Fitness for Ministry

Today I begin resume a new journey, a journey of fitness for ministry. You see, I’m not fit for ministry.

For the ministry of National Guard Chaplaincy, that is.

On and off for the past several years I’ve been discerning service in the National Guard as a chaplain. [In a future post I’ll write more about my discernment on this issue, which goes back to high school and to conversations with my grandfather, who was a Marine in the pre-WWII era]. National Guard Chaplaincy is a part-time ministry – the proverbial “one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer” – with a population of part-time soldiers that is mostly young, culturally diverse, and service oriented. It is a population that needs the comforting Good News and presence of our God. It is a population that is largely absent from our pews.

When I lived in Minnesota I had several conversations with the chief of chaplains for the Minnesota National Guard, and I was about to start the process of formally interviewing with Guard leaders and discerning this call within my congregation. But then an unexpected opportunity led us to Indiana, and that process was put on hold. While I have yet to reach out to the Guard leadership here in Indiana, there is one thing I need to do before I give this much more consideration.

I need to get in shape. I need to get fit for this ministry. There are fitness standards for members of the National Guard, including chaplains. And while I can pass the running requirements fairly easily, I cannot yet pass the sit up and push up tests, and I am not at the target weight. I have some work to do.

So today I will meet with a trainer at my city’s fitness center. I will begin a training program designed to get me into good enough shape so that, if I ultimately do decide to enter the Guard, my physical fitness will not be a barrier. I am told that my trainer is a veteran, and/or has done fitness training with soldiers. Either way, I’m in for a workout.

My hope is that this time of focusing on my fitness will be a time of discernment of my call to this ministry, a time of personal and spiritual growth, and a time of improved physical well-being. Keep me in your prayers, please.

Exploring a Post-Establishment Church

One thing I’ve noticed about new churches and new mission starts in my denomination (the ELCA) is that they often seem to try to do the same thing in a new way. Many of them, anyway.

By “same thing,” I mean that these new mission starts seek to establish (or renew) a congregation with a building and a full time pastor and worship and Bible studies and social gatherings and service projects and the whole nine yards. Good stuff. Holy stuff. The stuff that churches on our continent have been made of for a hundred years and more. The kind of stuff that formed me as a Christian and contributed to the kind of pastor that I am today.

Of course, these new starts seek to inject a new type of DNA into this established model of church. A DNA that takes seriously the changing landscape of America – a landscape that is richly multi-religious. A landscape that includes a rapidly growing group of people who do not identify with any religion at all. A landscape that includes a new – and less secure – economic reality for young people. A landscape that includes a culture which doesn’t necessarily value joining organizations. And we can go on with the descriptors of the new realities, but we won’t. For sure, the landscape today is significantly different than the post-Word War II era which birthed or shaped so many of our established suburban congregations.

To be sure, some of these new mission start congregations are not seeking simply to inject a new DNA into the old, established model. Some of these congregations are departing from the established model in that they do not seek to have their own dedicated building, but instead seek to only ever rent space, or meet in public spaces. And some of these ministries don’t intend to ever have their own space, nor do they ever intend to be self sufficient financially. They build into their ministry structure an expectation to receive mission support dollars from the denomination, from partners in ministry, and from members of the broader community. And yet others are ministries that are starting out as arts or social service organizations, or even as small not-for-profit businesses, that are led in and with and by faith. Great stuff. Amazing stuff.

I’m at the very beginning of part way down a road of exploration of another model of ministry (even as I have yet to learn much more about these other models I’ve observed already). I’ve been walking down this road for the past few years.

For the past several years I’ve served in established congregations. Wonderful congregations. Faithful congregations. Congregations with good and holy people doing good and holy work. Yet each of these congregations has had struggles around maintaining the institution, challenges supporting the received model of ministry. From facility costs (mortgage and facility maintenance), to having the resources to pay for staff, to identifying and cultivating leaders for the various constitutionally-mandated committees and ministries, these congregations each struggled in some way to address the differing ministry needs called for by the established model of congregational ministry.

Many of the church leadership and administration books I’ve read over the years have been about doing the established model in a better, or in a new, way. I see this, too, in what some of our mission start congregations are doing. A modified, and perhaps fresh, way of doing congregational ministry. Surely we need this. The established model of ministry is not going away any time soon, and it needs to be done well, to be refreshed, to be renewed.

But … what models exist, or have yet to be explored, for doing church in a post-establishment, less centralized, more diffuse kind of way? Something more along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, Scouts, or Little League … something with some coordination, of course, but with fewer institutional trappings, and with a structure deeply imbedded in the community? Something vaguely like the house churches of the Book of Acts or of modern day China? Something that would perhaps challenge our established ecclesiology and understanding of ordination, while being nimble enough to scatter and gather in various small corners of our communities …

I’m exploring, because I love the church, its mission, and its message. While I have serious concerns about the viability of the current way we tend to “do” church, I have no doubt that God will continue to bless the church and make the Gospel known, to be faithful to God’s people and rebirth the church in a variety of ways for a new day. The church wasn’t always organized with congregations led by full-time clergy meeting in large facilities on multi-acre lots. Over the centuries the church has had other ways of carrying out its God-given mission, and in each era the church has flourished with multiple models of ministry at the same time.

I’m excited to explore – and to join in – some new ways of doing church in this new day.

Putting Everything on the Table, In Faith – Acts 15

I haven’t been posting sermons here recently … but this one on Acts 15, and the bold faith of those first believers to trust in and be moved by the Spirit to do a new thing, is one I wanted to share. I believe that the church today is in an Acts 15 moment.

Preached on Sunday, April 28

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

“If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

This is sometimes true.
Leaders often take a pulse, barometer of people,
read what the people are already doing, and only then make decisions.

In the Early Church, the leaders of those first Church Councils decided
upon the Books of the Bible in large part simply by seeing and accepting
what the local churches, what the people, were already reading.
In American history, the constitutional amendment repealing prohibition
was less a bold act of leadership than it was an acknowledgement
of what people were already doing.

Sometimes, often, the people lead, and the leaders simply follow.

In today’s reading from Acts 15, the leaders made a profound decision.
Huge decision. Paradigm-shifting decision.
But, they were merely following what the people – and God’s Spirit – were already doing.
What the people were doing, what God’s Spirit was doing, was profound,
huge, paradigm-shifting.
The Council only recognized it and went along with it.

So what, exactly, were some of those first Christians doing?
They were doing a new thing in faith, in stark contrast to the tradition they received,
in stark contrast to the familiar ways of doing things,
and indeed, in stark contrast to God’s Word itself.
Indeed, on the surface, what they were doing was heresy – Spirit-filled, Spirit-led heresy.

You see, Jesus was a faithful Jew, and the first followers of his were Jews, too,
as were the broader group of Jews who followed his work closely,
including the Pharisees.
Devout Jews observed the Law as a sign of the promises God made to them.
Following the Law – including circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath laws,
and other such laws – was a way to live faithfully as God’s people,
to follow God’s command, to be a sign and a witness to the world of who you are
and whose you are.
These laws were a big deal. BIG deal. HUGE deal.
Even re-interpreted, so much of Jesus’ work has to do with the law,
and how it is to be followed.
Let’s think of groups today and their distinctive practices.
The Amish reject most forms of modern technology.
Devout Muslims stop everything and pray five times a day, and fast during Ramadan.
Vegetarians do not eat meat.
Vegans do not eat anything derived from animals.
These are distinctive practices that define a group.
Take away these distinctive practice, and the group might not exist,
or at least, might not have as strong an identity and be recognizable.

First century Jews had their distinctive practices. To be a Jew meant to follow the law.
Circumcision. Dietary laws. Sabbath. And more. That is what Jews did.
There was no other way to be a Jew, to be part of God’s chosen people.

And yet, the early Christians – who were Jewish –
had this crazy experience of God’s Spirit moving among them.
Jews from all over the world were coming to faith in Christ,
and Peter and the early Christians were proclaiming the Good News faithfully.
Last week we heard about an Ethiopian – a non-Jew, perhaps – who came to faith.
Philip baptized him.
Then, a few chapters later in Acts, Cornelius, a God-believing Gentile, a Roman Centurion,
is brought to faith and is baptized.
Two non-Jews, brought to faith.
Then, just a little later in Acts, a large number of people were brought to faith in Antioch,
and also these were non-Jews.
And these are only the ones we know about. Surely there were more.

God’s Spirit was moving in ways that were unknown, that were unsettling to the faithful,
ways that were considered heretical because God’s Spirit hadn’t done this before,
moving among the Gentiles in such a way.
God’s law clearly seemed to outline a different experience and life of faith.
Indeed, what was happening was contrary
to much of what they had learned and known about God.
Unsettling, disturbing, baffling … indeed!

But of course, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus
was also contrary to much of what they had learned and known
about faith and life and death and the way God works.
Indeed, a new thing was underfoot,
and it was unsettling and baffling to those committed
to the established ways of doing things, the God-given ways.
Yet, this new thing was an exciting, uncontainable opening to a whole new population,
a whole new segment of believers previously not considered part of God’s people.
Seeing this new thing at work,
the Council at Jerusalem decided to welcome the Gentiles into the church
without burdening them first with the requirements of the law.
No circumcision. No dietary laws. Just faith and baptism.
And in doing so, the leaders were simply affirming what had already happened,
what the people and the Spirit had already done,
with the Ethiopian Eunuch, Cornelius the Centurion, and the Gentiles in Antioch.
No circumcision. No detailed commitment to the distinctive laws of the covenant.
Just faith and baptism, and the life that flows from that.

I wonder what the Spirit might be up to in the church today,
nearly 2000 years after these events.
What is God doing among Lutherans, nearly 500 years after Luther
nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door, starting the Reformation?
What is God up to here on the East Side, and here at Grace,
96 years after starting a new thing through those first saints
who established Grace English Evangelical Lutheran Church,
leaving behind the language and customs of their parents’ and grandparents’ faith?

What is that experience of the Spirit here that we,
established in our patterns and practices of faith for many years –
decades, and centuries –
patterns and practices that are legitimate and wonderful and life-giving,
as were the laws of Moses that fed those first Jewish Christians …
What is the experience of the Spirit
that we might need to work hard to grasp, see, and comprehend?
How might God’s Spirit be moving, how might God be at work in ways earth-shatteringly new,
unsettling, and perhaps even heretical and yet, simultaneously, powerful?

I ask a lot of questions here. I’m not entirely sure how to answer them.
But, let me say this. We have to ask the questions.
We have to put everything on the table.
Sacraments. Sunday worship. Music styles. Worship times.
How we spend our money.
What we expect of our members.
How we speak of God.
What and how we teach and live the faith – among children, and adults.
How we serve our community.
How we act toward one another, how we act toward others,
and how we respond to the real hurts and challenges in our world.
Even, what we eat and drink at Coffee Hour.
Everything on the table and up for negotiation with the movement of God’s Spirit.
Hold nothing back. Put everything on the table. Crazy, huh?

Those first Jewish Christians did just that –
they put their valued and beloved traditions – traditions and laws given by God! –
on the table for the sake of sharing the Gospel with those different from them.
These people were willing to mess with the very Word of God, the command of God,
for the sake of sharing this God with others.
Do you see that? Do you see what they did?
They took something they cherished, something they believed given by God Himself,
and they were able to set it aside for the sake of the outsider.
Rather than make the Gentiles become Jews, that is,
rather than make the outsiders become one of them,
they said “let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.”
Let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.

And you know how they did this, how they could make such a huge leap?
They knew the love and power and comfort of our Lord.
They knew that they could let go of something they cherished and enter into a bold –
and frightening – new future because Jesus was with them,
the one who died and rose again would not abandon them.
And so they let something go, they let something die,
knowing that a new life would blow through them in a new way.

They did this not out of any strategy for survival, self-preservation, or institutional renewal.
They did this in faith in the One who promised to always be with them, unto the end of the age,
the One who comes among them, and us, as an outsider.

Dear friends, our Lord is with us, here and now.
Our traditions and practices, handed down to us over 96 years in this place,
500 years in the Lutheran tradition, and 2000 years of Christianity,
our traditions and distinctive practices of faith have told us this –
God is with us. God is faithful to us. God is not going to leave us. God is with us.
With this comforting knowledge, now what?
Are we at another Acts 15 time in history, at least of some degree?
I think we are.
Where is the Spirit of our God blowing now? Let’s look outside and see.
And, wherever the Spirit is blowing, whoever is caught up in that Spirit,
however the church looks kicked up and remade in the Spirit’s movement,
we know this – Christ is with us.
Christ has been faithful to his church since Day One,
and He promises to be faithful until the Time to Come.
And that, dear friends, is good news.

Amen.

Do Worship Leaders Hide in Worship?

It is an odd proposition – do worship leaders hide in worship? Even though they’re standing up front, in the most visible part of the worship space, leading the congregation in prayer and praise and acts of worship, are they hiding in plain sight?

Maybe.

Capture - Bob Merrit lectern

Grainy screen-capture image from video of sermon by Pastor Bob Merritt of Eagle Brook Church, showing minimalist lectern.

I’m struck after visiting two larger churches on Sunday – an evangelical megachurch, and a large Lutheran church. At neither service did any worship leaders wear robes. Use of a pulpit, lectern, or altar was minimal, and when a lectern was used it was an attractive but slim, minimalist stand. Much of the service took place with nothing standing between the worship leader and the congregation – no bulky altar, no robe, no imposing pulpit.

I saw the worship leaders’ bodies. Their movements and gestures. Their flesh and blood. There were no physical barriers separating them and us. They were open to us and to God. Nothing separated us.

DSC_1123

Presiding at the Eucharist, behind the large altar.

When a worship leader wears a robe, their body is somewhat hidden, their legs are not even visible. Standing behind a solid altar and pulpit, half of their body is obscured. There is something vaguely decarnating (rather than incarnating) about the use of altars, pulpits, and robes; that is, there is something about this experience that minimizes (or reduces) the humanity of the worship leader rather than embracing or accepting of the flawed yet real flesh and blood of the leader. When a worship leader wears a robe, the only thing that is not covered up is the head – prioritizing thought and speech over other aspects of their carnality. I wonder if we like robes precisely because of this decarnating, flesh-minimizing – even neutering – effect. That might be the case, but I think it could be to our detriment, and to the detriment of our mission.

DSC_0975

Preaching in/behind a wonderful, yet massive, pulpit.

When we minimize the real flesh and human body of the worship leader, we do something to the worship leader that we don’t do to the rest of the congregation. The leader is covered, robed, and somewhat beyond flesh. Yet the congregation is very fleshy, very carnal, very real. No robes for them. Nothing hiding them and their imperfections. The congregation comes before God and each other as they are. The worship leader doesn’t, but instead wears a covering.

The altar, pulpit, and robe are literally physical barriers that hide the worship leader from the congregation and which create a distance between the worship leader and the people with whom they are worshiping. Furthermore, in many of our churches, to use the altar the worship leaders often have to stand about as far from the congregation as they can while still being in the building, in order to get behind the altar that is against a far wall.

I understand that the altar, pulpit and robe all have their purpose and powerful symbolic meaning – drawing attention to the ritual act and the Word proclaimed rather than to the person leading that ritual act or proclaiming that Word. Nonetheless, I wonder if in our care to draw attention to the Word and Sacrament in such ways we don’t unintentionally create barriers and lose out on the chance to be a bit more honest about our carnality, our fallen flesh and blood, through which God promises to proclaim Good News and do great things. I wonder if we don’t miss out on the chance to cultivate a more personable, relatable experience of worshiping the God who comes to us in the flesh and blood of the person of Jesus Christ.

You’re not going to see me leading worship in jeans and a flannel shirt any time soon. But I am wrestling with this issue of how the way we worship shapes our messages, intentionally and unintentionally, for longstanding members and visitors alike. The way we use furnishings and liturgical garb in worship deserves scrutiny, particularly as cultural norms change over the years and the ways in which received patterns of worship may or may not carry with them the same meaning as they did in previous generations, particularly for those not raised within our church traditions.

Morning Prayer Following the Elections

Tomorrow at my congregation, Grace Lutheran on the East Side of Saint Paul, we will gather to pray for our state and nation following the elections. Please join us – in person, or in spirit.

Morning Prayer On the Occasion of Local, State, and National Elections
Wednesday, November 7, 10am
Grace Lutheran Church, Saint Paul, MN

Order of Prayer adapted from the Church of England’s Common Worship materials. Hymns numbers refer to Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

Prelude

Gathering Dialogue
O Lord, open our lips
and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Your faithful servants bless you.
They make known the glory of your kingdom.

Let us pray.
Silence for reflection
Blessed are you, Sovereign God,
ruler and judge of all,
to you be praise and glory for ever.
In the darkness of this age that is passing away
may the light of your presence which the saints enjoy
surround our steps as we journey on.
May we reflect your glory this day
and so be made ready to see your face
in the heavenly city where night shall be no more.
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Blessed be God for ever.
Amen.

Hymn #771 God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens

Scripture refrain (Philippians 3:20)
Our citizenship is in heaven,
and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior,
the Lord Jesus Christ.

Psalmody
Psalm 42

As the deer longs for the water brooks,
so longs my soul for you, O God.
My soul is athirst for God, even for the living God;
when shall I come before the presence of God?
My tears have been my bread day and night,
while all day long they say to me, ‘Where is now your God?’
Now when I think on these things, I pour out my soul:
how I went with the multitude
and led the procession to the house of God,
With the voice of praise and thanksgiving,
among those who kept holy day.
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul,
and why are you so disquieted within me?
O put your trust in God;
for I will yet give him thanks,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.

Prayer
The night has passed, and the day lies open before us;
let us pray with one heart and mind.
Silence is kept.
As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence, O God,
set our hearts on fire with love for you;
now and for ever.
Amen.

A Song of the New Creation
Isaiah 43.15,16,18,19,20c,21

I will make a way in the wilderness,
and rivers in the desert.
‘I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.’
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
‘Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
I will make a way in the wilderness,
and rivers in the desert
‘Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
‘I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
‘The people whom I formed for myself,
that they might declare my praise.’
I will make a way in the wilderness,
and rivers in the desert.

Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.

Scripture refrain (Philippians 3:20)
Our citizenship is in heaven,
and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior,
the Lord Jesus Christ.

Message

Hymn #887 This Is My Song

Gospel Canticle
The Benedictus (The Song of Zechariah)

Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel
who has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Savior
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets God promised of old
to save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all that hate us,
To show mercy to our ancestors,
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of all their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.

Prayers
Let us pray for the church, the world, and all those in need. In particular, we pray for our state and nation, asking God’s grace and blessings following yesterday’s elections.

God of the heavens and the earth, you are Lord of all. Give us the strength to resist putting too much hope in any one political party or ideology, for you are the hope of the world. Fix our hearts on you and on those whom you love. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, you raise up leaders and give those in high office great responsibility. Bless those whom we have elected to office, especially (names). Grant them your wisdom and grace in their holy calling of leading this nation. May they use their authority to seek not the narrow interest of small groups, but the interest of all. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God of reconciliation, bring together the people of this land to accept, embrace, and pray for our newly elected officials. Give us the eye to see this nation not as a people divided by Red and Blue, Republican and Democrat, but a nation that strives together to live into its greatest hopes of liberty and justice for all. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God of healing, unite the people of this state under the banner of your love. Grant your wisdom to the state legislature as it seeks to implement the state constitutional amendment(s) approved in yesterday’s election. May (any) legal challenges or re-counts proceed fairly and justly, and may all who advocated for or against the amendments seek the best for this state, and interpret the actions of their political adversaries in the best possible light. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

God of the poor and marginalized, you sent prophets to call out on behalf of the poor, and your own Son proclaimed Good News to the poor and captive. Give all who hold positions of authority, and the citizens who elected them, the will to use their power for the good of the poor. Give your wisdom and care to business owners and community activists, to church leaders and to school officials, to managers and to laborers, that we might all contribute to alleviate the plight of all who suffer. Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

All these things and whatever else you see that we need, grant us, O God, for the sake of him who died and rose again and now lives and reigns with you in unity with the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Amen.

Uniting our prayers with the whole company of heaven,
let us pray with confidence as our Savior has taught us:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
forever and ever. Amen.

Scripture refrain (Philippians 3:20)
Our citizenship is in heaven,
and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior,
the Lord Jesus Christ.

Hymn #888 O Beautiful for Spacious Skies

The Conclusion
May Christ, who has opened the kingdom of heaven,
bring us to reign with him in glory.
Amen.
Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Postlude

Pastor’s Approach: Weddings

I’ve been writing monthly articles in my church newsletter about my approach to various aspects of congregational ministry – worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, and so forth. A few months ago I wrote about weddings, but hadn’t yet posted the article online. To see other articles in this Pastor’s Approach series, click on the Church Newsletter category link.

Marriage is Both Legal and Religious
Marriage is a legal union regulated by the government upon which people of faith have historically asked God’s blessings. The United States is somewhat unique in its practice of allowing clergy to preside at legal wedding ceremonies. In much of the world, including the historically Christian nations of Europe and Latin America, couples first go to a judge to be legally married. Then, if the couple desires the church’s blessing on their marriage, they come to the church at a later date for their church wedding. In fact, in his writings on the wedding service, Martin Luther describes a couple getting married on the step to the church’s front door. Only after making their legal vows to one another does the couple step into the church to seek the blessings of God and the Christian community on their marriage.

Couples are welcome to have the entire wedding ceremony – which includes both the legal marriage and the declaration of God’s blessings – performed at the church. Alternatively, couples are welcome to be married by a judge and then come to the church to ask God’s blessings upon their marriage. I’ve presided at both kinds of weddings, and each are perfectly legitimate.

The Church Wedding Service
The church wedding service is a Christian worship service celebrating God’s love for and commitment to the couple and the world, and the love and commitment God has given them for each other. While many options are available to the couple to make the service rich with meaningful symbols and experiences, a few essentials mark a wedding as a Christian wedding:

  • Gathering in the name of God the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit;
  • One or more readings from the Bible;
  • A sermon proclaiming God’s love and grace;
  • Vows the couple makes to each other;
  • Blessing of the couple;
  • Benediction (ie, words of blessing at the end of the service).

The wedding service can be a full, robust church service, too – complete with liturgical music, hymns, prayers of intercession, holy communion, and so forth. This is what Jessicah and I did at our wedding … which lasted about 90 minutes and was a festive time of prayer and worship.

Many other elements may be part of the wedding service in a variety of ways – how the couple enters and leaves the church (Jessicah and I walked in together); the use of other symbols or rituals of marriage (such as the giving of rings; the lighting of a unity candle); the selection and use of music; the reading of non-Biblical texts (such as poetry); the type of clothing or flowers that are used; the role of parents, children, and other family member; the “first kiss,” and so forth. I work with couples to develop a meaningful service that gives praise to God and gives expression to the couple’s love for and commitment to one another.

Wedding Policy
I am currently working with the Worship & Music Committee to revise our congregation’s wedding policy. Please contact the church office if you would like to learn more about weddings at Grace. As with all special church occasions, dates for weddings need to be coordinated with the church to assure the availability of the church space, and of the pastor.

Pastor’s Approach: Funerals

I’ve been writing monthly newsletter articles about my approach to various aspects of congregational ministry – worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, and so forth. A few months ago I wrote about funerals, but hadn’t yet posted the article online. To see other articles in this Pastor’s Approach series, click on the Church Newsletter category tab.

When someone dies, loved ones – family and friends, neighbors and church members – need space to grieve, to remember the deceased, and to give thanks to God for their loved one’s life. A church funeral service is an important part of the grieving process that may also include a visitation at a funeral home, family’s home, or at church; a reception where friends and family gather to tell stories through laughter and tears; a public act of memorial, such as planting a tree or donating a park bench in memory of the deceased; and any one of many other possible acts of grieving and remembering the deceased.

The Funeral Service
The Christian funeral service is a chance to come together to hear God’s promises for the deceased and to take comfort that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” not even death (see Romans 8:38-39). In the Christian funeral service we remember the baptism of the deceased by draping the remains of the deceased in white, the color of baptism and resurrection, and splashing the casket or urn with baptismal water. We hear from Holy Scripture words of God’s comfort and promise – comfort for those who grieve, and promise that the deceased is in God’s everlasting care. We sing such promises in hymns and/or hear them sung in a solo music.

Holy Communion is celebrated, as we believe this sacred meal to be a mystical gathering of God’s people – from the past, present, and future – around our Lord’s table of grace, mercy, and life. The deceased, and all those who have gone before us in faith, are truly in communion with us as we share in this sacred meal. Only in cases where significant portions of the funeral gathering would not receive – ie, if a large portion of the family is not Christian or cannot receive Holy Communion in a Lutheran Church because of the teachings of their faith – would we consider not celebrating the sacrament.

At funeral services we give thanks to God for the deceased and commend the deceased’s remains to God’s care. One or two remembrances (eulogies) are shared in the service, about 3-5 minutes each. If additional people would like to speak about the deceased, the reception is a very appropriate time to do this. In the sermon I strive to weave stories of the deceased into the story of God’s saving and gracious work in the world, and so in this way to tell the story of God by, with, and through the story of the deceased. A prayer near the end of the service, said with a gesture blessing the deceased’s remains, asks God to gracious receive the deceased into everlasting care.

Funeral Service, or Memorial Service?
A funeral service is one at which the remains of the deceased are present, and is often held within four to eight days of death. A memorial service is very similar to a funeral service, though the remains of the deceased are not present. Though there is no religious teaching in our faith that requires funerals to be held within a certain timeframe (as our Jewish sisters and brothers traditionally have the funeral within a day or two of death), funerals taking place within a week of death give family and friends a meaningful and timely opportunity for grief, prayer, and mutual comfort. Memorial services are held at a later date, when funeral services are not being held closer to the date of death, or when the funeral is held in one location and a memorial service is desired in a different location.

Services need to be scheduled with the church. Though the church and the pastors have schedules that are generally flexible, there will be times when other church events, pastors’ vacation time, or other extraordinary circumstances would prevent the church or pastors from being available at particular dates and times. In these rare circumstances, we should work to find another date for the service, or seek out another location and/or another clergyperson for the service.

Full Body Burial, or Cremation?
The Lutheran church teaches that cremation is a perfectly appropriate way to care for the deceased’s remains. Remains are appropriately buried at sea or in the earth, giving a dignified final resting spot to the deceased. Burial of remains – cremated or not – often takes place immediately following the funeral service, but may also take place at a later date.

Make Some Plans
I encourage everyone to consider making preparations for their death – medical plans, financial plans, legal plans, and yes, funeral plans. If there are hymns or readings that are your favorite, or that you believe would give comfort to your family members upon your death, write those ideas down. Come and meet with me to talk about your funeral, or that of a loved one. I work with surviving family members to make appropriate selections of Scripture and hymns for a funeral, whether or not the deceased has given us any indication of their preferences for a service. Nonetheless, your notes – given to the church office, or left at home in an accessible place – will bring comfort to your family and help us honor you in an appropriate way upon your death.

Looking ahead: At some time in the fall, I will offer a workshop on funeral planning.

Pastor’s Approach: Praising God, Honoring Country

I’ve been writing monthly newsletter articles about my approach to various aspects of congregational ministry – worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, and so forth. This month, I wrote about the intersection of patriotism and Christian worship. It is a variant on pieces I’ve written on this blog in the past. Below is what appeared in my congregation’s July newsletter.

The 4th of July is a wonderful holiday, celebrating our nation’s independence and calling all who live in this land to reflect on the freedoms we are privileged to enjoy in this land. There will be flags waving outside of houses – including my house – and parades with red, white, and blue processions, and store aisles filled with patriotic products. Yet at church we don’t make patriotic celebrations a centerpiece of our worship or fellowship. This is intentional.

When Christians gather for worship on Sunday mornings, we gather around the Risen Christ, the Living Word of God. Worship is a time to give praise to the God of our ancestors for the grace and mercy He has shown to us, most clearly through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hymns and songs are part of the proclamation of the Word of God. Hymns allow us to simultaneously proclaim and hear God’s Word through the gift of music. Yet if a hymn’s theme is secular, and cannot be reasonably understood as giving praise to God, it is not appropriate for Christian Worship.

Our worship services include – and our tradition demands – that we pray for our government and nation, and especially for those in positions of leadership. This we do every Sunday, and on occasions of national holidays those prayers are carefully crafted.

And at times the church even hosts special times of prayer and worship on occasions of national significance. But even when we gather to pray for our country, the prayer and liturgy remain Christian in character, and are not patriotic ceremonies. In these gatherings national concerns guide the selection of readings, hymns, and prayers, but such worship services remain Christian worship services in which the faithful gather around God’s Word.

Outside of those times that are set aside for worship, Christians are called to active engagement in the civic life of our country and our community. Christians should enthusiastically and patriotically attend civic celebrations, memorials and ceremonies. Though waving the flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance is not appropriate for Christian worship, let us wave the flag in the local parade and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in the town square. “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” is a beautiful anthem, and appropriately sung underneath the beautiful sun-lit or firework-streaked sky at a civic gathering.

There is a time and a place for everything – and though we pray for our nation in church, worship is not the time or place to celebrate our patriotism. As Christians, our central celebration is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Hope of all nations and all peoples. We don’t cease being Americans when we come to worship, but neither do we come to worship to celebrate our American heritage. We come to worship to sit at the foot of the cross, to gaze into the empty tomb, to hear the Good News for us and for all people, and to receive the grace and blessings that can come only from God.

May you have a safe and wonderful Independence Day holiday.

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Our worship book, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes several prayers appropriate for national holidays in a section called Civil Life, Government, Nations (pages 76-78). Below are two prayers you might consider using at a time of family prayer on July 4th or on any other national holiday.

Holy Trinity, one God, you show us the splendor of diversity and the beauty of unity in your own divine life. Make us, who came from many nations with many languages, a united people that delights in our different gifts. Defend our liberties, and give those whom we have entrusted with authority the spirit of wisdom, that there might be justice and peace in our land. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our sovereign and Savior. Amen.

Almighty god, our heavenly Father, bless the public servants in the government of this country/state/county/town, especially (insert name of elected leaders), that they may do their work in a spirit of wisdom, charity, and justice. Help them use their authority to serve faithfully and to promote our common life; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Onomia, Oh My!

Today I visited Camp Onomia, one of the outdoor ministries of the ELCA, located just two hours northwest of Saint Paul in the Mille Lacs area. And I am so glad I did!

Camp Onomia is set on beautiful Shakopee Lake, and is surrounded by state park land. As you look across the lake, you don’t see other camp grounds or resorts or anything … just lakewater and trees. Standing in the middle of the camp, all you hear are children playing and exploring, and birds chirping, and squirrels scurrying. It is truly a beautiful getaway.

The center of the camp is a fire pit with a large concrete cross, where morning and evening gatherings can take place, and where the all-important camp fire burns at night. Surrounding the fire pit is a wonderfully shaded grove area with picnic tables and space for children to run and play. Lining this area are several camp buildings, including a chapel, a mess hall, dormitories, and the retreat center. Uniquely, this camp doesn’t have traditional camp cabins, but instead offers dormitory-style housing … something that family campers with young children, and those not accustomed to “more rustic” camping experiences, might really appreciate!

Amenities aside, I’m thrilled at what this camp can offer as a place of holy encounter – with God, with God’s creation, and with God’s people. Getting folks together for a weekend church retreat, or kids for a week of summer camp, can truly build relationships and nurture the gift of faith through intentional experiences of Bible study, prayer, and divine encounter in community and creation.

Camp Onomia, along with many of our Lutheran camps, has experienced some level of decline in recent years. Parenting styles have changed over the years, and fewer families are sending their children to “sleep-away” camp today than a generation or two ago. If parents are sending their children to camp, it is often for a specific skill – to help their children with soccer or music or art. Also, church finances are changing, and the ability of congregations and synods to fund camps, or for congregations to subsidize campers, has declined.

While our outdoor ministries may not see the enrollment numbers return to their heyday of a few generations ago, I know that I am eager to have my own children participate in summer camp at Onomia, and to see my congregation renew a relationship with this camp. Indeed, in talking with a few parents at my church, I know there is interest in this kind of ministry. There is incredible value in a fun, faith-filled experience of camp that is not skill-based or achievement-oriented, but focused on fostering a unique experience of Christian community and encounter with God.

Years ago my congregation sent youth to Confirmation Camp and other programs at Onomia, and I can see a new partnership with Onomia as a “back to the future” kind of thing … returning again to an experience that once nurtured the faith of our youth and church.

But this is not just “doing again” something we’ve tried before. Times have changed. More than even a generation ago, we live in an era when the formative experience of regular Sunday morning church is diluted by the many family, work, educational, and recreational experiences and responsibilities that demand the attention of our church members. In recent decades the definition of “regular attendance” at church has changed – from three times per month to once per month. Thus, the opportunity to establish strong church-based relationships and nurture faith through special experiences is one that all congregations should seize.

Many thanks to Camp Onomia Executive Director Jim Schmidt for showing me around the camp today. I look forward to more visits to Camp Onomia in the months and years to come … with my family and with my church, to draw closer to God and to each other in a setting that truly inspires awe of God’s creation.

Our Church’s Life, Death, and Resurrection

As I prepare to attend next week's synod assembly, I find myself thinking about the church and how it is organized for its God-given mission of proclaiming the Gospel.

The church has been around for nearly 2000 years. The church has taken on a variety of forms and said a variety of prayers, engaged in a variety of efforts for war and for peace, and has adapted itself to a variety of cultures. This should give us great comfort and great hope.

In 20th century North America, the church became an increasingly professional institution. Accredited seminaries provided professional three year degrees to candidates for the ministry. Congregations lining major corridors along rapidly sprawling suburbs built vast education wings complete with school bells and libraries, miniature religious versions of the public schools being built across the country at the time. These growing congregations welcomed the post-war generation with religious education for all ages, Luther Leagues for the youth, women's and men's groups, fellowship opportunities and dignified worship services. Their bells rang throughout the community, and a growing number of citizens heeded their call.

Congregations hired paid staff, not only paid clergy but also professional office, maintenance, and education staff as well. As there were buildings and funds and personnel to manage, structures of congregational governance took on a more significant role. Roberts Rules of Order became one of three books named in the constitutions of Lutheran congregations, alongside the Bible and Book of Concord. Managing the institutional and programmatic affairs of the congregation became a massive undertaking.

Denominations organized their ministries with national structures governing domestic and foreign missions, with boards and regional presidents and untold vast numbers of committees and commissions. Such institutional growth mirrored efforts to organize civil society with national labor unions and service organizations, and global society with the United Nations. Denominational organizations for women's ministry and youth ministry also flourished, with national boards, regional boards, and congregational boards overseeing and organizing their ongoing work and annual or biannual national conventions.

Denominational leaders were featured on the cover of Time magazine, and congregations were a cornerstone of neighborhood life. Clergy gave the invocation at town council meetings, and school systems deferred to the churches for scheduling of extracurricular activities. Prayer kicked off public school football games and high school graduations. 

This is not how the church had always been structured in its 2000 year history. As I wrote above, over its long history the church has taken on a variety of forms and has adapted to a variety of cultures. This description, above, is simply how the mainline church was structured in many parts of mid-20th century North America. The church looked somewhat different a hundred years prior, and it will look different a hundred years hence. 

We cannot keep trying to maintain a mid-20th century model of church in the rapidly-changing 21st century. The early-mid 20th century cultural factors that supported the massive institutionalization of the church are simply not part of our culture and society today. A new model of church has to be formed. 

The Good News is that God's Word will thrive, and the Holy Spirit will continue to gather the gather the church when and where it pleases, just as it has for 2000 years. Let us give thanks for what the church did in the last century, for the ways that God worked through the church and its institutions. And let us look forward in faith to how the Spirit will move through the church, empowering it to carry out a mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament in this next century. 

I think that as people of faith who also love our church, our challenge is to believe the Easter message that out of death comes life, and that everything – even the church we love – dies and rises to new life with Christ.

And more, I think that many of us in the church find ourselves in a Holy Saturday posture of not being sure of whether resurrection will really happen. Or, perhaps we find ourselves in an Easter Sunday posture, bewildered and not sure of what to make of the resurrection that's staring us in the face.

More thoughts to come. Later.