No Human is a Pig

fergusonThese images from a recent Daily Mail article reminded me of something Br. Roger of Taize’ once shared while I was a volunteer with his community in France.

When the community was forming, a group of French communists in a nearby village wanted to protest the injustice and riches of Christianity. So, they killed a pig on some church steps one Good Friday. The pig was supposed to be Jesus.

Now, no police officer is Jesus per se, but it strikes me that systemic injustices (no matter how true or not) can’t be addressed by effigies reflecting personal agendas, ignorance, anger or hate. In doing so, we tend to objectify and dehumanize our “enemy”, which makes it harder to recognize any of our own wrongs. We also tend to promote conflict rather than justice and peace. A poet in the 1960s (Ginsberg?) said something like this: “If you call a person a pig enough, they’ll surely become one.”

Like Br. Roger, I’ll strive not to waste time with anger in response. I’ll seek all the more for reconciliation, justice and peace. I will pray for all in Ferguson and our nation, even those who might wish to be my enemy, for I think we all know not what we do when it comes to our current racial divide. I’ll take stock of my behaviors and try to repent where I can identify any of my wrongs. To be sure, there’s enough sin and stupidity to go around, because we all are human.

Perhaps instead of angrily talking, tweeting, posting and pointing fingers, we should try to listen better to one another and learn. Perhaps we should try to seek and recognize the love of God which is planted like a seed within each of us. We are all part of the problem, and we all have a lot to learn from one another.

Entering relationship with one another – as difficult as it might sound – is the way forward. I have seen its power at work through Taize’ prayers and gatherings time and again. Relationship is how Jesus often changes our lives and our lot. It is harder to hate our neighbor when we get to know them, but to do so, requires we put our anger, agendas and arrogance aside. We have to be willing to reflect upon and admit our own sin.

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion.” Proverbs 18:2

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Read Matthew 5:43-48

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Pilgrimage to the “Big D” a Big Success

RiseUp Logo (300)

We continue to give thanks for the love and faithfulness of James Norman (Messiah Lutheran) and Megan Bower (All Souls Episcopal) after serving in Detroit during the ELCA’s 2015 National Youth Gathering, “Rise Up!” During their week with over 30,000 other Lutheran youth from across the United States, they worshiped God, heard inspiring speakers, participated in meaningful service, and attended concerts from leading Christian contemporary artists. They also made many new friends as they experienced educational and social events.

As Lutherans descended on the city, Detroit residents didn’t know what to make of it at first. Who were all these young people in bright orange and other neon colored shirts? They were polite and respectful…even helpful. They were singing joyfully and proclaiming Christ’s love loudly through word and deed.  A news article seemed to lament that the downtown area might seem like Disneyland for a few days. Our youth were called by one social media pundit “insufferably cheerful.” Another person said online that it looked as if a Skittles factory exploded, and a new Twitter hashtag was born (#SkittlesExplosion) to go along with the event’s #RiseUpELCA.

Ford Field - Detoit, Michigan

Ford Field – Detroit, Michigan

Yet as our youth got to work making friends amongst themselves and the community, helped local area nonprofits, and brought life and joy to a struggling economy and distressed community, attitudes quickly changed. Dare I say that both we and the city changed? The positive energy was palpable as love was made concrete. The youth discovered a welcoming city far from dead. The city itself responded in hospitality, joy and hope.

Social media captured many of the insights learned as well as the opening hearts. One resident was amazed at all the youth had done. They cleaned her neighborhood and made murals to help board up empty houses while providing beauty as well. She said what they had done “has physically, mentally, & spiritually made an impact.” Another posted, “Have not seen this many smiling faces in 1 place since well… ever! Thanks for visiting Detroit, Ya’ll come back now , Ya hear…” An impoverished, disabled resident marveled at the changes she witnessed on her street and the friendliness of all the youth. She said it was a highlight of her day to watch the youth at work and wave to them as they came and went each day.

IMG_1295The most wonderful change came through personal interaction. High fives and hellos poured down the Detroit streets. Residents would shout out their welcome and thanks. Cries of “Thank you, Lutherans! Thank you for coming here!” and “God bless you!” rose up like amens at an energetic Sunday morning worship. One taxi driver saw our group working hard cleaning a neighborhood on a mid-90 degree day with high humidity. Without being asked, he bought cold water for all and shared in friendly conversation as well. Choking up a bit, he said we were working on his grandparents’ old street. It brought back his boyhood memories as well as hope for a future in Detroit.

People would say over and over again, “Please share the good news about Detroit back home,” and “Say nice things about our city.” Honestly, a number of our 30,000 attendees expected Detroit to be only a filthy, crime-ridden city. Some parents were afraid (or at least a bit concerned) to let their youth go there. Yet, we all discovered much more in that city: a people rising up and reinventing their home, a hospitable and gracious welcome, yes, even new community.

For as the week wore on, race, class and geographical origin mattered less and less. We were rising up as one together and meeting the Risen Christ already in Detroit and at work. That’s the best news about Detroit. We didn’t come to save the city. Jesus does the saving, and we visitors and city residents were now the joint beneficiaries of his blessing.

To members of my congregation, I say thank you for supporting our All Souls/Messiah youth who attended. In three years, we might have more heading to Houston for the next announced Gathering. Until then, ask James and Megan to share their experience, faith and hope with you. They are part of this larger story, but have their own unique story to tell. Better yet, let’s rise up together, looking for the Risen Christ here in Hanover County, and join in his mission. Young or old, that’s what we’ve been called and sent here to do.

Christ’s peace,
Pastor Lou

This post originally appeared as a pastoral letter in Messiah Lutheran‘s newsletter, The Messenger (August 2015).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Relax & Let Go – Always!

matthew6_34“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Life is indeed challenging, but when the theology of our faith meets the bumpy roads of our lives, we will be reminded that God will make all things work for the good of those who love him in God’s good time.

Our Lord is sovereign, all powerful, omnipresent, omniscient, eternal, all knowing, all loving, and you know what? God loves you – at every time and in all seasons, good and bad. So, we don’t need to walk alone, and we were never meant to do so. Our lives are not meant to be about pressure or time crunches, although those do happen. The fate of the world doesn’t rely on us even if it sometimes feels that way. Our God is, well, our God. We need to trust rather than work and worry.

True, we were created to share in God’s creative, redemptive work, but we are not God. We never will be. So, God provides us with a call to Sabbath, a time for rest, worship, and reconnecting to God and one another as a community. God provides us with people to love, care for and walk with us called family, friends and church. And if these should ever fail you as humans sometimes do? God in his Word directs us to cast all our cares upon Christ, for he cares for us.

We aren’t to shirk our responsibilities. We aren’t to hang back when called to act. We are not to forsake the assembly as some are prone to do. (Consider Hebrews 10:19-25, for example.) Yet we can let go, and let God do the heavy lifting in our lives through the grace and forgiveness offered us. The refreshing Fruit of the Spirit is always at our disposal: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We don’t have to work for them. Yet, we need to slow ourselves down and savor their taste. We need to seek them out even when they seem most far off.

As the world seemingly goes crazy, we are called to discernment. Rather than asking what God is doing, we ask, “What should we be doing to help?” Sometimes there will be lots to do. Many more times the answer is “ do nothing” due to our powerlessness…nothing other than watch and wait in hope…nothing other than pray for God’s will to be done in our lives and the courage to live it out…nothing other than trusting that God’s Spirit is at work in the craziness around us and battling for our welfare just as promised.

What good does worrying do? In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said it does no good at all. The wisdom of God isn’t as hard to live out as we might at first think. Do what you can as you discern that you are called to do. Seek to love God and neighbor as yourself. Yet also recognize God’s authority and love reigning over your life. You don’t have to be in control of everything. You don’t have to be your own savior. You can let God and others seek to love you, even as you seek to love them. Trust God to do what we cannot. The pressure is off.

At work or on vacation, rest in the Spirit that is reaching out to you. Attend to the Spirit and let it direct your path. Trust God in all things. Those who have God’s love have enough. This is the true wisdom of God.

As one saying goes, “Growing closer to God isn’t the result of working harder, but of surrendering more.” So, relax, and let Christ complete his work in you. The Spirit will make our paths clear and is there to catch us when we fall.

Wishing you a joyful summer with spiritual growth,
Pastor Lou

This post originally appeared as a pastoral letter in Messiah Lutheran‘s newsletter, The Messenger (July 2015).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Church arson: More than a hoax or what meets the eye

Arson is a horrific crime. When motivated by hate, it becomes even more abominable. If in the context of the Charleston active shooter at Emanuel AME Church (Charleston, SC) and then eight black congregations erupting in flame within ten days, it causes great terror and outrage.

It is little wonder many reporters, pastors and others are tweeting and posting speculations about these recent incidents. It seems a pattern. One should indeed be open to the possibility of a racially motivated attack, yet others point out that it seems a hoax when such fires are too quickly attributed to racism. Yet to be fair to both sides, the average person tends to be ignorant of the broader context of arson committed against faith communities. They don’t necessarily have access to the wealth of research, experience and training available to properly interpret such events.

Certainly, things aren’t always what they first seem. Already, three of the ten religious building fires have been (at least initially) attributed to other causes such as a lightning strike. Many don’t realize that church fires are all too common, and that many of these fires prove to be arson events. The National Fire Protection Association has reported from their research:

From 2007 to 2011, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 1,780 structure fires in religious and funeral properties each year.  NFPA estimates that these fires resulted in an annual average of two civilian fatalities, 19 civilian injuries, and $111 million in direct property damage. The largest share of fires involved religious properties, with just four percent taking place in funeral parlors. Since 1980, the average number of reported fires in religious and funeral properties has fallen by 54%, from 3,500 per year to 1,660 in 2011.[i]

The Southern Poverty Law Center and others are not totally off base to suspect a more sinister, violent pattern perhaps lies underneath these recent fires. Arson happens, and even one faith community burned down for hate is too much. Still, we need to be accurate in our discussions. We shouldn’t base our reactions on often misleading, summary headlines. Exaggerations tend to distract people from the very real dangers of such arson and fires in general. They tend to cause greater fear (if not panic), suspicion and division. People act on perceptions and emotion rather than any factual basis. Even an honest mistake can appear a lie or manipulation of fact; unintentionally hurting efforts to combat racism and violence in our communities by fermenting fear or suspicion. Yet, lackadaisical attitudes can also help facilitate such crimes and cover-up very real racist threats in our communities.

Past media outcry over what appeared to be a rash of attacks against minority churches caused the formation of the National Church Arson Task Force in 1996. (It has since been disbanded.) The Church Arson Prevention Act passed that same year. This made arson against faith communities a Federal offense and doubled the potential sentence from ten years to twenty years.

Since then, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have been tasked to oversee church fire investigations. Things have improved dramatically, but we still face great risk. Citing NFPA, the Insurance Information Institute (III) reports that incidents of arson of religious buildings dramatically dropped from 1,320 in 1980 to 240 in 2002. However from 2007-2011, they report 1,600 cases of arson targeting houses of worship causing $105 million in property damage.[ii] This means that over that five year period an average 320 houses of worship per year were victims of arson. Studies vary, but one may expect an estimated three to five cases of church arson per week nationally.

Many express dismay that what appears an obvious hate crime to them isn’t regarded as such by law enforcement authorities. Report details can vary depending on methodology and data source(s). Statistics can be hard to come by for those outside law enforcement or the insurance industry. It also appears that since the National Church Arson Task Force disbanded, statistics for “church arson” are included within the larger published hate crime statistics. This clouds the already complicated issue of hate crimes.

By their nature, hate crimes remain difficult to classify or quantify. A criminal offense needs to be confirmed as motivated by hate. If there are no connections established by previous threats, evidence on scene, or suspect admission, it may not be listed as a hate crime. As explained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI):

A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.[iii]

For 2013, the FBI recorded 6,933 confirmed hate crimes. It is probable that more occur. Arsons have a low closure and arrest rate compared to other crimes, because of their destructive nature. Evidence indicating the suspect’s intent might not be available. If motive cannot be determined, the event is not captured as a hate crime. When victims, agencies, or organizations don’t participate in the reporting process, incidents obviously cannot be included. Just as the debate about officer involved shootings (OIS) has revealed, criminal justice reporting needs to improve. Yet of the data captured, approximately thirty-five percent of hate crimes were crimes against property totaling 2,424 incidents. Only thirty-six of these confirmed hate related incidents were determined to be arson.

Still, one can discern that accidental fires and arson occur relatively and regrettably often at houses of worship. Religious buildings too often have flammables poorly stored, faulty electrical work, and other property risks. About a third of religious structure fires are from cooking related accidents. Yet, faith communities tend to be high profile organizations in their neighborhoods, and their buildings are occupied often on a fixed schedule. They might serve at-risk community members. This makes them attractive targets for burglars, vandals and arsonists.  Motives for arson go beyond hate and may include: concealing another crime, fireplay, influence of media/copy cats, monetary gain, mental illness, pyromania, and (the most common) vandalism. III reports, “In 2013, 27.9 percent of the people arrested for arson were under the age of 18.” One should not automatically assume that every church fire is arson or a hate crime. The research doesn’t support it.

Racially based arson does occur. One case is too many, but all houses of worship face risk. Media reports indicate that the Quba Islamic Institute (Houston, TX) experienced a confirmed arson in February 2015 when one of its unoccupied buildings was torched. A predominately white ELCA congregation, First Evangelical (Lorain, OH), was a victim of arson following a break-in.

Without suspect admission, known threats, or other firm evidence, one can’t necessarily prove hate as a cause, but arson for any reason remains appalling. Trying to speak and write accurately about the issue won’t minimize the horror to any black or other faith communities being targeted. However, we might reduce their occurrence further by working together. It might just help us get to the bottom of things quicker by limiting gossip and misinformation. Undoubtedly, it will help defeat a primary goal of such terrorist acts – fear and discord in the community. Unity of vision and purpose in the local community best fights such fires.

What your faith community can do:

  • Cut back bushes and growth near your buildings. This helps slow the spread of fire, but it also increases visibility for law enforcement and any passersby.
  • Keep up general maintenance, landscaping and cleaning on the property. Disheveled surroundings and unsecured premises tend to encourage unwanted activity.
  • Remove possible sources for ignition and accelerants.
  • Correct problematic landscape designs or features facilitating furtive activity.
  • Post no trespassing signs in problem areas.[iv]
  • Lighting, fencing and other physical security measures are proven deterrents.
  • Secure and lock as many interior parts of the building as you can to inhibit access of unwelcome guests and spread of any fire.
  • Don’t hide keys in fake rocks, etc. People know to look for these. Know who has keys and is allowed access. Key control is important.
  • Consider electronic surveillance and alarms, preferably connected to an outside monitoring service.
  • Speak of security awareness to your congregation. Ask nearby members to keep a watch on the building. Don’t be afraid to report anything suspicious.
  • Report domestic threats against employees or members, vandalism, other “petty crimes,” and any signs of suspicious activities or footprints around remote parts of the building.
  • Take advantage of free security surveys often offered by local fire departments, law enforcement, insurance carriers, lock smiths and security companies.
  • Participate in available community crime prevention programs such as a Business Watch or Worship Watch program.
  • The recommended insurance carrier for the ELCA, Church Mutual, has educational products available for clients. Check with your own insurance carrier to learn more.

Endnotes

[i] Campbell, R. (June 2013) US Structure Fires in Religious and Funeral Properties. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association. http://www.nfpa.org/research/reports-and-statistics/fires-by-property-type/assemblies/religious-and-funeral-properties

[ii] Insurance Information Institute (February 2015). Arson. New York, NY. http://www.iii.org/issue-update/arsons

[iii] Federal Bureau of Investigation (UD). Hate Crime – Overview. Washington, DC.  https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/civilrights/hate_crimes/overview

[iv] Virginia has a code (18.2-125) prohibiting trespassing on graveyard and church property at night, but not every law enforcement officer is familiar with it or prone to enforce it without permission of the property owners. Signs fit into the general trespassing code (18.2-119). It might be prudent to ban repeat offenders. Consult local law enforcement.

 

Resources

Bonetti, E. (7 Apr 2014). Church Arson: Facts and prevention. Posted on EpiscopalCafe.com. As found at http://www.episcopalcafe.com/church_arson_facts_and_prevention/ on July 1, 2014

Campbell, R. (June 2013). US Structure Fires in Religious and Funeral Properties. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association. [Electronic Version] As downloaded from http://www.nfpa.org/research/reports-and-statistics/fires-by-property-type/assemblies/religious-and-funeral-properties on July 1, 2014.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (UD). Hate Crime – Overview. Washington, DC. As found at https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/civilrights/hate_crimes/overview on July 1, 2015.

Ingraham, C. (1 Jul 2015). The surprising frequency of church arson. Washington, DC: Washington Post. As found at https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/07/01/church-arsons-happen-way-more-often-than-you-think/ on July 2, 2014.

Insurance Information Institute (February 2015). Arson. New York, NY. As found at http://www.iii.org/issue-update/arsons on July 1, 2015.

U.S. Fire Administration (2010). Community Arson Prevention: National Arson Awareness Media Kit. Washington, DC: Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). [Electronic Version] As downloaded from https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/arson/aaw10_media_kit.pdf on July 3, 2015.

U.S. Fire Administration (n.d.). Statistical reports on the U.S. fire problem. Emmitsburg, MD: Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). As found at http://www.usfa.fema.gov/data/statistics/reports.html on July 1, 2015.

Virginia’s Legislative Information System (LIS) as found at http://lis.virginia.gov/

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Our game has been removed…

civil war game

I recently saw on Facebook that a Civil War game, Ultimate General, had been removed from the AppStore. Now, I don’t own or play this game. I personally remain in favor of Confederate Battle Flags being removed from public places out of love for my neighbors who are dismayed by it. Yet, here is an example of what I find a regrettable; the impulsive reaction to very real racism, violence and hate in our world – such as banning a history based game.

Context in use of the flag should matter: in museums, art, education, and yes, even in some games (as they can teach history too). Will we burn all books that have the flag in it? Should all movies – even offensive one’s such as Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind still shown on American Movie Classics (AMC) and university classes – be deleted, banned or destroyed? Should all the Civil War print shops be closed indiscriminately in Gettysburg, PA or Fredericksburg, VA? Will we pretend the war never happened or abridge history to make it more palatable?

All the iconography of the Confederacy is not equally toxic. It is intimately entwined into our history and culture, and some symbols have lost their sting over time. This complicates our rightful discernment over these many signs and symbols of the past and how we use them (if at all). Still, we shouldn’t seek to cleanse our society of all our historic memories of things we find abhorrent. We can instead seek to place them in a more proper educational context and expand upon them with new memorials of yet unsung African American heroes in the 1860’s conflict, the 1950’s and 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, and since. We can appreciate their artistic, historical or educational merit even as we explore and reflect upon the evil and sin these items reflect.

Yes, the battle flag in particular has been used for hate, and the stories of the historic South have at times been grossly romanticized. (Consider reading the article How the South Lost the War but Won the Narrative to learn more.) Yet, this legacy and its images can still be used to educate and inform discussions in the academic disciplines of sociology, theology, history, political science, military science and more. It can be helpful as used by Richmond’s Slave Trail to sensitize us to the continued ramifications of such evil, much as the Holocaust Museum does with the atrocities of WWII. Even as art, some items such as the Confederate War Memorial at Arlington Cemetery or stained glass at the National Cathedral or Richmond’s Monument Avenue can be admired for their beauty even as we learn of their use as historic propaganda and a reflection of a culture and prejudice now passing. Or as with me, such games, books and art might serve to inspire an interest in history, public service and racial reconciliation.

Ancient ruins such as Palmyra (now being destroyed by Islamic extremists), the ruins of the Roman Empire through the Axis Powers (imperial powers associated with historic evils), and even the Confederate monuments of Richmond and elsewhere have something to teach us. In fact, a number (not all certainly) of the Southern monuments were put up as a sign of reconciliation and/or healing at the time.

For example, I’m proud and thankful to be a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute which fought in the war as part of the Confederacy. Yet, it also created leaders that fought for the Union. Before and after the war, it helped produce the likes of George C. Marshall (look up the Marshall Plan), Jonathan Daniels (Civil rights martyr), and educated countless military, civic and business leaders serving all parts of our nation and other nations as well. Its Jackson Memorial Hall was built at the instigation and funding of past Northern soldiers who fought the Corps and paid for by the Federal government out of respect for the bravery and military competence of the young Corps of Cadets during the Battle of New Market.

As a community, we need to try to avoid oversimplified, dualistic responses – life has never and will never be so clear cut. We are all “sinner-saints” in a sense; neither all bad or all good, some more bad or more good than others. This year, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s end. The United States of America won the Civil War (not just the North), but the truth and excesses of that war is found somewhere between the blue and gray of history. This painful period was no game, but along with the evil of segregation afterward, we need to teach about it, encounter and wrestle with it. We must seek to remember no matter how painful at times.  

Let us listen to one another as we seek to honor ancestors and history or as we seek to share the pain of historic injustices. While we do, it would prove prudent for all of us to use thoughtful discernment as we evaluate any remaining Civil War iconography and seek to move forward together. 

Sensitivity and compassion to our neighbors is one thing, but revisionist history proves to be everyone’s enemy.

Respectfully offered,
A descendant of Union soldiers, a member of an extended interracial family, and history buff. Ultimately, an imperfect child of God just like you – still listening, learning, and repenting.

The above post is edited from what appeared earlier on my personal Facebook page. It is a personal opinion and should in no way be taken to reflect the opinion of any other agency, organization or church. I’m solely responsible for any errors or sin. As of June 26, 2015, the game was restored to the AppStore. Yet other cultural artifacts and educational tools remain at risk of what I deem an imprudent cleansing. 

Regarding the ongoing work of racial reconciliation and issues of the Civil War, I recommend the wonderful work of Ben Campbell, Richmond’s Unhealed History and the many offerings of the Richmond Hill Community. I also offer this essay on reconciliation from the Taize’ Community in France:  http://www.taize.fr/en_article6398.html

Please join my prayers for healing, justice, reconciliation and peace. Better yet, let’s all strive to love justice, offer mercy and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). 

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Day of Repentance and Mourning – Sunday, June 28, 2015

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“The church proclaims Christ, confident this good news sets at liberty those captive behind walls of hostility.” (cf. Luke 4:18) – Bishop Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has called for a day of repentance and mourning on Sunday, June 28, in response to the tragic shooting in Charleston, S.C. Two of those who died were educated and served alongside ELCA seminary graduates – some right here in Richmond. The shooter was an ELCA member, baptized and confirmed. Beyond this, this violent incident hits too close to home on many human levels.

We have already spoken about racial reconciliation and our call to resist violence and injustice in our Sunday school classes and Bible studies. [Some resources remain available on our website’s “Update” page.] This ongoing issue in our fallen world has been extensively preached about and discussed. We have prayed together for God’s justice and peace. We have sought to welcome all without hesitation or fear. We have worked together for equality and justice. As a community and individually, we must continue to do so.

Please spend some time in remembrance and reflection this day. Confessing our communal and individual sin, in what we have done and what we have failed to do, we ask God’s forgiveness. Remember the victims and all those hurt by racism and violence. We ask you to pray for our brothers and sisters of Emanuel AME Church and all those who mourn, especially the families and friends of the nine shooting victims: State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, 41, the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Church; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Sharonda Singleton, 45; Myra Thompson, 59; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; and DePayne Doctor, 49. Please also lift up in prayer the people and pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran (Columbia, SC). As difficult as it may be, please fulfill our Lord’s command to pray for our enemies, including the shooter, Dylan Roofe, and all those under the active spell of the sin we call racism and hate.

We are Christians, one body in Christ; called to be agents of reconciliation and peace, healers in a wounded world. We suffer when any member suffers and rejoice as they rejoice (1 Cor. 12:26). Wherever we stand in politics, our love of Southern traditions or hot button issues, let us commit to love one another. Let us continue to be gentle and compassionate as we listen to one another and share of our own experiences and in that of our neighbors. We are called to be one as we prepare ourselves and the world for Christ’s return. Thus despite imagined or real threats or any discomfort, we will raise our voices in supplication, hope, and confidence, “Come, Lord Jesus!” and seek to walk arm in arm with all our brothers and sisters into a future full of hope where reconciliation and peace will be achieved.

As we wait, Peter exhorts each of us, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:6-11).

Christ’s peace be with you always,

Pastor Lou

This post originally appeared as an email and social media post to the congregation at Messiah Lutheran Church and School.

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Who said growing in grace was easy?

3108_1920x1080There has been a great number of people to pray for of late. Both people in my family and our family of faith faced serious hardship. Some dealt with a reality that so often comes with age – the deterioration of our mortal bodies, some even facing death. Farther afield, too many folks remained hungry, cities burned in upheaval, the earth shook, and war and terrorism was much of the news. Some reported the shrinking of Christianity while an RV on the road was covered with threats: “Repent! The end is near! Jesus is coming in judgment!”

Is this really the abundant life Christ promised us or our doom? Ponder Paul’s words: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:18-19). He’ll go on to say that like birth pangs presenting new life, the Kingdom of God is both here and on its way.

If we focus on our suffering – if it is all we meditate on and what shapes our decisions – then, no, we aren’t likely living the life Jesus intended nor experiencing the fullness of God’s grace. That false “reality” misshapes our lives. To Paul, Christ’s resurrection has changed our world and our lot. We shouldn’t trust gossip or the news. We can’t trust our senses. We need to trust in the promises of God alone. A new heaven and new earth are on their way – as certain as the fall harvest even though we might find ourselves presently under the most blistering sun.

Here and now, the seeds of God’s love are germinating and beginning to sprout, but the harvest day isn’t quite here. That’s right, we aren’t just waiting for heaven in some far off future, but we are surrounded by heaven breaking into a very real and difficult world. It’s being revealed in the signs of comfort offered us and sustaining grace experienced during trial. It proves manifest in new life – creation itself, the birth of new children or opportunities, but also in the transformed and still changing children of God. Peter agrees with Paul writing, “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

This true reality is rooted in faith and a certain hope that feeds the hungry, ministers to the sick and dying, welcomes the stranger, or can love in the face of death. I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking here but radically trusting in the power of God. While we wait, we choose to believe. We seek to trust and follow. We only try to act on the certainty of eternal love around us and in us – not the uncertainty of our passing, present experience. Our Triune God does the rest.

Amidst wars and rumors of war, Jesus will come again. He is coming here and now. Yet, that’s not a threat. It is a new reality that has the power to redirect and bless every minute of our lives.

I pray your summer prove a time of fun, refreshment and new growth.

Pastor Lou

This post originally appeared as a pastoral letter in Messiah Lutheran‘s newsletter, The Messenger (June 2015).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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