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Confusing the Branches for Roots

Have you ever tried planting a tree upside down? Aside from being a silly sight, I cannot imagine it working too well. You’d be left with a strange scene that looks like it was ripped from the reels of a Tim Burton film. Burying the branches—big bare roots pointing sky high—the tree would fail to take hold, and thus die. It’d be a matter of time before the barren snag collapsed. Now I never took BIOL 340 Plant Structure and Classification in college (nor would I ever, science is just not my subject); but I do think, regardless your major, it’s probably fairly common knowledge that there’s a certain way trees work based on their anatomy. Roots function in fastening the tree to the ground, absorbing water and the crucial nutrients that feed it. Therefore, a tree without roots is unable to live. It is dead, decomposition for insects, fuel for the fire. Branches, on the other end, serve their own different purpose. Atop the tree, branches bear the twigs and leaves which take in sunlight, give forth pollen, bear fruit, and offer shade. No less important than its’ hidden anchor below, branches simply cannot substitute as roots. The whole tree from top to bottom and trunk in between is reliant on the roots serving as its foundation. We can all agree: to confuse the branches for roots would be devastating for the seedling altogether.

Beyond botany, what if we were to use the tree as a metaphor for ourselves? We, too, have roots by which we are grounded and receive the fundamentals crucial for life. From there, grows outward our sturdy trunk of identity, with various-sized shoots of branches, twigs, and leaves. The most outer parts are important in themselves, but they do not function the same as the foundation. What are the roots, feeder or perennial, in your life? On the other end, what could be considered the more pliable (sometimes flimsy) though still connected branches? Where is our faith in Christ positioned among all of this? What place do Scripture and Sacraments have within the living organism? How do we envision our relationships, vocations, commitments, thoughts and opinions in this image? With the exceeding polarization in our society today—if you disagree, turn on the news, pick any channel—I have to wonder if we’ve lost track of or forgotten what are our roots. Or have we idolatrously confused the lesser with the greater—planting ourselves upside down and seeking sustenance through inappropriate means, tapping from the wrong source? We appear so infatuated with what’s red, pink, or blue, who’s liberal, moderate, or conservative, which way is right, center, or left, that it seems we have tried to transplant ourselves inversely. Bunches of dead and dying trees hardly constitutes a forest. Are we letting particular branches of personal pride or partisanship define our root of faith? What is feeding, and thus shaping, what? A brittle, fractured tree is a sign of lacking minerals, starvation. A dead tree is neither good for spreading pollen for future growth nor producing fruit to be eaten, but only mulch and fertilizer.

Our faith is, and should be, that which shapes all else. It is the root from which every branch grows and flourishes. Just as the rings of bark on a tree tell stories of seasons past—showing when the timber was affected by drought, fire, or even healthy rainfall—the many areas of our daily life speak to whether and how our roots are absorbing living water and critical nutrients or not. If ever we get to a place where our politics are shaping how we read the Bible, instead of the other way around, we need to check our roots. Likewise, when personal gain precedes caring for the needs of the neighbor, such is a sign that the aquifer has become contaminated. Topsy-turvy trees are no more useful for the ecosystem than we are to the world around us if our sight is bent downward onto ourselves. Our ethics today demonstrate an obscene ignorance, if not blatant arrogance, in confusing our branches with the roots. As we and those around us call into question appalling remarks made by our leaders, reprehensible policies put into motion by our government, and shameful silent disregard by us the people, we ought to keep in mind that there is no need for bad trees. They don’t remain standing for long. Perhaps the axe needs swinging if we no longer function as we are created to be. When a branch is cut from the trunk, new sprouts can shoot forth. The Apostle Paul speaks of grafting new branches where others have been removed (Romans 11:16b-24). Only God is able to bring about new life out of the dead stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11). If we remain bottoms up—roots rotting in the wind—death is most certain. Only God, the One who raised Jesus from the grave, can bring new resurrected life to trees that have died and decomposed. We call out to God—Creator, Sustainer, and Renewer—to reposition us for sustained life. Only God can bring us to new life—fulfilling the divine promise to make all things new. We pray that God may cleanse and nourish the forest with rains of forgiveness, blowing what is loose and dead away with winds of change, and if need be, setting us ablaze that we might grow anew. God of all, set us, your creation right—so that we might live with one another and serve all—with our roots in fastened in you and our branches showing your grace, love, and mercy. Amen.

– Pastor Andrew

You’re Using Your Bible All Wrong

Have you ever been sooo blessed as to have someone quote Scripture to you as a passively aggressive means of condemning, insulting, judging, or otherwise being rude to you? :/ Me too! Nothing makes me want to open a Bible and delve in headfirst more than such an overwhelmingly snobbish roundabout act of “evangelism” (Read: immeasurable unmitigated sarcasm). There’s just not enough digits on my hands and feet, or the person next to me for that matter, to count the number of times I’ve experienced such religiously circuitous engagement via biblical misuse. Aside from how it personally makes me feel (PO’ed to say the abbreviated least), this kind of narcissistic weaponized scriptural warfare gives Christianity a bad name—ironically by way of its own adherents. It does less than no favors toward drawing people to the gospel. Who in the history of the world has ever said: “Oh, that cleverly chosen chunk from the Bible you used to insult me was so appealing. It just makes me want to be a part of your convicting movement!” Frankly, such textual flagrance demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of how the Bible should be read. If ever we open and engage holy writ for the mal-purpose of decontextually using it against our neighbor—whomever they are—so as to destroy them in any way and thereby assuage our ego, then it’s safe to say we’re using the Bible all wrong. To put it plainly: The way in which we use Scripture speaks volumes of how we understand its purpose.

Despite how many approach it, the Bible is not some stockpile of spiritual ammunition stashed away—ready for the use of bringing about cataclysmic change so as to reform our opponent(s) in our own (sinfully twisted) image. Conspiring to use the inspired Word in order to spire ourselves above others really only serves to expire any means for God’s goodness and grace to be (transpired) spoken and shared through Scripture. The Bible is the living, breathing, continuing story of our faith; it’s not an outdated, irrelevant history book. Through it, we receive a multitude of voices across centuries and regions—each confessing their faith about who and where God is, what God is doing, how God’s presence and work affects them (all of us), and why all of this is so important. It’s filled with stories of creation, birth, and life together; and yet it is no less marked by stories of pain, suffering, and death. One doesn’t have to look too far to see very confusing accounts of hate-filled divisiveness. Still, these such passages cannot overshadow others of immense beauty, reconciliation, and hope. If looked upon as an unconnected assortment of passages, if not individually segmented verses, then yes, we can just take a piece from here or sentence from there, blow off the contextual dust of time, and carelessly heap it like hot dung at those whom we wish to shame. We, however, are not monkeys at the zoo and Scripture—no matter how hard it may be to grasp a hold of—is not a hot mess. Drawing on the image of the Christ child swaddled laying in a manger, Martin Luther goes so far as to say that all of Scripture is the cradle that holds Jesus. The Bible—Old and New Testaments together—points to the Son Incarnate, the Crucified and Risen Lord. It is a confession of faith; not a proof of superiority. It is a means by which the Spirit speaks of God’s grace for us in Christ Jesus; not a tool with which we’re expected to dig a moat around us and our “flawless” beliefs. How often we hear the Bible used to visibly demonstrate the speck in another’s eye, but in doing so we lose sight of the lumber yard housed in ours. Our use or misuse of the written Word shows the weight it bears, if any, in our faith and daily lives.

If we feel so inclined to rip phrases, sentences, and passages from Scripture, like children tearing petals from a flower—she loves, she loves me not, she loves me, she loves me not…—then what if we were to do so for the purpose of communicating grace, love, and forgiveness? Instead of pulling the rug out from beneath the other, what if we sought to use the Bible to build up and care for our neighbor? To the one who remarks “Well Jesus did it…” such a response shows itself fraught with holes of self-righteous selectiveness. If we’re using the Bible in a manner other than nurturing faith, spreading love, or instilling hope, I have to wonder what is our motive. When in doubt, err on the side of grace. Perhaps consider a few telling questions. Am I serving to build up the kingdom of God through what I’m quoting from the Bible? Does this verse comfort or convict my neighbor? Why do I feel so compelled to contribute this particular passage in this instance? And if nothing else, keep in mind mom’s proverbial question: How would you feel if someone was to say that to you? When we use another’s (Scripture’s) profession of faith to undermine someone, we actually devalue its original intention—which is to point toward a good and gracious God. More than a few people over the course of history have been dissuaded away not just participation in congregational life but altogether from faith in a loving God, all because of others’ misuses and abuses of the Bible. It is the church’s unintended and yet most used weapon. The temptation is great, but the lasting effect is far greater when we beat people up with keenly selected Scripture passages. Guilt, grief, and atheism are but a few of the scars many wear from Bible bashing. The prophet Isaiah’s call (2:4) to beat swords and spears into plowshares and pruning hooks bears a message we need to hear with regards to this topic. For us today, it reads: “And God shall judge among Christians, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their snide snippets of Scripture into words of love, and their self-righteous citing of the Bible into means of grace; no person of faith shall lift up the Word against anyone else, neither shall they continue in these heinously idolatrous ways any more.” How are you using your Bible?

– Pastor Andrew

Shifting from Ownership to Discipleship

A frustrated father—unconsciously channeling the memory of his own adolescence, and seized by a voice from the past—yells at his young son in the backseat to stop talking. In a fraction of a second, the hot flood of anger turns ice-cold to a flush of shame. He doesn’t mean or expect for the little boy to sit silently the whole time. At a loss for the right words in that tense moment, the dad simply blurts out the first thing that comes to mouth (and not mind). Really what he meant—though what’s been spoken cannot be unsaid—was that he needed his son to quiet down a bit. Rolling off the tongue and propelled through the lips at a rate quicker than his conscience could kick into gear—the impact is like a slamming door which both sends shrills up the spine and conveys a clear though crippling message. An impression has been made on the little one’s mind. It will shape his thinking and actions, more or less, from this point forward. At such a young age, he’s been sorely inducted into a familial cycle reaching back many generations—one that is nearly impossible to break, and will haunt him when he too one day regretfully repeats it with his future kids.

I wonder, is this not all that different from what the church has done (and in some ways, recklessly continues) to its parishioners over time? Seeking an immediate and lasting result, the church brashly presses upon members (many times with guilt or shame) that they take ownership of particular tasks and ministries within the congregation. It must be done, and if they [insert: YOU] don’t do it then who will? This has served the church extensively over time. Yet, just as Martin Luther reminds us that we are most tempted to make idols of what we love, so also we run the risk of strictly legalizing that which is graciously given to us to simply steward. Therefore we create a dichotomy not so easily overcome, a sinkhole swallowing up those innocently standing by. Each side is eager to serve; but what is being communicated from generation to generation stands in the way. Those established within the faith community long for additional help in what they do—some wanting to pass on the baton, others eager to spread the work (because many hands make for light work, or perhaps more hands make for a wider impact)—but can many times come off as angry by others’ lack of commitment or struggle actually asking for the help. On the other hand, those new to the congregation seek to be a valued part of the greater whole but either feel unwelcome or upon entering are given hard and fast rules (The potatoes for the soup supper must be cut to this exact size—no larger, nor smaller!) with inflexible parameters which only limit involvement and stifle excitement to participate. The problem is one we all know from experience—one which many of us have experienced, wrestled with, and perhaps even unconsciously precipitated.

Without throwing the baby out with the bath water, the billion-dollar question seems to be: How do we shift from ownership to discipleship within the church? Cautious to not further the growing gap, how do we change the lens through which we view what we are called to do in, through, and as the church, so as to better reflect the foundational why beneath it all and thus become more open to including new faces, hands, and ideas? It’s not easy. I’ll be the first to say that when I help envision and implement something, it becomes my baby. It’s tough not going full-fledged Momma Bear when someone threatens to take away, change, or even just criticize (much less critique) that which I’ve helped to create. Momma bears mean bad business! And rightfully so. You put yourself into this, in much the same way that we invest ourselves into our families, work, and other meaningful parts of life. Yet, this all is based on a sense of ownership—it’s mine. What if we change the narrative to instead function by a more biblical ideal, such as discipleship? Jesus calls those who follow him not to take control of the ministry being done. They are disciples. This term is much more freeing. Discipleship is not defined by what one has done, but rather whom one follows. The tie that binds is not objective, but relational. Discipleship can be done individually, but it functions more fully—more richly and more beautifully—when it is communal. There is a vulnerability that comes with it (ugh!), because one must learn to listen and trust those around them. Yeah, it’d be easy not having to work alongside know-it-all Peter, the overly-confident brothers James and John, or shady Judas; but discipleship ultimately focuses on trusting Jesus as the leader/head of the body/Christ to lead, oversee, and guide it all—even as we make mistakes, fumble, and flat out fail. When we function by a sense of ownership in the church, it’s tough making room for the Spirit to enter in and stir about new life in our self-made, single occupancy ego bungalows. When we serve as disciples, however, we open wide the doors and windows, knock down walls, and take off the roof for the Spirit to creatively move to and fro.

The call to be disciples is not easy. At the end of the day, our names are not the ones plaqued in gold on the ministry—it is Jesus’s work, which we are invited to share in. It’s gravely tempting to make certain tasks and ministries in the church ours—to determine the only way things can and should be done, to guard the gates of who can and cannot enter in to participate, to take credit in success instead considering faithfulness. The challenge we, the church, are faced with is to break the cycle. Christ calls us to set ourselves—our desires and attempts to take control—aside. Drop them like nets at the shore of the Great Lake. Lay them down at the foot of the cross. The Spirit gives us a gift we many times struggle in using appropriately: faith. It’s not about trusting in our own ways, but rather trusting the One who calls us, leads and guides us, makes us new, and binds us with others, to give us everything we need to do his work in the world. How might you, in your participation among the church, respond to Christ’s call to shift from ownership to discipleship? What does that look like? We are given a narrative to embody and live out daily. Take up the call to be a disciple, and follow after Jesus.

– Pastor Andrew

Why You Should Stop Using “God’s Plan”

There are things that people say which make me, as a pastor, cringe. Among these are decontextualized concepts and misquoted passages ripped from Scripture, self-help mantras sanitarily devoid of God, and strange pseudo-Christian statements that, like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, are part secular, part otherly religious, part pastoral Tylenol. When I hear them spoken, whether directly to me or in passing to someone else, I get that uncomfortable tense feeling akin to jumping headfirst into the ice-cold Comal River. Every muscle within me tightens up, my brain starts scanning for snarky responses, and if I’m fortunate a timely distraction or the right dose of patience intervenes hindering a senselessly polemical debate from igniting. Near the top of The List is the oft, overly used coping device: “God’s plan.” We’ve all heard it. And unfortunately, many of us have said it either fearfully unsure of what else to say or overcome by guilt to speak some timeless truth that will serve as a divine Band Aid. Generally, I hear the phrase spoken once a week. Some time ago, scanning the radio, I heard a rap song come on with the chorus repeating “God’s plan.” Needless to say I changed the channel. In some ways, to respond with prophetic declaration of God’s private schemes is more rote for us than professing the words of the Ten Commandments, Apostle’s Creed, or Lord’s Prayer. Playing the childhood game of Operation on the Bible, we carelessly grope and grab at individual verses like Jeremiah 29:11 and disregard everything around it. BUZZ! BUZZZ! BUZZZZZ! Far from what we intended, we actually end up with a lobotomized Bible where the pages only serve as a cold condensed catalog of neatly compartmentalized individual maxims.

Speaking a word of hope to those Jews exiled to Babylon, we hear God say to the people: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11). After the prescribed time of Babylon’s rule, God will then be accessible—rescuing the chosen people and restoring them. It is a promise of hope clung onto amidst devastating despair. Though they currently dwell amidst harm and great uncertainty, the Jews receive this sure and certain word that the future is bright, not bleak. This single verse, when trimmed of its surrounding fatty content, washed of its gamey context, and neatly packaged as something else; therefore serves as nothing more than faux meat, scriptural Spam. Yet, time and time again, we use this and other such hand-picked passages to formulate the extra-biblical idea of “God’s plan” which we then market as some commercialized cheap, empty grace to seal our sores and ease us of practicing empathy. It’s like My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s version of Windex—just put it on anything! Still, we have become so married to this concept that we tout it around as a badge of the faith and haphazardly fling it on others. The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. If such is true, I have a feeling our reckless use of “God’s plan” as a coping device fills in the gaps of that horrendous highway project. When we assume to know what God’s intentions or strategies are or portend to understand such mysteries, we actually only serve to break the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” We do not know God’s plans for us, or for anyone or anything else for that matter. We cannot begin to fathom the endless intricacies of God’s heart or mind. To do so, places us in the role of or above God. We can only trust, hope, and pray that God’s plan—if God even does have a plan (scary thought, I know)—is one of grace and goodness before and beyond all of our sin and brokenness. Outside of what we experience in the cross of Jesus, we are not divine mind readers with authorized purview into God’s soon-to-be doings.

As people of faith, whose identity is reshaped/reformed in Jesus, who reveals God to the world, we need to put to rest—or better yet, put to death—this sordid response of “God’s plan” for ourselves and others. Whatever God’s plan may or may not be it will or will not be. Instead, I believe we are called to live in the moment, walking with faith in Christ who goes alongside us all the way. We are called, I believe, to physically reside with those hurting, displaced by doubt, and otherwise trying to make sense out of this crazy life—not slapping every situation with the same ole stamp of spiritual and emotional disconnect. We are called to be Resurrection People, meaning living by hope and therefore sharing and spreading this same hope for others—hope in God’s pervading presence, hope in the endless love and forgiveness of Christ Jesus, hope in the Spirit’s creative work of resurrection both daily and on the day when the Crucified and Risen One returns to make all things new. God is working healing and wholeness amidst our pain and suffering, bringing about good in spite of the bad, and setting up hope before us to guide our footsteps forward. You don’t need a keenly dissected Bible verse to tell you that. Look to Jesus, the One who willfully enters into the hurt, shame, and sorrow of others, who took all of the same onto himself to continue embracing and embodying the good news of God’s grace and love for the world. See and trust in him, who in life, death, and resurrection gives hope and promise of new, eternal life to all people. We cannot imagine the infinite designs or arrangements God has for the whole cosmos. We, however, are given a most wondrous gift in faith to trust the One whom we cannot see nor understand. Lay down your desires, fears, and speculations regarding “God’s plan” and live by faith, hope, and love.

– Pastor Andrew

Mowing the Yard with a Weedwacker

For the greater part of the past decade I’ve lived in places where either there was no yard to be mowed or someone else took care of it. In my first call, the church grounds shared by the parsonage were generously stewarded by a faithful family in the congregation. As such, the exhaustively extensive experience I had gained over my adolescent years at the handle of a push mower had atrophied from joyful lack of use. Yard work in the unbearable humidity of south Texas, I had thought, would remain only a faint memory in that place. Then the Holy Spirit called us back here. And with renting a home came the expectation of maintaining the lawn attached. Not eager to refill a mower with gas over and again nor willing to pay someone else to tend to it, I thought I’d try something different. So I went online and bought a reel mower. It seemed perfectly logical—until it wouldn’t cut our whiskery lawn. *Facepalm* With the weeds quickly out of hand and our 5 year old anxious to play outside, my better half kept reminding me that something needed to be done now and not later. I was too stubborn to admit my mistake and even more stubborn than to go buy a new mower. Finally, this past Friday afternoon I decided to bite the bullet and do the only thing I could—mow the yard with our electric weedwacker. Seems like the next best option, right? No. It really was as dumb of an idea as it sounded reading it. Still, when you start something dumb you finish it no less dumbfounded. The task took exponentially longer than it should have been, I probably sweated more than necessary (though I sweat profusely regardless), and in the end the yard looked like a horrible amateur haircut I myself once wore in middle school.

Afterwards, I got to thinking (because clearly I had forgotten to do so beforehand). I thought about how foolish I felt not having the right tools to do the job effectively and efficiently. I thought about how that’s not the first time I’ve failed to respond to a task as I should have. And I thought about the church—and how we often do what we do not all that differently: too stubborn to adjust, using the wrong tools for the job, making it more difficult than need be, finishing with a hot mess far from resembling how we know it should be done. We, the church, in many ways and by much of what we do are guilty of mowing the yard with a weedwacker. We do it, and worse yet we know we do it this way. Perhaps you’ve heard the joke: How many Lutherans (or insert any group) does it take to change a light bulb? I don’t know, let’s form a committee and talk about it. It’s funny, if you think so, because it sheds light (no pun intended) on one of our outdated ways (committees) of doing things in the church. I recently heard a colleague say something to the effect of: “if the 1950s ever come back around, the church will be ready for it.” That is to say, we are too stubborn to adjust and are thus still using the tools from nearly seventy years ago. We hear news about the church being in decline, shambles, and labeled as irrelevant; and yet wonder what went wrong, how we got here, and why others are not joining us. The systems our foremothers and forefathers implemented in being and doing church last century worked well for their context; but have we failed to let them reside in our memory? Instead of merely influencing what we do today, the practices of the past appear to be instigating and downright strangling many opportunities for change before us. We can’t do this/that. This/That’s the way we’ve always done it. The lawn is getting cut, if you want to call it that, but the means is shaping the end in a way that is less than effective or efficient.

God gifts us with many and various people, with many and various gifts, and with these individuals come many and various good resources to be used—all to respond to the call of the Spirit to be the body of Christ and bring about the kingdom of God in our midsts. If you look around in church, at what we do and how we do it, what are some things that could possibly be changed? This is not to say what is being done is bad or wrong, but what could be tried differently for the sake of being faithful with whom and what God has given us? How might we reach out, share the gospel message, and serve our neighbors in new, renewed, and ever faithful ways? Are we the ones who, given the chance, are instead holding onto the wrong tools out of stubbornness instead of going with what we know needs to be tried? My last year of seminary I worked for Pepsi Distributing Company. One day, as I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off, my boss stopped me and said: “Work smarter, not harder.” We, the church, ought to wrestle with an amended version of this statement: Serve smarter, not stubborner. The blisters and sweat of our unwillingness (or inability) to adjust we so often wear are not blessings in suffering, but rather signs of being closed off and inflexible to the Spirit’s stirrings. We are given all the tools to participate in God’s work in the world—so long as we choose to use them. We are not confined to using only that which was available two-thousand, five hundred, or even seventy years ago. Christ Jesus and his message of God’s endless love, all-encompassing forgiveness, and pervading presence in our lives never changes. This good news which frees and transforms us always remains the same. How we worship, educate, serve—what we do with this gospel, and how we share it with the world around us requires of us freshness of vision and openness to consider new ways of being/doing church. The work is ever before us. We can either continue to pick up the weedwacker—ill suited for the job at hand—or we can grab the mower and meet the lawn head-on.

– Pastor Andrew

All the Feels

This past weekend was hard. By Sunday evening I was wading chin-deep in emotions. Part of me feels ashamed to speak of it, another says don’t keep it stuffed away turning into resentment. Saturday had been on my radar for the past four and a half years. I knew it was coming, slowly but certainly, I just wasn’t sure how it would hit me when it finally got here. And when I saw friends sharing the pictures I could instantly feel the knot in my gut. Something joyous and celebratory, was for me both a source of excitement and yet painful wound—reminding me of a still quite fresh past, itching away at the irritating unanswerable question of what could’ve/should’ve been. A couple months before taking the call here at St. Martin’s, I was approached one evening at a high school basketball game by a teacher who asked if I would speak again at the upcoming baccalaureate service for this year’s graduates. Unsure of the future, I said I would get back to him on the matter. I had been blessed to speak at three other baccalaureate services while serving in Nebraska, and thoroughly enjoyed each time. After having accepted the call here, at one of the last games I attended in February, I found the teacher and told him that I would be unavailable to speak this year due to taking a new position in Texas. It was particularly trying for me because among this year’s graduates were my first three confirmands. We had bonded together as they finished out their eighth grade year of Confirmation, we attended the National Youth Gathering in Detroit a year later, and I watched them move through high school. Fresh out of seminary and quickly learning what it meant to be a parish pastor, they were my first. Myself the oldest of three siblings, I’ve come to learn that firsts always come with deeper emotions attached when it’s all said and done. Missing not just the opportunity to speak at their baccalaureate but altogether attending graduation was gut-wrenching. Don’t let anyone ever tell you pastors completely separate feelings from their work—no matter how hard we may try to do so, it’s simply not that easy. I was hurt, saddened, and even a little angry. I wish I had been there, even as I know this is where God has now called me to be.

That being said, not all the emotions I was swimming in this weekend were painful. Some were currents of joy and excitement. Last week I spoke with a rep at Oaks Indian Mission in northeast Oklahoma about bringing an intergenerational group up in early July to experience that holy place, meet the people, and participate in this incredible ministry we here at St. Martin’s support. It’s a big step forward for me in engaging this congregation’s various ministries while building relationships and working alongside parishioners in real hands-on discipleship. What a wonderful opportunity to encourage and equip others to live out our faith together in love and service for our neighbor! Then Saturday morning I got to do what I love the most—teaching. Though restricted on time and unsure what all to cover, I was given the opportunity to teach a Confirmation Crash Course to some students needing additional instruction before next week’s Affirmation of Baptism rite. Exploring questions, reading Scripture, wrestling with faith, bleeding the white board with streaks and scribbles of red, green, blue, and purple, I felt at home in a way I’ve been longing for since arriving to St. Martin’s. It was stressful at first but ultimately fulfilling. Again Sunday morning, with Pastor Pete, I got to do some more teaching as we finished a three-week class discussing worship. Though not an area of personal expertise, it was great to hear people ask questions about why we do what we do each week, talk about what worship means for us, and consider new ways of thinking about the Sunday assembly. Moments like these are a double shot of espresso to the soul. With each passing day here, I’m feeling more and more in place with my position in the staff, the congregation, and my call. Where there was uncertainty, now I’m beginning to see clear direction forward coupled with goals and hopefulness for the future. I’m eager to see and hear where the Spirit is moving in our midst and how we might be stirred in new and renewed ways to be the church and do ministry near and far.

This vocation, and ministry in general—not reserved to the ordained, consecrated, or otherwise set apart—is a calling with all the feels. When you enter into a place, invest yourself into the lives of others, live together, work together, study together, play together, and grow as one in Christ, the bonds formed are insulated with and marked by a wealth of emotions. I don’t think of it as something learned, but instead gained or received over time and experience. Where the feelings are absent, so also is the breadth and depth missing. With time, the joy and excitement become more visibly present. I experienced it in Nebraska, and already here I see it happening as well—a blessed affirmation of the call extended to a new pastor/pastor newly installed. Yet, the pain is always close behind—in the brokenness, consequences of sin, despair of death, and even rawness of transition. I pray I don’t sound like a broken record when asked how things are going and I respond: “They’re going. It’s still bittersweet.” Transparency is both a gift and challenge. I’m thankful for the patience, kindness, compassion, and support of the staff, parishioners, and others who understand that this is just part of the moving from one chapter to another. If only it were as easy as the flip of a page, though where would be the meaning? The cliché rings in the back of my mind: it’s not you, it’s me. I wonder if the image of weightlifting serves as a good analogy. To build muscle, one actually tears the muscle in the act of lifting heavy weights again and again. In doing so, through the pain strength is gained. Perhaps the hurt is part of my heart growing to hold more. Who knows. As we grow more deeply in our relationship together here, I’m sure—though the emotions never dissipate or disappear—all the feels will persist in new and even more various ways. I consider myself blessed to be here with you all in a community of faith that does not shy away from the very real and potent emotions we all experience, but rather cares for all its people, and giving me the space to share this with you. Thank you.

– Pastor Andrew

Exploring Change in How We Teach the Faith

Confirmation is a strange beast. For us as Lutherans, it’s not a sacrament serving as a means of God’s grace but rather a rite by which the promises made at a child’s baptism are kept and renewed through diving more deeply into Scripture, the Catechism, and how they shape one’s faith. Despite what many believe, Confirmation is not a requirement that must be met to gain some holy access nor an ecclesial exit exam/church graduation. It is but a step in continued education and formation along the journey of faith. Still, we treat the practice like a relic that must not be changed, moved, or questioned. Perched upon the mantle of tradition, it gathers the dust of irrelevance from carelessness and disregard. No wonder it is so misunderstood by many and the bane of numerous pastors. We complain about kids and the parents not investing into that which we ourselves have failed to care for and keep at the forefront of our minds and ministry. This important milestone needs particular attention across the church. How do we tap into the great potential of this gift of the church and make it something worth claiming and joyfully sharing from generation to generation?

This is the question I’m pondering these days as I think with staff members about the program we have in place here at St. Martin’s, its strengths and its weaknesses, and how it can be transformed for our youth, their families, and the church as a whole. For many congregations, like the two I previously served in Nebraska, Confirmation spans two years—7th and 8th grade. The “curriculum” focuses primarily on studying the Bible and Martin Luther’s Small Catechism as foundational to one’s faith in the church. Here in this congregation, the education is spread out over three grade levels—6th, 7th, and 8th—rotating annually between Old Testament, New Testament, and Catechism. The gift of this approach is allowing more time to dive more deeply into the fullness of Scripture instead of trying to cram 66 books of the Bible into 9 months of instruction. That being said, as a downtown church we are faced with challenges that other suburban and rural congregations often take for granted. Wednesday nights are still, in many places, reserved for church functions. This, however, is rapidly changing with an ever morphing culture that has more demands on adults and children alike than can be fit within 5, 6, or 7 days a week. We’ve felt this change for some time now, and it’s not lightening up by any means. Wednesdays, as much as Sundays, are being removed from their perch of untouchability. Extra curricular activities, work, and other tasks are filling up time that for so long was assumed by the church. This is acutely evident here as we’ve been forced to move away from Wednesday night Confirmation class because of students’ unavailability and the stress of commuting back into downtown from all across the metro. As such, we cut the amount of connection with kids to Sundays alone, which at best numbers 40ish times together. Needless to say, Confirmation is at risk of becoming less of a fixture that shapes lives and more of a passing option missed altogether. So what do we do? Dig our heels in and fight the culture? Call it a good run and throw out the baby with the bath water?

I’m not entirely sure where the answer resides. From my short time thus far teaching in the parish, I believe a good starting place is found in evaluating our dated systems and experimenting with new ways of gathering and educating. Change is inevitable. To resist it seems foolish. The practices we’ve clung onto for decades, like that of Confirmation, were great when first implemented; but as the times have changed so also our approach needs adjusting. The message does not change, but the how deserves our renewed visioning as we wrestle with the church’s relevance in and for the world. Therefore, how do we meet our youth where they are with the good news fundamental to our faith? How do we continue to be welcoming and encouraging—making special room in the church for all ages to question and grow, while simultaneously demonstrating that all times and places—and not just the church—are holy and opportune for learning and sharing one’s faith? The task is no small one, and is in itself quite frankly a leap of faith. Do we reshape/restructure Sunday morning education? If so, what purpose does it take on and how does it look? Do we engage new mediums of online connecting that allows for flexibility while still emphasizing communal learning? If so, what needs do we have and how do we encourage its appropriate use? Do we have other locales that can be utilized for experiential education or where we can firsthand embody and share that which is being taught in the classroom? If so, where and when do we incorporate these additional means? These are a few of the questions tossing in my mind—questions we as a church need to honestly ask and critically consider as we seek to revision Christian education with fresh eyes of faith. What does Confirmation mean to you? What have you experienced as good, formative, and life-giving from it? What have you seen as problematic, hindering, or damaging in it? Where do you think the church can/should move with this rite of faith? How can we transform the education while holding onto the faith central to the practice, so as to be more relevant, formative, and engaging to youth, their families, and the larger church? I encourage you to ponder on these and other such questions. I welcome your feedback on this as we imagine and explore new ways of teaching the faith.

– Pastor Andrew

A Budding Cactus: An Opportunity to Relook and Be Stunned

Earlier this week we as a staff went out to Ebert Ranch, a camp of the Southwestern Texas Synod, outside of Harper to do some retreat and visioning. It was time well spent in discerning our personal and interconnected vocations, nurturing our relationships with one another, pondering how we can continue to be integrated and efficient in our shared work, and listening for where, to what, and in whom the Spirit is calling us as the church to move toward in our ongoing mission and ministry. Personally, it was a chance for me to become better acquainted with those whom I work alongside and see more clearly my role in this cohesive team. With that, it was just nice to get away and see some new scenery in a part of Texas with which I’m not familiar.

Between discussions and meals, I walked around outside to stretch my legs, take in the view, and give my mind a rest. Horses could be seen gathered and roaming along the horizon. At foot, hardy flora speckled the rocky terrain. The landscape there is one that I’ve spent a little time in as a child in neighboring areas, but generally don’t have much experience. The wind howled when it blew—cool and refreshing at one moment, a force to be reckoned with at other times. Anything that wasn’t firmly fixed by root, foundation, or conviction, could with a gust quickly be carried away like a tumbleweed. An environment that some might call unfavorable and unforgiving, felt strangely calming for me—easing my thoughts, inviting the words of prayer to course through my body. At peace, I lost track of my steps as I walked. The grey cloudy heaviness overhead was swept away, and the sun shone forth—revealing more visibly the colors and texture on either side of me. Along the white gravel road, at one point a few yards ahead of me, just twenty feet or so off the beaten path a bright yellow caught my sight. As I cautiously trod out toward it, I was surprised to see that this flower that had grabbed my attention was budding from something I had not previously noticed. The bloom was the first of a dozen growing out of a prickly pear cactus. Careful not to shed any blood over my curiosity, I squatted down beside the plant. I guess I had never seen or noticed or realized that cacti bud flowers. Clearly I’m no botanist. In hindsight it makes sense, but I was stunned. The more I looked at it, however, I thought about what felt like a paradox. A thorny plant, often thought of as barbarous and hostile, showing sign of beauty and inviting to be seen, smelt, and touched. Perhaps this plant I (and maybe others) have thought of as being an abrasive and noxious weed has more to it—a gentler, awe-inspiring side beneath its flattened stems and sharp barbs.

At the risk of sounding crude, are there not some—dare I say, perhaps even in the church—whom we might look upon and avoid as being like an unfriendly, harmful cactus. I’ll be the first to admit that, though I’ve never thought of someone as such, at least a few people come to mind whom I’ve encountered in the past who came across in much the same way as the iconic southwestern staple. Unfortunately, I’m sure there are even some who could and would say the same of me. At any given moment we can come across to others as harsh and uninviting. Over time, it can be all too easy and downright tempting to put up our defenses in fear of getting hurt (again). We are resilient, but sometimes that shows itself in ways that are less than beautiful or hospitable. We may not realize it. As I think about this image, I wonder how the Lord might be calling and encouraging us to step off of the beaten path, look more intently at what we would otherwise ignore, disregard, or avert, and see the tiny bud breaking through the stem—trying to grow and bloom, bringing about new life. Just as the cactus buds a flower, none of us is without reflecting the beauty and love that God places within all of creation. It may sound hokey, but I believe the cultivating Spirit gathers all flora and fauna into the one ecological body of Christ. Jesus did not avoid what others had written off as pestilent or pernicious. Rather, he brings about the blooming bud. Renewed and refreshed from retreat, I feel moved to relook at the cacti I have encountered and to be stunned by the flower(s) budding forth. I wonder what flowers I’ve overlooked. I wonder how I might point others toward seeing the tiny buds that deserve attention and affirmation. How might I, and others, be a nurturing force for encouraging others to share the beauty and love hidden by time, pain, or any number of reasons? How might I be more softened and less defensive so the world around me may see in and through me the One who creates, redeems, and sustains all of creation? That which we assume may actually be eagerly awaiting to bud something new, beautiful, and transformative that we could have never imagined. Look around you. Pause and see. Stoop down and be stunned. There’s more than first meets the eye.

– Pastor Andrew

Synod Assembly, A New Bishop, & The Church Moving Forward

In less than a couple weeks from now, on the 5th and 6th of May, voting members and rostered leaders from across 135 congregations and worshipping communities in Southwest Texas will gather in San Marcos at our annual Assembly. This is where the mission and ministry of the synod over the past year or so is evaluated and celebrated, and the future of the church is prayerfully discerned and pressed upon with eager hopefulness. The event is an acute affirmation of the simultaneous diversity and unity of the church. It is in this sacred time and space where both business is conducted and, if the individual and community have ears to hear and eyes to see, the Spirit can be witnessed stirring the body of Christ into new life and renewed discipleship. Synod assemblies are not for the faint of heart or uncaffeinated. 😉 They can be both a blessing to participate in, and yet other times truly tiring if not tumultuous. If one wants to see firsthand how the congregational, national, and global expressions of the church are tied together, synod assembly offers a significant glimpse into the concentric ecclesial circles bound together in the one Crucified and Risen Christ Jesus.

That being said, synod assembly isn’t something that should be disregarded as perfunctory. It is this intentional quorum that in many ways sets the direction of the regional church and the congregations and people that represent it. Voting members chosen by and from each congregation are prayerfully sent in hopes that they will enter into the gathering faithfully considering God’s call for the church, their community’s hopes and gifts to serve, and the intersection of the two. This year’s assembly is of particular importance as we altogether discern whom God might be calling to be lifted up as our synod’s next bishop. Such a decision has immediate and far-reaching implications. Ray Tiemann has faithfully served as our bishop of the Southwestern Texas Synod for the past eighteen years. As we give thanks to God for his pastoral leadership and oversight during these recently turbulent times, we also wonder where and to what the Spirit is drawing us and who will serve the church in this influential role. For us Lutherans, bishops are not ontologically different from other rostered leaders. The work they are called to—though distinct, however, is no less important and demanding than those of us in the parish. The synod is a parish of parishes. She or he shepherds the greater synod in similar ways as they did within the congregation. One is not born into this position, nor earns it. Rather, it is entered into prayerfully (perhaps even with some fear and trembling) by both the voting body and the individual(s) nominated. After anywhere from one to five rounds of ballots (see images.acswebnetworks.com/1/498/HowaBishopisElected.pdf for a detailed breakdown on the process), an individual is selected as the bishop-elect. This person serves a term of six years, and in this synod can be reelected again with no limit on the number of terms in office.

As I think about what this means for me and those whom I’m called to serve alongside here, I’m reminded of the various bishops I’ve met across the larger church—their gifts, challenges, and what they have done for or to the church. Growing up in this synod, Bishop Tiemann was an empathetic listener for me some years ago when I wrestled with turmoil in my home congregation before they finally withdrew from the ELCA. Bishop Brian Maas, under whom I served my first call in Nebraska, was a tremendous support for my family and I as we began this wondrous call into ministry—teaching me many things along the way through his wise and gentle counsel. Others I’ve encountered have been explicit representations of Christ’s love as well. Yet, some have also demonstrated the brokenness of sin through personal flaws, closed mindedness, and hardened hearts. Having seen and spoken with a wide swath of bishops, I take the ecclesial process of choosing a new synodical leader very seriously—it can, indeed, affirm and/or change the course of the church’s presence and ongoing work of the gospel. It’s not a matter of casting lots, locking the doors until a decision is made, or watching for white smoke from the holy chimney; on the other hand, neither is it as trivial as picking a team captain, or apathetic as we’ve grown to make our politics. For us here in southwest Texas, better or worse, I believe this year’s bishop election will be momentous if not historic.

Our context here in the belt of the Lone Star State is intensely unique. Our gifts and our challenges are no less big than our pride and faith. Therefore, it’s important that we pray and talk with one another about who we see God calling and equipping to be our next bishop. With colleagues and friends across the church, I look with anticipation for whomever God gives us to continue growing in our synod’s mission and ministry. At the same time, if we’re honest we know that such occasions are not immune from our sinfulness. I cringe at the sight or sound of any actively searching out the position of bishop. In my opinion, a bishop is not above any but rather is called to place themselves beside others, if not beneath, in greater service and witness to Jesus. While it cannot be divorced of its inherent power, the call of bishop is not about self-gratification or promotion. Instead, the power of a bishop—as is the case with all persons, ordained and laity alike—is most visible and potent in imitating the powerlessness of Christ who emptied himself of any and all power for the sake of others (Phil. 2:3-8). A bishop, I believe, is one who is gifted in looking and listening, being with all people across the map, affirming gifts, acknowledging challenges, and led by the Spirit wrestling with new and faithful ways to be the church in a changing world. As the landscape of the church continues to morph, needs in leadership become exasperated, and cultural polarization increases, a new bishop will have tough decisions before them. Humility and hope will be crucial for the work at hand. Realism and renewed vision key for the task.

As we prepare to enter into this decision-making process, I ask that you keep our voting members, Pastor Pete, and I in your prayers. We go with you in mind. We go with this congregation and its ministries in mind. We go with Austin and its surrounding communities in mind. We go with the other 134 congregations across southwest Texas in mind. We go with the larger church, in its many expressions, and its work in the world in mind. If you have questions about the process or what it means for us as a congregation, I encourage you to visit with us who will be attending. May the Spirit lead us safely to San Marcos, guide our discernment, and no matter the result continue to daily make us holy in the Resurrected Jesus, our Redeemer and Lord.

– Pastor Andrew

The Whole Body, Through Crisis and Comfort

I’ve been thinking about the body. How it works holistically. Especially in times of crisis. When a particular member is hurting, others will compensate to make up the difference. For instance, when I broke my right ankle some years ago and, right or wrong, hobbling along I shifted my weight onto my left side to counterbalance when going to and fro. Or when we get sick, the immune system will work to create antibodies to ward off illness. Part of this, I think, points to how beautifully and intimately we are crocheted together—more so than just the neck bone is connected to the back bone and the back bone is connected to the hip bone. The bones and skin, sinews and cartilage, veins and arteries, muscles and organs that hold us together are each and altogether part of one another. We encounter this sometimes with signs and symptoms of illness or injury. Something will become acutely present in one area of the body as another suffers silently. Pain is often distributed throughout the whole body—inside out—when a single spot suffers. A common example is when a person feels a sharp pain in their left arm, which can serve as an indicator of what is happening or about to take place in the heart.

The wonderfully gifted nurse to whom I’m married, if asked, would say I am no physician—far from it. That being so, it doesn’t take an M.D. to see how the body is cohesively unified even amidst its diverse members. The body is a strange and yet wonderfully complex creation. It baffles, and in the next moment amazes us. I’ve heard medical practitioners and laity alike say that looking at how the human body functions and perseveres through times of extreme trauma is reason enough to believe in a higher power. It’s truly a wonder to behold. For us in the church, when we hear talk about the body our minds immediately go to the Apostle Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 12 on the gathered believers being the body of Christ. This metaphor is core to how we understand ourselves as the church. It unifies us in our diversity, while also affirming the varied multitude of gifts and vocations among the community. None is above or better than another. The whole is less than whole when any one member is disregarded or dismissed. A body functions most effectively—dare I say, faithfully—when it sees and understands its interconnectivity, and affirms that in building up and supporting all members. When one is weak, the others become strong to compensate for them. Where a few are in need, the rest intervene with love and support. The pain and suffering of a particular individual is not theirs alone, but becomes—as it should be—something compassionately shared by the greater group gathered together.

The thing about a body is that no matter how hard we try to ignore or compartmentalize the pain and overmedicate ourselves into numbness, at the end of the day we cannot avoid feeling. Such is the case not just with our individual selves, but also the community as a whole. Too often our society seeks to sterilize itself from pain and suffering—hiding that which hurts and covering up the wounds in denial. Yet, we know deep down inside that the source of the signs and symptoms cannot be hidden forever. At the core of who we are as the church is a living, breathing, hurting, and comforting body. More than just people gathered in a building a few times a week, we are altogether formed by the Spirit into the body of Christ. This means we are connected. With one another. Across the aisle. Across town. Across boundaries and barriers. Across race, heritage, and age. Even across denominations. From head to toe. We feel the pain when someone among or around us is hurting. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. Relationally. Christ calls us to not run or hide from the suffering of others, but instead go to it, be with those in pain, and serve as healing balm for their hurts as best as we can. The whole body is called upon—both individual members and the entire organism—to respond to others in crisis. Dwelling with our neighbor in the depth of their distress. Responding with compassion, which means literally suffering (passio) with (com) them. To be the body is to feel and fight the pain together. When one among us hurts—whomever they are—it becomes the pain of us all. As Paul so clearly says: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (12:26). Who do you see and hear hurting among the community? What can we do to build up and care for those suffering and in pain? To where is Christ calling you to compensate or counterbalance for another? How might we serve to be a more faithful body in the world?  We, though many, are one body.

– Pastor Andrew

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