Thursday, August 23, 2018

You Too are a Child of God!

“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,
            And all the families of the nations shall worship before him,
For dominion belongs to the Lord and He rules over the nations…”

                                                                        -- Psalm 22:27-28

            How is it possible in this age of information, when Bibles can be carried around on people’s phones, churches have websites and email, and people can watch sermons and worship services on the internet… with all these resources, how can people actually be getting less connected to God?  Obviously we can make all the resources we can think of, but if people aren’t interested in using them in the first place, what good have we done? 
            It is clear that young people think differently from their adult counterparts.  Not only are they not interested in many issues that adults are concerned with, they think differently.  Researchers tell us that adolescence in particular is a time when the brain is growing, learning new ways to solve problems and make decisions.  But church is geared toward adult problems and decisions, and often leaves the young feeling bored or left out.  If kids complain consistently, many parents decide it’s not worth dragging kids to church, and that can spell the end of that family’s involvement in church and that child’s chance to grow up knowing Christ.  How can we reach out to these new families whose children are going to the new schools in our community and looking for a church where they will fit in, have fun, and learn about the Lord? 
            Till now our strategy at Atonement has been to offer a blended style worship service at 10am that takes traditional adult-oriented elements and mixes them with children’s moments, youth Sundays, Sunday school and an emphasis on including all ages.  Knowing that 10am is still early for many families to get up, get everyone dressed and organized and make it to church (especially when Sunday might be the only day a family has to sleep in), we’ve known that the strategy isn’t perfect, but was a compromise we made to have the highest possible quality of worship with our limited resources.
            The good news is, our church has reached a point where we have the ability to develop a new worship option that will enable us to provide a compelling and quality service especially designed for families with young children and youth.  We’re calling this new service our “Child of God service” and we believe it will be a great help as we grow into God’s future.  We are planning to add this service on Sundays during the school year at the 11:30am time slot, starting the first of the year - 2019.
            We are taking seriously Martin Luther’s vision that the home will become a place where God is honored and worshiped throughout the week.  Jan Gerle has been developing a special story-centered approach which will be the centerpiece of the service.  Each week we will focus on a different Bible story, and by the end of May we will have covered the entire length of the Bible chronologically.  This pattern will repeat annually, moving from Genesis through Revelation but choosing different tales to highlight each year. 

            Our plan is for the service to last about 45 minutes, followed by a 15 minute period when children will go to the Sunday school room for a craft, and adults will stay in the sanctuary for a brief overview of the story.  We will offer a brief Bible study, along with special prayers and activities to help heads of households teach and reinforce the story throughout the week at home. 
            Two big changes will be taking place in the 10am service as we develop the new service.  First, we will be offering samples of what this new service will be like on youth Sundays for the next 4 months (Sept-Dec) at the 10am worship time.  Though we will not begin offering the 11:30 service until January, we want people to get a taste of it and will be providing that opportunity on the last Sunday of each month.  Everyone at the 10am service on those four days will experience aspects of the new service format. 
            Second, starting this month we will begin to shorten the 10am service.  This is necessary so that the new service will have plenty of room for its 11:30 start time by the end of the year.  Though we will continue to have Sunday school until the end of the year, the children’s moment will no longer be part of the 10am service.  Starting in January, the Child of God service will take the place of our Sunday school program.
            The Child of God service will be a full Word-and-Sacrament service.  Communion will be offered every Sunday and everyone is welcome to attend.  Our Lord Jesus who said “Let the children come to me,” includes people of all ages in his church and in his kingdom.  The messages will be simpler and the music more family-friendly.  Emphasizing the special viewpoint of children and youth, we hope to strengthen the faith life and intergenerational bonds of our member families.  Also, we know people moving into our community are looking for churches where their whole family will be comfortable and well-nurtured in the faith.  I am confident that this new approach will be a milestone in our growth as a congregation and as an evangelistic outreach to our neighbors.  Thanks for your support of our children and of those new families the Holy Spirit will be reaching through this service.

Peace,
PS

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The people of Atonement

“The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
                                                     – Ephesians 4:11-13

 Dear Friends of Atonement,
            Thank you for your generosity, your participation, your kind support and your prayers for Atonement Lutheran Church and our ministry together.  I remember the old Sunday school song that goes, “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together – all who follow Jesus, all around the world, YES we’re the church together!”  And it is so true – the church of Jesus Christ is all the believers, hopers, doers and dreamers that trust in the Lord and follow His call.

            We often think of the offerings we give as going to “pay the bills.”  It is true that some of that money goes to keep the lights on, to “brick and mortar,” to fixing the leaky roof (something we had to do multiple times this year) and making sure the grass is cut.  But the bulk of your offering goes mainly to support people – people in need, people doing ministry, people learning about God and growing in faith, and people spreading the gospel.
             Your giving allows us to have an excellent paid staff serving the needs of our ministries.  We know full well how blessed we are to have our talented music leaders.  Choir director Ruby Agnir, keyboardist for Sunday services Ken Hanks, and Godify band leader Brian Lindner make up a worship staff that much larger churches would be proud to have.  In our office, our new parish administrator Lynn McCurdy and office assistant Kay Edwards greet guests, answer questions, and manage our busy congregational calendar.  Our seminarian Esthel Kane is serving Atonement in many capacities even as she studies for her ministerial classes and works to develop our Hispanic mission, Todos Unidos en Cristo.  In addition to helping in the office on Thursdays, she takes part in many ministries and will be helping lead the youth this Fall.  All these wonderful people are able to use their gifts to help our church grow because of your regular generous giving.
             Beyond our paid staff, we have a large roster of volunteer team leaders whose work is concentrated on specific areas of our ministry.  Each of these team leaders manages a budget, which is supported either directly through your congregational giving, or (like the food pantry) through giving in kind.  These leaders will be submitting their next budget to be approved at the annual meeting (1st Sunday in December), but it is thanks to you that we are able to provide them with the resources to answer God’s call and lead these ministries.
            Most importantly, money given to our ministry touches the lives of the countless people God sends us to serve.  A young person has their life changed at a national youth gathering, a new resident wanders into a worship service and feels warmly welcomed, an out-of work father receives food for his family, an elderly shut-in receives communion in her living room, a local family brings their child to our Day Camp to learn about Jesus, a new first-time Lutheran experiences the wider church at a Synod Assembly…  I could go on for a very long time listing people you have made a difference for through giving graciously to Atonement.       
            Of course, I’m one of those people.  Your regular offerings help pay my salary and benefits and help me afford a home in the Wesley Chapel area.  As Susan has dealt with increasing health challenges, it has allowed her to quit her physically demanding work cleaning houses and focus on her volunteer work at Atonement.  She handles all kinds of odd jobs around the church, works in the food pantry, plays in the praise band, helps with the audio-visual team, and is my personal “pastor’s support committee.”  We are grateful every day that the giving at Atonement allows us to be here and minister among you.
            “YES, we’re the Church together!”  On behalf of all the people of Atonement – members, friends, staff and volunteers, care givers and care receivers of all kinds – thank you for being the church together with us.  “May mercy peace and love be yours in abundance” (Jude 2)!

Peace,
Pastor Scott

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Mission of justice

Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you."
                                                              -- John 20:21
            I was taking a walk last week when I heard my phone ring in my pocket.  At least, I thought it was ringing, but actually it was dialing.  Somehow, the phone got jostled around and was dialing a number, but who was I accidentally calling?  I wrestled the phone out of my pocket just in time to hear a voice say, “This is 911, how can we be of help?”  I apologized multiple times and explained that I was walking and my phone decided to call them on its own.  They still asked specifically whether I required assistance, asked my location and name just in case, and assured me that this is something that “just happens” and to have a nice day.
            This little non-emergency reminded me how great it is that there are people out there, on call 24/7, waiting to spring into action the second someone needs help.  We are blessed to be just a butt-dial away from a whole system of rescue personnel who are waiting vigilantly for a moment of true distress.  It is not unusual in my walks down State Road 54, to be passed by one or more rushing ambulances or fire trucks with alarms blaring.  This is a world in need of help, and God bless those who willing and equipped to provide it.
            Jesus knew that returning to heaven meant leaving behind a world in need of help.  He loved the world that God the Father sent Him to, despite the rejection and contempt of fellow human beings.  And yet, those human beings were the ones who needed the most help, and he saw that those human beings were also the solution to that need.  As God had sent him into the world to bring the Good News of God’s grace, so Jesus would send his disciples into that world to continue what he had started. 
            That mission has been passed along to us…to you and me as present-day disciples of Jesus.  In Christ we recover the original God-given purpose of humanity – to tend to this planet and the good of all living things.  This means caring for the needs of those around us, giving a hand up to those who are facing hard times.  It also means nurturing the good in our society, being a voice that helps guide decisions people make in our congregation, community, nation and the world.  When Jesus came back from the dead, telling the disciples that he was sending them out just as God had sent him, these were the tasks he was passing on. 
            As disciples of Christ, we try to understand the issues that challenge us in the light of God’s grace and the message of Jesus Christ.  Our national church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been studying and wrestling with many of them on a large scale.  By bringing in parishioners and experts from varying perspectives, offering study materials and surveying church members across the ELCA, and offering workshops and gathering feedback at synod gatherings, our national church body has crafted “social statements” that define our collective stance on many of these issues.  Each of them has been approved by a 2/3 majority at one of our national assemblies.  If you want to know “what the ELCA teaches” on any of these particular points, the Social Statements are the place to start:


ELCA Social Statements: 
            The fact that the ELCA has official positions on these issues does not mean that any particular pastor or church member is expected to agree with everything in these statements.  They are tools to help guide policy and clarify our thinking.  Some of the statements define a range of positions that are held throughout the church.  Each of them looks to Scripture and Lutheran teaching and seeks to find how our understanding of Christ intersects with the struggles of our changing world.
            When Jesus sent the disciples to bring Good News to the world, he gave them his peace and left them in the hands of the Holy Spirit.  That same Spirit that guided the disciples and gave birth to the Church continues to guide the work we do together.  This summer, we will be looking at ways to grow our social justice ministry here at Atonement.  We will begin with our July Godify services on Saturdays, where we will take a close look at some of these social statements and see how our denomination continues to wrestle with real-world questions.  Then we will ask: where is Christ sending us?...where is the Spirit guiding us to “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly” (Micah 6:8) with God and our fellow human beings. 
Peace,
Pastor Scott


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

25

“…and the two shall become one flesh…”
                                    -- Matthew 19:5

             I wish I could say I met my wife Susan at church, but that’s not quite true.  It’s true, I was the new pastor of her church, but she worked most Sundays at the big, famous restaurant the next town over.  And so it happened that 2 months into my first job as pastor, I had already met her mom and her little brother, but had only seen a photo of Su. 

            They all lived together just 2 blocks down the street from where I lived in the parsonage.  Su’s brother mowed the church yard, and would often stop by to talk or play some basketball.  One day he left his basketball in the yard, and I walked down the street to return it.  “Do you want to come in?” he asked, but I didn’t want to intrude when his mom wasn’t there.  “Don’t worry, we let everyone in” he said, so I went inside.  
            He gave me the grand tour of the house, including the drab, windowless room under the basement stairs where his sister was staying.  It was not meant to be a permanent situation.  She had moved back home to get on her feet, and to help her mom and brother after her father’s death.  Near the end of the tour, he showed me that photo.  I tell people that a feeling came over me when I saw that picture, but it’s not what you think.  It was not a warm gush or a floaty, romantic feeling.  In fact it wasn’t something I ever felt before or since. The closest I can think of is the jolt you get from touching a screwdriver stuck in a live outlet.  It was like God punched me in the gut and said, “Pay attention.”  The next week she stopped by the parsonage one evening to tell her brother he had to come home… and yes, I paid attention!
            This month Susan and I celebrate 25 years of marriage.  That’s almost half my life.  When I first met Su, I realized that I had never met anyone like her, and 25 years later that’s still true.  Her open spirit, independence of thought and sarcastic sense of humor don’t fit most people’s image of the typical pastor’s wife.  If you’re like me though, you’ll find that refreshing.
             No matter how much you tell someone what marriage is going to be like, there’s no way to fully prepare for the reality.  Knowing what someone likes or dislikes still doesn’t make it easy to find them presents for birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries…  Marrying someone who cooks at a restaurant known for world-famous chicken dinners doesn’t mean you’re going to get world-famous chicken dinners at home.  Family vacations meant for rest and recreation can be more exhausting than 2 weeks working overtime.  It’s not often that real life matches our expectations.
            That’s why every marriage requires adjusting expectations as you go along.  Moving, having a family, different jobs and friends, and struggles with health issues all play a role in shaping daily life together.  When you share the rhythms and responsibilities of each day with someone for half your life, you start to see how much you are the way you are because of them.  You are no longer the you that you would be if it was just you.  You have a history together, shared aspirations, goals and experiences, in-jokes, ways of seeing things, habits and concerns, all of which are permeated by the grace of God.  Somewhere along the way without ever consciously realizing it, the two have become one flesh.  
            There are times that this realization can be a little scary.  The challenges are daunting –
·        knowing that when you mess up, you’re affecting the ones you care most about; 
·        depending on someone else’s love, which is something beyond your control; 
·        trying to maintain deep and constant gratitude for something that is so easy to take for granted.  
It’s easy to say “All you need is love,” but there’s also some real conscious effort involved.  It starts by loving the spouse you really have instead of the image of who you want them to be, and realizing the 1,001 ways you will never be the person they deserve.  This leads into the kind of love John Legend sings about, a love for “all your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections…”  Some days this is the easiest thing in the world, and some days the hardest.  It’s easiest when we trust that God’s spirit lives in that history we share, and that his forgiveness and grace are there for us to make us new each day.
            So I’m ready for another 25 years, and I hope Su is too.  Even though sometimes I forget to introduce her, I am proud to call her my wife.  I am even more proud to call her my best friend, and the best gift that God has given me in this life.  
Peace,
Pastor Scott

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Basket cases for Christ

“Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
                                                      – John 20:20b

            They could have walked away.  They could have left town and never turned back.  They could have called it quits for all time and tried to wipe him from their memory.  In fact, that was what the disciples were starting to do.  What good is a crucified Messiah?  The more miracles they saw their rabbi perform, the larger their hopes had grown until it became unthinkable that they could lose...or lose him. 
            This was God’s man they were following, and despite the swords of the Roman soldiers and the sneaky tricks of the establishment working against them, they felt safe beside Jesus.  And then he was gone.  If they had stopped and thought about it, they might have realized what was coming.  Jesus was a man of the people, envied by those in power.  He was a threat to those who had the means to do something about it.  Once enough people were agitated, once they began pointing their fingers at him, the powers-that-be only had to arrange a trial and show the proper indignation, and they had their readymade scapegoat.  The High Priest Caiaphas said it himself: “…it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50).
            Many people today have walked away from the church for one reason or another.  Many of the reasons people have left the church are perfectly understandable.  Sometimes it has to do with God not living up to their expectations; sometimes the church itself does not inspire or seem relevant.  But more often than not it’s us, the church members.
            Instead of dancing through life with Jesus, we fearfully tiptoe behind Caiaphas.  Instead of loving boldly and welcoming the stranger, we hunker down and huddle together.  When words are said against people who are different, we join the crowd in questioning, or even condemning those who don’t meet our standards.  Satan is a great divider, and his weapon is our lack of trust… instead of standing together as children of the same God, we break down into groups of insiders and outsiders.
            Those disciples were on their way out.  They had given up sharing the Good News and gone back to their boats and fishing nets.  They were out on the lake when Jesus showed up.  He stood on the beach unnoticed until he called to them, asking how the fishing was going.  They told the truth…it was going lousy.  “Cast the net on the other side and you’ll find some fish.”  When the haul was so big suddenly that they couldn’t even lift it into the boat, then they knew it was the Lord.
            None of us are up to God’s standards… we easily follow the crowd, go back to our old ways, lose faith after a painful failure.  But despite how easily we give up, Jesus never gives up on us.  He comes to be our Way when we’re lost, our Truth when we’re confused, and our Life when we feel dead.  He is the Light that guides us, the Shepherd that cares for us, and the Vine that connects us in love.  He is the Alpha who was there to hear our borning cry, and the Omega who gathers us up after our last breath to bring us home.  He is the Resurrection and the Life. 
            God makes room for all in his great big Easter basket, the Church.  There was room in there for those disciples who walked away, and there is room for you and me.  Like jelly beans and Easter eggs, God wants to gather people from the whole spectrum of life, all colors, backgrounds, languages, generations, and brings us together in his kingdom.   Laying aside our past failures and hesitations, we get to try again to live as children of God.  We can find better ways to share the earth, God’s planet, using its good things for the good of all.  We can give of the mercy we’ve been given, opening ourselves up to the new insights and perspectives our neighbors bring. In the light of tomorrow’s morning, we see that there are still fish to catch and sheep to tend, and that there is still Good News to share.   By the strength he gives us, we rise again to follow Christ into the next adventure.          



,
Peace,
Pastor Scott

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The pride of Frankenstein

“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” – Revelation 1:8
            Sometimes the movie is disappointing because it’s nothing like the book.  Sometimes it’s the other way around.  As a kid, I saw Frankenstein in black-and-white, the horror movie from 1931 with Boris Karloff playing the monster.  If he had said a word in that movie, I would have recognized the actor’s voice as that of the Grinch from the Christmas cartoon.  But no, the monster in that movie, with a body patched together from parts of corpses and the brain of a murderer, could not speak. 
            This year, the original novel Frankenstein which would become the basis for dozens of horror movies, turns 200.  Written in 1818 by an 18 year old Mary Shelley, you could say it was the runaway monster hit of the time.  I read through the book this month expecting to find Igor and the scientist capturing the power of lightning in the lab, expecting the same silent creature with the flat head and bolts in his neck, the same simple plot of hapless humans trying to destroy a murderous monster.  But I found that the book is much different from the movie.
            Far from being a simple horror story, Frankenstein the book is considered by some the first true work of science fiction.  It points towards a future where humans are able to harness the very forces of life – to create it through technology.  Questions that we face today about the ability to modify genes, to clone living beings and develop new species, to grow organs and tissues in labs, to do research that may have unsafe consequences for society… are all related to this 200 year old tale. 
            The fact that the first play based on the book was called “Presumption,” gives us a clue to the book’s foundational theme.  The original Frankenstein shows us how our use of technology is a moral issue.  In creating a living being, Victor Frankenstein has taken on godlike power without godlike wisdom or compassion.  What about our own use of technology -- just because we can do something amazing, should we?  Is it right to play around with forces of creation which we can’t control?  What is going through the head and the heart of someone who creates a monster? 
            There is no Igor in the book.  The monster is the creation of one man, working alone in his lab.  He tells no one what he has done, not even his bride-to-be whose life is clearly threatened by the creature.  This monster can talk, and has a lot to tell his creator.  He tells him how lonely he is, how he is constantly rejected because of his ugliness, and how much he longs for a single companion.  Despite so many signs of humanity in the creature, the scientist rejects his pleas and treats him as an outsider to the human race.  It is not hard to understand why the creature would resort to violence and threats to get his way, nor is it hard to see the scientist who created him as the real monster in this story.
            Like the novel Frankenstein, the Book of Revelation uses images of monsters and violence to portray the presumptions of humanity.  It was written for a community that felt overwhelmed by the chaos of the world.  Presumptuous Roman Emperors were declaring themselves gods on earth, and demanding worship from all their subjects.  Armies were invading sacred lands and symbols of earthly powers were set up in holy places.  The very lives of those who resisted the power of the Empire were up for grabs as leaders turned persecution into a public policy. 
            But above all the chaos, a voice echoes: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” – the first and the last, the beginning and the end.  This Jesus declares at the beginning (Rev. 1:8) and the end (Rev. 22:12) of the book.  This is the truth that we can be sure of, despite the rumbling earthquakes and wild hurricane winds that try to frighten and unsettle us.  We can trust the word of Jesus over that of any other words people throw at us.  We can know his love is with us no matter how we are rejected by the rest of the world.  We can be sure that all the power and might of Almighty God is with him, even if it is hidden in gentleness and the way of the cross. 
            Our Lenten journey on Sundays this month takes us through the “I ams” of Jesus.  These are statements he made to reassure us that he is there for us in many ways, protecting us from evil and leading us to God.  He told Thomas, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:1-12);   He tells his disciples, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11-18); He tells us He is the Light of the World (John 9:13-39), the Vine and the Branches (John 15:1-8), the Alpha and Omega (Revelation 1:8), and the Bread of Life (John 6:41-51).  Finally on Easter, we hear his pronouncement to Martha: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:1-27).
            It is this promise that pulls us forward through Lent and lights up the darkness of the world’s chaos.  It is the life Jesus gives that brings us into God’s community and turns us restless creatures into children of God.  Easter makes it known that God is in control, that death does not have the last word, and that our present struggles have purpose and meaning.  Jesus gives us strength to carry on to carry his message of hope through this presumptuous world.  We hope you will join us in worship this season as he gives us the means to know our true creator and experience the true life he gives. 

Peace,
Pastor Scott