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.