Messages, Meditations, and Musings on the Life of Faith by Rev. Dr. Scott E. Olson, Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Pr. Olson's Newsletter Article July 2013 - Exploring Our Core Values: Post #3 Celebrating God's Presence through Life Events

July 2013

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

It is past mid-June as I write this letter and I have just finished the season of graduation open houses. What a treat it is to visit with our high school graduates and their families! I have also wrapped-up pre-marriage counseling with a young couple who will be married later this summer and I have met with a family to plan a funeral for their loved-one.

Furthermore, a wonderful week of Vacation Bible School is over and pretty soon I’ll be contacting students and parents to help them prepare for the Affirmation of Baptism (Confirmation) service this fall. Believe it or not, I have already been meeting with our Christian Education leaders to ramp up for another programming year. Of course, our Parish Nurse, Meredith, and I make regular visits to the hospitalized and home-bound.

I don’t mention these things to brag about how busy I am, but rather as an introduction to the topic of this month’s letter, our second proposed core value: “We are a Community of Faith … Celebrating God’s Presence through Life Events.” Core values are important for us because they are a basic statement of who we are and why we do what we do. They are to guide our mission and ministry as we seek to be faithful to God’s call on our lives.

Here’s what we mean by “Celebrating God’s Presence through Life Events”:
When we gather we also celebrate what God has done and is doing in, with, and through us as God’s people. We do this by recognizing the milestones on our faith journey: baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, high school graduations, weddings, funerals, and other ways Jesus Christ touches our lives. This celebration comes even through hardship and difficult times as we recognize the new life that can come in the midst of death. We give praise and thanksgiving to a God who calls us forward to new mission opportunities.

This core value builds off of the first one, “Gathering in God’s Love,” and acknowledges that God is actively working in our lives. It also declares that the milestones of our lives are always stepping stones on our journey of faith. Endings are new beginnings. Each step along the way is an opportunity to determine how God is calling us to join in God’s mission to love and bless the world.

As we live out and live into this core value, we must also pay attention to the act of celebrating. All too often, we jump from one thing to the next, not taking time to rejoice in what God has been doing in our midst. Taking a cue from the aforementioned couple, I’ll pass along some advice they received and shared with me: “Take time to enjoy your engagement.”

Indeed, let us take time to enjoy what God is doing in, with, and through our life events, attentive to the marvelous love and grace available to us through Jesus Christ. As always, let us know what you think.

In Christ’s Name
Pastor Olson

"Psalms for Today: A Song of Thanks" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

Psalms for Today: A Song of Thanks
Psalm 30
Pentecost 6 (Narrative Lectionary 3 – Summer)
June 30, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
 You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, 
So that my soul may praise you and not be silent. 
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever. (Psalm 30.11-12)

If you look at Psalm 30 in the Bible, you’ll see that one of the superscripts, or headings, says that this is a psalm of David. This doesn’t necessarily mean that David wrote it or even used it, but that the Davidic kings used it in their ceremonies. However, following the suggestion of Shauna Hanna, this isn’t David’s psalm; it’s Jen’s Psalm. By most accounts, Jen and Nick were making a good life together. Both had good jobs, Nick was doing well sober, they had two beautiful daughters, and they were very involved in their church and community. Then the bottom dropped out when Nick was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer. About 18 months later, barely 50 years old, Nick was gone and Jen had lost her soul mate.

Psalm 30 is classified as a song of thanksgiving. There aren’t very many of these, only about a half dozen, but they are powerfully important psalms. Even a quick reading shows it’s more than a song of thanksgiving. There are the praise elements we identified in Psalm 100, a cry for help as in Psalm 13, and even the assertion of trust we heard last week in Psalm 23. To put it into Walter Bruggemann’s typology, this is a psalm of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation all rolled up into one.

In one sense, Psalm 30 is a song of thanksgiving that can only be sung on the backside of a difficult life event. It is sung by a seasoned believer who has come through the orienting, disorienting, and reorienting experiences in life and has seen God’s hand through them all. Before Nick’s diagnosis, Jen and Nick had their share of challenges, but life was generally good. Yet, none of us fully appreciate how good our lives are until something devastating happens. So, looking back, Jen can value the life they had together, even the time through Nick’s illness.

But, Jen can certainly relate to the psalmist’s cry for help, the disorienting effect that Nick’s illness and death had on her and their daughters. Everything changed, everything revolved around caring for Nick and eventually preparing for his death and life afterward. Even in the depths of despair, Nick and Jen grew closer to God and to each other, something they didn’t think possible. There were many tears of pain and anguish, but times of blessing as they were surrounded in love. People brought food, the church choir sung to them on Christmas, and Nick’s Confirmation small group that he mentored paid him a visit. Through it all they somehow managed to trust in and hold onto God as they held onto each other.

As you can imagine, it was incredibly hard for Jen when Nick passed away and especially hard for her to be in worship. Yet, as time went on and she looked back, Jen was able to begin to sing a song of thanksgiving to God, not for Nick’s death but for how God was working in the whole experience. Worship was still hard, but Jen was convinced that God was going to use her and her experiences for something good. Jen found herself having a deeper compassion for ill and elderly people.  She helped to start a grief support group and some Blue Christmas services at her church. Jen changed jobs and went back to school. Jen has been brought to a place of new life, not because of her effort, but because of God’s presence and blessing.

Many of you know that my family and I have been going through a similar time as we have been involved with my father-in-law’s health. It has been disorienting to have moved him to a long term care facility and then of course, his entrance into hospice and death. Yesterday, as we gathered to commend him to God, we were able to sing a song of thanksgiving, not for his death but for his life and what he meant to us, and for God’s gracious promises of new life that awaits us all.

Of course, Psalm 30 is not just Jen’s psalm, it’s our psalm. It is, in fact, the very structure of our lives. Each day we take some of our life for granted and often our lives change, sometimes drastically. Each of us are in different places right now: some are doing just fine, some are desperately crying for God’s help, and some are singing songs of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. Wherever we are, Psalm 30 reminds us of the promise we have in Jesus Christ, a promise that God is always with us, working in our lives to bring about new life, even in the midst of death. For our God is the one who turns our mourning into dancing. Our God takes off our sackcloth and clothes us with joy. Our souls will praise God and not be silent and we will give God praise forever. Amen.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

"Psalms for Today: A Prayer for Help - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalms for Today: A Prayer for Help
Psalm 13
Pentecost 4 (NL3 – Summer)
June 16, 2013

 “How long, O Lord,” the psalmist cries, “will you forget me forever? How long will you hide from me?” In a few short days we have moved from the adoration of Psalm 100 to the agony of Psalm 13. Life is like that, isn’t it, as it can change in the blink of an eye? One minute we are making joyful noises to the Lord and the next minute we wonder if the Lord exists, let alone be worthy of praise. One minute we are oriented, being pointed toward God as the source and ground of our very being. The next minute we are disoriented, everything we know and trust being called into question.

Psalm 13 is classified as a prayer for help, and it is no surprise that these “laments” are most numerous in Psalms. About one-third of the psalms are of this type. Perhaps it is because we find ourselves in these situations so frequently, thrown for a loop in a world that is all too “loopy.” We are a broken, imperfect people in a world determined to break us more. Even those of us who live relatively uneventful and blessed lives are not immune from disruption that the psalm describes. Psalm 13 and others like it help us to not only find our voices, but also helps us find ourselves through them.

There are few things worse in life than being forgotten or ignored, as any child knows who has been left behind in a game of Hide and Seek, or an adult whose calls or emails go unanswered. In fact, I would much rather have someone angry with me to my face than silently walk away or talk behind my back. Really. Psalm 13 not only helps us express the almost inexpressible, our deepest pain and sorrow, it also expresses that, all evidence to the contrary, God has not forgotten us and invites us into God’s very being. The psalmist declares that during those times we feel adrift from God we are still attached in a profound way.

H. George Anderson was the second presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, serving from 1995 to 2001. He tells about when his wife died from a long, painful illness, that he stopped believing in God because he couldn’t see how a loving God could let his wife suffer so much. However, Bishop Anderson continued to go to church because, “When we can’t believe, we go to worship to be around others who can believe for us.”

Similarly, my good friend Shirley tells about when her mother died, that she went to church hoping to hear a word that could ease her pain and disorientation. She didn’t receive it from the pastor or worship, but she did receive if from two friends, who walked with her, talked with her, and shared her pain. They embody what the psalmist expresses and our baptismal service charges to parents: that we are to live among God’s faithful people.

When the torrential rain and floods hit Southeastern Minnesota in 2007, people like Mankatoan Greg Nelson came to help, and one way that happened was to understand the psychology of flood recovery. He told us how our lives are going along normally (orientation) and then his catastrophe hits (disorientation), sending us into a chasm of despair. There is immediate help, but that is short term. Recovery takes some time, but it results in a new normal (reorientation). We get a hint of the reorienting promises of God’s presence today, but we’ll see more of that next week in Psalm 23.

It seems that this process happens in many areas of our lives where we experience loss or suffering. But it also seems that it is the way of the cross: God sent Jesus into our world seeking to orient us to God’s love. In the cross, perhaps the most disorienting of all events, God takes all of our brokenness and despair upon himself and through the resurrection God gives us a new normal, abundant life, reorienting us in a profound way. Because of the cross, we know that God will not leave us or forsake us. God has not forgotten us. In the midst of our disorientation, we cling to God’s steadfast love, trusting in his presence and mercy. Amen.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

"Psalms for Today: A Hymn of Praise" - Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Psalms for Today: A Hymn of Praise
Pentecost 3 (Narrative Lectionary 3 – Summer)
Psalm 100
June 9, 2013

Whenever I read Psalm 100 I think of Patricia, a former music director at my last congregation. Patricia is a gifted organist and choir director who did an amazing job with a girl’s youth chorus. She has a wonderful sense of how to accompany the congregation in singing and she is a gifted organist; she would play Widor’s Toccata as a postlude for every service on Easter Sunday. I think of Patricia when I read or hear Psalm 100 because it is her favorite psalm, probably because it is a psalm of worship, a hymn of praise. I think of Psalm 100 as a musician’s psalm.

However, I also think of Psalm 100 as a non-musicians psalm. After all, it says that we are to make a joyful noise to the Lord, and I take that seriously. I love to sing, but I tend to change keys in the middle of songs, sometimes in mid-measure. That’s why I enjoy leading worship services in nursing homes; they think I sound wonderful.

Today is the second in a six-part sermon series on the psalms. Last week Psalm 1 introduced us to the psalms by asserting that the psalms are for today. They not only teach us something, but they are also a resource for life by connecting us to the source of life: God. As today’s scripture introduction suggests, there is a helpful way of categorizing the psalms devised by Walter Brueggemann: there are psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of reorientation. Psalm 100 is considered to be a psalm of orientation. Psalms of orientation literally point us in the right direction, much like a compass or GPS. We need to be properly oriented because there are so many negative influences in our society.

As I listen to the chatter in the media and society, not to mention religious circles, about the value of churches, a lot of it claims that churches are a thing of the past, akin to dinosaurs. Now, I agree that God is continually remaking communities of faith to serve God’s mission to love and bless the world. After all, changing contexts demand fresh approaches to speaking the good news of Jesus Christ. However, what often gets lost in the shuffle is the importance of worship, how praising God and proclaiming his goodness takes us outside of ourselves. Our rituals point us toward the one we can trust.

Did you know that gathering for worship is not just a theological statement but a political one? By political, I don’t mean that worship favors one political party or ideology over another. At the time of the psalmist, the temple and the king’s palace were side by side. Both had gates and courts. The psalmist declares that it is into the temple’s gates and court that we come, praising God as the one who saves. It is God in whom we put our trust, not kings, presidents, or congress. When the early church declared that “Jesus is Lord,” they were saying that Caesar is not. That is as much a political challenge as it is a confession of faith. We put our trust in God because God is the only one that shows faithfulness to all generations.

All of this is summed up in the claim that God’s steadfast love endures forever. “Steadfast love” is a recurring trait of God in the Bible; it occurs 171 times in the Old Testament, 110 of those in the Psalms. Do you think it’s important? Yes! God’s steadfast love means that God is trustworthy, faithful, and reliable all the time. We see this in one of the most pervasive images in the Bible: God shepherds us as we are God’s beloved sheep.

I’ve gotten a glimpse of what God as the Good Shepherd must be like as I have worked with Merlin, our Building and Grounds Supervisor. Merlin is a raiser and tender of sheep. I have learned a lot about sheep from Merlin, but he has also taught me about shepherds. Merlin makes sure he is present whenever lambs are born, helping them and ensuring their survival. I can tell by the softness in his voice how important each and everyone are to him and how devastated he is when he loses one of them. So then, imagine how much greater God’s steadfast love is for us.

I’ll say more about God’s steadfast love next week as we look at Psalm 13, a psalm of disorientation, one that gives expression to the confusion we experience when life throws us for a loop. For now, whether we are a musician or a wannabe musician, we proclaim God’s goodness and steadfast love, orienting our lives to the places where true life can be found. God calls us outside of ourselves to work with God to heal our broken world, bringing hope to those in despair. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

"Psalms for Today?" - Sermon for Pentecost 2 (Special Summer Sermon Series)

Psalms for Today?
Psalm 1
Pentecost 2 (Narrative Lectionary 3 Summer)
June 2, 2013

The Bible has sometimes been called a handbook or manual, a guidebook for living. Now, assuming this is true, what section do you turn to for this, or do you just read through until you find something useful? Would you turn to Jesus’ words, perhaps the Sermon on the Mount? Perhaps it’s Paul’s letters, such as Galatians we just finished. Maybe you use the inspirational method, where you let the Bible fall open and point blindly to a passage.

What about the Psalms? Have you ever turned to the Psalms for guidance, or have you only thought about it as the church’s worship supplement, hymns of prayer and praise for past age? It’s true, the Psalms were used in worship and for worship, and they are marvelous vehicles for praise and prayer, in the fullest sense of the words, but as Psalm 1 indicates, they are far more than that.

Today, we are beginning a six-week series on the psalms, something I have long wanted to do. The goal of the series is not simply to introduce you to the psalms and to make them more accessible, but for us to see the psalms as an important resource for your life of faith, today. There’s no better place to start than Psalm 1, not only because it is the first psalm, but because it makes some startling claims about the psalms as a whole while it introduces the rest of the psalms. The added bonus is that we will be adding the psalms back into our worship and chanting them as well.

The claim that Psalm 1 makes is that the psalms have something to teach us about life. It does by using vivid images that seem contradictory while presenting pairs of opposites. As we will see in other psalms this is a typical methodology used by the psalmist. The first image we have is that of the road or way, depicting life as a journey in which we have two choices of paths to follow. One way depends upon God for our life and the other one depending on us. The second, apparently contradictory image, is that of a tree rooted deeply next to life-giving water drawing on the resources of faith, identified as God’s law, that bring abundant fruit.

I’m not the first one who, upon reading this psalm, thinks of Robert Frost’s The Road Less Traveled. It’s the poem that countless high school senior classes have chosen as their sending metaphor. The poem is about two roads going through the woods and the choices we make in life. Now, I’m not sure that the life of faith is the “road less travelled,” but the psalmist makes a faith claim that the way we live our lives is decisive for how our lives turn out, and the best way is to live a life dependent upon God, not ourselves. Clint McMann puts it this way: “Prosperity doesn’t involve getting what one wants; rather, it comes from being connected to the source of life.”

This connection to God that the psalmist not only advocates, but says that the psalms provide, is shown in the image of the tree planted near a flowing stream, which we can see that in the bulletin picture. I love how the picture not only shows the water, but also how the tree leans into water of life. Have you ever driven through a desolate area and suddenly spot a tree? You know that, even though you can’t see it, there must be water nearby. This is especially true for weeping willows. You just know there is a pond of water under their boughs. The image tells us that the psalms are not so much a collection of useful wisdom, but a connection to God’s presence. Scripture, including the psalms, connect us to God that results in a life lived on the right path.

One final word: when the psalmist talks about how we should delight in the law, s/he is not talking about rules and regulations, stuff we have to do. As Frederick Buechner says, that’s only one way to talk about law; the second is that laws describe how things are, such as the law of gravity. We are to delight in the way things are, otherwise it will be like stepping out of a tenth-story window and expecting to be unscathed. As we will see in the weeks to come, as we journey on the road of faith, this resource that God provides in the psalms is a rich one in which to place our roots, reaching deeply to the source of life. Thanks be to God! Amen.