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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Easter Here and God's Timing

It's the Thursday after Easter. The week I kept saying I would do everything I couldn't get to during Lent.

It's also the week I thought might be a bit more kick-back. But given that some business matters had to wait until after Easter, it has not been a kick-back week.

Logic sometimes eludes pastors (obviously if you push back administrative matters until after Easter, the week after Easter will not be relaxing!)

So what are my thoughts after this, my first Easter as an ordained pastor, my first Easter sermon?

Well, I don't want to spoil my sermon for this Sunday, but I did want to reflect on my first Easter here and the days that followed.

I grew up in a huge congregation where Easter services happened on the hour: 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, noon. This year that congregation had more than 6,000 people attend services.

My internship congregation was pretty similar, if not the "on the hour" services, we still had more than I think 4,000 people.

There was this huge buzz surrounding Easter Sundays there: special music, huge flowers, and I guess a sense that we as the Church had "made it." A day for celebration, not only of resurrection, but of all the folks who still considered it important to come to church and say: "He is risen indeed!"

As Easter approached at St. Philip, and we got a great turnout for our Holy Week services, I was hoping we'd be busting at the seams, necessitating an extra service for next year at least. I wanted chairs prepared in the narthex, unfamiliar faces, a chance to bring new people into our church through the joy and celebration of Easter.

So Easter came, starting with a beautiful Easter breakfast at church with nearly 70 people in attendance. A few folks brought their families, and when it was all said and done, we had 110 people in worship. The mood was joyous, the music beautiful, and I was honored to preach the Good News of Good News, Jesus' resurrection, on my first Easter sermon.

Still though, when we came home and Jake went to nap, inside I couldn't help but feel a bit deflated. The buzz, triumphant feeling I'd expected with Easter was not entirely there. I hadn't seen a lot of new faces at worship; instead of feeling satisfied I felt hungrier than ever to do more ... restless ...

As I've thought about it throughout the week, I've come to a few conclusions:

1) Feeling restless after Easter is a good, Christian thing. Easter isn't about triumphalism. Jesus' resurrection represents the BEGINNING not the end of our work as Jesus followers here on earth.

2) Welcome to being a pastor. If I've learned anything by being the solo pastor here at St. Philip, it's that being the solo or lead pastor is a whole new deal, different than serving as an intern or an assistant in the past. As my home congregation pastor always says: "Every week has a Sunday." The week after Easter brings council meetings and staff changes and yes another new sermon.

To be honest, I think most pastors long for that hunger, that challenge, that I've felt in these days following Easter.

I know a pastor who about 10 years ago planted a new congregation. It's now one of the largest churches in the ELCA, a shining point and a well-oiled machine. Yet he still feels hungry. He's dying to plant a new congregation again, to feel that hunger that I felt Easter Sunday morning.

We're at an exciting stage here. Having room to grow, seats to fill, is an exciting thing. We had 110 people for Easter this year -- next year perhaps we'll need those extra chairs in the narthex, as the sanctuary holds about 150.

I am grateful for the challenge and the way that God feeds us manna and sustenance where and when we need it.

3) God has God's own timing, and provides for our needs in seasons.

Part of the strangeness in this week following Easter is the way that God is providing even in the midst of changes and goodbyes.

One of the most inspiring things we saw on Easter was watching one of our new members come early and throughout the week, revamping our audio system to make sure the music sounded as good as it could. Then he was up in front, directing our high school brass quintet and jumping over to conduct the choir as needed.

His energy has been contagious I think throughout this place, and he does it all without fanfare, as though he feels God calling him to this place at this time, and now he is here and he is all in.

St. Philip is an "all-in" church. At my previous congregations, we had a lot of folks who would consider us their home church, but only attend really sporadically on Christmas, Easter, and a few other Sundays.

Here, we had over 60 people here for Good Friday, 74 for Palm Sunday, and 110 for Easter. That's not a huge change -- and what it says to me is that when people decide to be a member at St. Philip: today or 45 years ago - they make a commitment. They're here not just for the Easter service but for breakfast and for Bible Study and for the Sunday after Easter. This committed core is what has sustained the church and what will continue to sustain us as we grow and seek God's new direction.

St. Philip has another big change this week. Today is our parish administrator, Tricia's, last day. Tricia started here in January, but her husband Alan, was recently offered a great job in Austin, Texas, and they're moving next week. The move will also hopefully help Tricia's health, as she suffers from a health condition that is exacerbated by cold weather, which we have plenty of in Chicago.

In her short three months here, Tricia has been a blessing to me and to the church. We spent lots of time in the back office, talking and organizing, and she has laid a great foundation of organization and new processes for church administration.

She was invested not just for her paycheck but because she truly cared about St. Philip and the mission of Jesus Christ that is lived out here.

When she told me in March that this move might be a possibility, I was sad. She had been such a great partner for me as we implemented a new church website, social media, and continued work on bulletins, newsletters, worship slideshows.

That evening, I shared this potential news in confidence with two of our executive council members, one of whom had previously worked in church administration. She surprised me by saying she would be interested in the job.

A few weeks later, when Tricia officially gave her notice, I went and met with this executive council member, and we prayed together, and she again said she thought she'd like to do the job.

That evening, she received her work permit for the United States, as she is a British citizen.

Neither of us could believe God's timing, and today, on Tricia's last day, we talked again about the ways God has worked to provide our needs each season.

God provided Tricia to St. Philip for an important season of growth and establishing new media and organization. He provided Tricia to me as a friend and a valued partner for the church. She even babysat Jake for us with her husband. I will miss her, but I know we'll continue to stay in touch via Facebook and texting -- as we did frequently throughout her time here -- and I know God has fantastic plans for Tricia and her husband in Texas.

God's plans and God's timing are always astounding and unbelievable. God took my fear and anxiety over Tricia's departure and turned it into hope and joy over the potential for a new relationship and job for a person who has been a church volunteer and leader already for many years.

God also opened me to a new relationship with this new staff member, as our friendship grows and God works between us to continue showing His plans for our church.

So it has been a full week. But God is good. All the time. God is good - through death and resurrection in our lives as well as on the Cross, on Easter and the Sunday after Easter.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Hoping Against Hope

My Easter Sermon. What brain science has to do with the resurrection, and why we hope.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

It's Holy Week

It's Holy Week!

Pastor Mark Wickstrom in Vegas used to joke that this was every pastor's favorite week.

This is my first year as the lead pastor for Holy Week, and I'd have to agree with Mark that it's my favorite, even though Holy Week can be overwhelming (but that's the point of this blog, right, that Jesus IS overwhelming?)

Here at St. Philip we begin tonight with a Maundy Thursday service, Good Friday tomorrow night, Easter Workshop on Saturday, and finally Easter on Sunday morning.

If you're not part of a congregation, or if you haven't been to church in awhile, this is one of those weeks that can kind of draw people back, or at least make you think ...

Hey, hey ... it's Holy Week ... Maybe I should check something out, go get my feet washed on Maundy Thursday, hear Jesus' last words on Good Friday, shout Hallelujah on Sunday morning before I eat some ham and hard-boiled eggs.

More than Christmas even I think, Holy Week can be a time where those of us who yearn for a connection with God, with Jesus, wonder again about making church a part of our lives.

For me, even when I was a heathen sportswriter in Southwest Florida, I made a point to attend Holy Week services. All of them. And I'd really encourage this for anyone out there who's wondering about maybe coming back to Church this week.

Maundy Thursday is a great chance to really see a church for what it is. It's often a smaller, more intimate service, and sometimes pastors mail it in and people kind of go through the motions. But then sometimes churches really try to make this service, humble as it is, mean something.

And the smaller atmosphere means maybe you can meet people and genuinely get to know a few of them without the hustle and bustle of Easter Sunday, and you'll experience why we practice Holy Communion every week, what Jesus' New Commandment really meant, and what the Last Supper was really all about.

Some churches even do footwashing, hand anointing; one church I know of does a Living Last Supper. It's a great chance to experience Worship Creativity, and get a feel for what church can be like today in 2014. It might be different than your childhood memories, or in a good way, it might bring back positive memories from childhood church.

Then there's Good Friday. Often churches will do some sort of drama or musical performance for Good Friday. It's such a vastly important service, especially for those of us Lutherans or lapsed Lutherans who grew up on the Theology of the Cross, and the idea that God's death is necessary in order that we all might experience the fullness of real, everlasting Life.

So you come to Good Friday, at night, it's dark, everyone's wearing black - and in that blackness and sorrow of the cross, there is beauty. Choir members, hardy, strong, hard-working, so proud in their own small part of making the Passion and Death of Christ real, so that the Resurrection on Sunday might be real, too.

I experienced a great illustration of this Passion of the Passion during Bible Study this week.

At St. Philip we did up Palm Sunday really big. The procession, the palms, a New Member Installation, kids sing ... but we didn't read the Passion Gospel that many churches read on Palm Sunday. We save it for an important Good Friday service that we encourage all to - and many do - attend.

So to prepare for Good Friday and Easter, at Bible Study this week we read the whole Passion reading from the Gospel of John, the entirety of Chapters 18-19. Each woman took a sentence and we read it around the table. And when we got to the parts about Jesus being beaten, bleeding, about his followers denying him, about the way he thirsted at that last moment ... women began to weep.

We felt the Passion of the Passion together in that experience. We gathered with the First Christians around the Cross and we felt the power of that Death so intensely together. We grieved for Jesus as he suffered, and we grieved with God as his Son hung on the cross.

This led to a great discussion of where we find Jesus today, in incredibly unexpected places -- because the Cross was the first unexpected place of all, where God revealed Godself in all His glory.

That Bible Study passion experience revealed to me the Power of the Church and the power of Holy Week itself.

See I could read the Passion text alone, in my room, and maybe I'd even weep to myself.

But it's only in the Community of the Church that I experience fully the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We felt it differently that day because we felt it together. Our tears and our sorrowful joy mixed with the tears of the martyrs, from Ancient Rome to modern-day Syria. Our community became the Christian Community, and by His blood we were connected and made brothers and sisters in Christ.

That's what going to Church, making a point to get there, in person -- that's what going to Church on Easter and throughout Holy Week is all about.

Can you be a Christian without going to church? Sure, I suppose you can. But you're missing out.

**If you're in Chicago, come join us at St. Philip this week so that we might be together with the God who died and rose again. We're at 1609 Pfingsten Road; Glenview, IL; 60025: just south on Pfingsten from Glenbrook Hospital and Glenbrook South High School.**

**Maundy Thursday services are at 7 p.m. with Holy Communion and Hand Anointing**
**Good Friday services are at 7 p.m. with our choral cantata In the Shadow of the Cross**
**Kids Easter Workshop for ages 3+ is Saturday from 1-3 p.m.**
**Easter Sunday begins at 8 a.m. with the Easter Breakfast**
**Easter Service is at 9 a.m., filled with joyous hymns, the Glenbrook South Brass Ensemble, and shouts of Christ is Risen! Hallelujah!**
**And don't leave without grabbing an egg from our Easter Egg Hunt, on Sunday at 10 a.m.**

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Those Kids Today

Yesterday morning I attended a luncheon for clergy at the nearby high school. It was really a nice event, and something I'd bet doesn't happen everywhere.
It's always special when public organizations: schools, school districts, elected officials, etc., reach out to clergy. Unfortunately sometimes it almost seems a relic of a time when our opinions and our relevance actually held more sway; a time when religious leaders held almost unquestioned trust and authority.
Now of course institutions and religion in general has become more suspect, and much trust has been lost.
So as a pastor, I'm really honored when I'm invited to events like these - that show there still is a desire to connect to faith leaders.
This was my first time at the high school but I know it won't be my last. First as a student and then as a sportswriter, I've probably spent more than my fair share of time in high schools, especially in gymnasiums and football fields. It's a place of promise and hope, where dreams are realized and crushed, and young people are making their way in the world.
I walked past various groups of students, some strutting and posing some heads down and shuffling along. There were couches near the drama room filled with actors, kids sampling creations in a cooking class, science experiments, and an overheard discussion about "finding a house for prom." Ah, memories ...
When I walked into the clergy luncheon room, though, I went from feeling very old to feeling very young. I was the youngest clergy member there, and I felt my age as the discussion quickly drifted to the evils of technology -- this from the clergy members, not the high school staff, who were explaining how they'd arranged Google chrome books for students in need, and even had opened up cell phone use on the campus without a negative change in student behavior or attentiveness.
A charming and delightful priest was there from the local Catholic parish, a huge place with tons of involvement and community support. In a deep Irish brogue, he broached the problem of "attentiveness" and "overprogramming."
He was frustrated, feeling that the students in his parish were so constantly connected to their cell phones that it was barring him from building a relationship with them. He felt cut off, and even though the conversation presented itself as a typical "oh those rotten kids today" one, at its root was pain - the pain of a clergy leader who desired to build a bridge with these students but felt cut off.
He'd like to see, I'm sure, kids totally cut off from their cell phones and then things might go back to the glory days of religion in the 1950s, when kids PAID ATTENTION, trusted their priest, made confessions, and memorized their Catechisms.

It's more complex than that though. Taking away devices doesn't change the fact that our world has changed in irreversible ways since then. We've become more networked. I think even the way our brains function has changed. We've become attuned to thinking more as spokes coming out of a wheel than as straight flat linear lines. Information is so unbelievably accessible and we have access to talk to whomever we want, whenever we want - basically - that yes patience has probably shortened.

At depth though, the deepest human desires have not changed. Perhaps folks are less likely to listen to a lecture-style sermon delivered straight from the pulpit with little contemporary application or the use of images. Perhaps the routinized services/masses even of the venerated Catholic church could be reinvigorated. Not changed, not gotten rid of - but done with an eye toward the 21st Century faithful.

I think about a couple of experiences in my life when I think about modern technology, texting, and "those kids today."

On Thanksgiving this past year at my parents' house, Ben and I were sat at the "kids" table with Jake. It was us, my then-23-year-old brother, and five college-aged cousins.

Literally the entire time, every single one of my cousins were on their phones. They were instagramming photos and sharing food pics on Facebook; tweeting about lame family (I'm sure), and texting over mashed potatoes. It was a good look in the mirror for me and Ben, because admittedly we are probably on our phones way too much as well.

Then again maybe we could've made more of an effort to really connect with these cousins. (I have tons of cousins, and several more closer to my age, so I have never known these "younger" cousins as well). And they were taking photos together to share with their friends, even though some were from Orange County and some rural Minnesota, so it seemed maybe they didn't think family so lame after all; they were proud of it even maybe, to share with friends back in California that "this is where I'm from;" "this is who I'm from." So it was different, and slightly annoying, but maybe I was just too old to "get it."

I think too about another meal. This one takes place every Tuesday night at St. Philip: our Community Meal, available to anyone who'd like to partake, whether they'd like company or are in need of food assistance. Two groups from the local high school participate in serving usually twice a month.

This service must be important to them because I swear to you that never once have I seen them texting. They're carrying out dishes and saying hello to people who come to eat. They've always been respectful and pleasant, and actually I was guilty of asking one of the girls to pull out her phone so that we could exchange numbers in case she might potentially babysit Jake! But she put it right back after that.

So clearly young people today are entirely capable and desirous of paying attention. Of turning off the technology and being there in the moment, especially to serve others.

I think sometimes we need to give them more credit. Challenge them. Invite them to serve and teach and make us proud. Preach particularly to them when we see them in our pews. I don't know, but I'm going to try it. I just need a few more high school kids to attend worship first ... which I plan to work on soon, through sports of course ...

And on the other hand maybe sometimes when we think kids are texting inappropriate images or looking up something dirty on the internet; instead they're Instagramming a photo with the hashtag #lovemyfamily and making Thanksgiving real and rich and meaningful in their own way. Or even hashtag #lovemychurch.

I think if Jesus walked the earth today; if he became incarnate 2,000 years later in modern-day Chicago instead of Roman Era Jerusalem, he would have had a Twitter and Instagram account (and whatever new social media stuff these kids have that I'm not cool enough to get yet).


Jesus knew how to communicate for his time, how to grab attention and keep it through genuine and complete faith, commitment, and prayer.

Paul who came later knew how to communicate too; he adapted the words of Greek philosophers for Greek audiences (see Acts 17) and referenced the Hebrew law for Jewish audiences (see Acts 13, among others).

So what about us? How are you personally thinking about communicating with younger people who may seem engrossed in their devices? What might spur Gospel conversation with them -- I find they're often interested, like most of us, in life's "big questions" and "mysteries." What might connect them to Jesus? Is it music? A drama? A certain piece of Scripture? A theological argument?

What about your church? What is your church doing to engage younger folks? Maybe you have your own app? Maybe there's a button to access with a smartphone to get a bulletin online. Maybe you livestream your worship services. Maybe, and this is free, you're simply acknowledging their existence: offering programming at times that might work for them, thinking about Bible studies or sermon series that apply to adolescents, getting to know the younger folks who come through your doors for any reason at all, on their own terms.

I have some ideas for St. Philip, and I know many fantastic leaders in our congregation have their own ideas and missions as well in this area. But sometimes the biggest thing is just asking the questions, and then learning how to listen.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Showtime and Lifetime

In ninth grade I played on a traveling basketball team that we were really proud of. See, we'd gone all on our own, outside the athletic association of our town, and our coaches and organizers worked really hard behind the scenes to get us uniforms, tournament entries, all kinds of stuff through lots of fundraising.

As you probably know, youth sports can get pretty political (I say this tongue-in-cheek, but you know it's true), and our town was no different. After making the A team my first year in fifth grade, I was "on the outs" with the coach - this may have been self-inflicted ... I had a bad, er, competitive attitude at times - and every year I would wait with trepidation as numbers were called out, only to be cut again and play for the B team.

My friend Rachel's dad coached this B team for years, and he was a great guy. Put up with my at times bad, er, competitive attitude, and let all of us girls really blossom into great athletes. He teamed up with another girl's dad to put together our ninth grade team, and finally that year we got to play the A team from our town in a tournament.

We won. After all those years of getting cut, it was a great feeling. My friend Rachel and I, who'd both been cut from that original A team, were among the stars of the game. We teamed up well, she a sharpshooter who rarely missed from 3-point, and me a hard driver to the basket -- not to mention our real star, our post Bonnie, who later won a collegiate national championship.

At the end of the season, our coaches put together a little post-season party. They made up trophies and award names to reflect each of our unique skills. Lest you think this was one of those 1990s things where everyone was "special" and kids became entitled ... well maybe it was that, but it also taught me a lot because of the effort our coaches put in to reflect on each of us individually as athletes and as people. I went to lots of athletic banquets later in high school, but I don't remember any of them as well as I remember this one from our "renegade" basketball team.

I got the Showtime Award - or actually it might have been PrimeTime or GameTime - but basically this was a double-edged sword, like most things in life.

It was very accurate.

On one hand, this award was a huge honor. It reflected the fact that when the game was going down to the wire: fourth quarter, 15 seconds on the clock, down by 1 -- my coach trusted me to have the ball in my hands. He knew when it came down to that crucial moment, that critical instant where the ball had to get in the net somehow some way - I would have that killer instinct to make it happen. I like to think it reflects some ability to take the game to a higher level in those critical moments. Overtime. Championship. Crunch time -- requiring a mental toughness and a deeper commitment.

Of course on the other hand, this award reflected the fact that when it wasn't showtime, or overtime, or crunch time, or championship - I had the uncanny ability to take my game to a lower level. That when it came time for midway through the second quarter, and our lead was slowly slipping away, I would have the instinct to commit a foul at just the wrong time, to lose a step on defense and be just a second too slow to cut off my opponent for a drive to the basket, where she'd score easily. It might just reflect some tendency to slack off in the interim, to cheat off my last suicide sprints, to daydream when I was supposed to focus on shooting free-throws.

Nobody was giving me the Everyday-All-In Award.

How about you? Would you get the Showtime award? Do you turn it on when it's time for all the glory or are you the one in the kitchen late at night, scrubbing off the stuff everyone forgot about? Do you come in at the last minute to save the day, or were you working behind the scenes to avoid the catastrophe in the first place?

Now at my ripe old age of 29 and as a Pastor, I wonder what award God - my new important and dedicated coach - would give me. I think He'd say that Showtime is Important - but so is Lifetime.

See Sunday morning is kind of showtime. Like another pastor once told me, As soon as that opening hymn starts - you better be ready! There's no time to get things done anymore.

And lots of Sundays are like that. I'm scurrying around, gathering the correct handouts, talking to people about housekeeping items, nearly forgetting my "preaching" Bible, keeping track of Jake, and darn if when that prelude ends I better be up there welcoming everyone and "in it." That's where that God-given ability to perform at the crucial moment helps me out. To take things to a different level and just preach the Word and lead the congregation in worship.

See before every sermon or every service, whenever anyone has to get up and speak before a group of people, there's that moment of: yikes! But the "Showtime" award pushes past that and into the purpose of the service, to glorify Jesus and spread the Gospel of his life, death, and resurrection and why it matters here today in 2014 Chicago.

So that's important.

But God has also shown me that here in the church, the Everyday-All-In Award is important, too. What many people will remember or know about me as a pastor is not that sermon I preached last month but the time when I called on them to ask how their husband, or their son, or their daughter, or their own illness or injury or mourning - was going.

God has shown me that if I hold my Bible, and all its knowledge and truth, in my right hand - then in my left hand I should hold a Rolodex of all my loved ones, with notes about what's going on for them - and where they need prayer - and what makes them smile - and how God is calling them to live out their own callings.

The Everyday-All-In award as a pastor happens often on Tuesday mornings or Thursday afternoons, when I make those "check-in" phone calls, or even on Monday afternoons, when I'm honored to have the opportunity to serve communion to congregation members and friends who haven't been able to make it to church in awhile.

Both Showtime and Lifetime are important - not just as TV channels.

What about in your faith life?

Do you know how to stand up at that right moment, when God is calling you to take a stand - to witness to Jesus Christ - to give it all up and make a huge decision, maybe to change careers or churches, or to speak in a group or do a solo in choir?

Way to Go Mr. or Ms. Showtime. I applaud you - and I want to have you at St. Philip. I give God huge thanks for the many Mr. and Ms. Showtimes already here. Jesus needs you - so feel free to let your Showtime spirit fly.

Do you know how to give someone a hug right when they need it? To follow up with a phone call on a quiet afternoon? To replace the church sign when something is amiss? To bring your own supplies to tidy up the carpets or the kitchen, or replace the toilet paper in the bathroom?

Way to Go Mr. or Ms. Everyday-All-In/Mr. or Ms. Lifetime. I applaud you - and I want to have you at St. Philip. I give God huge thanks for the many Mr. and Ms. Showtimes already here. Jesus needs you - so feel free to let your Everyday-All-In/Lifetime spirit fly.

See Jesus loves and embraces us all. And even though my high school basketball coach wasn't quite as enamored with my Showtime ability - especially when it impinged on my ability to practice hard 100 percent of the time - Jesus accepts me and loves me as I am. He even teaches me, day in and day out, how to be Everyday-All-In.

So much so, that on this Thursday afternoon, I am All In.