Tag Archives: community

Starlight, Starbright


Forest Wander/Wikimedia Commons

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4)

One of my favorite activities during the summer is to leisurely walk my little buddy, Boomer, as the sun sets and the summer heat subsides. More often than not, we become witnesses to a wondrous spectacle of birds settling in for the night, rabbits and deer foraging, and a magnificent burst of colors as the sun recedes and the moon and stars appear. What a special time of year!

I hope as you travel or recreate closer to home, you take an opportunity to pause in your own wonder and worship. Consider the same loving God who created the world and stars created you. Like all of nature, you have a purpose and place in God’s loving, creative plan. In the hush of the evening, I suspect you might better hear and understand your call to reflect God’s beautiful light.

Yet like the stars above, we remain called to be in communion with one another – reflecting and sharing Christ’s love. We are asked to plant seeds of faith, justice and peace – as when volunteering at vacation bible school, local humane societies, food pantries, or serving in many other ways. At all times, we are invited to raise our voices in worship and praise of God with the mountains, seas, and firmament.

No matter where you go or what you do this summer, please contemplate our shared call to be church. We remain Christ’s, and it is Christ’s light and beauty which we are called to reflect and share. It is you, me and others that were created, called and baptized to be Christ’s church together.


Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (July 2017). Revised version, 26 June 2017. 

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

© 2017 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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Hearts of Stone

heart of stone image.pixabay.

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)

One of the great promises of the Hebrew scriptures is that God intends to give us a new heart and spirit to replace our hearts of stone. This great work has been started through Christ’s resurrection, the Spirit at Pentecost, and the gift of faith. The process continues throughout our lives as we seek to follow Jesus and grow in intimacy with Christ and his church. It is supported through our shared life and blessed Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, means of grace.

Yet even with this great promise, we can take our eyes off the goal. We can become distracted by the world and our love can grow cold. We can ignore fertile soil and choose to hide in the weeds the world offers us – sometimes not even recognizing it. So as we began our Lent together, I challenged all of us to put our hearts into this season of renewal. I asked each of us to rededicate our bodies, minds and souls to Christ, and see what fruit of the Spirit grows.

Lent is meant to be a kind of springtime bringing new life and order to our lives. Yet in the end, we are all led to the wood of the cross and cold stone of the tomb. Jesus lost his life, his body cold and stiff, so that we might truly live and our hearts beat with his love. As unlikely as it might seem, we must go to the tomb to discover abundant life.

For there like a blooming seed, the power of the resurrection sprung from Christ’s own heart on a Sunday morn more than two thousand years ago. Its power still reaches out through the ages to each of us in love. It wants to take hold of our lives and transform them, but it won’t do so through violence. We need to die to ourselves and willfully surrender.

Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. Christ taught this. We are meant to stay connected to one another and to him. We are intended to help each other grow. Don’t cut yourself off. Come back if you have been away. Don’t let human faults or failing, yours or that of others, separate us. Don’t give into the darkness of sin and shame when the light of the Resurrection offers us forgiveness. (Reach out to others with that same light!) No matter your burden or business, cast all your cares upon Jesus for he cares for you (1Peter 5:7). Let nothing keep you away!

Then, leaving your old self in the tomb, go and follow Jesus. Be church with us and all the saints. As Martin Luther said, “Anyone who is to find Christ must first find the church… Now the church is not wood or stone, but the company of people who believe in Christ.”

The tomb is empty, and our hearts newly beat with expectation. It is Easter and time for us to leave the tomb of our past behind. Jesus isn’t there. He’s among the living. He wants you and I to join him there forever.


Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (March 2016).

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

© 2016 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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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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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.


[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.



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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We hasten in darkness…

As I think of and pray for the struggles in Baltimore, this simple chant from Taize’ presented itself once again. It provides shape for my deep, inexpressible cries.

I cry for those who mourn the death of Freddie Gray, for the police involved and those declared guilty by association, for those hurt by the riots and those hurt by historic, ongoing injustices, for all in Baltimore or places like Baltimore, for all the children of God who wound each other from their own woundedness out of ignorance or intentional malice.

Yes, we hasten in our darkness and amidst the darkness which surrounds us. We seek easy answers when love is never easy. The love of Christ calls us to love one another – even our enemy. We are to do good even to those who persecute us and always desire reconciliation. Is this possible? How shall we know if we don’t seek for it together?

People are thirsty for peace, all people. Yet for peace to happen, we need to first listen to God and one another even when difficult – without all the finger pointing and name calling; loving each other without preconditions even as we strive for justice. I have experienced such peace and witnessed such improbable miracles during and after my first sojourn with the Brothers of Taize’. It was a love that changed my life and called me out from isolation.

I learned peace is possible even now – an inner peace as well as with one’s enemy, a peace not of this world and yet within our reach. It begins with our humble and contrite heart, one we dare open to others who might reject us. Christ, too, was rejected, and yet he chose to love us to the end.

Let us search for this peace together no matter how hidden or distant it seems. We should not give up in our thirst, but instead be led onward. The darkness need not crush us.

Choose to love to the end, for the light who is Christ will reveal himself in such love. We will be refreshed. We will find new life where there was none. We’ll discover that we need not walk alone and afraid. We never did.

Lyric translation of De noche iremos: By night we hasten in darkness to search for living water, only our thirst leads us onward, only our thirst leads us onward.

God of compassion, we give you thanks for Brother Roger’s life. In a world often torn apart by violence, through his life and those of his brothers he created a parable of communion. We give you thanks for his witness to the Risen Christ and for his faithfulness right up until death. Send your Holy Spirit upon us, that we may also be witnesses to reconciliation in our daily lives. Make of us builders of unity among Christians where they are separated, bearers of peace among people when they are opposed. Help us to live in solidarity with those who are poor, be they near or far away. With Brother Roger we would like to say: Happy those you abandon themselves to you, O God, with a trusting heart. You hold us in joy, simplicity, mercy.
(Prayer written by Brother Alois to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Brother Roger’s birth)

© 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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A difficult way…but true

baltimore 2As I write this, Baltimore is in flames. Pundits are spouting off. Peace seems a mirage; very much out of reach. Yet the peace Christ offers us isn’t of this world. It is both available to us here and now but also on its way.

If we say we want peace and justice, I found through the years that it isn’t achieved by pointing fingers of protest or in harsh judgments. It begins with a searching, fearless and ongoing look at my life and how I contribute to the injustices around me. Then, I make amends where I can.

It requires listening to the voices, pain, and problems of those I disagree with or who might not wish to listen to me. It comes from loving your enemies, and doing the good to those who hate you.

This is all difficult, but I think it is the only way for real and lasting change – Christ’s way.

We don’t offer such a love based upon people deserving it. We love because Jesus loved us even when we were his enemy. It is a conscious, heart centered choice. We make this offering even though we might be rejected, made fun of or worse.

This doesn’t mean we become doormats, for even the first disciples needed to dust off their sandals and walk away at times. Yet we might at other times be called to a form of martyrdom, where our pride, prejudice and preference are surrendered to the will of God despite the cost.

Our relationship with Christ calls us into relationship with others, even our enemies. That has to be our intentional goal. We need to seek them out. Again like the early disciples, we might have to return multiple times to try just once more to offer our faith and friendship. The person we seek to love might never get it. They may never understand and remain suspicious of us. Yet, change is possible.

If nothing else, you’ll witness the peace of Christ breaking into your heart and your world in a new way. Christ promised this. And maybe…just maybe…one who was your enemy might become your brother and sister, an unexpected gift in your life and to the world.

This is a difficult way, but it is true. Let’s seek to walk this way together, no matter what others might choose.

Christ’s peace,
Pastor Lou

This post originally appeared as a pastoral letter in Messiah Lutheran‘s newsletter, The Messenger (May 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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