Photo credit: Sarah Greene
It was like seeing family for the first time in three years. Synod Gathering, I mean. Worship was glorious, and the required masks couldn’t stifle the songs in our hearts that finally, together, rose from our hearts and our lips. Amid so many challenges facing the world and the church, the heaviness that will indeed call us to decision and action, we offered no motions, engaged in no debates, and passed no legislation. We shared time together in worship and learning and fellowship. Sweet nurture for our souls.
Allow me to lift up two highlights for me. The first was what I shared in my Bishop Time on Friday morning: my own conviction about stepping up personally to address and reform the seeming acceptance of our “Mass Shooting of the Day” culture. There were 264 mass shootings this year already before Synod Gathering, and then three people were murdered in a gunfight just up the road from us in Hickory followed by several more mass shootings (when four or more are shot) just over this past weekend alone. We have to yank this out of the partisan vortex and come up with not only bipartisan but common-sense reform of our gun laws—at the very least around so-called assault rifles made only to kill as many as possible in as short a time as possible. I spoke passionately and personally about my commitment to this at the Gathering.
The highlight wasn’t my talk. The highlight was that evening when one of the Gathering participants, a layperson who for 22 years was a weapons instructor with the Marines, approached me kindly but quite upset to disagree with my position and to make it clear that despite much affirmation, not everybody who is a Lutheran feels how I feel. While I was aware of that and expected significant pushback, what I want you to know is that as we talked for nearly an hour. I know he listened to me and heard some background on my perspective, and I listened to him and heard an obviously very different perspective.
While we did not (and will not) change one another’s minds, we did find a few points of common ground. For example, I agreed that we will not (and perhaps should not) eliminate all guns, there should be federally-mandated (not state) waiting periods, and maybe ammunition limits, for automatic (or modifiable to automatic weapons as well as required training, licensing, and background checks. What gave me hope is that I made my impassioned point and plea. Somebody who vehemently disagreed with me, instead of attacking me on social media, came and talked with me for a long time, we both listened to each other and agreed to hear, and instead of demonizing and dismissing the other, we committed to do our best to build together on common ground. If we bring together a task group, I will likely invite him to be a part of it.
The other highlight was the energy around announcing the Bishop’s Challenge which is that as part of the Lutheran Services Carolinas’ (LSC) Be the Light campaign, we want at least 70% of our congregations (138) participating over the next 18 months in helping to welcome refugees. We expect that, along with South Carolina Synod, we will be welcoming through LSC 750 refugees with probably 90% of them from Ukraine. You may learn more about the opportunity to be a part of a Circle of Welcome for refugees at nclutheran.org/nc-bishops-challenge/.
Scripture consistently urges us to welcome the stranger. As early as Genesis, Abraham and Sarah in welcoming the stranger entertain angels without knowing it. These angels bear the promise of a future for what will become the Jewish nation through the (impossible) birth of a son. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 25 that the sheep will include those who, among other things, “welcome the stranger.” Leviticus 19 in the law code reminds us that you must welcome the stranger, “for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” And there are dozens more scriptural exhortations. We are people of welcome. Clearly, our theological and scriptural tradition and our faith lead us to help those who are struggling, including refugees. And remember, not only ancient Israel was a stranger in Egypt, but so was the holy family when they sought refuge in Egypt after King Herod issued his edict to kill all the boy babies two and under for fear that a new “king of the Jews” had been born to displace him.
For all that, from a practical perspective, there’s another reason I think this challenge is critical right now. We’ve been through—we’re going through—so much heaviness and uncertainty. Most of our congregations are struggling and not quite sure what the future might hold. We need to get outside of ourselves and focus our energy less on what we can’t control and more toward the ways we can help. As Mother Teresa said, “You can do no great thing. Only small things with great love.” Our collective “small thing” of welcoming a Ukrainian (or Afghan or Syrian) family will be a life-giving miracle for a family, for a child, giving them a new start and a new hope. Doing it all together will bind us in uncertain times as church and synod to a common purpose for a noble and faithful cause. I urge you and your congregation to participate and join me and LSC President Ted Goins for one of our information sessions about being part of a Circle of Welcome at 7 p.m. on either Tuesday, June 14; Wednesday, July 20; or Wednesday, August 17. Sign up to attend one of these info sessions.
Blessings, beloved ones, on this journey we share. With Jesus at the center, the new thing God is doing among us will bless us, and through us, the world God in Jesus so loves.