Sunday, December 6, 2015

2015-2016: A Hope and a promise

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

See the world with Christmas eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Scott