Wednesday, October 21, 2020

On Public Ministry and Public Education

I’m letting Dr. Martin Luther take most of the credit for this month’s blog, which means it’s quite a bit longer than might be ideal for most readers. Bear with him, though, because what he wrote back in 1524 is still relevant today.

Even though he lived during a different era, in a different land, and spoke a different language than we do, his community experienced many of the same problems we face today. Divisions. Corruption. Violence. Poverty. Injustice.

Luther could be quite pointed in what he said, regardless of whom he was addressing, but he didn’t often use his pulpit or his publications to promote a particular leader. He was political without being partisan, most of the time, as he pointed out the failures and inadequacies of leaders and governments. Pointing out how governments have failed, or how citizens have failed in their duty to prepare people to become good leaders or elect leaders who make decisions based on love of neighbor instead of love of self is political. But it’s not partisan.

What Luther wrote in his open letter to leaders throughout Germany was this:

It is the business of our leaders to care for and pay attention to the young. For since the property, honor and life of the whole city are committed to your faithful keeping, you would fail in your duty if you did not seek its welfare and improvement with all your powers day and night.

Now the welfare of a city is not based only on great treasures, solid city walls, beautiful buildings, and a plentiful supply of weapons. No, when all these are plentiful and reckless, fools take control of them and the city suffers. A city’s welfare, safety, and strength consist in having many able, learned, wise, and honorable citizens; such leaders can easily gather treasure and all the rest, protect them, and put them to good use.

So since a city should and must have citizens who can become leaders, and there is everywhere a lack of them, and complaints that they cannot be found, we dare not wait until they grow up of their own accord (nor can we hew them out of stone nor carve them out of wood); and since God will provide no miracles so long as we can solve our problems by means of other gifts, we must spare no labor or expense to teach the young to become such citizens.

Whose fault is it that there are today so few capable young adults ready to become leaders? It is your fault, you who have left the young to grow up like saplings in the forest and have given no thought to their teaching and learning!

Good government must continue. Shall we permit only fools to rule, when we can teach the young to be more capable leaders? That would indeed be a barbaric and foolish policy. We might as well make swine and wolves our leaders and set them over those who do not care how they are governed.

Moreover, it is perverse to say to yourselves: “We rule now; why should we be concerned about what happens to those who come after us?” If you say such things to yourselves, if you seek only your own profit or honor in governing, you should only lead swine and dogs, not fellow citizens.

No, it is a necessity, not only for the sake of the young, but for the maintenance of good government, that we all must commit ourselves to the teaching and learning of the young.

Martin Luther, from An die Radherrn aller Stedte Deutches Lands [To the leaders of all German cities], translated from the original German by Deacon David Rask Behling

Dr. Martin Luther was a pastor. But it’s important to remember that he was also Chancellor of Wittenberg University and, as an educator, he was a firm believer in a strong public education system. From his perspective, public education for all children was the foundation for a well-run community, guaranteeing there would be a large number of leaders in city governments who had the wisdom and knowledge to understand issues and make decisions. Reformation-era German cities were nowhere near democratic in their governance, but there were many ordinary citizens who played an important role in decision-making.

I quote him because it seems that we Lutherans in America have forgotten that his reforms were not just about our private relationship with God. For Luther and many other reformers back in the 16th century, our faith was about how we worshipped AND how we governed ourselves. Our faith called us to serve God by serving our neighbors. Our faith was as much about how we made our money as it was about what we did in our churches.

And our faith should be visible in how we educate our children, not in requiring teachers or administrators to lead students in public prayers every day, but by providing the expertise and the wisdom needed to step into leadership roles, when people are called to do that. Our public education system is the foundation upon which our country is built, and our country is falling apart. Lutherans are too often among those who advocate for replacing public with private education, with the level of expertise and wisdom development in our children dependent on how much money we have. We’ve made a good education a privilege, not a right. And the result has been what we see in ourselves right now.

Dr. Martin Luther would not be impressed. I don’t think Jesus would be, either.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Prophetic Justice Means Remembering Refugees and Immigrants

When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19: 33-34

Something that is most certainly true about Christians everywhere is this: the stories of our faith are filled with the experiences of immigrants and refugees, people like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Ruth and Naomi, Joseph and Mary, and Paul, Peter, and many other of Jesus’ early disciples. Oh, our translations might use a different word, like “aliens” or “strangers” but they were immigrants. They were people moving from one place to another in search of food or work or land.

Here is something else that is most certainly true: The Lutheran church was carried to North America by immigrants and refugees, starting during colonial times and accelerating after the United States became a country. Some of those early founders of Lutheranism in America were refugees, fleeing persecution, battlefields, and devastated cities in Europe. But many others were economic migrants, like my three German grandparents, hoping to build better lives for themselves and their families.

For the past few years, as I’ve been listening to what many Lutherans in this synod and other places say about migrants and refugees, it’s clear that this dual history has either been forgotten or intentionally buried. This has happened despite the fact that these are truths that have been part of our readings from scripture and our commemoration of our own history. These truths are pointed out to us over and over again nearly every time we worship.

Are the good Lutherans in Wisconsin listening? Do we remember the stories of our own heritage, both ethnically and spiritually? Do we find anything meaningful in those stories of migration and flight from persecution, anything to hold on to as lessons about how to treat strangers and choose our leaders now?

As a Lutheran who recognizes these truths in the stories of the Bible and our own Reformation history, and who also remembers the stories of his grandparents, I am asking others to recognize and remember. And as a citizen of a country with a convoluted immigration system that is currently broken, I’m especially concerned about an urgent humanitarian issue affecting people living in many of our communities: the recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

What are they? TPS provides legal status for about 400,000 people from seven different countries. The reasons vary, but it’s usually because their original homeland isn’t safe to return to because of war or natural disasters. DACA protects nearly 650,000 individuals, all of whom were children when they were brought to the United States by their parents. Many of them were young enough when they started living here that English is their native language. In their formal education, life experience, and perspective on society, they are Americans, not Mexicans or Sudanese or Vietnamese.

Technically, they are still citizens of countries many have not seen for years, or have no memory of, places where many would only be able to speak their “native” language as foreigners. It’s a technicality, a matter of paperwork, not identity. But in the eyes of many of us, the only thing that apparently matters is that paperwork. The only thing that matters appears to be perfect compliance with rules, even if those rules and regulations result in actions that are cruel and unfair.

If TPS and DACA protections are taken away or ignored by government agencies like ICE, it will affect not only the recipients, but also the more than two million family members who live with them, including hundreds of thousands of children who are US citizens. Deporting TPS and DACA recipients will have a negative impact in communities where they are business owners, teachers, lawyers, office workers, essential workers, and health care providers [including many working on the frontlines during this epidemic].

As followers of Jesus and the children of Sarah and Abraham, we can take action to show we care about what happens to TPS and DACA recipients, their families, and our communities. As Lutheran Christians living out our faith, we can help others understand that helping them is both a spiritual and a humanitarian issue, that we are called to respond to the needs of TPS and DACA families as a way of doing God's work. We can find allies in other faith communities or outside the church to join us in taking action to support TPS and DACA families and become advocates for compassion, not legalism.

Deacon David Rask Behling, Hunger and Justice Advocate, NW Synod of Wisconsin

Friday, August 28, 2020

Are We In This Together?

The church is not a building . . . the church, it is the PEOPLE, living out their lives. . . .

When the pandemic hit Wisconsin, and a public health emergency shuttered our sanctuaries and people were sheltering at home, I was serving in a small rural parish. What to do about worship? Luckily I was “sheltering at home” with my wife, the pastor at a larger congregation. Working together, we were able to create online worship services for all three congregations.

I also started sending out weekly informational and inspirational emails to members of my parish. The purpose was to keep people’s spirits up AND to let them know what was going on as far as worship, meetings, and gatherings. For many of these weekly messages, I started with the words above, from a song by the contemporary Christian composer, Jay Beech. Here’s the refrain: I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we're the church together!

The words in the final line have often been in my thoughts and in my prayers over the past several months. Yes we’re the church together, even when we need to stay apart because of a virus.

The idea of “being together” started circulating even more widely about a month after everything shut down. Signs started showing up in store windows in the town where I live, signs that were a response to the COVID-19 pandemic: We are all in this TOGETHER! I even saw a few t-shirts. Perhaps you saw signs or t-shirts like that in your own communities at some point over the past six months?

Reminding us of our unity was surely well-intentioned. But it was a statement of hope, not a reflection of reality. We were all a bit naïve. Instead of experiencing unity we became even more divided, as a country, as communities, and as churches.

We have been divided for years, in ways that used to be invisible but have come into view since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. We are not “together” with each other, finding common ground. We have not been “together” as a people or as a church for a long time.

What does the church do in a society as divided as ours? Do we offer a “sanctuary” of peace and quiet behind our real and virtual walls, a “politics-free zone” where the bitterness and divisiveness cannot reach us? After all, there is value in offering “sanctuary” or “sabbath” space and time for quiet reflection and healing, away from all of that noise and fury.

However, as members of a church founded by Martin Luther back in 1521, we are called to take our faith out of our sanctuaries and into our communities. Meditation and prayer are needed, but so is action. We are called to work together as the people of God for the common good in our communities, states, and countries.

And we have this as an asset: as the church, as God’s people, we have a history of being strong when strength was needed. Working together, we have voices that can still proclaim what Jesus proclaimed before us: words of love and acts of service for neighbors, not judgement and intolerance. As the church, we can become a way out of division, bringing people together onto common ground, where differences can be discussed respectfully, with all able to speak and all expected to listen.

According to Martin Luther, God calls us to serve our neighbors when they are in need, regardless of who they are or what they have done. There are many neighbors right now who need us to help figure out how to heal divisions in our communities, work that cannot be done silently or only on Sunday mornings in worship services. What Martin Luther and Jesus call us to say and do for our neighbors can only happen outside, in the streets and marketplaces of our communities.

Are we willing to listen to the Holy Spirit’s call to mend and heal? Are we willing to learn what we can do to help instead of divide? Do you have ideas on how to do that? Let’s talk about them!

Breathe deep. Have courage. Be assured that we are all in God’s hands.

Deacon David Rask Behling, Hunger and Justice Advocate, NW Synod of Wisconsin 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

On Public Ministry as Justice in a Publicly Engaged Church


Micah 5: Seek Justice, love Mercy, walk humbly with God.
Since I was young, I’ve read in the Bible or been taught that the church is a universal expression of the Body of Christ. And that image of a universal church has always appealed to me because it sets aside denominational identities and squabbles. The image focuses our attention on something more abstract, intangible, transcendent.

I quickly get lost, however, in discussions about abstract concepts from philosophy and systematic theology. Instead, as a Deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I feel better able to grasp how the church as the Body of Christ is a tangible, physical thing. The spiritual dimension is still true and important to me, but it’s the physical dimension of the church where we experience the church as minds, hearts, hands, and legs . . . doing God’s work with our bodies in the world.

On its website, the ELCA calls itself a “publicly engaged church” as it presents itself to the world [

When we in the ELCA call ourselves a “publicly engaged” church, does it mean that we make our service to neighbors visible to the community instead of doing it more quietly and anonymously? Is it a statement about being better servants of justice when helping our neighbors with their needs? How deeply woven into our Lutheran identity is our public engagement, especially if it can be seen in a more political way, as working for justice in society?

And then there’s this: anyone ordained into rostered ministry in the ELCA, either as a Deacon or a Pastor, finds the “public ministry” of the church among the responsibilities we promise to undertake faithfully in our work. But what does this use of “public” mean? How is it defined or understood in that phrase? Is it the same as when we talk about ourselves as “publicly engaged” in our communities?

In other Lutheran denominations, the phrase “public ministry” is said to refer to the “proper” administration of the sacraments and the preaching of God’s Word. There is often no elaboration beyond that, but the definition seems to indicate that, at least in those churches, public ministry isn’t really public at all, in that it’s not about serving neighbors without placing strict boundaries around the ministry. Public ministry in those churches is visible to anyone who looks into the open door of the sanctuary, but it’s doctrinal and internal to the church itself.

I actually like the ELCA’s self-identification of itself as a publicly engaged church, but that “like” feels subjective and personal, because it describes what I think the church needs to be in the world right now. It feels like I’m basing my beliefs on a kind of eisegesis, i.e. selectively using scripture and other basics of the Christian faith to support my own claims about doing God’s work – instead of exegesis – discovering what God is saying about justice and neighbors first, independent of what I believe personally.
Word Cloud: Justice in the shape of a cross
So, here’s where I end up: This church needs a more thorough, wide-ranging discussion about what it means be a publicly engaged church. And this needs to take place not just at Churchwide and Synod Assemblies, but also in our congregations.

And right now is the time for us to take this seriously, in the midst of so many troubles: As we witness how inadequate the response to COVID-19 has been in our capitalist, individualist society. As we face a difficult and divisive national election. As we work through the implications of becoming a sanctuary denomination. As we address the inequities and racism in our church and in our society.

We need to dig deep into understanding how the words of the prophets, the radical nature of the gospel, and the teachings of Paul guide a church and a society that needs to respond with empathy and not judgement to the needs of millions of marginalized and powerless people in our own country and around the world.

It's time for a comprehensive understanding of “public” engagement and “public” ministry that doesn’t feel subjective, personal, or partisan. We need a Biblically based statement that guides the practices and policies of this church as a spiritual AND tangible expression of the Body of Christ. We need to discover whether we truly are a church in which God’s work is done with our hands every day.

Are we ready for that work?

Deacon David Rask Behling
Hunger and Justice Advocate,
NW Synod of Wisconsin [ELCA]

Monday, June 15, 2020

On Being Church in a Racist Society

     
When the COVID 19 epidemic became a pandemic and worship in church buildings was
suspended to keep the virus from spreading too quickly, a number of churches started asking people stuck at home to make butterflies, out of whatever material or media they had on hand. The butterflies would eventually be used to decorate our sanctuaries when we were able to worship in our buildings again.
Butterflies are a good image for what we are living with and through this year, because they start their lives crawling around on the ground, then they experience a kind of death, and then they emerge from something that looks lifeless to fly about in the sunlight. They give us an image of life continuing even through what looks like death, an image that brings both hope and joy.
Before May 24th, we probably thought our biggest problem for this interesting year was going to be coping with COVID 19, the dangerous virus spreading through our communities. This was a problem that had become kind of familiar, and we were learning how to cope with it while planning on reopening our buildings, restarting in person ministries, and rebuilding financial resources.
But then on May 24th another problem blew up, literally, in Minneapolis, a city not too far from where many of us in the NW Synod of Wisconsin live and work. A white police officer killed an unarmed black man. It was an act of violence by a white man with power against a black man with none.
When the police officer wasn’t arrested right away, the community erupted in protests that continued for several days, protests that were exploited by those who are only interested in destruction, leading to looting and burning businesses, or division, including the President of the United States. Using a church as a backdrop and a Bible as a weapon to be wielded against people he treats as his enemies, he created even more frustration and anger among the people of this country.

What is happening brought to mind the poem Harlem, written by Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
After May 24th, the anger generated by dreams deferred and deferred again exploded in the Twin Cities and other communities. This anger is not a new thing. This anger is old because the grievance is old. Unlike COVID 19, the underlying cause, racism, has been built into American society since the beginning. Racism and racist policies have been imposed and maintained through institutional violence and has often led to violent reactions from those who suffer because of it.
It takes great strength of character to resist the urge to respond violently to the violence inflicted upon us. That Americans of color have relied mainly on non-violent resistance and responded with violence infrequently is a testament to their character, faith, and values. White Americans have rarely shown the same level of character, faith, and values in the racist acts and policies we have put in place in this country through the use of force and intimidation.
We, as the people of God, were already trying to manage being the church in our communities during a pandemic. And now violence arising out of the racism in our society has come to the surface, where we cannot ignore it or its causes. How are we called to be the church during this new crisis? Where is the hope? Where is the justice? Where are you, we cry out to God?
On Wednesday, June 10, the NW Synod hosted an opportunity to learn about racism and how the church can respond. The featured presenter was Judith Roberts, who shared her own feelings as a Lutheran who is not white, a Lutheran who has often felt like a second class citizen even in the church, the place that should be preaching and practicing unity and equality within the body of Christ. 

{To watch the full conversation with Judith Roberts click HERE; password: 1p&33N!#}

 We are the church. And we are strong. We have hands, hands that can make beautiful butterflies to decorate a sanctuary, hands that can put masks on, hands that can do God’s work in dismantling racism. We have an opportunity right now to be part of the solution, part of the healing, part of the change in our hearts and minds required in the fight against racism. God calls us to serve our neighbors when they are in need. There are many neighbors right now who need our prayers, but more than that, they also need our hands.

~ Deacon David Behling
Hunger and Justice Advocate, Northwest Synod of Wisconsin