Deep in the darkness, a miner knows
That there is a diamond in the soul
Of the longest night
Of the year

A blessed solstice as you wait and pray on the longest night of the year.

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

December 20, 2014

Meaghan and marching

It was the day we had planned to go to Cleveland. Ever since we stopped at Tamir Rice's memorial site on the way back from Iowa over Thanksgiving, I knew we'd return. It was just a matter of when. I've been receiving notices about rallies, community meetings, marches and prayer vigils for Tamir. On Dec. 20 there were events beginning at 8 a.m. throughout the city. I had hoped the prayer vigil would be today, but it's tomorrow at 6 p.m. in the park where 12-year-old Tamir was gunned down. I replied with a "maybe," saying it depended on a lot of planning and if my husband Jack was able to go. Our friend and former student, Meaghan, saw that we might be coming her way, so she messaged me in hopes that we could get together if we came to town. 

It was great to meet up with Meaghan for supper. She's on her own now after her graduation from Thiel College and looking for a job working with children. Meaghan and her boyfriend, Ryan, are great supporters of Jack and his art and they love Koda, our Schipperke. It was a happy reunion. We bid our cheerful good-byes and Merry Christmas farewells. Then it was off to 40th Street and Community College Avenue. 

We arrived at 6:50 for a 7 p.m. rally. There were no signs or folks milling around. We drove around the neighborhood. All was pretty quiet. We circled back to the coordinates and pulled into the parking lot of the shopping area. Two guys stood there scanning the street. "Is this where the rally is?" I asked. "We think so," one guy replied with a smile. So we parked, got out and waited.  

Pretty soon a young man with a megaphone and a few other leader-types showed up. We introduced Koda and ourselves. By the way, little Koda Bear is the best friend-maker ever and just loves people. Immediately folks gather around Koda with exclamations of "Awww, he's so cute," or "He's so fluffy" or "He's so friendly!" Koda makes friends wherever he goes. As I was walking with a lovely woman with a sign, I said, "Koda just loves everybody. The world with be a happier place if humans were like him." She laughed and said, "Yeah, I know that—I've got four dogs."

Organizer Kris Johnson, a tall, young, determined, kind and yet intense African-American man, had been up since the early morning and had been at every rally. He was tired and ready to call it a day. Other weary walkers nodded their heads in agreement. Since the crowd was thin, why not wrap it up, rest up and meet up again on Sunday? But more and more people were walking over while cars pulled in, windows down, people smiling and hands waving. I had noticed squad cars farther down in the parking lot with officers standing beside them. Kris went to talk to them, returned and told us the march was on.

I had no idea what that meant or where we were going. Only that Jack, Koda and I were there to walk and journey in solidarity. This is something I had learned from my parents. When I was 11, in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I didn't really know much about King, but when he was murdered my parents took to the streets with others and me in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. All I remember is that we marched with a lot of people—most were African-Americans. I did notice that they were intensely sad.

We marched to a Baptist church for a rally and a service in remembrance of King. The main floor was full so my family went up to the balcony. There I witnessed a most moving worship service and heard singing like I had never heard before. It was only years later that I realized the irony: us, the Caucasian people, sat in the balcony, the place where African-Americans would usually be ushered, if they were even allowed in a white church at all. 

I've been to other rallies for justice and peace for all kinds of people, but this was the first in my older adult life in an unfamiliar neighborhood with perfect strangers. But they really weren't strangers. People asked us our names and where we were from. I was dressed in my black clerical garments because I think it's important to be visibly a clergy person, especially if a situation might become tense or dangerous. I introduced myself as a pastor too.  

So we took to the streets chanting and marching. The young adults led the way taking turns with the bullhorn. I took video of the 45-plus minutes of the march. The police were there all along the way, sometimes blocking the path and at other times guarding the streets behind us as we marched. We were respectful and stayed where we were supposed to walk. Sometimes it was scary. I got a bit worried when I wasn't sure if the crowd was going to maintain its composure when meeting a wall of police cars and witnessing police officers putting on riot gear as they got out of their cars. But all was well as we marched through the neighborhood. In the doors and windows of homes along the way, we could see folks peeking out. Some came out to walk with us. I waved at moms and kids in doorways; they smiled and waved back at me. 

As we neared what seemed like the end of our march, Kris consulted with some of the others and decided to call it a night. The police cars had assembled in force again with lights flashing—waiting. Our leaders began to take us back to where the march began. As I rounded the corner, I was fairly close to one of the police cars. I stopped, smiled and waved. At first, they seemed stunned. I called out, "Thank you for being here and thank you for your service." Then the officer in the passenger side smiled, waved and said, "You're welcome." 

I caught up with my group and headed back to the parking lot. We circled up for the last words from Kris and other leaders, said good-byes and went on our way. I was grateful to have been a small part of a march for justice and mindful that I stand in a long line of pastors, especially campus pastors, before me, who have marched with young people and others to help make changes for justice and compassion in the world. Not all cops are bad and not all people of color are thugs. We have problems that we all need to work on in our country. We are all the stronger when we exercise our constitutional rights and practice democracy with its call for liberty and justice for all so  our imperfect world we can fashion a more perfect union together. 

May it be so and may there be peace, may there be healing and may there be compassion for all, in the name of the one who came to set us free.  

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

December 19, 2014

Musical offices

One of the things that's fun about working on a college campus and within the department of Student Life is that there are a lot of offices associated with all the folks required to make that department tick. Teamwork is essential as the college counselor and nurse; the directors of student activities, international students, diversity and multicultural services, public safety, residence life, student housing, special events; and the campus pastor work under the leadership of the vice president for student life. 

Our fearless leader (that's how everyone on our staff refers to him), Mike McKinney, is adept and wise in herding a high-energy/high-powered team whose mission is to support the lives of the students at Thiel College, Greenville, Pa. In his wisdom, he discerned that we needed to shift folks from their present offices to other ones to better tend to our students' needs. So today I spent the better part of my time trading offices with my colleague who directs student activities. Other folks swapped offices on Thursday and another colleague will move on Monday from the second floor  to the main floor of our student union to better serve the college and community in her work.

Now, in theory and actuality, I was cheerful to do this. I was. Still, amid the process, the Friday before Christmas, I was occasionally questioning why I was so cheerful and enthusiastic about doing this. Primarily I think this was because moving takes a lot of brainpower and energy, which after finals I had little. It was taking way too much energy to move my stuff and ponder how it was going to fit in the new space so as to welcome the students, faculty and staff who come my way. 

Even though I'm a campus pastor and "change and adaptability" are our middle names, I didn't feel "change-friendly" this afternoon while staring at the boxes, trying to imagine where my desk would best rest in an irregular-shaped room. But I've been focusing on a Frozen-song mantra these days (maybe it's been months)—let it go. So I let go into the moments. I could hear my friend and student Robert Carpenter say, "Embrace the moment!" And so I did with the help of my husband Jack and my other friends in student life. 

It's good to try different things, to move and reshape your office and, yes, your life. It might not be the most fun or the most comfortable at first, but giving yourself over to the moment can be a way that God can help you let go of stuff and things and ideas and notions that you just don't need anymore. I had that experience moving from Minnesota to Pennsylvania—I had to let go, not only of stuff but of a way of living in that setting in order to embrace the new life and new setting. 

When I sat in my new office at the end of the day and the campus was dimly lit and quiet since many of the folks have gone home for the weekend or for the Christmas holiday, I experienced a peace. I sat with my dog in the comfy "giant chair" (as I have dubbed it) and felt a new sense of home. I did purchase some new musical note decals for my wall as a way to honor the day of musical offices. I can't wait to see how they look on the walls! I'll have to try to add photos of my new digs! All is well and it was a good day after all, bearing witness again to the beloved saying of Julian of Norwich, "All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."

Have a blessed weekend in these waning days of Advent! 

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

December 18, 2014

Church relations

In ELCA college and university circles, the Office of Church Relations is instrumental in tending the connection between the institution and the broader church. I want to let you know about this because sometimes its ministry goes unnoticed since it's often hard at work off campus. But I really want to talk about it as church relationships and friendship; deep connections knit together in a holy communion over distance, time and space. The body of Christ, this holy weave of friendship and faith, when at its best, is a most remarkable beloved community of caring. I think it's the best, not in a better way than others, but in a profound, deeply mysterious one.

After lots of emailsand planning, Bishop Ralph Jones, H'05 (Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod); Bishop Kurt Kusserow, '85 (Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod); Al Gesler, '90 (director of major gifts, Thiel College, Greenville, Pa); Larry Vallar (vice president for enrollment management, Thiel); and I met for lunch at The Hilltop Tavern. We prayed together for the heartbreaks of the world, especially as we remembered the people and parents in Pakistan. We prayed for our ministries, for our food, the servers, the preparers and for everyone's time with family and friends over Christmas. Our conversations were filled with stories shared, about people and friends in the synods who love the college, about people we've known, and about priests who know how to enjoy a bit of beer now and then. 

It was hearty and heartfelt and we left the table full of the grace that comes when friendships are begun and renewed. When friendships are fed and nurtured, we come alive and radiate the love of God in the beloved community of Jesus.

Later this evening, I read sad news from some of my dear clergy friends from Minnesota. Larry and Elizabeth Strenge's 31-year old son, Daniel, had died. The Strenges have connections with Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn., and Augustana College, Sioux Falls, S.D. Across time, distance and space, the church across the country began reaching out through social media, prayers and love. Their congregation, Celebration Lutheran Church, Sartell, Minn., held a "Prayers Around Cross" candlelight service outdoors for Daniel. Al Gesler's sister, Carol, attends Celebration. She was one of the staff members at my congregation in St. Cloud. We are connected. Carol's and Al's parents blessed my campus ministry office with the furnishings. Through these things, we are related. We are family. We are loved. 

When we are at our best, we love. The best church relationships and friendships are rooted in love. It is a human love that draws us together, but it's the love of God in Christ Jesus that knits us together and holds us fast even when we'd rather fly apart in grief or explode in anger or fizzle away into despair. It's then that the rest of the church reaches out to hold us close, whether by visits in person and cards sent, flowers, casseroles and hot dishes shared, or by palpable prayers that one can actually feel. We can't claim to explain it because therein lies the mystery of what it means to be the church, bound to Jesus, commanded to love not just each other but the entire world that God so lovingly created. 

So, church, let's heap up some deep loving into the world of hurt and heartache because Jesus commanded us to do so. The world needs us to be at our best. It's what we do, not because we're better than others but because it's part of the deep, mysterious center of who we are and who we are called to be for others—love. 

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

December 17, 2014

Moving on

One day after the horrific attack on the school in Peshawar, Pakistan, the trending twitter feed has moved on. Gone also are the hashtags I Can’t Breathe, Ferguson, etc. And we move on.

Moving on is what we do as humans. We move on because it’s necessary for sanity, health and well-being. But any pastor or grief counselor worth his or her weight will tell you that it’s a both/and scenario. People need to move on as well as to remember, commemorate and recall the anniversaries of pivotal and often horrendous events. I suppose one could find fault with either of these human impulses: criticizing moving on as callous or flighty and criticizing remembering as morbid or obsessive. At its extreme, I’m certain both critiques could be true.

We are, as ELCA theologian Gordon Lathrop once said, Easter people living in a Good Friday world. Eucharist after eucharist we who journey as the body of Christ remember that on the night in which he was betrayed and turned over to the authorizes who wanted to kill him, Jesus took some bread and wine, offered them up in thanksgiving and told his followers to eat and to drink in remembrance of him. 

In communion after communion service, we remember the horrific events in the life of our beloved Jesus: betrayal, arrest, beating, denial, accusation, conviction, torture and death by crucifixion.

I suppose some folks would like us to just get over it, to forget about it, to think happy thoughts and, yes, to move on. We have moved on. We gave ourselves over to the impossible and incredulous idea that Jesus, just as he had said, was raised from the dead into a new life; a resurrected life full of grace and truth. We trust in this outlandish news because we have lived it and experienced it ourselves. In the midst of suffering and death, new beginnings spring forth. Where we thought that we could not go on after the death of a spouse or a sibling or a child, God came in a whisper of hope and new life and breathed on us so we could live again, so we could actually move on.

We move on because we must. But we will never forget because in the absentminded act of forgetting, we lose our humanity, and in losing that we lose our compassion. We are called to this perplexing life of paradoxes lived and wondrous grace that astounds us day by day.

Remember those in sorrow and don’t turn away because it’s too sad or the rest of the world has moved on. Those in sorrow often need us the most after everyone else has looked the other way at the next news story to catch their eyes.

Remember, in the name of the one who commanded us: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

December 16, 2014

Black boxes and Rachel weeping

Where there were once vibrant photos of Saba, Raj and Zohaib, now on their Facebook profile pictures there is only a black box. Across the country, others joined Saba, Raj and Zohaib as black pictures swept through social profiles to express their anger and great sorrow. 

These dear and beloved students live in Pakistan. For a blessed and brief semester (Saba in the fall 2013 and Raj and Zohaib in the spring of 2014), we were honored by their presence here at Thiel College, Greenville, Pa. Frantic and heartbreaking posts began to appear in the middle of the night. There was a brutal, ruthless attack on an Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan, and hundreds of children and teachers were gunned down. As of this post there are 132 children dead along with 13 teachers

Now, there are more mothers and fathers weeping and wailing tonight. Mother Rachel is weeping with them. Whenever these horrific, despicable acts of murder and terror are perpetrating upon children, mother Rachel comes to my mind. The text from Jeremiah weaves its way into the sorrow: A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more (Jeremiah 31:15).

Barnstorm blogger Emily Polis Gibson is a wife, mother, farmer and family physician, living the rural life in northwest Washington state. On Dec. 14, 2012, reflecting on the image of Rachel weeping, in her blog post, "Advent Cries: The Shadow of Death," she posted a poem on her site "in mourning for the people of Newtown, Connecticut." Two years and two days later, Rachel is weeping and in mourning with the mothers and fathers of the Peshawar school children.

Emily's poem carries us and the world in our lamentation: 

There is no consolation for these families.
Their arms aching with emptiness tonight,
beds and pillows lying cold and unused,
dolls and stuffed animals awaiting all night hugs
that will never come again.

There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind,
dust, only dust
which is beginning
and end.

He came to us
for times such as this,
born of
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could horrify masses
and massacre innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us
so often too easily washed away
as unwanted.

His heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took His
and our breath

He shines through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.

He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.

God wept
as this happened.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is our choice
we made from the beginning,
the choice we continue to make.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He just asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears will finally be dried,
our cells no longer
just dust,
never only dust
as we are glued together
by the breath of God

Many thanks to Emily for her kind permission to offer her poem in the midst of our world's great sorrows and travails. The only consolation I can offer my students from such a vast distance is to pray and sing for them in the candlelit darkness of the David Johnson Memorial Chapel, a place where they each found solace, friendship, love and peace. I hope this bit of light and song would pierce the sorrow represented by those black boxes and be of some comfort in their anguished, broken hearts. May our common prayers bring peace and may our voices rise as a plea to end violence of any kind, but especially violence against all of our children

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me (Psalm 23:4).

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

December 15, 2014

Orange ribbons

orange ribbon

My friend and colleague Andy Erb changed his Facebook profile picture to an orange ribbon on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27. One day before Thanksgiving, in a sonogram to check another ailment, Andy found out that he had a fairly large tumor on his right kidney and it was 97 percent likely to be cancerous.

This was shocking news for Andy, as it would be for anyone. He is only 41 and the lively, fun and very active director of the Thiel Tomcat Marching Pride Band. He’s the spouse of Diana, the father of three cool kids under the age of 8 and a chicken and turkey rancher (or is it a farmer or enthusiast?). Well, whatever the case may be, Andy loves to be outside and that’s probably one of the many reasons that he’s great at leading the marching band in the cool weather days of football season. In five short years, he created the marching band where there had been none and now it boasts over 100 students—one of the largest student groups on campus! Plus, they sound so great!

Andy Erb

Andy Erb (center) with Thiel College’s 2014 Homecoming Queen and King.

Today was the day of Andy's surgery, so my husband Jack and I headed to Pittsburgh in the wee hours of the morning to accompany him through this stressful and worrisome time and to lend support to Diana. We prayed together before the surgical team came to wheel him off to surgery-land. Then we waited throughout the day, checking the electronic numerical list that alerts you to your patient’s status. Jack took a photo right before Andy’s nurse came to whisk him away. 

Several hours later, Andy’s surgeon came out with good news. They got the entire tumor, saved his kidney and were certain that Andy wouldn’t need any chemotherapy or radiation. He’ll just need to have regular check-ups and scans. The entire Thiel College community, his family members and friends breathed a collective sigh of relief but also burst forth in thanksgiving to God. No one was more relieved, of course, than Andy. What a trooper!

So, when Andy got to his room on the floor, we brought him an orange bear with “get well and hang in there” monkey balloons. Orange ribbons, I discovered today, are for those who are surviving kidney cancer. Andy’s a grateful survivor and knows how blessed and fortunate that he is that one day another test for a stomach problem revealed a pesky tumor lurking around his kidney. There by the grace of God we all walk and in grace and love we walk together.

Such is the life of a campus pastor—one day that ended in an angels’ song,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace to God’s people on earth!”

Peace and healing, Andy!

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

December 14, 2014


Moms are important. Some of my college students brought their moms by to say hello before they left for Christmas break. As colleges and universities pause for the winter holidays, campus pastors often attend worship services in the college towns.

On the Third Sunday of Advent, I love to commemorate Mary, the mother of Jesus. For many years, and I don’t exactly remember when I started doing this, I exercised my pastoral prerogative and deemed the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday. We added rose-colored paraments to match the rose colored candle on the Advent wreath in accordance to a long-standing Christian tradition in the church. 

The day takes its common name from the Latin word Gaudete ("Rejoice"), the first word of the introit of the day: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Paul wrote these words as he sat in prison and so they aren't a trite call to rejoice, but rather a bold call to rejoice amid suffering. I love the paradox; it’s so very Lutheran and so deeply rooted in the human condition. 

Mike Jordan Laskey from the National Catholic Reporter noted this paradox as well when he wrote on Dec. 11:

"Gaudete" is the word's imperative form. We are commanded to rejoice. Against the backdrop of heartbreaking news out of cities like Ferguson, Mo., and New York this Advent, I don't really feel like rejoicing. I probably need that sort of urgency from Paul. Of course, there are sad headlines every Gaudete Sunday, and every other day. Our celebration this week (and at Christmas) is a countercultural declaration that even in sadness, we rejoice because our hope is in the one who is stronger than death.

In addition to the readings for the day that center on this exhortation to rejoice, I chose Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, to lift up and remember Jesus' mother, for without her, there would be no Christ and thus, no Christmas. I suppose in a small way, this was one act of feminist resistance, in lifting out Mary’s voice into the Sundays of Advent when they are so heavily weighted on the words and stories from John the Baptist. Pastor types will know that during Advent in the three-year lectionary cycles, there are scant references to the women of the nativity. 

So, we would hear Mary rejoicing as I read from Luke 1:46-55: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior .…

I missed hearing Mary today. Not that my congregation did anything wrong. Our service was beautiful in blue. But today I needed to hear from a mom—from a mom who, as well as knowing the exultant joy of bearing a son also knew the sorrow of witnessing his death. Mary lost her baby boy all too soon to violence at the hands of the state, a gruesome death by Roman crucifixion. After Simeon sang his song of praise when he held the baby Jesus, he told Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34). Mary was going to suffer great heartache. I thought of Mary today as I remembered the Sandy Hook Elementary School moms, and the dads, who are sitting in sorrow today, the second anniversary of the shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn. 

I thought of Mary yesterday as I watched some of the anguished mothers speak in Washington, D.C., about their sons lost too soon, killed at the hands of law enforcement: Tressa Sherrod (John Crawford, 22), Collette Flanagan (Clinton Allen, 25), Kadiatou Diallo (Amadou Diallo, 23), Sabrina Fulton (Treyvon Martin, 17), Valerie Bell (Sean Bell, 23), Samaria Rice (Tamir Rice, 12), Gwen Carr (Eric Garner, 43), Lesley McSpadden (Michael Brown, 18) and Wanda Johnson (Oscar Grant, 22) were among the many moms who are now forever united in a sad sisterhood of grief.

With the exception of Gwen Carr and Samaria Rice, all these moms are those whose sons were college age or college age-potential. All were handsome young men of color. Across our country, college students, many at our 26 ELCA colleges and universities, and other young adults have taken to the streets, joined their voices with the moms to call for a justice and accountability. You may not have read about it or have seen their young faces in the news, but I’ve noticed the postings in social media sites and elsewhere, young people have heard the heartbreaking stories of the moms and are speaking out. They are clear in their support for excellent policing as well as adamant in their calls to end unwarranted and unnecessary brutality, harassment and racial profiling in communities of color. Our church joins with them as Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton and other bishops have encouraged us to stand in solidarity.

I hear Mary singing again—singing the song that is sung at every evening prayer/vespers service. It’s the song that Martin Luther thought all those in power and with authority over others ought to sing, reminding them to be humble in their exercise of power:

“…the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”

I need to remember Mary’s song as she sang amid the oppressive occupation of her homeland and her struggle for justice and peace as she journeyed with her Jewish son, Jesus, a young man of color who called all of us to treat one another the way we would want to be treated. With Mary, perhaps we could ponder all these things and hold them close to our hearts—and remember the moms who are missing their children tonight, first-graders and young adults alike and, in spite of all the sadness, Gaudete in the love of God in Christ Jesus that is stronger than death, violence and despair. 

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

December 13, 2014

More light

Today is the commemoration of St. Lucia, or St. Lucy depending on what part of the world you’re from. This is not to be confused with the tiny island nation in the Caribbean Sea bearing that name, which is where a lot of people who live in snowy climates would like to be. On the island, however, Dec. 13, St. Lucy’s Day, is a National Day of celebration.

According to tradition, Lucy, whose name means “Light,” was born in Italy to rich and noble parents in around 283. Her father was of Roman origin but died when she was 5. St. Lucia was believed to have suffered death in Syracuse, Sicily, around 310 CE. Among the many stories about her life as a Christian witness is the one told about her aid to Christians hiding in the catacombs to escape terror and oppression from the Roman Emperor Diocletian. She needed to have both of her hands free to carry supplies so ingeniously she attached candles to a wreath around her head so she could see in the darkness of the catacombs.

Gustavus santa lucia celebration
Sophomore, Janet Jennings, of Inglewood, Calif., was crowned as Santa Lucia at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minn.

When I was the chaplain intern at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., we celebrated St. Lucia Day with gusto. This was new for me since I was from the “other” Scandinavian tribe—Norwegian. Although St. Lucia was from Italy, she has a large following—I mean a really big—in Sweden!

In Sweden, the eldest daughter of a household will rise early in the morning to don a white robe, a red sash and a crown with nine lit candles. The family awakens to sing, “Santa Lucia” and joins in a breakfast of coffee and saffron buns. Larger gatherings abound throughout Scandinavia and Italy to usher in the light and to remember the bravery of a young girl who brought light to shine in the darkness. 

The celebration continues at Gustavus and the photos are beautiful (please make sure to check this link to view the photographs). Sophomore, Janet Jennings, of Inglewood, Calif., was crowned in Christ Chapel on Dec. 11. The community gathered to sing and to welcome the Light.

Today, all across the U.S., there were others who were shining the light of peace, justice and freedom into the dark places of our nation where oppression and fear still lurk. Thousands of people of all races, creeds, walks of life, ages and genders walked peacefully to shed light on the problem of disproportionate violence at the hands of law enforcement officers upon people of color, especially young African-American men and boys. Maybe today as we recall the brave and compassionate acts of Lucia, we might consider what it would mean if we’d all wear candles on our heads; to be a bit dangerous and bold in our risk-taking for others. Maybe we could imagine a world in which we bear the light of Christ so as to banish the darkness around and within us; to brighten the world so desperate for peace.

Tomorrow, I will wear black in solidarity with the call by bishops, including our own Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and my friend, Bishop Guy Erwin, across the country to stand with those who suffer from racism. Then later on, I think maybe I’ll try to wear a crown of candles just to see what it feels like to be St. Lucy—and imagine being brave and daring in hopes of bringing more light—in Jesus’ name. 

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

December 12, 2014


It's 12 days now until Christmas Eve. Today, Dec. 12, is also the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mexican celebration of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Tomorrow is the celebration of St. Lucia who bore witness to the light. In 12 days after Christmas Eve, it will be the 12 Days of Christmas. 

It's been a long while since I posted about Ronnell. I know.

Tamir memorial

Tamir Rice’s memorial in Cudell Park, Cleveland, Ohio.

I've been both breathlessly consumed in the wonders of my life as a campus pastor and professor of religion and nearly suffocated by the events since my last post: the killings of Michael Brown, Kajieme Powell, John Crawford, Darrien Hunt, Vonderrit Meyers, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley and, especially, 12-year-old Tamir Rice (and this list grows even as I write)—all African-American young people killed at the hands of police. I've struggled, honestly, as to how to write, how to respond and how to bring a word of hope to a situation that is so painful, so conflicted and so controversial to the minds of many in our church. Over the Thanksgiving break, we stopped at Tamir's memorial in Cudell Park late at night. It was so sad with all the teddy bears, stuffed animals, candles and cards. 

PJ Holthus

Pastor Jim “PJ” Holthus.

In the meantime since my last post, my friend Pastor Jim "the other PJ" Holthus decided to retire at the end of this month. His last worship service was Dec. 10. My husband Jack and I participated via video. I offered a prayer for my friend via the video and we recorded his last homily. It was a bittersweet gathering as we watched the college students be their crazy-selves at the end of a semester and say their heartfelt good-byes to their beloved campus pastor. 

Holthus last service

Holthus’ last service before his retirement, a candlelight service at the Lutheran Campus Ministry house in Bemidji, Minn.

For today, tonight, for now—perhaps it's enough to recognize both the utter, astounding beauty of my life and the depth of the deep, agonizing struggle I feel and many others feel in their souls and for some, in their very lives, as we confront the travesty of racism and brutality in any form and the worldwide struggle for justice for all. 

I'm going to attempt to write for the 12 days before Christmas and the 12 days after Christmas because it's time to reflect and to write. 

The world in solemn stillness waits—to hear the angels sing ....

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

August 29, 2014


I heard Ronnell coming down the hall in the student center before I could see him. He has a rolling, kind, infectious laugh that can make you smile. His smile is broad and beaming. Ronnell is just an amazing young man. He’s a senior and getting ready to take on the world.

Ronnell and Jacob preparing for the Chapel Rap (BAS stands for
Ronnell and Jacob prepare for the Chapel BAS ("Born Again Sinners") Rap.

I met up with Ronnell shortly after I arrived at Thiel College when he wanted to interview me for the campus TV station. He’s a communications major and hopes to get into radio and TV after he graduates. Like many of our students, he’s a man of many talents. He plays football at Thiel just as he did for his high school in New Castle, Pa. He’s a resident assistant, comedian, magician, Christian rapper and a licensed preaching minister in his home church. I might not know about his other talents because Ronnell is humble. What’s clear is that he loves everybody. Ronnell really loves Jesus.

So I heard his laughter coming down the hall on Aug. 14 when he arrived on campus for football practice. Poking my head out of my office door, he caught sight of me and ran to give me a big hug. We laughed some more, chatted about how good it was to see each other, and he introduced me to his parents and girlfriend.

Ronnell preaching at the Interfaith Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr./President Nelson Mandela memorial service
Ronnell preaches at the Interfaith Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr./President Nelson Mandela memorial service.

As they made their way down the hall for football check-in and such, I felt a mixture of emotions. Joy flooded my being! Ronnell and I shared a lot of ministry-moments last year. From heartfelt chats about ministry, to our teamwork efforts in planning the first interfaith Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Nelson Mandela memorial service. At that service, Ronnell brought the good news to life with fine preaching. Later on in the spring, he and several other students led the first Thiel College Chapel rap. Then he was an assisting minister at our Celebrate Campus Ministry worship, serving alongside Herbert Chilstrom, former ELCA presiding bishop, and portraying Jesus in our enactment of the story about the blind man, "Jesus and the Pool of Siloam." Like so many of the students I cherish here, I think the world of Ronnell.

Ronnell preaching at the Interfaith Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr./President Nelson Mandela memorial service
Ronnell processing in for the Celebrate Campus Ministry worship service.

Ronnell is 6-feet tall and happens to be African-American. When he walked away with his usual exuberant, cheerful bounce in his step, I also felt pensive and sad. The nation was just reeling from the news that Michael Brown, 18, had been shot and killed in an encounter with a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. We didn’t talk about that. We haven’t talked about it yet, but I know we will at some point.

Roger Gustafson, bishop of the Central States Synod, is having "the talk" with the congregations and leaders in Missouri and Kansas. He wrote a pastoral letter: "The various elements of this painful drama carry the temptation of distracting us from an even more painful truth, one that's at the heart of it all: His name was Michael Brown. He was 18 years old. He was black, and he was killed by a police officer. Had he been white, chances are excellent that he would still be alive. But the stark fact of Michael Brown's death under extremely unclear circumstances points our attention to a larger truth: To be born male and African-American in this country is to be born into a clear and present danger." 

This is in the back of my mind when I welcome the male African-American students. 

Ronnell and Robert enacting the gospel of the Blind Man and Jesus
Ronnell and Robert enact the gospel of the blind man and Jesus.

I saw Ronnell again at the all-campus picnic that the college hosts before all the new students arrive. The band members are there, the employees, their families, sports teams and the residence life staff. I hugged him again, this time with great care and urgency — in a way that’s hard to explain. It’s like the way you hug your children tighter when something awful has happened to someone else’s children. When he walked away, I didn’t want him to see me or worry that I was moved to tears.

On our campuses, in town hall meetings, at schools, and in churches, mosques and synagogues, we need to have a conversation about the tyranny of racism and how it’s killing us. We especially need to hear the harrowing and terrifying stories from young African-American men and listen, really listen, about how many times they’ve had to throw their hands up in the air so they wouldn’t be shot just for being black.

 Ronnell and the Rev. Dr. Herbert Chilstrom at the Celebrate Campus Ministry worship service
Ronnell and Herbert Chilstrom at the Celebrate Campus Ministry worship service.

I can’t bear the thought of this happening to Ronnell or any other student of color anywhere. But I know it does happen. Colleges and universities have incredible resources for diversity training for students, faculty and staff members. We’re engaged in this conversation at Thiel College with the help of Mark Weir, Director of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, and other students. We're going to have "the talk" when the time is right. 

We could also provide opportunities for community members to join in the conversation, as we did at St. Cloud State University and as others do around the country. Our faith in Jesus and the affirmation of our baptismal promises compel us to “strive for justice and peace in all the world.” Pope Paul VI wisely said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Peace and justice join hands when we engage in efforts to bring people together of many and varied backgrounds, religions, ethnicities and walks of life. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton has called on us to shoulder this work together in the ELCA. 

As the colleges, universities and campus ministries welcome students to campus, please remember them in your prayers and the prayers of the church, send the names of your students to the campus pastors, and, if you have the ability, send financial gifts to support them in their ministry to the amazing young adults just like Ronnell. 

The Chapel Rap crew, Erik, Raj, Zohaib, Ronnell, me and Jacob on the floor
The Chapel Rap crew: Erik (left), Raj, Zohaib, Ronnell, me and Jacob on the floor.

Ronnell and I had a chance to talk about this blog post briefly. We talked about the situation and the need for conversation on our campus. He agreed and also offered to have his mom, a retireed police officer, come help us. Their family thinks about this from all different perspectives. I told him that the only time I want to see him throw his hands in the air is when the Thiel Tomcats score a touchdown or when he’s praising the Lord in worship. I never want Ronnell to be confronted and harassed by law enforcement, throwing up his hands just because he’s black. No one should have to deal with that. 

As we throw our arms wide open in welcome, let’s also reach out, extending hands of compassion, understanding and advocacy — in Jesus’ name.

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

July 21, 2014

The Bishop, Eboo and Bonheoffer

"What would you tell that student who received a milquetoast response from her campus pastor?"

The question hung in the air, stuck like a wet blanket on a clothesline. It was addressed to Eboo Patel, a guest speaker at the ELCA college's and universities first Interfaith Understanding Conference, June 1-3, at Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill.

The student, who had the encounter with her campus pastor, came from an evangelical background. She had wanted to know how she could, would, should engage her faith with a new friend who was a Muslim. The amiable pastor gave a kind, but weak, reply. The student wanted, no, she needed, more. 

"What would you say?" The question was more earnest with an anxious tinge and burning desire to know. "How would you answer her?"

Eboo Patel and Jayne Thompson
Eboo Patel and me.

Without missing a beat, Eboo said, "I would have told her about my hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer." Eboo, the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, has told this story to many others as well. 

As soon as Eboo began to tell the story of one of my heroes of the faith, I began to weep. It wasn't a sobbing weeping. Rather it was a steady slip of tears down my cheeks as I listened to a story that I had told generations of students over the years. There was something about his urgency, his articulate passion about telling Bonhoeffer's story of choosing to stand with his country fellows, all of them, especially the Jewish ones who were being massacred by the Nazi war machine orchestrated by Adolf Hitler. Eboo embraced Bonhoeffer, who had embraced the persecuted Jews. This choosing to up-end the expectations upon them and to radically embrace others for the sake of justice and the love of God has always inspired me. Listening to Eboo, I was in awe and simultaneously filled with unfathomable gratitude. He was telling part of my story, part of my Lutheran history, which is part of the world's story after all. 

Elizabeth A. Eaton
Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton during a panel dicussion.

I had traveled to the conference with amazing women from Thiel College, Greenville, Pa.: students Elizabeth "Liz" Koerner, Elizabeth "Bess" Onegow and staff person Annie LeMar. Liz and Bess were excited to attend because they were going to see ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, whom they had met when we traveled to Chicago for her installation. Annie was thrilled to make connections with other like-minded and compassionate faculty and staff members from other ELCA colleges. I just love watching people learn and grow from gatherings like this.

Eaton and Thiel students
A silly photo with Bess Onegow, Annie Le Mar, Bishop Eaton, me and Liz Koerner (the bishop knew we were going to do this, she's a good sport).

Bishop Eaton was also part of the gathering and graciously answered questions with wisdom and wit. But it was her presence that spoke volumes. Rather than popping in and sharing niceties and a panel discussion (which is always nice, don’t get me wrong), she stayed with us. She pitched her tent with us and talked to the students, the faculty and staff members, and the presidents of the colleges represented. She broke bread and shared table talks with the guests. Bishop Eaton made a difference. She gave voice to the urgency in interfaith conversations and cooperation. Bishop Eaton “gets it.” That’s what my students think, and I think they’re right!

We were also doubly delighted to see her again because Bishop Eaton will preside at our 2015 Thiel College baccalaureate service, giving the commencement address in the afternoon. We'll be conferring an honorary doctorate upon her at that time.

I’ve been thinking and thinking about our time at the interfaith conference. Now in these recent days, as I’m heartbroken and horrified by the violence that human beings heap upon one another and on the earth’s creatures, I’ve been deep in prayer. Deep sorrow wells up as I read about and watch the live streaming video about the attacks and bombings in Gaza. On July 17, Bishop Eaton added her voice to the call for the end of violence. She expressed her profound concern for members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land in a letter to that denomination's bishop, Munib A. Younan:

"Our hearts are heavy as we read about and see images of the violence being inflicted on both Israelis and Palestinians. This suffering and loss of life are inexcusable before God. As followers with you of the Prince of Peace, and as children of God, the Creator and Sustainer of all life, we long for peace and a just resolution to the escalating conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people," Eaton wrote, adding that she is responding directly to Younan's call to participate in interventions and actions "to create hope in a hopeless situation."

lucas koener
Lucas Koerner in Jerusalem, 2011.

There are other inspirational leaders with whom I’ve had the blessing of conversation and connection. One such young adult leader is Lucas Koerner. Lucas was 19 when he traveled to Israel in 2011 to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. The amazing thing: Lucas is a U.S. citizen and Jewish. In one of those reversal/solidarity actions, he decided “to wear, along with my keffiyeh, a kippah adorned with a small Palestinian flag. This last article of clothing on my head contributed, I believe, more than anything else to the climate of collective bewilderment, especially among the youth. … It simply never occurred to them that a Jewish person would, in the name of Jewish ethics, stand in solidarity with the oppressed Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom. I feel that it was precisely this cognitive dissonance on a societal level that formed the motivation for my arrest.”

After speaking out against the occupation of Palestine, Lucas was detained and then arrested by the Israeli police. The video of this disturbing event has resurfaced in light of the recent bombings in Gaza. Lucas’ account of the ordeal can be read on his blog, Stronger Than Slavery. Three years later, he is still active in his work for justice among the Palestinian people. His Facebook profile photo says: “In Solidarity with Gaza.” We became Facebook friends this week. We both noted that there have been global protests about the attacks on the civilians — the elderly, the frail, women, babies, boys playing football on the beach, the ailing in a hospital ICU and schoolchildren — but precious few in our country. I am haunted by this lack of dismay in U.S. streets. I wonder what  Bonhoeffer would say to us now, just as he addressed the people of the U.S. during the terror of Hitler's regime.

Doubtless cautionary advice will be given: Hamas is bombing the Israeli public and both sides are waging terror on each other. Yes, but no. There is no excuse for indiscriminately bombing hospitals. None. Or children. Or frail, elderly people or any people for that matter. Something is very wrong and the young adults can spot it, name it and take action against it as a matter of faith and conscience.

So I’m going to throw my lot in with the young adults like Lucas Koerner, my bishop, Dr. Patel and my hero Bonhoeffer. But above all, I’m going to center my life on Jesus, my savior, who said I would see him in the least of my brothers and sisters, not just my Christian sisters or brothers, but that I would see him in all people of faith and no faith at all.

dietrich bonhoeffer quote

As the psalmist wrote, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” I pray that my silent tears shed at the story of Bonhoeffer, for the refugee children at our border and for the frightened ones in Gaza might refresh my courage and enliven my witness for the weak and voiceless ones of the world. No matter what, I’m going to stand up, in the strong name of Jesus, and shout a big “no” to cowardice, indifference, callous disregard for human life and apathy. I’ll say “yes” to the wisdom of one of my heroes of the faith who said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” 

Be moved. Speak up. Get out and make a difference in the name of Jesus and for the sake of the ones he loves.

For more about the ELCA's initiative in the Holy Land, please check Peace Not Walls: "We are a church that rolls up our sleeves and gets to work. We do God’s work in the world — restoring and reconciling communities." 

Comments (2)  |  Permalink

May 11, 2014

The Other PJ

pj and pj

He-Jay and She-Jay at Lutheran Student Retreat, fall 2011.

He-Jay or PJ-Y (not to be confused with me-J the She-Jay, PJ-X) are his other nicknames. Pastor Jim “PJ” Holthus, Lutheran Campus Ministry pastor of Bemidji State University (BSU), is the Other PJ. I got to thinking about my dear friend the other day as the academic year was coming to a close. Jim, as per his usual amazing and crazy antics, was up to some cool stuff up at BSU. I love how he loves his work! 

I’ve been following the end-of-the-year events of my colleagues at the other ELCA colleges and universities as well as the Lutheran Campus Ministry (LCM) sites across the country. So many of them are spectacular in their outreach, pastoral care and ministry with students. It’s really difficult to mention them all and they all deserve huge amounts of kudos for the way they engage the young adults on their campuses.

PJ and bsu students
PJ with some of the BSU student leaders.

But I wanted to lift up PJ Holthus because this is going to be his last year in LCM and because he is one of the last of my colleagues who started campus ministry with me who is still going strong in LCM. Come to think of it, in my 1993 LCM new staff orientation class, none of us are now serving as LCM-related pastors and only one, Brian Johnson, executive director of Campus Ministries at Valparaiso [Ind.] University, along with me, is connected with college work.

PJ and I have been pastoring for over three decades. For both of us, more than two-thirds of our time has been in ministry with college students and the faculty and staff who support them. He is the most unabashedly punny-est person I know. Even though he receives groans galore at every pun, he’s beloved by his present and former students. PJ’s been through some pretty harrowing medical calamities and challenges over the last several years, but he rallies and forges on like a champ. His students help him out when he needs assistance. He is amazing! He is also the person who takes the most selfie-photos in his recliner with his cats (photos below).

pedal with pj
Pedal with PJ 2011.

Over the years he's led thousands of worship services and Bible studies, hosted countless student suppers, Back Yard Bashes and barbecues. Like me, he’s done hundreds of weddings for students and likely a few sad student funerals. He’s a tireless supporter and cheerleader for the Lutheran Student Movement leaders in every region in which he’s served and is a frequently "Pastor Goofball" at the gatherings. He’s famous for his late-night ventures to Perkins with students, as well as his "Pedal with PJ" fundraiser bike excursions around Lake Bemidji to raise money for LCM and to bring folks together for a cycling good time.

One of the incredible events he helped to create was a commemoration the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Of that night he wrote: “[It was] an incredible evening! Probably the single most moving event we've ever done here in my 11 years. Add the perfect weather, no wind, a full moon and the perfectly still lake and it was pretty clear God was involved in the event.”

lake bemidji
Sept. 11, 2011, at Lake Bemidji.

The other reason I was thinking about PJ and all the other campus pastors as they wind down their semesters, is that on May 5 our colleague Clint Schnekloth posted a link to his latest blog post titled "Nine ways to not lose your graduating seniors" on his blog Lutheran Confessions.

Among the many excellent suggestions that he offered, this one caught my eye and my heart, "Start a campus ministry at the university or college closest to you." At least in our denomination, funding for campus ministry has been greatly reduced in recent years. If there is going to be an ELCA presence on a campus, it needs to be supported and staffed by a church of our denomination near the school. When I learn that my graduating seniors are headed to the University of Central Arkansas, or Arkansas State University, or other places away from here, my first thought is: Who do I know there that leads an ELCA church or campus ministry? How can I get them connected to people there?”

pastor pj
PJ in his office.

Clint is right. If we hope to have the caliber of excellent campus pastors like PJ and all the other gifted pastors and lay ministers who walk with our beloved young adults, we need to support them! Please, connect your graduating seniors to the campus ministry at their college or university. 

So, this is a big shout out to all those who have ever been campus ministers and pastors, to all who have loved hanging out with college students and loved telling them about the love of God in Jesus. This is for my friend, Jim, who is gifted beyond all measure and is really all-campus-pastor-all-the-time. Well done, dear ones, well done! Rest up for the summer and return refreshed to engage those brilliant, zany, dazzling college students in the fall.

pj and cats
pjs cats
PJ, his cats, his laptop and his recliner—so typical

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

April 18, 2014

Holy days

The David Johnson Memorial Chapel is so quiet, so very still.

After the Thiel College Choir and Handbell concert on April 15, we stripped the altar and tucked all the purple fabric into the drawers of the sacristy. We removed our very long banners that hang majestically on either side of the large cross. We did all of this because Thiel College is on Easter break from Maundy Thursday through Easter Monday. They are off to share these holy days with family and friends. 

This is the first time in over 20 years that I haven't shared Holy Week and the Holy Three Days with students. It's an odd experience. Not a bad one, just odd. Talking to Lee Penvose, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Greenville, Pa., I said, "I always told my students who worked with me that if they yoked themselves to the discipline of creating all of these powerful worship experiences for others, they would be changed."

My dear friend and former student, Ryan Birkman, had this experience with me in 2010 while serving as the student outreach coordinator. As a result of that holy time, he discerned his call to ordained ministry. Now Ryan is in Germany. Having completed his master of divinity degree from Luther Seminary, he's nearly completed his master of theology too. I'm always amazed at the brilliance of my students.

So I'm thinking about and praying for all those who are creating powerful worship services for their flocks and for all the people of God who yoke themselves to these holy days. But I'm especially thinking about all the campus pastors who are journeying through these holy days with their students. I know for certain that they will be changed forever by the power of God's love in Jesus. 

Good Friday always gives me pause. The strains of "What wondrous Love is this, O my soul, O my soul," drift through my being. And then, at some time during the day, whether in a worship service or by myself, I always sing, "Were You There." I never liked the designation for "Good" Friday. I asked my mom why and she gave me the best explanation. Still, I'd rather think on this day as Holy Friday. That leaves it to the profound mystery of the death of Jesus on the gruesome cross of crucifixion.

I'd rather pause in humble adoration and consider the unfathomable power of God's love that can raise the dead and breathe new life into stone cold tombs of death and despair. Because truthfully, that Friday was a very bad day filled with terror, heartbreak, weeping, wailing, pain, suffering, torture, agony, grave uncertainty and death. It remained a very bad day through Saturday and unto the wee hours of the dawn of the first Easter morning when the women went to the tomb with their spices. Sometimes we need to sit with those who live in this horrid Friday place every day of their lives. Sometimes we need to sit there and wait and pray. 

So I'll wait. I'll pray and sit in the empty, silent chapel as I did last night after Maundy Thursday worship. Sometime today I'll sing, Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble ... were you there when they crucified my Lord? Then, I'll wait for that Easter news to gladden my heart again and I'll wait for my students to return, changed by the very good news that Jesus is alive, raised from the dead to lead us into new life again.

Blessed be your holy days. 

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

February 24, 2014


Ashtabula bridge
The drawbridge in Ashtabula, Ohio.

For the first time in my life, I traveled over a drawbridge in Ashtabula, Ohio! I had journeyed over many drawbridges when I lived in balmy, warm Florida (yes, I do miss the weather and the coastal beauty of that place). I had never been to Ashtabula.

On Sunday, Feb. 23, I traveled to Messiah Lutheran Church in Ashtabula. This is the parish that ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton’s she served before she was elected a synodical bishop. Their new pastor, Michael Meranda, invited me to lead their adult forum about Thiel College campus ministry. Fortunately, three amazingly gifted students wanted to accompany me. They wanted to get up at 6-something in the morning to get in the car and drive an hour away to help lead the conversation! Did I say, “Amazing?” Why, yes I did and yes, they are.

amanda, Audra and Zohaib from Thiel
Audra, Zohaib and Amanda

Amanda from Baltimore is a first-year student. A gifted flautist, she traveled to Chicago for Eaton’s installation and serves on our chapel staff. Audra from Jefferson, Ohio (we were in her neighborhood), is also a first-year student and one of our Chicago travelers. She sings beautifully in the Thiel College Choir. Zohaib is one of our two international students this semester from Pakistan. You may recall that our first international student from Pakistan and a Chicago traveler, Saba Pervaiz, shared her story in this blog. Zohaib is a talented musician who is renowned in Pakistan. While in Pakistan, Zohaib is a student at the University of Gujrat and while he's in the United States, we're blessed by his presence at Thiel College. 

Zohaib from Thiel
Zohaib in front of Messiah Lutheran Church in Ashtabula.

When campus pastors travel with students, it isn’t “just for fun,” though it is super fun to do this. It’s not just a “campus-pastor-and-student-show,” though we do usually rock when we visit congregations. There is something primordial and deep that is transpiring. I hope I’m not overstating this, though I think my colleagues would agree. When Amanda, Audra, Zohaib and I entered Messiah, we were met by the gracious pastor and others along the way. There were wide, happy smiles all around. Something happens when faithful, longtime congregation members meet up with brilliant, compassionate young adults. There is a mysterious and beautiful chemistry. Sunday was no different.

I sensed that my students were feeling a bit awkward. But I knew it would soon pass as they told their stories, made friends and assisted in worship. This is one of the things that comes from decades of bringing students to new places of worship, and this time was no exception. The members shared their names and told us how long they had been connected to Messiah. Since birth (81 years), since marriage (65 years); since moving to town (15 years), since becoming the pastor (six years). I was fairly certain that I was among the youngest “older adults.” As I listened, I had this sense that I was in the presence of greatness and holy fortitude as the elder members told us about their love for their pastor(s) and the congregation. We were mesmerized and inspired.

I had this feeling that I was a bridge — a bridge between generations and between the church that was and the church that is to be. By this I’m not saying that either generation or group is not the church of now. They both are. But it was obvious to the students as we reflected on our marvelous visit that there were no young adults in worship. 

Recently, I read a profound guest blog post by John C. Dorhauer, the conference minister for the Southwest Conference of The United Church of Christ. He’s completing a book about what he characterizes as the Church 3.0. He ponders the differences between what we might think of as Church 2.0 (the church of the 50s, 60s and 70s) and the emerging church: Church 3.0.

He wrote: "I am a bureaucrat. I am a bureaucrat in a model of church fully invested in and supported by institutional loyalty, authorization, and oversight. My model of the church, however, is dying. That may or may not be hyperbole — time will tell. It is, however, the overwhelming experience and lament of many within the institution. Those outside the institution respond to the threat of the church’s diminished capacity with what ranges from collective indifference because of the perceived irrelevance of the church, to an active pursuit of its demise because of its abuse of authority."

He was concerned about this for a while. But he traveled around the country for a summer and met the Church 3.0 and now he’s not so worried after all: "Church 3.0 — the emergence of an entirely new way of being church in a postmodern world. It was a discovery that not only lowered my anxiety about the need to preserve Church 2.0 at all costs, it helped me to understand that version 2.0 will only continue to appeal to people the way that 8 tracks and VHS recorders still appeal to people long after better technologies emerges on the market … the need for Church 2.0 as a model is going to decrease dramatically, and those who invest in the infrastructure that supports it are going to close a lot of their franchises — i.e., churches."

I’ve been observing this trend for decades. But this past weekend was hopeful and holy. Amanda played her flute, Audra sang with grace, and Zohaib played his guitar and sang a beautiful Pakistani song in Urdu. They all assisted me with the children’s time with my puppets and a funny camp-song. There was crazy singing, laughter and joy in the sanctuary! We sang about the love of Jesus and love of our enemies. Love, love, love!

Zohaib in front of the frozen Lake Erie inlet
Zohaib in front of the frozen Lake Erie inlet.

I cherish being that kind of human bridge, the kind of bridge that connects people who might not otherwise have a chance to meet. When I saw the hope in the eyes of Ruth, the eldest of the group, who was inspired to learn about the students’ commitment to their faith and to interfaith conversations, my heart was warmed. When person after person stopped to thank them and to ask Zohaib about his life and ministry in Pakistan, I was grateful beyond measure for sharing in this sacred moment of grace.

I don’t know what the future holds for the congregation, for me or for my dear students, but I feel confident that God holds all of us in a wide embrace of love, compassion and care. It was a time of elegant, paradoxical beauty. Amid all that is changing, dying and emerging around us in the church, the center holds. The center is Jesus, who gathers us all and who leads us into ventures of which we cannot see the ending. This post is dedicated to the saints of Messiah; their brave, faithful pastor; and all who call forth young adults into their midst to share stories of faith and life. Thanks be to God!

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

January 19, 2014

Let my people go!

"Let my people go!"

The Chapel at Thiel College resounded with this refrain on what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.'s 85th birthday, Jan. 15, 2014, had he not been assassinated in 1968. Astoundingly brilliant students led the interfaith worship service, and it was so moving! The student readers concluded the litany in remembrance for Dr. King with these words:

liturgists at thiel mlk day service
Liturgists for the Martin Luther King Jr. service at Thiel.

We pledge, on this day, to continue this work, building a world full of justice and equality for all people. Thank you, God, for this one who now causes us to say in the name of Martin Luther King Jr.: Let my people go!

We gathered to remember the witness of King and President Nelson “Madiba” Mandela, who died Dec. 5, 2013. Faculty and staff members who’ve been at Thiel for decades said this was the first interfaith service for King and Mandela they’ve attended at the college. Professor David Miller, 52 years at Thiel, and his wife, Ruth, were so enthused they made it a point to thank all those who participated.

thiel college dancers
Students dance to "I Won't Go Back."

There were those who brought greetings of peace: an American Buddhist; Hindu in Hindi; a Christian greeting in Korean; and our friend, Saba, Skyped in from Pakistan to bring an Islamic blessing in Arabic. A dance and mime troupe of seven African-American students ministered to the song "I Won’t Go Back" by William McDowell. Their long black skirts swirled dramatically as they bowed and twirled, lifting up their arms in praise. Our new director of diversity and multicultural affairs, Mark Weir, prayed us into our gathering with mighty and holy words!

zohaib on guitar
Zohaib on guitar.

Dr. Michael Bray, along with other talented musicians, led us in South African freedom songs, "Siyahamba" and "Freedom is Coming." Our new international students from Pakistan, Raj and Zohaib, jumped right into the craziness of our planning, having just arrived on campus on Jan. 6! Raj, a Hindu, brought greetings and joined in the litanies. Zohaib, a Christian and an accomplished musician, sang a song of peace. We prayed, sang, drummed, clapped and listened the bold message of our student-preacher Ronnell. He rocked the chapel and brought the good news from Luke’s good Samaritan parable to life!

All the while, my stalwart chapel staff quietly readied the sanctuary, set up for everyone, welcomed guests, helped and were so hospitable as well as awesome as readers — it truly was a blessing, a gift, a holy experience beyond description. We wrapped it all together by singing "We Shall Overcome," linking elbows and harmonies as those beloved strains rose to the rafters. 

ray prays at Thiel MLK service
Raj prays during the service.

I know it’s not quite the same as being there, but if you’re yearning on this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to go to worship and see fantastic young adults at work, loving God, serving their neighbors and loving one another, take a peek at our Thiel College Interfaith Chapel Service on YouTube. If you want to see us behind the scenes preparing for worship, check out our out-takes too (on YouTube or Vimeo)! Or visit any college or univeristy today or this evening as many of them will be gathering for services much like ours. 

As we remember the life, ministry and legacy of King (and Mandela) today, may we never forget that until all are free, none of us is completely free and that the refrain must continue to resound from mountains to the valleys, from cities and farms, from alleys to freeways: Let my people go!

Our work is not done, but our resolve is great: we will continue to siyahamba (march in the light of God) for the sake of freedom and justice for all!

Comments (0)  |  Permalink

> archives

text size:

this page: email | print

February issue


Embracing diversity