Friday, December 31, 2010

Last Sunday's Wordle

Here is a Wordle of my Sermon from last Sunday. It was that text from Matthew 2 about the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt. I mentioned how Jesus is a refugee, and through this, God Incarnate comes to live in solidarity with all of our human suffering. I also reminded the congregation that our Synod is a Cherish our Children synod, meaning that we have voted to intentionally raise awareness about childhood sexual exploitation. It's a topic we don't talk about very often, because it is so uncomfortable. Yet God enters this broken world and encounters all our pain. In Christian worship, there is just as much room for lament as there is for praise. Rachel's song, weeping for her children because they are no more, is just as much a song of Christmas as Mary's Magnificat or the angel's Gloria. God can handle all of our prayers.

Prayer at the Close of the Year

Our congregation, Amazing Grace, has a longtime tradition of worshipping together on New Year's Eve. Since coming here, I've used the service as a chance to pray Compline. Instead of Prayer at the Close of the Day, we think of it as Prayer at the Close of the Year.

Compline is a quite, meditative service, originating from as early as the fourth century. It doesn't usually have a sermon or fancy processionals. Rather, the silence, the psalms, and the prayers are the main foci.

Tonight’s liturgy, prayers, and readings are full of images of day and night, of time changing, of the Earth moving.

From the opening dialog, "Almighty God, grant us a quiet night and peace at the last."
From Thomas Tallis' lovely hymn, "All praise to thee, my God, this night for all the blessings of the light...."

Every night, the earth will finish one more spin, one more revolution. The sun will set again, just has it has for years before humans can even remember. Tomorrow we will be awakened and welcomed to a new day.

The night of December 31’s spinning of the Earth is the same as all the others, but it is also different. We go from one year in our human markings of time to another. From 2010 to 2011.

We remember the year past: Haitian earthquakes. Health care. Lady Gaga.

Here at Amazing Grace: Construction projects. Trunk or Treat. VBS. Angel Food. Baptisms. Saints departed. New friends. New adventures. Epiphany. Lent. Easter. Pentecost. Advent. Christmas.

A lot has happened in a year. And a lot can happen in the next.

The Earth keeps spinning. Every day is a blessing from God, as is every year. God’s time is not always the same as our time. I love the words from Isaac Watts’ hymn:

A thousand ages in God’s sight
are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun (LBW # 320).

We do not know what will happen once the sun rises tomorrow. We do not know what 2011 will bring in our lives, in our neighborhood, in our congregation, in our country, in our world. Yet, we live with promises of God’s love, with hope for a God who does not forsake us, with peace as God’s parting gift for us.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Thursday, December 9, 2010

An Advent Wordle

Here is a Wordle of last Sunday's sermon. I had hauled a big tree branch into the front of the chancel area and invited the assembly to choose how they see the tree--as a sign of repentance with shades of John the Baptist, or as a sign of what God is sprouting up, like the righteous branch of which Isaiah speaks.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cross lights

We just lit up the cross. It’s a string of lights around it. There’s precedence for this: I have a 1992 church directory with a photo of a lit cross on the cover. We might keep them up for just Advent. Then again, it is a nice touch and perhaps worth keeping up all year.

I have mixed feelings on lighting up a cross. On the one hand, we Christians have domesticated crosses. We wear crosses as jewelry and put them on our walls. It’s easy to forget that a cross is a tool of execution. People died on crosses. Imagine if you wore a necklace with a noose, an electric chair, or a vial of potassium chloride. It would be shocking and scandalous.

On the other hand, a cross tells people that we are Christians. At Amazing Grace, I think lighting the cross is a good sign. Our buildings are set back quite a distance from the road, and sometimes it’s hard to tell that we are a church. I’ve heard people think that we are a big house, a school, a convent, or some sort of cult compound. Lighting the cross is one way that we can be clearer about our mission. When somebody sees the cross, then they will know who we are.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

2010 Slideshow

Today was our annual congregational meeting. Besides electing leaders and approving a budget, we celebrated life together this year at Amazing Grace. Enjoy the show!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Scripture genres

Our adult Sunday school class has been studying Making Sense of Scripture by David Lose. One of the exercises focused on think of scripture in terms of genre. A text has a different meaning whether it is poetry, letter, etc. The class broke into smaller groups to retell Luke 15:11-32 in different genres—supermarket tabloid and fairy tale. Here are the fun results (my best attempt at transcribing the handwritten poster sheets):

Squandered his money on lurid living and loose women.
Dad is ecstatic at return of wayward ways and throws a block party with finest food.
Older son refuses to attend party for jackass brother.
Father tries to sooth ruffled feathers with love, apparently to no avail.
Is younger son’s conversion true, or was he just hungry and returning to Daddy with his tail between his legs? More of the story continues at www dot the bible revealed dot com.

Decide which is the Good Son
Once upon a time, Father had two sons. The young son got bored with chores and wanted his money now. The younger son thought life wasn’t entertaining, and told his father he wanted out. Father tried to dissuade the son, but eventually gave in.

He was feeding hogs, and one turned to a witch and said, “Get yourself together or I will turn you into a pig and send you over a cliff.” The son was defeated and said, “I must apologize and make amend before my father will accept me.” He got home and Father was so glad to see him; he accepted him back and gave him a part and fine clothes. The older son was PO’d, saying, “I stay here and sweat and get nothing; he is a jerk, leaves, spends all and now wants back and now gets more.”

Father is the Good Fairy and welcomes all together and tries to convince older son that this was OK. The Older son does not hear any of it. He becomes estranged from his his brother and very distant from Father. But Good Fairy came and waved a wand and the brothers started working out their differences before the brother died. And they lived happily ever after. The end.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

An Advent video

Here is my newest experiment in video creation. The brown bear with the white eye patch seems to be a wise liturgical theologian. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

Tonight I’m wearing my great-grandfather’s cufflinks. I think I inherited them by default. My aunt said I was the only one of the male cousins who would ever wear a shirt that would use cufflinks. His name was Parelius, and came from Norway by way of Philadelphia, and lived in South Dakota before settling and farming the prairies of western Minnesota. He died in the 1940s, when my mom was just a small girl. I don’t know much about him, but I have his cufflinks. A wandering Norwegian was my ancestor.

That’s on my mom’s side. On my dad’s side, we’ve traced the genealogy back to Colonel Morgan Morgan (creative name, right?) He came from Wales and is thought to be the first white settler in what is now West Virginia. A wandering Welshman was my ancestor. When curious about family history in high school, I looked him up in the big ol’ encyclopedia in the basement, and it said that is cabin had special slots in the walls, convenient for shooting at Indians.

We all have stories—our personal stories, family stories, national stories, church stories. Some parts of our story we want to remember and cling to, like my cufflinks. Others we might be embarrassed or ashamed of, and would rather forget, like my ancestor’s marksmanship skills. For better or worse, they are a part of who we are.

The ancient Israelites remembered. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”
They remember Abraham packing up and heading to a new land.
They remembered their ancestors being led out of slavery in Egypt traveling in the wilderness, going into unknown territory, trusting God.
They respond to God’s goodness with offering—first fruits.
They gave as offering not next-day leftovers, but the best of what they had.
They recognized that their possessions did not belong to them, but to God.

Today we also remember another group of people traveling in the wilderness, going into unknown territory, trusting God. Our American Thanksgiving Day is framed through the perspective of a certain 17th-century religious sect. The Pilgrims were Separatists who disagreed with the Church of England and traveled across the ocean to a place they called Plymouth. 1621, they celebrated what came to be known as Thanksgiving, to which they invited the Wampanoags, a Native American tribe, who had helped them settle and plant new crops in the new land.

When doing a small group Bible study this year on the book of Judges, I have started to realize that the nation-forming narrative of the people of Israel entering into the land of Canaan seems very similar to the nation-forming narrative of European settlement into the United States.

Both groups fervently believed that God had led them into a new land.
Both created rites, rituals, ceremonies, and traditions to commemorate their entry.
Both discovered that there were already people there: distinct and unique groups with their own vibrant cultures.
Israelites met Canaanites, Amorites, Philistines.
Europeans met Wampanoags, Iroquois, and Mohawk.

This week, I came across an article by Rev. Robert Two Bulls, an Episcopal priest in California who is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He writes: “Every year when Thanksgiving Day approaches, I feel without fail a growing consternation inside me. I attribute this feeling to the inevitable emergence of the whitewashed historical record of this day and to the sudden attention that America directs toward the Native American Indians. It is an awareness that wakes up every year after Halloween and then will go back to sleep when the last scrap of turkey is devoured.”

Like with most narratives, there are parts of the Thanksgiving story that I wish weren’t there:
The Wampanoag town had been wiped out by smallpox.
Squanto, the man who helped the Pilgrims, only knew English because he had been previously captured and sold into slavery in England.

On the other hand, there are parts of the Thanksgiving story I really like and want to lift up:
The Pilgrims trusted in God throughout a time of difficulty and hardship.
They gathered together in fellowship around food and community.

If we really believe that God is Lord of the Universe, Sovereign, and Eternal, like we just proclaimed on Christ the King Sunday, then we realize that God is with us, in the midst of our human suffering, as well as our human joys.

Just as God hears the shouts of Thanksgiving from the Pilgrims, so too does God hear the cries of lament from the Wampanoags.
Just as God hears the thankful prayers of the Israelites, so too does God hears the sorrowful songs of the Canaanites.

I believe that often our times of feeling the most thankful are those times where we’ve experienced the deepest tragedy.

Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran pastor in Germany dur­ing the Thir­ty Years’ War. His town had many refugees entering the gates. The Swed­ish ar­my sur­round­ed the ci­ty, and fa­mine and plague were ramp­ant. Eight hund­red homes were de­stroyed, and the peo­ple be­gan to per­ish. Eventually Rink­art was the on­ly pastor left—doing 50 fun­er­als a day. Rink­art left the safe­ty of the walls to plead with the Swedes for mer­cy. The Swed­ish com­mand­er, im­pressed by his faith and cour­age, low­ered his de­mands. Soon af­ter­ward, the Thir­ty Years’ War end­ed, and Rinkart wrote the hymn we’ll sing later tonight. One funeral is hard enough. I can’t imagine fifty.
After seeing all the terror of war, he was still able to pray:
Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices.
Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices.

I acknowledge that on holidays like Thanksgiving, it can be difficult to have ever-joyous hearts when there are people who aren’t at the table. The Thanksgiving after my dad died, my mom decided not to cook a turkey. My sister was back overseas, so it was just Mom and me. Instead we went with “Dorothy,” a woman from my mom’s circle from church. Her husband had died decades before, and her kids were far away. Mom didn’t want her to be alone. The three of us went to Buffet King and had Chinese food.

Thanksgiving really isn’t about the food. My memories of turkey and stuffing also include memories of kung-pao shrimp and Mongolian beef. It’s not about having the perfect sweet potato pie or cranberry soufflĂ©, but about togetherness, memory, and the presence of God.

Tonight our Thanksgiving meal is not mashed potatoes or crab Rangoons, but bread and wine.

We celebrate Thanksgiving not because we want to glorify and romanticize the Pilgrims, but because this national holiday gives us an opportunity to do once more what we as Christians do week after week—give thanks to God. We eat. We pray. We remember.

I realize that our American Thanksgiving Day is not traditionally a Church holiday, though giving thanks is certainly part of what we do as Christians.

Christians have many names for this meal of Christ’s Body and Blood (Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, Divine Office, Mass, and Eucharist)
The word Eucharist literally means Thanksgiving. When we receive Christ’s body and blood, we take and eat with a spirit of thanksgiving for all that God has done for us.
Every time we take Communion, it is a Thanksgiving Dinner. Thank you, God.
Every time we take Communion, it is a act of memory.
“Do this in remembrance of me.”

We remember.

I have a story. You have a story. Each of us has a story. Some parts we want to cling to, others we long to forget. But tonight we remember. We remember that our story is not just our story. God is a part of it.


Thanksgiving Wordle

A Wordle of tonight's sermon:


Thanksgiving Day is not a Church holiday. It’s actually a national holiday, but the idea of giving thanks to God is a very Christian one. It’s part of who we are as people of God. I sat and counted that in a typical setting of Holy Communion, we mention giving thanks quite a few times in each service. For example:
“The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.”
“We offer with joy and thanksgiving what you have first given us—our selves, our time, and our
possessions, signs of your gracious love.
“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give our thanks and praise…”

In fact, another name for Holy Communion, Eucharist, actually means “thanksgiving.” In reality, every Sunday is a thanksgiving day. Tonight we will be having a Eucharist service at Amazing Grace at 7 p.m. to celebrate Thanksgiving. Sing hymns of thanks to God, and then stay for some fellowship time together eating some pie.

I realize that I am not always as intentional as I should be in being thankful. I take so much for granted. Here is a start of my list of things I am thankful for as pastor at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church:

Faithful people gathered around God’s word
A congregation that can disagree with one another with grace and civility
Resilience in the midst of lots of change and transition
Health insurance
A secretary who takes care of the details
A musician who approaches the piano with creativity and energy
A council president who I don’t thank enough
Confirmation students who ask me tough questions
The chance to collaborate with neighboring congregations for confirmation
Children who play on our swings
A presiding bishop in the ELCA who is willing to take risks
Angel Food Ministry
A Life after Loss group that has strengthened people experiencing grief
The list could go on and on…
Thanks be to God!

(Adapted from my column in the November 2010 newsletter of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church).

Friday, November 19, 2010

A cutesy stewardship bear

My preaching in October had a strong stewardship emphasis. This Sunday, we have a budget forum to get us ready for our December 5 congregational meeting. This little guy pretty much sumarizes what I've been saying about stewardship in four weeks of sermons. We don't give in order to gain favor from God, but we give in response to God's love.

Who are Lutherans?

I have been experimenting with videos, and put together a clip about what Lutherans believe. Much of the text is from the church website and brochure, but it's fun to see it in a different form.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Christ as king?

This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday. We crown the end of the church year by thinking about Jesus as the true authority in the world.

I often struggle with the image of Christ as King. In the United States, we don’t have a king. However, I don’t know if I like the image of Jesus as president, either.

Yes, Jesus is powerful, mighty, and worthy of praise. Crown him with many crowns—potentate of time, ineffably sublime. His name is wonderful. But our human language is so limited in ways to describe who God is and what God does.

Jesus is a different sort of authority.
Jesus is not a king in the Disney-movie-castle-and-moat sort of way.
Jesus is also not a dictator yielding oppression and injustice.
Rather, the power of Jesus is the power of the cross—the power of Love.

Imagine what it would look like every Christian in America put loyalty to Jesus above all other things, even country and family.

In the spirit of eating with tax collectors and sinners, our residential zoning laws might do less separating us into rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods.
In the spirit of sharing with our neighbor, the poverty and hunger situation in our country might be different.
In the spirit of turning the other cheek, we probably might not even need a military.

You can the see how transformative and counter-cultural it is for us to pray week after week:
“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, ON EARTH as it is in Heaven.”
The Kingdom of God is not pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die-by-and-by.
The Kingdom of God is Jesus’ vision of how we live here and now!
Yes, we trust God’s promises of the resurrection of the dead and eternal life, but we also trust that God is transforming our world as we speak.
We fervently pray that God’s Kingdom come—on earth as it is in heaven. What a radical act it is to pray for the fruition of God’s reign!

Even though the United States fought a Revolutionary War to not have a king, we do have a king.
We have a Christ who is the King.
He is not king in a materialistic way or in a power-hungry way.
His garments are not ermine robes or sequined jumpsuits, but a purple cloak.
His crown is not of jewels, but of thorns.
He is not born with a silver spoon, but in a lowly manger.
Jesus is not a god of preemptive strikes, but of preemptive love.
When people say, “King,” we expect castles and moats and other regal things.
But we don’t get what we expect.
We get something better. We get King Jesus, meeting us at the cross.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bless these stones...

On Sunday, we blessed and dedicated our remodeled space. We processed outside during the last hymn so we could have a view of our new roofs, ramp, and siding. The logistics of signing while walking was a bit tricky, however. We used a modified version of the General Order of Blessing from the ELW Occasional Services book, including the 1 Corinthians text that was used when one of our original buildings was dedicated in 1984. Of course, we happened to do this on the Sunday when the assigned Gospel reading talked about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, when not one stone is left upon another.

Here’s the text of our rite:

P Friends in Christ: Today we give thanks to God and we seek God's blessing as we gather to dedicate the results of this building remodel project to the praise and glory of God:

C C New roofs shelter us with grace.
Rock siding is a sign of beauty.
A new ramp and refurbished restrooms help us be more welcoming and accessible.
A remodeled youth building is a recommitment to Christian education and youth ministry.
Thanks be to God!

A A reading from 1 Corinthians:
For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:9-11).

P Let us pray. We give you thanks, O God, creator of the universe, for your abundant gifts. By your holy wisdom all things have been made to reflect your glory, for the sustenance of life, and for the use and delight of your living creatures. Send your blessing upon us and upon this remodeled space, which we set apart today to your praise and honor. May warmth and welcome fill this place. May it be a home for the community and a haven for the stranger; a safe place for laughter, for tears, and for wonder; and a center for acts of service and deeds of love; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

P Almighty God bless us, and direct our days and our deeds in peace. Amen.

A Go in peace. The Lord is near. C Thanks be to God.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Preaching on Social Issues

This month, an essay I wrote got published in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. You can read it online here:

It's part of a series called Preaching on Social Issues. When I preach, I often prayerfully wonder how to address issues in the world around me. The question is not if, but how. I think of Linus of Peanuts fame, "There are three things we don't talk about in public--religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin." As a preacher, I need to walk a fine balance between talking about politics too much and not being relevant.

I realize that the Gospel itself is very political. The teachings of Jesus confront the powers of the world. My job as a pastor is not to tell you how to vote, but to put the context of our world into dialogue with the Biblical reality as I proclaim how God's Spirit is at work.

Here's a Wordle of my article:

Scripture by heart

I've been spending this week working on memorizing the Gospel. I know that God is still speaking even if I read the text on Sunday, but I feel more in touch with scripture when I can speak the words from my mind. I've found that when I know the scripture, my sermon is more engaged with the text. I've found that when I practice Biblical storytelling, the congregation hears rather than simply listens. The problem is that it is a lot of work. I need to be more intentional in thinking about the text by heart.

Here's the process I used this week:
Read the text.
Print it out onto hand-held strips of paper, in three-verse segments.
Keep reading the little parts, slowly putting them together.
Walking outside while speaking the text, eventually without the paper.
Typing the text without having it in front of me.

This is a discipline that I love, but it's easy to let it slip away (sort of like blogging). Eventually, I'd love to do this every week, but I'm not quite there yet.

Getting ready for building remodel dedication

It's been a while since I've posted here...

Back in May, we as a congregation voted to do some construction. "Pardon our dust; we're remodeling" was the sign on our marquee most of the summer.

A refurbished youth building provides a comfy place for Sunday school.
New roofs prepare us for a rainy day--literally.
Remodeled restrooms and a less-sloped ramp are steps toward being more welcoming and accessible.

In response to our financial generosity and thanksgiving to God, it makes sense to do some sort of blessing service and prayer of dedication during regular Sunday worship. The challenge was finding a date. I would rather not do it on Reformation or All Saints, but it would be good to do it before Thanksgivng and Advent. So, November 14 was chosen and put on the calendar.

Sometimes the assigned lectionary can be surprisingly ironic. Talk about juxtaposition:
After we have just spent lots of money from our building fund on construction that includes rock siding, in Luke 21, we meet Jesus near the Jerusalem temple, adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. He fortells destruction: "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another. All will be thrown down."

Sometimes the Bible challenges us. Sometimes we are confronted by words of Jesus that push us and make us wonder. As a preacher, I know that my job is to proclaim Gospel--good news. I'm supposed to say what God is doing, not what we need to do.

As I prepare to preach for tomorrow, the phrases that strike me the most are:
"This will give you an opportunity to testify."
"The end will not follow immediately."
"I will give you words and a wisdom that your opponents will not be able to withstand or contradict."

We live in uncertain times, as did the early Jesus followers. I don't know what the future holds. Instead, I trust God to give words and wisdom.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Draft financial guidelines

At Amazing Grace, we've been thinking about stewardship and fundraising. Our Executive Committee came up with this draft of financial guidelines, which have been tweaked by Council. Council will be voting on these on October 5. Members of the congregation who have thoughts about this draft are invited and encouraged to share their thoughts with me or any member of Council. This is still a draft.

Financial Guidelines
Whereas all that we have is entrusted to us from God, Amazing Grace will seek to meet all financial obligations of its mission and ministry through a yearly budget built upon pledged gifts and offerings from the members of the Congregation.

Gifts and Offerings
All gifts and offerings will be directed to the general fund, memorial fund or building fund at the
donor’s discretion. Undesignated offerings will be applied to the general fund.
Any gifts or in kind donations in excess of $300 for purposes other than contribution to the general fund, memorial fund or building fund will be reported to and reviewed by the Congregation Council.
All appeals for special offerings must be approved by the Congregation Council.

All fundraisers will require approval by the Congregation Council. To aid in Council’s decision making, the following criteria will be considered.

Fundraising events should primarily be opportunities for evangelism and Christian togetherness.
A portion of the proceeds from each fundraiser will be directed to ministries external to Amazing Grace.
Fundraisers to benefit Amazing Grace should be for an identified, specific need, other than the general fund.
Games of chance are strongly discouraged.
In keeping with the Sabbath, fundraisers on Sunday mornings are strongly discouraged.

These guidelines have been informed by the ELCA document “Considerations Regarding Commercialism in the Church” (

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Islamic hospitality

In these times where so much strife seems to be in the air between people of differing faiths, yesterday I got an email that brings some hope. Our congregation was invited by a local Muslim group to attend a Ramadan iftar meal.

This past spring, we had invited a Muslim speaker to come to our adult Sunday school class after a unit on interfaith issues. We had watched some videos about Islam and compared passages from the Qur’an and the Bible, but it was helpful and eye-opening to hear another person’s firsthand experience. He told us we had an open invitation to share an iftar meal to break the fast with them come Ramadan. The invitation has come.

I talk a lot about “radical hospitality,” often in the context of Jesus eating with all sorts of people in order for us as Christians to think about what it means to welcome others. This invitation from our Muslim friends is a beautiful example of radical hospitality. This particular Muslim group is very far theologically from what is usually labeled “Radical Islam,” but in this lovingly welcoming act of inviting Christians to dinner, they are radical in the same way that we are radical when we practice the very counter-cultural Christian practices of forgiveness and love. They are taking a holy risk to invite us to feast with them. It crosses boundaries of religion, culture, and language. I know I will be outside of my comfort zone, and I’m sure our hosts will be as well.

However, as much as I value the ministry of providing hospitality, I also recognize the equally important ministry of receiving hospitality. I pray that accepting this invitation of interfaith learning and eating is a chance for such a ministry of being welcomed.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Avon evangelism

Right now, I'm sitting at a Starbucks, ostensibly doing some sermon preparation. I say "ostensibly" becasue I'm actually eavesdropping on the women at the next table. I like writing at places like Starbucks because I get to observe humanity in all its wonder. As I overhear their conversation, I start thinking about evangelism.

The three ladies are talking about Avon. The one woman has a big box of catalogues and samples. They appear to be getting the third woman started as an Avon representative. Apparently Avon reps get credit for sales made by people they recruit, and the people they in turn recruit. It's about building your team. I wonder--isn't this how evangelism should work? You have a meaningful experience with God, you tell your friends, they tell their friends. Instead of recruiting people to sell Avon, we tell others about God.

I realize that Christianity isn't a product to be sold. In fact, I often cringe at the commercialization of religious devotion. But I think we can learn something about evangelism from Avon. It's about relationships. It's a matter of building connections between individuals.

Imagine--what would happen if everybody invited one extra friend to worship? Our attendance would double in size.

I don't always think bigger is always better. I've heard repeatedly that people have been attracted to Amazing Grace because of our size--they don't want to feel overwhelmed. But I also realize that behind the numbers are people. Avon's model works because people want to tell their friends what a good product it is. As Christian people, we have an amazing story to tell. Why wouldn't we want to share it with our friends?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Clergy burnout

There's a chunk of time this summer where I'm only preaching one Sunday out of four: two weeks of vacation and a special visit from our synod bishop.

In some ways, I feel like I'm missing something when I don't preach. Preaching is one of my greatest passions. I love reflecting on what the Bible says for our community on any given week. I also think of preaching as a spiritual discipline.

On the other hand, I know that life goes on without me. I know I need to breathe and take some time away. An article in Sunday's New York Times about clergy burnout was a helpful reminder of this:

According to the article, pastors have higher rates of obesity, hypertension, and depression than the rest of the population. In our ELCA, 69 per cent of pastors report being overweight. In my first year at Amazing Grace, I didn't take all my vacation time. I enjoy what I do so much, I want to put all my energy into being pastor. However, I know that I need to stay focused. I now that I need to practice self-care. I am not Jesus. Sometimes I need reminders of that. This NY Times article is one of those.

Regarding supply pastors filling in for preaching, there are two schools of thought: First, have the best possible preacher be the guest so that the congregation can experience faithful proclamation of the Gospel. Second, have the worst possible preacher so that the congregation is utterly thankful the regular pastor is back. I try to do the former. The pastors I've invited to preach in my stead are wise, experienced pastors that I have firm confidence in. I almost wish I could hear them preach.

But then, that defeats the purpose of vacation, doesn't it?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Multicultural ministry

This weekend marks Amazing Grace's first bilingual worship service. It's Saturday at 5:30. Favor de trajer un amigo. Bring a friend!

Here is a link to a guest column I wrote about it for the San Antonio Express-News. I had sent the religion reporter an email blurb about it, and he invited me to write this:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Construction update

The construction at Amazing Grace is making some progress. The rock siding is looking good. "On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Lutherans working together?

At its national convention today in Houston, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) voted overwhelmingly (961-175) to continue to work together with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Cooperative efforts between these two largest Lutheran church bodies have included social service, disaster, and hunger efforts. This is exciting news!

As an ELCA Lutheran, I know there are differences between us Lutherans, and they are not minor. In the ELCA, we practice open communion. I've borrowed a phrase from one of my colleagues: "As pastor, I am the waiter at the table, not the bouncer at the bar." I also appreciate that we have female clergy in the ELCA. In the course of my training, my supervisors for field education, clinical pastoral education, and internship have all been women. I did not seek out female mentors, but I know that my leadership has been influenced by talented faithful people, both male and female. I am also unashamedly proud to count people of all sexual orientations as my clergy colleagues.

However, I am also tired of the Missouri-bashing I all too often see in the ELCA. I envy the Biblical literacy that my friends who grew up in the LCMS have. I think the LCMS's commitment to education is amazing. Even though we don't always see eye-to-eye, I know that God is at work in the Missouri Synod, too.

A few years ago, I met a small handful of LCMS clergy at a conference about ecumenism. There were many dozen ELCA folks there, and I commented to one of the LCMS gentlemen that there were so few of them. "We don't get invited," they calmly told me.

I firmly believe that we in the ELCA do not have a monopoly on God's grace. I hope many and various people of faith may continue to find ways to work together, for the sake of the Gospel.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Who does suburban community organizing well?

With last Sunday’s Good Samaritan story and this coming week’s hospitality focus with the Abraham and Mary/Martha stories fresh on my mind, I’ve been thinking about the role a congregation could play in its neighborhood. Working together with other institutions, a congregation could host and participate in all sorts of ways to address issues of concern in the community. After-school tutoring, senior day care, public informational forums, and job-training programs are just quick examples of the possibilities.

However, many of the examples of congregations undertaking this sort of community involvement are urban parishes not in suburban or exurban settings like ours. Several leaders in my congregation have read Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing and Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor. The authors of both books, for example, have extensive experience in inner-city Milwaukee and Atlanta, respectively.

My own training has been biased toward urban contexts. I interned at a bilingual congregation in Manhattan with a center for immigrants and a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth. I’ve taken a seminary course from the founding president of one of Chicago’s leading faith-based community development programs. I attended a workshop led by the ELCA Director for Congregation-based Organizing. I get emails from the Christian Community Development Association. I’ve read a history of Industrial Areas Foundation organizing in San Antonio, and have even had a few conversations with an organizer.

With all of these resources and experiences, I have struggled (along with the congregation) to translate this into a clear and coherent way for us at Amazing Grace to connect with our congregation and community. On the far western edge of Bexar County, Amazing Grace had, up until a few years ago, been a rural congregation out in the country. Now newer houses surround us on three sides; construction is happening on the fourth. A vast majority of our families live at least three miles from church; many live ten or more miles away. We have Angel Food ministry and are starting a bilingual worship service. Amazing Grace has a long history of collecting food, clothing, blankets, toiletries, and other items for people in need. We have done charity well, but could work on justice.

I do believe that Amazing Grace Lutheran Church has the potential to be a national leader in suburban congregational-based organizing and community justice work. That could be our niche. We have some potentially helpful assets: five acres of land, new neighborhoods growing around us, passionate people who want to love their neighbors. Imagine visitors checking out our worship service because they want to see liturgy that speaks with integrity. Imagine folks all over the country passing on our web address, telling their pastor, “This is a church that does it right.” Imagine students coming to Amazing Grace for transformative life-changing internships—not just seminarians, but students in social work, public health, or counseling. This could be Amazing Grace, but we have to start somewhere.

Dear readers, I have two questions for you:
1). If you know Amazing Grace and its San Antonio context, what could be next steps for us in this journey to reach out to our neighborhood? I’m not thinking of ways to get more buns in the pews, but for ways that our congregation might work with others to help our neighbors.

2). Who can we learn from? What congregations do community development and social justice work well in a suburban or exurban setting? I’m not thinking of big churches with high worship attendance and sparkly Sunday school programs. I’m thinking about suburban congregations that intentionally connect with their neighborhoods for the sake of justice.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

July 11th's sermon as a Wordle

This past Sunday's Gospel passage was the story that Jesus tells when the lawyer asks him about neighbors. I used this "Good Samaritan" story as an opportunity for us to think about our own exurban neighborhood context. We're not in a rural area where people share vegetables and help with harvest. We're not in a walkable urban neighborhood with mixed-use development. It's harder to get to know your neighbors when there are eight-foot privacy fences. I also used the sermon as a chance to think about God's compassion.

Here is what my sermon looks like as a Wordle (the bigger the word, the more often it was used):

Blog as a Wordle

Wordle is a web tool that allows words to be put into a sort of picture cloud. The words that get used the most become the biggest. Here is a wordle for this blog:

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Worship why: Occasional services

I’ve seen Pastor Paul carry around a little red or green book. What is it?

It’s one of two editions of Occasional Services, a book of rites, prayers, and readings for times in the life of both individuals and congregations that don’t happen often enough to need to be in the pew edition of the hymnal. One hospital chaplain I worked with said she could always tell a Lutheran pastor by their green book. It can be powerful and meaningful to find times in our lives for some of these worship and pastoral care opportunities, including: blessing of a home, renewing marriage vows, remembering the anniversary of a death, removing a loved one’s life-sustaining care, marking a sobriety milestone, commissioning people going on a service trip, dedicating a stained-glass window, or saying farewell and Godspeed to someone moving far away.

Worship why: Patriotism

The 4th of July falls on a Sunday this year. How will we recognize this in church?

The 6th Sunday after Pentecost happens to be on the same day as Independence Day. Whereas we are certainly thankful to God for our country and the freedoms we have, the object of our worship is always God. Our identity as baptized children of God comes before any human allegiances. We let the church year be the church year, so our readings will be the ones normally assigned for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost. The time to acknowledge secular holidays is in our prayers of intercession. We will have specific petitions, giving thanks for our freedom and praying for our country, leaders, and military. Some of our hymns will be a brief nod toward patriotism. We’ll sing Lift Every Voice and Sing (LBW 562), which includes the line, “true to our God; true to our native land.” Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem, also wrote hymns. We’ll sing his hymn, Lord, with Glowing Heart (LBW 243, which uses the tune PLEADING SAVIOR). After the 11:00 service, we’ll also have a potluck picnic.

Worship why: Bilingual service

We have a new bilingual worship service coming up. What will it be like?

The reasons for starting such a service are twofold. First, after discontinuing Saturday evening worship last December, it meets some needs for people looking for worship opportunities on a Saturday. Second, it is a way to reach out to others who might not otherwise feel welcome in a Lutheran congregation. It’s an asset-based approach, recognizing that we have bilingual people at Amazing Grace. Let’s use these gifts. It’s also a chance for us to be cutting-edge. Right now, San Antonio is the largest city in the United States without an ELCA congregation that worships regularly in a language other than English. Frankly, it would be much easer to have worship in one language or another instead of both. Bilingual worship is an intentional step toward living together in the midst of differences.

It is be one Saturday evening a month, with Communion. Music will be guitar-led, with some hand percussion players, too. We will use a bilingual setting of the liturgy, singing things in both English and Spanish. The blue With One Voice hymnal has quite a few bilingual hymns that we have sung in worship before. The bulletin will have parts in both languages. The sermon would be in both languages. I find that worshiping bilingually is a creative way to experience the wonder of God and get to know neighbors in new ways. We’re aiming toward the last Saturday of the month at 5:30. Our first bilingual service is July 31. Bring a friend!

Read some of Amazing Grace's website in Spanish:

A changing voice

For most of my growing up years, I sang in my congregation’s church choir. It was a formative time of learning about music and becoming comfortable having a leadership role in worship. After a few years in the youth choir, I was comfortable, had lots of friends, and knew what I was doing there.

However, one night before choir practice in seventh grade, the director came up to me and said, “Paul, we need to talk. I think your voice has changed on us.” Wearing high-water pants that I had quickly outgrown and desperately needing to borrow my dad’s razor, I was one of the only boys still in the choir, and had been squeakily trying to sing in a high falsetto (like Frankie Valli or Tiny Tim) for the past few months in order to have my voice blend in with the other treble-voiced singers. It was time for me to switch into the high school choir, even though I was not yet in high school.

In the high school choir, I felt weird being the only middle schooler, but I quickly made new friends and started to feel welcome. I no longer had to struggle to make my voice fit. I did have to learn how to read a different set of musical notation in order to follow the musical score and sing the lower parts written in bass clef. It took some time of embarrassing awkwardness, but I eventually become much more comfortable with my changed voice.

At Amazing Grace, our voice is changing. We are in the midst of development and transformation. We are less rural and more suburban. There are new roofs and handicap ramps. We’ve had intentional conversations about hospitality, sexuality, and human genetics. We just finished a Vacation Bible School with a civil rights theme, and are starting a bilingual worship service. With some shifts in leadership and worship styles, we’ve been amazingly resilient. We’ve had more visitors in recent weeks, and I feel a sort of momentum is growing. We’re getting to meet new people and learn to work with each other. Like me shifting into a new choir, we are shifting into new surroundings and a new time in our development.

Getting used to a new voice takes time. Change can be awkward and embarrassing. Once in a while, there are squeaks and breaks. The old voice wasn’t a bad voice, it was just different. From sixth to eight grade, I went from a skinny, high-voiced sixth-grader to a deeper-voiced young man. A lot can happen in two years.

A lot has happened the two years since I first came to Texas for “meet the pastoral candidate” weekend. As a pastor, I’ve learned so much about being in Christian community. As a congregation, we’re still getting used to different voices. I don’t know exactly what our voice will sound like in future years, but that’s part of the excitement as we grow and change together.

(Also appears as my July newsletter column).

Friday, June 25, 2010

My favorite hymns

I’ve made a list of just ten of my favorite hymns. It’s a list of church music that has been important to me in some way. I’ve been intentional that this list is congregational song, not organ preludes or choral anthems. It’s stuff that God’s people can sing together. I surprised myself with how many are from the green Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW)—eight. One is from the blue With One Voice (WOV), and one is from the red Libro (LLC), a Spanish-language Lutheran resource. I realize most of these are in the cranberry Evangelical Lutheran Worship, but my congregation hasn’t switched to ELW, so I’m not as familiar with the page number.

What I look for in a hymn are texts that faithfully proclaim the Gospel without being trite and tunes that are conducive for congregational singing without being maudlin or annoying. I prefer hymns that speak to God, rather than pretending that we are God speaking in the first person. (Another Lutheran pastor, who writes a wonderful column on worship and liturgy, argues much better than me for congregational singing being the primary choir in worship).

At Amazing Grace, we usually have been selecting hymns a few months at a time. I make a list of six or seven hymns that I think would be appropriate for each Sunday and send that list to our pianist and worship chair. We then get together and winnow down the list to four for each week. More often than not, my list is just a starting point; sometimes we come up with something new. My primary criteria at Amazing Grace has been singability. I would rather have us sing a good (or even OK) hymn well as a congregation than to sing a beautiful and theologically perfect hymn poorly.

When it comes down to it, sometimes it is just hard to explain why one hymn works, and another doesn’t.

Well, here’s the list (in no particular order):

Lift Every Voice and Sing (LBW 562). Though sometimes I’ve heard it argued that white people shouldn’t be singing this hymn that speaks so strongly of African American experience, I think it so beautifully address human experience—“weary years,” “silent tears,” “stormy the road we trod.” I try to have the congregation sing this when the lectionary has stories of Israel in exile.

Earth and All Stars (LBW 558). With my geography background, I’ve always liked the nature imagery in this hymn. Can you imagine boiling test tubes and limestone singing to God?

Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service
(LBW 423). The line, “Still your children wander homeless; still the hungry cry for bread” always haunts me. This American Sacred Harp tune also reminds me of my time singing shape note music.

For All the Saints (LBW 174). We feebly struggle. They in glory shine. Yes.

I Love to Tell the Story (LBW 390). This was the closing hymn at my ordination. What we do as Christians is storytelling as we share Good News with our neighbors.

All Praise to Thee, My God, this Night (LBW 278). I first learned this as a camp counselor in Montana. We would actually chant Compline from the LBW with middle schoolers, singing this hymn in canon. Yes, young people can do traditional liturgy.

Let us Break Bread Together (LBW 212). This was the default overflow Communion hymn when I was growing up. If the assigned hymns finished before everyone was communed, this hymn would often be played.

You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore (WOV 784). I love singing this hymn in Spanish, but I haven’t really found a good English translation for it yet.

Built on a Rock the Church Shall Stand (LBW 365). When there was scaffolding around the steeple of my internship congregation, I joked that “built on a rock, the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling.” This hymn became even more meaningful for me as I reflect on the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, where a tornado knocked down the steeple of Central Lutheran Church. See my posting from last September. I was a bit surprised to see that this was a very unfamiliar hymn at Amazing Grace. I have tried to introduce it.

What a Friend we Have in Jesus (LBW 439). Many of the hymns on this list I first heard with flawless and beautiful performances. This is not the case here. I grew up hearing this hymn sung out of tune and with no rhythm, but it was sung with love. When I was really little, my mom would sing this as a lullaby.

Did your favorites make the list?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Guess my favorite hymns!

In a few days, I’m going to do a post about my favorite hymns. I’ve already made my list, but I thought it would be fun for my friends and readers to guess what some of my favorite hymns are. I could make a list of favorite Advent hymns, favorite Scandinavian hymns about death, favorite hymns by female composers, but I’m not. I just have a general list of ten hymns (in no particular order) that resonate with my faith experience that are found in Lutheran hymnals (Lutheran Book of Worship, With one Voice, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, This Far By Faith, or Libro de Liturgia y Cantico). I will post my list on Friday.

Can you guess?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Children's sermons

At the Christian Century’s blog, William Willimon recently wrote about children’s sermons. As a pastor, I’m not a fan of children’s sermons for many of the same reasons that Willimon mentions—they’re not usually for children and they’re not usually sermons.

I love the idea of making worship meaningful for children. I often get annoyed when I hear people say, “children are the future of the Church.” That is totally not true; children are part of the church today. 21st century North American Christians don’t always do a good job demonstrating that sentiment. Too often, kids get ghettoized into children’s church or Sunday school during the worship time.

Though nearly twenty year later, I still remember attending a service where the preacher stopped his sermon to sternly invite a woman to stop her child from crying. Now as a pastor, I don't want to be like that guy.

At Amazing Grace, our bulletin usually includes the line: “We find the sight and sound of squirming children in worship to be a beautiful and welcome sign of God’s new life. For the convenience of families who prefer it, however, we do have a cry room near the back.”

I prefer that children worship with their families. That said, I know I don’t do the best job of making children welcome. We have a few second and third graders that regularly acolyte and hold the chalice during Communion. It’s great to have kids at worship (and in leadership roles), but I find children’s sermons to be a difficult task.

I think I’ve done about three children’s sermons since coming to Amazing Grace, and none in recent months. We barely have a quorum of kids. There are fewer things more awkward than giving a children’s sermon to one or two young people. It puts them on the spot, and is uncomfortable for the pastor, too. Far too often, children’s sermons become a chance for kids to become the center of attention when they say funny things to entertain the adults. That’s not a sermon. The purpose of Lutheran preaching is to proclaim Good News. It’s about what God does, not what we do. Moralistic fables that command us to be nice to people are not sermons.

With this in mind, I attempt to have “adult” sermons have some children’s sermon elements. For me, this means that I try to appeal to a variety of senses. This also recognizes that people of all ages learn in different ways. Last summer, when lots of bread imagery was in the lectionary, we had fresh bread baking in the sanctuary as people entered, so the aroma of bread would be a sign of welcome. In January, I stood in a kid’s swimming pool on Baptism of our Lord as I preached about living in God’s baptismal grace. I don’t do things like that every week, but often enough to keep me creative.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about how worship can be more welcoming to children.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I don't really want to talk about this, but...

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Chicago. I used some of my continuing education time to take a preaching and pastoral class back at my seminary.

Besides learning a lot about wedding and funeral sermons, I also got to visit with some dear friends and walk around my old neighborhood—the Hyde Park community around the University of Chicago. I walked near 58th and Ellis—near the medical school—and I saw him. As I had done several times a week during the three years I lived there, I crossed the street early so I would not have to talk to him, or risk making eye contact or getting handed one of his pamphlets.

With his white hair and white beard, this jolly middle-aged man could pass for Santa Claus. But he’s not. In my mind, I think of him as the Circumcision Guy. For at least five years, he has been on that corner in front of the hospital almost every day with his picket signs protesting circumcision. He describes it as genital mutilation. Apparently the U of C Hospitals circumcise about 80 percent of newborn boys, when the national average in about half.

You might be wondering, “Why is Paul blogging about this?”

This weekend, the assigned 2nd Lesson is from Galatians 2:15-21 and is part of a larger controversy about circumcision. It’s actually not about circumcision, but is about whether one must follow the Jewish Torah in order to be Christian. Circumcision is just the most visible sign of the law. I love this passage from Galatians because it so clearly talks about grace and the idea that Christ lives in us, but it’s difficult to have a complete exegetical discussion about Galatians without talking about circumcision. I don’t feel comfortable doing that in a sermon, lest a little kid asks their parent after church, “Mommy, what’s circumcision?” I figure the blog is a better forum for this conversation. I’ll likely focus on the Gospel text from Luke for this Sunday.

Just before Sunday’s lesson begins, in verse 11 Paul describes a conflict with Cephas, where Cephas kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. In Chicago, I crossed the street early to avoid talking to a representative of a very different, but equally fervent circumcision faction.

These pro-circumcision folks (sometimes called Judaizers, but I think that term seems a bit politically charged these days) have infiltrated the community of Galatian Jesus-followers. The argue that one has to follow Jewish law in order to become Christian. Paul does not tolerate this preaching at all. “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?” he asks in 3:1.

What we learn from this Galatian situation is that there is only one message that can be tolerated—God’s grace. We don’t need to be circumcised, avoid pork, or do anything to receive God’s grace. This is very good news. I pray that I could be as ardent and passionate in sharing this message as the Circumcision Guy is about his.

A white guy in a kufi?

I’m wearing the kufi and the kente fabric in my role as the griot in our civil rights-themed Vacation Bible School, On the Move: God’s Grace from Place to Place. A griot is a traditional storyteller, and in our curriculum, he introduces the day during the opening gathering time and tells the Bible story. The curriculum suggested that the griot wear traditional African garb.

Our education committee thought that would be fun; I was a bit uncomfortable. As a non-African, it feels weird to be wearing ethnic attire from a culture that isn’t mine. I feel like I would be usurping somebody else’s heritage. My thoughts took me back to a conversation on blogger PeaceBang’s site from a few years ago about white pastors wearing multicultural stoles. I felt uneasy, but thought it might be a good opportunity for my congregation to learn about other cultures.

When I was in Chicago last month, I stopped by an African store, wanting to see if there might be anything appropriate for me to wear at VBS. I nervously explained my situation to the woman at the store: “I’m a white pastor of a mostly white congregation, and we’re doing a Vacation Bible School with a civil rights theme. I know that seems odd, but I think it’s really important for us to learn some of these stories. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Our curriculum suggests that I wear African garb, and I feel uncomfortable doing it because I’m not African. What do you think?”

She said, “Oh, Pastor, don’t worry. You know Father Pfleger, right? Father Pfleger wears kente all the time. As long you’re trying to stop racism, it’s all right. Go ahead, and try on this one.” I tried on the kufi that I’m wearing in the picture. I do know who Michael Pfleger is, but I am definitely not Father Pfleger. Though I’ve never met him nor attended Mass at his parish, he is a well-known figure in Chicago. As the white pastor of a mostly African American Roman Catholic parish, he has been an outspoken leader about justice issues in Chicago and beyond. With over forty years of ministry in African American communities, he has the credibility to pull it off. I don’t.

Nevertheless, I’m wearing it anyway. I realize that I am pushing the boundary toward taking another’s culture, but I also see it as an opportunity for learning and conversation. I know a mostly white congregation learning about civil rights seems unusual, but it shouldn’t be. African American history is American history. I love that our children are learning about heroes of faith and justice that they might not learn about in school (we do live in Texas). I love that we're combining faith and justice. We’re also starting to learn that justice is not just a race issue. I long for the day when there is no injustice for us to learn about.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

It's VBS time!

Tonight was our first night of Family Vacation Bible School, with around fifty people attending. It’s meant to be intergenerational—with kids and adults. After some technical difficulties with the sound on our video, we heard some stories about people working for racial justice in the 1960s. Our theme is On the Move: God’s Grace from Place to Place. Every week, we’re in a different place across America, learning stories about civil rights as well as stories from the Bible.

Tonight our theme was justice. We learned about Deborah working for justice against the Canaanites. The people of Israel came to her for justice. We also learned about Gloria Richardson, who worked for civil rights in Cambridge, Maryland. For our meal together, we had Maryland crab cakes. Here are pictures of our intergenerational art project—the freedom bus—and the tree that our kindergarten class sat around when they learned about Deborah sitting under the palm tree giving judgment (Judges 4:5). We’re off to a great start. Thanks to all the people who are making this a great opportunity!

Friday, June 4, 2010

A work in progress...

Here are a few pics of construction at Amazing Grace. The youth building is looking fantastic; we're starting to be more accesible, and the bathrooms are getting remodeled. We also have a new roof. Come to church on Sunday to see more.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Sailing the Steward Ship

In thinking about budgets and stewardship, I have been very vocal about my discomfort with lots of fundraisers and raffles. Here is an ELCA document with similar notions:

Friday, May 28, 2010

Where is the cross?

On Pentecost Sunday in May, three Amazing Grace eighth graders affirmed their faith in the rite of Confirmation. The Saturday before, I attended breakfast with their families. It was a time of togetherness and conversation as we reflected on our time together. When my waffles, eggs, and bacon came, I looked at my meal, and apologized, saying, “I’m sorry. I can’t help myself. I need to take a picture of this!”

Yes, I took a picture of breakfast. I was struck by the shape my bacon made—a cross. Even something that the Old Testament describes as unclean can remind me of God. I was also reminded of the television advertisements that our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has produced. The ads show everyday objects, like pencils or breadsticks making a cross shape, using the tagline God’s Work. Our Hands. Some of these ads have recently aired locally on KSAT 12.

At Amazing Grace, we have made our own television ads that will piggyback off what the synod is doing. They will appear on KSAT some time in June. Several San Antonio area congregations have ads. In ours, I briefly talk about who Lutherans are. I say that we celebrate God’s presence with all our hurting world.

This is where I find the Lutheran emphasis on the cross helpful. Jesus meets us in our human suffering. As Lutheran Christians, we don’t have good answers about why bad stuff happens, but we affirm that God is right there suffering with us.

As Lutherans, we also believe that God is present with us. I was reminded of God’s presence when I saw bacon at a restaurant. How are you reminded of God in your everyday life? Maybe you see cross-shaped tiles on your bathroom floor. Maybe the spoons in your silverware drawer get in the shape of a cross.

But we don’t actually have to have cross-shaped things to remember the cross. Maybe we can be cross-shaped ourselves. That doesn’t mean we have to do strange contortionist gymnastics. It means we live as Jesus—loving people, welcoming people, giving of ourselves.

Look around you carefully. You might just see Jesus.

(Originally published in the June 2010 newsletter of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church).

Holy Trinity

This upcoming holiday weekend also includes Trinity Sunday. It is the only day in the church calendar dedicated to a doctrine. We have days in the church calendar for remembering people—All Saint’s Day, John the Baptist, St. Luke, even more modern people like Martin Luther King or Oscar Romero. We have days in the church calendar for events—Christmas, Easter, Pentecost (last Sunday), the Baptism of Our Lord, Reformation Day. But today is the only day that remembers a doctrine. The Trinity is a teaching of the church instead of a teaching of the Bible. Search as much as you want, and you will never find the word “trinity” in the Bible. Though not in the Bible, we see God functioning throughout the Bible as a parent/creator, as Jesus, and as a spirit.

Yet the doctrine of the Trinity has also been labeled too old-fashioned, too masculine, and too hard to understand. It is indeed a difficult concept to understand. Do we have one God or three? Is Jesus God or is God Jesus? What about the Holy Spirit? Is the Trinity just two men and a bird?

Over the years Christians have tried very hard to answer these questions by explaining this concept of the Trinity. In some ways, it could be like water—sometimes a liquid, sometimes a solid, and sometimes a gas. Or it could be like an apple—a core, a peel, and the inside part.

As much as we might try, explaining the Trinity in rational terms is difficult. We cannot ever fully understand the mystery that God is. As human beings, we so often want full, complete answers to all our questions. This is, in part, how the understanding of the Trinity came to be. Early followers of Jesus were trying to understand who Jesus is, and how that relates to God.

We have one God, but God plays many roles interacting in the world. God creates, God is like a parent, God is like a rock, or a wind, or a word, or a breath. God is fully present in creating the world, in walking with our suffering, and in bringing us from death to new life. Jesus is with us.

By the fourth century, some Christians thought that Jesus was fully God. Others thought that he couldn’t be the same as God. These questions were addressed at the Council of Nicea. Christianity was starting to be a religion of power, and Christianity would start to bring even more power for the people in power if all the Christians agreed about who God is. The Nicene Creed was a result of the debates in Nicea. The Council of Nicea was organized by the Roman Emperor, and the Creed organized there could be taken as another symbol of Christianity being an oppressive and patriarchal religion.

Yet, the image of the Trinity can also be taken as a symbol of equality and communality. The three parts of the Trinity all share in being God. One is not more important than the other. Where one is, the others are also present. The Trinity is who God is—community. It is relationships between the three parts that makes God God.

If we are created in the image of God, then we are created in the image of community. What would that look like if we took seriously the image of being created in the image of God as community?

Perhaps it would look like what our congregation does every Sunday before Communion—pass the peace. As we shuffle around the sanctuary, we greet one another, look each other in the eye, shake each other’s hand, and show the other that they are important. We remember that God is with us.

It's been a while...

It's been a few weeks since I've shared anything here. I spent a week in Chicago learning about baptisms, weddings and funerals. At church, we had Confirmation and a congregational meeting. Now, we're gearing up for Vacation Bible School and living in the midst of construction.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Up, up, and away!

Today is the day we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord. Jesus is lifted into heaven, leaving instructions for his disciples to await the coming of the Holy Spirit, as he is blessing them.

We are now forty days after Easter and ten days before Pentecost, reminding us of the forty days Jesus appeared on Earth after his resurrection. It’s the day we remember Jesus, after appearing to his disciples, is no longer with them on Earth. The disciples do not get Left Behind. Rather, he is present with them and with us in a new way, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Now I think that with the Ascension it’s tempting to get caught up in issues of levitation rather than the theological meaning Christ’s Ascension has for us. In the modern quest for the Historical Jesus, one could ask what the disciples actually saw, or what the Ascension would look like on 35mm film. Curious minds also could wonder how exactly Jesus ascended into heaven. Did he have a beautiful balloon? Did he have a George Jetson rocket pack or one of those personal hover devices powered by a vacuum cleaner that used to be advertised in comic books? Were the clouds cirrus or cumulus? If gravity were suspended for Jesus, why didn’t the disciples standing right next to him float away, too?

These questions are fun to think about and imagine, but they are really missing the point. Ascension is less about flying away and skyward journeys than it is about Jesus and his divine role. It’s not a science fiction tale, but rather a story of faith.

“Lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). Notice that this happened while he was blessing them, as opposed to after he blessed them. It seems that Jesus hasn’t finished blessing his people. He is still doing it. This is the gift of the ascension—Christ’s blessing on us forever. Amen.

Trash talk

At last week's council meeting, our congregation voted to get a dumpster. This is very good news. Over the past years, church members have taken turns taking church trash home with them. Now we have an easy place to deposit it. I know that I have had days of stinkiness linger in my car after my spin as a garbage courier.

I wonder what this means theologically. I think of biblical images about repentance and being washed clean: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1-2). Having a dumpster makes it easier to get rid of our church trash.

That phrase, “church trash” intrigues me. Of course we have garbage at church—paper cups, napkins, and things like that. But we also have our trashy feelings. I’ve noticed that some of the worst and mean-spirited grudges can come from people at church. I guess Luther was right in describing us as simul justus et peccator. We are both saint and sinner.

In that sense, we’ve always had a sort of dumpster at church. It’s called a baptismal font. Perhaps having a physical garbage container on our campus will help us get rid of actual garbage and remind us that we are daily washed in the waters of baptism.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


On April 18, our congregation had a forum to help us think about who we are as a parish. Participants were assigned to small groups and asked to discuss strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) at Amazing Grace. These were then shared with the large group and compiled into this listing. It is shared here to continue conversation.

Large property/5 acres
Talents & spiritual gifts
Young new pastor
Youth program
Message of grace
History/long term memory
Programs in general
Great council
Worship opportunities
Well order worship/Bible based

Communication/internal & external
Lack of volunteers
Status quo
Aging congregation
Long term memory
Lack of maintenance
Nothing for children during service/no cradle roll
Space/small facilities
Curb appeal/visibility
Lack of shared vision
Not many young people
Difficult to retain young families
Lack of fellowship after service
Lost members

Neighborhood garden
Space for organizations to meet
Young neighborhood
More signage
Opportunity to be witness to neighborhood
Visiting and supporting fellow parishioners
Resurrecting amphitheater
Spanish speaking service
Areal of large growth
Expanded youth program
50’s+ program
Learning how to invite others/reach out
Neighborhood youth program
Using holidays as way to include community

Lack of tithes/money
No shared vision, strategic plan of common goal
Other growing churches have more to offer
Members unwilling to change
Slowing economy
Not making church a priority
No financial cushion
Not looking at own strengths/assessing strengths
Unwilling to change/my way or the highway
Lack of unity
Homosexuality controversy/ELCA decisions
Instant gratification/desire to be entertained
No active participation by some in congregation
Tagging in neighborhood

Suggestions for what to do with this information
Action plan/strategic plan
Set goals with timelines
Put on blog, newsletter, bulletin insert
Prioritize issues we want to deal with
Timeframe when to look at these again
Have congregation prioritize one area a month
Talk to small groups/cottage meetings

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Synod Assembly

I spent the weekend at our synod’s assembly in New Braunfels. Here is the Synod’s report of what officially happened. I’ll try to have some of my own commentary here in the next days.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Baptismal citizenship

As I write this in my office, I hear the sound of U.S. Census worker training taking place upstairs. It’s the rustling of tables, moving of chairs. It is the sound of good stewardship. I love that our space can be used by the community. When Cub Scouts or a homeowner’s association uses Amazing Grace property as a meeting place, it shows our neighbors that something is going on here. It also provides an evangelism opportunity. The more people who have some sort of contact with Amazing Grace, the better.

Having census people at Amazing Grace reminds me that I need to fill out a census form and get counted. I am amazed at the effort and work that it takes to count everyone in the United States. If the government can collect that information about us, imagine how well God knows the billions and billions of people who have ever lived. A psalmist writes:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways (Psalm 139:1-3).

With the U.S. Census going on, and with recent legislation in Arizona about immigration, there is a lot of talk in our cultural and political milieu about who has what papers when and who is a citizen where. I’m reminded of what Paul tells the congregation at Phillipi: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20).

When it comes down to it, our citizenship in heaven is what matters. We are all children of God, but I wonder how might we prove this citizenship if we got pulled over? By our love? By how we treat our neighbor? By a baptismal certificate?

My own baptismal certificate is on my office wall. It’s a white piece of paper with blue ballpoint pen writing. It’s not beautifully illustrated with handsome calligraphy like some of those I’ve seen from a generation or so back. I know people who have lost their baptismal certificates, but they are still loved by God.

On May 9, we will welcome another person into the Body of Christ. When I pour water on that baby boy’s head, we will witness again God’s love being poured out.

Our citizenship in the Kingdom is sealed by the cleansing waters of baptism and by what God does for us.
Papers—we don't need no stinking papers.
We're all documented by God, even without a baptismal certificate.
We're all a part of the reign of God.
We're sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Radical hospitality radio

I know that I talk about welcome and hospitality very frequently. Apparently, some people are hearing what I’ve been saying. Jackie, a long-time member of Amazing Grace and regular reader of this blog, functions as a guest blogger and shares a story about radical hospitality from this past weekend:

Ever since Pastor Paul arrived here (18 months now) he has talked and written about "radical hospitality"—about our church becoming a more welcoming and inviting church, and for us old timers (of which I am one) to see where just maybe others don't see us as we see ourselves. Likewise, he told us this story: his uncle was visiting him here in SA, came to our church and we were happy to meet him, and then they visited another larger church in our area and he said no one came up to offer assistance, or even acknowledge their presence in any way. Get the picture?

WEELLLLLLL This Sunday morning on my way to church between 7:30 and 8 o'clock a.m., I had WOAI 1200 on my car radio, and I believe it was a Baptist church broadcasting at that time, when I heard the Preacher say, "Radical hospitality. You are going to be hearing that phrase a lot in the near future: "radical hospitality." I just about drove off the road! Then he went on to say that some visitors had recently been to their campus, and no one offered any assistance or even made eye contact (sound familiar?) AND the Preacher was sure there would be those in the congregation that had been there longer than he who would disagree and say, “Oh but we are a friendly and welcoming church,” and maybe needed to take another look at things (maybe?) WEEEEELLLLLL by this time I had pulled over to the side of the road, listened carefully to see that this was not my pastor's voice and message coming through my car radio!!!! I just KNEW that God was channeling him just for me and about then the preacher gave an altar call to close the program and I KNEW then Pastor Paul was NOT being channeled thru my car radio. I, and I mean I, got the picture!!!!. AMEN.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

“Welcome” or “Go Home”

At Amazing Grace, we often have kids from the neighborhood wander on to church property, often to use our playground. I struggle with issues of liability and supervision, but I think it is a great opportunity for young people to feel welcome. I pass on this wonderful story about congregational hospitality from a member of Amazing Grace:

Sitting on the Amazing Grace patio is always a spiritual adventure. The other day, as I was talking with someone ordering Angel Food, I noticed a small head peeking around the side of the building. It would peek and duck, peek and duck. I walked over to see to whom it belonged and was asked, “Are you a go home person or a welcome person?” When I answered that I am a welcome person, he said, “Good” and went running across the lawn. I hope I will always be a welcome person.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A week of weeks

Here we are in the season of Easter. It’s more than just a day of jelly beans, lilies, and fancy hats. It is a whole season from Easter to Pentecost. At 50 days, it’s a week of weeks. During these weeks, I plan on focusing my preaching on the book Acts and lessons from the early church. To help us keep celebrating Easter, here are some photos from this past weekend:

In my white chasuble, I light the new fire for the Vigil of Easter. It was a bit windy, so our individual candles didn't work as well when we processed with them. The fire was made from past Advent and Christmas greenery, reminding us of the cycle of Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection.

The pulpit with our new gold parament for Easter.

A banner with "alleluia" and handprints created at the Fast Night Lenten kick-off in February.