9.5 Theses for Times Such as These

I have been invited to reflect on how my congregation and I, a white middle class pastor who grew up in a Midwestern farm and now lead a church right across the street from the Nation’s Capitol in Washington D.C., are dealing with the toxic environment produced by the presidential election. One of my seminary professors, Timothy F. Lull, often encouraged his students and the rest of the church through a recitation of 9.5 Theses regarding this or that subject. Not 95, just nine and a half. There are at least 95 ways we could proclaim the gospel and seek reform in this moment. Here are 9 ½ ways that my congregation and I are living in the meantime.

1. Sing Psalm 146. That psalm framed the season before and after Election Day 2016. Following the Revised Common Lectionary, we sang it on September 25 and again on December 11. The psalm begins and ends with praise. In the middle it warns against mortal princes and it points to God’s creative, liberating and encouraging work for those who are oppressed, blind, and grieving. God is present in creation, rejoicing, and nourishing where there is wholeness and love, weeping and resisting where there is suffering and injustice. Some of the people who are living in deep poverty in my community start our prayers by thanking God “for waking us up this morning.” Some who are distressed by our nation’s impoverished politics look for the sunrise of the new day.

2. Call a thing what it is. Lament and confess that when we place our trust in something other than God, sin disrupts our relationships with God, one another, and the rest of creation, causing injustice and exploitation. Recognize sin’s insidiousness. It pervades every aspect of our lives, institutions, and cultures. Seek to understand how we have systematized and perpetuated sin in a variety of forms like misogyny, racism, and homophobia. Give space and time to lament how these sins have wounded and warped us and confess how we have perpetrated them on our neighbors. Just like David needed Nathan, we also need prophets to open our eyes to our complicity in sin. Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training is one of the organizations that can skillfully help individuals and congregations analyze and dismantle racism. In early 2017, our congregation will study the ELCA resource Faith, Sexism, Justice.

3. Share stories of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ’s life, crucifixion and resurrection for us and for all—embodies love, proclaims peace, forgives sin, works justice, renews creation and promises a future with hope. The gospel is the heart of justice. Listen to and receive the stories of God’s presence and liberation in the midst of oppression, suffering, and death. Stand under and point to the cross of Christ. In a society flooded by fake news, this story is the truth the church bears and proclaims.

4. Gather around tables of friendship. The first table is the one around which Jesus calls his disciples no longer slaves but friends (John 15:15). Open your doors and cultivate the skills of friendship and hospitality in all parts of your life. In our congregation, we’ll host small group gatherings designed to help participants develop friendships within the congregation. As leaders, we also need trusted colleagues and coworkers who can encourage our ministry, critique our work, agitate us toward change, and help us discern next steps. Bishop Mariann Budde of the Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church USA encourages leaders to recognize the important distinction between a ministry colleague and personal confidant. We need both, but they are not the same thing.

5. Organize Faith Communities for Civic Action. Many ELCA congregations are engaged in faith-rooted, congregation-based community organizing. The skills and practices of community organizing can help us develop accountable relationships across society’s lines of class, race, sexual orientation, gender, religion and physical ability. We share and learn what’s most important to our neighbors, analyze how power operates in our society, strategize together to improve our communities, and evaluate and reflect upon our mutual work. ELCA Pastor Alexia Salvatierra and her co-author Peter Heltzel say relationships forged in faith-rooted organizing are “revolutionary friendships for the long haul.”[1] Effective community organizing builds our capacity for wise and powerful civic engagement and helps us steward the gift of democracy.

6. Remember your vocation(s). Our first call comes in the blessing of baptism and we answer God’s call in a variety of arenas: household, church, civic community, workplace and school, etc. How we respond to God’s call is a dynamic process and we have a variety of roles. But I’ve learned that it’s important to remember and hone my personal vocations while honoring others in their vocations. For example, I’m called to be an ELCA pastor not a soldier, journalist, or agricultural policy lawyer. I don’t have to be an expert in their work; I have other skills and knowledge to bring to the community. Remembering the blessing and call that flows from baptism helps us be authentic and humble while also being filled with God’s creativity, compassion and courage.

7. Be silent before God. Ancient Christian traditions call for quietness, study, fasting, and retreat as forms of resistance against the lures and entrapments of sin. We need space and time in which we wait for God’s presence and listen for God’s Word. Make these times and practices intentional throughout the day and year. I also exhort those of us with privilege to speak less and listen more to our neighbors and colleagues. This is hard for me and I’m sorry that many people throughout my life have had to tell me to be quiet and listen. Being silent is an opportunity to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God” (Romans 12:2).

8. Do Arts and Crafts. Write and speak poetry, view or create a painting, knit a sweater, act in a community theater, lead a hymn sing. When the prose of political speech is blather, when a bully is in the pulpit, when our own words are warped by lies, we need to make and receive alternative ways of cultural knowing. Art can be the Living Word which addresses us in a way that is not debatable. Creating something with your body may free your soul.

9. Know where you are and what time it is. I learned from Salvadoran Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez that Jesus Christ appears at the right place and the right time. Each center and every moment of Jesus’ ministry is strategic. As disciples of Jesus, we are each in different, strategic locations for ministry in this critical moment. Let us make sure we understand the political-geography of our specific communities and how we relate to each other across the miles—and to our ancestors and descendants across time. We are part of a beautiful web of relationships. Also, let us discern where we are in the transformation of our institutions and culture. For example, Lisa Negstad, a Lutheran strategist for non-profit organizations, is helping Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries analyze the tremendous changes that the church as an institution is undergoing. Within the transformation of the church, she’s helping leaders understand our various roles and opportunities for collaboration.

9.5 Take Sabbath. Rest in the promise of God and share the simple abundance of creation. Tim Lull taught me that at least once Martin Luther said to his coworker Philip Melanchthon, “Let’s go have beer and let God to God’s work.” When we rest a while in God, then our work can be praise.


[1] Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel, Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World, (InterVarsity Press, 2013), p. 32.

Michael Wilker

Michael Wilker is senior pastor at Lutheran Church of the Reformation, Washington, DC.