Saturday, December 31, 2011

Beyond church

...they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread in their homes, and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.  And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Acts 2:46-47
There is God, lying in a manger.  Wrapped in cloth, sleeping peacefully.  Then waking, crying for food.  As the baby Jesus is held, cuddled, burped, and changed — so is God.  What  a mystery!  What a surprise!  What an honor — to find God right here among us, under the same roof and in our world.  But then, isn’t it his world?
             Our faith has always taught that God cares for and comes to his people.  Even before Christ came, this was the message of the prophets and the experience of the patriarchs.  This was the good news — that instead of turning away from us and leaving us to fend for ourselves against hunger and disease, against death and the devil, that we have a Savior, a Father, a friend and defender who fights with us and for us.  Instead of loneliness and isolation, we have the promise and the presence of a God who you’d never think would want to give up heaven for the meager delights of a world like this.  But here he is.  With us.  Immanuel.
So in this incredible time of year with the one and only Christmas story fresh in our minds and hearts, we are set to begin a new year by taking that message to the world.  The trees will come down, but the message of hope is “ever green,” always spring-like and fresh.  What new ways will we find to grow in God this year?  How will that Bethlehem baby become our living reality in 2012?
We think you may have some great ideas about how to share the good news in your neighborhood.  We have noticed that each subdivision, mobile home court or development has its own personality and its own special kind of community life.  Each little pocket of people presents its own challenge in how to reach those people, but we think you might have some great ideas on how to reach out to people in your own area.  We will be asking for your help in 2012 to get better organized to reach out. 
When the first Christians wanted to reach out to their friends and neighbors, they met together in homes each week in addition to attending formal worship at the temple.  Their house meetings were social gatherings where fellowship, prayer and bible study took place.  As I look at where the Christian community is strongest, it seems that home groups like these are the best way Christians can reach into their communities.  Some of you may be willing to host just such a gathering in your home or at some other meeting place in your community.
             Some of you may have other ideas for ways we can impact the many neighborhoods that make up the area we serve.  That area is huge and diverse, stretching from Zephyrhills to Lutz and from Dade City to New Tampa.  This year, we will be calling people together from different parts of this large area to brainstorm ideas and help us get organized for outreach.  I’m anxious to hear your thoughts and ideas, and to join you in blazing some new trails into our communities with the message of God’s love, grace, and peace.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Year of Promise

“…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…”
-          Luke 4:19

            She called because she had been doing a fundraiser for a battered women’s shelter.  People had been very generous supporting her, and she had some donated items leftover.  She wanted to know if our church could use them.  “Now I want you to know, I’m not a Christian,” she told me.  She said she was a pagan who believed in God, and believed Jesus was a good guy but did not believe in the Christian religion.  “Then why are you calling us?” I asked.  “Because I see the work you do, and everyone knows your church helps people.”
            How great is that?  It seems we have a reputation.  It seems we are “on the map.”  People are sitting up and taking notice of Atonement Lutheran Church.  No longer quiet and camouflaged, no longer hidden back from the road, no longer so mysterious to most of the community, we are in the papers, on the news, and a part of what is happening.  What would you like people to be saying about your church?  That we are fun? …friendly? …dedicated to our community?  I’m hearing all of these things and more.
            God is good and we are finding new ways to share God’s love.  While the community changes and the look of Lutheranism in the Tampa Bay area shifts, our congregation is playing an important role as an active sign for our area that Jesus cares for everyone.  Welcoming all people of all ages and backgrounds shows each visitor that our faith is real.  Inviting friends and neighbors brings new people to the Lord’s table and gives them a chance to discover God’s love.  Keeping our facility open for meetings by community groups along with the outstanding work of the Helping Hands food pantry has made us known throughout the north Tampa area.  Having police cars out front with their lights on Sunday mornings hasn’t hurt either.
            Still in the spirit of Thanksgiving (shouldn’t we keep that spirit all year long?), let me share just a few things that I am especially thankful for this year:
Å      dedicated members working hard on council, serving groups, in the office and on ministry teams
Å      a creative Sunday school program with Jan Gerle, Julie Kaufmann, “Bitsy” the dog (reminding us all to Depend On God) and other helpers
Å      Audra Eldridge leading a delightful Kindermusik program Tuesday and Thursday mornings
Å      the talented Agnir family: Ruby our highly-qualified choir director
Å      a growing confirmation class full of smart, inquisitive youth
Å      our lively and colorful newsletter edited by Carol Reams
Å      assistance in ministry from Marcia Weil and our deacon candidates
Å      great partnerships with Peace Lutheran (Pastor Michael Birra), Resurrection House (Margarita Romo) and First Unity of Pasco (Pastor Enrique Amoros)
Å      new traditions, including a “Trunk or Treat” Fall Festival and our “Stock Our Shelves” Pancake Breakfast Extravaganza
Å      great partnerships with Luther Springs who staffed our Day Camp and hosted our Spring Safari Family Camp
Å      enthusiastic new members
Å      great help and partnership from Thrivent and our rep. Deb Kretchman
Å      outstanding youth leadership from Brenda Lenz and Cotta Ungerer, as well as help with confirmation from Laurie Chiaramonte and Carla Haberland
Å      consistently quality music from Ken and the choir
Å      the example and inspiration of our saints who have gone to glory


            We know 2012 will bring some big changes.  There will be a few “dreams coming true” as our property begins a long-awaited transformation.  New landscaping and parking will give us a newer, fresher look.  Much-needed repairs on the building should keep it in shape for the future. But more than that, this will be a year where we have new opportunities to let our faith shine. 
            There will be chances to dedicate gifts towards a new building which will help us serve and reach more people for Christ.  This multi-use building will give us new space for worship, fellowship, and our food ministry.  Plans include a room with large, flexible space and a full commercial-grade kitchen, as well as more storage for Helping Hands.
            With a new year comes a perfect opportunity to grow in stewardship.  We can’t outgive God, who has given us all things.  Luther reminds us of a few of them in the Small Catechism.  In reply to the question, “What is meant by daily bread?” he reminds us what God gives us day by day:  Everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, field, cattle, money, goods, a pious spouse, pious children, pious servants, pious and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”
            Moving into this new year, it’s the perfect time to prayerfully consider growing in your response to all that God has given you.  Our offerings are the way we give thanks – they are the gifts of our hearts to our ever-giving God.  Think for a moment - of all the money you make in a year, how much of it goes to maintain and support your own life, and how much do you give away to help others?  Many people don't know what percentage of their income goes to charitable giving, or what percentage they give to their church.  I hope you will take a moment and find that percentage for your own household.
            Then ask yourself some questions:  Does this percentage represent an honorable gift to my Lord and Savior?  Am I comfortable giving this amount?  Am I perhaps too comfortable giving this amount?  What would it take to move up a percentage (to move left one column) in my weekly giving?  What would it take to make a “leap of faith” to giving a tithe (10% column) or beyond?  Would 10% of my income be an appropriate amount to give, considering what God has done for me and my real needs?
            Your answers to these questions are very personal.  They are between you and God.  This year we have not asked people to make a pledge or turn in commitment cards.  Instead, we leave it up to you and God how much you decide to give financially in 2012.  I have been joyfully giving 10% of my income to the church for many years now, and find it a great way to honor God in my life.  By giving a 10% tithe, I tell my Lord “thanks” for all he gives.  Tithing is my constant reminder that I need HIM much more than I need that money.
            One more opportunity that I hope you will take this year, and this is something that could change your life even MORE than tithing.  Consider reading through the Bible with me, day by day and chapter by chapter.  I am planning to read the Bible every day this year using the Bible reading plan included on this website, and I invite you to join me.  If you stick to it, you will have read the whole thing by the end of the year.  If you miss a day, just pick up on the following day and catch up on what you missed when you can.  I have done this now for three years and every time I do, I learn something new and the Bible comes alive for me in new ways.
            Finally, I want to thank you for another year of friendship, ministry and love.  You have a unique place in this congregation and in our future together.  God gave you special gifts and I know you will find new ways to share them at Atonement.  This year you all reminded me (in such a sneaky way) that it was my 5 year anniversary at Atonement and my 20th as an ordained pastor.  It’s funny, because I feel like we’re just getting off the ground.  On behalf of your family of faith and my own family, I ask that God continue to bless our life together in Christ as we head into this year of promise, 2012.

The Coolest Job

We feel we must be continually thanking God for you, brothers;quite rightly because your faith is growing so wonderfully and the love that you have for one another never stops increasing...
2 Thessalonians 1:3

    Veterinarian  Marlene Siegel joined us in October at our Blessing of the Animals before worship.  Her daughter Alyssa Harrell also stayed for Sunday school to talk about her new book, Demi of the Dolphins.  So there we were, gathered in bright Florida morning sunlight, with members and friends and our dogs and cats and lizards at hand to help us thank God for these living gifts.  After the ceremony, Marlene said to me: “You have such a cool job.”  And you know what?  I had to agree.
How many jobs give you anything like the variety of experiences you get being a pastor? In the morning I could be meeting with local business people, in the afternoon standing by a bed in an Intensive Care Unit, in the evening practicing songs with the praise band.  In between I’m praying and reading Scripture, teaching classes and playing games with the youth, helping with service projects and mission trips, planning for the future with ministry teams, carrying in food donations, praying with homeless people, and eating heavenly food at a potluck dinner.  But not all churches have so many things going.  What a privilege it is to be so wrapped up in a congregation that is so wrapped up in serving!
    And then there are those moments at that baptismal font which, like God’s cupped hands held out, enfolds a little new life with God’s grace.  And at the table each week where God works a miracle and comes down to us all, and we hand Him out in bread and drink Him in wine and a procession of hands reaches out to take Him — some old and rough, some young and glowing.  And there again at the end of life when we realize it has all been a gift, and something breaks through our sadness when we see that the person we know and loved as a friend on earth has gone on to become something more beautiful than anything we knew them as here.  And I get to be part of that, again and again.
Pastors are blessed seeing the Spirit constantly at work.  It’s so easy to see when we gather for our services, but it doesn't goes on from there, spilling out into all of life.  Tasks and events and meetings, things which can seem so routine and un-spiritual, take on a different significance when we are doing them as a community of Christ.  It’s not the business or the busy-ness, but the people that make up ministry.  Through the teamwork and the tasks, our service for Christ becomes a kind of worship in itself.  Liturgy (in Greek, leitourgia) means “work of the people.”  We are changed as we engage in it.    We see the startling way God takes a person and makes them into a disciple.  We witness the transformation that happens when the eyes of a heart are opened and one really sees how, in the midst of joy or sorrow, God’s hand has touched their life.
    Here at Atonement, people have shared amazing stories of how God has changed their life, brought them back from the brink of disaster, healed loved ones, given new direction, and brought friends and spouses to find each other.  Here at Atonement, people have worked as volunteers, coordinators, teachers and team leaders, gofers and planners, finding ways to help make ministry happen here.  Here at Atonement, people greet visitors and go out of their way to introduce themselves, connect people with new friends and make people feel at home.  Here at Atonement, people watch out for each other, checking up on people who have missed church a few times, calling on those who may need no more than a listening ear.  Here at Atonement, people put aside personal differences and work side-by-side and face-to face for the ministry of the gospel and the future God is calling us to build. 
    I guess what I’m trying to say is — you inspire me.  I get the feeling the Apostle Paul must have had when he wrote letters to the thriving young churches he helped start.  Seeing them grow in grace and understanding, welcoming new people, teaching the faith and spreading the Word about Jesus — these small, new groups of people he had shepherded were becoming strong witnesses for the Lord and beacons of hope for the world.  They were places where people could come, find acceptance, hear the truth and be saved.  I believe Atonement is that kind of place.
    Another person said to me this week, “I love how the people at our church are so real.”  A good way to put it, I thought.  You are keeping it real.  Real as a worried man and a pregnant woman, riding together far from home, seeking a place to come in out of the cold.  Real as a silent night, starlit and still, with some distant echo that sounds like angel song.  Real as the baby born that night, wrapped snugly in the best they had, watched and wondered at in the tired aftermath of birth.  Real as the hope that calls us to live each day with joy, doing what we can to get out the Good News that God is real and a child has been born for us.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Perfect Tens

Apart from being beautiful, what do you do for a living? I hope you know CPR, because you take my breath away.
You must be lost, because heaven is a long way from here.
Are you from Tennessee?  Cause you’re the only “10” I see!

OK, so maybe we don’t need to use cheesy pick-up lines to let people know we like them.   But when we come to church, we’re on God’s turf.  It’s our job as God’s people (and we are God’s people, aren’t we?) to make sure God’s welcome is shared with everyone.  We want each visitor to know without a doubt they are surrounded by people who will care about them, welcome them, and are ready to become new friends. 
Worship is not quite like anything else we experience in life these days.  When you go out to a restaurant, you normally don’t peer into the booths on either side of you to introduce yourselves to other diners.  At a movie, you probably keep to your family and friends and rarely strike up conversations with other moviegoers.  These are the usual daily public experiences where we go about our business and do our own thing.  But worship isn’t about doing our own thing — it’s about doing God’s.
In worship we experience and share the gifts of God here on earth.  Jesus wants so much for us all to know him, he came into this world and spent a lifetime loving people God’s way.  He was so desperate that we all would know him, he was always reaching for a new image to explain it: I am the gate, he said, the door, the light;  the way, the truth, and the life; the Good Shepherd, the vine and the bread… I am the resurrection and the life.  He said it in so many different ways because there are so very many ways to share Jesus.  A smile, a kind word, a moment learning a stranger’s name — these all can mean a lot to someone who is seeking God in their life.
                 So keep your eye out for when a new person or family enters the sanctuary on a Sunday morning.  If they sit near you, don’t look away and keep talking to your friend in the seat in front of you — take a moment to introduce yourself and say, “Good morning, glad you’re here!”  When you share the peace, scan the room for that new person standing all alone, silently watching everyone else around them greeting just their friends.  Then make your way toward them through the crowd, on a mission from God to make a new friend.
Everyone we see Sunday morning is beautiful — all perfect 10’s in the eyes of God, all needing a warm, safe place to rest and hear the Good Shepherd’s voice.  If we take them as they come and embrace them with the love of Christ, not only do we give joy to God, we make new friends.

Regarding November

With the constant hot temperatures behind us, there’s a crispness in the air and folks are finally venturing outside in the afternoons.  Florida is becoming paradise again.  How appropriate then, that our services in November point us towards heaven.  We have been moving in worship week by week through stations of the spirit.  Though we’ve “been there done that” long ago with Christmas and Easter, there is still more of our story to be told.  In fact, you could say the best is yet to come.  In fact, November’s themes bring us to a glorious climax as we contemplate our ultimate destination on All Saints’ (Nov. 2) and the ultimate destiny of all things on Christ the King Sunday (Nov. 20).  Our weekly scriptures and celebrations throughout the year have shown us God’s kingdom approaching and encroaching on this world.  It’s time to take a look at what will happen when that kingdom arrives and heaven becomes present reality.  Those we thought we lost to death still live (as Jesus points out in Matthew 22:31-32), and we are with them when we praise God and live the life of God’s kingdom together.  And at last, the kingdom comes (“even without our prayers,” Luther reminds us), takes over all things (check out chapter 21 of the book of Revelation), and (as Dame Julian Norwich puts it), “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
            If this is the direction God is moving, we’d better get on board.  Now is the time to consider what it means that God has made you one of the saints.  When you were baptized, God put you into the divine story and made you a part of Jesus’ “occupy earth” movement.  We are camped out on this planet until the kingdom comes, protesting pain and suffering, standing together to proclaim good news to the lost, to feed hungry people, to share the love of Jesus and reach a world that doesn’t know what it’s about.
            And so we begin this November with All Saints’ Sunday, remembering saints who’ve gone before us, especially members of our own Atonement family…
                                                Carl & CJ Haberland
                                                Lois Peterson
                                                Jane Winters
                                                Joyce Reimer.

Recalling the legacy of love they left us and the mercy of Christ that will at last bring us all together into that kingdom, we ask: What can we offer now to build on their legacy and keep the light shining?
            One way is to join your church family in mission to feed the poor.  Our big fundraiser this year takes place Nov. 12, and we’re sending out an SOS with the aim to “Stock Our Shelves.   Last year, Helping Hands food pantry received a $7000 donation, but it’s not there this year.  So we are calling out to the community to join us that day for pancake breakfast, games, music, and all kinds of fun and fellowship as we raise money to support this amazing ministry.
            And November 20 we round out our yearly journey through the story of faith with the Sunday of Christ the King.  That day, we will be doing an “Instructional Eucharist” which walks us through the worship service asking a basic Lutheran question each step of the way: “What does this mean?”  If you’re new to the faith, a little rusty, or maybe it’s been a loooong time since confirmation class, you’re sure to learn something new about the way we worship God.
            And what would November be without Thanksgiving?  This year, Thanksgiving sits neatly between the close of our present church year and the beginning, with Advent, of the next.  What a great time to pause, reflect, count blessings, and be grateful!  All we have comes from God, right?  And all we give came from God.  And everything we need is available to us through God.  So when we give our offerings we give generously, because we’re sharing with the world by giving back to God.  God has made us saints, blessed with divine destiny.  It’s time we live like we’re ready for God’s kingdom, to give as God’s people are supposed to give, and to love as God loves us.  Better get ready – November’s on it’s way!

Dear Friends of Atonement,

“This is how one should regard us,
 as servants of Christ
and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
-- 1 Corinthians 4:1      

          We are keeping an eye out for the changes that Fall brings our way.  Up north, they watch the colors change on the trees.  Here in Florida, we see the colors change on the license plates.  The snowbirds are on their way, we’ve missed them and we ‘re  glad they’re coming back.
I have heard people remark more than once about how active the snowbirds are at Atonement.  Unlike many congregations where the wintertime visitors limit their involvement to simply worshiping on Sunday morning, many of our snowbirds participate in ministries.  We have snowbirds that sing in the choir and serve in the food pantry.  They’ll help with the youth yard sales and take parts in the Live Nativity.  You won’t just see them show up to eat at fundraising events, they’ll be helping in the kitchen.  Such enthusiasm for serving the Lord inspires me, and I’m so happy we have a congregation where everyone can find a place to use their gifts. 
The Christian faith has this wonderful word for the way we use all our gifts and resources: “stewardship.”  My brother used to be a medical courier.  It was his job to take specimens and samples back and forth between hospitals and labs all over the city.  He had to drive carefully on the streets and freeways, always handling those items like priceless artifacts.  What made those specimens and samples so valuable was that they were unique to those individuals.
God has made you a unique specimen of grace, love and beauty given human form and shape and carefully patterned after His own image. Imagine how unique and important your own gifts are.  There are talents you have, skills you’ve gained, a specific set of experience and knowledge no one else shares.  Your stewardship is wrapped up in how you use the one-of-a-kind “you-ness” God has given you, along with all the gifts and resources around you.
This afternoon, Carla Haberland and I were at Garden Montessori school on Boyette Rd.  Children’s eyes grew bright and they exclaimed, “Miss Carla!” when they saw her, remembering her from their field trip to the food pantry.  Everything around us was kid-sized, so we stood as we heard the story of how their class of 11 kindergarteners voted to do a car wash fundraiser, then voted to have the funds go to the food pantry.  They told us they had fun washing the cars, that they used special environmentally-friendly soap, and that they ended up raising $456.25.  “Let us know, whatever we can do,” the teacher told us as we left. 
What wonderful stewards these children are learning to be – not only learning things like how to care for the planet and clean up after themselves, but how to use your gifts to help others.  They are learning to answer God’s invitation to “let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Thanks again for all the ways you participate in God’s work.  Every offering given from the heart, every bit of time spent volunteering, praying, visiting, encouraging and supporting others – these are priceless gifts from God that you are sharing with others.  Thanks for answering God’s invitation to shine your light brightly.  Doesn’t matter if you’re a long-time member or a brand new visitor, a snowbird, youth, parent or single… we all have an invitation to involvement.  And it’s an open invitation, so we don’t have to wait round for another one – just jump right in and turn on your light!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Give thanks for the children

“Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me
and do not hinder them,
for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’”
— Matthew 19:14

The trends are clear. As churchgoing people get older and young families gravitate more towards non-denominational churches with bigger children’s programs, congregations like ours are finding it more and more of a rarity to see children pass through their doors. That just makes it all the more clear how blessed we are to have children in worship. When those young ones gather up front for the children’s moment, smiles appear across faces all around the sanctuary.

But I keep hearing stories of local churches that don’t have any young people coming, churches that have dropped nursery, Sunday school and youth ministries altogether. The trends are worrisome to all of us who love children and wonder how Christian faith will get passed on to future generations. With all the distractions, temptations and negative influences facing young people in our world today, when will they hear about Jesus and how will they learn to follow him? So how should we focus our priorities as a church family?

When Carl Haberland died last month, I felt bad for the children in our congregation. Here was a man who knew how important these little ones are to God. He would come and speak to confirmation classes (even making the long and, for him, painful trip up to Dade City) about the unconditional love of Jesus, and how they always have a friend they can pray to for help. He made donations to ministries and organizations bringing relief to suffering children locally and in the third world. And he always smiled and spoke to the children, getting to know as many of the youth of our congregation as he could by name.

Blessed as we are, we keep sharing the blessing with the smallest in our midst. I thank each one of you for sharing that spirit of Jesus, who welcomed all the children and blessed each one.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Spirit of the Lord is on me -- Luke 4:18

Praise God!

This is a month of anniversaries for me. If you read your July newsletter (you HAVE read your July newsletter, haven’t you?), you know that this month marks my 5th year at Atonement. How incredible to think that 5 years have gone by already! It seems like just months ago we were dodging Day care children and wondering when they were going to start all that construction…
But this month is also the 20th anniversary of my ordination. Yes, I became a pastor 20 years ago, when Bishop Reginald Holle, my stepmother Rev. Roberta Lindner and Rev. Bernard Philabaum laid hands on me and prayed God’s Spirit would fill me. The Bible passage that day was Luke chapter 4, where Jesus comes back home to Nazareth to guest preach in the synagogue. Everyone is silent as He reads from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me to preach
good news to the poor,
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to release the oppressed and proclaim
the year of the Lord’s favor.

That’s quite a job description for any pastor, any Christian, any congregation to contemplate. But it gives us all some important questions to think about:

1. Is the Spirit of the Lord upon ME? upon our congregation?
2. Has God anointed me for a special task or ministry?
3. Are the fruits of my life GOOD NEWS to the poor and suffering around me?
4. Do I understand, believe and trust that I am living in the LORD’s FAVOR?

As I reflect on 20 years of ordained ministry, I am painfully aware of times I neglected God’s favor and call to difficult tasks -- times I needed to change but didn’t, and times I needed to stand steadfast but caved in to popular opinion. But I also celebrate the grace that lifted me, strengthened me, stretched and renewed me, and finally carried me to Wesley Chapel, Florida to live, love and work among you all. All ministry belongs to God and anything good that comes from our human efforts are made so by His Spirit.

I am just back from a whirlwind vacation, where I had the opportunity to worship at the first congregation I served in Vassar, Michigan, and to visit the newly constructed sanctuary of the other church I served, St. Paul Lutheran in Greenville, Michigan. These are the church families I have loved, prayed and cared for. Both visits were sacred, holy moments for me, to see both congregations doing well, growing and changing under direction of the Spirit of God.

It fills me with joy as I pray for you, for your growth in Christ, for your love and discipleship, to know that the Spirit of the Lord is upon you too. We walk together, work together, live, laugh and love together in the name of Jesus, who makes all our efforts mean something. I thank God that you are part of his family, Atonement’s ministry, and my life!

from the newsletter

Would you be our nursery coordinator? Or maybe Sunday school superintendent? How about a member of the outreach or worship and music team? Or help get the senior’s group or member care team going again?

Hold on -- Summer’s the time to lay back and relax. Travel, put your feet up, take in the sun. Please Pastor, don’t make me think about all this church business.

All right, take it easy for now, but get ready! After a little R&R, it will be time to start some rebuilding. Not bricks and mortar building – not yet. But leadership and volunteers.

This month marks my 5th year here at Atonement. What a great 5 years it has been, and how far we have come -- we have grown spiritually, grown in attendance, grown in giving, and grown remarkably in service to the community. We’re off to a great start.

But we have also grown a little tired. After 5 years of pushing ahead, some groups and projects have run out of steam. Some of us who were regular attenders have found it hard to get back in the habit. Some of us who never attended much have stopped altogether. Some great ideas that never got off the ground have been forgotten or laid aside.

Spend the Summer relaxing and renewing your strength. Pray about how you will deepen your faith life and your participation in God’s mission at Atonement. Because when Fall hits, it’s time for take off.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Closer than you think

“I am certain that neither death nor life, no angel or prince,
nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power,
nor height nor depth, nor any created thing can ever come between us
and the love of God made visible in Jesus Christ our Lord."
— Romans 8:38-39

Sometimes it seems like we’re always saying goodbye. In church we make friends, falling in love with our fellow Christians, community members, and partners in ministry. And then they go away for the summer, or sometimes move away, or sometimes pass away.

Summer is upon us: time when families hit the road and head out as far as gas prices will allow. We remember those who travel and pray for their safe return. Vacations, mission trips, visits to relatives, cruises and cross-country tours. If we can manage it, we’re on the move. Our hearts go out to those serving in the military, especially those displaced to distant lands where they work in the danger zone on our behalf. But distance in miles does not mean distance in the heart. We hold them all close through the love of Jesus Christ.
We remember our graduates, heading off to a new phase of life. What a huge step from living under their parents’ roof to venturing out into this big, wild world. Sure, they face responsibilities and risks, decisions and consequences, but also the chance to spread their wings and show us what they can do. Seeing them at their baptism, treading off to Sunday school, and shedding a tear at their confirmation service, you can hardly believe that today they’ve reached adulthood. Was yesterday really so long ago? But the passing years do not mean the passing of our hopes. We will always hold them close in the love of Jesus Christ.
Lois, Jane, and Joyce — three beautiful ladies who loved their shepherd Savior, went to be with Him this month. Gone from our midst and missed, they are still with us in so many ways. The last baby blanket Lois made will be shared with a needy family just as she wanted. When members of Joyce’s family & loved ones gathered at Bushnell, her brother told of her acceptance of Christ. And for Jane who went so quickly we hardly had time to realize what happened, we will hold a celebration when Gene returns from Ohio. But life and even loss of life are no barriers for those who live in God’s promises. There are no final goodbyes, for we know that God will once again bring us all together. We hold them close, and are held ourselves forever in the love of Jesus Christ.


Pastor Scott

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Deacons are coming! The Deacons are coming!

"[Deacons] must hold on to the deep truths of the faith. Even their own minds tell them to do that. First they must be tested. Then let them serve as deacons if there is nothing against them."
— 1 Timothy 3:9-10 (NIrV)

You’re in for a treat! I can’t wait until May, because we’re going to have some tremendous guest speakers preaching at the 10am service. They are not movie stars, past presidents, or motivational speakers. They are not retired sports figures or pastors. But they do have some great things to share with you about how God’s love has worked in their lives. Best of all, you know these people!

These are the deacon candidates being trained for lay ministry here at Atonement. They have been reading, studying, bringing communion to shut-ins, and attending classes with me every other week. They have committed to a two-year training period before being eligible to be consecrated as Atonement’s very first “synodical deacons.” Since we began last fall, we have covered classes in Communion, Old Testament, Preaching, and are now studying the Lutheran Confessions. And in May they will be preaching in worship.

This is more than just a training exercise. In our class, they’ve each had an opportunity to practice preaching. I am very proud of each one of them, because each brings a special gift to bear on their unique presentation of God’s Word. Some of them are nervous, some excited to be speaking in church. I know you will listen and receive their messages graciously and enthusiastically, and have encouraging feedback to give them. What’s more, I believe you will leave each service blessed with new insights at God’s amazing love and a whole new wonder at the gifts God gives his people!

Pastor Scott

On Earthquakes and Easter

"He has been raised from the dead, and is going ahead…
there you will see him..."
— Matthew 28:7

The man stood looking over the concrete sea wall down into the harbor. It was low tide and water pooled in small puddles on the muddy floor of the inlet. Suddenly out to sea, the large level wave could be seen bearing down silently upon the shore. The man saw the wave crash and the water pour into the harbor, the boats bobbing up and down like toys in the bathtub, with a second wave on its way. This time, the wave’s impact on the shore shot vertical sprays of dark water forty feet into the air. The man decides to move to higher ground. As soon as he has climbed up a nearby observation platform, he glances back to where he stood a second ago. A veritable Niagara Falls of muddy water is now pouring over the sea wall and the sidewalk has disappeared. “Oh my God,” he says, in Japanese.

After seeing the vast devastation caused by earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear emergencies across the ocean, we ought to give a second thought to our own lives. Today is a gift from God — tomorrow no more than a hope. The only certainty we have for tomorrow comes from Jesus Christ. His death on the cross was a tidal wave, smashing through our sins and drowning death itself. His Easter life is a new chance He’s given us here on earth and a place with Him in glory to come. Experience it all close up this Holy week & Easter!

Pastor Scott

Praise God!

April 4, 2011

 “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord…’”
-- Isaiah 61:10
Praise God!
Once again, thanks to your faithful giving and careful stewardship, we have been able to meet all our financial obligations. Not only that, we are growing in worship with the addition of Ruby Agnir as our new choir director. I want to fill you in on a few more things that are going on in and around Atonement as we move towards Easter and the celebration of God’s promises fulfilled in the Risen Christ! –

  • This is our third year without the extra income that Little Pioneers Daycare brought in, but income from offerings has grown almost to the point of replacing it. We are now heading into the summer months when our offering income takes a dip, but we still hope the offerings will take care of most of our regular expenditures.
  • By Easter, you should see results of our next phase in improving audiovisual technology in the sanctuary. We will be installing screens that should result in better flow in worship and less expense printing bulletins.
  • We have now established a building fund for the new construction that we have planned. This includes work redoing our parking and landscaping as a result of the road construction. It also includes putting up a new building, which will serve as multi-purpose gathering space (with full kitchen) along with much-needed additional food pantry storage. Special gifts may be directed to this fund at any time. 
  • Our national church body has been hit much harder than expected by reductions in giving. Mission congregations throughout the country have seen their pastors’ salaries reduced by 30%. This includes our own mission partner, Peace Lutheran Church in Tampa and their pastor, Michael Birra. At our meeting yesterday, Tampa area churches voted to use some of our conference dollars to support Pastor Birra’s salary and another $1000 to develop a support team that would assist that church in reaching out and growing.
  • Thanks to the local papers, tv stations and word-of-mouth, our Helping Hands food pantry has gotten great exposure lately. More people are calling the church and asking about it – both people needing help and people wanting to donate food.
  • We will be hosting a short seminar with luncheon on Sunday, May 1 after the 10am service called Charitable Giving: How to Make a Difference by Giving Back. Deb Kretchman, our local Thrivent representative will be sharing information and leading discussion. You can sign up at church, or call the church office at 813-973-2211.
Take a moment and think of some of the blessings in your life. Thanks to our faith and awareness of God’s presence and love for us, we know who we are and what life is about. As we prepare to bring our Easter worship to God, we remember that He gave his Son Jesus for us and we want to give Him back our very best. As Atonement member Lilja Taylor reminds us in her poem “Easter Parable,” “He did what we could not”! Bring Him your best this Easter, your thanks, your praise, your heart!

Pastor Scott

Blessings Abound in 2011

January 8, 2011

“Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the presence of all his people,
‘No, my lord, hear me; I give you the field…’”
-- Genesis 23:10-11

Blessings Abound!

Even in the midst of grieving for his beloved wife, Sarah, Abraham remembered that God is good and His blessings abound. Gathered around his friends and neighbors, he asks for some land, a beautiful and secure place where he may bury the love of his life. He asks for a specific place, a field with a cave owned by a man named Ephron, and he offers to pay the full price. But Ephron is touched by his love for Abraham and the pain in Abraham’s hurting heart – and he offers Abraham the land, the field, the cave – all for free. But Abraham will not have it so. He pays for field, a good fair price of 400 silver pieces and thereby officially becomes an owner of a piece of the land God promised him.

This is what you call a win-win-win situation. Abraham wins, because he acquires the specific piece of property he wants. Ephron wins, because not only does he get to show his generous heart to Abraham and all his friends, he still gets a good price for his land. And God wins, because His purpose is fulfilled, His will is done, and His children have worked it all out in love.

This is how God’s grace works in our lives. Christ has given us his love, generously and freely on the cross. We accept His love and forgiveness, and even though we know we could never repay such generosity, we try our best. We use our gifts, we care for each other, and we always look for ways to give more for God’s work in the world. And then God is blessed too. He sees our appreciation for what He gives us, He knows the love in our hearts, and the glory we give Him becomes our reward as well.

May blessings abound to you in 2011. May you live and give generously, so that every day is a win-win-win. May God’s grace come to you in the joys and sorrows of your life and remind you what a great gift you are, and what a great gift you have!

Pastor Scott

Marching into Lent

"There is a season for everything;
a time for every occupation under heaven."

— Ecclesiastes 3:1

If there’s one thing I hear Floridians say they miss about living up north, it’s the change of seasons. Many miss the dramatic changes, the fiery Fall colors and the green shoots peeking up through a white blanket of snow. But even here in Florida the signs of approaching Spring are emerging. The grass is a little less brown, the lizards are moving about more, and the oak pollen covers our mailboxes. With our record lows behind us, we are experiencing more of the beautiful Winter days Florida is known for.

We will soon be seeing a dramatic seasonal change in worship. The mountaintop glory of Transfiguration Sunday at the end of Epiphany (March 6 this year), ushers us down into the valley of Lent the following Wednesday (Ash Wednesday, March 9). The mood changes quickly from celebration to introspection, from exultant praise to quiet contemplation. This year, Lent (and Easter) will be coming much later than usual. In fact it can only come one day later, and this won’t happen until the year 2038! So just when the temperature outside is warming, we will be finding the tone of worship darkening as we look into our hearts and rediscover our deep need for Jesus and his forgiveness.

Here at Atonement we will delve into Lenten worship in three ways. As usual, we will be having midweek Lenten services at 7:00 pm, beginning Ash Wednesday and continuing through the week before Holy Week. Except for Ash Wednesday, each of these services will be preceded by a soup supper. During the midweek services our Jesus in Film series we will examine different ways Jesus has been portrayed in the movies. We’ll watch clips from films such as The Miracle Maker, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Passion of the Christ to see what they reveal and what they distort in how they present our Lord.

Sundays in Lent, we will take a serious look at the sins of the church. We have a wonderful congregation at Atonement, and we do many things well. Still, we are susceptible to the same temptations and shortcomings that any Christian church in our culture is liable to. Our Sunday sermon series, The Broken Body, will be a thought- provoking and enlightening examination of some of the obstacles keeping us from fulfilling our potential to be God’s people.

Finally, we hope you are able to take the opportunity to join us for the “Spring Safari” weekend up at Luther Springs camp, March 18-20. This year, we are receiving an unprecedented low rate for our congregation — only $55/person for the two-night stay in a fine, clean cabin with restrooms and 4 meals included! And only $75 if you prefer the “hotel style” room. Beautiful scenery, walks by the lake, an archery range...all this plus the Bible study, fellowship and worship program add up to a fun and memorable weekend.

Join us, and don’t forget to tell your friends and neighbors about the meaningful and memorable Lenten worship lineup at Atonement this season.

Pastor Scott

Better Living Through Faithfulness

In an experiment conducted at UCLA, 2 groups of participants were given a test. Both groups were given an opportunity to cheat on the test, and some members of the first group did. Nobody in the second group cheated. What was the difference? Well, before the test, members of the first group were asked to list their 10 favorite books. Members of the second group were asked to list as many of the 10 commandments as they could recall. Most of them could not recall more than one or two, but somehow just thinking about the 10 commandments made them all more honest.

The 10 commandments are one of God’s great gifts to humanity. Our world needs these words from God like never before. When we leave God and His will for us out of our lives, we become less honest, less thoughtful, and ultimately less happy people. Join us at the 10am services through February for What Love Demands, a series on the 10 commandments and how they can change your life.

Pastor Scott

Saturday, January 8, 2011

from January newsletter

All around us they are digging, dumping, paving and rolling. We pass within inches of orange barrels and construction workers. It’s all a little hectic, a little confusing, and with all that traffic, more than a little dangerous.
This is why your council has decided to hire some assistance from the Pasco Sheriff’s Department in helping us move traffic in and out on Sunday mornings. The deputies will be there to make sure people keep alert as they exit and enter church property each week, at least until construction is over. At that point, State Road 54 will be a divided highway with a median out in front of the church and no opportunity for a left turn. We are recommending everyone get used to turning right as you exit. For those who live east of the church, find a place you can turn around comfortably (such as making a left turn into Brookside). Take it easy, be careful out there, and have a safe and happy New Year!

Pastor Scott