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She Speaks for Herself

A father and his young daughter are walking the aisles of their neighborhood grocery store—picking up some items for the weekend. Chips and dip. Soda. Fajitas and tortillas. Ice Cream. Essentials. Just a few more items left on the list. They round the corner and, lo and behold, it’s the father’s coworker whose son goes to school with his daughter. They stop as the two men strike up a conversation. Oh, hey, how are you? Doing well, and you? Keeping busy. After a couple minutes of niceties, the one begins asking a bunch of questions about the other’s daughter—yet never directly addressing the young girl herself, who remains standing there three feet away the entire time. So is your daughter going to try out for the basketball team? How’s she like Teacher So-and-So? What’s her plans for the summer—anything fun? It’s as if she’s a ghost, or perhaps he’s so consumed in speaking that he fails to see her out of the corner of his eye. Nonetheless, she’s not hidden or out of sight. Is this sexism at work? Does it represent the his inherent bias? Either way, an uncomfortable triangle fills the public space there along that aisle—one person talking to the other about yet another who is present but for some reason unacknowledged. After what feels like an hour of droning interrogation, the annoyed father chimes in unapologetically: Well, why don’t you just ask my daughter about all of this—she actually speaks for herself.

Pastor, great sermon! Thank you for speaking on the issues. This and other such comments met me on the way out of the sanctuary this past Pentecost Sunday following worship. Honestly, I was surprised by all of the affirmation I received on my sermon. I thoroughly enjoyed preaching it, but never could have imagined the response many would give towards it. Eager to try something different, I focused on Genesis 11:1-5, The Tower of Babel, to offer an alternative narrative on the high holy day. In my opinion, it gets tiring hearing the same (often gospel) texts preached on festival days each year—our scripture is more than just four books. In preparation, I was amazed to learn how the message of this story is much different than how we often misunderstand it. Instead of being about human ingenuity inciting God’s divine punishment—bringing a prideful people back down to the ground; it rather speaks to the Lord’s intent to create and spread diversity over the face of the earth. This leads me to believe that God is not only responsible for the wide variety of ethnicities, creeds, orientations, genders, etc. we encounter daily throughout the world—but is also present within them each as they all reflect the image of God. If you disagree, you can accuse me of eisegesis, that’s fine—not the first time I’ve heard it. But the text speaks for itself! The truth is (at the risk of sounding unnecessarily defensive): nothing I wrote and spoke in that sermon was about addressing contemporary issues or countering current public discourse—I merely sought (and hope) to be a mouthpiece for the Spirit to speak God’s Word in and through me.

When it comes to reading scripture and preaching, the Holy Spirit speaks for herself. If ever I, as pastor, or we all, as the community of faith, lose sight of this we relegate the Advocate—who leads and guides us, giving us the gift of faith, and gathering us together into the lap of Christ—to the kids’ table (horrible metaphor, but true) to be seen but not heard. At best, er most faithful, I serve to be a vessel—facilitating a space and inviting others in to hopefully hear the Spirit speaking truth in and through me. The voice and accompanying hand flailing are mine, but the breath that comes out and the words that are formed from it are given to me by the Spirit. This is not to say that everything I utter is without sin. By no means. Lord knows I’ve preached some pretty poor sermons—ones that missed the message of God’s forgiveness and love, or elevated myself in one way or another at the expense of pointing towards Christ. The preacher who cannot confess this is ultimately preaching themselves as the center. Reading scripture and preaching, I believe, are always a dance that we are invited into with the lead of our partner, the Spirit. Sometimes, we remain sitting along the side—scared or pridefully blind to the Spirit’s encouragement to come out onto the floor. Other times, we get out there but fail to follow in sequence or step all over her toes with misunderstanding and a lack of grace. When the words of a sermon are heard and received—striking a note of meaning and relevance within oneself—it has less to do with the preacher, their competence, or skill, and more about a respect and acknowledgement towards the Holy Spirit speaking for herself. When we try to talk for her, we find ourselves out in the left field of idolatry—disregarding both God and the world around us. When you affirm a preacher (thank you), keep in mind that it is hopefully the Spirit speaking in and through them. Let her speak for herself.

– Pastor Andrew

Scrub A Dub Dub, No Way to Get Shame Off in the Tub

The other night I was giving my youngest a bath. No simple task—far different from his water-loving older brother in that regard. Grungy from a warm spring day playing in the sandbox some hours earlier at preschool, little boy was itching to be clean again. Oh, kids and sand. It’s like they’re magnetic to one another. Even the ones who despise being dirty, can’t seem to resist its temptation. Once they touch it—even if only for a split-second—it’s gonna end up in your house, car, and clothes. Oy vey. Wrangling our pint-sized Hulk into the lukewarm shower *weeping and gnashing of teeth* it finally came time to wash his hair—peppered with the tiny black and brown specks. Looking like a seasoned chicken breast ready for the grill, I made sure not to skimp on the tear-free shampoo. Lathering up his golden blonde mane, he cried out with the moans of his favorite first word—Noooo! I was hopeful that the sand would wash away with ease. Ha. As if. Scrub-a-dub-dub. Rinsing out the suds and drying him off, I combed through his hair. Lo and behold, there they still were—taunting me! Those pesky granules gripped to his scalp for dear life. Not from a lack of trying though. Contemplating a second soaping, I decided to wait and see if they’d work their way out overnight. Sand—try as we may, it always sticks with you.

Shame is like sand. We pick it up—many times unknowingly—in the messiness of life; and no matter how hard we work to remove it, still somehow a small trace of it always remains. That tiny voice persists in tearing us apart. Shame gets down deep in the soft and tender parts of our lives and chafes away—raw and unforgiving. It was a couple years ago, in reading the brilliantly candid writing of Brené Brown (Daring Greatly), when I learned the difference between guilt and shame. The former is the feeling of I did wrong, whereas the latter is the feeling of I am wrong/unworthy. Often we confuse the two. I’d venture to say all of us—even those who don’t realize or are too afraid to admit it—suffer more from unresolved shame than that of guilt itself. Though similar, one is a response to an action and the other is a reaction to oneself. When I do something wrong, I feel guilt for my transgression(s). On the other hand, shame flows out of all kinds of situations and perceptions. Simply assuming the thoughts of another person can lead us to an overwhelming shamefulness. It really doesn’t take anything at all for us to be seized by shame’s suffocating message. I, myself, am no stranger to its unrelenting sting. At any given moment I can (and do) feel it pulling down on me. Something, anything, or even nothing is said by another person, and there I am sinking beneath its crashing, stifling waves. Consumed. All from that itty bitty fleck picked up from who knows where.

It’s such an integral part of our lives, that I’m not sure many of us could even pick shame out of a lineup. We are simultaneously victims and perpetrators of its criminality. Chances are we’ve each been shamed out of or into something at least a dozen times—probably starting amidst, if not before, the prime confusion and questioning of our adolescence. In the same way, we heap shame on others out of fear and/or anger. I believe all shame either begins or ends internally. We convince ourselves that we/others are horrible, wretched, despicable, and therefore should cower and hide from others/us. It’s impossible to trust and extend oneself into vulnerable relationships with one another, when shame is constantly perched upon our shoulder whispering fear. The church—its leaders and laity alike—is no stranger to sowing shame within those whom it doesn’t understand and is too afraid to engage. After many generations of practice, it seems to have become part and parcel to our public discourse. We shame each other on the smallest of differences. Oh, you think think/believe/feel/live differently than me about x, y, or z? Shame on you. So, what’s one to do about all the sand? It’s not confined to just the sandbox or shoreline. Is there any clean-all that can fully wash it away? Unfortunately, all the loofahs in the world cannot get it from sticking onto us. Perhaps a first step in cleanliness is self-awareness. Are we aware of it at work within us, and the damn-age it does? Name it—take away its silent stigma. But then next take an honest look at yourself—your words and actions—and ask how you are contributing, in one way or another, to the shame of others. Are we not only aware, but also accountable, to how we perpetuate it into perpetuity? The vicious cycle both envelopes and exceeds us. Ignoring it, doesn’t remove the speck(s) in my eye—much less covering me and my neighbor. Here’s to a life of hopefully scrubbing it away, little by little. Wash up.

– Pastor Andrew

Trying to be Both a Disciple & Parent of Young Children

This past weekend I missed an opportunity to participate in a local ministry I’ve been hoping to engage for sometime now: sharing in a meal and fellowship with others facing food insecurities. Who knows if it’s a worthy excuse, but I had my hands full with the kids. Someone will inevitably say, You should’ve gotten a babysitter, but the time spent with my rugrats was much-needed. It’s not the first time—missing a chance to practice discipleship, or having a dueling commitment in my vocation as dad. Honestly, it won’t be the last time this happens either. No complaints. Most all of us, I think, encounter this at one time or another. I know for sure that more people like me—parents of young children—wrestle with this conundrum than are often given credit. I can’t begin to number the times I’ve talked with families who long to dive deeper into one facet or another of congregational life, but struggle with the demands of herding the clan in a unified direction. Getting up and out of the house in time for worship itself can be a miracle. And, on the other hand, some ministries just don’t allow for the immediate presence or accommodate the persistent need of kiddos. The problem is real and the question deserves pondering: How is a person to navigate/negotiate being both a parent of young children and disciple of Christ Jesus?

I mean, in all seriousness, this wasn’t an issue Jesus or the twelve disciples had to deal with in their ministry. Nowhere in the gospels do I recall Thaddeus coming to Jesus and saying: Lord, I really want to be involved in this feeding of five thousand men, women, and children—but my wife’s busy and needs me to watch the kids for the afternoon. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow. Or, imagine Bartholomew saying to the group during dinner: I hate to skip out and miss going to the Mount of Olives to pray, and whatever else you’ve got planned for the night—but little Joseph is at home sick with a fever, and I need to go tend to him. The closest we ever get to this is when people bring their little children to Jesus to lay his hands on them and pray, and the disciples demonstrate their not being parents themselves by rebuking the people. Otherwise, the context is just different than ours today. Even without having children of their own, the disciples are constantly struggling to understand who Jesus is, much less live in accordance to his example. Those with him on a daily basis flounder in responding to Jesus’s call to be disciples. How are any of us, especially any who are pulled in a hundred plus different directions by our families, to answer the call in a remotely faithful way? Do we just wait until the kids have grown up and then plug into discipleship? Do we set everything—including caring for our spouse and children—aside as secondary to following after Christ? Is there some formula by which we can find a happy medium or good balance?

I don’t have the secret. Sorry if that bursts your bubble. This tension of parenthood and discipleship is one I’ve yet to resolve—even as a pastor—though not from a lack of trying. Some days I make what feels like the right decision, and others I’m not confident it’s so black and white. So long as I believe that my vocations of husband and father are as ordained by God as my vocations of disciple and pastor, I’m not so sure there is some divine combination to crack the code. Perhaps there shouldn’t be. What I do know, six years into this ongoing query, is that I have to try to begin with grace and empathy with (myself and) other such parents of young children when I don’t see them involved in the church. Far too many feel unwarranted guilt for either not knowing what to do, or under pressure picking a pathway that appears to others to be the wrong way. The church can encourage, equip, and empathize with those in this group, or continue silently shaming them into leaving altogether. An appropriate response is never found in the latter. Alongside building up gracious understanding, how might the church reevaluate itself so as to create hospitable space for families in their entirety to enter in, engage, and grow each and altogether along the journey of discipleship? The call of Christ begins not when our lives deem it convenient, but rather in the waters of baptism. On the same token, none of us have only the single vocation of discipleship. Maybe I’m watering it down, or missing an underlying truth. Either way, I’m going to keep trying to be both a parent of our young children and disciple of Jesus Christ, and hope God sorts it all out with grace I always need in no short supply.

– Pastor Andrew

Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka: The Tension of Death and Resurrection

Before the sun rose here on the western side of the world. As, perhaps, some were finishing vigil and going to bed to catch some zzz’s before an eventful day. While Easter festivities were little more than a restless stirring in the midnight dreams of exhausted clergy. Men, women, and children were gathering together, halfway around the globe, to begin celebrating the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in a moment—the least expected—death showed its face. Sheer terror. Of all the days and times (which was anything but random), on this Resurrection morning evil walked into a half dozen churches and hotels throughout Sri Lanka—stealing away the very breaths of hundreds proclaiming the gospel hope of new life in Christ. The day’s holy meaning ripped apart just as the bodies themselves who had come to hear the good news of the Risen One. Instead of water dripping from the foreheads of the newly baptized, the walls were splattered and floors pooled with the blood of the faithful. When you and I awoke, getting dressed in our Sunday best, and making our way out the door—anxiously waiting in line at Starbucks for our dirty chai tea latte—and across town to worship, the body of Christ stretched across all places was wailing in the immeasurable pain of being grotesquely dismembered. Siblings stolen away from the rest of God’s family. Leaving a gaping hole in the Spirit’s beating heart. Children and parents, whole families, congregations and communities, locals and visitors alike—lives suddenly ending, relationships immediately severed without warning. The agony of Good Friday played out all over again—before their very eyes. Eloi Eloi lema sabbachthani! My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Whereas Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them had run home with uncontainable joy to share with the eleven that Jesus was not dead but had been raised; early on this first day of the week, the streets of Colombo were filled with mass chaos and screaming as people scrambled in search for loved ones among the debris. Easter became, for those in this little island nation off the tip of India, unimaginable—but not as was formerly intended. How are we to proclaim resurrection joy and live into the fullness of Easter in the face of sin’s savagery and death’s relentless torment? 

Gleefully shouting Christ is risen! Alleluia! in the wake of a terrorist attack—which resulted in three hundred and fifty plus casualties and over five hundred injuries—seems disengaged at best and morally reprehensible at worst. Yet, on the other hand, we know Easter cannot be held off until a day void of all pain, suffering, and death. It would just never happen—not from a lack of hoping. How do we simultaneously hold (in tension) the promise of resurrection life in the Risen One, while still living each day in a world where death continues to exercise its incomprehensible will? As we journey into this season of hope (because Easter is not a single day), what message do we have to offer amidst such atrocity and uncertainty? Hearing the horrific news coming out of Asia, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve slid backwards into Lent. Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return. Likewise, when faced with violence, the temptation is always to fight fire with more fire. Let’s hunt down those despicable individuals behind this senseless series of attacks and give them HELL! This, however, is NOT THE ANSWER and never will be—no matter how many times we sinfully practice it on our adversaries. Revenge begets revenge—it is an endless cycle no one wins. So you’re saying Satan controls the day? By no means, to quote the Apostle Paul. Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, is Lord over all—yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Death has lost its sting. It sure doesn’t feel like it right now. I hear you. But in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, who had died three days earlier, death has been proven powerless. This means, though we too will experience death one day, it is not the final insurmountable word. The power of God is greater than the grave. As for us today, we await each new day in eager anticipation for that unknown time when the Risen Christ Jesus who ascended to heaven will return—fully establishing the kingdom of God and completely destroying the last enemy, death (1 Corinthians 15:19-26). You and I—all of us on this side of history—reside in the in-between time, now but not yet. The promise of new life has been unleashed among us in the scandalous news of the Resurrected Jesus, and yet we await the fullness of this promise made manifest throughout creation and the cosmos. Here and now, we cling to the hope passed on originally from those faithful women who found the tomb empty.

Christ, Crucified and Risen, was present with all those victims amidst the tragic events on Easter morning in Sri Lanka. Just as Christ, Crucified and Risen, is here with each and every person who suffers and dies. Christ, Crucified and Risen, remains with us always—throughout our suffering and sorrows, life and joys. If nothing else, we can be boldly confident of this truth. Not even the great abyss can divorce us from Christ Jesus. We can no more separate the death and resurrection of Jesus than we can compartmentalize his presence in our daily lives. The Easter hope and promise, though professed by less lips today than a week ago, is that in and through the resurrection of Jesus, the Crucified One, God speaks a loud and resounding NO!!! to death, its finality, and power over our lives. It is no longer the period (full-stop) marking the end of life, but rather only a comma (momentary pause) in the ongoing sentence (though not run-on, the Lord is surely grammatically perfect) of God’s creative and redeeming dialogue of love with the world. The atrocity of what happened in Sri Lanka cannot be simply wiped away as just an unfortunate misstep in this life, subordinate to the spiritual (perfect) realm. The trauma and grief of this event will be worn by the community for years on end. The deaths and ongoing injuries of hundreds of Sri Lankans is yet another wound in the side of Christ’s cosmic body. It is an aching reminder that the world we live in is not as God intends for us. We pain at the loss of sisters and brothers in God’s all-inclusive family. We mourn this and every loss of life, and lift up the sufferings of others, near and far, in prayer to God—our strength and comfort—who embraces all. We continue, driven by hope and courage, to work for peace and justice throughout the world—holding those responsible for such senseless crimes accountable for their actions, all the while seeking to promote God’s love which overcomes differences and hate in all places. My heart aches tremendously at yet another instance of death showing its face among us and overshadowing the joy of Easter resurrection. But even this temporary darkness cannot overcome the light of Christ! Nevertheless, we trust that God is working in and through this horrible event (though not having caused it), in ways beyond our understanding, to eventually bring forth goodness and newness of life. We do not lose hope. Death and its minions of idolatry and sin are not in control. The Risen Christ assures us that God and God’s kingdom come cannot be thwarted and death will one day finally be no more. With our hope in the coming resurrection, we profess our faith which death can never steal from us: Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia! 

– Pastor Andrew

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

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