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A Reminder that All is Not Holy this Week

Being a downtown church means that each week among our community there are people of all walks of life—some more frequent visitors, others only once. It’s not uncommon for us to come face-to-face, any given Sunday, with those who are suffering from addiction, mental disorders, or horrendous trauma. People down on their luck. Individuals who were without a stable upbringing. Men and women who fell between the cracks of society and are unsure what to do or where to turn. Those without basic life skills, or perhaps even conditioned by others to act in toxic ways. Some who are transient and/or without permanent housing. When you’re positioned in the heart of a community, like Austin, you encounter everything. We’re not in rural America anymore, Toto. This also means that the great joys experienced here are never without their accompanying overwhelming sorrows. There is immense good happening; and yet we also witness firsthand some of the worst side of humanity. I was reminded this (holy) week, more than a couple times, that all is not always holy in our gatherings here at church. In a place where everyone should feel safe all the time, unfortunately there continues to be cases where some are threatened, violated, and depart deeply uncomfortable by the actions of others. This is unacceptable. We, here at St. Martin’s, have zero tolerance for any such misbehavior that transgresses another’s personal space or wellbeing. Any and all harassment, sexual or otherwise, will be met with immediate removal from the property and police contact.

This past Sunday, amidst all the hustle and bustle of Palm Sunday, an individual came on the premises and made a number of people very uncomfortable with his advances for physical contact and solicitation for money. As a result, he is no longer welcome on the property. This is not done lightly. It pains me to hear parishioners recall past instances when they’ve felt inappropriately engaged by another person. That being said, the trauma and grief should not be overlooked or ignored. If someone has crossed a boundary with you, I encourage you to share the matter as you feel comfortable. We are continually taking great measures in making this church and its facilities as safe as possible while remaining welcoming and missional in all that we do. This means being hospitable to all who enter. We don’t check people at the door, because to do so would be less than the church. Nevertheless, inappropriateness is never permitted. The Body of Christ, consisting of all those for whom Jesus died and rose from the grave, cannot allow for the abuse or assault of any of its members—in any regard. We fail to be who we are created and called to be if and when even one among us suffers in silence. The staff and leadership have been briefed on our zero tolerance policy and will respond swiftly in taking the necessary actions to ensure the safety of everyone who comes to St. Martin’s. As I pray this never happens here again, I know this cannot be said without constant vigilance. This means looking and listening, and if and when you see or hear something saying something. We are a community of faith, but we are also a community of justice. We trust everyone until given a reason otherwise, yet we work to live in accordance to the laws which seek to provide safety and security for all members of society.

All is not always holy. We see this daily in natural disasters, war and famine, senseless deaths in our communities…and the list goes on endlessly. The church, unfortunately, is no more immune than any other place from the implications of sin. As we weekly confess ourselves and receive Christ’s forgiveness, we do so sitting amidst a community that remains less than perfect. We, however, do not resign ourselves to “the way it will always be.” This is true this week especially. Though we cannot disregard the sin and death of Good Friday; neither does the story end there. Jesus is crucified on a cross at the hands an idolatrous empire. The One who dies, however, three days later is raised from the grave to new life. Resurrection is God’s NO! to the destructive and demonic ways of the world. Easter is our present hope and our future joy. It is, for us, a light amidst the darkness of despair. The way the world is now is neither how God intends it, nor how it will always be. Sin and death are coming to an end in the Crucified and Risen One, who promises to return—making all things new. In the meantime, as cruciform and resurrected people, we live in the diligence of caring for all people, protecting the vulnerable, and working to ensure safety and security in all places. This task is never fully mastered or completed on this side of the eschaton. We are daily called to participate in this work. To those who have been hurt in any regard while here at church, hear me when I say: I’m so deeply sorry for whatever happened to you in what should be a holy and safe space, and trust me that we as a congregation will be vigilant in assuring that that never happens again. 

– Pastor Andrew

Terminally Blessed

If I didn’t know any better, I might think I was terminal. Over the past couple weeks, a fair amount of people have come to me in passing and asked how I’m doing. Are you ok, Pastor? How’s it going—everything alright? Did you survive last week? I’ve been keeping you in my prayers. In any other situation, hearing these questions and statements would leave me concerned if not troubled. Yet, so far as I can tell, I’m ok. Whether it’s the caffeine or the fit hasn’t hit the shan, I feel well. Wondering what I should write on recently, I thought, given the communal concern, I guess I should address the elephant in the building—does that make me Dumbo?—as much as I can at this time. I was laughing with some parishioners prior to worship yesterday about being called “The Remaining Reverend.” But in all seriousness, everything is going well at this time. The ship hasn’t sank—in spite of the torrential downpour Sunday morning, that caused (what I’m told is) the first ever cancellation of Austin’s Cap 10K marathon. I guess all the prayers for rain finally accumulated into a flooded response. But honestly, I’m just plugging along as usual. A little bit more workload than a couple weeks ago, but nothing unmanageable nor worth complaining. Keep in mind that, though this is different than where I was a year and a half ago, it’s not my first rodeo. And more than that, I’m blessed to be supported by such an excellent staff who are each and altogether doing a phenomenal job. Continual kudos to Pete for assembling such a competent and cohesive team. Alongside my colleagues, hear my thanks to you all. THANK YOU! So many of you have come to me and offered your care and support in this time of transition. Thank you for being aware of the potential for burnout, and keeping me in your prayers. Far too many pastors, unfortunately, never hear this kind of affirmation and support from those whom they are called to serve. Thank you for your assistance, patience, assurance—it means the world to me and my family. 

As far as what the future of pastoral leadership looks like at St. Martin’s, I don’t have an answer to that at this time. If you find it, let me know 😉 Our church council, with the guidance of the synod, will be working to determine the next steps of that process in the upcoming weeks and months. I trust their leadership, and encourage you to take any questions you might have to them. Remember, we’re not in a sprint to some unforeseen finish line. With Easter right around the corner—literally less than two weeks away—we all have enough to keep us busy in the meantime. Side note: If you haven’t done so yet, get your tickets for the Easter Pancake Breakfast hosted by our youth ($6/person, $20/family). Whatever comes to pass, and whenever that may happen, I hope and trust it will be the working of the Holy Spirit. As one who is no less a stranger to anxiety than the next person, the temptation is to try and take control to find the right solution ASAP. That, however, is not faithfulness. Now is a time for us to surrender ourselves to God, enter into prayer, renew our ministries—all core to the season of Lent—and prepare our hearts and minds for the nearing joy of Easter. How fitting?! I say this, just as eager to see what the future holds as everyone else. Let’s let Christ take the lead on the future for St. Martin’s and we work on following as the disciples we are called to be. We’re in good hands.  

This past weekend, I was joking with someone about my feeling terminal given all the questions and concerns by those in the congregation. Snickering at my poor attempt for humor, the person responded: “Think of it as terminally blessed.” The poignancy of his response immediately struck me. Or maybe it was the sheet of rain pouring out of the heavens along 290 between Hye and Johnson City. It wasn’t a criticism against what I had said, but rather a recasting of it in a different light. OMG! He’s absolutely right! I am, right now—at this time and in this place—extremely blessed. I’m terminal, just not in the way I had playfully postured. I consider myself to be blessed here with you all. I am blessed to be welcomed into this faith community. Blessed to be building and nurturing relationships with you. Blessed with so many opportunities to share in a variety of ministries with you. Blessed to experience and learn things I would never encounter elsewhere. Blessed by you in your loving care and support. Thirteen months ago, I could’ve never imagined where I would be today. Had you foretold it as such, I likely would’ve told you not to bet on that bracket. It’ll bust pretty quickly. That being said, the Spirit never ceases to amaze me. Never say never. Thank you for your prayers and support—not just for me, but for all of our staff and leaders in the congregation. No church is without its issues or problems—even Jesus had his to deal with along the way. Still, I am grateful for you all and the blessings you are for me. Thank you. 

– Pastor Andrew

In Gratitude, For my Retiring Colleague

As a Scout, whenever we went on a campout, we were always reminded to pick up behind ourselves. This means not only collecting any clutter we made, but also taking out whatever trash found left by others. Leave the site in better shape than how we found it. The motto was: leave only your footprints behind. In doing so, we were practicing care for the environment and helping to ensure a good stay for whomever came after us. Many years later, I was complaining one day to a colleague about the repository nature of the church—serving as the storage of relics people no longer want to keep, and yet won’t depart with fully. Sacred museums of personal priceless items. With exceeding wisdom, my colleague responded to more than that which I was criticizing: “If we, pastors, can leave a place in a little better shape than how we found it, then I think we’re doing pretty well.” The pastor who expects a complete and permanent transformation in their tenure at a church tirelessly chases the setting sun across the endless horizon. Perhaps a faithful and healthy metric is to hopefully leave a place in a little better shape than how we found it, with only our footprints on the trail behind us.

This coming Sunday marks not only the end of March, but also a culmination of my senior colleague’s rostered ministry. Retirement: that other blessed by and by. While Pastor Pete has faithfully said this is less about him and more a celebration of the collective ministry shared, I can’t help but recall the words of a professor we each had in seminary. Talking about Jesus’s identity, our systematics professor, Dr. Priebe, would say: “we know who Jesus is by what he does.” At the risk of equating my colleague with Jesus—not doing that—I do believe there is some truth in saying a pastor cannot be fully separated from the ministry they’ve done. Therefore, for me, celebrating my senior colleague is honoring his faithful service—and as such, giving thanks and praise to God who has worked in and through him who he called to serve in this ministry. To say Pete is leaving St. Martin’s in a little better shape than how he found it would be a gross understatement. The site is thriving and ready for whomever comes to follow. Very much the modest Norwegian, he wouldn’t take credit for it, but Pete has met whatever challenges that have come his way head-on with grace and conviction—steering the ship as true to the course of the gospel of Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

For me, Pete is more than a boss—rather a caring colleague, who has been immensely supportive and helped me to grow in my pastoral leadership. Things like my preaching and teaching have grown, in part, because of the opportunities he’s given me and his challenge to be more faithful in my call to serve the church. Over the past thirteen months, he has been generous in building me up and equipping me with tools to succeed in ministry. Beyond our work together, I’ve come to see Pete as a trusted friend. We don’t always see eye to eye. Our approaches differ from time to time, but never has that been a hindrance—instead a place to learn and grow. I’m grateful for his leadership, but even more his partnership, patience, and persistent affirmation. When I began here, and was deeply struggling with the transition, Pete listened to me and said any other response would mean I was the wrong person for the job. He saw a broken heart as a place for continued love in a new place. Relationships—building and nurturing them—has been part and parcel to Pete’s ministry all along the way. This, if anything, will be his legacy as he transitions into the next step of what God has in store for him. I give thanks to God for Pete, and wish him God’s richest blessings in his retirement. Well done, good and faithful servant.

– Pastor Andrew

Christchurch: Mourning the Suffering of our Muslim Sisters and Brothers

When I was teaching Confirmation in my first call, I made it a point for students to encounter and engage others who did not share our particular faith tradition. As part of the 8th grade curriculum, the students would read about various denominations and religions and each month we would do a different worship visit. My promise to the parents was always that we wouldn’t go to places where their children might be condemned or converted. The Jewish synagogue and Muslim mosque were two places I was extra intentional about us visiting. I encouraged families to join us for any of the visits—because education, I believe, starts and stops at home. Like clockwork, each year as we neared our visit to the mosque, there was always at least one parent (most often more) who was hesitant about their child attending. Pastor, I’m not so sure So-and-So should go. And yet following each of those visits to the mosque—being graciously welcomed in, shown unmatched hospitality, sharing in prayer, and given opportunity to ask any and all questions—parents and students alike voiced their humble change of heart. I thought it was going to be like… I was wrong in believing… I had been so scared because of the news, but now… I learned that we’re actually alike on… I’m so glad we went there and learned… It was in and through these such visits that I saw some of the greatest transformation in our students and their families. Ignorance enlightened. Fears dismantled. Hearts opened to others different and yet the same. Worldviews broadened to now view the stranger as a beloved neighbor. What some initially questioned as jeopardizing job security, was actually further enriching our own particular faith. How can we truly appreciate what we believe as Christians if we do not see both the similarities and distinctions between us and those of other traditions? Might we be surprised to learn that the media paints a less than perfect picture of some religions and their adherents? What if our differences are less than what we share in common? I believe how we engage with others speaks volumes of our own faith.

Indeed, from the outside looking in it can appear that much is different between Christianity and Islam. And in some cases that’s true. Yet, we also share some core tenets worth lifting up. We both (along with Judaism) believe in the same monotheistic God. While Christians do confess a Triune God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), all three religions look to the same one God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. For Muslims, Allah is the Arabic word for God, just as Elohim is the Hebrew word for God. Our faith lineages converge in Abraham. Jews and Christians trace our heritage through Abraham’s son, Isaac; whereas Muslims trace theirs in Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael, whom he had with Sarah’s slave girl Hagar. From this standpoint, we are literally siblings with one another. The Quran, the central religious text for Islam, shares much in common with the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and Gospels of the New Testament. Figures like Adam, Moses, David, Solomon, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (to name a few) can be found in the Muslim scripture and are considered holy prophets deserving honor. When a Muslim parishioner says the name of a prophet, often it will be followed with the statement, Peace be upon her/him, as a means of reverence. Though the differences in understanding of who Jesus is and his purpose are significant and should not be glossed over, the Messiah is an undeniable unifier between us. Even the five pillars of Islam—creed (Shahadah), daily prayers (Salah), almsgiving (Zakat), fasting (Sawm), and pilgrimage (Hajj)—can be translated, more or less, across in the core tenets/practices of Christianity. Inherently, Islam is a religion of peace and submission, arguably more so than that of Christianity. Now, none of this is to say we are one in the same. Islam and Christianity (Judaism for that matter) have their differences—increasingly so when one looks at the various sects and breadth of doctrines within each religion. Yet, our commonalities, our shared beliefs and traditions—great and small—cannot, and should not, be overlooked. What, or perhaps I should say Who, binds us together is far greater than that which distinguishes us.

As I see and hear in the news that this past Friday a white supremacist murdered fifty parishioners and injured at least fifty others between two mosques, Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre, in Christchurch, New Zealand, the irony is not missed. Terrorism against Muslims in a community bearing an unmistakably Christian name. And yet, I wonder how much of this man’s hateful ideology—whether personally or socially—has been influenced by the church, religion in general, and a total misunderstanding of our siblings’ faith. We’ve been so conditioned to fear Islamic extremists, and yet this senseless massacre (among countless others) demonstrates an extremism we write-off or overlook as rare: white nationalists. There’s good people on both sides, right? My heart is both broken and simultaneously filled with rage towards this (routine) wickedness. Any form of hate towards another—thought, word, or despicable deed—is not faith, but only sin as a result of idolatry. Hear me loud and clear: I’m not debating the truth claims of one tradition over against another. What I am saying is that we are neither enemies nor oppositional to our Muslim sisters and brothers. We are sisters and brothers—whether see, realize, accept it, or not. Just as the whole body of Christ pains at the sufferings of even one of its members, today we (should) ache at the news of our Islamic siblings being gunned down in their places of worship—the blood of children, women, and men staining their holy spaces. We must stand in diametric opposition to anyone who threatens, pursues, or carries out violence against another—regardless their beliefs. The love of God both begins before and extends well beyond the church door—enveloping all God’s people. God mourns for all Allah’s children. As Christians, we are called to work for peace and unity throughout the world. This is not converting or condemning those who think or believe differently than us. It means dialogue—listening and learning from another. It means gathering together—sharing both meals and prayers together. It means looking at and loving the other as a brother or sister—bearing the image of God, the Lord of all. It means working towards the well being of all people—regardless color or creed.

– Pastor Andrew

Ashes on the Forehead of a Dying Church

Most all signs point towards the impending death of the church. Declining attendance. Increasing congregation closures. Reactionary, anxiety-laden decisions made by leadership. Growing irrelevance in the public eye. For better or for worse, the picture is not as it was 50, 100, or even 500 years ago. If anything, we today resemble the earliest roots of the Jesus movement—small and struggling—more than perhaps anytime in the past two millennia. Some are saying its demise is long overdue, whereas others are mourning the quickened decay of their blessed memories of a church once at the center of society. Either way, the institution is proving to be undeniably mortal—now a far cry from its stately Christendom stature of seasons past. Will the very community of faith calling all others to honesty about the inevitability of death continue to deny and avoid its own nearing end? Are we, the church, being called to demonstrate for the world around us what it looks like to gracefully enter into death—holding fast to the hope and promise of resurrection life? Might we followers need ashes on our sanctuary doorposts, now more than ever, as a reminder of our ephemerality—trusting in the One who formed us out of nothing?

Ash Wednesday—quite literally marked by its dirty foreheads and litany of life culminating just as it began, in muck—is a humble reminder of both our mortality and complete dependence upon God the Giver of all life. For many, the season of Lent is a timely moral compass reset—reconnecting oneself with God through selective abstinence and/or recentering spiritual practices. But it’s more than that. It is a journey with Jesus through the truth of sin (its consequences) and death (its finality) into renewed clarity (thankfulness) and the hope of resurrection (life anew with God is indeed the last word). Without the 40 days of Lent, Easter Sunday is not worth rejoicing. If we seek to take a different route bypassing the road to the cross, the empty tomb loses all meaning. So we begin with coarse words that are not easily swallowed. Grit smeared, though it can be washed away, soaks deep into our hearts and minds—leaving us cautious and convicted. It’s no symbol to be worn in boasting, rather a mark of brokenness and transience. Our lives are each a gift, our years numbered. Only God—and none else—is eternal. This means even the church, with its beginning in Peter and the other apostles, will one day come to an end.

Perhaps, now more than ever, the church needs ashes spread upon its forehead—to remember not just for what purpose we were created but also that this body, too, must eventually die. How can we speak good news with only one foot in the story? If we are not incarnational—fully living out the very message we claim to be truthful—are we being true to our calling? The church is not the kingdom come, rather it bears its promise and can only hope to participate (somedays at best a smidge) with the Spirit’s guidance in bringing about its reality here and now. Might we be humbled to accept that we, the church, are not God’s greatest gift for the world—that is instead Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One. Whether we are approaching our expected end or prematurely reaping the consequences of our (in)actions, I don’t know. What I do believe is that if we are to profess resurrection hope in the One who was raised from the grave after three days, we need to, with faith, apply this promise to more than just our individual earthly lives. Jesus’s promise of new life is universal for the whole cosmos and all it contains—and in my mind this includes even the church. As we enter into Lent this week, might the Spirit of Life be calling us (both disciples individually and the church communally) to journey fully into death with Christ so that we may be raised with him in a resurrection like his? Dying to the world around us, the church can only find life anew in the One who first gave us breath to speak the gospel. Today, the church wears ashes on its forehead; in the unknown future of tomorrow, may we be clothed in the resurrection joy of Christ Jesus.

– Pastor Andrew

Loss & Grief in the Church

We experience loss and grief in every aspect of life. The unexpected death of a family member or friend. Financial strains or unforeseeable natural disasters suddenly sweeping in, taking away one’s home and other possessions. Illness robbing a person of their identity and independence. Change of any kind calling into question what has been held onto and perhaps assumed permanent. Do we, I wonder, count the church among those parts of our life that can (and often do) encounter loss and leave us floundering with grief? A change in building. Transition of pastor or other staff. Declining attendance. Shifting neighborhood demographics. The death or departure of a pillar parishioner. Growing cultural demands. The church, unfortunately, is no more immune from loss and subsequent grief than any other sphere, sacred or profane. In some ways, I think, when loss happens in the church, because of our beliefs about its perceived inherent stability and unchanging nature, our grief is expounded. Being the cradle and locale of faith for so many, the burden becomes greater when we’re forced to adapt to a new or different picture of what the church looks like or how it functions.

A few months before I was to be ordained, my family and I experienced overwhelming grief from afar at the news of my congregation leaving the denomination. It had been a long, emotionally-draining fight between those who were feeling anxious and afraid about what sexuality meant and others who feared the church becoming closed and unwelcoming towards a particular population of the community. The tenuous final straw broke leaving no winners, but only bitterness and despair among all. The memory of, as a child, sitting alongside my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunt and her family, and great-grandmother—all in one pew—was shattered (among countless others) at the loss of the only congregation I’d ever known as home. If that weren’t enough, now I was needing to find a new church in which to soon be ordained. The relationship I shared with First English for 26 years had been severed. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, I was an exile—still dealing with the loss of my faith community, all the while feeling unable to grieve as I prepared to serve other congregations who themselves were amidst transition. The evening I was ordained across town in a different church, I cried as I looked out and saw people gathered among the assembly whom I didn’t know from Adam; and yet, who had received my family and I to support us in this new venture of ministry. It wasn’t until some years later that I was able to fully grieve the loss of the place where I was baptized, first communed, confirmed, and the people there who had accompanied throughout that time.

When a church faces loss of any kind, just like an individual, the community can feel shaken at its core—unsure what to do and how to process through the multifaceted grief. While the temptation is great to avoid or disregard it as unnecessary, unresolved grief can become poison within us—eating away at other things, until it finally consumes the person and/or comes out in harmful ways. So, also, it is with the church. If we are unable or unwilling to express our grief over a loss, the congregation as a whole is at risk of becoming septic if not anxiously reactive and chronically closed-off. The church should not be viewed as an escape from loss and grief, rather, in my opinion, a place for us to face loss in the support of community and enter into grief together with listening, comfort, and empathy. Equipped with a message of hope, the church is tasked with sharing good news that none of us—individually or communally—is ever alone in our loss or grief. Christ Jesus bears our losses, especially when we cannot, and accompanies us throughout the entirety of our grieving—hearing our cries, comforting us in our sorrows, giving us his peace. Our losses and grief become God’s in the cross of Christ. The same one who takes upon himself our pain and suffering also restores, renews, and leads us into new life rejoicing. As we enter into the season of Lent this next week with Ash Wednesday, might we use this season to dwell in loss and grief. What losses have had an impact on you recently? Are you still amidst their throes? How do you encounter grief in your life? Is it something humbly welcomed or fearfully avoided? Where do you find peace and comfort? Who do you trust to listen and comfort you without judgement? Are you that for someone else? Have you experienced loss and grief in and through the church? When and where is Christ present amidst the uncertainty of loss? How is Christ meeting you in your grieving? What is the Spirit’s call for the church in accompanying others through places of loss and times of grief? Might we, with the eyes of faith, begin to see more clearly Christ present amidst our losses, walking with us through our grief.

– Pastor Andrew

Amidst the Fog

From behind me, strapped into his carseat, came the question: “Where do God and Jesus live?” Never a dull moment with this kid. Can’t say this is the most spontaneous conversation he’s sparked heading south on 183. “Everywhere,” I hastily responded. “They live in Heaven—I mean I know they live in my heart—where’s Heaven?” Satisfied with my original answer, I repeat it: “Everywhere.” “I thought it was up there,” he says pointing up. “Heaven’s everywhere, bud.” In the rearview mirror, I can see the confusion sweeping past his face with the potency as if we’ve just driven by a dead skunk. Clearly, this inquisitive 5 year old is bewildered by my albeit unconventional geography of the afterlife. Shouldn’t daddy know better where Heaven is, after all he is a pastor!? I can’t say I don’t enjoy these seeking theological discussions with my son; but gee whiz he puts me on the spot. Make sure you choose your words carefully, because this kid will remind you of them verbatim 6 weeks from now when you’re doing something completely unrelated and not prepared to rehash the conversation. Oh, the incessant why, why, why, but why, why, whys. They’re a bit much for the father tapped dry of responses after a long day. Yet, I pray he never loses his passion or persistence in questioning.

In reflection, so many things could be said about this exchange with my enthusiastic eldest born. With more caffeine (and a hint of clairvoyance), I might dive deeper into the topic of Heaven and its locale—both geographic and theological. The heavens we read about in Scripture is different than the place on high, which we’re told by many in the church that we need to gain access to through a life of piety, er, faithfulness. Sacrificing its ubiquity, we continue to make this paradise above the clouds into a spiritual gated community of our own control and monitoring—mirroring our idolatrous domestic actions here and now in this life. Walls save angels! I could make the argument that we’re doing our children a great disfavor when we continue to erect this three-story eschatology. Alongside instilling fear and great confusion, we misappropriate the afterlife as the ultimate end of the faith journey. What, then, is salvation? Or, we could go back to the beginning and address the apparent error in dividing God and Jesus—a systematician’s nightmare. Has Sunday School taught him nothing? 😉 The two are not separate, rather Jesus is God incarnate (in the flesh). This could then lead us down a discussion on the three persons of the Trinity, and an accompanying illustration of God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; yet also noting that there is a distinction (though not division) between each of the persons—one is not the other, vice versa, and so on. But, oh, how that gets tedious, and next thing you know you’re midway through reciting the painfully exhaustive Athanasian Creed and everyone else has checked out. Still, all of this in consideration, let us not forget that the en route conversation with my son—no matter how theologically fraught—was initiated by none other than a kindergartener. I’m not sure if I should be more amazed or startled by this. Beyond the content of the conversation, we could even look at the importance of encouraging and engaging these such occasions when the wheels of imagination start spinning and our children want to explore the intricacies of faith with us. Uhhhh, I’m not prepared for this! Ask someone else. How do we nurture questioning at an early age and affirm its value in the journey of faith? The topics, ideas, and possible conversations branching out from this short exchange are endless. The mind of a pastor…

So, why share this with us? What’s the point? Is there some lesson to be learned, a paradox to ponder? Honestly, no. In some ways, these few days later I’m still the father tapped dry of responses after a long week. It’s been one of those where I’m just good and tired—nothing more, nothing less. If something of this blog post brings fresh enlightenment or connects with something in your personal life, than we’ll just chalk it up to the mysterious stirrings of the Spirit. I share this short story from Monday afternoon in the car with my oldest child, and the random pattering of personal thoughts that followed, simply to shine a light amidst the fog—temporarily slowing down to see a moment for what it is. Reliving the exchange. Pondering the depth of both the words and possible responses. Asking questions. Smirking and chuckling along the way. Shaking my head in disbelief. If after reading this, you think to yourself: “Hmm, interesting. Didn’t learn anything, but still interesting” than it served its still quite nebulous purpose. I guess I hope you consider shining a light amidst the fog when it settles around you.

– Pastor Andrew

Playfulness in the Church

Have we made the church so sterile and serious as to function less or other than God intends? Can the rigidity of a congregation—like that of a wineskin that has dried out and hardened, no longer pliable—ever fully hinder the Spirit from coming in and expanding it with fresh festivity? We wonder why younger generations are increasingly absent from our congregations, and a growing majority find the church irrelevant. Christendom and its long-held assumptions are crumbling before our very eyes as we move into a new era—causing great anxiety among many and raising questions on where we went wrong and what needs changing, if anything. Sacredness and piety, in my opinion, have been misunderstood (and misportrayed) along the way to the point that we many times respond with formality and facade instead of being open to playfulness. Is it perhaps the doing of us on the inside, and not the external culture or those beyond the congregation, that is most threatening to the life and longevity of the church? Considering the nature and necessity of play for the individual’s development, is something to be said of its equal importance for the Christian community? The other day in the monthly Family Systems class I attend we talked about how play shapes the brain and opens the imagination, and what all systems (familial, social, political, religious) are effected by its implementation or absence.

Helmut Thielecke writes: “A church is in a bad way when it banishes laughter from the sanctuary and leaves it to the cabaret, the nightclub and the toastmasters.” Unfortunately, I can say I’ve been in a few churches that were so cold—and I’m not talking about the temperature—that they could’ve been confused for morgues. On the other hand, I’ve also attended churches that seem to just get it—communicating and freely practicing play as part of who they are and what they do. Can this one trait have such an altering impact on the greater whole? It’s so simple, yet vital to the system. Without play, the reason for gathering, worshipping, learning, serving, etc. is lost—zapping the joy within a community of faith and leaving it burdensome on everyone alike. Are you saying what we’re doing here, Pastor, isn’t enjoyable enough for you? No, not at all. What I’m asking is, are we being cognizant and intentional about making playfulness a spiritual practice in everything from the Sunday assembly to our daily vocations? Or, are we pursuing it with the same approach we’ve done evangelism over the past couple hundred years—waiting and hoping for it to finally walk in, not get scared and leave? Don’t make any sudden movements, or you might spook it! Is that which hangs from the vine succulent grapes, or raisins waiting to be boxed? So, what then does playfulness mean here? It’s more than just humor or some appeal to make Sunday Funday. To be playful means flexibility, the ability and willingness to change more than as a last resort, unadulterated joy, an uncoerced desire to engage and participate, disregard of one’s personal image, getting lost in the moment unencumbered by outside problems. It’s what we see in our children when they play hide and go seek, tea party with stuffed animals and imaginary friends, and other games stimulated by a will to be with others.

Playfulness is fundamental to one’s faith formation. In developing one’s imagination and being open to others, we grow in both our theology (how we think and talk about God) and ministry (how we serve our neighbors around us). When we encourage and participate in play, the building blocks are set for practices such as critical thinking and empathy which are core to the life of faith. Pondering the mystery of God and God’s work in the world begins not in a Systematics class, but rather long before that through the eyes and mind of a toddler who envisions how things come into being and function in all kinds of fun and interesting alternative ways. Likewise, learning how to live with and relate to others starts with being in a community where the individual is valued over and above cultural expectations or social standards. The task is not to suppress questions and instill rote mindless behaviors. The church should be serving to help people become more open to who God is, what God is doing, and how we might respond and share in God’s mission for the world. Playfulness breaks down the barriers that prevent this, and renews the vibrance of the community gathered and equipped to meet and care for the world for whom Christ gave his life in love. So how are we being playful in our worship, education, fellowship, interactions with strangers, variety of congregational ministries, daily vocations? Is there room for young voices and fidgety bodies? What’s the response to those who don’t know or follow the particular order engrained in our traditions? Are we more concerned about being prim, proper, and “put together”? How do we accept and affirm amongst us that which is viewed as crude, coarse, and crass? Can we laugh at ourselves, and be honest about our impiety? How might we continue to be open and embracing of the world around us—meeting others with the same grace, love, and playfulness, that God comes to us in Christ Jesus? Let’s play!

– Pastor Andrew

Pulling Weeds

It sounds silly—I know it—but the first time I visited Wartburg Seminary as a high schooler (and where I would eventually attend 6 years down the road), the thing I most fell in love with was the grass. Wide, soft, deep green blades. Inviting passersby to stop, remove their shoes, and walk about freely. A gentle bed upon which to rest one’s tired teenage body while soaking up some vitamin D in the courtyard after sitting through group sessions on youth leadership that felt like eternity. There were many other wonderful things about that place—but I remember the lush grass around the school’s signature Martin Luther statue, because it was so different from that which I’d grown up with down here in south Texas. Brown and patchy. Starving for water. Tough ground unviable for laying strong roots. Sticker burrs and pernicious weeds. Anyone brave enough to enter such terrain without the proper footwear was taking the risk of sore soles into their own hands—quite literally. Certainly no manicured lawn you might find on the cover of Better Homes & Gardens. Of all places, it was in Iowa that the phrase holy ground took on new meaning for me.

Sunday, as we pulled into the driveway upon our return home from church, I looked out at our front yard with disgust. Weeds. Everywhere. Ugh. Whether by a burst of energy left over from the morning’s coffee or out of fear our landlady might drive by and see an unkept lawn, I went out and started pulling up the unwanted annoyances one by one. Progress was slow, but after a while I had a mound three feet in diameter and nearly as tall of thistles ripped from the landscape. Itchy and irritated hands—signs that what had been removed was no good in the first place. Dirty fingernails. A parched palate in need of some cool refreshing water. An achy back begging for some extra-strength Tylenol. An overwhelming feeling of accomplishment. Ground that had been covered and starving for sunlight—now reclaimed. Voiding that which was noxious and threatening so that tiny toes might dig into the dirt and grass, running around playfully. Clearing the ground feels like cleansing it. In spite of their size, weeds aren’t something to be disregarded. Covering and constricting anything within reach, they bear the potential to ruin the whole lot. Sieving is an endless job.

As a kid, I was taught to reach down where the plant met the ground and firmly grasp at the base of the stem under all the pokey leaves, so as to get all the roots out. Sometimes, however, those pesky boogers just break off—further taunting you. Haha, not this time. I’m here to stay! Now, different people deal with weeds differently. Some meticulously yank out each one. Makes for tedious work. Others just mow ‘em down. Quick and easy, right? Then there’s those who are proponents for pesticides. Poison works wonders. And, finally, there’s the plain ole avoidance. It’s not so bad. I don’t have the time or energy. I’m going for the backyard jungle-look. With the exception of ignoring it, we all know what happens when you ignore a thistle. It sprawls out over the surrounding carpet grass—stealing rays and starving the vegetation beneath it to death—all the while pollinating into a hundred little headaches across one’s yard. On this side of removing all the sod and putting down AstroTurf, weeds always return—it’s just a matter of when and where.

So what’s a person to do when faced with a weed? Is one strategy better than another? Pull? Plow? Poison? How do you go about addressing the particular nuisance without harming or jeopardizing the greater ecosystem around it? Is there any smidge of value—something to be gained—in having it there in the yard, or does it only threaten everything in the vicinity? Weeds come by many names, different sizes, shapes, and colors. Dandelions. Thistles. Oxalis. Burdock. Pigweed. Crabgrass. Clover. Deadnettle. Ivy. Knowing no one can spend their entire life by the window, watching and waiting for the next weed to pop through, what’s the best practice for dealing with weeds? Is the ground worth keeping, or is the matter merely something to be overlooked as the norm? Are we content with sticker burrs and brown patchy grass, or are we expected to be better stewards than that? Perhaps the question is less of what to do and when we’ll finally stoop down, dirty our hands, and say enough is enough. What is being lost when we let weeds overtake the yard? Just asking for a friend 😉 Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

– Pastor Andrew

Why are you apologizing?

Staring at my t-shirt as I walked in—trying to decipher its supposed subliminal message—the employee behind the counter asks: “So what does that sequence of symbols mean?” Ugh, I know where this is gonna lead. Well, he asked, so here goes. Unapologetically, I translate the simple graphics for him: “The water drop is baptism. The book is scripture. The chalice and bread are communion.” A pause of silent uncertainty on what exactly to say next. You could see his face flush with shame. And just as I had called it in my mind: an unsolicited apology followed. With embarrassment in his voice, as if needing to confess a crime, he sheepishly responds: “Yeah, I haven’t been to church in a couple years…I should go back…” Oh, ok. Is he bracing for me to condemn or confront him? What do I do with this? Absolve him of something not really needing forgiveness? Brush it off as no big deal? Probe him on the reasons for his hiatus and psychologize what this all means about his faith, or lack thereof? Frankly, all of these responses leave something to be desired, if not dreaded. Either way—AWKWARD. I wish I could tell you this was a first of its kind, but honestly, it happens more often than one might expect. Why is it that people feel obligated to apologize for being absent from church?

Disclaimer: I’m not looking for nor need an apology from you for your absence—no matter weeks, months, or even decades—from church. That’s just not part of what I consider to be my pastoral duty. Open to a conversation? Sure. An apology? Not necessary. Sorry 😉 You have your reasons for being away, not that recess from congregational life (momentary or extensive) is always intentional. Sometimes it’s as basic as not bearing priority in one’s life or being void of pull towards engagement. That’s not a judgment against anyone. Right or wrong, it’s just the truth of the matter. There’s all kinds of reasons for this—shifting external demands, mounting internal stress, not having an established routine of church involvement, and the list goes on. I had a parishioner in Nebraska who rarely darkened the door of the church, but was one of the most faithful people I knew in the community. Standing in his smoky shop, surrounded by big rigs needing immediate attention, we would talk about who Jesus was for him, where he felt God present in his life, and how his faith informed his daily life. He apologized to me a myriad of times for missing worship—at least half a dozen each time we visited. I came to realize over time that his absence had to do more with an overwhelming guilt regarding past mistakes and an inability to relinquish that so as to enter into loving community with others, and less to do with a disinterest or devaluing of the church. You don’t have to be sorry for demons, we’ve all got them. That’s not to say sleeping-in after an all-nighter changing out a transmission or just a lack of passion for the music of an early morning service weren’t factors one time or another. Regardless, I don’t remember Jesus ever asking for an apology from anyone he met who wasn’t a regular at the synagogue or Temple.

So why is it we feel compelled to apologize for whenever we’ve missed church—whether intentionally, for good reason, or even not? Have, we the church, unknowingly mastered the art of guilt? I know more than a few people (clergy included) who would silently nod in affirmation. Is it something subconscious within our faith formation? Now remember kids, if ever you get caught being away from church you need to feel really really bad about it and look remorseful before being readmitted into the body of Christ! That’s absurd. Still, it’s what’s been heard and internalized by at least a few somewhere along the way. Are we pastors more intimidating than we realize? While some of us might possess a certain air of over-inflated authority (not naming anyone, lest I be added to the list), none should ever wear the clerical so tightly as to mistaken keeping attendance rolls with serving God’s kingdom. Could it be just an innate part of our constant need to not disappoint others? Is it less about the particular community or religious setting, and more of a personal reaction of anxiety? Lord knows we all can say some dumb things when caught off guard or put on the spot. Don’t believe me, listen to the responses well-intending people say to those grieving the loss of a loved one. Comments can range from confusing to downright cringe-worthy. Maybe, when faced with our not meeting others’ expectations—or more appropriately our perceptions of others’ expectations, we assume the most fitting or only acceptable (forgivable) response is to apologize. Might the apology, though spoken aloud, be less for the other person and rather intended for ourselves—meant to remain inside, yet given breath before we can withhold it? You don’t owe the church, much less a pastor, an apology for being absent. We’re not keeping tabs on you; and if we were, that’d be a whole other issue. Next time you or someone you encounter apologizes for being away from the church, I encourage you to question the reason for that response. Why are you apologizing?

– Pastor Andrew

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