Lutheran Magazine

The Lutheran

The Lutheran magazine belongs to the people of the ELCA in all our diversity. The magazine nurtures awareness of Christ's presence in our lives and the world, shares stories of God's people living their faith, connects us with the global Christian community, provides an open forum for discussion and challenges us to bring God's grace and care to all.
  • Picture this: Surrounded by  an alien culture; worried about keeping young people engaged; a nonfunctioning government; a religious establishment in disarray; the economy is a mess; competing and beguiling demands on people’s attention, time and loyalty; a worship facility in serious need of repair; a dizzying rate of change; and people either tempted to throw out all forms of the past or to cling mindlessly to tradition for fear of change. Sound familiar? This describes the people of God in exile in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem. This was the world to which the prophet Isaiah was called to speak God’s word of judgment, promise and hope. Isaiah 49:1-7 is the Old Testament reading for Tuesday of Holy Week. It’s the day when our pastors, associates in ministry, deaconesses and diaconal ministers are invited to renew the vows they made when consecrated, commissioned or ordained. It is the day when the oil for baptism or healing is blessed. It’s a time for these dear servants of the gospel to come to be fed with word and sacrament. It’s also a time to be encouraged to continue their ministry and the ministry entrusted to God’s servants throughout the ages. The world in Isaiah’s time was in turmoil. It’s clear he doubted anything was being accomplished: “I have labored in vain, I spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (Isaiah 49:4). We feel that way sometimes — the “parking lot meetings” that take place after church council, years of preaching and teaching about the death and resurrection of Jesus and yet we still argue about which group gets to use the church parlor (I once had two committees arguing over the use of a slotted spoon), or worship wars over styles of music, contention between parishioners while wearing WWJD bracelets. But it is to this wonderful, often frustrating, ever-changing mission that we have been called and have been equipped. Like Isaiah, God has given us God’s word that has the power of life. And, equipped with God’s word, we are armed with a sharp sword and a polished arrow (Isaiah 49:2).

  • It hit me hardest when the counselor told my wife and I that we would need a psychiatrist’s help for our child. Can’t we talk just a little longer? What did I do wrong? Should we tell family, friends and neighbors? What is my child thinking? How will this impact her self-confidence, options for school and career, and a future family of her own?  Mental illnesses, mental disorders, and suicidal thoughts or actions are uncomfortable discussion topics for congregations and society. We often fear (and distance ourselves from) things we don’t understand. Sometimes we even blame those for whom we should care. As a pastor for 30 years and the father of a child with mental illness for the past 12, I’ve learned more than I ever imagined about mental illness and suicide. It’s opened my eyes to a whole new area of ministry with God’s people. Here are ways to create an atmosphere of acceptance in your congregation for anyone suffering from any illness: • In sermons and conversations, pastors can share positive stories about how Jesus cared for, accepted and loved people struggling with mental illness or disorders.  • As leaders, emphasize that mental illnesses and disorders are serious but treatable medical conditions. Talk about positive outcomes for people who have managed their mental illness — but only when you have the permission of the person with the illness. • Become familiar with mental health resources in your community. Be aware that medical insurance drives the availability of treatment options and family member support. Be ready for the reality that in some regions, resources for professional help may be limited. Remember that regardless of insurance status, hospital emergency departments are always available for serious mental health events and any indication of suicidal thoughts or actions.  • Learn from the mental health community about support groups in your area for individuals and families dealing with mental health issues. Post or list these resources on bulletin boards and online.  • Let your congregation and community know you are there to help. • Be attuned to stories you hear in the congregation or community that might hint at mental illness. Often this is a secret, stigmatized disease that brings shame to the mentally ill. Train youth leaders and confirmation and Sunday school teachers to watch for signs of mental illness and violence. • Create and maintain a private and safe space for people to talk. • Plan educational events around Mental Health Month (May), Suicide Prevention Month (September) or Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct. 6-12).  • Don’t be afraid to let people with mental illness serve as a resource. On occasion they are willing to share their experiences. This can be a transformative moment for a congregation. • If you hear any hint of a suicide threat, act immediately. Seek outside help if needed. No threat should be taken lightly.  I take high blood pressure medicine to manage my disease. My child takes medicine to manage her disorder. God loves us both.

  • Nelly Koyo was standing in the middle of her chicken house in Kisumu County, Kenya, when she learned she was about to travel to Chile. Joyce Amoyi didn’t believe she would travel outside of Kenya to such a faraway place until she was sitting in an airplane for the first time. Lisper Bundi, a Nairobi social worker, had never heard of Chile and doubted she would learn anything in such a small strip of a country. Fast forward to two weeks later when Bundi said: “We have learned so much.” Amoyi agreed, saying: “I look at things differently now.” For her part, Koyo was “ready to put in practice what we have learned.” What changed their perspectives? They were part of a delegation of Kenyan and Ugandan women who attended “Popular Education in Health: Dignity, Empowerment, Equity-Participatory and Community-Based Strategies for Health.” The two-week training course was run by Fundacion EPES (Educacion Popular en Salud, Popular Education in Health Foundation) in January in Santiago, Chile. Founded in 1982, EPES began as a health-training project of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile.  Since 2010, thanks to ELCA World Hunger support, nearly 90 people from 14 countries have attended EPES’ annual course, gaining skills to run participatory preventive health programs.  The 2014 course was coordinated with the Hope Foundation for African Women (www.hopefaw.org), a Nairobi-based nonprofit that empowers Maasai and Kisii women to bring positive change to their communities. ELCA missionary Karen Anderson, who directs the EPES International Training Program, said it was “probably the first time a Chilean and a Kenyan organization have worked so closely together to share strategies to empower women. The experience has been transformative for all of us.”   HFAW director Grace Mose was a student in EPES’ first international training program. She carried back to Kenya the seeds that sprouted into the HFAW, which she co-founded with Hellen Njoroge, a counseling psychologist at the Nairobi Hospital’s Gender Violence Recovery Center. Mose has a doctorate and works in domestic violence prevention. Mose returned to Santiago in January with five other women, including Njoroge and Generous Turinawe, director of ACT-Muko (Agape Community Transformation) in Uganda. The group learned the methodology that has been key to EPES’ success. They immersed themselves in participatory community assessments, learn-by-playing techniques, strategic planning and creative evaluation methods. Hands-on learning Their teachers, health promoters trained by EPES, shared knowledge, skills and experience gained over decades of work in their communities in Chile. As the teachers demonstrated such popular educational techniques as murals, skits and neighborhood canvassing, language proved no barrier to communication and new friendships. After canvassing the local open-air market with health promoters to raise awareness about violence against women, the Kenyan and Ugandan women were enthused. They shop in similar farmers’ markets at home, but had not imagined their potential for health education. The group’s time in Chile was the first step of an HFAW plan to adapt the EPES model to address widespread violence against women, HIV/AIDS and female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation) in Kenya. HFAW is undertaking a six-month pilot project to train community health promoters, with ongoing support from EPES via Skype and email. The 2011 U.N. Global Report on HIV/AIDS indicates that 1.6 million Kenyans live with HIV and more than a million children have been orphaned as a consequence of AIDS. The prevalence of AIDS among women (8 percent) is nearly twice as great as for men (4.3 percent).

  • The front pew was comfortable enough, but I decided to move to the very back of the sanctuary. Then I reconsidered and moved to the middle. Why? One word in the worship bulletin: “communion.” If served from the front, my ignorance of the process would show after a 30-year hiatus from church. They might also begin in the rear. But the middle was safe: I could observe and mimic without embarrassment.  Five years earlier at age 42, I’d had a joyous revelation that changed the rest of my life. I was diagnosed with rapid cycling Type 1 bipolar disorder. Joy came not from being bipolar, but from having a name for that which had made me a prisoner of my mind. My struggles over the past few decades were no longer personal failures. They had a name, and I had options.  Inward chaos  On the surface, my life could seem ideal. I graduated early from high school and college, got married, served as an Army officer in Europe in my 20s, earned a doctorate by 30 and traveled to about 25 countries. Currently I serve as a senior epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, am financially sound, and have wonderful relationships with friends and family.  Yet until age 42, my outward success was a thin veneer over inward chaos. I graduated early because, unable to connect with family, I left home. My marriage lasted only 71 days. My military service was plagued with mental health problems resulting in a mandatory psychiatric evaluation. I couldn’t stay in any job more than two or three years. Virtually all of my friendships were permanently marred. Most of all, I was spiritually numb.  Thoughts of suicide were almost a daily event as I wondered when my mind would betray me again and how bad the next episode would be. Previously I had been misdiagnosed with depression — quite different from bipolar disorder. While working for a medical examiner’s office in New Mexico where I saw death every day, I decided how to take my own life. In that job, I failed to see any evidence of God in death. But there was peace in the faces of those who were gone — a peace I wanted. In January 2006, I took 120 Valium pills. I have no memory of the next four days. Waking up in the hospital, I was angry to learn I had survived.  Fast forward to a few weeks after my diagnosis: driving home from work, I thought, “So this is what regular people feel like.” Medication quickly created a fragile stability, but my bipolar mind wasn’t suddenly well just because the chemicals were better balanced. I needed time and care to cultivate the will to live and develop capacities most people take for granted: the ability to love and forgive, to feel empathy, develop mutually supportive relationships, find joy in serving others and understand that I was a part of something bigger than myself. I bought a Bible and struggled alone to decipher God’s word and discover God’s plans for me. Soon I realized that I needed a church and people who understood Scripture to help guide me. My first guide was Bob Mitchell, the pastor who gave me communion that first Sunday at Christ the Lord Lutheran Church in Lawrenceville, Ga. This congregation places great value on service to the community. So I reasoned that even if I failed to make a connection with God, at least I would have served the community well.  That first Sunday, when Mitchell said to the congregation, “Your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” the lump in my throat and tears in my eyes took me completely by surprise. Still I fought the concept for months: How could forgiveness possibly come that easily? Reinforcement came over the radio through “Redeemed,” a song by Big Daddy Weave, that told me I was “fighting a fight that’s already been won.” I already had the gift of God’s grace. Here was a loving God who sacrificed a son for my sins (of which there were many), who loves and forgives me in a way I had not been able to love or forgive myself.  Scripture & growth  Much of my spiritual growth came from joining an incredible Bible study group at the congregation. For 36 weeks we focused on becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. The first few evenings while we were getting to know each other, two members shared their frustrations with bipolar relatives. I understood, but wondered if I could ever share my struggles with the group — even as we studied portions of the Bible that focused on individual struggles, healing the sick and compassion for the afflicted. I feared losing the closest thing I had to new friends.  But if a Bible study full of faithful women wasn’t a safe place to share, no place would be safe. I took the risk, and the purely academic exercise to which I had committed myself became a circle of sisters in Christ. Previously I had spent a lot of time silently crying out to previous friends whom I had tested to their limits: “Don’t you give up on me!” The evening of my disclosure, nobody gave up. Despite their struggles with bipolar family members, I was loved and supported.  In watching the group respond to everyday challenges, I learned how to truly care for others. Before I hadn’t understood praying for people because they felt ill, had an argument with a spouse or were dreading another day of difficulties at work. In the life of someone with untreated bipolar disorder, that’s just what happens before breakfast. A challenge worthy of prayer? That would be waking up after a suicide attempt or realizing you had permanently alienated your last friend.

  • Not a blade of grass is out of place in this neat, peaceful neighborhood at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington. The quiet ends inside Melissa Shenefelt’s home. Sons Vinny, 8, and Owen, 6, are home from school with plenty of pent-up energy. The two family dogs are barking their lungs out. Vinny hauls out video games and Owen squeals in glee as he slides and bumps down the stairs on his bare tummy. “He’s my red-headed troublemaker, is what he is,” Shenefelt said of Owen. The scene could be that of any family here in the Pacific Northwest, where there are as many Navy bases as there are major shopping malls. But Shenefelt has it tougher. For months on end, her husband Sean is not at her side to help. He’s a sailor on the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and at sea most of the time. What’s more, Vinny has autism, an attention-deficit disorder and other conditions, his mother said. Owen’s conditions include chronic lung disease. Slipping out just to buy groceries or to get one of the boys to the doctor has been “a little rough,” she admitted. So has getting away for a date night when her husband is home. The result for Shenefelt has been more stress. Other Navy men and women who have children with exceptional needs and little support have become depressed, fatigued or unable to continue in their jobs. Marriages have become strained and broken.  The lucky parents have relatives or friends nearby who provide relief. But it’s not uncommon for transitory Navy families to be isolated in their communities with no one to call for help. Lutheran agency steps in Enter the Navy’s Exceptional Family Member Program Respite Care, which provides active-duty parents who have children with exceptional needs 40 hours of high-quality, free help a month. In 2012 the program provided 316,611 respite hours to 569 Navy families in a handful of locations, including the Pacific Northwest;  Washington, D.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Norfolk, Va.; and San Diego, according to Child Care Aware of America, which administers the program for the Navy and other service branches. The Navy’s 5-year-old program has grown fast to try to meet the high demand. The most common condition among the children in the program is autism, followed by developmental disabilities.  The North Puget Sound Office of Lutheran Community Services Northwest, a social-service agency supported by the Lutheran community and others, recruits and trains respite providers for Child Care Aware of America. Back in 2009, fewer than 50 families got help in the Northwest. Today 125 families are served in the Bremerton-Everett-Whidbey Island area. And it’s still not enough. “Our families currently are waiting four to six months,” said Nancy Ashton-King, Navy respite coordinator for Lutheran Community Services Northwest.