Christ Was Born For This!

Christ was born for this! Christ was born for this!
[Good Christian Friends, Rejoice; ELW 288, LBW 55]

Oddly, this refrain from a sprightly medieval Christmas hymn came to mind in mid-November as I watched, through tear-blurred eyes, the press conference of Ed and Paula Kassig, the parents of Peter Abdul-Rahman Kassig, after they learned of his brutal murder by ISIS. The press conference was held in the narthex of the family’s United Methodist church in Indianapolis.
“Our hearts are battered,” Paula said, “but they will mend. The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end. And good will prevail as the one God of many names will prevail.”
“Please,” Ed asked, “allow our family the time and privacy to mourn, to cry – and yes, to forgive – and begin to heal.”
Battered…will mend. Broken…will be healed. Allow us the time…to forgive. God will prevail.
Unexpectedly, oddly, my heart began to sing, quietly, slowly, barely audible in my own consciousness: Christ was born for this. Christ was born for this.
One commentator on this hymn has said that its “catchy melody bounces along in a triple rhythm that is easily sung and danced.” There was neither singing nor dancing when it came to my mind. It was more like the voices of the Kassigs, weary, broken, trusting, hopeful: Christ was born for this, even this, especially this. Christ will not let this deep brokenness, this savage evil, this unbearable pain have the last word. It will take time, but we will be healed, we will forgive; the world will mend, God will prevail. Christ was born for this.
One of the unusual traits this hymn has picked up as it has echoed its way to us from the 14th century is a brief, strange mid-verse change in meter. In some versions (preserved, for example, in some United Methodist hymnals), the phrase “News! News!” is inserted at then end of the second line in each verse. So, verse two of the hymn reads like this:

Good Christian friends, rejoice with heart and soul and voice;
Now ye hear of endless bliss: News! News!
Jesus Christ was born for this!
He has opened heaven’s door…

This odd interruption reminds me of a newsboy standing on an old, cold December street corner holding up the special edition newspaper just released, beckoning to all who pass by, “News! News!” Perhaps a contemporary image of this might be those intrusive pop-ups that appear on our computer screens to let us know that an important email message or news report has arrived and demands our attention.
As we move through the challenges of our days, Christmas interrupts our rhythm, breaks our stride, and disrupts the doldrums of our days with the cry: News! News! Christ was born for this!
The tinsel, bright lights, and beautiful wrappings of this season cry out, too, with the good news that all our struggles, pain, anguish, doubts, fears, and most desperate aching for peace and joy, forgiveness and new life find their home in the manger, in the child of Bethlehem who enters deeply into this troubled world to break its stride by rising from the tomb.
I can hardly wait to sing this wonderful hymn this Christmastide. Thanks to the Kassigs, it might even move me to dance (or at least to sway a bit; I am Scandinavian, after all), resting the world and my own travails in the sure and certain promises that come wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Christ was born for this!

September Church Rhythms

“Where two or three are gathered in my name,
I am there among them.”
[Jesus, Matthew 18:15-22, NRSV]

This month, all over Indiana and Kentucky and across the country, congregations and other communities of faith, large and small, urban and rural and everywhere in between, return to the regular rhythms of congregational life. Sunday School and other education and formation classes crank up. Committees and councils begin to meet again at their appointed hour on whatever second Monday or third Thursday of the month is theirs. Worship attendance returns (we pray!) to its post-vacation season levels. Regular trips to the food pantry or other places of service ministry resume.

The month of September is a busy time, an exciting time, a hopeful and even a tense time in the life of the people of God.

It’s also a holy time.

I suspect – actually I know from my own experience – that in the midst of all the planning and preparation and publicity and implementation for this autumn advent we tend to forget that there is something more than just human activity going on. This is not just a class or coffee klatch or kid’s program or adult fellowship we are preparing or engaging. As incredible as it may sound given some of the things we do when we are together, it’s all part of the gracious reign of God come near and it’s steeped in promise.

Where two or three are gathered in my name, Jesus promises, I am there among them.

Where Jesus is, God’s reign comes near and things happen; people – and worlds – are changed.

Where Jesus is, forgiveness is offered, received, and shared. Tattered lives are held together in love and healed by grace. Deep, holy hospitality is offered to people who are lonely or wandering or hurting, including even those who show up every Sunday morning or Tuesday night. Broken-bodied, poured-out love is offered and available for all in Sunday School classes and discussion groups, in worship and the coffee hour, in prayer groups and committee meetings, in parking lot conversations and quiet moments in a corner of the narthex…Jesus is there; lives are changed.

This is holy time.

Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

Interestingly, Jesus spoke this world-altering promise near the conclusion of a brief discussion about how to deal with broken relationships in the body of Christ. Surely somewhere along the way this fall, in the midst of the meetings and studies and conversations we now resume, something will go wrong, the fabric of our life together will tear. Even there, where some sin, some selfishness, some hurt or misunderstanding threatens to unravel our life together, even there the promise holds: I am among you. Even there the love we know from a wooden cross and an empty tomb draws near with life-changing, new-world rendering power and grace.

Thankfully, in the midst of all the busyness, the planning, the worry, the hope, the challenge, the joy, the brokenness of autumn days is Jesus, crucified and risen. These are holy days. This is holy work. Jesus is afoot.

Prayers for Israel and Palestine

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which I am a part, has a longstanding relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL). Shortly after Israel's recent military ground movement in Gaza, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton spoke by phone with ELCJHL Presiding Bishop Munib Younan. Bishop Younan said that of the 13 wars he has witnessed in his part of the world, this is the one that concerns him most and asked that the people of the ELCA pray for the people of the ELCJHL and all people and leaders who live in this part of the world.

In response, Bishop Eaton wrote a letter to Bishop Younan. You may find a PDF copy of the letter here: Bishop Eaton Letter to Bishop Younan. An ELCA news release about this situation can also be read at:

Bishop Eaton has asked that this letter be distributed among the leaders and congregations of the ELCA. She also asks that letter be read in congregations this coming Sunday and that a time of silence be observed this Sunday as we pray for our brothers and sisters of the ELCJHL and that peace will come to Palestine and Israel.

Please join us in praying for peace in Palestine and Israel and in so many other troubled places in the world and in our own neighborhoods.

What Are You Bringing to the Tomb?

…they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared... (Luke 24:1)

…they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell… (Matthew 28:8)

Have you started to think about what you will wear to worship on Easter Sunday? How about what you will bring with you? Who will you bring to worship that day?
And what will you take with you when you leave?
Many of us spend a good bit of time deciding that to wear to worship on Easter Sunday. It makes sense that we want to dress up a bit on this great day, using bright colors and new clothes to celebrate the good news that Jesus has, indeed, been raised from the dead.
I wonder, however, what would happen if we spent as much time reflecting on what we bring with us to worship on this great day. Offerings, I hope. A worshipful spirit, yes. But I am thinking more about the “spices” of grief and struggle, disappointment and discouragement, sin and sorrow that we carry around in tightly tied bags buried deep in our hearts. Do we dare to gather them up and bring them with us to worship on Easter Sunday?
The gospel writers Mark and Luke tell us that on that first Easter morning the women brought spices along with them to the tomb. In my mind’s eye, I can see those first witnesses of resurrection so shocked, so surprised, so overwhelmed by the realization that Jesus is risen that they drop the bulging bags on the floor of the tomb. I can see the bags burst as they hit the hard floor. I can smell the place of death filling with the sweet aroma of frankincense and myrrh, like the spices first laid at the cradle of the infant Christ. “He is not here, but has risen.” No need for the spices now.
Is it possible this Easter Sunday for us to be so shocked, so surprised, so overwhelmed by the news that Christ is risen, that we drop our own “spices,” watch the carefully woven bags burst, and smell the sweet aroma of new life rising from the open tomb of our spice-bound days?
I wonder, too, who will you bring to Easter Sunday worship?
I mean this literally, of course. Who needs to hear the good news, but might not go to worship if you don’t invite and bring them? But I also wonder about all those people and communities who are wrapped up in spice bags in the chambers of our hearts. These are the ones who have hurt us or disappointed us, or whom we have hurt or disappointed. These are the people and broken relationships that we can’t bring ourselves to talk about or reconcile or heal.
Do we dare to gather them up – at least one or two of spice-wrapped people or relationships – and bring them with us to Easter Sunday worship? Is it possible that this Easter Sunday we will be so shocked, so surprised, so overwhelmed by the good news of Christ risen that we will allow the bags we’ve so carefully wrapped around our broken relationships to be torn open and replaced with reconciliation or healing?
None of the gospel writers mentions the women’s spices once they hear that Jesus is risen. It’s as if the spices and their burst bags are left on the floor of the tomb as the women run back into the world carrying the lighter load of awe and joy and a life-changing story to live into and tell.
What will you take with you from Easter Sunday worship? I pray that you will be taken by and will take with you hope, healing, and new beginnings. I pray that you will meet and be carried back into your daily life by the awe and joy of resurrection life. It might not happen finally and fully this particular Easter morning. But I trust that you will find your grip on those bags loosened, if just a bit. You will receive a foretaste, a sign, a glimmer of hope and healing and the joy and freedom of new life in the risen Christ.
So, dear sister, dear brother, gather up those spice bags and all those people you’ve wrapped in them. Tuck them into your pastel purse, clip them to your Easter bunny tie. Bring them along to worship Easter Sunday…and every Sunday. Look for the crucified and risen Jesus to surprise you just enough that you find your grip loosened. Then leave the bags on the floor of the tomb and go. Go in awe and joy. And with that lighter load, run and tell others the good news: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Checking Our Sight Lines

sight line - noun
a hypothetical line from someone's eye to what is seen
Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus. [Hebrews 12:1]

Lent is often a time for individuals to focus on their spiritual life by (re)establishing spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, corporate worship, or generous giving for the poor. Congregational ministries during Lent often support these disciplines through additional worship opportunities, Bible classes, prayer groups, World Hunger coin boxes, and the like. In some ways, such disciplines provide opportunities to check our “sight lines” by asking questions like these:
  •  To what have I been giving most of, or the best of, my attention?
  • Are the people, things, and situations that I have been looking to helpful or hurtful?
  • Does what I look at empower or equip me for serving others or is it just self-serving? Does it move me to give my life away or cause me to hoard it?
  • In other words, do my sight lines point me toward Jesus crucified and risen and beckon me further down the way of the cross? Or do they point me away from Jesus toward someone or something else that distracts or harms, disempowers or disappoints myself or others?
Of course, I am referring here to literal sight lines. It is important that we be discerning about what we look at with our physical eyes. What we look at changes us in powerful ways and influences how we interact with the world.
For the moment, however, I am primarily thinking about our spiritual sight lines. These sight lines also form us and influence how we interact with the world.
      What are we looking to in hope that it will provide meaning or excitement or peace or power or whatever else our heart seeks? As it turns out, many of the things we look to cannot deliver on the promises they make. So many of them, even the best looking ones, lure us down endless, dark, distracting rabbit holes of self-absorption and self-justification.
The scripture and liturgies of Lent call us to reassess our spiritual sight lines. They call us to repent, to allow God’s Spirit to turn our sight lines back toward Jesus, the one who actually delivers on God’s promises and who enlists and empowers us to be means by which those promises cross into the sight lines of others.
But this is not just true for individuals; it’s true for the church as a body as well. I wonder what Lent – and the consequent celebration of Easter – would be like if each congregation and its leaders also spent forty days in a sort of communal recalibration of the congregation’s sight lines. Truth be told, nearly every aspect of congregational life – congregational meetings, committee planning, council agendas, youth events, choir rehearsals, staff meetings, fellowship gatherings – can suffer from sight line drift. We start looking primarily at what we don’t have: not enough money or people or young people. Our sights focus on change for the sake of change, or the next great innovation that promises to get people in the door. Our sight lines are directed toward disagreements and power struggles or inward on ourselves.
If we are not careful, over time we drift away from our core mission to simply be the body of Christ in the world, to shine the light of Jesus, to make Christ known. Without even noticing it we “major in minors” and focus our attention and energy on non-central (even if alluringly important) concerns that simply cannot bring life to us or the world if Jesus crucified and risen is not right smack dab in the center of them.
Just as each baptized person is called to turn away from – to repent of – unhealthy, sinful, or otherwise life-snatching sight lines, so is every congregation. Every gathering of the baptized is called to realign its sight lines in order to participate more fully and faithfully in God’s cross-shaped mission of healing and hope in the world.

This Lent, dear sisters and brothers, may God’s Spirit grant that we, the body of Christ, will turn away from distracting and destructive sight lines “and the sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” [Hebrews 12:1-2]
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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.