Monday, August 11, 2014

Moratorium on the word suicide, please.

I just saw the headline running across the screen: "Robin Williams dead at 63 of apparent suicide."  Even though Williams struggled with a variety of illnesses: cardiac disease, alcoholism, depression, bipolar, the cause of his death will likely go down as suicide. 

The word suicide is loaded.  It carries with it the taint of fault and selfishness.  Christians have argued about the eternal soul of someone who died by suicide.  It's been considered the worst of all sins.  Dante put people who commit suicides in the seventh circle of hell; they would not be resurrected.

Suicide is hard to come to terms with and hard to grieve. I think that's because when we call a death a suicide, we assume the person had a choice in their death. For many, the pain is so severe and the mental processes are so broken that there is no choice. 

Calling a death a suicide leads to stigmatization. That's why I think we shouldn't use it.

Cardiac disease can be a terminal disease if left untreated.  And sometimes, even when treated, it still kills you.  The mechanism by which it kills you is heart failure.  You have no choice.  It's never called suicide, especially not if a person has done everything "right" - eaten healthy foods and exercised etc.  Family and friends of someone who dies of cardiac disease get sympathy, not shame. 

So too mental illnesses can be terminal diseases if left untreated and, even if treated, sometimes are too powerful to heal.  The mechanism by which some mental illnesses kill you is suicide.  Suicide is how an illness kills, not how a healthy person kills.   People who commit suicide because of mental illnesses are no more at fault for their deaths than people who die of heart disease are for theirs. Their family and friends also need only sympathy and not shame.

In the past year, my husband and I have both had cousins die of a combination of mental illness and chronic pain.  You could say they both committed suicide, but that ascribes blame to them that they don't deserve.  They were both struggling as valiantly as they could against diseases that were just too strong.  They could not be healed and they died. We grieve their deaths and trust them to a loving God.  They were not at fault.

I ask anyone reading this to pause if they start to say that Robin Williams committed suicide.  Say he fought valiantly for a long time against a disease that wouldn't be healed.  Channel Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and stand on a desk, inviting someone to look at things in a different way and just say he died of mental illness.

-Pr Sarah

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Meeting with Senator Warner re: EPA Clean Power Plan

On Tues, July 15, 20+ Virginian faith leaders from 5 faith traditions and 7 different denominations of Christianity met with Senator Mark Warner to ask him to oppose any congressional efforts to interfere with the EPA's clean power plan.  Below is my part of the presentation, a brief speech about why my faith calls me to care about the issue.   

July 15, 2014

Thank you Senator Warner for your leadership on environmental issues and for meeting with us today.  I’ve been designated to speak about the theological underpinnings that bring this diverse group of people before you.  I speak from a Lutheran perspective knowing that each person here could give a passionate, wise reflection rooted in their particular tradition.  I’ll begin with scripture – where all good Lutheran reflection begins! 

In the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, (you no doubt know them well), God made a whole world and called it good.  Then God put people in a very particular relationship with the rest of this world.  Unfortunately, the term used for this relationship has been misunderstood as “to dominate.” Its meaning is closer to “take-care of” or “steward.”  It’s to have “dominion over” in the same way that you have “dominion” over the commonwealth of Virginia.  You’re in your position not to control us or use us, but to care for us. Caring for this world is our first God-given responsibility.  

God told Adam and Eve that they could enjoy most of creation, but they had to live within limits.  They didn’t respect those limits and you know what happened.  They ate that fruit.  This is the first recorded over-consumption of the earth’s resources. The problem wasn’t just over-consumption, it was also its polluting effects. The result of their sin spread. The balance was thrown; the ideal ecology was no more; life got very hard.

Every time we consume without accounting for the consequences, we follow in the pathway of those first humans. It doesn’t lead anywhere good.

With an estimated 25% of CO2 output, the United States uses up far more than our share of the earth’s resources and throws more pollution into the air than the world can handle. The consequences are devastating.  

My husband and I just returned from Acadia National Park.  I’m grateful for the National Park System, one of the jewels of the Federal Government because they help me connect with God - giving inner peace, a renewed spirit, and a sense of belonging to a wider web of creation. Our lands and creatures are precious and they are threatened by rising sea levels and changes in habitat. 

It’s alarming to think of these pristine places being damaged by climate change, yet care for our marvelous landscapes and animals isn’t my primary concern.  Care for people in our neighborhoods; country, and around the world motivates me.  Increased asthma, respiratory diseases and cancers are caused by fossil fuel pollution - including mining and power production processes.  Changes in weather patterns, landscapes and economies threaten people’s homes and livelihoods.  These affect our faith communities – our people - here in Virginia.  

But the effects aren’t just here.   I have a sense of global citizenship that's rooted in my faith and confirmed by my time in Malawi, East Africa, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. All trustworthy indications – including the government’s own scientists and development agencies – agree that climate change caused by CO2 emissions threatens the global poor in unjust measure. Our denominations all work to alleviate global poverty, food scarcity, societal insecurity, conflicts, and preventable diseases like Malaria.  As people of faith we take great responsibility to do all we can for our brothers and sisters around the world but with the added crises created by climate change, the load is growing even harder to bear. This year, local Lutheran churches combined “Creation Care Sunday” and “Malaria Awareness Sunday,” acknowledging that all the mosquito nets we can send won’t keep pace with increasing spread of global malarial zones caused by climate change.  

I started with Genesis, I’ll end somewhere else familiar to you: the Lord’s Prayer. We’re in a sermon series on it at my church. Last week, preaching on the section “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” I let my congregation know I would be here today. When we pray “thy kingdom come” an unspoken response echoes in our hearts “and let me be part of it.” That’s why I’m here – with the prayer that our actions today are part of God's kingdom coming.

This week we’ll focus on the next line: “give us today our daily bread.”  You’re welcome to come.  :)  We’ll focus on the word daily. God promises if we take only our share for today there will be enough for all again tomorrow.  Limits help us live in good relationships with one another and the rest of creation. It’s a lesson Adam and Eve didn't learn but we’re trying to.

We trust that you can influence major national policy changes, including the carbon limits in the EPA's Clean Power Plan, ensuring responsible use of energy today in order to secure a peaceful, just and beautiful future for all God’s creatures tomorrow.  God made this world good.  You’re in a unique position to help keep it that way.

Thank you,

The Reverend Sarah S. Scherschligt.

Senior Pastor, Peace Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Leader, Creation Care Team of the Metropolitan Washington DC Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Welcome Back Potter

For the first four years of my life as a pastor, pottery was part of my weekly rhythm. I spent every Monday night Glen Echo Park. Like the best of habits, it gave me balance, creativity, and dependable joy.   Two years ago, when I bought a fixer-upper house, got a new job, and met my husband, something needed to give.  I stopped doing pottery and turned my energy toward the multitude of other projects demanding my attention.

Last Wednesday, I went back.  Why the change?  It's not that the evenings suddenly got free-er or that the house projects are complete (hah!).  Certainly no one in the world needs another off-centered vase made by my amateur hands.

I went back because I missed it.  I missed it the way a dancer misses the barre or a church-goer misses the liturgy.  Even when I didn't produce anything, the weekly practice of wedging and centering and throwing and rewedging the clay was like a re-set for my whole life.  It made all the rest more calm and doable.

I'd been missing it for a while, but when I got to browsing the pottery studio website every other day, I knew it was time.  By some fluke, there was actually a Wednesday night class that fit my schedule.  I paid my money and signed up.

I spent the week before my return not totally sure I'd actually go.  If I hadn't had money on the line, I'd probably found a way out because I was nervous about my return. 

Would anyone remember me?  Would my hands know what to do?   Should I wear my pottery apron or would that make me seem like an expert and invite judgement?  Where to sit? (Like seats in church, the wheels in the studio become the squatter's property of the regulars and I didn't want to start out by embarrassing myself by sitting in someone else's place.   I showed up intentionally late so I wouldn't make that mistake.)

This must be what it's like to come back to church after a long time away.  The longing to reconnect with God, self and community compels people to seek it our but there's a big difference between wanting to get back to church and actually arriving, turning off the car, and entering a community of people without knowing how you will be received.

It's helpful for me to remember that each new person who is returning to church after an absence carries some of that internal nervousness.  What to wear?  Who will greet you?  Will you remember what to do?  Will you sit in someone else's seat? 

Will this work?

I hope that anyone who decides to go back to church receives the same kind of welcome I got.  A few people mildly recognized me, though most were new (no surprise - communities change).  The instructor - though he never taught me - remembered me vaguely from the Monday night class.  He made sure I knew the new rules and took time to get me situated and explain procedures.  One by one, people introduced themselves without fanfare and we all settled into our projects quickly.  I felt comfortable fast.  When my former teacher walked in, he gave a big smile and hug and said:

"It's so so good to see you.  You're still alive! I've missed you.  Welcome back."

Monday, May 19, 2014

When to ask: are you pregnant?

When I was fifteen and drop waisted dresses were in, I was wearing one that puffed out at exactly the right place to inspire a stranger to ask, "are you pregnant?"  If you knew me then you would have known it was a very odd question.  I hardly knew where babies came from!  I wasn't offended as much as I was baffled.  Who would ask such a thing?

Fast forward to now.  I've been married for seven months, my husband and I are old enough that if I become pregnant it will be considered a "geriatric pregnancy," and we've talked about family life enough that it's generally known we'd welcome children.

Having not been asked the "pregnant" question since I was fifteen, suddenly I'm fielding it again from a variety of fronts.

Now I know that I've gained ten pounds since I got married.  They're my happy pounds - the result of wonderful nights of skipping the gym and hanging out eating ice cream with my husband instead.

I also know that people who ask that question love us and are simply curious out of their hopes for us.  I shudder to think of how often I've blurted out that question to others because I'm so excited at the thought of it.

So when is it ok to ask the question: "are you pregnant?"

The answer is simple: Never.

Certainly don't ask it about couples you know are trying to become pregnant.  You don't know where they are in their process or the private pain they might be carrying about a miscarriage, infertility or marital stress.

Certainly don't ask it to a woman who looks to be in the early stages of pregnancy.  She might not be pregnant and your question is either a searing reminder of that fact or just another way of saying "you look fat."  Also, she might be pregnant but waiting to let people know until she's past the first 3 or 4 months.

Certainly don't ask it if you are someone's boss.  If your workplace doesn't have clear family leave policies (which should include at what point in a pregnancy you discuss coverage for leave) then get those in place and make sure that every employee, male/female/old/young knows them.  Otherwise, it's none of your business.

Even if a person is obviously very very pregnant, don't ask.  At the moment when you are obsessed with the size of her belly - especially in a professional setting - she's probably just trying to get her work done.  She's pretty aware of her pregnancy; you don't need to point it out.  Also, different cultures have different norms for talking about pregnancy.  In Malawi, for instance, it is considered bad form to talk about a child before it is born because of the uncertainty in childbirth.  The child doesn't exist for the public until it is visible for all to see.

If you are curious about someone with whom you are close, it is appropriate to say privately something like this. "You've talked before about wanting to have children.  If you ever need to share how that's going, I'm here for you."

You can trust that when a person wants you to know she is pregnant, she will tell you.  But until then, as hard as it might be to contain your hopes and excitement, you'll do her a kindness if you just don't ask.

-Be at Peace,
Pr Sarah

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Recap of Lent - something has to die, something else has to be born.

Something has to die, something else has to be born.
During the five Sundays in Lent, that phrase shaped my sermons.   

A recap:       

  • Putting to death your desire to live without human limitations gives birth to acceptance of yourself, limits and all. (Matthew 4:1-11)
  • Putting to death your need to be the expert gives birth to the possibility of being changed. (John 3:1-17).
  •  Putting to death the belief that your past is unforgivable gives birth to a future with unimagined possibilities. (John 4:5-12)
  • Putting to death the idea that God’s work is limited to the people you deem acceptable gives birth to increased joy as you celebrate God’s activity in all kinds of people. (John 9:1-41)
  • Putting to death the fiction that you have control over time gives birth to an ability to trust God’s timing, even with the timing of death. (John 11:1-45)

Now, on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, we will experience this death/birth  dynamic as powerfully as possible as Jesus goes to the cross and rises to new life.

What will die along with Jesus?  Fear, shame, separation from God, reliance on our own selves, and our hope in human constructs to save us.

What will be born? Courage, freedom that comes from forgiveness, unity with God and one another, trust in God, and hope in our living God to do what no mere human could do – love us through the dying places into new life.

Be at Peace,
Pastor Sarah

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Samaritan Woman at the Well and The Healing of the Blind Man. (John 4 and John 9)

Something needs to die; something new needs to be born - Peace Lutheran Church's Lent series.

In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), here are a few things that needed to die: 
-          her idea that shame about the past should keep her from God’s love;
-          her belief that Samaritans and Jewish people had nothing in common;
-          the disciples’ view that a Samaritan woman wasn’t fit to spread the gospel.

In short, this encounter put to death the idea that God’s work is limited to people who are deemed “acceptable.” 

As we try to live as Jesus’ disciples, this story is a caution to make sure we engage unlikely people in the work of spreading the gospel.  We can start by befriending people who are different from us.  The good news is that we are all unlikely!  As we are willing to show our own unlikeliness – in the form of awkwardness, discomfort, honest confession of our past – the Holy Spirit will appear.   What will be born? New relationships build on honesty, mutual acceptance, and a fresh amazement at God’s forgiving love.


This week, we will hear the story of Jesus’ healing the blind man.  Sadly, the miracle of healing is overtaken by the Pharisee’s debate that follows: Who healed him? Wasn't it wrong on the Sabbath? Was he really blind?  The Pharisees defensiveness makes them unable to celebrate the miracle of healing.

We are quick to identify ourselves with the blind man and pounce on the Pharisees as self-righteous prigs.  But again a caution; before we identify with the blind man, it serves us well to ask 'in what ways we are like the 'Pharisees?'

How are you blind to the joy and healing in other people’s lives? 
Have you ever been so sure you were right that you couldn’t accept somebody with a different experience?
Are you resentful of someone else’s good turn?
From what specific spiritual blindness could you ask God to heal you?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Something has to die, something else has to be born.

Note: each week, I send the congregation sermon summaries of the last week and a preview of what's coming up.  My tech was off this week so there's no audio.  In Lent, my focus is: Something has to die; something has to be born.

Something has to die; something has to be born.

When Nicodemus came to Jesus, it took a lot of courage.  He didn’t understand Jesus, he just knew there was something important about him.  Jesus’ insisted that the Spirit can empower people to be born again.  Nicodemus never really understood it and neither do we.  But that is the point.  When we are born again, we are like infants.  We’re out of control, we’re dependent, and we don’t understand most of what’s going on.

What needs to die in order for you to be born again? What’s the shield that keeps you from admitting all that you don’t know?  Nicodemus teaches that when you let go of your need to be the expert, you become open to the Holy Spirit’s life-changing work.

This week, we will hear a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman who has had 5 husbands. She’s not your typical conversation partner for a Jewish man, much less someone holy.  But she's so affected by Jesus she turns into one of his followers and tells everyone about him.  When the old disciples find Jesus talking with this new, unlikely disciple, they are speechless.  This is not the kind of person Jesus should be talking to!

It’s easy to think of unlikely disciples as others. But what makes you unlikely?  How can knowing yourself as unlikely help you welcome other, equally unlikely people into this community of the unlikely disciples?