This is another churchy blogpost. I haven’t been on here in a while, and a LOT of stuff has gone down since the last time I posted. The biggest things are the sudden, unexpected, heart-wrenching and world-changing loss of my wife to metastatic breast cancer on September 26 and then the Category 4/5 Hurricane Ian that slammed into our town two days later. Most of everything I’ve been doing since that time has been related to the aftermath of one or both of those things. But I’m trying to find a way forward through this mess.

One of the paths that I’m taking through the mess is work. Our church building is still in disarray, so it’s not really convenient to be in the office most of the time. Plus, I have a lot of extra running around to do on account of being a single dad. So I’m really just not in the office much. But I’m still working, just in different ways. Including returning to our weekly Bible/Book Study and, now, launching a twice-monthly cross-generational faith formation “event” following the Faith5 model.

In both the book study and the Faith5 event, the issue of justice came up, albeit in slightly different contexts. We’re studying Michael Hardin’s The Jesus Driven Life, which is all about discovering the non-violent, non-retributive God whom Jesus called Abba. In chapters 5 and 6, we’re talking about … well, we’re talking about a LOT of things, but the issue of justice came up in our discussion as an aspect of “shalom.” Normally we translate that word as “peace,” but that translation fails to capture the holistic character of God’s peace, which is about wholeness and restoration, not just of an individual, but of entire communities and the whole creation.

So, in that discussion, we turned to Matthew 5 and the sermon on the mount, where Jesus radicalizes his own scriptural tradition when he tells his listeners, “You have heard it said by men of old, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, don’t resist an evildoer. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the left.” You know the passage. Walter Wink famously pointed out that, in order for someone to strike me on the right cheek, unless they are using their (forbidden) left hand, the only way to strike that cheek is to do so with a backhand, colloquially named “a bitch slap.” I’m not shying from that term because the rawness of it captures the degradation and humiliation that phrase implies. As Wink points out, it’s violence done by a supposed superior against a supposed inferior. When Jesus says, “offer him the other, as well,” it’s a way to suggest that the slap-ee demands to be met as an equal, not as an inferior. It shames the aggressor and brings the possibility of justice, equality, wholeness.

In the Faith5 context, we were discussing our preaching text from the Narrative Lectionary, which included the famous line from Micah 6: “You know, O Mortal, what the LORD requires of you: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

When I preached on that text, I pointed out the thing that all the prophets made clear: authentic worship, whether here in Jerusalem or there on Mount Gerazim, or in our building, or in the park, or wherever… it all amounts to nothing and is an offense to God if it isn’t accompanied by DOING – not just talking about, but actually DOING justice.

As an aside, but a relevant one, I also talked about how doing justice is a natural outcome of walking with God, because to know God through relationship is precisely what teaches us God’s will and directs our doing of justice. That “love kindness” bit again fails to capture the fullness of the word “chesed,” which is the kind of “steadfast love” (how we normally translated that) of God, which is self-emptying, co-suffering, and radically forgiving. (Shout-out to Brad Jersak and Vladika Lazar Pohalo for those phrases!)

The same person who had asked me in the book study to define what I meant by “justice” asked me again to define it in this Micah context. I began to give an answer, and someone else had something to say, so I stopped myself. I’m now glad I did, because the whole point was this: justice flows naturally, organically, from that co-suffering, radically forgiving, self-emptying love of God, which one can ONLY know by a humble walk with the divine. One of the ways Jesus phrased this in John’s Gospel was by using the vine and branches metaphor. You can’t really separate the branches from the vine. When they are connected – or mutually abiding, if you will – the line between the one and the other is blurred. And there you have it. Walk with Jesus, who EXUDES chesed, who EMBODIES shalom, who calls on us to IMITATE him as he imitates the Father.

We don’t need to DEFINE justice when we are ABIDING in justice. Don’t ask ME to say what justice is or isn’t. Look to Jesus. Because my suspicion is, “you know what is required of you.” Jesus already told you.

Congregational Identity

There’s a really good book that came out of the Alban Institute in 2004. It’s called The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Discerning Church Dynamics. Israel Galindo is the author. Chapter 7 has to do with “The Hidden Life of Congregational Identity.” I want to give you a run-down of that chapter.

Galindo believes that a congregation’s identity is one of the most important dynamics in the corporate life of an assembly. He states that there are 3 major components of that identity: Spirituality, something he calls “Stance,” and Style.

Spirituality strongly influences things like how a congregation approaches worship – how the people understand the reason we gather. It also influences the rest of mission and ministry, including it’s “stance.” It may influence Style, too, but Stance is mainly what I want to address here today.

Galindo writes, “A church’s stance has to do with how it views its mission and ministry and how it relates to the world around it” (117). Geographical context may well play into a church’s stance: Is the setting urban? Suburban? Rural? That makes a difference. So does the composition of the congregation. Are the people primarily Latino? Black? White? Asian-Pacific? That’s also a determining factor.

Galindo states, though, that membership/participation usually determines a congregation’s viability (ability to sustain itself and it’s ministries) LESS than whether a congregation is involved in the life of the neighborhood where it’s planted. This is something that’s VERY worth considering!

“Doctrinal or mission task emphasis” can also determine a congregation’s stance. Galindo points out that a stance can and often does shift over time; however, “imprinting” by founding members (even, let’s hypothetically say, 105 year ago) sometimes so strongly shapes an assembly’s stance that the congregation has trouble adjusting when demographic shifts in the neighborhood take place. “For many congregations, it’s easier to pull up stakes and move to a different geographical location when the neighborhood changes than it is to change their stance” (118).

Incidentally – or not incidentally! – FELC has stayed put in this particular neighborhood for 60 years, demographic shifts notwithstanding. I don’t know whether that has to do with stubbornness, with determination, with the fact that there are numerous other congregations within a 15-mile radius that individual members/families can choose from instead of uprooting the current congregation … or whether it has more to do with a real sense that THIS congregation is ROOTED in THIS PLACE, planted here by God for a purpose. Another thing worth pondering …. You tell me. And if the latter is the case, then what do we have to do in order to make our ministries more viable in this place where God has put us?

Back to Galindo!

Galindo lists 9 common congregational stances (118 – 123). Let’s see whether any of these (or any combination of them) sounds like FELC. Here they are, along with brief descriptions:

1. The Urban Ministry-stance Congregation
* “This congregation’s stance is informed and shaped by its geographical location in the urban setting.”
* “Commitment to the welfare of the city” is a major value.
*As such they are active in community ministries: aftercare programs, ESL courses, tutoring/training ministries, AA, NA, single-parenting groups are hosted here. There may also be secular agencies stationed in these churches (clinics, counseling centers, etc.)
* These folks likely intentionally remained grounded in place rather than moving to the suburbs.
*People in this congregation “seek to impact the lives of those in their neighborhood, which is made up of a broad spectrum of ethnic and socioeconomic groups.”
* The membership reflects the demographics of the neighborhood.
* It’s not uncommon to find congregations like this in large buildings that also house several separate (ethnic) churches (or schools) in the facility.

2. The University-stance Congregation
* Geographic context is in close proximity to a university or college.
* Membership includes a large number of people from that school (students, administrators, professors, etc.)
* Education and learning are strong values.
* Sermons (and overall approach to matters of faith) tend to be critical/scholarly.
* Book studies and lecture series make up much of the educational programming.
* This congregation has a good sized endowment but often struggles with finances beyond the bare essentials.
* The membership is well educated, but often transient; therefore, membership loyalty and program/ministry continuity is a challenge.

3. The Country Club-stance Congregation
* Members tend to be financially affluent.
* To outsiders, this congregation seems aloof, exclusive, disconnected from the real world.
* The exclusive nature of the membership creates intense closeness. (I added this aspect. It’s not in Galindo.)
* Members may resist direct ministry, but are generous financial supporters of various ministries.

4. The Community-stance Congregation
* Values inclusivity, belongingness, diversity, and tries to “welcome all”
* Tends to downplay denominational affiliations (because those can be obstacles for new people)
* Celebrates the wider culture insofar as it aligns with the congregation’s faith values
* Sermons include pop culture references, and congregation tends to “get it”
* Educational offerings tend to be “creative” (e.g. Bible studies along pop culture themes, such as “A Spirituality of The Matrix,” a “Survivor-themed” youth lock-in)
* Tends to provide a “cafeteria plan of ministry opportunities” – “everything from day care for toddlers to art classes for seniors” – which provide multiple entry points into congregational life.
* Outreach tends to echo the “If you build it, they will come” concept
* Drawbacks:
– Requires major investment in competent staff.
– Gets trapped in a consumerist mindset (“Market analysis” approach to outreach;                   attractional model for certain constituencies (e.g. parents with young children, young           thirty-somethings, etc.)) which creates pseudo-community of like-minded people                 instead of creating community “around building [an authentically] inclusive, multi-
generational faith community”

5. The Mission-stance Congregation
* Intentionally outward-focused.
* Values service to the world.
* Faithfulness as a church includes work “to transform the world through active engagement”
* Committed to the ministry of all believers.
– “As such it is effective in organizing, structuring, and providing processes that
facilitate its members’ quick and effective engagement in personal or corporate
ministries” beyond the four walls of the building.
* Values a theology of “call” (vocation) and service through ministry to others (discipleship)
* Has difficulty maintaining multigenerational membership
– is primarily an “adult” church
* Has difficulty maintaining programs to provide for more dependent members (older adults, children, youth)
– Sees faith formation of youth/children as primarily the responsibility of the family

6. The Pillar-stance Congregation
* Enjoys prestige (if not always influence, or if so, may no longer have much affluence)
* Enjoying a rich history and reputation, often caught in the bureaucracy stage.
* Leadership strongly supports denominational structures and orthodox theology (if not always orthodox practice)
* Places high value on professionalism of staff and pastor.

7. The Shepherd-stance Congregation
* Values affirmation of persons and care-giving
– sees self as “family of faith”
* Sermons tend to focus on reconciliation, healing, peace, justice.
* Members welcome the broken and hurt, offering comfort, healing & restoration
* Danger: potential addiction to pain (little room for healthy, mature members who need a challenge rather than affirmation)

8. The Outreach-stance Congregation
* “Outreach” tends to mean “evangelism” to the “lost”
* Highly values the conversion experience and some outward sign thereof
– As such, every practice of the congregation is geared toward that goal or toward reinforcing that value
* Every gathering is a chance to preach repentance (and to offer an altar call)
* Heavy stress on sin and the need to be rescued from it
* Social activism (if present) seen as “bearing fruit” and as outward manifestation of the indwelling of the Spirit

9. The Crusader-stance Church
* Holds a strong “Kingdom of God” theology
– As such, participates actively in the public square, engage in public debates, provides prophetic stance, ensures that the voice of God is heard
(Exists on both sides of the political and theological spectrum)

Take a look at all of these stances, what congregations who fall into these categories tend to value, what the pitfalls are (if they’re stated or if you can see them), and try to determine whether our congregation fits one stance more than another, or whether we might have more of an Old McDonald approach (here a value, there a value…). Armed with the insights you come away with, let’s determine what we want to DO with that info. How does this affect how we choose and negotiate our own values and the principles that guide us?

I hope you enjoy this discussion. I find it all very fascinating!

Keep on chooglin’,

Pr. Rob

Why Core Values?

For the past 2.5 years we’ve been doing a lot of introspection. This is good! Socrates is supposed to have said “The unexamined life is not worth living,” or some approximation of that. Probably this is more about an individual life, but it applies just as well to a corporate life – a congregational life, for example.

The purpose of our introspection, though, isn’t just for our own amusement. To paraphrase Augustine and Luther, that kind of reflection as an end in and of itself would make us a congregatio incurvatus in se (a congregation turned in on itself) – something Luther discouraged in the strongest terms. (In his Lectures on Romans, Luther said that a person – and by extension, a congregation – that thinks in this way “not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.”)

Instead, the purpose of all this introspection is finally oriented outward. Knowing what moves us and what drives us helps us as we go about in the rest of the world. It’s kind of like a rudder that steers us through life and comes in handy especially when we’ve got tough decisions to make.

Each person and each corporate body moves and operates according to certain values and principles. These are the things that ground and center us. They are the glue of integrity – the things that bind the integers of who we are to the whole.

(On the flip side of this, sometimes we act in ways that conflict with or even downright oppose our deepest values and convictions. This can lead us to feeling uneasy, unsatisfied, all around unhappy. That’s why it’s so important to identify and articulate what’s truly important to us – so that our actions and are values can be in alignment, not in conflict.)

That’s kind of a long preamble. Sorry. It’s just that this stuff is really important. The practical side of all of this is: There is pretty much NO END to the number of activities and ministries that we COULD get involved in as a congregation. But we will be much, much more effective if we’re focused. And our focus ought to be something that we, as a corporate body, can really get behind.

Maybe it would be helpful to think of it this way. Say we have $1000 to give to some worthy cause. And say we have 100 people in the congregation, each one of whom supports a separate cause. We could choose to give $10 to each of the 100 causes and not really make much impact … OR we could pick one or two causes that we ALL (or at least most of us) support, which could really benefit from a focused gift of $500 or a thousand bucks. Makes sense, right?

Let me be explicit here and just say that this isn’t primarily about money. It’s about energy. Money IS energy. Expending time and talents also is energy. So the question becomes: What does this congregation care about the most? What are we most willing (and called!) to expend our energy on?

So, what we’ll be talking about for the next little while will be these Core Values – these things that we care enough about to spend our time, talents, and treasures on.

This isn’t super easy work, but it’s totally worth it. From the conversation about core values, we’ll move to articulating a set of 5 or 6 Guiding Principles that will serve as a checks & balances as we determine where we’ll focus our ministry energies. Eventually (by October) we’ll have a Purpose Statement, too. We can finally get rid of that 3-paragraph-long mission statement that we have held onto since the 1980s and have something that reflects who we are NOW, what God is calling us to NOW.

That will be helpful in lots and lots of ways, including the energy focus I’ve already mentioned, but also in terms of articulating to potential financial supporters what we stand for and why they ought to get on board with what we’re doing as called and commissioned people of God working in this little corner of God’s creation.

Throughout this whole process, we can’t forget this primary thing: We are striving to do God’s work. GOD’S work! As such, we need to be grounded in prayer; we need to be grounded in Scripture. Please continue to pray for this congregation, that the Holy Spirit will guide us, will strengthen us to faithfully discern our path as we continue in this process. Please ask your friends to pray for us, too. As I keep saying, God does have a purpose for THIS congregation. We’re put in this place at this time for a purpose. God isn’t finished with us yet, but instead is just beginning something brand new!

Keep on chooglin’,

Pr. Rob

Some Post-Annual Meeting Thoughts

The spring Annual Meeting this past Sunday was a bit of a mixed bag. Some highs, some lows. First the highs:

We have a President!
After going for a year with no single person taking the helm of the Board, we are blessed to now have Lisa Milzarek sitting in that position. Over the last year, the Presidential duties were shared – somewhat haphazardly, I’ll say (certainly to your complete shock, right?) – by the entirety of the Core Council. Bruce did all the heavy lifting, and we owe him a debt of gratitude. Now that Lisa is Prez, it’s important for her to know that she’s not left holding the bag all by herself. We will continue to row in the same direction – as a team! I’m very excited that she has stepped up to the plate, and I think we’ve got some good things coming.

In fact, I’m excited about the whole team! Apart from working with Deb Silkman as a kiddo-wrangler, I haven’t had much chance to see her in action. Same is true with David Beymer. But I’m so glad that they heard God calling them to this leadership ministry (as Secretary and as Linking In Member-at-Large, respectively) and that they answered that call in faith. We’ve got “new blood” in leadership, and that’s going to be good for us, even if we will also miss Eleanore Beymer’s and Laura Bunch’s leadership – even as we rejoice.

We also have our first volunteer to help lead a renewed Financial Stewardship Team. Mary Jane Halley is a gifted accountant and she loves this congregation. Many of you may not know her yet, because she has been very active in the choir and very busy at work. But she’s a powerhouse and isn’t afraid to ask hard questions. That’s exactly the kind of thing we need. I’ll keep you updated as the Stewardship Team grows. We still need 2 or 3 people for this ministry, so please pray about whether you might be called to serve the congregation in this way.

That’s the good stuff.

I used to work in agriculture, so my analogies may be a little “earthy” for some people, so forgive me if it sounds offensive to say that good things grow out of some “crappy” situations.

We looked a bit more closely as a congregation than we have in a long time – at least as long as I’ve been here – at the financial situation. It looks rough. And I think this may have been surprising to some people. Both the rough shape of the finances AND the fact that this may have been shocking is, indeed, “crappy.” It feels crappy. The congregation isn’t used to that, and it isn’t used to or comfortable with talking about money. We, as a whole, are pretty conflict-avoidant and would rather NOT discuss this stuff. It’s dirty work. But it’s also essential work. We’re going to have to get more used to dealing with some “crappy” truths and  with being able to talk openly about them. You have to put some manure on the crops if you want a healthy harvest. Right?

Another analogy that might hit home more powerfully is the Easter analogy. You can’t have Easter without Good Friday. You can try, but it won’t work. That’s actaully central to our Lutheran theology. Out of the ugliness of death (take it literally AND figuratively), comes life, rebirth, new creation. Let’s embrace that. It’s our heritage as Christians, and it applies to our congregational Life Together as much as it does to every other aspect of life. So, let’s not be scared to face that. Once we know that death has lost its sting, finally we’ll be able to LIVE, and to live abundantly.

Speaking of which:  I was talking to the women of Dorcas Circle today. (Wednesdays are the best part of my week: I usually get to interact with the ELC kids; I get to chat a bit with the sewing ladies; we used to do Morning Prayer, but now we’re starting to translate that into a mid-week Mass. It’s the most Spirit-filled day of my workweek, hands down.)

I said to them that I had been losing sleep about that meeting. And it’s not so much what happened at the meeting as much as what DIDN’T happen, and specifically, what I didn’t say. It didn’t really come clear to me what was bothering me until this morning as I was studying for this coming Sunday’s sermon.

This coming Sunday, we’re going to be reading a story from Mark that appears in all three synoptic Gospels. Jesus has been performing miracles – healings and exorcisms, primarily – and the crowd that follows him contains a small group who wants to accuse him. They accuse him specifically of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebul, the prince of demons. Jesus chastises them and finally says that their accusation and attempt to expel him is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Hold that in your mind while we think about the Genesis 3 story that goes along with this reading. It’s the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. This happens in the context of the garden, where God has given them everything they could possibly need. They’re not hungry; they don’t realize they’re naked, so they don’t need clothes. They literally have everything at hand that they need for survival, and God shows them all the trees and says, “Eat, eat!” But then, God also says, “Just one thing: don’t eat from that tree over there.”

And what do Adam and Eve focus on? All the abundance? No. They focus on the one, teeny tiny restriction. In the midst of all this abundance, all they can see is scarcity.

Well, it goes on from here and we’ll talk more about that on Sunday, but look at how this can apply to us. We have everything we need. Right now. In order to do the ministry that God has for us to do, we have been equipped. We have 75 people who attend services here every Sunday. We have 35 people who come to “extra-curricular” stuff all the time. We have great musicians. We have a time-honored liturgy. We have a beautiful building.

But what did we focus on last Sunday? Scarcity.

I’m not laying the blame on you. I did it, too.

Don’t get me wrong: money is necessary for ministry. Giving is a spiritual practice. I believe both of those things strongly.

But really – we already have what we need in order to do what God is calling us to. We’re at a point where we can look around and find someone to blame for financial shortfalls, but how does that honor the Spirit of abundance? Blame and accusation are not of THAT Spirit.

So let’s leave that aside. Let’s look at what we DO have. Yes. There is still a lot of work to do in terms of using our resources more wisely. No question. But let’s never forget that God has gifted us richly, and has already equipped us with what we need.

Another little thought: At 12:15 Mass today, I read from the appointed Psalm (20), which I’d like to share with you now, along with the Psalm prayer appointed for the day. I ask you to make this Psalm your prayer as you read it. Treasure it, and keep it close to you.

Psalm 20 (ELW version)

May the LORD answer you in the | day of trouble,
the name of the God of Ja-|cob defend you;
send you help from the | sanctuary
and strengthen you | out of Zion;
may the LORD remember | all your offerings
and accept | your burnt sacrifice;
grant you your | heart’s desire
and prosper | all your plans.
We will shout for joy at your victory
and unfurl our banners
in the name | of our God;
may the LORD grant all | your requests.
Now I know that the LORD gives victory
to the a-|nointed one:
God will answer out of holy heaven,
gaining victory
with a | strong right hand.
Some trust in chariots and | some in horses,
but we rely on the name of the | LORD our God.
They collapse | and fall down,
but we will arise | and stand upright.
O LORD, give victory | to the king
and answer us | when we call.

Almighty God, you gave victory to Christ, your anointed one. Answer us when we call to you. Lift us from reliance on our own securities, that we may put all our trust in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.