Advent Traditions Can Help Us Slow Down and Get Ready

Every year the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day seems to go very fast for me. I know the advice when life gets going too fast is to slow down and enjoy the moments. How can I slow down when there is so much that needs to get done?

A good way for me to slow down my life and home is to adopt or renew some traditions in my home for Advent and Christmas. Advent is a season filled with expectations and anticipations that focus on the longing for the arrival of Jesus Christ. We rejoice that Christ was born in Bethlehem. We also renew our longing for Christ in our personal lives. As I look to the past and present, I also look forward to Christ’s Second Coming. I trust that even in our present chaos there will be a time when the fullness of the kingdom of God will be revealed.

The traditions of Advent and Christmas prepare us to receive the gift of Jesus and also help us to look forward to His kingdom to come. As I think about adding traditions into my family, my goal is to help my life slow down. It feels counter-intuitive to slow down by becoming busier. So my goal is not simply to become busier. I want the pace of my home to slow down by centering our lives on what makes everything else important.

Here are a couple of Advent and Christmas traditions that may help you and your home refocus on the coming of Jesus Christ in your life and in the world.

Home Devotions

Daily devotions in the home are good because it is important that we keep our lives crafted by the Word of God. During Advent many good resources are published to encourage home devotions. So if you have not gotten in the pattern of home devotions, Advent is a well-resourced time to begin. The daily devotions published by Lutheran Indian Ministries can be found on the countertop in the narthex at St. Paul. This organization shares the Gospel of Jesus Christ with Native American people, encouraging them to proclaim Christ’s Kingdom to their own and to others. This devotion booklet is a great resource they provide for congregations. I think you will enjoy reading the devotion for each day. Besides picking up the devotion booklet in the narthex, you can go to lutheranindianministries.org/devotions#advent to download the entire 2016 Advent Devotions booklet. We have a few copies available  of an Advent daily devotion booklet called “Jesse Tree,” which matches the program we will be using for our Advent Midweek Vespers.

Advent Calendars

The Advent Calendar is a special calendar that is used to count down the days in anticipation of Christmas. Chocolates, legos, or toys can all be found behind the doors of an Advent Calendar. The calendar helps build expectation for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas. In the past, our family has purchased our Advent calendars at Aldi. They are cheap and filled with chocolate, which is a great combination.

Advent Wreaths

The Advent wreath, like the calendar, helps build the expectation for Christmas to arrive. It is usually an evergreen wreath with four candles and a white candle in the center. Each week in Advent another candle is lit during the time of Bible reading and prayers. By the end of Advent all four candles are lit, and everyone is encouraged to see that the light of the world is arriving. The fifth candle, in the center, is lit with the arrival of Christmas. The Advent wreath works well alongside of home devotions to mark the passage of time towards Christmas.

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Midweek Simple Supper and Vespers

On Wednesday November 30, December 7, and December 14 St. Paul Lutheran Church will host a simple supper and vespers. The simple supper at 6pm is a potluck meal. The signup sheets to announce what you will bring hang on the clipboards in the fellowship hall. Even if you don’t bring something to eat, you can come and enjoy the food. There has always been enough food for everyone who comes. Vespers, a prayer service, will start at 7pm. The prayer service lasts about 45 minutes. This year our services will focus on the tradition of the Jesse Tree. The tradition is to highlight different people from the genealogy of Jesus. Each week we will look at four people and rejoice at how God was at work in their lives. During the meal there will be ornaments for each character which can be decorated.

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Carols

I love singing Christmas carols. I am so pleased that my wife will sit at our home piano and play Christmas carols. Fire up Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Music, or one of the other streaming services to listen to some Christian carols.

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Children’s Christmas Program

On December 18 at the 11am service we will enjoy a children’s Christmas program. The children and youth of our congregation will help us see the joy in the coming of Jesus. The preservice music for this service will be an offering of talents from our young musicians. Plan to arrive early and wonder at their gift in spreading the good news that Christ our savior is born in Bethlehem.

Christmas Decorating

The traditions of decorating the home and the church for Christmas are wonderful. I know some homes which are overtaken with Christmas decorations, and that you will be fortunate if you do not trip over one of many Christmas trees in the home. I love the excitement of refreshing our homes for the arrival of the greatest guest our world has ever received. Our church is decorated on November 29 at 9am. We are always looking for strong people to help us raise the tree. After the tree is up, we add the chrismons to the tree. Chrismon is a contraction of Christ and monograms because each symbol is representative of the name of Jesus. They remind us of how Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises. I think it is okay if your decorations are over the top. We are celebrating the event that all history hinges upon.

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Advent by Candlelight

On Monday, December 5 at 6pm the women in our congregation and community ages 13-113 will encourage one another to find strength and renewal in the gift of Jesus.

Special Worship Services

Your family will be blessed by participating in the worship opportunities at St. Paul Lutheran Church. On Christmas Eve there will be Lessons and Carols with Holy Communion at 4pm, 7pm, and 10pm. On Christmas Day we will gather to receive the promise that Jesus is born at 10am. Prepare to enter the New Year enriched by the Word of God on New Year’s Eve at 7pm and New Year’s Day at 10am.

Crafted by Truth – A Reformation Reading Plan

What happens when people are engaged in daily reading of the Bible? The results can be massively helpful for our walk in this world.

  1. We see our story and God’s story intersecting.
    When we walk with the words of the Lord daily on our hearts, we are better equipped to bring God’s perspective to the challenges and joys we experience. God has a story to share with us. After reading through the Bible, the story of God becomes more apparent. I have found it helpful to place the events of the Bible on a timeline and then discover parts of my life fit onto that same timeline. When I get farther away from the rhythm of God’s Word, my own life seems out of sync.
  2. We make connections between Bible passages.
    Besides becoming more comfortable with knowing the details of the Bible, I also find regularly reading the Bible improves my ability to connect the dots between different Bible passages. When Paul quotes in Romans 1:17 a passage from the prophet Habakkuk, I am better equipped to know why Paul quoted that passage. I enjoy the experience of reading one passage in the Bible and having that passage lead me to read another passage which then causes me to remember yet another passage.
  3. We slow the day down.
    When reading the Bible is part of my daily schedule, I enjoy how the pace of my day begins to slow down. I have heard athletes describe being “in the zone” and how everything moves at a different speed. I think daily reading the Bible puts my spiritual heart closer to the zone of having everything move at a different speed. The Holy Spirit works through the Word to bring me into the God zone.
  4. We deal with the tough passages.
    When working through a reading plan, I read books and passages that I previously passed over. I also find myself reading passages I have taken for granted. I appreciate reading the tough passages and putting on my big boy pants to figure out what God’s Word means. I also rejoice in the depth and width of God’s Word when I revisit oft-read passages.

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In the Michigan District we are celebrating the Reformation’s 500th Anniversary with a call to the Word. The Reformation refers to the 16th Century when people called for a reform of the teaching of the church. The website crafteddaily.com will show you how to signup for the Reformation Reading Plan. This plan, likethe Reformers, accents the joy of the Word of God. You will find in this plan a gospel ordering for your daily reading. The Bible readings are organized according to which books most influenced the Reformers. Signup for the Reformation Reading Plan and find yourself daily fed with grace. The reading plan utilizes the Bible app available on Android or iOS. Each day’s reading takes 10-15 minutes.

Bible reading plans are not only for adults.

The Barna Group conducted research commissioned by the American Bible Society. They surveyed more than 1,000 participants between ages 13 and 17. Most teens still see the Bible as a positive thing. 69 percent of teenagers personally own a Bible. 44 percent of teens read the Bible at least three or four times a year, and at least 25 percent say they read the Bible at least once a week. The main motivation for Bible reading among teens is growing closer to God. Despite postmodern teachings in schools that all religions reveal truth, American teens still regard the Bible as the primary holy book. The president of the Barna Group said, “In an increasingly secular culture, the Bible remains a highly regarded and well-read text among the vast majority of American teens—most of whom believe it to be sacred.” We have reasons to be filled with optimism because teens still care deeply about the relevance of the Bible to the world in which they live. Getting rooted in the Bible is needed in every generational level.

Too daunting?

Daily reading of the Bible, possibly reading through the whole Bible, may seem daunting or something only the professionals should handle. God has given His Word to all of us so that we may believe in Him. The Word of God reveals the very heart of God. The heart of God is not given only to professionals, nor should we consider the Bible only the possession of a few. God’s Word has been revealed so that all might come to saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. So I encourage you to read the inspired Word of God. Do not just pick and choose sections. Take the time to read the whole Bible because we should all seek to understand the whole picture of God’s plan.  You may have already read through the Bible in the past, and now think to yourself “been there, done that.” Do not consider reading the Bible as a challenge to complete and then move onto some new challenge. We do not outgrow God’s Word. The Bible is deep and wide with wisdom.

Why I am Lutheran

Why Should I Be a Lutheran?

I know that some of you know my heritage in the Lutheran church. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all pastors.

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Great-grandpa Henry Gaertner

You may think that my blood flows with little lutheran seals imprinted on my red blood cells. I have every reason to claim my identity in the Lutheran church through my family ties. But no parent can guarantee the faith of their children. No single generation of the church has been able to ensure the faith of the next generation by bloodlines. I am follower of Jesus because of the extravagant love of Jesus Christ. I hope that my children continue to hold onto Jesus. If one of them becomes a pastor that would be pretty cool, but most importantly I pray that they remain full of faith in the promises of God.

I want to share with you some of the reasons why I am a pastor in the Lutheran church, and I think you will notice that none of these reasons include my family tree.

I believe Jesus Christ is my Lord and my savior. Amazingly God is willing to claim me as a member of his family. Why should I be numbered among the saints? I have not done any miracles. I struggle to wake up with my alarm in the morning. I am certain my many snoozes on the alarm torture my home in the morning. Why should God know me?I know that God does not know me through my works. I believe God knows me because of the amazing love of Jesus. Jesus has claimed me.

I am Lutheran, because in this church I hear the promise of God and I hold onto this promise through faith. This faith I have is not possible through my reason. God’s love is beyond my reason. This faith I have is not possible through my strength. I do not have enough muscle in me to lift myself up towards God. This faith is possible because the Holy Spirit has called me to believe through the good news of Jesus that has been shared with me. I am Lutheran because in this church body I am honest about my weaknesses and rejoice in the strength of God’s steadfast love and mercy

I am Lutheran, because the concrete promises of God are delivered to me in the waters of baptism, the body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, and in the inspired Word of God. I know that many of my goals remain elusive from me and my targets change so that I never know if I have done enough. I am just a lost boy when I try to find hope all by myself. Yet God stands strong and present for me in a way I can always find him. In the lavish washing of the forgiveness of sins found in my baptism I rejoice that I am a child of God. In the simple seed of wheat and the clusters of grapes that are combined with God’s Word I rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus. In the Bible I discover that God’s story from the very beginning has included me. I am Lutheran because in this church body I can stand on the concrete promises of God even while the rest of the world of quick sand swirls around me.

I am Lutheran, because I know that I am a part of something bigger than just me, myself, and I. I am not an isolated individual living on an island searching for God. I am a part of the communion of saints. The communion of saints is all those who believe in Jesus. We are no longer bound to sin, death, or the devil. In every place and time we are bound together by more than nation, tribe, or language. In Christ we are a community. In Christ we go into the community. When I join with other brothers and sisters in this family of faith I know that we are all sinners struggling on our own and rescued by Jesus Christ. I am not under any illusions that we are a perfect family through our own efforts. I trust Jesus saves me through His work, and so I also trust He saves our community of faith through His mercy. I am Lutheran because in this church body we are honest about sin and we celebrate God’s steadfast love and mercy. We rejoice in the unity of the church through Jesus Christ. We trust that in every place and time in this world before and after us we are big family.

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Yes there are other church bodies that share in this good news. I rejoice that where God’s Word is shared the Holy Spirit will bring people to saving faith in Jesus. Everything I have written is intended as positive encouragement. I have not intended to create negative impressions about any other church. I do not think that only Lutherans are true Christians, but I do think that we got something pretty good going on in the Lutheran church. We have a rich history and tradition that is bound to continue insofar we keep reveling in the power of God’s Word to deliver us to salvation.

If you are looking for someone who is better with words than me describe why he is Lutheran, I encourage you to read Trevor Sutton’s book, Being LutheranTrevor is one of the pastors at St. Luke Lutheran in Haslett, Michigan. This guy rocks with words.


I know there are some funny idiosyncrasies about being Lutheran. I enjoy the jokes, but most of all I enjoy following Jesus.

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Found on Pinterest

Remembering 9/11 – Lost and Found

The fifteen year anniversary of 9/11 causes me to remember how I was a young pastor that struggled to find words to place this attack into any sort of narrative that made sense to me. I was in the third month of being the new pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Niagara Falls, New York. On that day and the days afterwards, I found that Western New York felt both very far away and very near to New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

I was driving north on the 190 towards Niagara Falls. I was about to go over the north bridge off of Grand Island when I heard on the radio that a plane had struck a building in NYC. I was just a few minutes away from my office at Grace. When I entered the church building, I immediately went towards the garage sale donation pile. I remembered that Carl had donated a television for the upcoming garage sale. I plugged the television into the wall. Lisa and I tried to get the antenna positioned to receive the signal from one of the news channels. Lisa returned tried to get some work down, what could we change by staring at the fuzz on the television. I went to my computer to see if I could find out more information. Every page was loading painfully slow. I knew we had slow internet, but every moment I pressed refresh on the browser I waited and waited for any news that this was just an accident. 9/11 was not an accident.

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Randy called and asked me to find a way to join the community in prayer. He wanted his kids to place their trust in God. He understood that trust would be easier to find if we were together. We quickly made calls and arranged for a prayer service. I don’t remember much about the prayer service. I do remember that none of us tried to fill the moments of prayer with cliches, people were honest in silence. Words cold not fill this moment unless there was trust. The trust we had in God did not require that answers would be found. Our trust required that we were not alone.

That same week I was scheduled to host the monthly gathering of local Lutheran pastors. The circuit meeting begins with a worship service. After the service, there is a Bible study and chance to share about our unique contexts. At the service I was expected to preach a sermon. This was the first circuit meeting I had either attended or hosted as a pastor. Remember, I was only three months into the ministry. I expected that pastors who host the circuit meeting would plan to use the sermon from the previous week or test out on the brothers the sermon that would preached on the upcoming Sunday. I knew that last week’s sermon seemed odd to use and I still did not have a bead on the upcoming sermon. Before I left the house, I looked one more time at the upcoming gospel lesson from Luke 15:1-10. Jesus shared with his followers the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. I did not think I could preach about the celebration after the sheep is found or the coin is discovered. I didn’t see anything in the text besides the celebration. I looked one more time and then I prayed for the Holy Spirit to bring wisdom to my heart and words to my lips. I left the house for the meeting at Grace.

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When the circuit meeting worship service began the words of the liturgy carried us into God’s promises. We confessed our sins, and we received the promise that we are forgiven children of God through the mercy of our savior Jesus. I spoke the the words of Ezekiel 34:11 and following, “For thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.”

I shared the words of St. Paul to Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinner, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 15).

It was time for the gospel reading from Luke. I spoke the words of the shepherd searching for the lost sheep, and the woman that searching for the coin. I knew we were not yet in a moment of celebration because the rescuers were still frantically searching the rubble where the planes brought destruction. I knew that there were people around the world feeling lost and disconnected from any narrative of hope. This disconnection did not just come from 9/11. Too many people are living disconnected from hope and are just ghost walking to the next day. How can we bring people back towards seeing tomorrow and the next day as moments kept safe by God?

It was in the words of God I found my story that day, and it remains my story whenever I am feeling disconnected. God is looking for you. I know that this sounds simple. Knowing that God desires to be with me takes away so much anxiousness. We are not alone. The first responders that walked into danger on 9/11 were not alone. The people descending staircases to nowhere where not alone. The people on the plane flying over Pennsylvania were not alone when it was time to act bravely to save lives on the ground. Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, taken upon himself the very loneliness of our suffering, so that we never have to stand alone against Satan and his evil minions.

God is searching. Now you may imagine your story is too small compared to the big stories that others are living. Even if you imagine your story too insignificant, remember the woman searching for the coin. I wonder what her friends thought when she called them all together to have a party after she found the one missing coin. To those friends the coin may have sounded silly. To that woman searching for the coin, the lost coin was worthy of a party. God wants to find you, and you are not insignificant to him. No one has a story too small to be include in the story of God. God is searching for you, and he want to hold a party for you.

More than just an inner drive

On October 9 I plan to complete Ironman Louisville. I have been preparing for this triathlon race for several months. The training has been relentless. The improvements in my fitness have been gradual but I trust I will be prepared to complete this race. I will cross the finish line after 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking,and 26.2 miles of running. When I cross that finish line, I may collapse. I suspect that during the race there will be many moments when I will want to quit. I will strive to finish because of the internal motivation to complete this goal, but I think I will be more motivated by the external pressure of having so many people pushing me forward. I am certain I would quit a big race like this Ironman if I only could rely on my internal strength. I have a high tolerance of pain and I can stay motivated on most tasks, but this race will be hard.

I am thankful for the tremendous support and encouragement that I have received in my preparations to complete Ironman Louisville. I am a part of team of pastors preparing to complete the triathlon. Pastors Mark Milatz and Ben Vogel are at Shepherd of the Lakes Lutheran Church and School in Brighton, Michigan. Pastor Drew Gruenhagen is at St. Michael Lutheran Church and School in Wayne, Michigan. Our team is called Tri1406. The “tri” part of the team name comes from the word triathlon. The “1406” part of the title come from the total distance of the Ironman distance, which is 140.6 miles. We are using this race as a vehicle to raise money for church worker student scholarships. You can read more about our team, follow along with our training, and also make a donation of any amount for these scholarships by visiting www.tri1406.com

no-quittingI have been challenged to find the time to train and improve my speed in the water, on the bike, and on the road. I thought I could do some sermon prep in my mind during the swim workouts, but instead I spend most of my time moving one arm in front of the other arm. While I am on the bike and on the running paths, I do find more opportunity to think. I have outlined a few books in my mind, but then I have forgotten them all when I get back to the car. Thinking while I am biking and running seems to be similar to my dreams. Awesome in the moment and then when I wake up nothing makes sense to me. The minds games I have experienced during the training have convinced me that the internal motivation for this race will be a jumbled mess. Fortunately I will not rely on only my personal fortitude to finish this race. I am supported by my kind and generous family. All the pastors on the Tri1406 team have found their congregations supportive and understanding of the training time necessary to prepare for this race. We have received donations that have let me know that people care about supporting church worker scholarships.Thank you for the support and the prayers. I will find external motivation to finish this race in the knowledge that so many people care about our success in Louisville.candidate-1276436-2014-07-02-22-27-19

I will also stay motivated to finish this race knowing that God has given me this opportunity to shine a light on the need for us to support students who are preparing to serve the church as pastors, teachers, and directors of Christian education. Please consider making a donation to support church worker scholarships by visiting tri1406.com or write a check to St. Paul Lutheran Church and place the words “tri1406” in the memo line.

My Report of 66th LCMS Convention

Here is a quick report of what happened at the 66th The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Milwaukee.

The convention took place July 9-14, 2016. I attended this convention because I was elected last summer to be the Ann Arbor pastoral delegate. Every circuit of congregations sends one lay delegate and one pastoral delegate. There were about 1,125 voting delegates sitting in the often frigid conditions of the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee. The theme for the convention was “Upon this Rock: Repent, Confess, Rejoice.”

The primary business of the convention is the “opportunity for worship, nurture, inspiration, fellowship and the communication of vital information” (Bylaw 3.1.1). The worship services were filled with the most spectacular music from the organ, brass, and soloists. The theme focused on the rock solid confession of faith that Jesus Christ is our savior. As much as the world may change around us, we can remain confident that Jesus is our hope and salvation. The most important business at the convention for me was the opportunity for relationship renewal and building. The communication of vital information was found in printed reports, speeches from the stage, and some attractive videos that were shown to introduce new programs.

The second item of business is elections. The president was elected before the convention by electronic vote. So delegates arrived at the convention knowing that Rev. Matthew C. Harrison was reelected for his third term as president. We spent several hours at the convention electing people to various offices. There were not many surprises in the elections. Before the convention an anonymous group mailed to the voting delegates the “United List.” This produced and distributed list influenced the outcome of the elections. I think only a handful of the nearly 100 elections went against the list. I did not utilize the list and so therefore I found my votes in the elections were often on the wrong side of victory.

The third item of business at the convention is for the assembly to consider reports, overtures, and resolutions for action. Overtures were submitted to the convention by congregations, circuits, districts, and officers and committees of the synod. Floor committees met over Memorial Day weekend to craft these overtures into resolutions. The convention assembly debated and voted on the resolutions. Some of the controversial resolutions presented to the assembly concerned the dispute resolution process, the role of lay deacons functioning in support of the office of the public ministry, and the governance of the universities.

President Harrison had a majority of delegates supporting his positions in these controversial areas. He had a consistent 60% voting block, but he demonstrated at this convention a commitment to the unity of the church. He did not utilize his support among the voting delegates to pass anything by slim margins of majority. He sought consensus. For instance, the modifications to the dispute resolution he proposed had very little support from the district presidents. His proposal would have increased the power of the president to overrule decisions by the district presidents. When the opposition to this change became publicly evident, the resolution was revised so that both sides could find agreement. Providing a route towards ordination for those deacons that have been doing the duties of the pastor was approved by over 70% of the assembly. This route towards ordination was approved without considerable discussion because the leadership of the synod has spent a great deal of time over the last few years nurturing this idea.

Our synod voted with considerable unity on issues that appear to divide the rest of our country. We affirmed that marriage is between one man and one woman. We affirmed that God created the heavens and the earth. We affirmed that Lutheran universities, seminaries, and schools should be Lutheran. We affirmed that we should regularly read the Bible (yep we voted on that tough topic).

I can report that Jesus is at work in this world bringing His saving message of redemption, and graciously God is using our own church body to be a part of delivering this saving message. God also uses, throughout the world, tremendously brave people in our partner churches to share this good news.

You can learn a great deal about what happened at the convention by visiting LCMS.org/convention. If you are looking for a less varnished reporting of the events of the convention, then you could visit the online forum of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. The ALPB sent Rev. Dr. Paul Sauer to report the events of the convention. HIs comments and the musings of others that watched the convention can be found at alpb.org/forum.

When I came home, I received wonderful hugs from my kids and wife. It was good to see our church body at work, but I think it is even more powerful for me to witness the daily ways God is using the people of our congregation. Thank you for sharing the Word of God with your friends, family members, neighbors, and co-workers. When I witness Jesus being shared with the children of our community during Vacation Bible School, I rejoice God is at work.

Doing more than running in place

I have had people ask me what my congregation is doing to make sure we are not just running in place. I think this is a good question. I do like running on a treadmill in the winter, but it does get boring. As I stare at the wall in front of me I realize that I am not moving forward. Now we are in the season when I my running moves from the treadmill towards the outside. Running outside is more fun than the treadmill, but I have nearly gotten lost a few times in Island Lake State Recreation Area. I did not pay attention to where I was going. I was moving forward, but I am not sure I knew where I was headed. So I had to turn around and retrace my steps back to a spot that I recognized.

As a congregation, we are not doing ministry just inside the walls of our building. We are seeking ways to share the good news of Jesus with our community. When we move beyond the inside of our building, we might get a little lost. We will try new things. We will meet new people. Sometimes we will find that we have headed down a trail that ends up going nowhere. In ministry, if I ever find myself confused about what I am doing, I turn back towards a spot I recognize. I recognize the cross and the love of Jesus. When I turn back to the cross, then I find it easier to go back on the trail and explore where God takes us in His love.

We have moved towards a new model of governance at St. Paul Lutheran Church. We have a church council made up of five caring people that desire our ministry does more than feet-on-treadmillsjust run on a treadmill. If you are wondering what the council is accomplishing, then I ask you to look at what people in this congregation are accomplishing. The council does not do the ministry at St. Paul. The council works with the leadership at St. Paul Lutheran Church to equip and encourage us to connect people to Jesus, to each other, and to opportunities to serve their neighbors in need. We equip people with the resources they need to do what God has called them to do. We encourage people to use their gifts so that we connect people to Jesus.

Our congregation does not have a lot of hoops to jump through to get something started. If you have an idea for ministry that fits into our vision of connecting people to Jesus, then we want to make sure you have the resources you need. We encourage people to move forward and so we do not have a bunch of committees that meet forever without doing anything.

We support the model of ministry action teams. None of our ministry teams should be lonely efforts, because trying to be the superstar servant will result in burnout. The key to understanding the ministry action team model is found in the word “action.” Teams develop so that something might be accomplished. When a group of people have a shared vision and common values powerful forces are at work. At St. Paul Lutheran Church we believe that every person should understand that we are connecting people to Jesus. And every person should understand the reason for this common goal is that eternal life and salvation are found only in Jesus. Connecting people to Jesus will not be achieved without unity in this purpose. We work together because we believe that each person has a part to play in this good news sharing ministry.

We support teams because we are united in our purpose to share Jesus. We also support teams because ministry is best accomplished by working together. God’s Word is spread and the number of disciples are multiplied when we trust in each person being gifted by God for the work we have been called to do. No doubt, more can be accomplished together. The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor” (Ecclesiastes 4:9). Any ministry action teams that form at St. Paul are expected to be more than one person. Working together expands the power of information, builds community, improves decision-making, and expands the possibilities for unexpected spiritual gifts to be utilized.

We have decentralized leadership through this move to ministry action teams that are equipped and encouraged by the church council. The council is no longer in the driver’s seat of what will get done at St. Paul. We all share in the common vision to connect people to Jesus. We all value the importance of connecting people to Jesus because we know in Jesus alone will we find eternal life and salvation. We recognize our interdependence and common goals when we work in teams. Each of us should feel a sense of ownership. No one in this congregation is just a volunteer recruited, we all can be involved in planning and implementing our vision.

Every person in this congregation can be involved in developing a ministry action team because we are not waiting for permission to share Jesus. We do not need permission to connect people to Jesus. No matter how great our council may be, no matter how engaging their personalities may be, we will not advance far in our vision of connecting people to Jesus if we rely only on them. I trust that God will be the instigator of teams developing at St. Paul. God will be the one that will sustain us in healthy and functional teams. We are not waiting for the council to do something. We are not going to keep running in place. We are all gifted children of God called to participate in the kingdom building work being done through the Word of God.

Trusting in the Armor of God

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will hear you. You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart.” — Jeremiah 29:11-13

The needs are so great in this world it is remarkably easy for us to get frightened and leap directly into danger. A newspaper in Columbia, Missouri had an article in 2013 about why the armadillo can’t cross the road. The nine-banded armadillo over the last 30 years has marched its habitat north into Missouri. I learned that the armadillo often dies on the road for a reason I did not expect. I thought armadillos perish because they bundle into their shells and wait for the trouble to come. In fact, when danger approaches the armadillo will leap 3 to 4 feet into the air. In a nature habitat this leap startles other animals, and it gives the armadillo time to flee. This leap into the air does not frighten the approaching car, so that this defense makes the car even more deadly. The leap puts the animal at the right height to get hit by the bumper or underside of a car. The behavior of the armadillo to leap at danger gives this animal a decided disadvantage in an encounter with a car.

800px-armadillo_at_kennedy_space_center_ksc-07pd-2276The armadillo is a little creature equipped with a number of armored plates that interlock but move independent so that the animal can move about. Unfortunately the armadillo does not always use this armor effectively and instead leaps into danger. God provides armor for us. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). God equips us to move about and stand strong by providing to us truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God, and prayer. You have been clothed by God to live everyday day in His promises and to share the truth of God’s love with others. Putting on the armor of God means having a deep, ongoing, life-changing relationship with Jesus.

Do you use the armor that God has provided to you to move about and stand against the wiles of the devil, or do you arrogantly act apart from God’s gifts and foolishly leap into danger?

c7f1a8703d59db7fe9ce280a5e28f122I encourage you to consider what God says about the power of His truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and Spirit to protect you from the spiritual darkness of Satan. Satan is a dangerous enemy. I do not want you to leap into the approaching danger of Satan. Gather with other Christians and find the strength of the interlocking pieces of Christian community. It is in the church that you can hear God’s Word and receive the gifts of God. Inside this community we find a safe place to pause and consider some of life’s big questions: Who am I? What is the role of faith and church in my life? How does my faith impact what I say or do every day? These questions are answered together as we hear God’s Word and find nurturing in the promises of Jesus. Together we receive from God His gifts of grace. These gifts of grace are received in Baptism, Confession and Absolution, Holy Communion, and through the Word of God. We participate in this community to not only experience a conversion from death to life but also for life each and every day.

It is impossible for me to imagine life lived without a community of faith. I know that in this world there is pressure to have enough beauty, power, wealth, and stuff. There is pressure to do everything and to do it all perfectly. This quest to be significant and special fails when it depends on our own efforts. As Christians we venture into our callings with humility. We acknowledge that we are not perfect and that we daily need God’s forgiveness for ourselves. We also recognize that the people around us will not be perfect. No doubt the sins, troubles, and despairs of this age could flood us with doubt, but we trust that the Holy Spirit empowers us to refocus our vision and energy to meet the needs of those we encounter each day.

We do face battles here on earth. There is approaching danger on the paths you are walking. You do not need to leap in fright into these dangers. Trust in the armor of God. You are interlocked together with other Christians. You are a part of the body of Christ. You have the ability to drive back darkness and boldly reach out in service to the sick, abused, imprisoned, and others in need. You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.

Blessings Shared with Others

One of the moments that captures my joy as a pastor is when I have the opportunity to speak the words of the benediction. I speak words of benediction at the end of the worship service. I also speak these words during hospital visits and whenever I want to leave a person with confidence in the graciousness of the Lord God.

I recall visiting a woman in the hospital and speaking the words of the benediction. With my lips I said the words and with my hand I made the sign of the cross upon her forehead. As I spoke the words I found her lips moving along with mine, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.” The woman answered my words of benediction, by saying, “Thank you.” I know that her gratitude was not only directed towards my visit, but more importantly she was thankful to God that she could trust in His blessing of peace and grace.

These words of blessing that I enjoy sharing are from Numbers 6:24-26. This benediction is known as the Aaronic Benediction because the Lord God spoke to Moses these words of blessing with the command that Moses should teach these words to Aaron and his sons. God desired the priests of Israel to share with the people that their Lord God desired them to blessed with peace.

The people in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and still now trust in the graciousness, favor, and peace bestowed by God. The Lord our God who created all that is seen and unseen seeks to bless His people. The words of this benediction express our faith that the Lord is the giver of blessing. When we share the blessings of God with people, we declare to them the good news of Jesus Christ and affirm that we are claimed and loved by God.

When I speak the words of the benediction, I make the sign of the cross. I remember that God delivers to us His peace through the work of the cross when I make the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross for me is a wonderful devotional aid because I find it an expression of unity between my heart, my lips, and my body. I desire all of me to trust in God through the mercy of Jesus. The sign of the cross is a gesture to recall the salvation that God has made available to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

You do not need to be a pastor to speak words of blessing to someone. All Christians who know the hope and promise of Jesus will find themselves in moments when God use them to share words of blessing. When you see that people are in need of the peace and joy of God’s presence, assure them that the Lord does desires peace for them. Please do not assume that a person has enough peace that you can walk past him or her or count on someone else to share the joy of Jesus Christ. Take the time to share with a person your confidence that the Lord does look upon him or her with favor. When you do deliver words of blessing to someone, discover the profound way that touch can communicate peace and joy. Make sure you use touch that is non-threatening, respectful, and communicates the love of Christ. You could place one hand on the person’s shoulder and with the other hand trace a cross on the person’s forehead. Then hold both of the person’s hands in yours while making eye contact and speaking the benediction. Depending on the level of relationship with a person head-touching will be considered rude or confusing so always ask permission before making a blessing in this way. With good eye contact, speak the words of blessing. Deliver the blessing with the conviction that God’s peace and favor is a free gift you are offering to the person.

blessing

Truth Telling in Community

Telling the truth in a community involves a vulnerability that not everyone is comfortable exposing. I enjoy telling the truth when I have good news to share. When I have bad news, I am fearful of how the bad news will be received. I believe we will be a stronger community when we can share the wholeness of our lives. When I can trust you with both the good news and the bad news of my life, I know that we have a bond that will not be easily broken. Communities of people who love the truth, live faithfully, and respond gratefully are wonderfully safe places to grow and unfortunately remarkably rare. The church is called to be exactly such a community.

David wrote in Psalm 86, “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. I give thanks to you, O LORD my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love towards me.”

David prayed these words with gratitude to walk in God’s truth. In these words from the psalms, we are also invited to walk in God’s truth and revere His name with an undivided heart. You do not need to hide a part of your life from God. Trust God with your whole life and discover how He cares for all of you. God is not only interested in your piety and wholesome works. God is interested in your sins, struggles, shames, and sorrows.

PrintBecause we want to be good, or at least appear to be good enough, we will compare ourselves to others. When we compare ourselves to others, we will sometimes come up short. In those moments when we do not measure up, we are prone towards hypocrisy and deception so that we do not fall too far behind. In the close connections of a community it can be difficult to keep up appearances and cover our failures. If we struggle with truthfulness, we will then either deceive in order to look better or we will find ourselves feeling more and more like an outcast. If everyone else around us is living life easily, is there room for us and our failures? Truth stumbles and honesty caves in when we feel like we need to pretend to have everything sorted out. I think that the bundles of lies, secrets, and silences that are necessary to appear okay can be very exhausting.

I believe that if our community was dependent on our own righteousness and holiness we would become a bunch of liars and deceivers so that we could still justify belonging to the community. Jeremiah wrote that the human heart is “deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our world is filled with deceit and lies in order to prop up our vanity. But our redeemed community of believers is called to be different. We can put away the lies and hypocrisy and speak the truth. Followers of Jesus are called to a
common life of grace and truth built on the promise that we are loved by God according to His grace and His truth.

Truth-filled communities are connected to Jesus because Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). When we trust Jesus to be the framework for our life and relationships, we are in a better position to address our sins and failures. We can confidently face our need to repent because we truthfully respect the gap between our goodness and God’s righteousness. Paul told the Colossians, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9-10). We do not need to lie to hide the threadbareness of our own deeds. We can confidently tell the truth that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God because we trust that we are clothed in the love of Jesus Christ.

When we confess our sins, we are being honest with God that we have sinned. We can be clear with God, because in Jesus, we have received the clear promise of God’s love. Not only can you be clear with God, you should be clear with one another in our community. Our community should be held together with something more substantial than a facade of goodness. Our community should be held together by truth and love.

This is article is a part of a series of articles written with inspiration from the book Living into Community, by Christine D. Pohl.