Thursday, December 27, 2012

Do it all

Whatever you do in word or deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.
                             — Colossians 3:17

The email sounded urgent.  “Please come back,” it said in the Subject line.  “We miss you.”  But this was not from any long-lost family member or old friend from church.  This e-mail came from an online store.  I bought a desk lamp from them earlier this year, and now...Come back, we miss you — seriously?  I don’t even know you.  More like you miss my money.

             I suppose this kind of thing is supposed to make me feel some kind of attachment to the merchant, give me some sense of emotional obligation to them.  Instead, it creeps me out.  It makes me feel more anonymous, more like a number (a credit card number, that is) and less like a human being.  Our computers and cell phones are now tracking us, watching us, analyzing what we buy and where we go, trying to figure out what we are most likely to purchase next.  They share this info with companies that keep records of every purchase and send these warm fuzzy emails to entice us to keep coming back.
I don’t know about you, but it makes me uneasy knowing there are companies out there that know all kinds of things about me I don’t even know about myself.  Information is powerful, and technology has advanced so quickly in the last 10 years, the potential for abuse is huge and few of us see where it’s heading.  I get as many scams and spams in my email box as legitimate communications.  And it’s getting harder to tell the difference.
As I finish out my yearly read through the Bible, I am in the book of Revelation these days.  It is, of course, about the end times and where things are ultimately going on this planet, but it was also written for it’s own day.  The young Christian churches struggled with the vast

machinery of a brutal, dehumanizing Roman Empire.   True, it was a government that gave everyone a certain kind of safety and stability.  The Romans wanted to be loved by their subjects — after all, they built roads and sanitation systems, and kept a semblance of order.  But they made a demand that conflicted with every Christian’s conscience — worship the Emperor.   Call him your Lord, your Master, your Supreme Ruler, and everything will work out fine.  And often the Christians who turned out to be just uppity enough to say no were tortured or killed.
The book of Revelation is the story of the machinery of this world which intrudes into our life, demanding worship, allegiance, or at least to be liked.  Written in code, it depicts the dehumanizing horrors of their day as misshaped monsters and violent beasts feeding on the human spirit.  Now, I’m not saying that this company that sent me this one email pleading for another purchase is some kind of agent of the antichrist.  But I don’t think they’re entirely unrelated, either.
The world is full of pressures that push us away from God.  They want to replace the priorities of our hearts, the things we really want that would make us truly happy, with policies and products.  We fall in love with the things we do and the stuff we have, forgetting that love is for people. We find ourselves advancing into artificial worlds concocted by human beings, kingdoms of something other than Christ designed around political power or moving merchandise, or games of one type or another.  We exchange flesh and blood face-to-face human interaction for 140 letter tweets.  Our lives become centered in these worlds, and our spirits sag as we realize we’ve begun to leave God’s world, his kingdom, behind. 

Revelation is a warning to us today — that there are always rival kingdoms encroaching on God’s territory, kingdoms that will one day fall.  The end of the book is unbridled hope, but only for those who are  not so attached to the stuff of this world that they’ve forgotten that it’s people that God’s going to save in the end.  We’ll all be made new and given a place in the endless rejoicing of heaven, where God is always center stage.
With all that in mind, I can think of no better way to enter 2013 than with Paul’s prescription from Colossians — whatever you do, keep Jesus in mind and do it for him.  When deciding where to go, who to hang out with, how to spend your time, what to buy — do what you can be proud of doing, remembering that you always stand before Christ.  Maybe that’s him now, calling to you, pleading in your heart: Please come back, I miss you...

Pastor Scott



Sunday, December 2, 2012

Ready or not....

After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it,
that the remnant of humanity may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord...

                                                                — Acts 15:16-17

It’s time to get ready — pull the tree out (remember where you put it?), dust off all those boxes of ornaments, find the old nativity set and get to work.  For most of us, the season of Advent is time to get busy.  We don’t just sit around waiting for the Christ child — we have things to do.  Run to the store to get the ingredients for those Christmas cookies.  Run the kids to rehearsal for the Christmas program.  Run down that list to find that just-right present for Uncle Albert (I’m sure there’s an app for that).  It’s a season full of preparations — and somewhere in the thick of it all — wrapping presents, receiving guests, decorating, cooking, going to church and  doing the good things we do — then all of a sudden Christmas comes. 
No matter how long the build up, it arrives in an instant.  No matter how long before Thanksgiving the Christmas music started to play on the radio, Christmas gets here before you know it.  It always takes my breath away,  not because the day itself is different from other days, but because it reminds me that on a day just as ordinary as this one God was born.  Under the same deep sky with the same stars looking down on this very planet, a virgin conceived a child named Jesus.  Immanuel, God with us.  Right here.
God had his own preparations to make for that day.  From the moment we stopped living for God and started making life just about us, the Lord got busy.  He began assembling the story, wrapping his greatest gift up in promises which would rain down upon his precious people.  We had turned our backs on his command and sovereignty, but God would come at us with grace.  “Humankind will crush your head,” he told the old serpent, “and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). 
              He sent messengers throughout the ages to tell us that that what was lost would one day be found, what is gone will be regained, what was broken will be re-made.  The prophets shared the promise that David’s fallen tent — the line that once carried the hope of humankind, would be restored.  When our own attempts to set the world right proved utter failures — BEHOLD — “for us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government shall be on his shoulders, and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6  God prepared the world for his arrival, bringing hope for a King of Kings, a light not just for David’s people the Jews, but for all people everywhere.
So if your tree looks a little lopsided, if you just couldn’t find the right gift for Uncle Albert, even if the pieces to your old nativity set have cracks in their necks or fingers broken off — however overdone the  Christmas cookies are, just remember there’s some One who’s been preparing for this for 2000 years.  No matter what, he will take us along.  No matter what, we are heading nonstop into a holy mystery, a downhill ride that won’t end until we find ourselves face to face with the miracle of the Word made flesh.
It’s time to get ready, to hear again the story of our sad descent into sin and the radical solution of God’s descent to be with us.  It’s time to prepare our hearts to marvel at the height, width, and depth of his love for us, that he would strip himself of all power to become a baby in a maiden’s arms.  It’s time to stand beneath the starlight and wonder at the moment when this world received the child who was the very one who made this world.  There’s nothing else like Christmas, and it’s on its way.  Are you ready?


Tuesday, November 20, 2012


       The way he put it made me laugh: “It’s both wonderful and nearly unbelievable that Atonement has reached their 25th Anniversary.”  This was how Rev. Ronald Ryckman began his letter of congratulations.  Pastor Ryckman had been the Florida Mission Director when our congregation needed help avoiding foreclosure, and had interceded with the Mission Investment Fund on our behalf.  He saw Atonement at the moment of truth, when the survival of the congregation was on the line.  And he saw God pull us out of the fire.
            Pastor Ryckman was one of many names we remember as Atonement turns 25.  I had letters to share at the anniversary dinner from founding Pastor Matthew Cox as well as Pastors Chris Kratzer and Jim (and Nancy) Horn.  We were especially blessed to have Pastor Lin Houck and his wife Milllie, along with Pastor Dave and Debbie Kruger in attendance.  Together we shared Atonement’s real-life story of how dedication, faith and perseverance overcome struggle and conflict.  On All Saints’ Sunday Bishop Benoway and Rita Gardner-Tweed also helped us remember the huge roll of people who served, supported, befriended and prayed for this congregation.  God has been good through it all, even when our faith was being tested.
            As the final year of our first 25, 2012 felt to me like a year of harvest.  Not that we slacked off sowing seeds.  We continued looking forward, striving to do what we do even better and listening for God’s call to new ministry ventures.  But this last year we started seeing some of the payoff for all the patience and sacrifice.  It feels great to see work completed on State Rd. 54 with and to have our new parking lot done.  Yes, there are a few details left to finish (getting that church sign back up, for instance), but we look like we’re in business again.
            Improvements have taken place inside as well.  With a new undersea mural underway in the education wing and plans to replace the 20 year old carpet in that hallway, we’re looking forward to providing a higher quality experience for the children and families who use those rooms most.  New lights and sound panels in the sanctuary improve the worship experience in person and on the recordings that go out on the internet and to the homebound. 
            We have also seen ministries blossom – our active Women’s Group has taken on regular activities and the funding for the Bidwell Scholarship.  Social ministries help children during the holidays and Resurrection House families through the baby shower.  The Helping Hands Food Pantry has gained such a good reputation in the community that it even became a part of this year’s Honorary Mayor’s Race for Wesley Chapel.  Office staff, music and Christian education ministries are consistently high quality.  Years of discussion and the completion of a 2 year training program have culminated in the consecration of five deacons.  A good crop indeed! 
            Looking out over the crowds who had come out from towns and villages to hear him and be healed, Jesus told the disciples: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the Harvest therefore to send out workers into the field.”  (Matthew 9:37-38).  We have more people than ever coming to us needing the care and love of our Savior.  They come during the week needing prayer, food, someone to listen, a place to belong… they come Sunday morning looking for a smile, seeking a new friend, longing to hear a word of hope and grace… they are looking for the One who found you, the One you have found at Atonement.  They come seeking Jesus, the One who pulled us through these first twenty five years and is pushing us onwards into the next.  And the harvest is looking greater than ever! 


             So what are Atonement’s next 25 years going to look like?  Our community is growing, and so it’s easy to see us continuing the slow, steady growth that we’ve experienced over the last few years.  However, the number of Lutherans (or people familiar with Lutheranism) is declining as the population ages, and younger people increasingly seek non-denominational churches (or no church at all)!  This means if we are to continue to reach people over the long-term, we need to consider those outside our walls. 
          For one thing, we are looking into a new worship service to serve the spiritual needs of those in our community and the younger generations.  We don’t know what that’s going to look like yet, but we do know it will be different from what we’re doing now.  Clearly our present services are a hit with those who attend them, and we are not intending to change what’s already working.  However, a new style of service at a different time (possibly Saturday evening) could reach a new audience and connect younger adults and families to Christ.  Keep in mind, this is not something we’d be offering for people who are fans of our current services.  The idea is to do something different enough that it would reach a whole new group of people.  We expect that people who like what we’re doing now would not particularly like this new thing.
             We have also become aware that with new technologies available, people give differently these days.  People come to church without their checkbooks and without a dollar in their pocket, but they may have a credit or debit card, and they have their smart phones (mine’s still a dumb phone).  Seeing the financial world turning increasingly paperless, we are currently working on gaining the ability to take donations by credit card.   We will soon have the ability to receive donations online, and through smart phones as well.  Automatic giving can be done with credit card as well, although our Simply Giving program presently provides a slightly better alternative.
Presently our plans for the near future also include a new men’s ministry, a new picture directory in 2013, expanding some of our programs for the needy, and developing some home Bible study groups.  With the new memorial garden dedicated just this November, we will begin looking at plans to erect a columbarium for the placement of ashes.  We expect some new ministry partnerships to be developing in the near future.  We have said good-bye to our friends at the First Hispanic Unity Church, now worshiping down in Tampa, and are looking for new ways to support Pastor Michael Birra and the people of the former Peace Lutheran mission to the Oromo speaking population in Tampa.  We are also anticipating greater partnership with our Scout troops developing this year. 

“When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments with trumpets and the Levites with cymbals took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David, King of Israel.  With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord:
            ‘He is good; his love to Israel endures forever!’
And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.  But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads who had seen the former temple wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.  No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise.  And the sound was heard far away.”
                                                                  -          Ezra 3:10-13

          Maybe you’ve noticed that it’s been getting a little crowded at church, lately.  Not just in the sanctuary (which is wonderful to see!) but in the church office, my office, the hallway, the youth room, the garage, and the one (the only one!) storage closet we have in the church building.  The ministries we do require us to have a certain amount of stuff, and stuff takes up space – one thing we don’t have a whole lot of.  Happily, we’ll soon be adding a new garage out back for additional storage.  We have really needed it for a long time, and now we’ll be able to stop renting that storage unit down the street.
           But, as Jesus once said (making a very different point), now is only the beginning of the birth pains.  Knowing we’d run out of space sooner or later, we have been preparing.  After pushing our facility to the limit, asking it to give us more than it ever had, now in 2013 we will finally see our first major changes to the church building itself.  Along with that, our first capital campaign will launch to pay for a planned new building.   
First, in January we will see our present church building get a much-needed facelift.  An overhang for the drop off area and new exterior for the front will make the church look better and extend the building’s life.  Further siding is planned for the future as the next phase nears completion.
That next phase will take off in February as we sit down to pray and reflect over how each of us can participate in Atonement’s first building campaign since the church was put here.  Guided by God and led by His Spirit, we will be working together over the next 3 years to raise enough money to pay for a multi-purpose building for classes, storage, fellowship meals, and even worship.  Laying Foundations for the Children of God will be a three-year giving program in which we ask each member: Beyond your regular offering, what would constitute for you a true financial sacrifice?  What could God possibly be asking of you to help build a future for the many ministries of Atonement? 

 Ezra wrote about the day in 536 B.C. when the Jewish people who had returned to their homeland laid the foundation for a new temple.  The young people had never had a place of their own in which to worship.  Many people who were there that day to witness the new temple rise from the ashes still remembered the old one that had been destroyed fifty years before.  The young ones were filled with a pure joy like they’d never known, while the old folks wept at the struggle they’d gone through, the memory of the old temple’s glory, and the splendor of their nation’s past.
Our 25th anniversary service last month reminded me a little of that day.  With the bishop preaching and the consecration of our five hard-working deacons, and with all the celebrating our 25 years came the sadness at the death of Frank Reams.  Here was a man who, as much as anyone, gave his best to make these next 25 years possible for Atonement.  Someone whispered in my ear that morning, “It doesn’t make sense that Frank’s not here to see this.”  I felt the mingled joy and sorrow of that day back in Ezra’s time when, even on the threshold of a new dawn, the extent of all that was suffered and sacrificed came into plain view.
And yet, Frank as much as anyone had the hope of resurrection in his heart.  He knew that however hard he worked, he was never laboring in vain.  He had that twinkle in his eye and a childlike smile that showed on the outside how much love there was inside.  And he is still there with us in all that he did, all that he dreamed and hoped for, and all we shared with him and he with us as we worked together in Christ.  And in Christ we know the kind of sacrifice that is joy and the kind of giving that leads to new life.
So today we go forward, as God calls us to do; we look upward, because the faith of so many dedicated servants has brought us this far; we work harder, for there are more opportunities than ever to bring the gospel to those around us; and we move onward because that’s where love is, where true joy is – waiting in that future God has prepared for us to find, together.