Letting Go

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Corinthians 5:19; NRSV)

The Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church is the Indiana-Kentucky Synod’s global companion in Indonesia. Four of us from this mission territory visited the church and our companion district, Sumatera Timur, in early December. While there I learned that in some HKBP families New Year’s traditions are more important than Christmas, part because they focus on forgiveness. When I asked her about this, HKBP Deaconess Lamria Sinaga said this is true for her family and graciously described for me what her family does to ring in the New Year:

My family gathers together at midnight. We have short worship that includes singing, Bible readings, and an offering. The offering goes to the church to thank God who delivers us again to a new year and a new day. After the worship, my father asks us to share honestly our experiences of the old year and our hopes for the New Year. We begin with the youngest and move toward the oldest in the family. We sometimes cry, because our sharing is about how we have hurt each other by what we’ve said and done in the past year. We ask forgiveness of one another and offer forgiveness to each other. After we have finished sharing our confession and our forgiveness, the oldest in my family offers prayer. Then we share hugs and handshakes and eat together. After a while we go to my grandfather’s house and do the same thing, usually finishing early in the morning. My father says that a heart full of being forgiven and forgiving others will bring us through the new year full of joy and happiness and makes it possible, even when we find trouble and difficulty in the future, to encourage one another.

Creating a list of New Year’s resolutions intended to improve our lives is good. Popping corks and exchanging kisses to welcome the New Year is fun. Standing on the threshold between the past and the future and honestly confessing how we have hurt each other and seeking and offering forgiveness is essential. It’s the ring on which the keys to God’s kingdom hang.
After all, how can we move forward into newness when we are still bound to the hurts, sins, and brokenness of the past? How can we walk into to God’s future together when festering resentments and aching hearts keep us apart?
The primary words for “forgiveness” and “forgive” in New Testament Greek are forms of áphesis and aphíēmi [e.g. Matt 6:14-15; 18:35]. The common root of these words means to let go, to free or be set free. To forgive and be forgiven, then, is to set others free, to be set free ourselves. God does the forgiving, of course. In forgiving and being forgiven we experience the freeing, life-giving power of that gracious gift in our lives. In the act of forgiveness we become means of God’s grace for others and we ourselves are set free to welcome the new future that God offers.

So, let’s ink those lists of resolutions and pop the corks at the appointed time. But what do you say we also use the early days of 2014 to follow – as individuals and families and as congregations – the example of our sisters and brothers of the HKBP? Can we trust God’s grace and be honest with ourselves and with one another about the ways we are still in bondage to the sins, resentments, and hurts of the past and offer to one another the freedom of forgiveness, today and throughout this emerging New Year?

How Silently the Gift is Given

The sky was clear, crisp and studded with stars as I walked across the campus of St. Olaf College toward my dormitory. It was early December in Minnesota, back in the day when winter was really winter and a walk across campus after midnight could be sheer agony. Breath clung as hoar frost on my free range 1970s collegiate beard. I was sure the water in my eyes was turning to ice.

Something else hovered in the air with the cold. This was the weekend of the annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival. I had worked the late shift in my work-study position as night security supervisor for the student union. I had spent hours on my feet making sure everything was okay for the Norwegian food buffet, pointing alums and visitors toward the beloved concert, helping folks find restrooms and coatracks and wandering family members, making my way each hour through the bustling hoards of excited folk to make sure the right doors were open and the others ones closed. Finally, well after midnight, after the last of the yuletide revelers had left, I made my final rounds, turned off the lights, locked up the big, now silent building, and made my way across the wind-swept campus toward bed.

I caught myself humming “Beautiful Savior” as I walked. Although I had not been at the concert that weekend, I knew this hymn had been sung by candlelight as the closing piece, as it had since, well, since forever. My shivering body begged me to hurry through the cold toward the top berth of our triple-bunked dorm room. My spirit implored me to slow down, look around, and take in the luminous winter world crafted by the beautiful Savior of whom I sang like an echo of the concert ended hours ago.

Neither of my roommates was in our room when I arrived. The glimmering lights of our little desk-borne Christmas tree drew me in. I sat at my desk, thawing hands nestled in my coat pockets, basking in the graceful light shining softly in the dark room.

In the shadows under the tree I noticed a small wrapped package bearing my name. It had not been there when I left earlier in the day. I picked it up and noticed an electrical cord running from it like a long, slithery tail to the wall outlet. What gadget did my roomies give me for Christmas? I tore off the paper to discover that it was…my alarm clock, the one that roused me from sleep every day. They wrapped my alarm clock?!

Now I saw another wrapped gift pulling low a branch of the tree by a duct-taped hook. Round and heavy…unhooked and unwrapped it was a prized baseball from my high school career. Then, on my pillow a long, thin, carefully wrapped pretzel stick from the big plastic jar of them I brought and shared from home.

My eyes thawed and I wept at the goofy love of my roommates. I took a deep breath of the room’s warm air and whispered a prayer of wonder and thanks, blinking at the soft light glistening in the prism of my tears.

Isn’t this what the manger-borne Jesus reveals for us, the giftedness of our every day? Doesn’t God in Christ carefully wrap with goodness and love the very things and people we take for granted day by day and give them back to us glistening with grace? Isn’t it so that this Jesus, this Emmanuel, makes holy what we think is merely mundane?

Yes. Yes. Yes. It is so. How silently the wondrous gift is given!


I doubt that there is such a thing as a measure of spirituality, but if there is, gratitude would be it. Only the grateful are paying attention. They are grateful because they pay attention, and they pay attention because they are so grateful.
M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet

At a recent meeting of the Board of Regents of St. Olaf College Darrell Jodock, Martin E. Marty Professor of Religion and the Academy, reflected on key characteristics that undergird higher education in the Lutheran tradition. The first characteristic of a Lutheran college or university, Dr. Jodock suggested, is “fostering a pervasive sense of giftedness and gratitude.”

As Dr. Jodock spoke, it occurred to me that “fostering a pervasive sense of giftedness and gratitude” is not only a key characteristic of Lutheran colleges and universities; this is a hallmark of any (Lutheran) Christian missionary community. When we are unaware of how gifted we really are, we tend to give most of our crabby attention to what we don’t have and to believe that we have earned what little we do have. We then clutch it with a white-knuckled grip and a stingy heart. But I am convinced that a deep awareness of just how gifted we are in God’s grace gives birth to gratitude which overflows with generosity and leads to living with open hands to receive and share God’s abundant gifts.

This is as true for communities of faith, like congregations, as it is for individuals. In fact, much of the apostle Paul’s writing about giftedness in Christ was written to communities, not to individuals. Paul appears to be quite concerned that communities of faith foster a pervasive sense of giftedness and gratitude that forms disciples who embody God’s own generosity.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
[1 Corinthians 2:12]

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.
[2 Corinthians 9:8]

This time of year many of our communities are drawing up budgets and engaging in stewardship conversations, emphases and campaigns at the same time that we are making plans for family and other Thanksgiving celebrations. What if we let the latter influence the former? What if we spent time in committee meetings, worship services, council meetings, Bible studies and classes paying attention to God’s generosity with, for and among us? What if rather than spending so much time focused on what we think we don’t have we encouraged one another to pay attention to the gifts God has given us?

What if we made some part of every congregational gathering a mini-Thanksgiving, this fall and year ‘round? You know the Thanksgiving dinner routine in so many households: “Let’s go around the table and share something we are thankful for this year.” What if we engaged a similar discipline in our gatherings, helping one another pay attention to the amazing giftedness of this community of faith and cultivating gratitude to God and one another?

“Jane, where do you see God’s abundant gifts in this community?”

“For what or who in this community do you give God thanks, John?”

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
[Colossians 2:6]

Can Hoosier Clergy be Arrested for Conducting Religious Rites?

A recent spate of blogs and newspaper articles has raised questions in Indiana about the role and relationship of pastors with Indiana laws around marriage and religious rites with and for same-gender couples. Three examples follow, the first from a blog, the second from the Indianapolis Star newspaper, the third from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette:

After consultation with Indiana-Kentucky Synod Attorney, Josh Tatum, I offer here my perspectives and counsel for the rostered leaders, especially clergy, and the mission centers of this synod. (Josh has also written a very helpful post on his personal blog, Law meets Gospel: http://www.lawmeetsgospel.com/2013/07/how-to-get-arrested-for-marrying-same.html).

"Solemnizing" isn't defined in the statute (Ind. Code § 31-11-11-5), but it appears to boil down to doing the required paperwork for a marriage to be recognized by the state. The point where clergy serve on behalf of the state is in signing the state-issued marriage license. This is one place that it appears the americablogger and the author of the Journal Gazette incorrectly interpret the law. For example, the blogger says, "Note how solemnization is mentioned as something other than filing the marriage license." The Journal Gazette claims, “Yes, it’s still a crime for clergy to have a religious marriage ceremony for those who cannot marry legally, or civilly, such as same-sex couples…”
The solemnizing, from the state’s perspective, is not the religious ceremony or rite. It is filling out and signing the license by a person so authorized by the state, essentially as an agent of the state for documentation of a civil marriage. Everything else in the wedding rite presided over by a pastor is done on behalf of the church, not the state, and the church gets to define that. In fact, a classical Lutheran understanding of marriage would suggest that the marriage or union is done by the couple by way of their vows to one another, not by the pastor; clergy are simply witnesses to that commitment and representatives of the support and accountability of the people of God. Again, pastors act as agents of the state only in the signing and filing of the marriage license. From a First Amendment standpoint, any church has the freedom to define its own rites and call them what it will…and conduct the rites for and with whomever it will.
So the bottom line is this: As long as a pastor doesn’t try to do the state’s paperwork for a couple not eligible for an Indiana marriage license, including a same-sex couple (which the couple is unlikely to have, given the law), the pastor is not breaking the law.
As for the age of the law itself, it was passed in 1997 and likely became effective that same year. Apparently at the time, contrary to what some have suggested, the movement was bipartisan and Governor Bayh was likely the one who decided the legislation’s ultimate fate. Note that this law applies broadly to any type of prohibited marriage; in other words, nothing in this particular statute addresses same-gender relationships. Stipulations about who may marry in the state of Indiana are found in the state’s previously adopted code entitled, “Who May Marry” [see especially Ind. Code § 31-11-1-1(a)].
One thing that did change in this current legislative session was the set of classifications and penalties for various crimes. In this case, the change is to a Class B misdemeanor for a person who solemnizes, and a Level 6 felony for the falsifying applicant. Class B misdemeanors are punishable by up to one hundred eighty days and a fine up to $1,000 (Ind. Code § 35-50-3-3).
Those who are interested in a legal perspective on these laws in response to the recent public conversations will find a helpful one on The Indiana Law Blog: http://indianalawblog.com/archives/2013/07/ind_law_new_ind_5.html. This does not address specific clergy concerns, of course. However, the author does provide helpful perspective on the laws and some background on Defense of Marriage Acts that place Indiana in the group of states that define marriage around one man and one woman.

Faithful members of this church disagree with one another about the appropriateness of state-recognized marriage for same-gender couples as well as the church’s perspective on publicly accountable, life-long, same-gender monogamous relationships. As we reach across our differences, confident and calm in the promised support and guidance of God’s Spirit, to live and work together in Christ in addressing important public issues like this one, we can do so knowing that the current uproar about clergy being arrested for presiding at religious rites for same-gender couples is unfounded. Our shared commitment to finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable couples who wish to have lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships is, likewise, not impacted by this statute.

+ Bishop Bill Gafkjen
Indiana-Kentucky Synod, ELCA
July 2013

Boy Scouts and the Church: Let the Children Come

Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them.
[Jesus, Luke 18:16]

This Bible passage came to mind as I watched Noah and his family walk away after our conversation at the Synod Assembly in June. Noah and his family had approached me in front of the dais after one of the sessions in the plenary hall. His mother said Noah wanted to ask me something.
A bit sheepishly, but speaking clearly and looking me in the eye, Noah said, “I am wondering if you could somehow encourage congregations of the synod to be welcoming to Boy Scouts.”
Noah is 13 and a Boy Scout himself. His troop is sponsored by a congregation that is part of a denomination in which many have expressed dissatisfaction with the Boy Scouts of America’s recent decision “to remove the restriction denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation alone.”[i] Noah also knows that his church, the ELCA and its congregations, seek to be welcoming communities in the name of Jesus. His request to me is an invitation for all of us to live into that identity and call.
As I said in an interview with a reporter from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette just the day before my conversation with Noah, to cease denying membership on the basis of sexual orientation alone is very close to the biblical values and practices that shape our life together as followers of Jesus in this mission territory.[ii]
We are not in agreement with each other about various aspects of sexuality. Yet, we have agreed to honor one another’s bound conscience around these and other issues. To do so is to offer the radical welcome of Jesus to each other.
We have also agreed that we are called to offer this radical, cross-shaped welcome to other people and groups, including and especially those whom others exclude. The ELCA’s home page on the web summarizes it pretty well: “This is Christ’s church. There is a place for you here. We are the church that shares a living, daring confidence in God's grace. Liberated by our faith, we embrace you as a whole person — questions, complexities and all. Join us as we do God's work in Christ's name for the life of the world.”[iii]
In the end, the welcome Noah invites us to embrace is not about sexuality, ours or anyone else’s. It’s about welcoming children, as Jesus welcomed them and would have us welcome them in his name. It’s about following Jesus in the way of the cross to welcome those whom others will not, to embrace those whom others won’t touch. It’s a way we offer others the same forgiving, life-changing welcome Jesus gives to us cross-marked and Spirit-sealed children of God.
Look again at your congregation’s mission statement, nearly 50 of which surrounded us on the projection screens during the Synod Assembly and during my conversation with Noah. Take a good long look at Luke 18. Then look around your neighborhood, sisters and brothers. Look through Noah’s eyes and heart. Look with eyes and hearts baptized into the crucified and risen Christ. Look for the children. Look for those people and groups that others choose to exclude or banish, Boy Scouts or anyone else…and, please, in the name of Jesus crucified and risen for the life of the world, seek them out and invite them in.

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Table Scraps by William O. Gafkjen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.