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The following article was written for Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Louis, MO. 

Eaton_Installation_RiteThis past weekend I had the great privilege of traveling to Chicago to attend the worship service of the Installation of Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton.  It was a powerful moment for me for many reasons, the least of all being that for the past six years Bishop Eaton has served as my synodical bishop in Northeastern Ohio.

As I sat amongst the 1,200+ other ELCA Lutheran present, aware that the service was being streamed lived and broadcast to members from almost 10,000 congregations throughout the country, I was reminded again of why I am proud to be a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Prior to seminary, I worked for three years as the Director of Church Operations for Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.  This congregation was a mere mile away from the UCC national headquarters.  At the time, their President Rev. John Thomas (equivalent to our Presiding Bishop) was a parishioner of mine.  I was also working at Pilgrim and attended the installation of the current UCC President, Rev. Geoffrey A. Black.

Having had cordial working relationships with two individuals who were the head of their denominations and attended two installations for such positions in a relatively short time period, it is hard not to notice how the Spirit moves within all churches and its leaders.  I have been blessed to see a great breath of the body of Christ, where the legs and arms hold special names like UCC, ELCA, Moravian, Methodist, and countess others.  The reign of God is glorified by all of our brothers and sisters who move forward in sharing the grace of Christ to the world, regardless of our denomination.

Sitting in Rockefeller Chapel on Saturday, however, I did realize the unique blessings Eaton_Installation_LSTCthat God has bestowed upon our denomination.  In a time when how we understand church is changing, in a time when numbers of young adults more strongly identify with spirituality than religiosity, in a time when our politics can appear to be devoid of good news, the ELCA gathered together and sang praises to God that change is among us.

We are in a new day in the ELCA.  Not only do we have our first female Presiding Bishop, we also have firsts in our synodical bishop leadership.  For the first time in the history in our church, we have an openly gay bishop, a bishop with a disability, and a Native American bishop.  Our seminaries and colleges are merging together to strengthen our resources, and we are traveling to new countries with our global mission outreach.  Yet even in the midst of this great change, we are rooted together in Word and Sacrament, supported by our confessional teachings, and empowering leaders within our congregations.

We are empowered to live in this paradox of change and tradition because of the grace found in Christ.  God’s constant and never ending love for us has always been with us and for us, yet through the power of the cross, we continue to evolve as resurrected people.  This is the heart of our theology and our tradition in the ELCA – that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and in response to that gift, go forth and change the world.

This is the message that rang forth from the rafters at Bishop Eaton’s installation.  It is the message that rings forth at Bethel as we celebrate the past 100 years and look forward to the century ahead.

We are in a new day.  Thanks be to God!

Vicar Tina Heise

If you would like to watch a recording of the Presiding Bishop installation, visit www.elca.org.

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LadyOfSnows_2One of the challenging things about moving to a new location is the struggle to establish a new stomping ground for everyday things.  This past weekend, my struggles centered on finding a bank.  I knew my bank didn’t have any Missouri branches, but since St. Louis is literally the border of the state, I thought for sure it would be no trouble to find a branch of my bank on the other side of the river in Illinois.  Especially since Siri kept telling me there were 12 branches in a 14 mile radius or less from my home.

I spent the most of my morning driving from one fictitious bank location to another, finding myself frustrated that I didn’t consider finding a bank would be an all day possibility when I threw on a T-shirt and left the house without putting make up on.  After I drove to yet the third fake-bank location, I felt the little patience I have for these tasks slipping quickly away from me.  That’s when I saw it – a gigantic sign that said “National Shrine to Our Lady of the Snows.”

LadyOfSnows_1aAs a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I’m not as up to date with saints and icons that other traditions hold dear.  I was pretty impressed with myself that I remembered that Our Lady usually refers to Mary the mother of Jesus.  Since I began seminary, however, I have started to fall in love a bit with the idea of icons – people and images that evoke a strong message about a journey of faith or a spiritual discipline.  In a moment where my secular world of GPS and ATM’s seemed to be failing me, I turned my car off-the-beaten path into the compound of the shrine.

It never ceases to amaze me that God’s Holy Spirit finds us just when we need her the most.  As I climbed out of my car, it must have been obvious that I was on unfamiliar grounds, because a woman got up from a kneeler at the outdoor altar and walked over to me.  She explained to me that the shrine compound contained many images of Mary.  When I asked how she discovered this place, she told me that she was “not religious” but, much like myself, felt drawn here when driving past one day.  She shared that once she began walking around she realized the shrine compound was a holy place, and regularly found herself coming back at the joyous and sorrowful times of her life.

Together we wLadyOfSnows3aalked around a portion of the compound.  She showed me various icons of Mary, directing me to countless miles of walking paths and meditative gardens throughout the compound.  She showed me the Seven Stations of the Cross, telling me what she experienced when looking upon the crucifixion of Christ.  Through her soft-spoken explanations, I saw a side to our Triune God that I had not yet seen, her words speaking to me as boldly as a well crafted sermon.

It has been a long time since a person has witnessed their faith to me in such a way, and it was humbling in ways I cannot begin to put into words.  In a week where the ELCA has elected our first female Presiding-Bishop, I have been overcome with the progress and empowerment we have made for women leaders and their public positions.  But there, on that compound, I was hearing the truth of Christ through a woman who never went to seminary, shared she rarely went to church, and probably never studied theology for any extended period of time if at all.  In some ways, she reminded me of the woman that shrine represented – Mary, the mother of Jesus, a regular girl whose humble and unexpected journey of faith brought forth the transformation of the world forever.  Our God works through leaders big and small, educated or not, who are disciples either by their publicly accountable held positions or who witness to a stranger in front of an icon of Mary.

I’m grateful I was sent on a fictitious scavenger hunt for a bank that day.  It led me to a truth I needed to experience from an unexpected witness.

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The following article was written for the July/August 2013 issue of the Digest for Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH. 

flowergrassIn a few weeks I will be moving to St. Louis, Missouri where I will begin my internship year at Bethel Lutheran Church in August.  It has been an interesting few weeks living in Chicago in this season of changes.  Many of my friends have gone to their respective home cities throughout the country, picking up odd jobs to pass the time before internship begins.  Others began their internship as early as June 1.  They are already a month or two into a new community while I am still in the midst of saying goodbye to the St. Luke’s Lutheran of Logan Square, the church where I have worked for the past 18 months as an their administrator.  First year students have begun their Clinical Pastoral Education units, and those where were seniors are now getting ordained or awaiting first call.  All of this is happening while students are moving into Chicago to take their first steps on this wild ride that is a seminary education.

Seminary is an adventure of transitions.  In addition to ebbing and flowing with the transitions of a typical master’s academic school year, our education is coupled with responsibilities that come with being a candidate for ordination in the ELCA.  It seems that every few months we are either moving in or out of a program, city, or semester.  Every few months we are saying hello to new faces and goodbye to loved ones.  I am reminded of the hymn that says our “faith flows like a river.”  These transitions serve as a reminder that the current of our church and its future is strong and powerful, always moving us in and out of life changing places and relationships.

I am fortunate to have a bit of down time this summer before internship and have been able to come back home on an occasional weekend to visit my church and nuclear family.  There was one Sunday when my nephew Alex came sprinting into Divinity’s narthex, grabbing my hand.  With a big smile on his face and a joy in his heart, he pulled me into the sanctuary saying, “Come on, Aunt Tina!  It’s church time!”

I am looking forward to internship with the same sort of joy as my nephew, eager to get to St. Louis and begin this next moment of my faith journey and pastoral development.  My relationship with God and our church is flowing down a river of faith that is filled with exciting hellos and nostalgic goodbyes.  It is odd to think that I may not be home to Cleveland for an entire year, finding the balance between vacation time and affordable travel plans.  It is hard to say goodbye to my apartment that I love in Chicago and the community of St. Luke’s that has been the perfect work environment during these two years of classes and local field education.  It is exciting to talk with my new supervisor and envision what our ministry will look like for the next year.

As Alex so rightly said, “It’s church time!”  This is a time worthy of excitement, enthusiasm, and unbridled joy.  It is time to continue down along this river of faith and immerse myself full time in a community as its vicar, making the final transition from church administrator to pastoral intern.

I remain humbled and awestruck that my relationship with God and the church has brought me to this moment in my faith journey.  I am so grateful for the love and support of my family, our Divinity family, and our synod.  My prayers remain with you over this next year as we continue to grow in our faith and with each other.

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In 30 days I will be leaving the congregation I have had the privilege of serving for the past 17 months in Chicago.  This transition is among the best, as I am fortunate to begin my internship year as a candidate for ordination in the ELCA.  It is thrilling to think in a few weeks I will no longer be an admin but taking the first steps as a congregation’s vicar.  While I am so looking forward to the time ahead, there is a part of me that is not quite ready to let go of a community that I love so dearly.

This congregation is pretty amazing.  Just yesterday as I was walking back from the local produce store, I bumped into a pastor who serves a different church in Chicago.  In the brief few blocks we walked together, we chit-chatted about my seminary (where his wife works) and the respective congregations that we serve.  When I mentioned I would be leaving Chicago soon and that it was time to let go, he said, “That St. Luke’s, they know how to make people excited about ministry.  It seems I’m always hearing about the great work they do in Logan Square.”

There was not much I coulettinggold say to that comment but to agree.  St. Luke’s does make people excited about ministry.  They welcome the stranger, serve as a voice to the voiceless, comfort the grieving, empower every person, and live a life of honesty in their mission and their worship.  I cannot help but feel proud of this community for being such a strong witness of faith, which is why it is a bit of a challenge to say goodbye.

A few years ago I was in a similar position when I left the UCC congregation I served in Cleveland to head to seminary.  That transition was also a mixture of emotions, as that environment is what nurtured my call to ministry and set my feet upon this path.  I remember telling Pilgrim when I left, “we will find the perfect replacement for when I’m gone.”  Now as applications for my current position continue to arrive, I see several emails and cover letters attesting to how this potential candidate will be the “perfect fit.”

I hope that fit has been found for that congregation in Cleveland, and I hope that we will find the perfect fit for this community here in Logan Square.  The irony of it all is that I began both of these positions when I myself was not the perfect fit.  I began Pilgrim to make ends meet, hoping to return to a life working in libraries.  I began at St. Luke’s knowing I would have to balance my seminary obligations of field placements, foreign languages and a clinical pastoral education unit.  On paper, I was not the perfect fit.

Yet, these environments were the perfect places for me.  I needed Pilgrim to show me a progressive congregation so I could see that there was a place for me in the Church to do bold ministry.  I needed St. Luke’s with their healthy leadership and mentoring pastor to support me and affirm my call in the stressful and uncertain midst that is the seminary process.

These places were the perfect fit because they embody what it means to Christian, to have a passion for sharing God’s love in the world.

It is hard to let go of a community that has nurtured me so deeply.  As I begin the process of saying goodbye, I remember that had I not left my last perfect fit I never would have discovered this one.

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“Do not be afraid, I am with you.  I have called you each by name.   Come and follow me, I will bring you home.  I love you and you are mine.” – David Haas, 1991, “You Are Mine”

This month has been filled with what feels like one-to-many life changing moments.

As I got off the phone tonight from yet another life-changing conversation, as I await more life changing moments that I know will be coming in five days, and then six days after that, and seven days after that, I can’t help but realize that it is in the transitions of life that we see where are our hearts really are.

My heart is one of vulnerability.  When my world becomes increasingly unstable, I become rather quickly insecure.  I hear accusations in short statements.  I feel pressure in supportive voices.  I find myself saying, “You’re not hearing me,” when really I want to say, “Look past my words and hear the vulnerability in my voice.  It is costing something to say these words, and I feel exposed.”

The irony is that I amflower_tomb most affected by life-changing moments that are not directly about me.  Last year at this very time I learned I had to take a drastic turn in my health care maintenance, the consequences of which I am still processing.  Yet somehow I feel more vulnerable now as I wait to get back phone calls of test results, doctors decrees and surgery dates for people I love than I ever did in those countless hours I spent in doctors waiting rooms focusing on myself.  Navigating the changes within my own body is far less terrifying for me than navigating the changes in the body of a person I love.   Their safety is to physically removed for me to feel comforted by a sense of control.

I keep on thinking about Mary and Martha at the tomb, having their life changed because of the change that had occurred to Jesus’ body.  Risen from the tomb, it was not where they expected him to be. His rising altered how they understood the current role of their relationship.  It was beyond their control and as such they could no longer care for him in a way that was familiar.  This life change made them very afraid and achingly vulnerable.

There is a deep and humble beauty that resonates in the fear of that empty tomb.  The beauty is that we as readers of Mark’s gospel who know what happens next can be reassured that things will work out for Mary and Martha.  Things have already worked out, even before they reached the tomb.  The fear they feel in not knowing why their relationship to Jesus changed  is secondary to the wondrous power of the action that altered their relationship forever.

With so many people I love in states of deep and powerful transition, I feel a bit like Mary and Martha.  I am afraid.  I am vulnerable.  I am feeling a bit too raw to change my “You’re not hearing me,” to “Hear the vulnerability I cannot yet say.”  As we wait for tests and pray that the next six weeks will bring strength and healthy cells, it can be easy to forget that things have already been worked out.   Salvation has already come.  Love already surrounds us.  We have already been given all the support we will ever need, as long as we are brave enough to look into the darkened tomb.

“Do not be afraid.  I am with you.”

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This evening I attended a confirmation cluster class with the confirmation from my contextual education congregation, St. John’s Lutheran of Wilmette.  This cluster gathers several nearby congregations together twice a month to offer students an opportunity to learn with other confirmands and participate in service projects with one another.  While I used to work with children and teens in libraries in my life before ministry, I know I have much to learn on helping young people prepare for the affirmation of their baptism.

Today’s topic centered on peace and justice.  Echoing our service project two weeks prior at Feed My Starving Children, tonight’s conversation focused on understanding how we complete good works as a result of our love for God, not as a condition to guarantee some sort of salvation.  We also explored that we are called to behave with a spirit of justice equally to all people, and the struggles that can come with living into that equality.

I think the most enlightening moment for me was recognizing that acting from a spirit of peace and justice is something we promise at our baptism and when we affirm our faith.  I didn’t recall this from my own confirmation, and when hearing those words wondered if this was an add-on to the newer hymnal, the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book.  Upon returning home, I opened my old LBW, the Lutheran Book of Worship that contains the words of my baptism and affirmation.  There it was, the exact same promise – “to strive for justice and peace for all the earth.”

It was striking to see that not only do we commit to God and one another to live with a spirit of peace and justice, we commit to striving for peace and justice for all the earth.  Not just our neighbors.  Not just the St. John’s community or the confirmation cluster or even the synods in Illinois.  For all the earth.

We are fortunate that we have a true example of such a commitment through the life of Jesus Christ.  Jesus showed us through his actions and teachings that anyone can take steps for peace and justice.  Jesus hand-picked the people who in their high-school year book would have been voted “Least Likely to Care for Others” and empowered them to be disciples.  Out of the twelve in our scripture, each disciple had some issue or fear to overcome when being in service to others.  But held in the love of Christ and empowered by that love, they were sent out to teach others how to strive for justice and peace for all the earth.

Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we too are empowered to take such steps to strive for justice and peace.  We are further empowered by one another when we enter into the community of believers at our baptism.  This empowerment is one of the things we affirm at our confirmation, to support one another when we struggle to live in a spirit of equality, and such a promise is made back by the community.

That support of the community is the first step in striving for justice and peace for all the earth.

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A few days ago I attended a service event with my contextual education congregation, St. John’s Lutheran of Wilmette, IL.  We are part of a confirmation cluster, and once a month pastors, confirmation students, and seminarians from four local congregations get together to complete some sort of service project in the community.  Our September event was held at an organization called Feed My Starving Children.  This organization packs a rice/soy/veggie food combination and sends it to places in the world where children are dying of starvation.

This summer, while working as a chaplain intern during my clinical pastoral education (CPE), I had my first face-to-face encounter with a child who was starving to death.  At the hospital, we gave his condition a fancy, emotionally detached label – “failure to thrive.”  Despite the detached label, it was hard to detach from recognizing this child failed to thrive for only one reason – he was starving to death.  It was a horrifying reality to realize that hunger and poverty can be reality that a US native could starve to death in a town in New Hampshire.  I had never seen anything like that before in real life, and when we were at Feed My Starving Children, I felt a need to help fight hunger with a passion I never felt before.  I realized fighting hunger had many more layers than I had originally thought.

Fighting hunger is vital – According to Feed My Starving Children, 18,000 children throughout the world die each day of starvation.  I know that in a recent Chicago poll, over 60% of all Chicago residents are “food insecure,” which means that they do not know where there next meal is coming from.  Hunger is experienced both at home and abroad.

Fighting hunger can be fun – St. John’s is now my fourth congregation who has a focus on hunger justice, including my home congregation.  Each place is different in how they serve, but the spirit of love that surrounds such efforts puts a smile on my heart.  At Feed My Starving Children, youth were broken down to into teams, and were told to cheer for each box of food they packed.  Each packing station was named after the country to which the food was going.  The five girls on my station cheered, “Cows go moo in Peru!” each time they packed a box, which always resulted in a stream of giggles.  Feed My Starving Children also played a blend of great, up-beat music.  Before that night, I had never done the Cha-Cha-Slide while packing food.

Fighting hunger leads us to quest for better answers about food justice – That night, we packed enough food to feed 600 children for 6 months, and the food all fit on skid the size of an ice cream truck.  That was because each bag of food only consisted of a cup of rice, a cup of soy, a quarter cup of vegetables, and a tablespoon of a condensed protein supplement.  That one bag of 2 1/4 of food is intended to provide six meals when mixed with water.  While it’s great this food will save lives, I couldn’t help but wonder how such a food source would be enough, or if the communities to which the food was going even had access to clean water.  Nutrition options for people in poverty are not easy, and what can keep someone from starving may not necessarily be a balanced diet.

Fighting hunger requires prayer – That night, we prayed for the food to safely reach its intended tummies.  We prayed for the donors who funded the food.  We prayed for the hands that packed it, and for the people who will receive it.  Since that night, I have prayed for the confirmation students to remember that they can make a difference.  I have prayed that we will one day be able to feed children with a healthier diet than 2 1/4 cups of food over six meals.  I have prayed in thanksgiving that my niece and nephew do not “fail to thrive” and are not food insecure.

Most importantly, I have prayed with a heart of peace knowing that where our human efforts fall short, God’s love does not.

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