Thursday, December 7, 2017

God's Christmas Ways

“Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you.  He is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you – you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”                   
                                   -- Luke 2:11-12

            I don’t normally go looking for babies, but I do see them from time to time.  They may be in a baby carriage being pushed along by a parent at the store.  They may be in the arms of a family member, in the process of being passed around and oogled at by friends and relatives.  They may be hauled up to the baptismal font to be blessed by Jesus with the water of life.  I’ve even seen a baby bathed in a sink, but I’ve never actually seen a baby lying in a real-life honest-to-goodness manger.

            A lifetime of Christmases makes it hard to understand just what a strange thing it was for those Bethlehem shepherds to walk in on.  They were sent by a heavenly host of angels, not to the maternity ward or to a cozy bedroom, but to “that lowly stable [where] humble Christ was born.”  What do you think they wondered at as they saw this sight?  That they’d been spending too much time out in those pastures with the sheep?

            Christmas tells us that God comes to us in surprising ways.  Christ’s message is counter-cultural, and His kingdom carries with it a whole different set of assumptions and priorities than we are used to living with.  It tells of a seemingly small event, the birth of a baby in a backwater village, which turns out to be more important than all the battles of armies and all the coronations of kings.  It tells of the world’s Savior put to rest on a bed of hay in a donkey’s feeding trough.  It tells of the honored guests brought to witness this all-important moment – not stylish celebrities, powerful rulers or paparazzi, but common shepherds who enter the scene in garments smelling of dirt, sweat and grass.

            Behold God’s Christmas ways, so far from the ways we humans do strategic planning.  God’s Christmas ways count each person as holy, full of possibility and promise.  They write each one of us into the story, giving our lives meaning beyond our own understanding.  These ways bring light into the darkest places and hope where even the most optimistic of us lose our nerve.  These Christmas ways of God sent a baby to do a deity’s work, and the powers of evil never saw it coming.  These are the ways of divine love.  

            But if God really works this way, what does that say about us?  We who work hard and think it’s our work bringing the blessing, we who see ourselves at the center of it all, we who think we’re so full of love while we’re busy ignoring the neediest among us…God’s Christmas ways tell us to find the blessing in what we’ve already been given, to look beyond ourselves for life’s fulfillment, to join the desires of our hearts with the places in this world where suffering is greatest. 

            This baby will become a refugee from his homeland, will be accused of being a menace to society, will become a condemned and crucified criminal.  But God’s Christmas ways are also God’s Easter ways, so He never ceases to surprise us by bringing life out of death.  This season we remember God came to us as a baby, so open to the world, so vulnerable, so totally accepting, so small and everyday but still such a miracle.

            I don’t normally go looking for babies, but when I do see them from time to time, it’s hard to look away.  There’s something about a baby that draws us to look, to wonder, to smile.  Come in from the pastures this Christmas and let that baby draw you in.  Let yourself be gathered with those people all over the world, pilgrim shepherds every one, who come to find a baby in a most amazing place – in the manger of their hearts.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Out of the Blue (2017 Annual Report)

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my Word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the living for which I sent it.”
                                                               -- Isaiah 55:10
            At a worship service celebrating the installation of one of our new pastors here in the Florida-Bahamas synod, our bishop began the service with a prayer of thanksgiving for our baptism.  Then while we sang the opening hymn, he sprinkled holy water from the baptismal font on the entire congregation.  The drops of water were a cool and sudden reminder, falling out of the blue, that we belong to a gracious and generous God who “makes his sun rise on the good and evil, and lets the rain fall on the just and unjust” (Matthew 5:45).  It’s true – we have his grace without deserving it, without earning it, and without expecting it.  God’s love comes to us “out of the blue” and drenches us with new possibilities.
            We have seen this happen over and over this year at Atonement.  Something happens that was talked about long ago, or maybe just recently thought about, but was really considered a distant dream.  Then God makes it happen.  That’s what it feels like as we look back at the birth of our Hispanic mission, Todos Unidos en Cristo.  Now up and running with their own website, Todos Unidos en Cristo (TUC) is the new stage of life growing out of our Hispanic ministry and English as Second Language classes started last year.  Now it has become a bona fide Synodically Authorized Worshiping Community (SAWC) of the ELCA, with permission to begin services, take in members, and do most of what any congregation is expected to do. 
            With 20% of our community identified as Hispanic or Latino, TUC is here to help us make sure we do not forget this part of our own mission to share the love of Jesus.  As of February 2017, TUC is up and running with Esthel Kane as lay developer.  She is leading this new mission under my supervision, with guidance and coaching from the Synod office and national ELCA offices.  Not only is the mission receiving thousands of dollars in support from the synod and national church, Esthel is being trained to become a pastor in a unique new program that allows us to stay with us here as she studies.  Esthel will soon be doing her “field work” part of this training, which includes internship and clinical work at a nearby hospital.
            With so many people feeling stressed these days, our visitation team and myself are stretched to the limit trying to provide care for our members.  For several years we have explored and discussed becoming involved in the Stephen Ministry program.  This is a well-known and interdenominational system of training and oversight for caregivers in Christian congregations.  In January, Jan Buland, Chris Rymer and myself spent a week learning how to get it going, and realized it was going to take months just to get set up and ready to train caregivers.  By Fall though, we had four people ready for training.  We did the training at double speed, which was a brutal pace but allowed us to consecrate our first Stephen Ministers in November: Kathy Alvare, Vanessa Frost, Chris Rymer, and Bill Slippy.
            These four have committed to at least two years of ministry, each of them working with one care receiver at a time.  They will spend about an hour each week listening, praying, encouraging, and caring for their care receiver, and 5 hours a month in supervisory discussions and continuing education.  From here on out, we hope to increase the number of Stephen Ministers, so that more and more people will be able experience the special care they can give.
Stephen Ministry team members: Chris Rymer, Vanessa Frost, Bill Slippy, Kathy Alvare and Jan Buland
            If anything made this year unique, it was the two big anniversaries we recognized: the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Church along with the 30th anniversary of Atonement.   We even had a t-shirt made to commemorate them both.  The 500th anniversary has been in the works around the world for some time now.  When I was in Martin Luther’s hometown of Wittenberg, Germany 3 years ago, they were already fixing up the town and getting ready for a record number of visitors in 2017. 

Join us for our Tampa conference God’s Work Our Hands project, rescheduled because of Hurricane Irma.  We will be gathering at 3pm at…
Pinellas HOPE
5726 126th Avenue North
We will be taking a tour of the facilities, followed by a special Lutheran/Catholic worship service remembering the residents who have died this past year.  At 5pm, we will share a meal with our friends in Christ at Pinellas HOPE. 

Donations welcome:

            The ELCA has been preparing by coming together with our Roman Catholic friends and taking a hard look at how far we’ve come these past 500 years.  We have tried not to make the marking of this occasion a “celebration” in light of the pain that the Reformation caused through the division of the body of Christ.  Our synods committed to engaging with Roman Catholics in 3 particular ways this year: study, worship, and service.  Earlier this year our ELCA pastors and Catholic priests spent a day together at a retreat center in Lutz studying the doctrinal discussions and ecumenical dialog that has taken place between our church bodies.  This January we worshiped together at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Largo, using the Common Prayer service developed for this anniversary year.  Esthel and I both had speaking parts in this service. 
            Later this month, we will participate in the third part of our Lutheran/Roman Catholic commemoration of the Reformation – a service project at a Catholic homeless shelter.  As dean of the Tampa conference, I took the lead in organizing this as a conference-wide God’s Work, Our Hands project slated for September.  I was originally hoping to find a project that could involve our Lutheran Social Services agency along with Catholic Social Services, but communication back and forth wasn’t happening.  With time getting short and no luck on the phone, I went down to St. Petersburg to meet with the Vicar General and the head of Catholic Charities in person, and we decided we would put together a project at Pinellas HOPE.  Pinellas HOPE is a homeless shelter with temporary and permanent housing, including food, medical and support services, developed by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.  It’s an innovative model of its kind, and they are looking to duplicate it in Hillsborough and Pasco counties.   We could sure use something like it in our area.
              Our own plans at Atonement started taking shape with the creation of a planning team.  Ideas began to percolate for special decorations, a mass mailing inviting the community, a 7 week study on Luther’s Catechism, a puppet show, an outdoor meal including German and Hispanic favorites, and an evening showing of the Luther movie.  17 year-old Nick Trejo, who has been serving as youth council member this year, surprised us by asking if he could lead the planning group.  He was looking for a project to complete his Eagle Scout badge, and we were delighted to put him at the helm.  Nick’s calm leadership proved how valuable the gifts and talents of our young members can be. 
            Also surprising us was the news that Matthew Cox, Atonement’s founding pastor, was going to fly down from Ohio to attend our 30th anniversary dinner.  All seemed to be going well with the dinner planned at Cody’s Roadhouse, across the street from what had been the location of Hunt’s Restaurant, where Atonement worshippers first met.  Then out of the blue came word that Cody’s had closed.  Cotta Ungerer relayed the news that thanks to her negotiating skills she was able to convince them to open up one more time just for us!  It turned into a fine and memorable evening, with Pastor Matt sharing tales and memories of Atonement’s early days and getting his picture taken with members who around in those days.  We were also blessed to have interim pastor Dave Kruger with us at the Sunday celebration that week, and Pastor Jim Horn was planning to attend, but health issues intervened.
Pastor Matthew Cox speaking at the 30th anniversary dinner at Cody's Roadhouse
            Other assorted surprises have fallen on us out of the blue this year.  New members of the choir and praise band have brought new skills and richness of sound to these groups.  The “God squad” prayer group has been faithfully providing prayer after the 10am services to all who need it.  Some of them also take part in the Friday afternoon “Drive-Thru Prayer” ministry, which is just what it sounds like.  People pull in under the portico in front of the church, can stay right in their car and have a prayer led by our volunteers. Also, the Kostialik family gave us a great head start on developing our outdoor chapel, building an altar and a cross in the back of the property as part of the triplets’ confirmation project. 
            Some of 2017’s surprises involved real challenges and changes.  We said goodbye to the Martin family as they moved to Arizona early this year, thanking Terry for his great work moving us forward.  Detlev Aeppel stepped up to the plate and became the new leader of the building team.  With $300,000 in funds for a new building already raised through a capital campaign, it was starting to look like we might have to raise more funds.  After bids for the building came in closer to $600,000, we began looking instead at new options such as an addition to our current building.  That looked great until we found that we’d be required to install a sprinkler system in the rest of the building, which the ceilings just weren’t designed to handle.

            Between the fire marshal and our contractors at Final Touch Construction, a new idea emerged to build a free-standing annex 10 feet away from the eastern front of our current building.  This would give us a room twice the size of our current fellowship hall, accessible just outside our current space.  Entrance doors on both buildings would face each other, so that going back and forth would be as easy as possible.  This, our latest and most workable plan yet, is literally “Plan F,” the sixth separate plan for this project.  Though it does not provide the new kitchen some were hoping for and leaves the old building with some needed improvements, it will definitely be a big help at this moment where multiple ministries are in need of more space.

            In addition to the new building, our contractors helped us acquire a new freezer/cooler for the food pantry.  This too has been a great challenge.  We had problems from the get-go with the delivery of the panels, many of which were damaged and had to be sent back.  Since then, a series of problems with the freezer side of the unit has brought consistent frustration.  Our contractors have been back time and time again (at their own expense) trying to fix problems with condensation and freezing door locks.  The manufacturer’s indifference has not helped either.  People have suggested we should have done an exorcism instead of a general blessing when it was installed!
            This year, hurricanes presented challenges we’ll not soon forget.  Irma could have been an utterly devastating event to the entire Florida peninsula, but God’s grace was evident in the relatively minor effect it had in our area.  Then again, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are still reeling from hits they took from Irma and Marie, and recovery work from Harvey will be taking place in Houston and south Texas for years.  Atonement had a couple minor leaks, but a few of our synod churches had significant damage.  Office volunteers called through the directory that week to make sure our members and friends were alright.  Irma struck on a Sunday morning, but we were able to move our worship to Saturday that weekend.  We did have to reschedule our service project at Pinellas HOPE, which will be taking place later this month (see p. 2).

Never been to a bishop’s installation?  Well, here’s your chance!  Bishop Suarez will be installed just a few miles from us, in New Tampa!
Please join Bishop Lohrmann and myself for the installation of Bishop-elect Pedro Suarez
on Saturday, January 20, 2018 at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in New Tampa, beginning at noon.
Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, along with several other bishops and special guests, will preside. The service will be live streamed.
There is no cost, but please register your intention to attend (especially the reception following the service) to help in planning. You can register at 

            Perhaps the most unexpected event of the year was the resignation of our Bishop, Robert Schaefer.  Atonement was blessed to have a visit from Bishop Bob (and his traveling companion, “Mini-Bishop”) last year, and many took note of his sense of humor and relatability.  Bishop Schaefer had been in prayer for a while, trying to discern if the call to be bishop was truly one he could manage in a way that keeps his family and spiritual life intact.  Ultimately, he felt that he could not continue, and the synod office was once again in a state of transition.  Synod staff which a bishop has hired, in this case his assistants Jim Graeser and Jaime Dubon, are also expected to step aside when a bishop leaves.  Jim has taken on a call as a pastor in Texas, and Jaime is now working with mission staff in Chicago.  They both returned to be with us at the synod assembly in October.
           Bishop Bob’s surprising exit did give us the opportunity to meet Bishop Marcus Lohrmann, from Toledo, Ohio.  Bishop Lohrmann was the much-beloved bishop of the Northwest Ohio synod for 18 years, and had retired 6 months and 2 days before getting called to serve as our interim bishop.  He had told people to give him at least 6 months before they called him with any such request, so you could say he was given a 2-day bonus.  As the Tampa conference dean, I found Bishop Lohrmann very approachable and spiritually well-grounded.  I asked for his presence at two of our conference meetings, and he showed up both times to give us advice in preparing for the upcoming bishop’s election.  What’s more, he came and spent a morning with us at Atonement, getting to know some of our clients and helping take their bags out to their cars.  We are grateful to Bishop Lohrmann for his tremendous help in this year full of surprises.           
            Another one of those surprises was the bishop’s election itself.  Our synod assembly was moved from June to October to give us time to make the transition.  Esthel Kane, Marcia Weil, and Rebecca Parker accompanied me, along with our youth delegate Nick Trejo.  One wonderful surprise of the assembly was seeing Nick, along with the other youth there, getting up and speaking in front of the 500 people gathered there.  The other big surprise was the winner of the election – Pastor Pedro Suarez of Pompano Beach won out in the final ballot.  Pedro was the interim Director for Evangelical Mission who was supposed to serve as one of Esthel’s supervisors after Jaime Dubon left the synod.  A fine pastor with a heart for mission and evangelism, I’m sure we will find our synod has gained a wonderful new bishop in Pastor Suarez, but Esthel will be needing a new supervisor. 
            My work as Tampa conference dean came to an end this September, as I completed a two year term (in addition to the 6 months I served after being appointed by Bishop Schaefer).  Of course, dealing with the change of bishops, activities surrounding the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (see pg. 2), and the effects of hurricane Irma brought extra challenges to the role of dean.  I had new experiences in my role as dean, such as helping to install new pastors, attending the first national pastor’s gathering in Atlanta, Georgia, and being one of the conference clergy present at a Tampa rally for peace and justice in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. In addition to representing our bishop, providing pastoral care to other pastors, and conducting regular meetings for clergy and lay members of the conference, the deans (along with synod staff) also work with congregations in transition to help them find their next pastor.  When I began, 5 of the 10 parishes in our conference faced pastoral vacancies.  I was delighted to be able to say that I left the position with a full slate of pastors in our conference.  It is a real joy to see the very talented new pastor Joshua Gyson (from All Saints’ in Lutz) taking over our conference leadership.

            This year also brought these significant ministry milestones:
·         The Sean Bartell memorial scholarship was passed into the hands of the newly-formed Bartell foundation.  This 501c3 organization is now raising money and managing the scholarship independently of Atonement, as well as doing more varied community work in memory of Sean. 
·         Last year, we reported over 700 families in our community were signed up to receive food at our Helping hands Food Pantry.  This year, that number is over 1000.
·         This year we participated in Stepping Stone, the first annual community resource fair at A Helping Rock, transitional housing for the homeless in Zephyrhills.  We did valuable networking on behalf of our Caring ministry, food pantry and Hispanic ministry, and Cherie Hatlem came to help do research for our Community Resource Guide.  Cherie is continuing to help compile and update this guide, which is kept in the office and distributed to people who come to Atonement with various needs.  Our Stephen Ministry is also involved in researching and connecting with community resources. 

“Behold, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs forth – do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert!”
                                                                                  -- Isaiah 43:19

November 26, 2017 HOME FOR THANKSGIVING Atonement “family portrait”

            Looking forward to 2018, we anticipate new growth happening from the seeds we’ve been planting the last few years.  The new building should be under construction starting in January, with a completion date in early May.  This will give us space for larger fellowship gatherings, multiple meeting spaces (including a large space available during times the food pantry is setting up and distributing), and possibly space for new worship services or Bible study classes. 
            We are also looking forward to a new Saturday evening service beginning on January 6.  This service will run from 5-6pm, leaving people time to go out to dinner and other evening activities Saturday night.  We are trying to make it very different from our Sunday services to appeal to people who are not currently worshiping with us.  We have warned people: if you like our Sunday services, don’t expect to like the Saturday service.  My son Brian will be putting together a worship band, and we expect that the music will be very contemporary.  We are also expecting to have options available for people who would like to stay after the service, for communion, prayer, or additional conversation.
            As we have anticipated over the last few years, our church has outgrown the current office staffing situation, and we are in need of a secretary/office administrator who will be there every weekday.  Our 2017 budget includes compensation for this person working part-time, 10am to 3pm daily throughout the year.  A group is now in place to begin the planning and interviewing to find this new staff person.  We are looking for a non-member who is comfortable with multiple types of computer software, and who can help us keep up to date with social media and our web presence.  They will be working with Kay and the office volunteers, but their job descriptions will be changing depending on what will work best with this new individual. 
            2018 will be a year of planning and organizing as we look at ways we can streamline our ministry groups, improve our facility, and prepare new ways of reaching out.  A couple years ago we created the Vision 2015 Document with goals and guidelines for ministries.  We have made progress and even completed some of the goals, and as we hoped, many of our ministries have interacted more with the community.  More recently, Paul Bartell and others have helped develop a “master plan” for the use of our facility.  Ideas for moving the pantry, building an outdoor pavilion, and designating and designing a playground have all been incorporated into this plan.  Placement of garden areas, and auto access to the columbarium have also been included.
            We will also be working on improving our social media and web presence.  We are presently compiling information from various ministries to include on the website.  The Live Stream continues to be used every week, and I’m always hearing comments and compliments from people who “tune in” to our services when they are away.  We would also like to find ways to increase our “hits” from search engines, and make our web site as useful, informative and attractive as possible to potential visitors and people in the community. 
            Coming in January is a special series we are putting on in partnership with the Florida Hospital system.  Creation Health will be an 8-week informational class on ways to improve the health of your body, mind, and spirit.  We will talk about the choices you make, how you strengthen your body, the role that relationships play in health, creating a healthy environment, and many other topics.  Health care workers from the hospital will be helping with the classes, which will be offered Mondays from 1-2:30pm, beginning Jan. 22.
            The last few years, our praise team has been blessed with the guidance of Ken Watts, a local bandleader, trumpet player, and all-around nice guy.  Ken comes from the Episcopal tradition, and also serves as choir director at a Roman Catholic parish in Tampa.  With his experience and skills, he brought new music, creative arrangements and quality leadership to the group.  I believe he took on the task more for the service of God and opportunity to share fellowship with us than for any monetary compensation the position offered.  Ken has been a joy to work with, and he and his wife Janet will be missed from our early services.  As he takes on a new position to lead the praise band at First Presbyterian Church in Brandon, we wish him the best and are grateful that he promises to not be a stranger in the coming years.
            Finally, on behalf of my family and myself I want to thank each one of you for your love and support.  We cherish this church family that we’ve now been with for eleven years.  To all of you who work so hard and give so much, I want to know we brag about you and are tremendously grateful for your love of our Lord Jesus.  We see it every day in the dedication and care you show to each other and the needy people in the community.  Despite the surprises and challenges of ministry, the load is light to bear because of your faith and witness to the life-changing power of the Gospel. 
            At the beginning of this report I mentioned an installation service where the bishop sprinkled us with holy water.  After feeling those drops rain down on us in that surprising reminder of our baptism as disciples of Jesus, I knew I wanted to bring this same gift to Atonement.  I asked Pat Weil to find us a little whisk broom I could use, and began this new tradition at the 10am services.  So now on the days of special festivals, we start that service with a thanksgiving for baptism, and I bless the congregation with a small shower to remind us all of God’s grace.   I pray that this blessing follows you every day and reminds you that God is constantly showering his gracious gifts on you day by day throughout your life, as they come to us “out of the blue.”


Pastor Scott

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Promise is for YOU

Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”             -- Acts 2:38-39

            The promise is for you, for your children, and for everyone.  That is why we are here in Wesley Chapel.  30 years ago, the then American Lutheran Church had foreseen that many people would soon be moving here.  They bought a 13.3 acre property on State Rd. 54, then a 2-lane road through the sleepy rural countryside.  They called a pastor who was serving in Montana, Matthew Cox and his wife Debbie, to come to sunny Florida with their young boys James and Joel, to start putting together a new congregation.  And so began Atonement, a local outpost of mission and ministry amid the gator-ridden forests and swampy savannahs north of Tampa.
            This month we are celebrating the work began before Atonement was officially founded.  We are marking the 30th anniversary of the first worship service, which began in what was then J. F. Hunt’s Restaurant, on All Saints’ Sunday, November 1, 1987.  When Atonement officially began as an organized congregation on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1988, there were 117 charter members.  They were part of the newly organized Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which had just started on January 1st of that year.  Their original mission statement read:

“We the people of Atonement Lutheran Church, called by the Spirit of God in our baptism, claim the gift of being a people touched by the grace of God for the purpose of sharing His unmerited love and forgiveness in our world…We  live in a broken world as people of the cross.  We follow our Lord, the servant Christ, into the brokenness: We welcome the stranger; We feed the hungry; We shelter the homeless; We visit the prisoner; We bless the sick.  This is our vision for mission!”
             Today’s Atonement continues to carry this mission forward - Sharing the love of Jesus, Glorifying God and Extending His Kingdom.  We are here because of that promise Peter spoke of in the book of Acts – the promise of Christ’s healing and love for us and all people.  It’s just as real today, and just as needed today.  But today the world is still full of people just as unfamiliar with who Jesus is and what it means to know Him as people were when Peter got up and invited: “Repent and be baptized…”

            People look for answers from YouTube or Alexa.  People look for community in their coffee clutches and golfing groups. People look for strength from bottles of pills or alcohol.  People look for hope everywhere but miss the one place they can truly find it: our Lord.  

            Bringing God’s forgiveness to the world begins with receiving it ourselves.  It is our job to forgive one another and treat each other with respect and gentleness.  Bringing God’s Word to the world begins with knowing it ourselves.  It’s up to us to know God’s story in Scripture and how it enfolds our own stories.  Sharing God’s love with the world begins with the common caring we do for each other – and then recognizing that those around us need it just as much…  Peter’s call to “Repent” is actually your invitation to a new life… one that begins with Baptism, continues with discipleship, and goes on into eternity “with all the saints in light.”  This is the promise. 
            And this is why we are here.  After all, what good is a promise unless someone shares it?  That’s where you come in.  As part of that unending parade of saints that marches on to the kingdom of God, you too have a calling.  Yours is to give hope to someone.  Shine your light into a dark place and let someone know God is with them.  Find a way to encourage, uplift, and accompany someone…whether that means getting to know a stranger, helping someone in need, inviting them to church, giving generously, or just being a encouraging presence.  Then, don’t stop…!
            Our most joyful and fulfilling moment comes when we share Christ’s love and be what God calls us to be.  Jesus calls us all to love God and love your neighbor – and that is what we’re all about.  30 years have gone by -- the forests and gators have given way to shopping malls and subdivisions, but Atonement is still an outpost of hope to Wesley Chapel and beyond.  We are here to stand together on the frontier of God’s kingdom to bring God’s Word, prayer, and the support of a church family to anyone who needs hope. 

Pastor Scott

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Reforming the Reformation

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing.  It is the gift of God.”

                        -- Ephesians 2:8-9

             Why be Lutheran?  Is it for all the potlucks and Ole and Lena jokes?  Because we get to sing “A Mighty Fortress” and “Borning Cry”?  Is it so we can tell stories about Martin Luther and worship without having to lift our arms and yell “Amen”?  Those stereotypes may hit home, but they are not what being Lutheran is about.  The first Lutherans saw a need for change in the church.  They became Lutheran because they believed…
1.      The Church is the caretaker of God’s grace
2.      The Church should always be Re-forming

            Because God is loving and forgiving to all people, it’s the Church’s job to make God’s love known and to bring it to life in the world.  That’s what it means to be the caretaker of God’s grace.  But that’s not what was happening back in the 1500’s.  The Roman Catholic Church had gotten off-track and was no longer being a good caretaker of God’s grace.  The intense struggles to get it back on track ultimately became the Reformation. 
            The Reformation was about changing and improving what the Church does.  To stay healthy, relevant, and on-task the Church must continually re-think and clarify its understanding of God’s grace, and then adjust its message and practices to make sure it is communicating God’s love in a way that the world can understand it.  Lutherans believe that reformation is still necessary, and are committed to the hard work of positive change.  Where we can do better, we will, even if it means our understanding of the Reformation itself could use some reforming.
            This is the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation.  As a historic occasion, we have a great opportunity to invite friends and neighbors in our community to come and hear the story of our faith tradition – who we are, why we do what we do, and how we got this way.  Through its print media as well as through our national Bishop Eaton and our local Synod offices, the ELCA is asking us all to be extra careful how we tell the story of the Reformation.  The Reformation we want to tell about is not a German holiday, but rather a worldwide movement which is still going on today.  We are a part of it.  As we welcome the community to join us in recognizing this important anniversary, we want our guests to learn what is truly most important about being Lutheran. 
            The date itself marks 500 years since Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses – 95 arguments for change in the church.  But this is only a tiny piece of the Reformation story.  If it happened at all, that event probably took place on October 31, 1517, a day that came and went without anyone noticing.  As Lutheran Theology Professor Timothy Maschke writes, “What began as a quiet protest against indulgences – made by an unknown Augustinian friar at a new university in an inconspicuous town of northern Germany – quickly, almost miraculously transformed from gentle ripples of spiritual concern to a political and theological tsunami, affecting all of the European world and, rightly understood, all of Christendom.” (Cameron MacKenzie, The Reformation, p. iv). 

            Other reformers would take Luther’s ideas and insights all over Europe – and then missionaries took them into all the known world.  Today, there are Lutherans practically everywhere.  We speak many languages and come from many cultures.  The 2 largest Lutheran denominations today are both in Africa: Ethiopia and Tanzania.  It would be misleading to give the impression that somehow being Lutheran is about being German or Western European.  The real Lutheran story is multicultural, an important point to highlight on this Reformation anniversary. 
Bishop Marcus Lohrmann spends a morning
helping out at our Helping Hands food pantry!

            For the past 50 years, the Lutheran story has also been one of continued dialog, ministry, and partnership with other churches, including Roman Catholics.  500 years ago, the Reformation tore us apart from the Roman Catholic Church.  Today, the Reformation is bringing us closer.  To be sensitive to our Roman Catholic neighbors, we are trying to avoid the term “celebration” in connection with this observance.  "It's neither a celebration nor a lament," says Wanda Deifelt, professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.  "It's a commemoration, which comes from the Latin for 'We share memory.' We are telling the story of what happened 500 years ago without pointing fingers."  The ELCA has requested that our Reformation observances keep in mind our close relationship to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, and make it clear that we are members with them in the body of Christ.  We are aware that the divisions caused by the Reformation have been painful, and are seeking healing in our relationship with them.   Roman Catholics and Lutherans hope that the day will come when our differences are resolved and we can come together and share communion once again.  Some of that story is told in the book From Conflict to Communion, which you can download for free (in the language of your choice) at:  From Conflict to Communion

          Conversations between Lutherans and Catholics worldwide have led to proposals that we have been taking to heart here in our Florida-Bahamas Synod.  The proposals call for us to engage in worship, Bible study, and service together with our Roman Catholic friends as part of this 500th anniversary observance.  We have worshiped together (at the Common Prayer service, held earlier this year at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Largo).  Our clergy have shared in a Bible study retreat.  And the God’s Work Our Hands project we had planned for September 10 last month was to be a joint service project with Lutherans from our Tampa conference bringing a meal and worship to the Roman Catholic homeless mission Pinellas HOPE in Clearwater.  Hurricane Irma got in the way of that, but we will be rescheduling it for sometime later this year.  
            Here at Atonement, we have a team of people who have been hard at work planning this year’s Reformation observance.  The group includes a wide variety of Atonement members who have been looking at ways we can tell the bigger story about Lutherans and the Reformation.  Nick Trejo has been leading the team, which he has taken on as his Eagle Scout project.  We have been careful to include our new Hispanic mission.  Being a Lutheran ministry to our local Hispanic community, they have the opportunity to reach a segment of the population we have not been able to.  Todos Unidos en Cristo has generously agreed to fund and help design a mass mailing to invite our community to join us on Reformation Sunday.  That day, there may be an Ole joke or two and we’ll definitely be singing “A Mighty Fortress.”  There will be some of our usual German food, along with a puppet show, bounce house and face painting for the children.  But we will also be including some Hispanic food and elements of worship as well, to help show the multicultural side of our Lutheran tradition.  Reformation day this year will be our official open house for the community.  We hope and pray that anyone who comes to us looking for a place to grow in Christ, serve others, and learn about God’s grace will discover God’s love at Atonement.

Pastor Scott

Friday, September 22, 2017

Wedding of Guy Lynn and Jordy Daly, September 16, 2017

"Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends."
--- 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a

           Jesus once said to Nicodemus, “The Spirit of God blows wherever it wants, and you do not know where it comes from or where it is going.”  I’ll bet each one of us can think of a few unpredictable twists and turns our lives have taken, thanks to God’s wild, bracing wind that blows in ways we can’t foresee.  And it’s a sure thing that, if you dare to go where that wind takes you, you will find yourself surrounded by new possibilities -- opportunities you never expected or even dreamed of.  When I first met Jordy, she went by Georgie, had a different hair color, and though she certainty had the energy and creativity we know so well, there was not nearly so much joy in her life.  It’s been amazing to watch, as over the last couple years God’s Spirit has opened up the world for her, showing her where she has come from and where she is going.
            The hair color change came in discovering where she came from, and being free to celebrate her Irish/Scotch ancestry.  Anyone who knows Jordy knows she is unique in many ways, and when she does something she jumps in with both feet.  Suddenly we saw Jordy celebrating her heritage in all kinds of ways, from the clothes she wore to the emblems on her coffee cup.  When Jordy reached the point in her life where she really felt she had the freedom to be who she was, and to express that openly and creatively, she started by looking back at where she came from and let that become the launch pad for a new identity.
            But this new self she was becoming – Jordy instead of Georgi – was just as open to seeing where the Spirit of God was heading, not just where it came from.  Who knew that the winds of the Spirit was blowing her towards the internet, to to be exact.  There she discovered just what the old saying says: there are plenty of fish in the sea, and plenty of nut cases on dating sites.  But among all the outrageous and arrogant profiles she saw on, she also discovered one simple straightforward profile that was only 3 sentences… and she decided to give Guy Lynn a chance.
            Sometimes the wind of the Spirit blows like a gentle breeze, and sometimes you get Irma.  We are here today because two hearts, two souls, two lives have been brought together by the irresistible gales of love… love, which the Bible tells us is stronger than death, love which Jesus tells us the greatest commandment, love, which Paul tells us bears and believes all things, love, which John tells us is the very essence of God.  With Guy, Jordy has experienced companionship and caring that echoes those words in our passage from 1 Corinthians – patient and kind, not insisting on its own way, rejoicing in the truth.  “He thinks of my wants and needs and allows me to be me,” Jordy said.  It’s this kind of respect and care that today Guy and Jordy are pledging to share with each other till the end of their days.  It begins, not with the wants and desires we have for ourselves, but in the honest concern and wish for the well-being of the one we love.

            It is this kind of love that God had from the beginning --  for the world he created, and the people God took as his children.  It is this kind of love that poured out of Jesus in his life on earth and death on a cross.  It is this love that travels on the winds of God’s Spirit, blowing into our hearts when we least expect it, causing us to love our neighbor, to care for those in need, and to believe in a world of peace.  It is moments like these, where we see what love can do in the lives of two wonderful people, that we can imagine a hurricane of hope blowing through the world, and wonder where God’s Spirit may be taking us on our way to knowing fully and being fully known.

            One of the ministries we have at our church, which Jordy participates in faithfully, is our Drive-Thru Prayer.  Every Friday from 11:30-1:30, people from the community are invited to come through our parking lot and drive up under the overhang where our prayer team stands ready to pray with them.  It can be anything at all – a need for themselves, a loved one, a neighbor, or just a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has done in their lives – our prayer team, the God Squad, will lift it up with them, and they don’t even have to get out of the car.  I told Jordy, if you don’t want to have a big wedding, we could just do it at the drive-thru – but you know Jordy – when she does something, she jumps in with both feet.  She wanted the friends, the music, the full celebration – and each of you, to be here as she and Guy share their vows, and recognize the one who brought them together, brought them to this place, and will take them from here together, on the winds of His Spirit, to their next set of adventures.