Tuesday, February 2, 2016

This Hope Alone

“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.”  -- Isaiah 53:4

             Sometimes you just wonder how people cope.  The kids at the Shriner’s hospital facing risky surgery, the couple who loses their baby, the elderly lady with severe arthritis, the mistreated spouse, the homeless man who lost it all – how do these people face the tremendous troubles of their lives?  Sometimes those who have it the worst seem to be the ones most happy and hopeful.  From where does this strength come?  How do we gain the attitude and the fortitude to face the toughest problems that life throws at us?
            When Martin Luther looked back at the life of Abraham in the Bible, he saw a simple man with a deep and developing faith.  Abraham was blessed with wonderful promises from God, but that didn’t mean his life was easy.  Though he lived in a land that was promised to his descendants by God, Abraham lived there as a stranger and outsider.  He had to deal with family squabbles, famine, testy neighbors, natural disasters, and the unrest and violence of the society in which he lived.  To top it all off, God set before him the most difficult tasks imaginable: to send his firstborn son Ishmael into exile, and to kill his second son Isaac as a sacrifice.
            Reflecting on these incredible trials, which he says are more punishing than any self-inflicted torture of any medieval monk in a monastery, Martin Luther thought of the spiritual struggles that God had put him through in his own life.  He said he was often tempted to look at his own great accomplishments or the things he had done to find comfort for the hard road he travelled.  But it was never enough.  He said:
            I am very frequently troubled by this trial, that I look about for works in which I may be able to put my trust, because I have taught much, have benefitted many, and have borne many more indignities than I deserved.  But I realize that in real conflicts all these are nothing, and I am driven to the well-known confession of David, who said, “Lord I am nothing but a sinner” (cf. Ps. 32:5); and (Ps. 116:11): “I said in my consternation: All men are a vain hope.”; that is, every man who deceives and is deceived is useless.  Likewise (Ps. 143:2): “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant.”
            But I encourage myself with THIS HOPE ALONE, that in the Gospel I see that solace has been promised to the contrite, hope to the despairing, and heaven to those who have been put into hell; and the fact that the Son of God, without our knowledge, offered Himself for us to God the Father, His Father, on the altar of the cross, is sure proof of this hope.
                                     --Lectures on Genesis

             The one hope, the only hope that we can be sure of, comes not from the better days that tower above the bad ones, not from the fruit of our efforts or the tiny triumphs of our labors – our hope lies alone in the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus Christ.  Our Lord brings us pardon, peace, and perseverance in any struggle we’re going through.  Not only does his own life give us clues on how to deal with adversity and trouble, but He himself is the final answer to what we need when we are going through tough times.
           We are taking a whole new approach to our Lenten program this year, with an in-depth look at the spiritual resources God gives us to get through life’s difficulties.  THIS HOPE ALONE: Help in trying times brings us two separate but related worship services for each Wednesday of the Lenten season, as well as Maundy Thursday.  Each of those days, there will be an afternoon prayer service offered at 4pm, as well as the usual service at 7pm.  For the regular Lenten Wednesdays, the 7pm service will use the beautiful Holden Evening Prayer liturgy. 
            This series looks at the trials Jesus faced on the way to the cross in two ways.  At the 4pm service, we will examine an episode from the Passion story in Luke and reflect on the difficulty Jesus faced there.  At the 7pm service, we will look at that theme as it plays out throughout Scripture, and get a picture of some ways God helps us deal with that particular problem.
            Here is the schedule for our special services this Lent, including the preacher for each day, the service themes, and the reading from the Passion story we will be covering:

Ash Wed, 2/10 
Pastor Scott     
4pm     Hope in contention (Luke 22:24-38)
7pm     Help facing adversaries                      

Lent Wed 1, 2/17
Detlev Aeppel 
4pm     Hope when out-of-control (Luke 22:39-53)
7pm     Help facing temptation

Lent Wed 2, 2/24
Jim Turner      
4pm     Hope when abandoned (Luke 22:54-62)
7pm     Help facing loneliness

Lent Wed 3, 3/2 
Marcia Weil 
4pm     Hope when overwhelmed (Luke 22:63-71)
7pm     Help facing challenges

Lent Wed 4, 3/9 
Pastor Scott     
4pm     Hope when frustrated (Luke 23: 1-12)
7pm     Help facing discouragement
Lent Wed 5, 3/16
Rebecca Parker
4pm     Hope when exhausted (Luke 23:13-25)
7pm     Help facing weariness

Maundy Thursday 3/24 
Pastor Scott
4pm     Hope in sorrow (Luke 23:26-43)
7pm     Help facing depression

Good Friday 3/25 
Marcia Weil    
12 noon Stations of the Cross: Hope in pain (Luke 23:44-56)
7pm     Help facing death       

Although many people will choose to come to one or the other of the services, I am hopeful that everyone will find these to be helpful in their own lives.  Who hasn’t been tired, lonely, or sorrowful?  Who has never felt abandoned or confused by overwhelming circumstances?  Not only have we all been there, Jesus has been there too.  He is a Savior not unacquainted with pain and struggle, and we stand on THIS HOPE ALONE.  Come and draw encouragement from His promises, and strength from His presence.


Pastor Scott

Monday, January 25, 2016

More than a song

“Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father…”
                                              -                   Ephesians 5:20

Friends of Atonement,

             I admit it – I love music.  This love goes way back – I found an old picture of me about 3 years old wearing my dad’s clunky headphones, listening intensely to some recording, probably on an actual vinyl record.  I’ve always loved hearing different styles of songs and symphonies.  I remember being so amazed at the varieties of sounds produced by voices and instruments and the magical way they fit together to form a piece of music.  Even back then, I was into everything from the Beatles to Gilbert and Sullivan, and after all these years I am still a fan.

            But of all the music in this world, there’s nothing that tugs on my heart strings like good old traditional Christmas carols.  This Christmas season at Atonement, we sang “Silent Night”, “O Holy Night”, “Angels We Have Heard on High”, “What Child is This?”, “O Come All Ye Faithful”, “Joy to the World”, “We Three Kings”, and many others.  These melodies are so familiar, but like the Gospel story itself, they always seem fresh each time we hear them. 

            I’m delighted that Atonement is a place where these old hymns continue to be sung and continue to find a place in our hearts.  Some churches have moved away from traditional church music, and I feel bad for worshippers who rarely hear the classic compositions that have nourished the faith of so many generations.  The songs we sing in worship are more than beautiful melodies, they also contain timeless teachings and lines of devotion that you can take with you and pray during the week.  All you have to do is think of the words to “Amazing Grace” or “How Great Thou Art” and pretty soon you’ll find yourself praying in your heart – addressing God with wonder and gratitude.

            Each season of the church year has its own songs and melodies, its own musical mood.  As the New Year pulls us out of Christmas and into Epiphany, we will be singing some classic songs like “Shall We Gather at the River”, “As the Deer”, “In the Garden”, and “Beautiful Savior.”  There is a certain amount of nostalgia that is stirred up by these songs, but with the memories comes an awareness that the God who is the same through all ages continues to be our guiding light today, and that even the same old song can be made new by the way you sing it.  Like Paul tells us in Ephesians, we are to make melody to the Lord with all our hearts, caught up in our thankfulness to God.

            We at Atonement are so blessed to have excellent musical resources and leadership.  Between Ruby and our choir, the “two Kens” – Ken Hanks our keyboardist and Ken Watts our praise band director, plus the praise band members and various soloists, we are able to present a variety of musical offerings at a level of quality that is surprising to find in a smaller church.  Thanks to your continued faithful giving to God through your tithes and offerings, as well as your strong support of our ministries, we are able to give our paid musicians a well-deserved 2.5% raise this year.

            Giving itself is a kind of praise.  It’s easy to sing God a song, but when we make an offering we’re giving God more than lip-service.  It shows that God really has priority over our lives.  There’s a beautiful song called “Heart of Worship,” which goes:

            I’ll bring you more than a song, for a song in itself
            Is not what you have required
            You search much deeper within through the way things appear
            You’re looking into my heart
             I’m coming back to the heart of worship,
            And it’s all about You – it’s all about You, Jesus

When we give to God, we are responding to the joy he gives us in countless ways.  Singing hymns may take us away to heavenly places, but our giving brings us down to earth where God calls us to share His love with others.

            Thanks again for all you do to praise, serve and share Jesus.  Thanks for the love in your heart, and for giving more than a song to the One who gives us everything. 

Pastor Scott

That other commandment...

“The Word became flesh” – John 1:14

             And suddenly a new year is upon us – new goals, new dreams, new plans and expectations…  So many new things before us, but the same old problem: we’re stuck being the same old us.  Same old relatives on your back, same old body full of aches and pains, same old bills coming round every month.  So while we may hope for a better time around this year, we have our secret doubts.
            Doubts are a natural product of our human ability to reason.  Our brains like to analyze, to think through situations, work out probable outcomes and calculate probabilities.  We imagine the worst even while hoping for the best, just to keep from being too devastated by disappointment which might be lurking around the corner.  Doubt is also a product of sin.
            Stephen Colbert recently pointed out that Jesus actually commanded us not to worry.  And it’s true.  “Do not worry,” our Lord tells his audience at the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25).  Do. Not. Worry.  But this is said in the midst of a long speech about God’s wonders, so we treat it more like a casual piece of self-help advice, not like the 10 commandments graven onto stone and handed down to Moses from on high.  Truth is, this is a command from God every bit as divine and important as those top ten – because it’s really just another way of stating commandment #1.
            If you remember those commandments, the first one is the biggie.  It’s the commandment that serves as the bedrock foundation for all the rest: You shall have no other gods.  That’s gods with a small g – little things we worship and obsess over -- things that occupy our minds and fill us with doubt and worry over what big-G God has already said he’s got a handle on.
            So when God tells Abraham that he’s covered, he doesn’t need to worry about who his heir will be for his wife Sarah will have a child in her old age, “Abraham believed God and that faith he had was counted as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).  And when baby Isaac was born, it confirmed to Abraham that God’s Word was more that a prediction or promise – it was a completely trustworthy statement of fact. 
            This is why Luther said that when Isaac was born, God’s Word became flesh.  Although the Bible applies the phrase “Word became flesh” to the birth of Christ, it is really true that when any of God’s promises come about, that Word takes on the flesh of physical reality and becomes visible to all.  What had once been surrounded by worry and doubt now by hindsight becomes a given.
            So this year, let’s put aside our doubts, worries and little-g gods and believe the promise.  The babe in the manger is the Word that has stood from all time, who points us to a future where all sin and sorrow are swallowed up in love and grace.  Instead of pursuing our dreams, let’s go after God’s dream.  Instead of being the same old us, let’s open our lives to be transformed and renewed… re-made from the inside out in the image of the one who came to earth to give himself away. 
            How will Atonement be renewed and revitalized in this new year of 2016?  Oh, we have our plans and ideas for new programs.  We have new staff to hire and new worship services to develop.  But ultimately we’re here to bring about God’s future, not our own.  We begin this new year with God’s Word, living around, in, and among us, working through us and speaking to us.  He has given us a promise: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  Let us live with complete trust in this promise, and behold the Word made flesh.


Pastor Scott


Sunday, December 6, 2015

2015-2016: A Hope and a promise

“Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham.  He is the father of us all.  As it is written, ‘I have made you father of many nations.’  He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”                                          -- Romans 4:16-17
            As followers of Jesus, we carry with us a hope and a promise that are not of this world.  But they are for this world.  The hope is hope in a God who brings life to the dead, restores the broken, heals the sick, makes crooked paths straight and brings even his enemies under the shelter of his wings.  The promise is a promise of a world made new…that one day God’s kingdom will arrive and everyone will finally see that the one God is father of us all. 
            When God told Abraham he would become the father of many nations, Abraham was ninety-nine years old.  It’s hard to imagine a more outrageous idea than this no-count nomad, this elderly man with his elderly wife having a baby and becoming parents to not just tribes and nations, but the world’s great faiths and humanity’s Savior.  If there’s anything crazier than that, it must be the fact that God uses us – you and me – to continue telling that story and to be an important part of sharing his hope and promise to the world.
            The passage above from Romans reminds me of why we come together each year at our annual meeting.  God keeps breathing new life into our struggles and challenges, so we look back over the events of the previous year with hope.  We give thanks to God for what we have accomplished, knowing that it is his goodness and loving-kindness that has enabled us to accomplish it all.  We lean upon God in all our losses, resting in the comforts of his Holy Spirit and receiving the peace that comes from trusting him.  We feel our hope renewed as we consider the things we are working towards, projects still in process, tasks unfinished but unforgotten, and remember that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).  After all, if God can grant such great honor to ancient Abraham and Sarah, if he dwells with us and cares for us and even uses us as his hands, feet and heart in the world -- if he is indeed our Lord and head of the Church, then how could we hope for anything better than that?
            But we do.  We long to see that hope poured out into the world.  We long for others to see this God who provides for us all and blesses us all, for them to know Jesus the Son who died for us all.  We are here not just to re-live the past and revisit the previous year, but to envision the new creation that God is bringing about in and among us.  As Abraham lived the promise of God in his life, trusting that God would indeed surround him with family and fortune, his life blossomed with courage, compassion, and generosity.  He knew that “God calls things that are not as though they were,” so even though the blessings had not yet come to be, they were already blessing him because he was living as if they were so. 
            So today, even though it is not yet here, the future God is creating for us comes to bless us as a hope and a promise.  The hope is our vision for a growing church and remarkable ministry.  The promise is that he will be with us always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
            The new year began in the shadow of tragedy, as together we mourned the death of 16 year old Sean Bartell.  Suddenly and unexpectedly, Sean came down with a rare disease at the end of 2014, and died at Tampa General on New Years’ Eve.  A member of Atonement and an enthusiastic volunteer at our Helping Hands food pantry, Sean is survived by parents Paul and Jamie and brother James.  Knowing that we lacked the room here at Atonement, Sean’s funeral was held at the Zephyrhills Assembly of God.  The pastor and members of that church were extraordinarily gracious and helpful.  Wesley Chapel High School placed a memorial plaque for him near their front entrance, and Miss Jan and the Sunday school planted a memorial tree for Sean out in front of the church.  
            The light of hope shines bright as we continue to celebrate Sean’s life and memory.  Along with the Bartells, we brought together a team of people to develop the Sean Bartell Memorial Scholarship.  The first recipient was Megan Sanchez, who, as it turned out, was a good friend of Sean’s.  Next year, the scholarship will be given out to a student from Wesley Chapel, Zephyrhills, and Wiregrass High Schools.  Passing on these blessings does much to illuminate the promise we share of eternal life with our Lord and our loved ones.
            This year we entered the final year of the Capital Campaign.  The campaign is well past the 2/3 point, as we continue to pray that we will reach our goal of $300,000 by the end of February 2016.  Members have put up substantial amounts as matching challenges, and they were met each time.  As it stands, we have about $50,000 to go in  the next 3 months.  Thanks to all campaign members for their hard work and inspiration, and to team leader Jean Zabel, who will be moving up north before the campaign comes to an end.  She has been a tremendous help in leading the biggest fundraising effort this congregation has ever undertaken.
            And now our building team, with Terry Martin at the head, is working on our biggest building project since the church itself was built.  We have been working towards building a multi-purpose support building that will house new food pantry storage and a full kitchen.   Considerations of sturdier construction along with rapidly increasing construction costs have put the expected cost beyond our campaign goal, but how much more we have yet to see.  At a special congregational meeting in September, the congregation approved the building team to draft engineered plans for a steel construction building.  When those plans are done, we should have a more accurate idea of what the actual costs will be.  At that point, the matter will return to the congregation with recommendations for further approval.  Terry has pointed out to me that he is not a contractor himself, but it is clear that his experience and thoughtfulness are a real gift to Atonement.
            As long as we’re mentioning our biggest projects, we can’t neglect our biggest ministry -- the Helping Hands Food Pantry.  We have experienced great support financially, but also in food donations and volunteers.  The numbers continue to grow, and this year there were major changes in some of our food resources as Feeding America closed down their Land O’Lakes food bank.  As they began shifting over their food delivery methods, they recognized Atonement as a major and reliable point of distribution, and we now have regular weekly deliveries from Feeding America by truck for our own food pantry and for others in our area.  Great thanks go to Carla Haberland, along with Yvette Williams and all the other volunteers who make Helping Hands so much more than just a place where people receive food – it is a place where people find the grace, love and acceptance of Christ.
            A recent Sunday service road trip to join our friends at Rez House mission in Dade City was well received.  Even as much of Jean Jakes’ time has been taken with caring for her mom, the baby showers have been continuing for Rez House.  The WELCA group has helped with them, as well as expanding their ministries and beginning a women’s Bible study based on the national WELCA magazine.  Thanks to Salli Stupp-Conover and her excellent leadership of our Atonement Lutheran Church Women as they continue branching out in new directions. 
            Jan Gerle reports that the extra help she’s been getting with the Sunday school is much appreciated.  She has even been able to have some time off.  This year’s Day Camp VBS was our biggest ever, with over 30 kids registered for the first time.  We had a great team from Luther Springs this year – even though it was their last week and we had more kids than expected, they handled all those kids professionally and compassionately.
            This year, several adult leaders joined our youth on a trip to Detroit to take part in the ELCA’s triennial National Youth Gathering.  Though the number of high school youth is down from previous years, we currently have 8 young people in confirmation.  Youth leader Brenda Lenz had a great idea to bring youth group and confirmation together, and so one Saturday a month we have a combined meeting.  Our confirmation youth are active helping out in worship and special projects, and are reading through the book of Acts this year along with their regular catechism studies.  They have showed an interest in developing an outdoor sanctuary way out in the back of our property.
            Live streaming brought a new dimension to our worship.  Our IT guy, Scott Giesking, hooked us into the net and gave us the capability to broadcast our services live on the website each Sunday.   And it’s not just for shut-ins -- people have watched our services from California, North Dakota, and Mexico. 
            Another new ministry that has received great feedback is the Caring team.  This group, led by Karen Erickson, meets monthly and oversees the health and welfare of our members and others.  Members of the committee have been visiting the sick and shut-ins, along with our newly trained Eucharistic ministers, who bring communion to the hospitalized and homebound.  The entire membership will be receiving phone calls from members of the caring team, who will be asking if there are ways they can help them out, or help them feel more a part of Atonement. 
            Our new praise band director, Ken Watts, is working out very well for our needs.  As leader of the music for our 8:30am service, he brings with him new sounds and songs, new skills and knowledge, and his own unique brand of enthusiasm.  The praise band grew very close to him this year as we followed his discovery of and battle with prostate cancer.  Recent news is that the cancer is undetectable – an answer to our prayers.  The praise band even launched a new Christmas tradition – playing for a 4pm Christmas eve service. 
            Ruby Agnir has shown consistently strong leadership for the choir, with music choices that complement the Sunday messages.  She has gathered many extra musicians and participants for the Christmas cantatas, which are presented at area nursing homes as well as at Atonement.  During Lent, we began a new Good Friday tradition as well – a mid-day service centered on the Stations of the Cross.  Thanks to Marcia Weil and Suzi Morgan for putting this together, and especially Dominick Santoro, the young artist who drew pictures for each station.
            Just recently, Deacon Detlev Aeppel has begun leading a Wednesday night men’s group.  They haven’t picked a name yet, but it doesn’t sound like it will be MELCA…  Anway, the group has been meeting regularly and I’m hearing good feedback, so we will see what develops.
            Another new ministry that is going strong is our Hispanic Outreach team.  Atonement has hosted three different Hispanic congregations over the years, but has never had a program of Hispanic ministry of its own.  Bishop’s assistant Jaime Dubon preached here last July, and met with us at our Glows and Grows to share some ideas about growing our outreach to Hispanics.  Alice Deyne has gathered a group together, and they are exploring the possibilities of offering ESL (English as a second language) classes as a way to begin serving this population.
            With over 9,000 other congregations, we are a part of the largest body of Lutheran churches in the United States -- the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Our Florida-Bahamas synod is divided into smaller groups of churches, called conferences.  We are a part of the Tampa conference of churches, with 11 congregations between Sun City Center and Wesley Chapel.  This February, our Bishop Robert Schaefer called me and asked if I would take on leadership of the conference as our previous conference dean was receiving a call to a church in Orlando.  I accepted, knowing that this is an important time of transition for our conference.  Several of our congregations are looking for pastors and several of my colleagues are retiring soon.  At our Spring Conference Gathering I was elected to a 2-year term as our official conference dean.
            As conference dean, I am in charge of leading regular pastors’ meetings as well as coordinating Spring and Fall Conference Gatherings.  I’m also a representative for the bishop for local concerns.  I have already helped in calling new pastors for Good Shepherd and Lutheran Church of Our Saviour in Tampa, and will continue working with All Saints in Lutz and Christ Our Redeemer in Temple Terrace in their call processes.  It is a busy time, and I thank the leaders and members of Atonement for their support and encouragement as I take on these new challenges. 
            I am also working with our local Lutheran camp, Luther Springs, on implementing their Mission Possible capital campaign in our conference.  Here at Atonement, we hosted training for council visitors who are going to the congregations to tell the story of our camp and explaining the improvements and expansions that are underway.  Two of our members, Brenda Lenz and Detlev Aeppel, are on the team of council visitors for our Tampa conference.  Atonement will be participating in the Mission Possible program later next year, after our own Capital campaign has concluded. 
            Looking ahead to the coming year, we have many projects in the works to strengthen our ministries and grow our discipleship.  We have room to grow in many ministry areas.  Our ministry teams are open to new members, and should be actively seeking ways to include new people.  I will soon be meeting with our prayer group to discuss some ways we might widen and stretch our spiritual practices.  One idea I’ve shared, a drive-through prayer chapel, may seem a little offbeat but has the potential to serve some real needs for people who don’t normally have contact with church.  Prayer vigils, healing services, and other ministries are also possibilities.  I’m hoping to work with other groups like fellowship, stewardship, outreach, and social concerns to look at ways we can build on the ministries we have going.
            Our new church directory is in the works.  The designs have been sent in, and we will soon have proofs to review.  In addition to picture directories, the company will publish copies of a ministry guide that we will be providing to new members and people interested in our church.  One great benefit that this new company offers is a downloadable “app” for your smartphone, which will include links to a password protected church directory and other features to keep you connected with what’s happening at Atonement.
            The caring team has also been widening the scope of their ministries.  One of the possible new projects we’re exploring is establishing a grief support group for those who have lost loved ones.  We are also looking at materials that could be distributed to help with this issue.  At some point, we would like to send some members to be trained as Stephen’s Ministers.  These are people who would visit and offer care and support to those with various needs.
            Our office volunteers do amazing work every week, keeping up with all that’s going on and helping coordinate all the many groups that use our building.  Office coordinator Kay Edwards works very hard at keeping things together, and often spends long hours at home to keep up with all the work.  Still, we are finding increasing need for professionally skilled office help – someone who can work with publishing and graphics software, and help coordinate our web and social media presence.  It would also help to have someone in the office on an every-day basis each week. 
            Our plan for the coming year is to begin looking for a part-time office secretary who we can bring on next fall, and hopefully move to full-time in 2017.  Back when we rented our facilities to a local pre-school, we had a part-time paid secretary in the office every day.  When the pre-school left to build their own place, we no longer had funding to pay our secretary’s salary.  We have been looking towards a day when our financial situation would allow us to once again hire an office secretary, and our hope is that they would continue to work hand in hand with office volunteers.  We hope to increase our office productivity without sacrificing the fine hospitality that our volunteers have been able to give.
            We are also hoping to add a paid property maintenance overseer next year.  We are finding that keeping up with the many maintenance tasks at Atonement is increasingly difficult.  As we look forward to a day when we have a new building, we know it will not get any easier.  We are envisioning a person who is at the church a couple of days each week, but also on call for emergencies.  That person would work with the Property maintenance team to manage the general upkeep of our facilities and make sure our site is clean and well maintained inside and out.
            We’ve had conversations off and on the last couple years about starting a Saturday service.  In order to free up time to work on this, I am backing off on my participation in the praise band.  I will still fill in as a back-up and occasionally play along, but am not going to be regularly attending the practices.  This was part of the plan when we hired Ken Watts to lead the group.
            As we go into 2016, we have two big challenges looming before us.  One is finding a way to cover the cost of our new building, along with appliances and furnishing. We expect that the Capital campaign donations will fall short.  We also have been committed to honoring an earlier decision to avoid going for financing.  This leaves us in need of some creative solutions, for which we continue to pray.  The other challenge is the continued care and maintenance of our present building.  Concerns have been expressed about the back side of the church.  We know that critters have found their way into the building, and we sometimes hear them scampering about in the walls and ceiling.  Paul Weil has caught and relocated a few of them, but there are more of them out there.   We expect that hiring the property maintenance overseer will go along way in helping with these issues, but some decisions need to be made.
            We are a growing church in a growing community.  All around us, new homes are being built and new malls are springing up.  The hope and the promise given us by God spur us on to do the best job we can to serve those in need in and around our congregation.  Our hope that God’s grace keeps blessing the world through the power of the Holy Spirit continues to inspire and motivate us.  The promise of Christ’s presence as we follow him in the path of discipleship gives us the strength and stamina for the tasks ahead.  May our good God who gives us so many good things bring his hope and his promise to your heart and home as we prepare to celebrate the birth of his Son, our Savior, Jesus the Christ.
Pastor Scott

See the world with Christmas eyes

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”                                                                                           --Matthew 1:20

            The angel’s words to Joseph are shocking when we hear them by themselves.  Taken in isolation, they sound like someone’s desperate attempt to excuse a young woman’s transgression, or save face after her victimization.  Joseph’s mind and heart were in conflict when he learned his beloved Mary was bearing a child, but this angel comes to bring a new perspective.  An angel is a messenger of God, and through the angel God presents an alternative possibility for the way Joseph views the situation he and Mary find themselves in.  The child is not a problem to be solved, or merely a broken social taboo.  This child is what every child should be -- a blessing.  Not only that, this child is unique beyond the ways that every child is unique – he is a blessing not just to mother and adoptive father, not just to his family and relatives, but to all the people. 

            Christmas is an alternative, a new perspective, a way of seeing the situation in which we find ourselves.  Christmas shows us our own lives in the light of Jesus.  Christmas reminds us that many of the things we see as problems are blessings in disguise, that the human beings in our lives have been put there by God, that life carries meaning that is deeper and more immediate that society’s spiderweb of expectations and demands.  The coming of the Lord Jesus, his birth in such an out-of-the way place, his cradle in a barn out back of the inn, his life wandering with fishermen, eating with outcasts, calling people wherever he went to return to God and fill their lives with love, and finally his giving of the greatest gift we could ever receive – his own life, body and blood all wrapped up in forgiveness of sins and life everlasting – this is the real Christmas we come back to every year.  This is the story that brings to the world a new perspective, new possibilities, new hope.  This is the story we love to hear and long to tell.

            Here at Atonement, we tell that story with everything we have.  The decorations in the sanctuary, the songs of the season, the tree and lights, and the scriptures we read all hearken back to the hope of the ages and recall the longing of those who waited so long for Messiah to come.  We sing the story in our annual cantata which our singers, musicians and readers will be taking on tour to local nursing homes as well as presenting in worship at the 10am service on December 13.  Later that day we’re all invited to take the story to the streets in song as Kelly Frasier leads us Christmas caroling through the neighborhood.

            We also tell the Christmas story through giving and generosity.  The essence of that story is the free gift of God to his children.  The love of Christ comes to us out of God’s grace and has nothing to do with how naughty or nice we’ve been.  Here at Atonement along with the usual food, countless toys will be given out on a Wednesday before Christmas through the Helping Hands food pantry.  We are presently taking donations. 

            In years past we have told the story to our local community through a “live nativity.”  We reconstructed the manger scene out behind our church, read verses and sang carols in a way that put the story of Christmas together from right out of the Bible.  Children and adults dressed up as Joseph and Mary, wise men and shepherds, angels and innkeepers, and we even had real babies play the starring role of the Christ child.   We haven’t done this in a couple years, but I will never forget the time a father who lived next door to the church came to me and asked when we were doing it again.  He said it was really important to his family because seeing our nativity was how his children heard that story and learned what Christmas was all about. 

            For 2016, we have money in our proposed budget to re-establish the live nativity.  There are costumes, scripts, and backgrounds in storage… we will be looking for a leader to help put it all together for next year’s Christmas celebration.  Of all the many things we do at Atonement, this is one of the most fundamental to our mission to share the love of Jesus.  If the children around us haven’t heard the story, how can they follow him?  If they think Christmas is all about Santa and Toys R Us, when will they hear of the silent night, the shining star, and the sleeping babe who is heaven’s king?

            Keep telling the story in your homes and hearts… share it with your families and neighbors… re-read the first 2 chapters of Matthew and of Luke… try to listen to at least as much “Jesus” Christmas music as “Santa” Christmas music… bring in a toy along with your food donations for the food pantry… create an Advent wreath for your home, or use an Advent calendar… come to worship each Sunday and on Christmas eve… find someone in your life who really needs to hear that story, maybe for the first time… sing it, shout it, say it however you can, but let the world know that “a child has been born for us, a son given to us…” (Isaiah 9:6) and his name is Jesus!  May he dwell close to you and your family this season and always!

Pastor Scott

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The missing Millenials

“After three days, they found [the boy Jesus] in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.  Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.  When his parents saw him, they were astonished.  His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’  ‘Why were you searching for me?’ Jesus asked.  ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’” – Luke 2:46-49

            Any parent who can’t find a child knows something of the anxiety Joseph and Mary felt when twelve year old Jesus goes missing.  “We’ve been searching all over for you – how could you do this to us?”  I can’t help thinking of the day I came out of the bathroom to a strangely quiet house.  Brian was still in diapers, but while I was predisposed he saw his opportunity to escape.  As I was frantically searching each room in the house for a second and third time, a knock came on the door.  It was the lady next door, and she had a little boy in diapers in her arms.  “I found him running down the street towards the McDonalds,” she said.  Apparently, the call of the golden arches overwhelmed any concern he had for his own personal safety. 

            History repeated itself when we moved across the state.  I had recently started at my second church and we were in the church basement enjoying a marvelous potluck after the service.  Soon, two of the church members, a mother and daughter, came down the stairs with a little boy in between.  They had found Brian running down the sidewalk (which ran along a busy street), heading towards the McDonalds two blocks away.  Again, the golden arches were calling irresistibly.

            As he joined his family on their trip to Jerusalem, Jesus must have felt like he was coming home.  Nazareth was a tiny town, barely a bump in the road.  Jerusalem was a magnificent walled city of nearly 100,000, David’s capital and site of the Jewish Temple.  The Romans considered it a hole in the wall, but to Jews it was the center of the world.  As one modern author puts it, “there was no city more unique, more holy, more venerable in all the world than Jerusalem” (Reza Aslan, Zealot, p. 11).

            And there on the Temple mount stood the amazing Temple built as a house of worship for all the Jews.  In Psalm 69:9 God’s faithful one declares that “zeal for your house shall consume me,” and we see just that happen to the boy Jesus.  He is drawn not to golden arches, but to the golden walls that towered above the city.  He goes there to be in his Father’s house, to spend time in the place which was built for the purpose of bringing human hearts into their Maker’s backyard, of connecting heaven and earth.  There in the Temple courts he talked to the religious professionals and wannabes, and amazed them with wisdom and understanding even they had never heard.  There in the house of  God, Jesus was on home turf.

            A lot has been said about the younger generations today, especially those who are now between 15 and 30 who are commonly referred to as “Millenials.”  As a whole, this generation shows great support for issues such as same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana.  They are also the most educated and racially diverse generation America has known.  They are less likely to invest, and more likely to choose a job they love over one with a higher paycheck than previous generations, but 84% give to charity (often through Kickstarter or other crowdsourcing  websites).  One researcher calls them “digital natives” because they have grown up surrounded by digital technology and the Internet.

            The religious habits of Millenials have been studied for years.  We know they are part of a long trend in America of decreasing religious participation, going back to the 1940’s.  They are less likely to describe themselves as religious as previous generations, and when they do, there is an increasing likelihood that they believe in a “higher power” rather than a traditional idea of God.  25% of them declare themselves to have no religious affiliation, which has earned that group the label “Nones.”

            Despite concerns about the changing relationship between young people and their faith, the picture changes when looking at Millenials who do claim to be Christian.  Within that group, recent research suggests today’s young people tend to be more committed to their faith than Baby Boomers or Gen X Christians who preceded them.  November’s issue of Relevant Magazine quotes David Kinnaman, president of Barna Research Group, as saying that a “countertrend” is emerging in this generation: “…the trend toward ‘noneness’ is being ‘counterbalanced by a different one of younger Christians being as or more committed to the Bible, Christian practice, and even theology’ as Christians before them…”

            When I work with youth, I’m used to seeing a wide range of interest and participation within a youth group or confirmation class.  Some are there because their parents make them be there, and you can tell.  Some are really interested in the material -- they ask great questions and want to know more.  Some are passionate about living for Christ and doing things for others.  Others would rather sneak out and head for the golden arches. 

            I have to say, it is a continual pleasure to work with the young people here at Atonement.  Brenda Lenz is an exceptional youth leader, and I have great helpers in Marcia Weil and Jim Turner to assist with confirmation classes.  The confirmation students show a genuine desire to grow in faith.  Our youth, as busy as they are, value the time they are together.  This year we have a small batch of senior high youth, while I have 8 in confirmation.  Brenda suggested that we bring the groups together once a month for youth group.  I’m excited about the possibilities this will bring to both our youth and confirmation programs.  We’ll be starting this on Nov. 21 – after the regular confirmation class from 10:30am-noon, we’ll have pizza and spend an hour or so together as the youth group.

            I see many large churches around us investing lots of time and money in flashy, high-energy programs for young people.  A small church like Atonement, however, can do an excellent job bringing young people together through a youth and family ministry that focuses on relationships and spiritual growth.    It is important to make sure our young people remain included as we look toward the future, as we plan our worship services, as we think about the fellowship and service that we do. How are we reaching out to, listening to, and making room for Millenials and younger people among us?  How can make sure they don’t go missing, or if they do it’s because they’re in their Father’s house…?

Pastor Scott

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Blessings physical and spiritual

“May the Lord bless his land with the precious dew from heaven above and with the deep waters that lie below; with the best the sun brings forth and the finest the moon can yield; with the choicest gifts of the ancient mountains and the fruitfulness of the everlasting hills; with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness and the favor of him who dwells in the burning bush…
                             -                   Deuteronomy 33:13-16

Friends of Atonement,

            A man came to our church yesterday looking for help.  He looked tired, both physically and spiritually. This is not at all unusual, especially since we are so close to the I-75 exit.  I asked him what brought him to us, and he said, “First of all, I needed to use your bathroom…”  Then he said he was new to the area, and was worried about how he would make it through till next week when his place to stay would become available.  He told his story, about how he had done construction work all across the country until a botched operation left him unable to work and some poor financial decisions let his parents’ house slip into the hands of the bank.  He came seeking help both physically and spiritually – some relief for his material needs and a chance to put down the great burden he was carrying, if just for a moment.  He found both of these at Atonement.

              When Moses blesses each of the Twelve Tribes just before he dies, he lavishes wishes and prayers for great abundance upon the house of Joseph.  He asks God to provide the best from all over creation to come to Joseph’s descendants, and with those great gifts something greater still: God’s favor.  It is humbling to meet people who struggle to get by physically and spiritually.  In fact, it’s almost embarrassing.  When I eat a nice warm meal that Su has cooked, when I fill my tank all the way up with gas, when I put on some clothes that are newly washed or turn the AC down a notch – I do these things knowing that God has blessed me like Joseph – fully, deeply, and richly.  Not everyone experiences such fullness of blessing, and how easy it is for them to think that such few physical blessings must mean God thinks little of them too.

            But this is not so.  Throughout Scripture, we see God’s beloved servants from Elijah to Saint Paul struggling with hardship, famine, nakedness and persecution.  Jesus said his disciples would face these things as well.  And of course, Jesus himself lost all things in order that we might know how much God loves us.  As the author of Hebrews tells us:  “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood…” (Hebrews 12:3-4)

            He’s got a point there.  In my struggles against sin, I don’t get all that uncomfortable; in my struggles against poverty, I don’t deny myself much; in my struggles against homelessness, I haven’t made room in my own bedroom for those who have nowhere to lay their heads.  God often stretches us, but we are also given the benefit to enjoy His gifts.  Though we all have room to grow in the generosity department, with God’s grace and the Spirit’s guidance we are led into new avenues of love for others, into new depths of appreciation for the ways God has blessed us.

            I thank you for the many ways you give to God.  Through your offerings you are providing help to needy people, through your prayers you are strengthening the ministries of Atonement, through your worship attendance and works of service you are being a part of Christ’s body – His heart, hands and feet reaching out to bless the world.  It is our Lord’s hope that “…those who trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.  These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” (Titus 2:8)  God bless now and always for giving to Atonement and to all God’s people your generous support, both physically and spiritually.

Pastor Scott