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The Church and Love: Not Mutually Exclusive

​The other night my wife posted a quick note in a closed Facebook group to which she belongs. It had to do with an anonymous letter I received at our home in opposition to a public stand I took regarding some of the hate and division this recent election has revealed. Bear in mind the note I received wasn’t nasty or even mean-spirited. But it was anonymous. So, in keeping with long-standing practice regarding anything sent to me anonymously, I tossed it in the recycle bin. 

That’s not very interesting, and is actually commonplace for people in my profession. But what made this noteworthy is the response my wife received from her Facebook post. She had briefly stated that I had received an anonymous note, and that it was in response to my stance of inclusivity for all, love for all, and welcome to all in a sermon the previous Sunday (the sermon). She said how sad she felt that a message of love for all was met with fear, and that this response is far from in isolated incident. Many who espouse that all are worthy of love are ridiculed, harassed, and isolated. While I only received a brief note, others have received far worse. 

The response she received was surprising to both of us. Within about 10 minutes (and mind you, she posted this about 10:00 at night) there were about 50 return comments of support and care. We are Lutheran (I’m an ELCA pastor) yet encouragement came from across age and theological perspectives. Within a half hour of her post, more than 100 comments were made (not counting the “likes”), all of them positive and supportive. 

Several Jews asked her to keep up the necessary work of love. A former Pentecostal (now atheist) wrote that if she’d heard messages of love for all people in her church growing up, she may not have left the faith. Others longed for more people to stand in and for acceptance. Still others recognized how hard it is to publicly proclaim that all are to be loved. One or two bemoaned their own church’s failure to take this kind of a stance and wished there was a “loving church” nearer to them. Several asked my wife to pray for them, their church, and their clergy. On and on she read these comments, astounded at the depth of the encouragement and heartbroken by the longing for acceptance.

It seemed clear that my wife had struck a cord in her Facebook group. The simplicity of loving all people apparently is not broadly heard outside of certain circles. The longing for someone to say “you are loved right now, just as you are” was palpable. We went to bed moved, misty, and determined.

If the message of Jesus is to “love God, love your neighbor,” we don’t seem to be doing it very well. At least there are lots of people who don’t think so. Or who haven’t been experiencing that from church people. If one small Facebook post is any indication, we aren’t doing our job. 

What’s hard is that most congregations and congregational adherents believe they are showing love. We really think we’re doing a good job because we aren’t hateful, are fairly polite, are upset by violence and racism, and bothered by all kinds of phobias, including those singling out Islam and LGBTQ. People are yearning to be loved and cared about. Even though there are churches in their neighborhoods, they don’t believe the people inside would really love them. 

So here’s the message: what we’re doing is not enough. Love, care, compassion, grace, generosity aren’t quiet by nature, and certainly not private. Rather than patting ourselves on the back because xenophobia is irritating, perhaps we need to be seen publicly standing up for immigrants. Instead of feeling justified because we find those who take advantage of the poor distasteful, perhaps each of us should be broadly recognized as standing up for those who are economically challenged. If we are annoyed by homophobia or persecution of Muslims or sexism, maybe it’s time our love-in-action on their behalf was identifiable in our neighborhoods. 

If we aren’t known for being loving, perhaps it’s because we only do it quietly and safely. If people longing to be accepted aren’t turning to the church, I’m guessing it’s because they don’t believe they will find acceptance among us. 

If love isn’t shown, it isn’t really love. Love is active, risky, and relational. If those in our congregations’ neighborhoods don’t know we love them, it’s time we showed them. What can you do to get outside the doors of your church building and love your neighbor? What will that look like? Who are they and what’s going on in their lives? How can they know they are loved, by us, right now, just as they are? People are asking for acceptance, wanting to know they are considered worthwhile, longing to be loved. Doesn’t that sound like something we are called, equipped, and sent to do? 

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Good question to ask: Why Church?Why nothing seems to get people back to church – The issue at the core of decline

“People just aren’t committed like they used to be” This week, I came across this satirical article from the site BabylonBee “After 12 Years Of Quarterly Church Attendance, Parents Shocked By Daugh…

Source: Why nothing seems to get people back to church – The issue at the core of decline

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Create Neighborhood Trust

I wrote the following article for the April, 2015 edition of “The Lutheran” magazine, a publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. With their permission, I’m reprinting it here.

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Jennifer and her 7th grade daughter, Maria, attended a congregation’s confirmation ministry for the first time. The family has no church home, but Jennifer wanted her daughter to be part of a community that would show her love, care, and support.

Jim, a guidance counselor at a large suburban high school, is working with a congregation to provide much needed career mentors for students who may fall through the cracks after graduating.

Rosa, an elementary school principal, not only encourages members of a church to come to the school library to help students with homework, but asked other local principals to do the same. Not interested in church herself, she nonetheless has invited members of this same church to offer a Bible study for parents and families in the school building.

These examples of trusting partnerships are happening, but are coming about in a way that may be counter-intuitive to many of us. Authentic relationships involve mutual trust and dying to our own agendas.

Christian congregations, which for decades have been the trusted center of our communities, have in many cases become disconnected from their neighbors. Some congregations are now seen as self-serving, judgmental, and unsafe places. There is good reason for this skepticism. Instead of unconditionally loving their neighbors, they have looked at them primarily as a way to bolster the church’s membership.

In a time of numerical decline in congregations across denominations and the country, it’s tempting to think of the neighborhood around the church as merely a resource to be tapped. So we advertise programs, exude hospitality, jazz up our worship and more, all in an attempt to get the neighbors into our building.

We all want to dodge the “congregation-in-decline” label and can become frantic in our efforts to avoid it. With good intentions, we pour increasing amounts of energy into improving our worship attendance numbers but often don’t see the intended results.

As long as filling pews on a Sunday morning is our motivation, our neighborhood will rightly perceive the church as self-serving and will be less likely to trust us. Whether we mean to or not, the message our neighbors hear is: “We don’t really care about you, we just want you to fill our building (as well as our offering plate).”

Jesus speaks to this and reminds us: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

Our internal focus is partially understandable, as we love our congregations and authentically want to share the joy and meaning we’ve found there with others. But in our efforts to stop the decline in our numbers, we can forget why we are there in the first place. Consider the possibility that the more energy we put into improving our numbers, the less energy we may be putting into developing trusting relationships with our neighbors.

What’s more, not only are trusting, self-giving relationships between neighborhoods and congregations a good strategy for the work of the church, they are also in the image of God.

The Trinity can authentically be described as God-in-relationship. The identity of one person of the Trinity can best be understood through one’s relationship with the other two. Throughout biblical history, God has worked by establishing relationships with individuals or groups, including Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Moses. A relationship with God was opened to all directly through the Son, Jesus.

Relationships are God’s way of revealing God’s self and mission of love, grace and forgiveness to us. Relationships are the way we trust God’s invitation to be part of that mission. And relationships are how we do God’s work in the world—the work to which we have been called through baptism as the body of Christ.

In putting aside our agenda of playing the numbers game, we can begin to develop trust within our neighborhoods. As we do so, we reveal the very nature of God. By being part of our neighborhood for the sake of the neighborhood, we are better able to be about the purpose of the church.

Without considering whether it will bring in any new members, try some things that allow you to listen to the neighborhood around you.

  • Sit down with principals and teachers, listening as they tell you what would be helpful for their schools.
  • Host a town-hall meeting in your community about a particularly hot issue that may be arising. Do so without an agenda other than to listen, allowing all sides to be heard.
  • Talk to the local police department, perhaps riding along in squad cars to get their perspective on your neighborhood.

Activities such as these over time will allow our congregations to develop trust within our neighborhoods. Through trusting relationships God is revealed and the reign of God is present. Perhaps then we can all see—and together join—God at work in our neighborhoods.

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#YesAllWomen (and men) don’t want to live in fear

As a white, middle-aged, heterosexual male, this blog from Pastor Brigette Weier is a hard one to hear. May our loving Mother continue to move among us and make us one.

A Lutheran Says What?

I have been reading the tweets and blog posts all week from the #yesallwomen on Twitter and Facebook. Honestly, I did not jump in with any tweets or blogs of own until today. Why? It’s not because I am ambivalent or because I don’t think that I have faced discrimination. I am not ambivalent and I, too, was raised in the culture of both subtle and overt gender inequality and misogyny (as have all women, hence the hashtag). It struck me today that it was partially out of fear that I haven’t added my voice to this conversation. Fear. I was afraid of being labeled “one of those feminists.” I was afraid that to name some of the ways this affects me is to give it more power. I was afraid that my place of privilege as a white, heterosexual woman would be hurtful to my sisters who were LBGT…

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Faith is Simple

When your self-confidence is lost, optimism shattered, friends are unreliable, hope is pointless, strength is weakened, and everything else you’ve relied on is gone, whatever is left is called faith.

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Invisible paths and standing in the gap

Clearest (muddiest) description of the church’s current situation I’ve read in a very long time. Welcome to the mystery, mess, and chaos of the gap.

A Lutheran Says What?

I don’t think I would be offering anyone new information if I said to you, “we are in transition.” Now you might ask me where specifically we are in transition but I am afraid I would just respond to you with a shrug and say, “everywhere.” Because it’s true. We are in transition in our educational systems, we are in transition in our governmental systems, we are in transition in our communication systems, we are in transition in our churches, we are in transition in our homes. We are in transition. We are currently standing in the gap of where we were and where we are going. We can see the black abyss underneath our feet and it’s as frightening as all hell.

Not only are we standing in the gap but the bridge we are walking on is like the path in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last…

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Why I Go To Work Everyday

A blog post by Pastor Brigette Weier. One of the most compelling statements about the purpose of the church I’ve ever had the privilege to read. Moving and contagious.
http://alutheransayswhat.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/why-i-go-to-work-everyday/

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Now, THIS is Ministry

This post was written by a young woman in the congregation I serve. This is why the church is here. Supporting and encouraging this type of vocational ministry is our purpose in God’s mission. Read and be inspired.
http://strivingtobewhatagain.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/has-anyone-seen-my-cape/

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Ordination Sermon: Caitlin Trussell

ORDINATION: CAITLIN TRUSSELL

Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84:1-5a; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40  

Well, Caitlin, it’s no surprise you’ve chosen these texts for today. Not because they are so obvious for an ordination, they aren’t necessarily a battle cry for charging into ministry, but because they are the prescribed lectionary texts for today, February 2nd. The lectionary has a divine rhythm that you’ve discovered, a pulse of spirituality. And that took precedence for you over an event. Even one so long-awaited, so important, so celebrative, and (did I say?) sooo long-awaited as your ordination into the ministry of Word and sacrament. No surprise. Over the years, your life has taken on a new rhythm, Caitlin. Not a rhythm dictated by daily calendar events or life-stresses, but a rhythm called out by the divine. You live the events of your life, celebrating and stressing, but there’s a deeper rhythm pulsing, breathing beneath those things. That is something I’ve been learning from you. So it’s no surprise you’ve chosen for your ordination the texts for February 2, The Presentation of Our Lord. I’m just glad you weren’t ordained on the day when the texts were the woman caught in adultery or Ezekiel burning his dung. Anna and Simeon at the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple? That’s OK; I’m feeling rather fortunate. Many of us have been waiting with you impatiently for this day. But you’ve come to recognize that there’s been a divine rhythm, even to this journey. A deeply spiritual breathing that you’ve come to accept—and even appreciate. That, I believe, is an important gift you bring to the world, Caitlin. Breathing in rhythm with the divine breath in the midst of chaos, stress, impatience, struggles, and calendars. This gospel text, and the other ones today also, reveal for us a divine rhythm present in the world. A rhythm that the people of God have tried to live and ritualize. And that is the blessing and the curse of the church—particularly of rostered leaders in the church. “When the time came,” Luke writes. “When the time came for their purification,” they went to Jerusalem, up to the temple. Part of the rhythm of their lives. 40 days after a male child was born. Timing, rhythm. Breath. Simeon came to the temple then. Called by the divine, according to a promise made to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. He had lived his life according to this promise and was eager to adjust his life, his breathing, to be in time with the divine breath bringing about the consolation of Israel. The prophet Anna was at the temple all the time. She spent every day devoted to the rhythm of God. Worshiping, fasting, praying night and day. These two people, in divine rhythm, were at the temple when Mary and Joseph brought the child Jesus to dedicate him to the Lord. One of the joys and responsibilities of rostered ministry, Caitlin, is to live and to keep this divine rhythm with a community of people. You’ve been called here to Augustana Lutheran Church to do that. A divine rhythm breathing life beneath the calendars, the events, the meetings, the emergencies, the constant demands a pastor’s life. It can be distracting; we can lose the beat. In order to try and live into the divine rhythm all around us, we’ve set up our own rhythms within the church. A three-year lectionary, seasons of the church year, worship every Sunday—complete with sacraments and proclamation of the Word, age-appropriate education leading to the Rite of Confirmation—the Affirmation of Baptism. And if some are really devout, even ongoing education beyond that! Baptisms, weddings, funerals—mile-markers in life; installations of councils, election of leaders, stewardship campaign, adopting a budget. There’s a rhythm to it all. That can be a blessing. God is present in that. The rhythm of the church is part of a pastor’s life, but that must never get confused with the divine rhythm breathing underneath it all. That’s the curse—it’s easy to let the rhythm of our job be confused with the rhythm God. One can point to the other, but can never replace the other. Part of your call as an ordained minister of Word and sacrament in this church is to keep us aware of the divine rhythm. Call us back into it. Remind us of what God is doing and when God is doing it. Proclaim the divine rhythm of forgiveness out of brokenness, mercy out of helplessness, generosity out of poverty, life out of death. Breathe in time with the divine. With Simeon and Anna, recognize the light of God’s salvation, which God has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people Israel. And in the face of this world’s (and our church’s) chaos, live in that rhythm. That’s pretty deep, isn’t it? Sounds kind of poetic. Divine breath, holy rhythm, Anna and Simeon. Perhaps it’s a good reminder, and something to be attuned to. But here’s the thing: you won’t do it. Your own out-of-sync rhythm will never be far out of reach. In other words, Caitlin, (and let me use the appropriate theological terminology), you’re going to screw it up. Using all the amazing gifts you have, tapping into all the wonderful theological education you’ve experienced, discerning with the wisest leaders a course of action, taking time to make the most prayer-filled decisions, you will be out of step with the Jesus. That’s one of the hardest things for rostered leaders to get, especially when they are as gifted as you. It’s not about us or our effort or our gifts and talents. It’s not our rhythm, after all. It’s about Jesus. So hooray for Anna and Simeon! How cool they could be in the temple when baby Jesus was brought in. How wonderful they could speak of God’s salvation and revelation and glory. How fulfilling it must have been for them to articulate God’s redemption so magnificently. But it’s not really about them, is it? Your most spirit-filled sermon isn’t about how gifted a preacher you are. Your most comforting pastoral care isn’t about how well you pray at someone’s bedside. It’s not about your rhythm, it’s about God’s. And that will be an ongoing struggle. But God’s rhythm, the very pulse of God, is grace and forgiveness and mercy. So Jesus comes into your broken rhythm and matches his pulse to yours; his breathing to yours. That grace and forgiveness and mercy will continue to wash over you in never-ending waves. It will keep blowing through you as a constant breath. God’s gracious, forgiving pulse is not only for the people with whom you minister—but it is for you too. That’s the rhythm to which you are called—the rhythm of forgiveness and mercy with Jesus. Thank God it’s a rhythm that is underneath all you are and all you do. It’s always there; you can’t get away from it; it’s constantly with you. It can get pretty annoying. Because in our brokenness, we want it to be about our breath and our rhythm. But it’s not our rhythm, not our breath, not our pulse. It is God’s—that comes to us, meets us, and includes us. Thanks be to God for that. God’s rhythm of grace is with you and will include you again and again. A divine breath to which you’ve been awakened. As you take on the challenges and the joys of Word and sacrament ministry here with the people of Augustana, with the larger church, and with the world, may that divine breath meet you, sustain you, fill you, and give you life. The very pulse of God is for you, my friend and my colleague. Amen.

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When are we going to stop talking about being missional?

Michael Wallenmeyer connects God’s mission of care and redemption with our everyday life.

Being “missional” isn’t primarily about getting new members, going overseas, or sending high schoolers to clean up after hurricanes (though it may include all these and more). Being missional is about living our new life in Christ every day. It’s who we are in baptism. It is the very heart and nature of God.

When are we going to stop talking about being missional?.

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