Thursday, January 17, 2019

Feel Free

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.  Suddenly, there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains fell off.”
 – Acts 16:25-26

Dear Friends of Atonement,
          A red haired Wisconsin teen is kidnapped, her parents shot dead.  The 911 call leads police to the house, but less than a minute too late.  She is gone, with no major clues as to who took her or where.  First neighbors and relatives are shocked, then it’s our turn as we follow the newscasts day after day until our hearts give in to the growing likelihood that little Jayme Closs was dead.  And then one day, there she is.  A sudden opportunity, and she’s running through the cold and the snow into the arms of freedom.
            Jayme’s story hit us so powerfully because it shows us that God can set us free even when we have almost lost hope.  Deep down we know that all things are possible for God.  And yet we often live our daily lives with a dim, flickering lightbulb of faith when it should be as bright as the Florida sun.  
            Paul and Silas had such a bright hope burning that night in the jail cell singing their first century equivalents to “Amazing Grace” and “Shine, Jesus, Shine.”  Arrested for healing a young slave girl whose owners were exploiting her disease, Paul and Silas had been grabbed, stripped, beaten, and thrown into the darkest cell in the local prison, their feet locked in stocks.  They had no idea whether or not their captors would execute them in the morning, but there they were, singing.  Somehow they were just as free after they walked into that cell as they were before.  Goes to show, the world can’t take away what God puts into your heart.
            Could this be what Paul was driving at when he wrote that in Christ we are called to freedom, and “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).  The world wants to take us captive and put us in chains.  It wants to tell us that even after God gives us all things, we still need the world’s stuff.  We need to keep acquiring things, to get the latest this or that, to buy into this plan and get that paid subscription, to make sure we have insurance for everything and access to anything.  The world would have us stay too busy to rest, too fearful to love, and too worried to think.  The world wants us investing in the world rather than the kingdom of God.  But then, along comes Jesus.
            Jesus lived a life of pure freedom.  Yes, he was obedient to his Father God, going down in the Jordan and up on the cross.  But in everything he did he was free, freely choosing God, choosing love, choosing you.  When that earthquake hit and Paul and Simon had their chains shaken off, their cell door came off its hinges and fell to the floor.  They were free.  But instead of walking out, they chose, of their own free will, to stay in that jail cell so they’d be there in the morning.  They knew the jail keeper would be punished if they escaped.  By freely choosing to stay, they saved more lives than their own that night.
            Giving your offering is like that.  You are free to give or not to give.  You could choose to spend all your money on worldly things, eating out more, and buying extra clothes, taking extra vacations, or slipping more into your 401(k).  But you also know that it would only be investing more in a kingdom which is already passing away.  Christ has made us God’s people and citizens of heaven.  Because of him, we feel free to invest in His eternal kingdom, and to freely live our thankfulness for all God has done for us. 
            Giving to God is an act of faith, a protest against the false voices that tell us that our worldly worries are more real than our salvation.  Being generous stands in opposition to the mindset that we need to worry about tomorrow, about what we wear, about keeping up with the neighbors.  Each dollar in the offering plate refutes the idea that having lots of things makes us secure, and that we can’t be happy without the newest, shiniest stuff.

            In Christ, your chains are gone.  Your bills and debts do not define who you are or what you can do.  Yes, you should pay your bills and manage your debts, but also live reflecting the life of Jesus, who lived simply, loved deeply, and gave generously.  Thank you for sharing your offerings with Atonement, for having the courage to give as your heart longs to, and as your faith calls you.  And if you’re not quite there yet, remember that you are a chosen and beloved child of God, no matter what.  The door is open and your chains are gone.  Feel free!

Pastor Scott

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Unwrapping Your Spiritual Gifts

“Now concerning spiritual gifts, my friends, I do not want you to be uninformed…” – 1 Corinthians 12:1
            Gifts are nice, but they’re not all something we can use.  Some are things you can wear or hang on a wall or display on a shelf.  Some you can read, listen to, or watch with a Blu-Ray player.  Some gifts are just right for…well, re-gifting is always an option.  But some gifts can change your life.  I received a nice backpack for Christmas this year, one that had been on my wish list for a long time.  It was there because I know I need to be more active.  I imagined loading it up with my laptop and papers, strapping it on and riding my bike to work.  I never dreamed someone would actually get it for me (thanks, mom!), but as soon as I opened it up I realized I had no more excuses.  The day after Christmas, I rode my bike into work. 
            Way before there was a Santa, people of faith knew God as the great Gift-Giver.  God gives life, love, family, breath, health, food, and everything else needed for this world.  Then, of course, the most precious of all the gifts is our Savior Jesus, who comes to offer us salvation.  But many people who celebrate these obvious gifts of God are still in the dark about spiritual gifts. 
            Spiritual gifts are not a secret, but they can be hidden.  Scripture mentions them numerous times – in Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28; Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Peter 4:11 – but some people have never heard of them.  In each passage you will find a different list of what those gifts are, but the idea is the same.  All Christians have spiritual gifts.  Each of us has a different mix of those gifts.  We are most happy and fulfilled when we are using our gifts (rather than hiding them under a bushel basket).  They can’t be re-gifted (some people covet other people’s gifts, but all gifts are equally noble and equally needed).       
            Here at Atonement, we are excited about helping people find their spiritual gifts.  We have an inventory you can take that will tell you what your strongest gifts are.  Maybe you took a DNA test with and discovered how you were put together genetically.  Well, this inventory will tell you something about how you’re wired spiritually.  Just like a DNA test, some of what you discover you may have known before, but you may be in for some surprises as well.
            Knowing your gifts can help you find direction in life.  These are gifts to be picked up and used, not hung on a wall or set on a shelf. Knowing your gifts helps you know where you can serve others best, and be happiest doing it.  Knowing your gifts is a great feeling because you realize you have something important to share with the world, and will probably discover you’ve been doing it all along.  Finding your spiritual gift can even help you feel more connected and engaged with the church. 
            St. Paul connects the concept of spiritual gifts with the idea that the Church is the Body of Christ.  We all fit together, work together, and need each other.  We are made for each other, literally.  Whatever your role as a functioning part of Christ’s body – however you serve – your contribution helps those around you as they contribute their parts.  Maybe you serve by helping behind the scenes, or using arts and crafts.  Maybe your gift is prayer or building up the faith of others.  Maybe you’re really good at fixing things, making things, planning things…  Maybe its music or public speaking you’re good at, or maybe you’d rather die than be in front of people.  Whatever your gift happens to be, it is valuable and needed.  We all need each other to be the community of Christ that we’re called to become.

            So to help you unwrap your spiritual gifts, we invite you to join us for one of three Spiritual Gifts workshops we are offering this season.  Each of them will provide you the opportunity to take the spiritual gift inventory, and go over the results.  We will discuss what you found, and even talk about possible steps you might take to put your gifts into action.  We will look at some of our ministries at Atonement, and how your gifts might fit into their work and mission.  And most important, we will pray for you and your spiritual journey with Christ that you might reach a new level of meaningful purpose and grow even closer to the God who loves you completely.

            So please check your calendar to see if you can attend one of these three Spiritual Gift workshops coming soon:
                        Saturday January 12            11am-1pm
                        Sunday February 3               11:15am -1:15pm
                        Friday February 8                1:30pm-3:30pm

Be open to the Holy Spirit, and you may find the Holy Spirit opening your eyes and heart in a new way.  Come join us for a journey of discovery…and find the gifts that are just waiting for you to unwrap. 

Pastor Scott

Monday, December 31, 2018

Thank you, Wesley Chapel

"First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you..." 
                                                                      -- Romans 1:8a
            When my wife was just a little girl, every Christmas break her family would pack up and come to Florida for a week or two.  It was her favorite place to go – a tremendous change from central Michigan in December.  They came to visit her grandma in Sarasota.  Making their way southward, coats would go in the trunk as snow disappeared from the side of I-75.  Soon they could bike around the trailer park, swim in the pool or visit the shuffleboard courts, even take an all day cruise or hang out on the beach.  
            Her love for Florida is one reason we’re here.  In 2006, finally frustrated by the paralyzing cold and ice, Susan and I and our boys George and Brian received the offer to come live and work in the Wesley Chapel area.  We couldn’t pass it up.  Even with a rough first year in a tiny rental, we felt like we’d won the lottery.  Though State Rd. 54 was only two lanes, Wesley Chapel was booming and blooming with signs of the strong community that we’re still watching take shape around us. 
            Twelve years on, we have only fallen more in love with the area.  We love the beautiful diversity here.  Not just people from “up north” but from all over are making their homes around us.  The construction gets old sometimes, but it’s great seeing the number and quality of community resources continuing to grow, including houses of worship.  We are moved by the tremendous generosity from individuals, organizations and businesses that volunteer and donate to our food pantry.  Many of the homeless people I meet have told me stories of kind help they’ve received from locals. 
            So I want to thank you, Wesley Chapel… for being a generous community.  My hope for you in 2019 is just this: “Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:1-2).

Pastor Scott 

The Spirit of CHRISTMAS is the Spirit of CHRIST

“As the father has loved me, so I have loved you.  Remain in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my father’s commandments and remain in his love.  I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete”               --  John 15:9-11
            There’s a little holiday somewhere between Cyber Monday and New Year’s Eve we call Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Some Christians refuse to celebrate the holiday, pointing out that we don’t know the actual day he was born.  True enough, but for most of us isn’t so much a day, or even a season.  It’s really about a particular spirit.  Christmas has a right spirit, and it is the Spirit of Christ.  And if that’s so, then true Christmas spirit should have something to do with the one whose birth we celebrate. 
            We all know the other Christmas spirit – the one that’s measured by how much you spend at the stores, how early your tree’s up and how many parties you’re invited to.  Each of these Christmas spirits brings its own set of consequences.  The shopping spirit delivers the thrill of finding just the right gift, but also the hassle of long lines and credit card bills; the decorating spirit provides the chance for creativity and the pride of showing off your multicolored neon disco-flashing manger scene; and the partying spirit can bring people together to eat, drink, and merrily discuss everyone who couldn’t make it to the party. 
            But true Christmas spirit is something different and deeper, because it is the Spirit of Christ.  Mighty God in humble form; babe asleep in the manger but also awake and aware everywhere; Creator becoming Created and entering Creation; Author of Life who dies to slay Death.  That Christ.  The one who surprises us with a love that goes beyond what we expect or deserve.  What?  The Christ who healed the sick, preaching good news to the poor?  The one who ate and drank with sinners and was killed for making powerful people uncomfortable?  That Christ?  What does that Christ have to do with this holiday we’re all getting ready for?
            Well, first off, the true Christmas spirit which is the Spirit of Christ is JOYFUL.  Jesus prayed for us all that “my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).  This joy comes from knowing God, as intimately as you would know any friend or family member.  Jesus called God “father” and spoke to him as easily and naturally as you and I might talk with one another.  Plans for the holidays falling apart?  Relax!  Can’t find the perfect present for that special someone?  Rejoice!  Christmas spirit finds joy knowing we are in God’s hands, and it’s not up to us to make it all work out.  We sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come”…but the Lord HAS come, right?  So shouldn’t the whole world be joyful already? 
            Second, the Spirit of Christ is CARING.  Jesus left the comforts of heaven to come and share God’s love with us because he knew how much we all needed it.  We still do.  Though many people are surrounded by supportive friends and a loving family, there are some who feel entirely alone.  Some of our dining tables are loaded with goodies while others go hungry.  Some of us had a perfect check-up at the doctors while others received bad news.  Mary gave birth in a stable – hardly the perfect place for the King of Kings to come into the world, but then again what an ideal picture of the fragility of our lives and the brokenness of our world!  The Spirit of Christ bears the message to the world that we are all brothers and sisters, as beautiful and vulnerable as that child who was born for us.  The Spirit of Christmas cares about those in need, and spreads God’s love in hope-full words and deeds of love.
            Finally, the Spirit of Christ is GIVING.  God did not make a “naughty” and “nice” list to determine who received his grace – it comes to us unconditionally through our faith in the giving Spirit of Christ - He who gave his whole life for our salvation.  Can we recapture the wide-eyed wonder of a child on Christmas morning by remembering the greatest gift of all – that God calls us his children and blesses us daily with all we need and more?  Can we give more than just presents, but also our presence to those we care about?  Can we hear the message of the angels, that peace on earth and goodwill to all are more than a pipe-dream – they are God’s will for the world, Christ’s mission, and the daily work of our lives? 
            Christ calls us all to be disciples and messengers (“angels”) of his Good News to the world.  That work is not easy, and often forces us to change our attitudes and make more room in our hearts for others.  Offering our time to God means it is not our agenda but his in control of our schedules.  Offering our talents, we turn from our own worries and look at the needs of others.  Offering our treasures means we have Christ-centered checkbooks and budgets that reflect God’s values.  We find that in giving and caring our joy really is made complete.  As you give and serve and worship this season, may it be the Spirit of Christ which grow in you and the gift of His grace that fills you with joy and love.  Blessings to you and yours from our family, and your family of faith at Atonement.
Pastor Scott

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Annual Report 2018: Turning With the Road

“For you shall go out with joy, and be led back in peace,
the mountains and hills before you shall burst forth into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” 
         ---Isaiah 55:12-13
             Call me an optimist.  I’ve always been a “glass half full” kind of person, trying to see every situation in terms of its best possible outcome.  I do want to know about potential problems so I’m not blindsided by them, but in the long run I try to focus on the good that could be more than the obstacles to getting there.  Going into 2018 with high hopes and great expectations, imagine my shock when I ended up in the hospital in January being checked for chest pains.
The pains had been there for a week or so.  As we often tend to do, I debated whether this was truly important enough to warrant a trip to the ER.  Finally I asked myself, “Well, what would you say to a parishioner who told you they were having chest pains.”  So there I was in the ER and though they found nothing alarming, they admitted they couldn’t be sure I was OK without an overnight stay and a battery of tests.  After 24 hours, a stress test and an ultrasound, they found a minor issue that I have to keep an eye on, but nothing of immediate concern.  Then I got the bill for that 24 hour stay – and almost had a heart attack…
            So I’m still an optimist, but an optimist with caution.  God has an invisible timetable, and we ultimately learn to order our lives by what comes from His hands.  Together we have faced many twists and turns of the road this year, after expecting a straight and steady course.  We were ready to enjoy the straight road ahead with new office staff in place and a new building to assist with our ministries.  Instead we got another year adjusting with the twists and turns in the highway.  I am thankful for the continuing patience and enthusiasm that has been shown as we face each new circumstance, and for the wonderful generosity of a congregation that loves to serve as Jesus served.
             The turns in the road have not kept us from trying new things and bringing new programs to the congregation.  We continue beefing up our caring ministry, and are now offering prayer after each service courtesy of the “God Squad.”  The caring team also sponsored sessions of Creation Health education.  Our congregation was chosen by Florida Hospital to offer these special sessions, which were led by Fran Loomis, Karen Erickson and myself.  Along with seminars on good health practices, Fran treated us to foods she prepared specially for the group based on recommended healthy recipes.  Nurses from the hospital also came and did health checks for all the attendees at the start of the series, then came back 4 weeks after the last session to do a comparison. 
            We kicked off a Saturday worship service in January – the 5pm “godify” service.  Many people came to check it out, with a few people becoming regulars.  Most of all, however, this service is meant to attract those outside our present membership.  Deacons and deacons in training including Detlev Aeppel, Jim Turner, Rebecca Parker and Esthel Kane are in the regular monthly rotation as speakers. The focus is on our spiritual journeys, the setting is casual, and interaction between the speaker and attendees is encouraged.  The music choice is a refreshing mix of contemporary Christian (and occasional secular) songs, many of which I’ve heard for the first time at this service.  The music flows smoothly between Bible readings, prayers and the spoken message in a way that feels very welcoming and worshipful.
I attend regularly, but only lead once a month and preside at communion on the last Saturday each month.  It is a wonderful opportunity for your pastor to have a place to come and worship, without having to be up front and in charge.  I really appreciate that, and am very proud of the lay leadership.  Rebecca Parker has helped greatly in choosing music and leading the singing, and has been sharing the vocal spotlight with Kristin Styles, Thaddeus Kostialik, and sometimes youth members Giada Styles and Griffin Frost.  Ian Frost has played along on bass, Cassidy Kostialik often plays drums (and sometimes Tyler Hanks), and band leader Brian Lindner often brings in other musicians as guests.  It’s a dynamic group, and the music alone makes this service worth checking out.  
In September, the godify services were the venue we used to explore ELCA social statements.  We took a close look at the statements on creation, abortion, human sexuality, and the death penalty.  We had the best attendance yet for the services, with many people showing up interested to hear where the church stands on these particular social issues.  The godify services are still developing in format as we strive to reach a new audience.  It provides an alternate worship time for members, but the main intention is to welcome non-members.  In an effort to provide a Lutheran service for non-Lutherans, we have communion once a month and messages that focus on Scripture and the spiritual journey rather than particular concerns or traditions of the institutional church.  Going forward, we will be trying to spark more interest in the service through a format of monthly themes which we will be publicizing ahead of time.  December’s theme is HOPE.
            Speaking of new worship services, plans are coming together for our Sunday family service which we are calling the “Child of God” service.  Thanks to Jan Gerle and the Christian education team, we are making a bold move next year replacing Sunday school with a worship-centered program of faith formation.  These plans have developed from conversations with families and considerations of how to help parents be an active part of their child’s faith development.  The service is open to all children of God (that includes you), but will be specifically designed to help children, young adults, and their parents learn, celebrate, and practice their faith in Jesus.  Instead of lectionary readings, the service will center on one Bible story.  Instead of a “sermon” there will be an interactive time of storytelling, sort of an extension of the children’s moments we used to have at the 10am services.  To better accommodate families, the service will begin at 11:30pm and last an hour.  The last 15 minutes, children will work on a craft while adults will stay for a short open discussion on how to bring the story of the day into the rest of the week.  We’ll discuss how to find the story in your own Bible, share some questions to discuss with family members, and ways to pray and serve based on that day’s lesson.
This year also saw our first Beer and Hymns night at O’Brien’s pub.  We have been thinking about doing one of these for a couple years after attending one put on by one of our Tampa conference congregations.  Then, Su and I experienced Beer and Hymns at a church festival we attended in North Carolina.  The idea was simple – reach out to the community by getting out of your church building and sharing some of the treasures of our faith – the wonderful hymns we sing every Sunday…only don’t sing them like we do on those sleepy mornings when we haven’t had our coffee yet!  Sing them with heart and joy and a sense of fun. 
When we approached the folks at O’Brien’s, they loved the idea.  Monday nights are their slow nights, so they are delighted to have our business and make a place for us at their establishment.  So far we’ve done two – one in August and another in October, before Reformation Sunday.  We are planning another for December where we will be singing (naturally) Christmas carols.
            A big change for us and the whole synod was last year’s election of our new bishop, Pedro Suarez.  When I introduced myself to Pedro on the morning of the second day of the assembly, congratulating him on his new role as assistant to our interim bishop, who could have guessed that two days later he would be our new bishop-elect?  We attended his inspiring installation service at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in New Tampa this January, where Esthel served as crucifer and Nicholas Trejo carried the pulpit Bible.  Bishop Suarez is the first Hispanic bishop we’ve had in our Florida-Bahamas synod, and has moved up from Pompano Beach to become a neighbor in Lutz.  He first joined us for our “God’s Work, Our Hands” worship and service project on September 9, for which he brought his wife, kids and grandkids along.  His family has been worshiping with us regularly since then, and Bishop Suarez himself showed up at our latest Beer & Hymns night. 
            Atonement is blessed to be the supportive home congregation for Esthel Kane as she studies and works towards ordained ministry in the ELCA.  Esthel’s program of ministry and theological education was linked to her role as lay developer of our Hispanic mission, Todos Unidos en Cristo.  However, this year we discovered that this program, which was being funded through the national church’s mission budget, was intended for people with considerable experience in parish leadership.  Esthel had no such experience when she entered the program, so the course of studies and training were not appropriate for her level of development.  We also were not able to gather a stable base of people serving and being served as part of the Hispanic mission.  After review of the situation by synod staff, they decided not to renew funding for the mission, which will require that Esthel find an alternative route to seminary and ordination.  However, they affirmed her desire to continue pursuing ordained ministry and finish her pastoral training.
            This means that Esthel will be looking for an alternative way to finish her seminary studies.  She is committed to continuing, and can still get help with the funding through scholarships, and of course we will support her as we can at Atonement.  This also means that our Hispanic outreach here at Atonement will go back to simply being our Hispanic outreach, and we will continue efforts to reach our Spanish speaking neighbors and possibly begin a Lutheran service in Spanish.  Because of this situation, we are discontinuing “seminarian Sunday” offerings until Esthel finds and is accepted to a new program of studies.  What’s the best way to help Esthel in the meantime?  Talk to her, encourage her, and most of all, keep her in your prayers.
            Our building is another project which hasn’t gone as expected this year.  After breaking ground last December believing that we would be starting construction within a month or two, we have been in an uphill climb ever since.  We had heard stories, some of them horror stories, about the slow progress others had made in getting their permits approved by Pasco County.  Knowing that ours was not a big money project, we also realized that we were not a high priority for them.  Still, we never thought our simple little fellowship annex would take 10 months to get through the permitting.  Our contractors kept tabs on the process, with various changes to regulations requiring updated drafts of our plans, but there was still little forward progress until the last month or so.  Our contractors have also promised to keep to our original price of $90/square foot for the project, although some less expensive materials may have to be substituted where we can still maintain quality.  The biggest hurdle this has all caused is simply not being able to use the extra space we were counting on this year.  The extra storage and meeting space we thought we’d be able to offer various ministries in early 2018 will have to wait until early 2019.

            One ministry that has been moving along nicely is our Stephen Ministry program.  We have four Stephen Ministers  - Kathy Alvare, Vanessa Frost, Chris Rymer and Bill Slippy – working regularly with care receivers, as well as Stephen Leaders Jan Buland and Chris Rymer working with me on training and supervision.  Detlev Aeppel, Kirstin Westbrook and Laurie Chiaramonte are also currently in training and should be ready to begin as Stephen Ministers in early 2019.  Pamela Pientka, who is a licensed therapist, is also helping provide continuing education and working as a consultant.  As we expand the number of Stephen Ministers, we are also considering opening up the ministry to serve care receivers who are not Atonement members.
             We also reactivated our stewardship ministry this year, reforming the committee under the name “Love-in-Action” team.  We are planning workshops about spiritual gifts for early next year, as well as a financial response program that will focus on giving as a response to God’s gracious love for us.  With the theme “My King and I,” we will be making giving covenants which, instead of turning in to the church, we will burn as a spiritual offering to the Lord.  The Love-in-Action team is also assembling ministry “wish lists,” items that our individual ministries can use to further their mission, but which are beyond their normal budget.
            This year we celebrated the life of Fred Agnir before his death, with a special service on his and Ruby’s anniversary.  He exceeded all expectations by continuing to come to church and sing, and even officiate at a wedding well into his battle with cancer.  Many remarked at his positive demeanor and even joy as he sang with the choir (and even solos), and continued worshiping with us.  I was his backup at the wedding of Kim Arnold and Fabian Soto, but he gave me more of a part than he needed to as we enjoyed an evening cruise in Tampa Bay on the Starship yacht as Kim and Fabian tied the knot.  When it came time for Fred’s funeral, the service was of truly epic proportions, with moving musical offerings from 2 choirs and personal tributes from family. 
            Ann Davis will also be greatly missed by Atonement.  Her long history as the founder and backbone of our Social Ministry team (with daughter Jean Jakes) helped create our partnerships with Christian Social Services of Land O’Lakes and Resurrection House in Dade City.  She and Jean began the regular baby showers that Jean and our WELCA team are continuing for migrant worker mothers at Resurrection House.  She was also our resident gardener, who could regularly be seen tending the flower beds out in front of the church (before the portico was built). 
            Newly budding ministries like the prayer garden, Bartell Memorial Garden and Carole Hendry’s Creation ministry continue that dedication to keeping Atonement beautiful and nature-friendly.  The Caring team will be looking at designing a walking trail around the perimeter of our property, which can be used for exercise and/or enjoying the natural beauty of our site.   Carole Hendry’s ministry will be bringing that natural beauty to areas around the church through planting and caring for flowers and plants.  Our first official worship service at the outdoor sanctuary took place this last Easter Sunday at sunrise.  Neighbors from the community joined us as we sang, prayed and shared communion in that beautiful space.  This fall, Alex Rivera chose beautifying the area around the Sean Bartell memorial tree in the far front corner of our property as his Eagle Scout project this year.  Take a moment and stop by, sit and reflect on the bench, remember Sean and his family, and consider God’s gracious love that reaches beyond all earthly life into life eternal.
            Perhaps the most significant advance this year has been hiring an Office Administrator who will be with us working each weekday.  We have been getting by for years now with different people in charge of the office each day, volunteers who were being coordinated by Kay Edwards (in a position with minimal pay).  They have each brought their unique gifts into our office environment, but as we’ve grown we saw the need for a more consistent presence.  We have also been looking for someone with the skills and know-how to help manage a new updated website which Cara Chiaramonte has designed and we are waiting to bring online. 
            To that end, we hired Lynn McCurdy this April, but she soon informed us that family issues were forcing her to find full-time work.  Now, after another round of resumes (156 this time!) and interviews, we are pleased to introduce Marybeth Gandiosi to our Atonement family.  She comes to us with years of office administration experience, and as someone who ran her own business.  She worked in Tampa for the Yacht Starship, and in Las Vegas as a wedding photographer, coordinator, and officiant.  If you are in the neighborhood during office hours (Monday through Friday 10am-5pm), please stop in to meet Marybeth and welcome her to Atonement. 
            The road before us will surely continue to twist and turn, but the Lord goes with us always.  He lights our way and shows us where to turn.  In the meantime, God points out new opportunities to worship him and to serve his people.  Susan and I thank you for all your prayers and support, and most of all for your willingness to join us on this surprising journey of discipleship.  We love you all and pray that God continue to grow your faith and love and generosity and hope along the way.  The spiritual path is more joyful when we go together, and every step of the way you have brought us great joy by being a part of this amazing congregation of Atonement!