Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Dinner

When I was growing up, Christmas dinner was one of the three times in the year, along with Easter and Thanksgiving, when our family all sat together at the dinner table, instead of at our own individual avocado-green TV trays at the couch. We used the fancy silverware that had a monogrammed initial on each piece. Sometimes it was turkey, some years it was ham. Sometimes pumpkin pie, other times apple.

I imagine you have your own memories and traditions of Christmas dinner. Maybe it’s cooked lamb or duck, or even a turducken. Maybe it’s something Scandinavian like lutefisk and lefse or perhaps tamales with pico de gallo. Maybe it’s Chinese food, like Ralphie’s family has in the classic holiday movie, A Christmas Story.

I’ve been trying to think about what food most reminds us of Christmas. Frosted sugar cookies shaped like bells and trees with red and green frosting? Fruitcake or sweet potato pie? Maybe candy canes. A detailed story about the symbolism and meaning of the candy cane has been circulating on the Internet. Perhaps something more gourmet—roasted partridge with pear sauce?

How about bread and wine? Body and blood?

There are bumper stickers and signs out admonishing us to keep the Christ in Christmas. This is most certainly true.

Yet I haven’t seen very many stickers and signs saying, “Keep the Mass in Christmas.” What better way to celebrate God’s entry into the world than to share the meal where God is truly present.

I realize that there might be some apprehension among Lutherans toward calling the sacrament Mass, but that is what it is—a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. We eat and remember what God has already done, but we also eat with hope of the great heavenly banquet, in this foretaste of the feast to come.

The story we remember this Christmas Eve, and keep telling—this old, old story, of the birth of Jesus brings us to Bethlehem. Luke’s Gospel takes great effort to bring the plot to this little village, because it makes a connection between Jesus and King David. Jesus shall rule over the people.

The word “Bethlehem” literally means, in Hebrew, “House of Bread.” I’ve heard it suggested that Bethlehem could be translated to be “grain elevator.” It evidently was an agricultural place, a place for storing food supplies.

Tonight you might go home and eat chips and salsa as a midnight snack. You might grab an breakfast taco in the morning. Tomorrow, you might have that roasted turducken with gravy and stuffing. You might even go to a Chinese buffet.

But tonight, we share this Christmas dinner—this bread and this wine—this body and this blood. As we eat, we remember. We remember what God can do. We remember the grain for the impoverished widow. We remember the child born in Bethlehem. We remember the good news the angels sang. We remember what the shepherds found when they went to Bethlehem. We remember the Bread of Life in that House of Bread.

So tonight, as we eat our Christmas Dinner at that table, we eat with hope of what God has promised. We live in a world where we don’t always know what happens next. We live in a world that knows all too well fear and anticipation. We long for that peace. We pray for the coming of Christ. We celebrate, knowing that God has come to us. We remember the Bread. We eat the Bread. We live the Bread. Amen.

A Pastor's Call

A few months ago, one of the children in our congregation asked me, “Pastor Paul, what is your job?” I responded, “Umm, I’m a pastor.” I fumbled with some answer about leading worship, teaching about the Bible, and visiting people who are sick, but I discover who hard it is to actually articulate what I do. My job (or more accurately, vocation) is very multifaceted.

There’s an old joke about pastors only working on Sunday. Of course, I work more than that. I love the variety of what I do. I think it is helpful for us to revisit the Letter of Call. This is the document that a congregation of the ELCA gives a pastor at the start of ministry together. The “we” is Amazing Grace, not a bishop, seminary, or committee. Mine is hanging on my office wall:

We call you to exercise among us the ministry of Word and Sacrament which God has established and which the Holy Spirit empowers: To preach and teach the Word of God in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions; to administer Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; to lead us in worship; to proclaim the forgiveness of sins; to provide pastoral care; to speak for justice in behalf of the poor and oppressed; to encourage persons to prepare for the ministry of the Gospel; to impart knowledge of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its wider ministry; to endeavor to increase support given by our congregation to the work of our whole church; to equip us for witness and service; and guide us in proclaiming God’s love through word and deed.

What a privilege it is for me get to do all of this with you here in San Antonio. Thank you for allowing me to be your pastor.

Happy New Year!

(From my January newsletter article).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Soy guadalupano luterano.

Why I am a guadalupano luterano

As a straight, white, male Lutheran pastor, I admit that I really like the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I first got to learn about her in detail while on internship at Trinity, a congregation that was very intentional about the cultural heritage of all its members. Much of my appreciation of the Guadalupe traditions was shaped by the preaching and teaching of my supervisor, Pastor Heidi Neumark. (To the left is a fantastic mural at Trinity, showing Martin Luther, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Frederick Douglass standing together--a sign of so much beautiful unity).

The Guadalupe story has a reputation for being a significant part of the spiritual lives of many Roman Catholic people, but when you start to think about it, it is a very Lutheran story. Martin Luther pushed to have the Bible written in German—the language of the people—instead of the Latin that only highly educated folks could begin to understand. The Virgin appears to Juan Diego speaking his native language, not the Spanish of the conquistadors. It’s a sign of divine presence not just with the wealthy and the elite, but even among the poorest of the poor.

Juan Diego becomes an unlikely messenger when he brings a message to the bishop. The cleric dismisses Juan Diego as uneducated peasant until he returns with a tilma full of roses, and an image of the Virgin. He is as unlikely a messenger as the shepherds running to Bethlehem.

The Virgin that Juan Diego sees is pregnant—a sign of hope and expectation. It’s an Advent sign for us as we keep watching for Jesus.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

X-ing out Jesus?

This time of the year, we often see the abbreviation Xmas. Is this part of some vast conspiracy to take Christ out of Christmas? Is it a sign of disrespect?

No, because it is not actually an X. Rather, it is the Greek letter chi (χ), the first letter in the Greek word Christos, meaning “anointed,” from where we get our word, Christ. Jesus is the anointed messiah. My seminary notebooks are filled with phrases like “Xian worship” and “Xianity.” The word for the holiday on December 25 originally meant Christ’s Mass. We can keep the mass in Christmas by gathering for Holy Communion as we celebrate Jesus’ coming.

At Amazing Grace, Christmas Eve worship with Holy Communion will be at 7 and 11 p.m. on December 24.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Future vision

Advent is a time of hope and expectation. We wait, watch, and hope as we prepare for the coming of Christ. It is a time of vision. In the parish pastor's role as theological guide, I’d like to share some of my vision for our own congregation; areas in which I want to push and challenge us as a communinity of faith in the coming year:

Justice: How can we become more glocal—globally mindful and locally engaged? I’d love to seen an intentional focus on addressing issues of poverty and injustice both across the globe and right here in San Antonio. How about a service trip? Marching together on Martin Luther King Day?

Using our Assets: An asset-based approach uses what we have instead of lamenting what we don’t. We have a closet full of hymnals we never sing from. We have a building that could more efficiently used by both the congregation and groups in the community. Space-use conflicts are good conflicts to be having. We also have fabulously talented members who rarely, if ever, get asked to show leadership. This means that the Council and I need to be better at actually using the Time and Talent forms we ask you to fill out.

Loving our Neighbors: On any given afternoon, there are often children from the neighborhood using swings, skating in the driveway, or running in the field. We need to reach out, but how? Afterschool programs? Skateboard ministry? Teen coffee house?

Welcome! ¡Bienvenidos! It’s easy to say “All are welcome here,” but it’s harder to put it into practice. Let’s have more intentional conversation on hospitality and welcome and ask ourselves the hard questions about who is really welcome here. Young families? Folks in wheelchairs? Transgender people? Aggie Fans? Longhorn Fans? Republicans?

Who are we? Whatever our identity is as a congregation is, it needs to be unapologetically Lutheran—rooted in Word and Sacrament. We are transformed by encountering the Gospel (through Bible reading, preaching, conversation) and gathering around God’s presence in the waters of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

What's your vision? Let's talk!

(Adapted from the December 2009 newsletter of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Advent video

Back by popular demand, here is another video posting. The adult Sunday school class on Advent traditions went well on Sunday. I enjoy talking about how and why we worship. Advent is one of my favorite times in the year. The waiting and watching seems so contrary to the "instant everything" drive-thru culture in which we live.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sailing the Steward Ship

Offering baskets

Week after week in our Lutheran liturgy we pray with our offerings, “We offer with joy and thanksgiving what you have first given us, our selves, our time, and our possessions: signs of your gracious love.”

At Amazing Grace, we’re trying something new. We’ve long collected canned food items, clothes donations, eyeglasses, cell phones, and other items for people in need. Instead of putting them in boxes in the back of the worship space, we now have wicker baskets up front by the altar.

Brining these items is an act of worship. By having the collection point closer to the altar, we make a stronger connection between our social concerns and our worship. It also helps us remember that stewardship is about more than money. Stewardship issues are justice issues.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Widows, budgets, and murder

Three websites that are referenced in this week’s sermon:

A church that gives away money:,0,5901781.story

A church body that says not to give away money:

A horrible and tragic situation:

Monday, October 19, 2009

Seeds of faith

I must admit that in my time working with kids in camp, church, and school settings I've seen my share of seeds planted in a cup. Usually they don't turn out good at all. It's often just messy dirt, with maybe a sprout or two. However, our Sunday school classes planted these early in September, and they are looking great!

Thursday, October 1, 2009


This blog got mentioned at God in the Grit by Phil Ruge-Jones. He's the theologian and storyteller from Texas Lutheran University who came to Amazing Grace on Rally Day. Thanks for the mention, Phil.!.html

For the Beauty of the Earth

At Amazing Grace, we just finished up Season of Creation, an alternative lectionary cycle that focuses on God as Creator, and has a strong emphasis on environmental stewardship. The four Sundays emphasized Earth, Humanity, Sky, and Mountain. We’re gearing up for Blessing of the Animals on October 3 at 10 a.m. Bring your cat, dog, ferret, llama, or favorite critter for a brief outdoor service of blessing. It will definitely be outdoors.

These days, it seems like a lot of Lutherans keep talking about sexuality. We cannot forget, however, that Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust is not the only ELCA social statement. Consider these words from Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice:
“Christian concern for the environment is shaped by the Word of God spoken in creation, the Love of God hanging on a cross, the Breath of God daily renewing the face of the earth.”

During Season of Creation, this time when we have boldly stepped away from the Revised Common Lectionary, I have been deliberate in not turning my sermons into “50 Ways You Can Save the Earth.” This is based on two things: 1) We as human beings don’t save anything. Jesus does. 2) Lutheran preaching isn’t about step-by-step instructions. It’s about proclaiming what God has done and is doing.

When you think about it, the Bible is a very ecological book. Think of all the nature imagery: garden, green pasture, dry bones, mustard seed, river of life. In one of the Genesis creation stories, God proclaims the Earth good. Yet, creation is just as broken as we are. Caring for creation is more than just following simple mantras like “Reduce, reuse, recycle” and “Give a hoot and don’t pollute; never be a dirty bird.” It’s about being people created, redeemed, and called by the God of Creation.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

You might be a Lutheran if...

(Sneak peak at October's newsletter column).

October is the month that Lutherans remember the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the Wittenberg door On October 24 and 25, our worship space will be decorated with the color red as a sign of God’s Holy Spirit at work in the Church. We’ll sing traditional Lutheran hymns like “A Mighty Fortress is our God” and remember that we don’t have to buy indulgences to earn our way into heaven.

When I was in New Orleans at the ELCA Youth Gathering with some of our high schoolers, I saw t-shirts with the word “ymbali.” I was really confused. Is this Greek? Swahili? I finally asked somebody. It’s an acronym: You Might Be a Lutheran If… The back of the shirt had funny lines that were mostly variations on jokes about casseroles and boring organ hymns.

We are not defined by our food or our music, but by our theology. This emphasis on God’s grace crosses so many boundaries.

Lutherans can be described as evangelical, catholic, and reforming.
Lutherans are evangelical, proclaiming Good News of God's love. Martin Luther's prophetic action brought him to a door. Our evangelism at brings us out of these doors. We end our service every week with “Go in peace, serve the lord.”

Lutherans are catholic, meaning universal. We realize we don’t have a monopoly on God’s grace, but are a part of the Church that transcends time and space.

Lutherans are reforming. We are called to wrestle with issues that cause us discomfort and to welcome those who are unfamiliar. We carry on beautiful traditions and create new ones. Let the Holy Spirit guide us in our transformation into a Beloved Community that lives into its name—Amazing Grace.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


(This is a response from a retired pastor who attends Amazing Grace. He gave me permission to post this here. "Popcorn with Pastor Paul" was the name we gave to a congregational conversation about the recent changes in the ELCA).

It was billed as “Popcorn with Pastor Paul.” What brought the large group of somewhat anxious people together was neither popcorn nor Pastor Paul (though he deserves enormous credit for getting us together and structuring the communication procedures). The attraction was the subject matter. The 11th Biennial Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) had just decided to allow for the blessing of same-gender relationships and the rostering of those in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships.

We have learned again that voting often creates more confusion than it resolves, especially when it comes to hot moral or theological issues. And the vote in Minneapolis was unbelievably close. Beyond ELCA, observers are saying that this particular issue may be the biggest threat to the unity of Christians in 150 years (slavery).

The “popcorn people” shared their reactions to this ELCA move with respect and enthusiasm although it was evident to this observer that we all have a lot to learn about what the Bible teaches and what modern science is showing us about the nature of homosexuality.

Jesus knew he would not be around when many thorny issues come up so he said he would ask the Father to send the Spirit to help us. Some of us think we know the answers already. Actually, we know very little for certain, especially the part God plays in all of this and what God wants us to do with it.

The purity laws of the Old Testament are not of much use to us here unless we want to enforce ALL of them. The Gospels do not mention homosexuality at all and nowhere is it addressed as a loving, committed relationship. Instead of anticipating and addressing the complications we would face 2,000 years later, Jesus left us with this: “A new commandment I give to you—that you love one another.” Martin Buber translated the second half of the great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as a person like yourself.” Now the question becomes not “what does the ELCA want us to do?” but “what does it mean to love my gay neighbor.”

Charles Prewitt, DMin

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A New Day for the ELCA

“Built on a rock, the Church shall stand,
even when steeples are falling.”

I was reminded of those words by Danish pastor Nikolai Grundtvig during the ELCA Churchwide Assembly last month in Minneapolis. I was there for a young rostered leaders gathering held in conjunction with the Assembly. It was a stormy time in several ways. A tornado hit the convention center and damaged the steeple at nearby Central Lutheran Church. The assembly itself was rather stormy--our Church had been discussing a new and more inclusive social statement on human sexuality.

After the pouring rain, the sun came out as soon as the social statement passed. Later in the week, resolutions were passed changing the current policy prohibiting pastors and rostered leaders who are in committed, loving, monogamous same-gender relationships. As before, no congregation is ever going to be forced to call any pastor. It’s always a congregational decision.
Also, in a beautiful display of Christian unity, the ELCA voted to work together with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod on a Lutheran Malaria Initiative. A full communion agreement with the United Methodist Church was passed. This is a helpful reminder for us that we Lutherans don’t have a monopoly of God’s grace.

This is a difficult time to be the Church, but it is also a hopeful and exciting time. My heart aches with those hurt by these decisions. My heart also aches with all those people who have been excluded and ignored by the ELCA over the years. I imagine some of you are surprised, uncertain, and maybe disappointed by this. Others are relived, confident and joyous. Others are apathetic and ready to move on to more pressing issues.
Wherever you stand, I invite you into conversation. On Wednesday, September 2 at 7 p.m., we will have “Popcorn with Pastor Paul,” a time of conversation at Amazing Grace about what’s happening in the ELCA.

I feel blessed to be part of the ELCA. I appreciate our denomination’s commitments to liturgy, ecumenism, and education. I don’t always agree with everything about our church body, but that is part of the beauty of Christian community. Everybody gets to be uncomfortable some of the time. Let’s keep on being Church.

(This was my September newsletter column).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Holy Cow!

No, this is not a post about legendary Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray. It's a quick note about last weekend's congregational council retreat. We spent the day at The Branches, an unique Lutheran and Presbyterian mission site north of San Antonio. It was a relaxing place for us to think about asset-based leadership and our congregation's ministry. We also got to see their fun sign, and I bought a cantaloupe at the farmers' market on the grounds.

I will udderly refrain from cow jokes.

I saw the sign

I'm not usually a fan of cutesy church signs, but in recent weeks, I've started to have us use our outdoor sign more. We had a Homer Simpson-like saying the week we had fresh bread baking in the sanctuary as people walked in. We then used that bread for Communion.

I've been shamelessly trying to plug our Blessing of the Backpacks for the weekend of August 23. It will be a fun way to prayerfully kick off a new school year. On Friday, I called in to a local talk show to mention it during the morning community announcemnt time. Also, on that same Sunday, we will have special guest storyteller Phil Ruge-Jones in our midst to share some creative biblical narrative with us.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Churchwide what?

As Lutherans prepare for the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis next week, I'd like to revisit my June newsletter column.

(Originally published as my "Pastor's Pen" column in the June issue of my congregation's newsletter).

Greetings Amazing Grace Community,

Our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is in the process of approving a social statement on human sexuality, as well as the possibility of changing ministry guidelines that currently prohibit persons in same-gender relationships from serving as pastors and rostered leaders. I anticipate Lutherans gaining some national news attention regardless of how these matters are decided at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly at Minneapolis in August.

As a heterosexual, white, college educated, North American male, I speak from a point of privilege in so many ways. I try not to judge people. I do not understand other people’s homosexuality just as I do not understand my own heterosexuality. I know that we are all broken in some way. We live in the world as it is and await the world as it should be. We acknowledge our own fallen world, but celebrate the beautiful diversity that is the Body of Christ.

The Bible contains about seven verses that in some way allude to homosexual behavior, mostly in the Hebrew Bible, and none from the mouth of Jesus. On the other hand, over 3,000 verses of the Bible address issues of wealth, poverty, and hunger. I know those texts from Leviticus that are often used as Bible bullets against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. I also know that nearby verses also condemn eating shrimp, wearing cotton/wool blend clothing, and combining meat and dairy. Good-bye, double cheeseburgers. Definitely goodbye, bacon cheeseburgers. We know that we can’t simply pick and choose what part of the Bible to take seriously, and what not to, but truthfully, that is what we do all the time.

As Lutheran Christians, we look at the Bible through lenses of the Gospel—through lenses of love. This love of Jesus calls us to love even those people with whom we disagree. This love calls us to pray for our enemies. This love of Jesus calls us to trust the work of the Holy Spirit. Love is so often a very hard thing to do.Our Church faces much conflict and conversation in these months ahead with many difficult questions with no easy answers. Who can get married? Who can be a pastor? What does the Bible say? What does it actually look like when we try to love our neighbor?

I don't know what will happen in August. I do know that some people will be disappointed. Some will be angry that a consensus is not reached. Others will be concerned if the ELCA continues to ignore the gifts for ministry in many talented leaders. I know that we in the ELCA (and at Amazing Grace) will never fully agree about human sexuality. I do know that we are all loved, guided, strengthened, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, no matter where we are on our Christian journey.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Take me out to the ballgame...

On Thursday, I threw out the first pitch at the San Antonio Missions game for Lutheran Night at the Ballpark. I saw it as an opportunity for a "ministry of presence." It was a pastoral act that isn't in my little green prayer book. It was pastoral in that I was making Amazing Grace's presence known in the community. It was also a lot of fun.

I found it ironic when I got invited to throw the pitch because I'm not very sporty. I was worried that I wouldn't get the ball the catcher, and that it would just stop in the dirt. I was afraid that people would think I am the wimpy pastor who can't even throw a baseball. The mighty spheroid did, however, get to the catcher. It was high and outside--very high and very outside, but it got there.

The night at the game was also a great fellowship opportunity. It was fun to sit in the stands with fellow church folk and enjoy a beautiful night together.

Here's a picture of me out on the pitcher's mound. Does that mean I'm out standing in my field? :)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ridin' on the city of New Orleans...

It’s now been over a week since returning from the ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans. I’ve had time to catch up on emails and sleep. Our youth our going to be sharing stories from their trip during worship this Sunday. They will have powerful witness of God’s presence. I’m looking forward to it.

Here are some highlights of the trip:

Cleaning, organizing, and sweating during our service project at a furniture bank.
Morning worship with rapper Agape.
An evening concert with Lost and Found (I heard them at the ’97 Gathering in NOLA).
Seeing old friends and making lots of new ones.
Riding a bus for 11 hours (twice).
Riding New Orleans streetcars.
Seeing Bishop Mark Hanson come on stage riding a bathtub.
Lots of interesting speakers. Our group really liked Viola Vaughn.
Receiving Communion with 37,000 people puts the Feeding of the 5000 in a whole new perspective.
Seeing what was once a place of horrible sorrow and human pain (The Superdome) become a place of joyous worship and faith-filled proclamation.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

We're Not a Shouting Church

(This is the pastor column from the August 2009 newsletter of Amazing Grace Lutheran in San Antonio)

An Amazing Grace family recently told me about how they explained to their children the differences between our Lutheran faith and the spiritual practice of fundamentalist street preachers spewing out judgmental admonitions and boisterous warnings of hellfire and wrathful destruction. “We’re not a shouting church.”

That simple sentence says a lot. I know that when I preach, I often try to speak loudly in order to project, but I don’t think I shout. There is a difference between “making a joyful noise” and yelling at somebody.

I think the term “shouting church” refers less to a liturgical worship practice than a way of dictating a religious leader’s role in shaping one’s life and behavior. A “shouting church” may expect you to be a certain way, and then yell at you if you didn’t meet expectations.

As Lutherans, we have an understanding of God’s grace. We know that God loves us, even if we screw up. We know that we are not perfect. We are simultaneously saint and sinner. God’s grace is not a free pass to do whatever we want, but rather, it is the comfort of knowing that we are still loved even if we do make a mistake.

Whatever we preach, whatever we share when we “go in peace, share the Good News,” hopefully is not scolding or smiting, but instead welcoming and forgiving. Ultimately, it’s not about what we do or don’t do. It’s about what God keeps on doing for us—loving.

Let’s keep on being a non-shouting church.