July 23, 2011 in Features

Bishop reflects on water, faith and action

Lutheran leader visited Spokane to address women’s conference
By The Spokesman-Review

The Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – the largest Lutheran church body in the United States – was in Spokane earlier this month to address the Women of the ELCA convention.

Hanson, 64, has visited Spokane before and enjoys the welcome he feels from the people – and from the Spokane River.

The church he leads got plenty of press attention in 2009 because of its decision to ordain gay and lesbian clergy. The controversy has died down, Hanson says, but church members continue to learn what it means to “recognize diversity within our own church.”

 At a meeting room in the Spokane Convention Center, Hanson, a member of President Obama’s Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Advisory Committee, took time out for some reflection.

On Spokane: I love your river walk. It is always a baptismal remembrance. I begin every day remembering my life is bathed in God’s grace. The intensity of the river (shows) us the contrast between the raging streams of life and the currents that would pull us every direction. The baptismal waters of God’s grace hold us buoyant.

On water: Water is so much a part of our life. I’m on the phone every three days with the bishop of western North Dakota, and we’re talking about how Lutherans are going to help where there is too much water from the floods. Then I go to India and see all the tension around the commodification of water and making a product that must be purchased rather than a right that every human being has. Water is a wonderful connecting piece to so many parts of faith and what God calls us to do in the world.

On society’s polarization: Our elected leaders are choosing to be entrenched in their political positions rather than find solutions. We used to talk about people drawing lines in the sand. I think those lines are now in concrete. What got Jesus in trouble, and ultimately crucified, is that he had the audacity to stand on both sides of these lines and say God is present on both sides, with the judges and the judged, with the excluded and the welcomed.

On the economic downturn: Without minimizing its impact on individual lives, what we’re experiencing as a downturn in the (U.S.) economy hardly gets us close to the reality most people live with every day.

Over a billion people live (on) less than a dollar a day. Most places in the world are teeming with people who are sick, who are literally trying to have bread for this day, water for this day, shelter for this day.

My hope would be that we look for solutions to our economic crisis, but we also take this opportunity to build connectedness with those who can teach us about living with less.

There is so much shame associated with having less that we try to live as if we don’t have less and that creates the debt and the discouragement. When I was preaching about those in poverty in a sermon, a woman said at the door, “Bishop, you talk as if there’s no one in poverty in the pews here. I am one of those who you describe. I live with poverty every day. I don’t know where the next meal is coming from.”

On his family: We have six kids, ages 23 to 35. We’re an interracial family, four adopted, two birth children and five grandchildren, all multiracial. Diversity for my kids is something to be celebrated. It enriches life.

On Lutheran women: We’ve had a book-of-faith initiative trying to get Lutherans into the word of God. But long before we had the initiative, women gathered in Bible studies in parishes, generation after generation.

We turn to young adults to teach us about living their faith by serving. But long before these young adults discovered living their faith by serving, women have been quilting together in church basements. These women have supported international students with scholarships. They’ve been into women’s preventive health long before we started talking about holistic medicine.

On the future: We have an assembly coming up in less than a month in Orlando. Our assembly two years ago got lots of media attention because of its focus on sexuality. This assembly will be a window into who we are as the ELCA and it won’t get as many stories because it’s not as controversial.

We’ll have Sayyid Syeed from the North American Islamic Society give us a greeting, the first time a Muslim has officially greeted us, as a sign of our deepening, growing commitment to interreligious relationships, especially with Jews and Muslims, in a world where people are so afraid of the faith of their neighbor.

We will act on a social statement on genetics. And we’ll have a huge focus on disaster response.

I was in the airport in Phoenix and a woman asked, “What church are you a bishop in?” I said, “I’m a Lutheran.” She yelled out: “We love Lutherans.” I said, “Who is the ‘we’?”

She said, “I work for FEMA and we know when a disaster strikes, the Lutherans will show up and stay until the work is done.”

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