A Pastoral Letter of Thanks & Concern

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, eternally. Amen

There are many, many joys that come with being a pastor. There are also sorrows. Each come as we walk with faithful people through what life brings.  We give thanks to God for the joys and sorrows; for the privilege of sharing the sacredness of life with you and all those we have served over our years of ministry. We give thanks for each of you in our prayers and our hearts.

We write to you today out of a shared concern for our life as a congregation. There are times – trying times – in the life of the Church where we struggle to be about the work of our Lord. In our lifetimes we both have seen issues arise that threatened to tear the Church apart, it seemed. Watching from a bit of a distance, we both recall the evil and bitterness that marked the Church during the civil rights movement. Race divided the people of God. People fought over the Biblical view of race. When we were a little older, the acrimony of Church arguments came closer to home as Lutherans talked about the ordination of women. People left our congregations because they felt that women had no place in the pulpit. Each side seemed to consign the other to hell and damnation for disagreeing. This was not a faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Today, the issue that gives rise to our most basic behaviors, that arouses the deepest anxiety and fear centers on human sexuality. Once again, the Church has struggled to provide a healthy witness to the Christ who is supposed to have the power to unite us even when we disagree; even when an issue is complex and hard to navigate. Our congregation has struggled with an undertone of conflict on this issue since 2009 when the ELCA adopted its statement on human sexuality. Our congregation, like the whole ELCA, is not of one mind on this issue. After five years, it is time to move forward; to be about the business of God in Christ.

Recently, the Council of the congregation has sought to provide support to us as we stand on the front lines of making hard decisions. They asked you to provide feedback to help them lead. We want to give thanks to all the Council members who have worked so faithfully to develop and share this resolution with the congregation. It has been a long conversation and process, spanning more than a year. It has included study of biblical positions and the statement of the ELCA. It was at times a difficult conversation. But, never once did it cause animosity or disrespect; never once was their anything but efforts that were faithful to God, the scriptures, and the mission of the congregation. The Council has shown its gifts for wisdom and discernment; they have prayed often and with power.

The feedback we received, the meetings held with SMA leaders and participants, and the discussions we have had with members reveal that 55-60% of the congregation supports the resolution presented.  We give thanks for those who voiced this support and saw the action as a means of staying true to our mission and their understanding of the gospel.

We also give thanks for those who do not support the resolution and expressed their opinions in gracious and respectful words that truly contribute to the difficult discernment of your leaders. These responses showed that the love of Christ can, indeed, allow people of different viewpoints on important matters live together in peace and with respect because Jesus Christ is bigger than any of our disagreements.

Some responses gave us not a reason to give thanks, but reasons to be concerned as your pastors. We are concerned about those responses that gave counsel rooted in fear: the fear that members might leave, that giving might suffer, that people will be mad. This has been a theme of conversations on nearly every decision – major and minor – for the last three or four years and perhaps beyond. Paul calls the church to “speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” (Philippians 1:14) One of the constant refrains from scripture is “Do not fear” because fear is the opposite of faith. We cannot be faithful and fearful at the same time. We must stop worrying about who is leaving and turn our attention to the strangers who we need to welcome. While we were wringing our hands about who might be leaving, seventeen new families visited our congregation on just one Sunday. How did we worry about them? Not once in scripture does anyone tell the church to look out for yourselves, but instead calls us to turn our attention outward to the people who need the gospel.  

Paul refers to those living in brokenness and who are estranged from God, asking But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?  And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15) Fear will distract us from the gospel. Fear will threaten our future more than any single decision. Fear will destroy us. Fear has already done damage.

We are also deeply concerned about the small number of responses received that were filled with anger, gossip, misinformation and threats.  These lacked respect for your leaders – who are your brothers and sisters in Christ; you neighbors and friends. First, we are concerned because these expressions of anger and malice are what Paul calls “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19. They are injurious not just to the community but to the one caught up in them. Paul teaches that “…enmities, strife… anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions” (Gal. 5:20) are signs that the Spirit is not alive and well in the person and in the community.  The fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal. 6:22-23) These are the signs of health manifested in a life rooted in Christ.

Our second concern is that this kind of gossip and accusation diminishes us as the body of Christ. It makes it harder, if not impossible to do what God calls us to do. Wild speculations, assumptions not based in facts, misinformation and lies have no place in our life together.

It is unfair and cruel to call the leadership “irresponsible” for dealing with an issue just because you think they should have done it differently. It is disrespectful to tell a Council (which includes two pastors) that they should “read the Bible” as if they have not. It is unhelpful to threaten to withhold giving or leave the congregation if you don’t get your way. That is not how mature Christians deal with each other.  We can both tell you that neither of us will ever alter a decision that has been arrived at faithfully because someone threatens to leave or stop giving. This leadership approach cripples the congregation and makes the mission about keeping everyone happy.  A congregation that tries to be everything to everybody will be nothing to no one.

It has been said that we have a couple waiting in the wings to be married and so, we are pushing some kind of personal agenda. This is absolutely false. No member of this congregation has approached a pastor about a same-sex marriage to date, and no one is on the horizon.  It has been said that this is all part of plan to drive out members who don’t agree with the pastors. This is a painful attack that is completely false. Your pastors may be calling the congregation to be ever clearer about our identity and some may not like who we say we are. But, we took an oath to love and serve the whole congregation and we take that seriously. It has been said that the new photo directory is an effort to cover-up the “fact” that many of the people we photographed before have left. This is nonsense. It has been said that these discussions show that we are “caving in” to the world around us. That is an opinion that many do not share.

We do not support a congregational vote on this matter for a number of reasons. Nobody wins in a close vote. The tyranny of the majority alienates people from one another and that is counter to the gospel. Votes create winners and losers and can fuel division rather than heal it. The Council is elected to govern the congregation’s life between annual meetings and to make policy decisions.  The resolution itself is a policy about supporting pastoral decisions and falls well within the council’s authority. The Council, in this case, has reviewed the biblical studies and the statement from the ELCA. They have debated and questioned. They have prayed. That kind of preparation cannot be assumed about a simple congregational vote. Lastly, if policy decisions are to be made by the congregation we adopt a decision making process that is laboriously slow and calls into question the purpose of the Council. It establishes a pattern of decision making that cripples the congregation. It also perpetuates a habit of mistrust of leaders to do what they have been asked to do. This has often plagued our congregation and kept us from a united purpose and mission.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the time has come for us to live in faith, not fear; to reject a culture of gossip and partisanship; to live as God’s people in love with each other and our Lord. We give thanks for the many, many of you who are grasped by that vision. We pray for your support and your efforts to live in love, and even in disagreement over particular issues, because our unity in Christ is strong. We pray for those who have struggled with fear and anger, that the Holy Spirit will allow us to come and reason together; to respect each other for the sake of Jesus, not because we share the same opinions.

In Christ

Tim Olson, Lead Pastor & Pam Schroeder, Pastor for Care and Discipleship

Light in the Darkness

So, I was thinking about this passage from Isaiah, so central to the Christmas gospel:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)   

This hopeful proclamation from the prophet Isaiah is part of the Christmas message. Light overcomes darkness.  To tell the truth, things have seemed pretty dark to me since Christmas preparations went into full swing weeks ago – around Halloween, I think.  On the surface, people are talking about looking forward to the holiday.  Underneath, however, I sense an all too frequent dread or stress.  I don’t think it has anything to do with the annual “war on Christmas.”  You know – Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas (even though the English origin of the word “holiday” is holy-day”); kicking the crèche out of the town square; banning religious songs at the school choir concert.  I don’t really buy this kind of war on Christmas as a real issue.

That said, I do think something dark and destructive has been happening to Christmas.  Maybe it is a war of sorts.  It has shaped Christmas into a rather hideous creation.  It has involved us all in a systematic erasure of the meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ.  We still call it Christmas, but maybe it should be called “Consumerist-mas” – the “Feast of the great Consumption.”  There is little Christ left in its observance.  We go on a binge dedicated to dark excess instead of bowing before the Light of the World.  Jesus came bring us the light of freedom, yet the post-holiday credit card debt will shroud us in a kind of slavery for the next two Christmases. Jesus came to give us peace, but we end up doubling our antidepressants because our stress over the perfect holiday has plunged us deeper into a dark hole.  The real focus of the season is how much money was spent and made, not how light has entered our darkness.

I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill or the Grinch.  But, I’m afraid were missing Jesus in the midst of all the jingle bells. I fear we have lost our minds, our hearts and our souls.  We live in a world where benefits are cut to millions who are poor and will have no holiday. At the same time the TV encourages us all to buy diamonds and a Lexus for our loved ones so they know we love them.  We force the least powerful and poorest working folks to work all day on Thanksgiving so we can all get an early start on our excess. That just does not sound like it has anything to do with Jesus to me. You see, my fear is that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas – consumerism did, and we all helped.  I fear that the true power of God’s incarnation is completely negated by wrapping the manger in foil paper and selling it for $39.95.

Advent is the first act of resistance against this dark progression of commercialism.  The holly jolly world of retail Christmas plays on our desire for instant gratification. Advent makes us wait, a spiritual discipline we may despise, but is essential to our maturation in faith.  Faith is about joy, but also about enduring the darkness as we await the real light.  The strings of bulbs on our houses only decorate the darkness and since they burn out, don’t bear the true light of Christ.

Amidst all our celebrating, spending, preparation and panic, Christ will come. Of this I have no doubt.  Notice however, that the only ones who noticed God breaking into our humanity were shepherds, who had nothing but the silent night.  Maybe if we get a grip on our holiday, Christ will get a grip on us. Christ came to a manger, not the mall.  May Christ come to you whether a new blender does or not.

Boston Bombings: What Do We Do?

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Grace and peace to you in the name of the blessed, Holy Trinity.

As you have likely heard, today the Boston Marathon was the target of two bombs that left two dead and quite a few injured.  While the story continues to unfold, there are few concrete details other than the knowledge that death and suffering have once again come as a result of the apparently intentional acts of humans bent on harming other humans.  Our first reactions are emotional, of course.  An event like this evokes fear, terror, grief and the memory of past events.  Certainly we all experience shock at yet another example of violence.

I would ask first and foremost that we all engage in prayer to the Lord of the Resurrection, the Prince of Peace. Pray for victims and their families; for first responders and ER nurses and doctors; for law enforcement officials and our government as they try to understand and discern what has happened. Pray also for your own sense of peace and for faith to drive out the fear that can grip us when we feel attacked. Our nation will likely show a lot of rage in the days ahead.  The “peace that passes all understanding” and comes through the power of the Holy Spirit will provide calm in the storm. Through the peace of Christ we will not feed the rage or the fear.  Also – and this is the hard part – pray for the people or person who set off the bombs. God calls us to pray for our enemies.  But, this is not an act of passive or pious works that gain us favor before God.  Praying for our enemies is the first, and very powerful act of bringing peace and redemption.  The judgement of those who do violence belongs to God.  We will not add to their violence with our own call for revenge or retribution. So, pray – please.

Perhaps you are wondering why God would let this happen. Know that God is not in the bombing business. When we look at God revealed to us in the Christ of the cross we see one who is suffering with us – with the victims and the dead and grieving. We also see one who overcomes evil, suffering and death not through violent response, but by redemptive suffering; by taking the evil on, unmasking it for what it is, and by overcoming it through new life and resurrection.  You don’t have to understand how that all works, just look to Jesus and see that it does!

Perhaps you feel fear because it seems like this could happen to any of us at anytime.  On the one hand, that may be true.  We are not as safe as we think each day.  However, it is also true that violence does not befall all of us.  Death however is real for each. In Christ we have nothing to fear of what he conquered by his resurrection.

Perhaps you don’t know what to tell you kids. Tell them the truth, answer their questions and witness to the hope and faith you know — even if you don’t have a good handle on it at the moment.

Remember what the angels say time and agin in scripture; remember what God tells Moses as the Egyptian Army closes on them; remember what Jesus tells the disciples when it seems the boat will sink -DO NOT BE AFRAID, I AM WITH YOU.  Perhaps the words of a song we used in Advent will be helpful. They are by David Haas, based on Isaiah 43 and used her with permission:

You Are Mine

I will come to you in the silence,
I will lift you from all your fear.
You will hear my voice,
I claim you as my choice.
Be still and know I am here.

I am hope for all who are hopeless
I am eyes for all who long to see.
In the shadows of the night,
I will be your light.
Come and rest in me. Refrain

Do not be afraid, I am with you.
I have called you each by name.
Come and follow me,
I will bring you home;
I love you and you are mine.

I am the Word that leads all to freedom,
I am the peace the world cannot give.
I will call your name,
embracing all your pain.
Stand up, now walk and live!”  Refrain

Text: David Haas, b. 1957

Text 1991 GIA Publications, Inc., 7404 S. Mason Ave., Chicago, IL 60638. http://www.giamusic.com. 800.442.3358. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

The Church is Dead. Long Live the Church

So, I was thinking that the Church is dead. If not totally dead, it is as Miracle Max from The Princess Bride would say at least “mostly dead” or in very critical condition.  I know you probably don’t read a pastor’s blog expecting to hear this kind of thing.  You were perhaps hoping for something a little more uplifting. Sorry. The vital signs are, it seems weak.

When it comes to belonging to a church, the fastest growing group of people in our culture simply don’t.  5% of the population said they were “unaffiliated” in 1972.  Today it is 16%.  People are not choosing other churches, mega churches, new churches or old churches; they are not picking more conservative or more liberal churches, when they leave one church, they are not going to something “better” – they are choosing to do away with church completely. They are often called “nones” because they check “none” on surveys about religious affiliation   This is happening to every single segment of the Christian Church – Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic — it across the board.

More facts: 70% of mainline Protestant households have no children; 91% of those same congregations are white (unlike our society).  The median age of people in church is steadily and quickly rising (averaging over 62 years).  Congregations are getting smaller and smaller on the whole. Only 27% of “members” actually worship each week.  Only 7% of Christians have actually read the whole Bible.

The truth is that things have changed in every aspect of our world – economic, political, cultural and yes, religious.  The Church that we all remember from our youth is dead, mostly. Think back to the way things used to be:

¨The Way Things Were
  • You were born into the faith and stayed in your tradition
  • Faith was a way of believing, so you learned beliefs first – memorized, understood.
  • Christian faith was expected of most everyone
  • Institutions played an important part in our lives
  • Authority was given to those who had studied – experts
  • Keeping the faith = Keeping the traditions
Look at how things have changed:
¨The Way Things Are
  • People seek spiritual connections and religious life on their own.
  • Faith is a way of living – doctrines and “truth” are understood to be negotiable or dialogic.  So, spirituality is about living daily
  • Christian faith is no longer a cultural norm
  • Institutions/Denominations have lost their power and are fading
  • Seminary training and official teachers are suspect
  • Keeping the faith = living with integrity
The Church, as we remember it, even as we long for it, is dead, mostly.  But that is not “bad news.”  God is faithful and the Spirit is always moving.  We have the challenge and blessing to be living in an age when the Spirit is rewriting, re-imaging what it means to be the Church.  To be part of that means we will need to wander in the wilderness (sounds familiar) we’ll have to change our attitudes (not the first time), We will have to live our faith in a way we have not for some time (likely a refreshing change).  We will have to adapt the way we engage in mission to the reality of our world.
The great news is that God gives life to the Church in every age.  The Church may suffer many deaths, but God is in the resurrection business.  So what do you think about the death, and the life of the Church today… and tomorrow?
Pax Christi,
Pastor Tim

Giving Thanks

So, I was thinking that giving thanks is harder than it sounds. Now that does not mean I don’t favor giving thanks.  With G.K. Chesterton, I am well aware that at the least “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”  It is too easy to live each day taking the “daily bread” God showers upon us for granted. Gratitude is the antidote for slipping into a sense of entitlement.

But, I maintain that giving thanks is hard. The difficulty is partly cultural. It is not lost on me that the day named for the practice of giving thanks has become but a prelude to the “Black Friday” that follows. We try to give thanks for a few hours, but by midnight we will have turned from gratitude to anxiety over what we need to get and what we do not yet possess. After all, there are only so many shopping days to find the things that will make everyone happy – for a day or two.

Black Friday rises from our preoccupation with tomorrow without remembrance of the past and attentiveness to the present. Worry about the future, anxiety over what is not yet, is the seed of sin and all matter of evil. As C.S. Lewis, has the demon Screwtape say in one of my favorite books,  The Screwtape Letters, “Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.”  If you can get us to fret over tomorrow, we are undone.  If we can give thanks, we have an antidote. Is it a coincidence that Madison Avenue wants us to zoom by the gratitude and love of the past and present so we can worry about Christmas as soon as possible?  I think not. 😉 

Giving thanks can also be hard because I find that saying, “Thanks be to God for the table full of food” is such a short distance from “Thank God I’m not starving like those who have nothing.”  Giving thanks for abundance when so many suffer scarcity tweaks my conscience.  It darkens my festive demeanor – and it should. Abundance, from a biblical perspective, is from God and for all, not just the privileged few. I’m not sure that gratitude means giving thanks for my personal affluence. Justice makes giving thanks hard.

But what makes giving thanks the hardest for me is that I have heard people throughout my life give thanks in circumstances I do not understand. When I heard someone say “I give thanks for my cancer” the first time, I was dumbstruck. Since then, I have come to understand a little more fully what they mean. The discipline (and yes it is this, not a feeling or a thought) of giving thanks is something we must apply to everything in life – even our pain and suffering.  This is hard. Henri Nouwen, one of the wisest spiritual teachers of the last century says: “Grateful people are those who can celebrate even the pains of life because they trust that when harvest time comes the fruit will show that the pruning was not punishment but purification.”  Can we say thank you for our pain and brokenness? Perhaps only by knowing that this is precisely where Christ meets us.  But it is still hard.

As difficult as it may be, gratitude is an absolute necessity in our world.  Without it, contentment is impossible and we are a very discontent lot. Gratitude that leads us to contentment makes us less afraid of the future. Gratitude that leads to contentment opens our hearts so we can share our bounty and help provide abundance for others. Gratitude that leads to contentment acknowledges the pain in our lives, giving God a chance to transform our teas to joy.  Gratitude that leads to contentment lasts more than a day and it changes the world.  Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Pastor Tim