Sunday, November 01, 2015

November 1

One big funeral sermon
for all those we name
and honor with a single bell tone
during our prayers,
notes that arrange themselves
in a unique
but awkward arpeggio
a particular order
never to be repeated
And for all the others who’ve left us
who won’t be named
but who
strove and inspire and
failed and lost
and won
And for the wee weeks-old
who begins the journey
still wet
still waking up
and receiving a kiss
from an older sibling
who stretches toward his forehead
to touch her lips just at the place
where the oil has made a cross
And for the daughter who explores a new Bible
half-interested in the routine
of bed-time prayers
because she’s busy
hunting verses underlined by
her cloud of witnesses
And for the ones who weep
And for the ones who wonder why
And for all resting ringing reading resounding
In the embrace of the One who’s risen
For all the saints

Sunday, July 12, 2015

"Dear Emanuel's": A letter to a closing (merging) congregation

On Sunday, July 12, 2015, the first congregation I was called to serve as pastor, Emanuel's Lutheran Church, Bellevue (Pittsburgh), PA, will be closing its doors. Technically-speaking the congregation itself has (as of the end of June) merged with another small parish in a nearby borough, but for all intents and purposes the building that housed this once-vibrant congregation of Lutherans will be shut down and will not be a house of worship for the people that built it and derived identity from it.
The Congregation Council of Emanuel's is holding a celebration service to mark this occasion and invited all former pastors and members to attend, if possible. Due to other duties on my calendar, I am unable to attend, but it was suggested that I write a letter that could be read aloud at their gathering. Below is the letter I wrote. I share it here for the sake of anyone who was part of the Emanuel's extended family who also could not attend, that they may read it and hear how grateful my family is for the ministry we shared there.
I also share it for the sake of anyone who has gone through or might go through a congregation closing. I imagine we'll be seeing quite a few more of these in the coming years. According to many statistics, nine congregations close each week across the United States. Congregation closings are difficult to do and they are difficult to talk about. However, I believe that it is important to acknowledge the life that a congregation once gave to particular community and its members. Likewise, it is vital to remember that God is always present in the midst of difficulty, raising up hope and vision for God's people.
Dear members and friends of Emanuel’s Lutheran Church:

Like most of you, I am deeply saddened that Emanuel’s will be closing its doors and no longer serving as a place of worship for a congregation that I deeply love, a congregation that not too long ago celebrated its centennial in Bellevue. There is something inside of each of us that tells us congregations are not supposed to close. They are places of such life, after all: wellsprings that nurture the young, challenge the faithful, and comfort the aged. There is something that disturbs and depresses us about an organ no longer being played, a font no longer being filled with water, a door of welcome no longer being opened to the lost and the lonely. For this reason and many more, this occasion must feel like a funeral.

I know that for my family, especially, this day is a very sad one. I met Melinda in this place. I asked her to marry me in the narthex one evening. Neither of us will ever forget the sight of Jack Grimes walking Melinda down that long, sloping aisle on the day we announced our engagement in front of the congregation. In October of 2005 we exchanged vows at the altar, and within the span of just a few years we had our two daughters baptized here. Now it is highly likely that we will never be able to return to this particular building that is so sacred to our family. What would the Martins' lives be like without the faithful people of Emanuel’s who welcomed us, gave us a spiritual home, and formed us in our early married life? We will always be indebted to this congregation for the ways in which you loved us. But as disheartened as Melinda and I are, I can’t imagine how the rest of you feel who have seen your children raised here, confirmed here, and maybe even married here. I can’t imagine how sad this must be for anyone who came here each week with the expectation they would encounter Christ again.

Additionally, you were the congregation that took a chance on a young seminarian out of the south. You called me to serve among you, but pretty quickly I realized the Holy Spirit had really sent me to Bellevue to be your student. You were experts at teaching me about God’s grace and the joy of following Jesus. You opened your hearts and lives to me, modeling patience amidst crisis and generosity amidst hard times. I will always remember celebrating kids’ birthdays in the social hall downstairs, playing VBS games out on the lawn, and many, many good Pittsburgh meals from the kitchen. For all of this I thank you.

But, as I said, you were my teachers, and one of the things you taught me was that Christ grants us the insight to see possibilities where we see only death, and that the Spirit opens our eyes to laughter and life where we might only sense doom and gloom. So, even in this sadness and loss, I hope you can still teach one another this lesson. I hope that God can open your hearts once again to realize, as the old Sunday School song goes, that “a church is not a steeple, nor a resting place…the church is a people.” This particular place may no longer be “in service,” but the people of God are never, ever out of service.

With that in mind, I hope that you see you are being presented with a choice in this situation: going forward, do you venture out and find another congregation in which to share your gifts, thereby showing the world that you follow Jesus, the crucified and risen One, the one who brings new life through his body’s presence in the world…or do you stay at home on the Lord’s Day from now on and withhold your gifts from God’s people, thereby showing the world that for all these years you were just worshiping a building? I know it may be somewhat out-of-line for a student and former pastor to pose such a question to his teacher, especially because you’ve given so much of your time, talent, and treasure to these walls. Nevertheless, I feel it is my duty today. And I ask it with the confidence that the Emanuel’s people I knew and loved would find this to be an easy choice. The Emanuel’s people who strengthened my faith for almost six years knew that death was the place precisely where new life began.

You will be in my family’s prayers today and on the coming Sunday mornings. I know it will be hard to bear, but please trust that the God of new beginnings will be with you. After all, that is exactly what the word Emanuel means. It is Hebrew for “God is with us.”

Yours in Christ’s service.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Is the church going to make it??

Is the church going to make it? Is there any hope for us? Are we going to see the end of the 21st century?

It sure doesn’t seem like it if you were to believe all the blog posts and articles from church leaders and religious pundits these days. Their anxiety about the state of the Church is overwhelming. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what’s wrong. The church has always had a million problems, they admit, but ones we’re facing now are going to do us in! Here are some summaries of what I’ve heard:

The church, unable to learn the language of a digital, post-Christendom culture, hasn’t stayed relevant. Let’s face it, folks. We haven’t caught up with the times. We're still living in the Middle Ages. Our websites, if we even have them, are too dull. We don’t Tweet enough. We stay in our buildings or in front of our computers too much and therefore don’t get out in the coffee shops, craft beer pubs, and dog parks where people are. This is all due to the fact we’re stuck on models we developed in the fifties (that’s the 1850’s, mind you) and no one has thought about what’s happening right now.

The church hasn’t been doing enough service work…or at least hasn’t been visible enough about it. Don’t we realize that service projects in the community are clearly the best way to involve people in themission of Christ? If we were building more houses/marching in more parades/serving in more soup kitchens things wouldn’t be this way. More service work, especially when performed in matching t-shirts, will make us more relevant.

The church hasn’t figured out which style of worship it needs to have. Some say we need to keep it ancient and sacramental. Others hail Contemporary Post-modern Everything as the remedy that will suddenly give us traction. Keep the old hymnal! Get rid of all hymnals! Bring in the technology! Take it out! Whatever you do, get it right, because it’s do-or-die these days! Cry havoc and let loose the hounds of worship war!

The church doesn’t know how to reach/retain/enthrall/appeal to the prized Millennial generation. This is one of the most prevalent sources of anxiety. All the studies claim they’re leaving us, but no one can really explain why. Nevertheless, everyone is convinced it must be our fault that it’s happening. Yet the Millennials represent youth and youthfulness and a church has no future if it loses the approval of its young people, right? The Millennials are a uniform bloc, by the way, containing no variety within their ranks. In fact, you’ve probably spotted them roving the streets like a pack of feral dogs, looking for the newest indie coffee shop where they can hang out and be all postmodern.

The church has turned too many people away, as evidenced by the rise in numbers of those who claim “no religious affiliation” at all. Don’t we realize that people are finding more compelling sources for meaning-making elsewhere? Not only that. Everyone has figured out that church people are hypocritical, anyway (which of course we are). Our stances on “the issues” aren’t progressive enough. Or, wait, they’re too progressive, which is the reason behind the slow erosion between us and the culture we’re supposed to critique. Regardless, what we should really be worried about is that we come across as too inauthentic all the time. Don’t we know that everyone is really desiring authenticity? The Millennials certainly are! In fact, word on the street is that they’re seeking authentic relationships within community more than any other generation that has ever come along. Their knack for it even exceeds the generation that grew up during the Great Depression and fought World War II, the people who have, by and large, been supporting the church and keeping it going for all these years. Don’t these old people realize how inauthentic they’ve become?

I must admit all this kvetching confuses me. It also puts me off. At some point the voices of fear and worry become so numerous I don’t know which direction I’m supposed to run first. Change the worship style? Do more service work? Change long-standing sacramental practices? Invest immediately in an electronic sign our front that looks all post-moderny?

I’m sure there is more than a bit of truth to each of these viewpoints, and it never hurts to shine the mirror of critique on oneself. The church dearly needs to listen to what its surrounding culture considers important and should always stretch itself learn to engage people where they are. Yet, I can’t help but feel that at some point in the past few years our well-intentioned self-reflection has turned into unproductive self-flagellation. Must we be to blame for all of the so-called problems we’re facing? Are we doing nothing right?

As I look back over some of the trends I’ve witnessed in my own life of ministry, I have come to believe that a good many of the challenges the church is facing today are actually not ones we’ve created. Moreover, I also think we’re doing a half-decent job of responding and adapting to them. While the people of God are never called to stick their heads in the sand, it is also helpful for us to realize that a lot of the things that buffet us that are really out of our control. They are socio-economic, demographic shifts that would cause any organization or individual considerable strain and stress. In fact, just about any of the concerns above could be voiced, with just a few changes in wording, by television and print media,  by civic organizations (Kiwanis, etc.) by many corporations, and by institutions of higher education, just to name a few.

So, in response to the issues named above, I offer a few alternate reasons why the church feels it might be struggling to find its footing at the moment. In doing so, I realize I’m shifting the blame away from the church and back onto “the times.” So be it. The times need that critical mirror, too. After all, Jesus didn’t beat himself up every time someone turned and walked away from what he was teaching.

It is far easier--and more attractive--to be self-sufficient (to live as a free individual) now than ever before in human history, and yet the church is inherently a community. Technology, among other factors, has provided us the ability to have self-contained (and self-absorbed) lives. Suburban living, too, presents all kinds of interesting challenges to human social structures that, until fairly recently, operated as mostly agrarian. We're not "joiners." These and other factors give us the illusion we don’t depend on each other. Yes, people connect online, blah, blah, blah. Yes, people still crave community. But overall people’s lives don’t overlap during the week with their co-religionists like they used to. We aren’t as constantly aware of the ways we actually do need other people. In a culture that prizes individual expression and personalized experiences, the church—which is fundamentally a community—is going to be swimming upstream. This isn’t the church’s fault.

Sundays are not “easy” for people anymore. Thanks to the legacy of Christendom, the church used to have a free day to gather and worship. People also used to have two days of “free” time every weekend. However, now a growing number of people—especially Millennials!—must work weekends. People’s lives (and their family budgets) have also been taken over by sports. Plenty of cranky pastors have lamented this drift for decades, but now it appears that even the sports community is waking up to the unseemly hold athletics has on our lives. To some degree this loss of privileged status in people’s calendars is somewhat helpful because it might have a distilling effect on the church. However, a community can only twist and change so much in order to provide new scheduling strategies which allow for the necessary time for critical relationship-building. At the end of the day there are still only 24 hours. People only have so much time to work with and time they’re able to give. This isn’t the church’s fault.

People are more affluent than they ever have been and have more options for spending their money than ever before. This factor partly ties into the one stated above, but reaches even wider. The church is swimming in a sea of other competitors. More personal disposable income has meant we are able to give more of our money to things like recreation and travel (which tend to consume us on the weekends…see above). I look at my own family’s expenditures and wonder if similar activities would have been possible for a family like ours 30 or 40 years ago. One result of all this? The definition of “regular” worship attendance or “regular” giving, even from highly committed people, has changed significantly. Attending worship once a month is considered “frequent,” and the church should give thanks for that. But, again, the church’s strength is in its relationships, and if people are nowadays around each other less often in church settings then it stands to reason that the relationships will be weaker. This isn’t the church’s fault.

Family structure has changed dramatically in the past twenty years. People are getting married later than ever, and having children later in life. They are also having fewer children. This is neither good nor bad, but it does have interesting implications for church life which, for better or worse, is very centered on supporting and nurturing families. There are faith communities out there that do a good job of ministering to and with single persons and people with no children, but by and large the programs of so many churches are based in family ministry. This is partly the church’s fault. The church needs to think carefully about how much it caters to families often to the exclusion of others. However, the larger demographic and social changes that have affected our membership and ministries are not in our control.

We crave instantaneous everything. The church is about slow growth. This isn't the church's fault.

These are only a few challenges I see contributing to the church’s sense of anxiety that have nothing to do with what we’re “doing.” They just are. In a nutshell, as individuals become more affluent, better educated, and longer-living, it is easier for them to reach the false conclusion that they don't need God. And professing a need for God is what churches are supposed to be about. All the congregations I have come into contact with have been full of good people who are working as hard as they can to adapt their message to a culture that finds new gods. I have seen very few examples of church folk who are willingly sticking their heads in the sand about it all.

Mind you, I have no hard data to back up any of these observations. I do not know if they are accurate or not. But one thing I do know is this: any ministry strategies that are borne out of anxiety or panic will not go well. By contrast, ministry that is birthed from hope and joy will eventually bear good fruit.

icon of the Pentecost
As it happens, this week is the week leading up to the Day of Pentecost, the day the church commemorates God’s gracious outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the lives of the believers who were gathered in Jerusalem fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection. Pentecost was the event that helped the disciples make sense of what Jesus’ witness actually meant, that it wasn’t just a message for one time or one place or one people. It was the moment they were shaped as a community and pushed, with the energy of a hurricane wind, into their surrounding context. Somewhat like a fire, the Spirit danced and blazed paths for them even when the culture seemed to throw up obstacles all over the place.

Any reading of this Pentecost event in Scripture—and of the events that follow it—reveals an almost blundering group of broken but confident people who don’t really have much control over how the church is growing or changing. Some audiences listen, while others don't. What is missing in the Pentecost story, however, is a sense of anxiety. It just isn’t there. Clumsiness, conflict, tragedy, confusion…those are all present, but fear never really gets a mention. Another thing that doesn’t play a big part is self-blame.

Given all our modern-day hand-wringing about our ineptitude about discerning the times and finding the appropriate responses, maybe it’s high time to revisit the Pentecost story. Maybe this is the perfect time to remember that no amount of fretfulness get disciples anywhere. We can’t do too much about our tendency to make mistakes and our penchant for getting into disputes with each other over the issues. But we can remember that it is the Holy Spirit, not our programs and slick strategies, who is really in charge. We can remember that the Spirit continues to help us make sense of Jesus, both to ourselves and to the world. For in the end, that is the message we are sent to proclaim: Jesus is Lord. Sometimes people will listen. Sometimes they won't.

So, is the church going to make it? Is there really any hope for us?
Absolutely. Without a doubt. We are Pentecost people.
Paul preaching

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Luther or Patrick?

Here's a fun little quiz for St. Patrick's Day, which falls almost one month, to-the-day, after the church remembers Martin Luther (February 18).

The two men are separated in time by a millennium, and they likely never crossed paths geographically. Can you tell which of the following facts and quotes applies to St. Patrick and which to Martin Luther?

A. Two personal letters are all that survives from his own writing.


B. Over the course of his life, he became closely aligned
with a few local rulers and princes.


C. He was notorious for refusing to accept gifts from
kings and nobility.


D. He was kidnapped and held as a slave.


E. He was kidnapped and held in a fortress for safety.


F. One legend about him involves a walking stick
turning into a live tree.


G. One legend about him involves an ink well thrown at the devil.


F. He often referred to the Franks as ‘pagans.’


H. He often referred to the Pope as ‘the antichrist.’


I. The cross typically associated with him
is known as a cross pattèe.


J. He used a white flower to teach a lesson
about God’s joy and peace.


K. “It would take too long to discuss or argue every single case, or to sift through the whole of the Law for precise witness against such greed. Sufficient to say, greed is a deadly deed. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods. You shall not murder.”


L. “By God's grace, I know Satan very well. If Satan can turn God's Word upside down and pervert the Scriptures, what will he do with my words – or the words of others?”


M. “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”


N. “If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me.”


O. “O Comforter of priceless worth,
send peace and unity on earth.”


P. “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit,
Christ where I arise”

By almost any normal reckoning, the two men--Patrick and Luther--had very little in common. They lived at completely different times in world (and Christian) history and were therefore affected by very different geopolitical events. They lived in very different places, spoke different languages, chose different lifestyles. Luther was an Old Testament scholar and had spent some time in a monastery and law school. Patrick was a lowly shepherd and then a slave who spend most of his adult years on the frontier. If it were possible to put Luther and Patrick together in the same room for a while, they probably would have had a difficult time understanding one another, (although they would have probably enjoyed a beer together).

Yet...their words and actions were remarkably similar! The same themes of God's grace and Christ's constant presence arise from both men's witness. Both of them speak to us through the ages with resounding clarity, offering up the gospel as the way of life that leads to salvation. What a powerful statement of the unifying power of the Holy Spirit! What a comforting example of how God leads his people with a steady vision of love in the midst of the church's great diversity--and in the face of the world's great adversity!

So, today, raise a pint in memory of all the saints who have gone before us, be it an Irish stout or a German lager, and in thanksgiving to the Lord they served, who is "the same today, yesterday, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8)!


Friday, January 30, 2015

The Lord's Prayer lesson

As a pastor who has been involved with a lot of youth ministry over the years, I have logged many hours in the church and on retreats with other peoples’ youth. And as a person who has worked primarily with the upper end of the youth age spectrum, I have not had as many opportunities to work with elementary and pre-school-age children. That is why the last three Sundays were a bit special—and slightly awkward—for me. I found myself spending time in a series of Sunday School lessons on the Lord’s Prayer with my own two daughters, ages 6 and 8.

The lessons had an inter-generational aspect to them, which is something I am familiar with. However, it seemed a bit strange to participate from the perspective of one of those undersized chairs, seated between my daughters on the receiving end of the lesson, rather than from the front of the class as the leader. In short, I loved it. I hope I get to do more of them.

In one class the children were asked to draw pictures (or one picture) to illustrate the petitions (or a petition) of the Lord’s Prayer. After that, they were challenged to re-write the Lord’s Prayer in their own words. Although their end results were impressive, my first thought was that the second task—the re-writing—would be a little too difficult for them.

But there was a well-thought-out point to it that I hadn’t picked up on, even though I was participating in it: when the kids struggled to take the original words and re-phrase them (and they did), the parents were right there to help them say it another way. As a result, we adults had to think a little more critically about what we mean when we say the Lord’s Prayer. 

What I took from this lesson was that one of my daughters focused far more on the drawing-and-coloring segment while the other one really concentrated on the verbal part. At the end, they both presented their final products to the class with absolutely no nudging on my part. Throughout the process, neither of them let themselves be influenced by my pastor-y answers to things. They were hard at work, and it was clear my theology wasn't that important at the moment. I was simply supposed to be their helper. And as far as the 6-year-old was concerned, even that was too much. I was to be an observer.

Another class involved making “prayer pretzels.” The kids rolled out the dough and crossed the two ends so they looked like arms folded in prayer. Anytime you let kids work with edible crafts you’re bound to have a good time. Again, it was a bit of a challenge to get the dough to do what we wanted it to. But the work of it reminded me of the work of prayer. It should take some effort and even repetition, and, like dough, it can be twisted and molded to suit the occasion.

While the pretzels cooked, we listened as someone read a book of the Lord’s Prayer that took each of the petitions and laid them out in a series of illustrations that told a story about a little girl and her father as they help an elderly neighbor in their community. The plot is simple, but it still takes some serious thinking to tease out how the words relate to the pictures. It was one of those children’s books I’ve seen dozens of times in many church libraries, but this time it took on more meaning. There they were, my two daughters teaching their learning partner to sit down in that small chair and, at least for the moment, be a father and not a pastor.