Monday, August 27, 2012

God is Our Only Refuge! * ELCA Mission Interpreter Event * August 24, 2012

“Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:7-8).

Jeremiah—now there’s a mission interpreter for you. “Jewish Jeremiah of Josiah's Jerusalem; Reluctant, persecuted, preaching prophet of doom, called from the womb, who longed for the tomb (20:14). Speaker of words of fire, clay in the Potter's hands, Jeremiah was a bold Baal and Babylon-busting broker of rebuilding and restoration. He was a proclaimer of a future with hope, a new heart, an everlasting covenant, all on account of a God who remembers our sin no more” (My editing of words by Michael Rinehart, 22 August 2012). Declaratively and decisively, Jeremiah proclaimed, "Thus sayeth the Lord!" He didn’t mince words or massage his message. Fans would say Jeremiah was passionate; detractors would call him intense, even negative.

But most people simply called Jeremiah crazy. After all, ff you want to preach like Jeremiah, be ready to get naked before the people. Yes, most people called Jeremiah crazy. And perhaps we would, too. Hear again Jeremiah’s words: “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit” (17:7-8).

Jeremiah interpreted God’s mission to people who felt threatened by their enemies, who experienced economic hard times, whose way of life was threatened, and who therefore felt vulnerable. Politically, things were unstable and volatile. Sound at all familiar? Add to all this that we live in a year with too little rain and too much violence, when economists pull out statistics to show that the middle class is shrinking and Diana Butler Bass draws on data to demonstrate that, across the breadth of Christian denominations, religious affiliation is plummeting. And Jeremiah’s pretty words about being a tree planted by a river sound wistful, naive, crazy.  After all, beautifully wrapped in lyric and image, Jeremiah serves up the pill we find hardest to swallow:  God is our only refuge.  God is our only refuge.

Now I could recite a litany of all the places people want to and try to take refuge. But let’s cut to the chase. Let’s bring it uncomfortably too close to home. Our refuge is not to be found in our hands doing God’s work. Our refuge is not to be found in our hands doing God’s work. For our hands grow weak, and our hands tremble. Our hands get full and our hands falter. Our hands fold. Our hands get angry. Our hands push away. No, our refuge is not to be found in our hands, or in anything we do with our hands, even when we use our hands to do God’s work. Jeremiah is right. God is our only refuge.

You see, as much as I like Jeremiah’s image of those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD, being like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream—God’s Trunk, Our Branches—Jesus has a tree image that I like even better. Jesus said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Luke 13:18, 19). Before we are the tree, or even the branches, we are the birds making nests in the tree’s branches.

I am struck by the fact that, three times in the book of Acts, the apostles refer to the cross as a tree. Peter preached, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree (5:30).  They put him to death by hanging him on a tree (10:39).” And John adds, “When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead” (13:29-30).  Before we become a tree, Jesus gives us refuge under the tree of his cross.

And from our refuge beneath the tree of the cross, where, like birds, we have made our nests, Christ frees us to worship God without fear.  Christ empowers us to participate in God’s mission of reconciling the world to God’s Own Self. Christ strengthens us to resist the powers at work in the world that are opposed to God. Christ emboldens us to bear witness that God is our only refuge. And Christ nurtures us to grow in grace. 

And so, even—or especially—when we feel threatened, when we experience economic hard times, when our way of life is threatened, and we feel vulnerable. When everything is unstable and volatile, when there is too little rain and too much violence, when the middle class is shrinking and religious affiliation is plummeting, when we have sinned and when we must die, from our refuge beneath Christ’s cross we are free, even bold, to pray—using words from one of the Eucharistic prayers in Evangelical Lutheran Worship: “Nurture in us the fruits of your Spirit, that we may be a living tree, sharing your bounty with all the world.”

You see, when Jeremiah declared, “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD,” Jeremiah had more in mind than beautiful words. Jeremiah had more in mind than an attitude or a disposition or a theological construct. Jeremiah had in mind trust that leads to action, a certainty or security about Christ being our refuge that shapes the way we live:  “They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit”

We can name so many things that challenge us to place our trust in some refuge other than God:  injustice, inequality, discrimination, addiction, violence, poverty. The list goes on. And behind them all lurks the biggest challenge of all. The Bible calls this challenge mammon. We know it simply as money. Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, this snake deceives us, saying, “If you have enough money, you can be like God.” You won’t need God. You can determine right and wrong, good and evil.

And if we don’t have enough money—And who does?—mammon replaces our trust in God with impatience and ingratitude. Mammon tempts us with all that we want and need to be safe, and happy and whole. Even worse, mammon scares us with what will happen when we don’t have the money we need. And despite all the ways God has provided for us, all the ways God has protected us, all the ways God has blessed us, we find ourselves seeking refuge somewhere else.

And God lifts Jesus up on the tree to counter money’s poisonous venom with the healing, life-giving salve of God’s grace. When money says, “You will be like God,” Christ proclaims, “No, you are God’s cherished, beloved children.” A woman once told me about lifting the silver communion chalice to drink and seeing her image reflected in the bottom.  “The blood of Christ shed for you.”  If you want to see what you are worth to God, look at the cross. See beyond the images and inscriptions that money places upon us.  See beyond the ways that money defines us—we are what we have; we are what we wear; we are what we do.  See yourself instead as God sees you—created in God’s image, joined to Christ’s cross and resurrection, forgiven for Christ’s sake, free to live as an image of Christ and not a servant of money. 

Yes, I know. You have bills to pay. So do I. So mammon will still tempt us to claim it as our refuge. But in Christ we can resist.  In Christ we can resist. Not only can we look to the cross, not only can we take refuge under the tree, we can bring some of our money and leave it there, as a way of saying that we give God our love. We give God our trust. We give God our heart. We claim God alone as our refuge. And today, that’s what I am asking you to do—to give some money away for God’s own mission as a way of claiming God as your only refuge.

Giving away money to do God’s work is a way that we trust and proclaim that we take refuge in God and not in our money. Giving away money is a faith practice by which we Christians publicly declare our loyalty to the living God, rather than buying and selling or dollars and cents. Giving money away is a concrete means of living into the new life accomplished in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection by participating in God’s work of freeing, reconciling, and recreating. Giving away money is a way we render money a little less powerful by freeing ourselves—and all people—from its control, because giving money away transforms money into a sign of God’s grace.

So how much money can you give away for God’s work as a sign that God is your only refuge?  Take the money you must have off the table—things like taxes, mortgage, rent, groceries, medical bills, and providing for your kids. The question remains: What will you do with the rest? Can you give some—can you give a little more—away for the work of God’s kingdom as an indication, a proclamation, and a celebration that God is your only refuge?  Could you give a little more money to your church?  I hope you can. I think you should.  But, as you do, ask your church what I am asking you: Can we give a bit of our money away, for the work of God’s kingdom, so that our neighbors and the world know that God is our only refuge?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Counting Blessings

As I sit up, unable to sleep and weary of work, I find myself counting blessing as one, I suppose, counts sleep. It is tempting--and I too-frequently yield to the tempation--to count losses, regrets, sins, mistakes, and second guesses. I find it amazing that, at least for me, the blessings fly, forgotten as a dream, while losses, regreets, sins, mistakes, and second guesses have the biodegradable life span of styrofoam. So there's wisdom in righting blessings down. And now that I figured out how to edit a post, I can add to the list. There's no ego here, really.

  • My family is heading home tomorrow!
  • I am loving listening to all three of my clocks tick and chime--something I won't be able to do when my family gets home tomorrow.
  • Today I received a message from a former student telling me that my virtual logjams make a difference to her. 
  • Today I received a message from a pastor saying that I inspired her preaching. 
  • A bunch of nutty pastors are excited about a continuing education event I am leading--on a Carnival Cruise.
  • I am losing weight and gonna stick with it, and I am saying this out loud!
Can I post five (or six) blessings once a week? Now here is a spiritual discipline!

Should NOT have started this, 'cause now there are more to name:
  • An unexpected message from a former student remembering the 25th anniversary of my ordination, and an even more unexpected reception celebrating the occasion, given by my current M.Div. students.  
  • Emails of support from members of NAAL, particularly Gennifer Brooks, Scott Haldeman, Walter Ray, Troy Messenger, Jen Lord, Melinda Quivik, Ed Foley, Don Sailers, Bob Taft, James Olsen, ... Wow!
  • Cathy Hilkert, Mike Connors, Notre Dame
  • Mike Shelly and Jim Nieman
  • Marcy Miller, Tim Olson, Melinda Wagner, Ann Hoch, Dow & Charlie, John & Clare  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Coming in Currents: Preaching and Prayer

This essay is exerted from Craig A. Satterlee, Fulfilled in Your Hearing as an Ecumenical Contribution and Opportunity,” We Preach Christ Crucified: A Conference on Catholic Preaching, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN, June 25-27, 2012. (

            Somehow, Advent seems an appropriate time to reflect on preaching and prayer. “How does prayer factor into sermon preparation?” I am never certain how to answer that question, and so I am constantly on the lookout for help. In June, I presented a paper at a conference on Catholic Preaching at The University of Notre Dame marking the fortieth anniversary of Fulfilled in Your Hearing, a reflection on the meaning of the homily in the Sunday Mass published by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. I have been reading this helpful document for seventeen years if only because of the way it reminds me that prayer is essential to sermon preparation (Fulfilled in Your Hearing, p. 11).
            In terms of homiletic method, Fulfilled in Your Hearing declares that preachers are, above all else, to be prayerful. We are not talking about prayer alongside preparation for preaching, or prayer over and above preparation. Rather, prayer is the very heart and center of preparation, with the goal that the word of God in the Scriptures is “interiorized” (Fulfilled in Your Hearing, p. 11). Preachers pray over the readings seeking the fire of the Holy Spirit to kindle “the now meaning” (Fulfilled in Your Hearing, p. 10) in our hearts. This takes us beyond exegesis, as well as our own agendas and impressions, to doggedly question, even implore, God about what word God is speaking to this assembly on this occasion.
            This kind of prayer changes the preacher.  FIYH reminds preachers that proclaiming Christ crucified in a particular Christian assembly requires that preachers be listeners before they are speakers, remaining open to the Lord’s voice not only in the Scriptures but in the events of our daily lives and the experience of our brothers and sisters (Fulfilled in Your Hearing, p. 10). Claiming the role of listener is where Fulfilled in Your Hearing and Roman Catholic preaching have most impacted me personally as I have embraced preaching as my primary spiritual discipline and sermon preparation as prayer. I am not alone. Michael Pasquarello, Granger E. and Anna A. Fisher Professor of Preaching at Asbury Theological Seminary, increasingly emphasizes in his classes that the primary responsibility of the preacher is to be a listener rather than the culturally accommodated role of "communicator."  In an email exchange, Dr. Pasquarello observes,

The primary communicator to, in, and through the Christian community is the living God through the presence of the risen Christ and by the power of the Spirit.  Prayer is attentiveness and receptivity in the presence of God. The current faddish turn to "topical" preaching does not preach by means of Scripture, but rather skims a "relevant" topic from the surface in order to serve a predetermined agenda, program, or goal.  Evangelicals and Mainliners both like this approach. But this leaves no space within the worship of God for the fulfillment of the Word in its speaking and hearing.  Luke 4, the inaugural sermon of Jesus, shows just how resistant we are to this kind of vulnerable listening? (Michael Pasquarello, "Re: Fulfilled in Your Hearing," Message to the author, 6 June 2012, Email).

            Attentively listening to the Scripture and the people, FIYH asserts, is perhaps the form of prayer most appropriate to the spirituality of the preacher (Fulfilled in Your Hearing, p. 10). We pray that God will open the heart of the assembly, so that God’s Word falls on receptive ears. We pray for ourselves, that God will guide our preparation, help us maintain our role as what one homiletician has called a kind of “interloper” in the assembly, and grant us grace to differentiate our words from God’s, so that we do not preach ”what might be expedient, popular, burning in the preacher’s heart, the correct answer, or best course of action, but not necessarily a word from God” (Craig A. Satterlee, When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transition (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2005), p. 51), 
Preachers pray, asking and expecting the real movement of the Holy Spirit in themselves and in the assembly.
            If you want to know what I hear as I pray over the weekly lectionary readings, the events of our daily lives, and the experience of our brothers and sisters, visit my “virtual logjams” at
            I pray for you and Advent that exceeds your expectations and a Christmas that fills you to overflowing with joy.
Craig A. Satterlee

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Is God Handicapped?

A confirmation kid stumped her pastor. She asked, if we're all created in the image of God, and if handicapped people are also created in the image of God, is God handicapped?

My response:

I am legally blind. I am created in God's image in some ways, and in others definitely not. The condition of my eyes fits both. I do not see people as you do, so I am not bound by your visual prejudices (imago Dei). I do not see people as you do, so can miss hurt or pain on people's faces and unwittingly compound that hurt by my missed cue (not imago Dei). For me, the Reign of God is not my getting 20/20 vision; it's living in a church and world where not seeing doesn't matter. I suspect that, if God, in Christ, is not handicapped, God in Christ would become so if that's what it takes to love someone who is handicapped.

An aside:

I preached at and attended DAYLE in OLA last week. The message Definitely Abled Youth needed to hear is that they are not an accident or a mistake, their disability is not their fault or God's punishment, and that God intends more for them than enduring this life, dying, and going to heaven where they will be "normal" or "whole." And these are ELCA young people. I am still haunted by what they have internalized in church.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Mr. Nick

Mr. Nick shows me how to teach Preaching.
“Our dear friend and colleague, Nick Spehar, died July 7, of an apparent heart attack. Nick worked as custodian, groundskeeper and maintenance person at LSTC since November 1967. Nick ministered to students and co-workers with his sense of humor and hospitality. As we learn funeral arrangements we will share them here and on LSTC's web site. Thanks be to God for the life of Nick Spehar and the love that he shared with all of us at LSTC for nearly 45 years.” Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

I called him, “Mr. Nick.” Nick called me, “Preacher,” except when he wanted me to know something important, like how essential he thought I was to the seminary or how impressed he was with my daughter, and then it was “Craig.” We teased each other a lot. Nick accused me of causing trouble, not doing much (or even showing up for) work, and wearing overly expensive clothes. I teased Nick about being a secret millionaire who became rich playing pool competitively, never wanting to listen to me preach, and looking rather than being busy. We had a great time awhile back when I spent a few weeks introducing Nick to people as our “interim president.” Nick made me laugh. I will miss him.

Since I read the news of Nick’ s death last evening, one verse runs though my head: "So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart" (Psalm 90:12). In the end, life is short and uncertain. People we cherish are gone before we know it, perhaps before we are ready. A wise heart remembers this and lives accordingly--or at least tries to as best it can.

God, grant me such a wise heart as I count my days, and bless and keep Mr. Nick.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

Great Preachers

I have been haunted of late by something I said some years ago:

It hit me as I was overseeing the annual James Kenneth Echols preaching competition at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, again as I wrote letters of recommendation for students applying for The David H.C. Read Preacher/Scholar Award competition, and last week and this week as I write for Good Preacher, the lectionary commentary of The Festival of Homiletics. I have my face buried in exegesis while the “great preachers”—and the list is really great—are gathered in Atlanta. I did the same thing last year, and agreed to write again, just because I feared my negative reaction was “sour grapes” over not being regarded as a “great preacher” by the Festival of Homiletics, and taking ribbing for it.  

It’s not sour grapes. My wife, who watches as I write and write and write and finally asks why I am doing this, reminded me of that. The friend who emailed the link to this You Tube video and invited me to take heed of my own words also reminded me. And taking a look at my own teaching of preaching, both in Master of Divinity Programs at LSTC and Notre Dame, and the ACTS Doctor of Ministry in Preaching Program, also reminded me. Bottom Line:   “I don’t teach or approach preaching as a competitive sport!”  We collaborate in class, workshop among peers, logjam in my office and at An asset of the ACTS Preaching Program is that it’s not competitive—though every so often, a student or two try to make it that way.

I am, frankly, confounded as I try to find objective criteria with which to determine who wins LSTC’s preaching competition or what makes a preacher “great.” A graduating senior recently told me he was glad to hear that our preaching competition was not my idea, and that I do my best to downplay its competitive aspect by declaring the real winner to be the listeners and the congregations the competitors will one day serve. Nevertheless, LSTC’s preaching competition will continue, and I am responsible for it. If students undertake the $20,000 Read Preaching/Scholar Award, I will write them letters of recommendation. But I will step away from writing for the Festival of Homiletics. I know the editor of “Preaching Helps” in Currents in Theology and Mission, and suspect he’d let me write.

Somewhere in her chapter “Preaching” in The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor debunks best and worst sermons. Every semester, I read those passages to my students before they preach their first sermons in class. For me, today, what makes Barbara Brown Taylor “great” is her insight.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

God Is In Control, Fourteen Years, and A Pentecost Reflection Just for Me

I tell my students that, in preaching, they should not lead people into the woods if they don’t know the way out. With that sage directive in mind, I want to make clear that the following is not a sermon.

I hesitated just a few minutes too long before changing channels after watching “Meet the Press,” and so heard from Pastor Joel Osteen that God is in control of my life, intricately in control of my life, to the smallest, most minute detail. I know I should have heard Pastor Osteen out, but I opted instead to turn off the television, go online, and watch the season finale of “Grey’s Anatomy.” The doctors were in a plane crash, and one of the main characters, caught under the aircraft, dies in the first twenty minutes of the episode, with her star-crossed lover begging her to hang on, because they were “meant to be” and supposed to marry and have kids. And she was supposed to become a great surgeon. Now I know that this is “just television” and “not real life.” So I guess I should not have heard myself saying, “Sorry, not God’s plan,” and wondering what would possess a God who is intricately in control of our lives, to the smallest, most minute detail, to allow and even plan for the life of a budding surgeon to be snuffed out in a plane crash. I shouldn’t have wondered such things. But I did.

It’s the season of seminary graduations, first calls, and ordination announcements that read, “By the grace of God, name is called to be pastor of name Church.” When things work out, we are bold to proclaim that the Holy Spirit works in, with and under the candidacy, assignment, and call processes, matching just the right pastor with just the right congregation. It’s also the season of weddings, where, explicitly or implicitly, we declare that God brought these two people together to share lifelong faithfulness. “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:6). What a wonderful thought! God, who controls the minutest details of our lives, selects our pastor (or our congregation) and even our spouse.

Then the plane crashes. In this season of first calls and ordination announcements, I spend more time with bright, articulate, faithful, committed pastors-to-be, who find themselves waiting for the Holy Spirit to make a “match” as their rent goes up, student loans kick in, and health insurance runs out. What about those who didn’t get the call? What was God’s plan for them in the process? I also hear from former students, for whom the Holy Spirit’s “match” a few years ago is turning out to be a mess. Was that God’s plan?

As for weddings, pastors tell me they find weddings difficult, in part, because they go in knowing one in two marriage fails. Faith-full people whose marriages have ended genuinely wonder how they could have so misinterpreted the Spirit’s will and, worse, fear that, since they blew it with the person God intended for them, God’s plan is now for them to end up unhappy and alone.

Someone will rightly point out—and someone did point this out to me twenty-six years ago, as I waited for my first call—that in the grand scheme of things, a single seminarian not getting a call or a given marriage not working out is small potatoes compared to poverty, hunger, disease, war, violence, global warming… We can talk about sin, free will, and human resistance. But that undermines the notion that God is intricately in control of the minute details of our lives. Or we are saying that God’s plan for some people is disappointment, betrayal, suffering, and anguish. Why would God who controls everything have such a plan for these people—to test them, perhaps, or, to humble them?

I have never asked why I was born legally blind in terms of its meaning and purpose. There’s no satisfactory answer. I accept neither punishment for sin nor inspiration for others. Sometimes, things just happen. My eyes formed the way they formed. This means that, if God was in control, God chose not to exercise control. Or, my preference, God doesn’t control every detail of our lives. Some things don’t happen—or not happen—for a divine reason or a purpose, including seminarians getting or not getting calls, and this person marrying or not marrying that person. Sometimes, planes crash. Sometimes, things just happen. As someone recently said to me, “Sometimes, things simply fall the way they do.”

I think of some minor biblical characters, including the generations of Israelites who spent their lives in slavery in Egypt or wandering in the wilderness and dying before they ever reached the Promised Land. Was that God’s plan for their lives?  Does God have a plan for stars but not for extras? Then what happens when I thought I was a star and find out I’m not a star or that my stardom has passed, and now I’m only an extra?  Watching the American Master’s piece on Johnny Carson, and reading about him, the trick seems to be knowing when to leave the stage.

Jesus certainly had a plan for Saint Paul. According to Acts, our ascended Lord spoke of Paul to Ananias, saying, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15).  Sounds to me like a plan. And in the subsequent verses, Acts makes it sound like Jesus’ plan: in just 19 verses, Paul was healed and baptized, immediately proclaims Jesus in the synagogue, confounds the religious authorities to the point that they plot to kill him, makes a daring escape from Damascus, arrives in Jerusalem, Barnabas testifies on Paul’s behalf, Paul overcomes the apostles’ apprehension by speaking boldly in the name of the Lord, and is sent off to Tarsus by the apostles. In Galatians, Paul remembers things differently (1:17ff).  According to Paul, three years elapsed between his conversion and arrival in Jerusalem, and fourteen more years passed before Barnabas testified to the apostles on Paul’s behalf.

I admire the online exegetes who work so hard to reconcile these accounts. Even more, I admire the countless faithful Christians convinced, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  Acts and Galatians indicate to me that, often, God’s purpose in our lives is something others see rather something we figure out for ourselves, and they only see it in retrospect. And it may be a matter of them seeing what they are looking for.

So Paul waited fourteen years for Barnabas to testify on his behalf and the church to accept him. In seminary, we would get frustrated when we asked something and Walter Bouman would answer, “That’s the wrong question?” As usual, Bouman was right. In some seasons, the question is not, “What is God’s plan or purpose?” Some things are simply contrary to God’s plan and beyond God’s control. The question then becomes what to do with the fourteen years. And, more than a question, perhaps it’s a prayer for which there are many faithful answers.