The Hungry at Our Door

the hungry at the gate are becoming, more and more, our neighbors and folks who sit in the pew with us in worship.

The local news website We Are Iowa reported yesterday that business is booming at local food pantries. When business booms at the mall, I suppose that is a good thing overall (aside from the spiritual morass of consumerism). When business booms at the food pantries, it is disconcerting because it means there are more and more folks who just can’t make ends meet. We started our own food pantry here at Holy Trinity so folks would have one more day a week to access help. We have seen a steady increase in clients for the pantry and our assistance program.

Now, before you wonder about whether these food pantry “customers” deserve the handouts, or are “worthy” of such grace, I would point you to the sculpture of the homeless Jesus on the bench below. The only way you can tell this is Jesus is by the nail scars in his feet (hard to see in this photo). The caption says it all. Jesus stands with the poor, the hungry, the disadvantaged, and even the undeserving. I am as undeserving a character as you’ll see and I have enough to eat. So, as the meme says…

 am-worthy-poor

I expect that this trend toward busier food pantries will continue until our culture, our nation, our leaders manage to pull our collective heads out of… um… ah… the sand about the economy. Look at the way costs associated with living have grown since 1978:

inflation-comparison-growth-1975-2012

Note that food prices have grown 243% in that time period. Now look at what you and your neighbor have likely seen when it comes to paying for that food:

income trends since 1978

If you are fortunate enough to fall into the top 5% of wages, your wages have grown 52%. If you are with 90% of your neighbors and friends, your income has risen only 16%. When it comes to the growing hunger problem, as one former president liked to say, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Today’s food pantry shopper is not always indigent, living in their car or receiving government assistance. They are, more and more, middle class moms and dads caught in a world where only a handful of folks get better off and the paycheck – which never seems to get bigger – just won’t buy the food the kids need.

We help the hungry in our community through the HTLC Food pantry, support of DMARC and the network of food pantries they support. We help with the Love Lunch program in Ankeny that makes sure hungry kids get lunch in the summer and we work with Backpack Buddies during the school year. We support the ELCA World Hunger Appeal – one of the most efficient hunger organizations in the world – to aid, assist and advocate for people as close as Des Moines and as far away as Africa and Asia. But it looks like we are going to need to push to do more, my sisters and brothers. Especially since the hungry at the door are becoming, more and more, our neighbors and folks who sit in the pew with us in worship.

In Matthew 25, Jesus blesses those who saw him hungry and gave him food, even though they had no idea it was Jesus. They didn’t recognize him because he comes to us laying on a park bench, in a soup kitchen and at the food pantry. That we feed any who show up means we heard Jesus’ command to love. That we feed the hungry at the door means we feed Jesus himself, every single time.

The Death of Hostilities: A White Preacher on Racism

Racism is the wound that seems never to heal in our nation. While we can look back and see what appears to be progress, the news reminds us that people of different colors struggle to understand each other and live in peace.  What does God have to say about this?  Quite a bit actually.

 

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Border Crossing, Barrier Breaking, Boundary Smashing Jesus

There are endless ways we order our world and lives into neat and tidy categories. Some of this is helpful. Much is not. When the borders, barriers and boundaries we erect get in the way of the God of love and cause hatred, violence, bitterness and anger, Jesus is in the business of breaking them down. He is the “violator of boundaries in chief” when it comes to what keeps us from God and one another.

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Open Arms: Making the Vision Reality – Part 3

To become this congregation, we face many challenges. We will need to do more than survive if we are to thrive as a missionary outpost for the reign of God.

If you have followed this series you have heard about an Open Arms Vision rooted in Jesus and his call for us to imitate him, becoming his hands, feet and outstretched arms to each other, the community and world (Part 1). You also know that we have spent a great deal of time discerning our congregation’s unique identity and how we offer or gifts in a unique way in a community filled with diverse models of “church.” (Part 2). My hope is that you have been able to understand the direction God is pointing us and at best, getting a little excited (or at least curious) about how this vision becomes a reality. That is what this third installment is about.

To become this congregation, we face many challenges. We will need to do more than survive if we are to thrive as a missionary outpost for the reign of God. Each and all of us will need to become part of what God is doing among us. If we are to be a place that welcomes, we need a space that welcomes. If we are to be a place that worships in with roots in the ancient traditions and has an eye to the future, we need to space that allows us to do so. If we are to reach out to the world and be the place that feeds the hungry, we need space that works for our mission not against it.

Over the next three years, we will need to make these things a priority. We must:

Refuse to be defined by what others congregations do or don’t do; Refuse to be defined by our memories of the past (no matter how fond); refuse to be defined by our fear of risk, failure, being wrong, or any other source of anxiety. Instead we must claim our identity and mission as defined by our values and beliefs and be the people God has called Holy Trinity to be. 

Stop fretting over perceived scarcity in giving, in volunteers, in leaders, in faith. Stop saying “will there be enough?” and believing there will not be.  Instead, we must live into the abundance of a God who promises to provide what we need – including the time, the money and the leaders to move us forward. We have to get re-acquainted and reconnected to the God who made us, redeemed us and sanctifies us with the power of the Spirit through renewed worship, study and prayer that seeks transformation.

Renew our 50-year-old worship space so that it does not defeat our open arms vision before we get started. The space itself needs to welcome newcomers; it needs to retain its beauty, but look and work like a 21st century place for worship; the sanctuary “competes” with brand new spaces offered by others and . This includes a worship space that will:

+ Focus us on the three most important parts of our identity – Word, baptism and Holy Communion. That can’t happen with a hidden font and multiple places for presenting the Word. We need a font that can be seen and accessed always. We need one pulpit that speaks to the one Word proclaimed.

+ Allow space for musicians (like the praise band, bell choir, and others) to lead worship instead of forcing existing space to work in ways for which it was never designed. The balcony works for some things, but the space up front needs to allow for greater use.

+ Allow leaders to see the content projected on the screen and hear what people say and sing so they don’t have to guess and be more effective worship leaders.Right now, leaders can’t see or hear and that diminishes our worship.

+ Allow flexibility for large groups to sing, perform, present in the sanctuary without working around rails, lecterns, and other impediments, since we have no alternative space available. A commitment to the choral traditions of our faith means inviting choirs. Music means groups.

+ Through great generosity, we have already been able to allow people to see bulletins, handouts and each other in a warm inviting space with new lights.We can accomplish the rest!

Revitalize our building to reflect open arms of welcome. Our building cannot hinder our commitment to welcome and feed; to worship and transform. We need to repair and remodel facilities so that we provide:

+Bathrooms on the first floor that are big enough for handicapped people;

+Bathrooms that don’t smell and appear 50 years old.

+Narthex (lobby) space that says “Welcome” before we utter a word.

+ A roof that does not leak water on the organ and furniture and force worshipers to sit in puddles.

+ Long deferred maintenance items so that it does not appear we are going out of business or can’t afford to be open. This includes parking lot sealing, other roof repairs, to mention a couple of items.

+ A kitchen with a stove(s) that does what we need it to do, refrigeration that makes sense, and a dishwasher that is not broken all the time so that we can actually feed the hungry.

Augment our space – we don’t have enough room. We need to rent space in the SW part of the community, (where little or no churches are building anything), that can house ministry and facilitate growth of hunger ministries, worship venue, adult education, learning for kids or whatever is possible based on the space we find.

Develop the most aggressive, progressive hunger ministry in the Des Moines area; a ministry that partners with existing agencies and organizations while it expands to meet unmet needs of children, homeless, and under-served people who God loves.

Give – especially financial support – to establish a working mission trust fund that makes grants every year instead of earning a little interest and strengthens our partnerships that feed the hungry, send missionaries, teach seminarians and plant new congregations.  

Reduce our debt while we teach that debt is an effective tool for mission and not to be feared.

To do this, we will need to raise $1.2 million over three years expended as follows:

  1. 10% ($120K) given to our mission partners (LSI, Mosaic, SE Iowa Synod, World Hunger Appeal)  to be a tithe to the Lord – to feed the hungry, support the disabled, help our global partners.
  2. 5% ($60K) to our own Mission Trust Fund so we can begin to disburse grants, as described in our bylaws, to spread the love of Christ
  3. 30% ($360K) to complete the short-term facilities plan goals in the sanctuary, kitchen, narthex, bathrooms and other key areas;
  4. 33% ($400K) to provide 2-3 years rent and the development cost for a space to house ministry at another location to augment space and expand presence int he community.
  5. 22% ($264K) to reduce debt OR invest in above areas as seems financially prudent.

God is calling us to take up the challenge of a new day, a new era, a new vision in Ankeny, Iowa. With this plan we can embark on the beginning of a blessed journey of faith from wilderness to promised land; from chaos to creation; from death to resurrection. Who is on board? You?

Pax Christi, Pastor Tim

Open Arms: A Vision for Our Congregation – Part 2

We believe that the Des Moines metro area, and specifically Ankeny, don’t need another cookie cutter attempt to give people what they want in the spiritual marketplace. Nor does Ankeny need another congregation committed to preserving its past; to institutional “survival” that ultimately leads to death.

X hands feet

Fifty years ago — even 20 years ago – asking “What kind of congregation shall we be?” referred to denominational affiliation. The answer was: “We shall be Lutheran– or Presbyterian, or some other such tradition.” The only decision people made was, “What flavor Christian are we?” Honestly, most congregations were just different versions of vanilla – not much difference from one place to the next, other than the Lutherans liked lutefisk and stuff like that. The world was homogeneous, so the church was homogeneous. Today, when we ask “What kind of congregation shall we be?” it is a much more complicated process to come up with an answer. Today there are limitless ways of being a Christian congregation; limitless varieties in being Lutheran or Methodist. The question is, “What kind of congregation shall THIS congregation be?”

Over the last four years we have worked hard, sometimes tediously, to define identity. We spent long discussions about the values that define our actions as a community. We spent more time defining the core beliefs we hold that make us Christian in this particular place and time. We have studied our needs and challenges. We have surveyed the population and the way other churches are being church around us. The time has come to define how we answer the question of identity.

We have learned that there are many, maybe most, congregations who have struggled to answer the question about identity and given up. They hope that by staying the same, keeping the doors open, they will endure the changes, which they believe will fade. We don’t think that is realistic.

We have discerned that there are churches around us that want to define themselves by saying who is welcome and who is not welcome. We don’t think that describes us. In fact, we have discerned that in our community we need to ask who will welcome the folks who don’t always fit?

We have discerned that there are lots of options for people to find worship and programming that reflects the popular culture around us. Many places specialize in worship that is “new and innovative.” We have come to ask “Who welcomes the people who seek worship in an ancient key, in ways that honor ancient traditions and embrace a relevant message of good news at the same time?”

It seems like there are lots of places who have tuned their message to reach those who are already looking for Jesus, but what congregations try hard to reach the hard to reach, like those who are 20-30; like the less affluent; like the folks who are hungry for food and spiritual connections? Who has open arms for the people Jesus loves – no matter who those people might be?

We believe that the Des Moines metro area, and specifically Ankeny, don’t need another cookie cutter attempt to give people what they want in the spiritual marketplace. Nor does Ankeny need another congregation committed to preserving its past; to institutional “survival” that ultimately leads to death. Looking at our values, beliefs and our unique identity as the people of God, we propose that Ankeny needs:

A congregation that proclaims a message of God’s love and grace revealed in Christ and his people in a way that seriously welcomes those who have been unwelcome for a host of reasons; loves those who are hard to love; embraces those who have been beat up by the church’s judgmental words; ministers to those who have been, for whatever reason, dismissed disenfranchised, disaffected by, and become disgusted with the church because they did not find good news.A congregation that honors the ancient traditions of the church while it presents them in ever new ways, to an ever-changing community;

A congregation where people can find not just the latest spiritual fads, but find a path to spiritual growth and maturity that touches their broken places, offers meaning and hope for every day, and roots people in a faith that is both ancient and future.

A congregation that becomes known as THE place that doesn’t just care about the hungry, but makes a difference in their lives, locally, national and globally and offers those in need the opportunity to be welcomed and grow in faith and the ability to live each day;

A congregation that passes on the faith to a new generation in a way that makes a difference in the lives of the participants and the whole world;

A congregation that cares more about growing disciples than about growth in membership numbers;

A congregation that equips people to live and serve in the congregation and the world according to their gifts and skills instead of the congregation’s demands;

A congregation that embodies the open arms of Christ on the cross in all it says and does.

To become this congregation, we face many challenges. We will need to do more than survive to thrive as a missionary outpost for the reign of God. We need to embrace our gifts and God-given identity to then provide a place that offers its own unique contribution to this community.

How does this vision strike you? What do you think about the conclusions reached in our long course of discernment?

In the next and final installment of these reflections on our common vision, we’ll address the challenges and immediate plans we have outlined to move ahead to be the Open Arms of Jesus Christ in Ankeny, Iowa in 2015. Stay Tuned!

Pax Christi, Pastor Tim

Open Arms: A Vision for Our Congregation

Congregations like ours that have been around awhile contend with more worn facilities and habits that have outlived usefulness.

The crucified one, the prodigal son’s return, the resurrected Jesus embracing all: One can’t help notice the very open arms of Jesus on the cross. It is a really the posture for his whole ministry. It is a posture that communicates, welcome, love, acceptance and vulnerability. It is also the posture those who follow Jesus must emulate.

cristo-de-san-juan-de-la-cruzprodigal 1open arms jesus 1

Perhaps no one has articulated this vision of Jesus and the Church as poignantly as St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582):

“Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.”

On Pentecost Sunday, I preached a sermon about embracing this vision; about what challenges we face and actions we need to take to act on that vision, entitled “Driven by the Spirit: The Future of Our Congregation.” (You can listen with the play bar below)

The “gist” of what I shared is this:

  • Today folks see the church as a place that specializes in the folded arms of judgment. That posture has dismissed, disaffected and disgusted too many people. Whether it is positions on social issues of all kinds that are held up as “litmus tests” for faith or just old-fashioned finger-pointing, the church has alienated all kinds of people rather than preaching the gospel of grace and forgiveness.
  • Folded arms and furrowed brows characterize a kind of “Christianity” that has claimed center stage in our culture, defining all people who follow Jesus as intolerant and judgmental. That posture has closed off ministry to the needy while folks argue over far less important matters. That posture has painted Christ with a brush that covers up the love and grace at the core of the gospel.
  • We live in a community where as many as 35,000 people have no relationship to the church – and the community is growing.
  • The opportunity to reach out to that many unconnected people has led to the addition of lots of new congregations. These newer entries into the community have shinier new buildings, can avoid long-standing traditions and attract many. Congregations like ours that have been around awhile contend with more worn facilities and habits that have outlived usefulness.
  • People “shop” for congregations like they shop for cars and groceries. That means congregations either have to offer the latest thing OR be very clear and compelling about mission and our reason for being.

So, after four plus years of discerning the values that guide our actions, the beliefs that keep us grounded it is time to embrace a vision of who we are and what we must be as the people of God called “Holy Trinity.” What do you think that looks like? In the next segment, I’ll share what we have discerned together. Stay tuned and keep your arms open and your brow free of furrows. – Pastor Tim

Believing in God

“…what do we trust (believe) so deeply that it shapes how we live?”

I Googled “Christian beliefs.” I received lots of results. It seems like “Christian belief” is so diverse, so diffuse it can mean whatever people want it to mean. There are western and eastern Christians; orthodox and evangelical; conservative and progressive. There are those who baptize children and those who don’t; those who know when they were saved and those who are not so sure; those who take communion often and those who do it rarely. And of course, each is pretty sure they are right, making others wrong. All of these differences define “belief” as agreement or acceptance of a doctrine or teaching, which is true… to a point.

Belief in something, when it comes to matters of faith, is about more than accepting a doctrine. When I say to someone, like my son, “I believe in you,” I am expressing something deeper than simple agreement. I’m expressing trust, faith, an aspect of relationship.

Too often, it seems to me, arguments about “belief in God”  – whether they arise from “new” atheism or the “spiritual but not religious” or from two sides of a religious argument – are about belief as accepting a doctrine and not belief as trust in something that defines us. Paul Tillich, the brilliant 20th Century theologian, followed Jesus, Luther and others in saying that everyone has a god – it is what you trust the most. He called it “Ultimate Concern.” That which you trust so much that you rearrange the rest of life around it is your god. So even an atheist, in this way of thinking believes in a god.

The trouble for Christians is that we have become too fixed on belief as acceptance of doctrines and we have lost our ability to articulate in everyday terms what it is that we trust; what do we trust (believe) so deeply that it shapes how we live? We will never be able to thrive and spread the good news if we don’t even know what the good news is about — or more importantly, who it is about.

We need to get to a point where any fifth grader in a Christian congregation can articulate what – WHO – they trust as easily as they can articulate moves on a soccer field or the players on their favorite team. To that end, our congregation has been working on articulating a short list of Core Beliefs that are easy to understand and remember. They don’t replace the creeds or confessions. They merely allow us to say easily to anyone who wants to know, what we believe at the center of our life together. They allow us to articulate out trust in God.

The Core Beliefs adopted are:

  • God is love that bids together everyone and everything.
  • God’s love is guaranteed for all through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  • God’s love is not earned, but is a free gift to broken people.
  • God’s love is poured out when God’s people gather around Word, water, wine and bread.
  • God’s love is shared abundantly when God’s people are the hands, feet and open arms of Jesus.
  • God’s love transforms us to be the people God created us to be.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to flesh these out a little, one by one. I hope you will take time to enter into conversation about these beliefs. Take time to pray about them. They will guide our decisions and shape how we witness to the good news of Jesus in this world. They try to articulate that which will be our “Ultimate Concern.”