Monday, February 5, 2018

Hearts and ashes

“But the greatest of these is love” – 1 Corinthians 13
            Valentine’s Day can be difficult enough without throwing Ash Wednesday in.  Whether you’re struggling to find a meaningful gift that somehow, in some way expresses your unique and always-new love to your significant other, or are enduring the pain of a lost companion, or feeling left out of the holiday as a single person, Valentine’s Day by itself can press down on us with its load of hard-to-meet expectations.
            Now pile on one more thing: this year Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday are the same day.  How much more can two days differ?  That holy day of ashy gray and graveside black, of remembering we are and will return to dust clashes about as much as it is possible to clash with the pink hearts and red cards and sugary candy and saccharine sentiments of our national Hallmark holiday.  So how do we handle the dilemma of this ambivalent commencement to Lent?
            Paradox: it means holding 2 opposing things to be true at the same time, and somehow being ok with it.  If Luther was right and the Christian faith is full of paradox, then maybe there is no real dilemma here at all.  After all, we believe in a man who was born from a virgin, a man who was  human but also God, who beat the devil by being defeated, saving the world by losing his life, destroying death by dying, and then leading his people by leaving them and going into heaven.  We worship him by eating his body which is also bread and drinking his blood which happens to be wine, so we can find true forgiveness while still remaining sinners.  Christians should be really good at paradox.
            When we think about Lent, that 40 days of following Jesus as he makes his way to the cross…we’re often hard on ourselves.  We consider our sinfulness, and usually think about depriving ourselves of something nice, or being more disciplined and thoughtful.  We try to minimize our own sense of worthiness to remind ourselves how undeserving we are of Christ’s love.  Maybe all that self-reflection sometimes gets in the way of what Lent is really about – that pathway of love that led Jesus to the cross in the first place.  Jesus did what He did out of love for you.  He looks at you and sees a beloved child of God.  
            So maybe it’s not so much of a paradox after all.  Maybe it makes good Lenten sense to think about all those Valentine’s clich├ęs, the messages on the little candy hearts: “Dear One,” “You Rock,” “Love U,”  “Be Mine.”  After all, it was Jesus who said, “…love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12).  If you travel with your eyes open, the path of Lent will show you just how dear you are to him, and how much he wants you to be his.
            This year our Lenten worship will take two separate tracks – the Wednesday night services will carry this Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day tie-in through the whole season with our “Lent is Love” series.  Each evening on the Wednesdays of Lent we will give away a magnetic puzzle piece to every worshiper, which together will form a beautiful image of Jesus.  In worship each week we will examine a different aspect of God’s love and a different verse from “the love chapter” 1 Corinthians 13.  Though we’re used to hearing those verses only at weddings, they have to do with the unique love God gives each of us, a love he expects us to share with others.
            Our Sunday services will take a different track, as we follow along with the Lenten devotional You Are the Way.  These small booklets contain readings for every day of the Lenten season, and focus on the “I am” statements of Jesus.  The “I am” passages give us hints and clues as to who Jesus is for us individually and as members of His Church.  The You Are the Way devotionals will be our guide through this season.  You may order one from Augsburg here.

            Now in addition to the three services each weekend, we will also have midweek Lenten services starting Ash Wednesday.  There are more ways than ever to make your way to the light of Easter’s empty tomb here at Atonement.  We hope you will find a path this Lent that leads you closer to the one who gave us the greatest love of all – Jesus, our Lord.
Peace,
Pastor Scott

Monday, January 15, 2018

Joseph and his amazing technicolor stewardship

  “Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid!  Am I in the place of God?  Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good in order to preserve numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear.  I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’”

-- Genesis 51:19-21

Dear Friends of Atonement,
            Happy New Year!  We made it to 2018!  Hope it’s going well so far. 
            Again and again I’ve heard people say, “At least 2018 has got to be better than 2017…”  Last year certainly did have its challenges -- every year does.  But in 2017 we had hurricanes roar through the area, a beloved bishop leave office, struggles finding the right plan for our new building, issues with our old building and trouble with the brand new freezer unit, and just too many old friends leaving us…  I could go on, but I’m sure you have your own list. 

            And then I remember Joseph – the guy with the “coat of many colors.”  Beaten and left for dead by his own brothers, falsely accused of sexual misconduct, thrown into a foreign prison and forgotten by his friends, Joseph must have wondered why God was putting him through all this.  Yet he never lost his faith. 
            It took a while, but finally Joseph was recognized as “one who has the Spirit of the Lord.”  He was brought before the king, and God gave him the key to understanding the king’s mysterious dream.  Joseph knew that God was saying through that dream that the land was about to experience a severe drought and famine.  When the king hears that, immediately he makes Joseph his chief steward, manager of all his resources.  Joseph goes from jail to being the world’s second most powerful man – talk about rags to riches!
            But God’s real gift to Joseph wasn’t the wealth He put under Joseph’s control.  It was all the lives he was able to save by being a good steward.  He was able to use the king’s money and grain not only to save the kingdom, but also to save those brothers of his who beat him and left him for dead.  True, Joseph couldn’t resist messing with them a little when they came seeking his help (see Genesis 42-45), but ultimately he forgave them, took care of them and their families, and gave all the glory to God!

            However beat up you feel by 2017, I pray that 2018 will be a turnaround year in your life.  As God’s faithful people, we live in the hope of his promises.  Whatever life’s struggles, we are carried onward by the one who loves us.  He is there through the highs and lows, in times of laughter and of tears.  We go from Christ to Christ, whose candle was lit at our baptism and will be lit as we go to glory.  Along the way, He makes us his stewards here in the kingdom of this earth, so we might be like Joseph and share our resources, our forgiveness and our love with all in need.

            Last month, we shared that Atonement is still behind in our general fund and asked people to look again at increasing their giving.  We thank you for hearing our appeal and doing just that!  December’s giving was within $400 of our giving goal for the month, which brought our general fund deficit down to $12,335…the lowest it’s been for quite a while.  
            We have a ways to go till we become stewards as good as Joseph.  He spent seven years storing up enough surplus grain to see the whole kingdom through the hard years of famine.   But with your help we continue growing our ministries and finding new ways to care for the spiritually and physically hungry who come to us.  Thank you for growing in stewardship, and for your faithful giving which is helping more and more people know and experience God’s love. 
Peace,

Pastor Scott 

P.S.  If you haven’t already, make your reservation to join us for the installation of our new bishop, Pedro Suarez, Jan. 20 at noon at St. Mark’s Catholic Church 9724 Cross Creek Blvd. in New Tampa.  Our own Esthel Kane and Nicholas Trejo will be in the opening procession.  Call the synod office at (813) 876-7660 or go to http://fbsynod.com/installation/

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Little Revolutions

“God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

                                                            -- Micah 6:8
            Why now?  What is it about this moment that women are speaking out against harassers and abusers?  Is it the high profile of the abusers or the accusers?  Is it the ability to be instantly heard by thousands on social media?  Is it some new knowledge or insight that has led us as a society to see how unjustly imbalanced power is distributed in our society?
            Growing up in a household with no sisters, I didn’t do a lot of thinking about what women experience.  I loved James Bond movies, despite the uneasy feeling I got from the way women were used in them.  I knew women could be strong and achieve whatever a man could, but figured many just chose not to try.  It never occurred to me how much they had to overcome, how much they had to fear.
            When my mom went to seminary to become a pastor, I watched her work hard and struggle – not just with the schoolwork, but also with people’s attitudes.  The assumptions ran deep – pastors had been exclusively men for so long, people just assumed that was the way it was supposed to be.  A few of those people changed their minds after knowing her and hearing her preach.  But she was faced with colleagues in a career field who felt the same way.  Some of them who sat in halls of power were able to put major roadblocks in her way.
            The biggest shock of all came in the one counseling class I was required to take to become a pastor.  The professor had us all put our heads down and close our eyes and asked the women in class to raise their hands if they had ever been sexually abused.  He told us that a quarter of the women had raised their hands.  Later, a good friend told me she was one of them.  I was stunned and wondered what it meant for my classmates and what it said about our world.
            Many people feel the Bible is the culprit.  After all, doesn’t it say that women were made to stay home and make babies?  Actually, it doesn’t.  Doesn’t it say they are to keep silent and keep their heads covered?  Well, in one particular case, the Apostle Paul says that to one particular congregation.   Doesn’t it say that wives are to obey their husbands?  Yes, in the same passage where it tells husbands to love and honor their wives as Christ loves and honors the Church.  Since the Bible came out of a culture where men were more likely to be literate and employed, they were naturally expected to be the head of the household.  But this same Bible is full of examples of capable and heroic women.  Think of Sarah and Mary, Esther, Ruth, Mary Magdalene and Hannah (and don’t forget the daughters of Zelophead in Numbers 27).  The Bible also describes households like Timothy’s, where the mother’s line was far more influential than the father’s.
            Our ELCA denomination has been putting together a series of Social Statements, explaining our positions on various topics from the perspective of Biblical and church teaching.  If you go to this link:  http://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements you will find documents on abortion, caring for creation, the death penalty, education, and other major issues.  The ELCA puts together a task force to draft each of these statements, and in the process they ask for input from church members and congregations.  These are used to describe our ELCA’s position on these major topics, for use in teaching and developing policies.
            This year, the ELCA has put together the task force which will be writing a social statement on Women and Justice.  They invite you to participate by reading the first draft of the statement, either individually or with a group.  This draft is available online at www.elca.org/womenandjustice and includes a response form with questions.  You are encouraged to send in this form with your own thoughts and opinions you’d like to contribute to the discussions.  Forms need to be in by September 30. 
            Big change doesn’t happen overnight.  It may begin like an earthquake, but may take years of aftershocks to reach its full expression.  In the #MeToo movement we have heard brave women speak out against abuse.  We’ve seen harassers and abusers in power positions fall like dominoes.  By using their voices, they have made real change happen in our world.  Here is a chance for you to have a voice, and perhaps have it magnified in the megaphone of a social statement.  Let me know if you’d like more info, or if you’re interested in putting together a group to study this issue at Atonement.

Peace,

Pastor Scott

Thursday, December 7, 2017

God's Christmas Ways


“Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you.  He is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you – you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”                   
                                   -- Luke 2:11-12



            I don’t normally go looking for babies, but I do see them from time to time.  They may be in a baby carriage being pushed along by a parent at the store.  They may be in the arms of a family member, in the process of being passed around and oogled at by friends and relatives.  They may be hauled up to the baptismal font to be blessed by Jesus with the water of life.  I’ve even seen a baby bathed in a sink, but I’ve never actually seen a baby lying in a real-life honest-to-goodness manger.

            A lifetime of Christmases makes it hard to understand just what a strange thing it was for those Bethlehem shepherds to walk in on.  They were sent by a heavenly host of angels, not to the maternity ward or to a cozy bedroom, but to “that lowly stable [where] humble Christ was born.”  What do you think they wondered at as they saw this sight?  That they’d been spending too much time out in those pastures with the sheep?


            Christmas tells us that God comes to us in surprising ways.  Christ’s message is counter-cultural, and His kingdom carries with it a whole different set of assumptions and priorities than we are used to living with.  It tells of a seemingly small event, the birth of a baby in a backwater village, which turns out to be more important than all the battles of armies and all the coronations of kings.  It tells of the world’s Savior put to rest on a bed of hay in a donkey’s feeding trough.  It tells of the honored guests brought to witness this all-important moment – not stylish celebrities, powerful rulers or paparazzi, but common shepherds who enter the scene in garments smelling of dirt, sweat and grass.

            Behold God’s Christmas ways, so far from the ways we humans do strategic planning.  God’s Christmas ways count each person as holy, full of possibility and promise.  They write each one of us into the story, giving our lives meaning beyond our own understanding.  These ways bring light into the darkest places and hope where even the most optimistic of us lose our nerve.  These Christmas ways of God sent a baby to do a deity’s work, and the powers of evil never saw it coming.  These are the ways of divine love.  

            But if God really works this way, what does that say about us?  We who work hard and think it’s our work bringing the blessing, we who see ourselves at the center of it all, we who think we’re so full of love while we’re busy ignoring the neediest among us…God’s Christmas ways tell us to find the blessing in what we’ve already been given, to look beyond ourselves for life’s fulfillment, to join the desires of our hearts with the places in this world where suffering is greatest. 

            This baby will become a refugee from his homeland, will be accused of being a menace to society, will become a condemned and crucified criminal.  But God’s Christmas ways are also God’s Easter ways, so He never ceases to surprise us by bringing life out of death.  This season we remember God came to us as a baby, so open to the world, so vulnerable, so totally accepting, so small and everyday but still such a miracle.

            I don’t normally go looking for babies, but when I do see them from time to time, it’s hard to look away.  There’s something about a baby that draws us to look, to wonder, to smile.  Come in from the pastures this Christmas and let that baby draw you in.  Let yourself be gathered with those people all over the world, pilgrim shepherds every one, who come to find a baby in a most amazing place – in the manger of their hearts.


Peace,

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Out of the Blue (2017 Annual Report)

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my Word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the living for which I sent it.”
                                                               -- Isaiah 55:10
            At a worship service celebrating the installation of one of our new pastors here in the Florida-Bahamas synod, our bishop began the service with a prayer of thanksgiving for our baptism.  Then while we sang the opening hymn, he sprinkled holy water from the baptismal font on the entire congregation.  The drops of water were a cool and sudden reminder, falling out of the blue, that we belong to a gracious and generous God who “makes his sun rise on the good and evil, and lets the rain fall on the just and unjust” (Matthew 5:45).  It’s true – we have his grace without deserving it, without earning it, and without expecting it.  God’s love comes to us “out of the blue” and drenches us with new possibilities.
            We have seen this happen over and over this year at Atonement.  Something happens that was talked about long ago, or maybe just recently thought about, but was really considered a distant dream.  Then God makes it happen.  That’s what it feels like as we look back at the birth of our Hispanic mission, Todos Unidos en Cristo.  Now up and running with their own website, Todos Unidos en Cristo (TUC) is the new stage of life growing out of our Hispanic ministry and English as Second Language classes started last year.  Now it has become a bona fide Synodically Authorized Worshiping Community (SAWC) of the ELCA, with permission to begin services, take in members, and do most of what any congregation is expected to do. 
            With 20% of our community identified as Hispanic or Latino, TUC is here to help us make sure we do not forget this part of our own mission to share the love of Jesus.  As of February 2017, TUC is up and running with Esthel Kane as lay developer.  She is leading this new mission under my supervision, with guidance and coaching from the Synod office and national ELCA offices.  Not only is the mission receiving thousands of dollars in support from the synod and national church, Esthel is being trained to become a pastor in a unique new program that allows us to stay with us here as she studies.  Esthel will soon be doing her “field work” part of this training, which includes internship and clinical work at a nearby hospital.
            With so many people feeling stressed these days, our visitation team and myself are stretched to the limit trying to provide care for our members.  For several years we have explored and discussed becoming involved in the Stephen Ministry program.  This is a well-known and interdenominational system of training and oversight for caregivers in Christian congregations.  In January, Jan Buland, Chris Rymer and myself spent a week learning how to get it going, and realized it was going to take months just to get set up and ready to train caregivers.  By Fall though, we had four people ready for training.  We did the training at double speed, which was a brutal pace but allowed us to consecrate our first Stephen Ministers in November: Kathy Alvare, Vanessa Frost, Chris Rymer, and Bill Slippy.
            These four have committed to at least two years of ministry, each of them working with one care receiver at a time.  They will spend about an hour each week listening, praying, encouraging, and caring for their care receiver, and 5 hours a month in supervisory discussions and continuing education.  From here on out, we hope to increase the number of Stephen Ministers, so that more and more people will be able experience the special care they can give.
Stephen Ministry team members: Chris Rymer, Vanessa Frost, Bill Slippy, Kathy Alvare and Jan Buland
            If anything made this year unique, it was the two big anniversaries we recognized: the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Church along with the 30th anniversary of Atonement.   We even had a t-shirt made to commemorate them both.  The 500th anniversary has been in the works around the world for some time now.  When I was in Martin Luther’s hometown of Wittenberg, Germany 3 years ago, they were already fixing up the town and getting ready for a record number of visitors in 2017. 




COMING UP SATURDAY DEC. 16
Join us for our Tampa conference God’s Work Our Hands project, rescheduled because of Hurricane Irma.  We will be gathering at 3pm at…
Pinellas HOPE
5726 126th Avenue North
Clearwater
We will be taking a tour of the facilities, followed by a special Lutheran/Catholic worship service remembering the residents who have died this past year.  At 5pm, we will share a meal with our friends in Christ at Pinellas HOPE. 

Donations welcome:


            The ELCA has been preparing by coming together with our Roman Catholic friends and taking a hard look at how far we’ve come these past 500 years.  We have tried not to make the marking of this occasion a “celebration” in light of the pain that the Reformation caused through the division of the body of Christ.  Our synods committed to engaging with Roman Catholics in 3 particular ways this year: study, worship, and service.  Earlier this year our ELCA pastors and Catholic priests spent a day together at a retreat center in Lutz studying the doctrinal discussions and ecumenical dialog that has taken place between our church bodies.  This January we worshiped together at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Largo, using the Common Prayer service developed for this anniversary year.  Esthel and I both had speaking parts in this service. 
            Later this month, we will participate in the third part of our Lutheran/Roman Catholic commemoration of the Reformation – a service project at a Catholic homeless shelter.  As dean of the Tampa conference, I took the lead in organizing this as a conference-wide God’s Work, Our Hands project slated for September.  I was originally hoping to find a project that could involve our Lutheran Social Services agency along with Catholic Social Services, but communication back and forth wasn’t happening.  With time getting short and no luck on the phone, I went down to St. Petersburg to meet with the Vicar General and the head of Catholic Charities in person, and we decided we would put together a project at Pinellas HOPE.  Pinellas HOPE is a homeless shelter with temporary and permanent housing, including food, medical and support services, developed by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.  It’s an innovative model of its kind, and they are looking to duplicate it in Hillsborough and Pasco counties.   We could sure use something like it in our area.
              Our own plans at Atonement started taking shape with the creation of a planning team.  Ideas began to percolate for special decorations, a mass mailing inviting the community, a 7 week study on Luther’s Catechism, a puppet show, an outdoor meal including German and Hispanic favorites, and an evening showing of the Luther movie.  17 year-old Nick Trejo, who has been serving as youth council member this year, surprised us by asking if he could lead the planning group.  He was looking for a project to complete his Eagle Scout badge, and we were delighted to put him at the helm.  Nick’s calm leadership proved how valuable the gifts and talents of our young members can be. 
            Also surprising us was the news that Matthew Cox, Atonement’s founding pastor, was going to fly down from Ohio to attend our 30th anniversary dinner.  All seemed to be going well with the dinner planned at Cody’s Roadhouse, across the street from what had been the location of Hunt’s Restaurant, where Atonement worshippers first met.  Then out of the blue came word that Cody’s had closed.  Cotta Ungerer relayed the news that thanks to her negotiating skills she was able to convince them to open up one more time just for us!  It turned into a fine and memorable evening, with Pastor Matt sharing tales and memories of Atonement’s early days and getting his picture taken with members who around in those days.  We were also blessed to have interim pastor Dave Kruger with us at the Sunday celebration that week, and Pastor Jim Horn was planning to attend, but health issues intervened.
Pastor Matthew Cox speaking at the 30th anniversary dinner at Cody's Roadhouse
            Other assorted surprises have fallen on us out of the blue this year.  New members of the choir and praise band have brought new skills and richness of sound to these groups.  The “God squad” prayer group has been faithfully providing prayer after the 10am services to all who need it.  Some of them also take part in the Friday afternoon “Drive-Thru Prayer” ministry, which is just what it sounds like.  People pull in under the portico in front of the church, can stay right in their car and have a prayer led by our volunteers. Also, the Kostialik family gave us a great head start on developing our outdoor chapel, building an altar and a cross in the back of the property as part of the triplets’ confirmation project. 
            Some of 2017’s surprises involved real challenges and changes.  We said goodbye to the Martin family as they moved to Arizona early this year, thanking Terry for his great work moving us forward.  Detlev Aeppel stepped up to the plate and became the new leader of the building team.  With $300,000 in funds for a new building already raised through a capital campaign, it was starting to look like we might have to raise more funds.  After bids for the building came in closer to $600,000, we began looking instead at new options such as an addition to our current building.  That looked great until we found that we’d be required to install a sprinkler system in the rest of the building, which the ceilings just weren’t designed to handle.

            Between the fire marshal and our contractors at Final Touch Construction, a new idea emerged to build a free-standing annex 10 feet away from the eastern front of our current building.  This would give us a room twice the size of our current fellowship hall, accessible just outside our current space.  Entrance doors on both buildings would face each other, so that going back and forth would be as easy as possible.  This, our latest and most workable plan yet, is literally “Plan F,” the sixth separate plan for this project.  Though it does not provide the new kitchen some were hoping for and leaves the old building with some needed improvements, it will definitely be a big help at this moment where multiple ministries are in need of more space.

            In addition to the new building, our contractors helped us acquire a new freezer/cooler for the food pantry.  This too has been a great challenge.  We had problems from the get-go with the delivery of the panels, many of which were damaged and had to be sent back.  Since then, a series of problems with the freezer side of the unit has brought consistent frustration.  Our contractors have been back time and time again (at their own expense) trying to fix problems with condensation and freezing door locks.  The manufacturer’s indifference has not helped either.  People have suggested we should have done an exorcism instead of a general blessing when it was installed!
            This year, hurricanes presented challenges we’ll not soon forget.  Irma could have been an utterly devastating event to the entire Florida peninsula, but God’s grace was evident in the relatively minor effect it had in our area.  Then again, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are still reeling from hits they took from Irma and Marie, and recovery work from Harvey will be taking place in Houston and south Texas for years.  Atonement had a couple minor leaks, but a few of our synod churches had significant damage.  Office volunteers called through the directory that week to make sure our members and friends were alright.  Irma struck on a Sunday morning, but we were able to move our worship to Saturday that weekend.  We did have to reschedule our service project at Pinellas HOPE, which will be taking place later this month (see p. 2).





Never been to a bishop’s installation?  Well, here’s your chance!  Bishop Suarez will be installed just a few miles from us, in New Tampa!
Please join Bishop Lohrmann and myself for the installation of Bishop-elect Pedro Suarez
on Saturday, January 20, 2018 at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in New Tampa, beginning at noon.
Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, along with several other bishops and special guests, will preside. The service will be live streamed.
There is no cost, but please register your intention to attend (especially the reception following the service) to help in planning. You can register at 

            Perhaps the most unexpected event of the year was the resignation of our Bishop, Robert Schaefer.  Atonement was blessed to have a visit from Bishop Bob (and his traveling companion, “Mini-Bishop”) last year, and many took note of his sense of humor and relatability.  Bishop Schaefer had been in prayer for a while, trying to discern if the call to be bishop was truly one he could manage in a way that keeps his family and spiritual life intact.  Ultimately, he felt that he could not continue, and the synod office was once again in a state of transition.  Synod staff which a bishop has hired, in this case his assistants Jim Graeser and Jaime Dubon, are also expected to step aside when a bishop leaves.  Jim has taken on a call as a pastor in Texas, and Jaime is now working with mission staff in Chicago.  They both returned to be with us at the synod assembly in October.
           Bishop Bob’s surprising exit did give us the opportunity to meet Bishop Marcus Lohrmann, from Toledo, Ohio.  Bishop Lohrmann was the much-beloved bishop of the Northwest Ohio synod for 18 years, and had retired 6 months and 2 days before getting called to serve as our interim bishop.  He had told people to give him at least 6 months before they called him with any such request, so you could say he was given a 2-day bonus.  As the Tampa conference dean, I found Bishop Lohrmann very approachable and spiritually well-grounded.  I asked for his presence at two of our conference meetings, and he showed up both times to give us advice in preparing for the upcoming bishop’s election.  What’s more, he came and spent a morning with us at Atonement, getting to know some of our clients and helping take their bags out to their cars.  We are grateful to Bishop Lohrmann for his tremendous help in this year full of surprises.           
            Another one of those surprises was the bishop’s election itself.  Our synod assembly was moved from June to October to give us time to make the transition.  Esthel Kane, Marcia Weil, and Rebecca Parker accompanied me, along with our youth delegate Nick Trejo.  One wonderful surprise of the assembly was seeing Nick, along with the other youth there, getting up and speaking in front of the 500 people gathered there.  The other big surprise was the winner of the election – Pastor Pedro Suarez of Pompano Beach won out in the final ballot.  Pedro was the interim Director for Evangelical Mission who was supposed to serve as one of Esthel’s supervisors after Jaime Dubon left the synod.  A fine pastor with a heart for mission and evangelism, I’m sure we will find our synod has gained a wonderful new bishop in Pastor Suarez, but Esthel will be needing a new supervisor. 
            My work as Tampa conference dean came to an end this September, as I completed a two year term (in addition to the 6 months I served after being appointed by Bishop Schaefer).  Of course, dealing with the change of bishops, activities surrounding the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (see pg. 2), and the effects of hurricane Irma brought extra challenges to the role of dean.  I had new experiences in my role as dean, such as helping to install new pastors, attending the first national pastor’s gathering in Atlanta, Georgia, and being one of the conference clergy present at a Tampa rally for peace and justice in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. In addition to representing our bishop, providing pastoral care to other pastors, and conducting regular meetings for clergy and lay members of the conference, the deans (along with synod staff) also work with congregations in transition to help them find their next pastor.  When I began, 5 of the 10 parishes in our conference faced pastoral vacancies.  I was delighted to be able to say that I left the position with a full slate of pastors in our conference.  It is a real joy to see the very talented new pastor Joshua Gyson (from All Saints’ in Lutz) taking over our conference leadership.

            This year also brought these significant ministry milestones:
·         The Sean Bartell memorial scholarship was passed into the hands of the newly-formed Bartell foundation.  This 501c3 organization is now raising money and managing the scholarship independently of Atonement, as well as doing more varied community work in memory of Sean. 
·         Last year, we reported over 700 families in our community were signed up to receive food at our Helping hands Food Pantry.  This year, that number is over 1000.
·         This year we participated in Stepping Stone, the first annual community resource fair at A Helping Rock, transitional housing for the homeless in Zephyrhills.  We did valuable networking on behalf of our Caring ministry, food pantry and Hispanic ministry, and Cherie Hatlem came to help do research for our Community Resource Guide.  Cherie is continuing to help compile and update this guide, which is kept in the office and distributed to people who come to Atonement with various needs.  Our Stephen Ministry is also involved in researching and connecting with community resources. 

“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!”
                                                                                  -- Isaiah 43:19

November 26, 2017 HOME FOR THANKSGIVING Atonement “family portrait”

            Looking forward to 2018, we anticipate new growth happening from the seeds we’ve been planting the last few years.  The new building should be under construction starting in January, with a completion date in early May.  This will give us space for larger fellowship gatherings, multiple meeting spaces (including a large space available during times the food pantry is setting up and distributing), and possibly space for new worship services or Bible study classes. 
            We are also looking forward to a new Saturday evening service beginning on January 6.  This service will run from 5-6pm, leaving people time to go out to dinner and other evening activities Saturday night.  We are trying to make it very different from our Sunday services to appeal to people who are not currently worshiping with us.  We have warned people: if you like our Sunday services, don’t expect to like the Saturday service.  My son Brian will be putting together a worship band, and we expect that the music will be very contemporary.  We are also expecting to have options available for people who would like to stay after the service, for communion, prayer, or additional conversation.
            As we have anticipated over the last few years, our church has outgrown the current office staffing situation, and we are in need of a secretary/office administrator who will be there every weekday.  Our 2017 budget includes compensation for this person working part-time, 10am to 3pm daily throughout the year.  A group is now in place to begin the planning and interviewing to find this new staff person.  We are looking for a non-member who is comfortable with multiple types of computer software, and who can help us keep up to date with social media and our web presence.  They will be working with Kay and the office volunteers, but their job descriptions will be changing depending on what will work best with this new individual. 
            2018 will be a year of planning and organizing as we look at ways we can streamline our ministry groups, improve our facility, and prepare new ways of reaching out.  A couple years ago we created the Vision 2015 Document with goals and guidelines for ministries.  We have made progress and even completed some of the goals, and as we hoped, many of our ministries have interacted more with the community.  More recently, Paul Bartell and others have helped develop a “master plan” for the use of our facility.  Ideas for moving the pantry, building an outdoor pavilion, and designating and designing a playground have all been incorporated into this plan.  Placement of garden areas, and auto access to the columbarium have also been included.
            We will also be working on improving our social media and web presence.  We are presently compiling information from various ministries to include on the website.  The Live Stream continues to be used every week, and I’m always hearing comments and compliments from people who “tune in” to our services when they are away.  We would also like to find ways to increase our “hits” from search engines, and make our web site as useful, informative and attractive as possible to potential visitors and people in the community. 
            Coming in January is a special series we are putting on in partnership with the Florida Hospital system.  Creation Health will be an 8-week informational class on ways to improve the health of your body, mind, and spirit.  We will talk about the choices you make, how you strengthen your body, the role that relationships play in health, creating a healthy environment, and many other topics.  Health care workers from the hospital will be helping with the classes, which will be offered Mondays from 1-2:30pm, beginning Jan. 22.
            The last few years, our praise team has been blessed with the guidance of Ken Watts, a local bandleader, trumpet player, and all-around nice guy.  Ken comes from the Episcopal tradition, and also serves as choir director at a Roman Catholic parish in Tampa.  With his experience and skills, he brought new music, creative arrangements and quality leadership to the group.  I believe he took on the task more for the service of God and opportunity to share fellowship with us than for any monetary compensation the position offered.  Ken has been a joy to work with, and he and his wife Janet will be missed from our early services.  As he takes on a new position to lead the praise band at First Presbyterian Church in Brandon, we wish him the best and are grateful that he promises to not be a stranger in the coming years.
            Finally, on behalf of my family and myself I want to thank each one of you for your love and support.  We cherish this church family that we’ve now been with for eleven years.  To all of you who work so hard and give so much, I want to know we brag about you and are tremendously grateful for your love of our Lord Jesus.  We see it every day in the dedication and care you show to each other and the needy people in the community.  Despite the surprises and challenges of ministry, the load is light to bear because of your faith and witness to the life-changing power of the Gospel. 
            At the beginning of this report I mentioned an installation service where the bishop sprinkled us with holy water.  After feeling those drops rain down on us in that surprising reminder of our baptism as disciples of Jesus, I knew I wanted to bring this same gift to Atonement.  I asked Pat Weil to find us a little whisk broom I could use, and began this new tradition at the 10am services.  So now on the days of special festivals, we start that service with a thanksgiving for baptism, and I bless the congregation with a small shower to remind us all of God’s grace.   I pray that this blessing follows you every day and reminds you that God is constantly showering his gracious gifts on you day by day throughout your life, as they come to us “out of the blue.”

Peace,

Pastor Scott