ELCA Assembly Hears Bible Study From New England Bishop

8/10/2005 12:00:00 AM

     ORLANDO, Fla. (ELCA) --  Under the theme of "Journeying
Together Faithfully," the Rev. Margaret G. Payne, bishop of the
ELCA New England Synod, invited the voting members and visitors
of the 2005 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran
Church in America (ELCA) to wrestle a blessing from their fears
and life struggles in a Bible study Aug. 10.
     The churchwide assembly, the chief legislative authority of
the ELCA, is meeting here August 8-14 at the World Center
Marriott and Convention Center. About 2,300 people are
participating, including 1,018 ELCA voting members. The theme for
the biennial assembly is "Marked with the Cross of Christ
     The theme for the Bible study, "Journeying Together
Faithfully" corresponds to the title of the two-part ELCA study
resource on human sexuality offered to congregations, groups and
individuals to explore the issues and enter into the church's
discussion and dialogue. But for Payne, the imagery of a
"journey" provides an important way to understand her fears and
her faith.
     Payne, who for three years has chaired the ELCA task force
studying sexuality issues, set the stage for the study by
admitting that as a young person, she was herself a fearful
person, and that her sense of fear was strong. "I had an
irrational fear of bears," said the bishop, "even though I lived
in a row house in Philadelphia, surrounded by thousands of row
houses." But despite her mother's best efforts, Payne said she
was "sure that a bear was about to crawl into the window and eat
me up."  This proved to Payne that "you can't explain away fears"
for they surround you in every way.
     Payne then traced the story of Jacob, in the book of Genesis
chapters 32 and 33, who was fleeing his angry brother, Esau, who
wished to kill him. Along the way Jacob finds himself alone at
the edge of the river Jabbok. In the nigh t, Jacob is attacked by
a mysterious figure and the two wrestle all night. As daylight
comes, and Jacob has wrestled the mysterious man to a draw, he
refuses to give up until the man gives him a blessing. The man
blesses Jacob, who now has a limp as a reminder of the struggle
and has a new name, Israel.  Jacob limps away from the encounter
with a new freedom from his fears.  In the words of Genesis, "The
man said, 'You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for
you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed'
(Gen. 32:28).
     The story is a not only a "glimpse into the life of a holy
scoundrel," said Payne, but it can teach about the importance of
a journey and its accompanying struggles. Americans have a common
illusion, she said, that "the good life should be without
struggle. As long as you have Jesus in your heart," she
continued, "you will get the good parking spot," receiving all
manner of rewards and blessings.
     What Lutherans gain from their study of the Scriptural
stories is "not a popular spirituality" but the more difficult
proclamation of "Christ and him crucified."  Our journeys are not
always easy, in fact they are more likely to be filled with some
fears, real struggle and pain along the way, she said.
     The bishop also drew parallels between Jacob's struggle and
the church's work with difficult issues. For "four years, we have
been journeying together faithfully in sexuality studies," she
said. "Our certainties clashed constantly. But it is a journey
and not a battle. And we travel together faithfully, with those
equally passionate, regardless of our views of sexuality."  Payne
emphasized the shared nature of the journey's struggles and the
freeing experience of the act of sharing itself.
     Where there are disagreements, it could be easy to put a
false face on the struggle suggested Payne. Yet this sharing "is
not a plea for unity. Not an announcement of peace where there is
no peace and not a childish wish that we should all just learn
how to get along."  A meaningful wrestling with God causes us to
"die to our own agendas," in favor of seeking only to serve Jesus
and the world.
     Payne drew an analogy between the transformation that Jacob
found in his struggle along his journey with the spiritual
journey ELCA Lutherans and all Christians are likely to discover
upon themselves. Some fear the issue of sexuality and some fear
one another.
     Even though you can't explain away the fear away, "you can
fight it," she urged. "Jacob wrestled all night with what he
thought was a man," she continued, "in the struggle, we learn to
give up our own agendas. Payne wondered aloud, "What could it
have been that was more important than prevailing over Jacob?"
     The bishop left her listeners -- voting members and hundreds
of visitors -- with five challenging questions to ask among
themselves: What is a powerful thought or feeling that this story
arouses? What is a struggle in your own life that has felt dark
and threatening?  What is a limp in your life that reminds you of
wresting with God? What are the gifts we receive when we are
willing to struggle? And lastly, what role does struggle have in
our work together as the church?
     Information about the ELCA Churchwide Assembly is at http://www.elca.org/assembly/05 on the Web.

For more information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or news@elca.org


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