Sharing Thoughts on Faith, Ministry, Daily Life, Etc.


A Response to the Most Recent Mass Shooting, Tree of Life Synagogue

How much longer, O Lord, will we submit ourselves to this distorted normalcy of mass shootings? Will we ever arrive to a day where the news doesn’t begin with or contain in some form damning phrases like “it has happened yet again” and “another shooting,” or are we destined to dwell permanently in the valley of darkness? Are we that desensitized from our self-created crisis in these recent years, or have we surrendered to denial our hearts, minds, and hope—letting blatant hate and violence take the wheel, driving the bus straight to hell? Can we address gun violence with common sense and consistency—ending this nightmare, or are we simply doomed to kill ourselves and those around us with passivity, clinching white-knuckled onto a piece of parchment written on 250 years ago for which we seem to rest our ultimate (dare I say, idolatrous) trust? Our schools and synagogues, malls and mosques, city centers and churches are stained with the blood of silent resignation. Fear has become constitutional to our social fiber—to the point that more and more we resemble less our Creator. We are perpetually anxious and morbidly afraid. Where next? What this time? How do I respond? The only thing we can be sure of, unfortunately, is that continuing down this pathway it will inevitably happen again. It’s just a matter of when. We know why, but still remain unmoved by it. Each instance is another episode in a never-ending story we can neither turn away from watching unfold nor are willing to confront with real change.

Squirrel Hill (Pittsburgh, PA), and the deaths of 11 parishioners during Shabbat morning services at Tree of Life synagogue this past week, is not special. The only thing unique in it all is our shameless response as a society. Silence. Partisan script-reading. Suggestions that armed security would’ve or could’ve prevented it. The cyclical surge of people reacting out of fear by purchasing firearms. If any of this offends, than perhaps there’s still hope. When the news no longer pierces us, leaving an ache deep within our gut, then we know despair has become terminal. As we draw near to All Saints Sunday this next week, remembering all those who have died and looking with hope to that unknown day when Christ will return to resurrect the dead and join heaven and earth into a new creation, the trauma of this recent mass shooting should sit even more heavily on our faith. This event was first and foremost a hate crime against our Jewish kindred, from whom we receive the majority of our religious heritage. Our testament to Jesus does not separate us from this premeditated violence, but rather further convicts and challenges us to speak prophetically in the face of hate and work more diligently with people of every religious expression towards shalom throughout the world. How can we share in praising and proclaiming Baruch atah Adonai (Blessed are you, Lord our God), when our lives, actions, and lack thereof do not bless but instead curse God’s good creation with each senseless death? It seems that we have sacrificed the dignity of human life upon the altar of misperceived safety and control.

As I’ve said elsewhere before: I don’t have all the answers. What I do have is something between a diminishing optimism and enraged hope. Our failure as a nation to address with honesty and empathy the problem at hand is permanently stamped in history. There’s no erasing it. Future generations, if there are any to be had, will look back to this time dumbfounded by our heated rhetoric and hesitant response to an otherwise obvious question. We have demonstrated ourselves enslaved to fear and distrust, shackled to our weapons. With each new shooting the relevance of our words becomes increasingly diluted—another tear rolling down the cheek of a perpetually drenched face of grief. My anger with all of this, however, is coupled with (and cannot be separated from) hope marked by the faith I cling to in these times of pain and uncertainty. Death, dying, and decay are not the final words. The Crucified and Risen Christ Jesus promises us new life. Our Christian hope, with its roots in ancient Pharisaic Judaism, is that that unknown day when Christ returns all the dead will be resurrected and given new transformed bodies. On that day, we will be reunited with our loved ones in a new heavens and new earth. Every tear will be wiped away and death will be no more. All things will have been made new by God. There will be no need nor place for fear or hate, no reason to argue or tremble. God will dwell, here in this place, with God’s people. This hope is not about escaping or ignoring the trauma at hand, but meeting it face-to-face and saying enough is enough. We will one day be judged for our responses in this life, and therefore, we are called to stand up for life, here and now. I pray for the Spirit to transform our hearts and minds. This is not how God intends for us to live—frightfully wondering if we or our loved ones will be the next gun-related casualty. Hope keeps us from being consumed by the terror around us, but it also fuels us to work for change. My hope is that we may never hear the words “mass shooting” ever again. My hope is that Christ forgives us for our silent resignation amidst rampant hate and violence. My hope is that, though this is likely not the last time, we will not wait any longer to speak and act for change in our gun-crazed culture. My hope is that the Spirit moves us to live and serve in the face of pain, suffering, and death as witnesses to the Risen Lord. My hope is that the resurrection to come is not hindered by us here and now.

– Pastor Andrew

Mega Millions, Idolatry, & Stewardship

What would you do with the money if you won a billion dollars? Over the past week this question has been posed and pondered by millions of people across the nation as the Mega Millions climbed beyond its namesake to a historical high: 1.6 billion dollars! Pictures of lines circling convenient stores, reports of people waiting hours to eventually purchase their lucky ticket. Grand declarations of what individuals would do with their earnings: debts paid off in full, nest eggs set aside, and extravagant purchases. With each additional zero, the nation’s craze over the lucrative pot seems to be ratcheted up a notch. The other day at church, when the conversation turned to the lotto and one parishioner was asked by another what he would do if winning it, the response was: “I’d call my CPA and tell em, ‘We’ve got problems.’” *Laughter ensued* The truth of his statement, however, is glaring. If any one of us were so unfortunate as to win the jackpot, our life would surely be changed—yet, not as gloriously as we might wishfully expect. What is it about this ludicrous payday that has us so mesmerized—like looking into the hypnotic eyes of Kaa the Snake, paralyzing prey powerless? Is it a symptom of a deeper disease, or does it point to a larger sociological problem in need of a new approach?

Instructing the disciples, Jesus declares: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Knowing what immediate exceeding wealth often does to a person, one might amend it to read: those who receive much have greater chance of losing it all and more! I remember a classmate in high school who came upon a lofty settlement which only a couple years down the road contributed to his untimely death. I’m not saying I haven’t given thought to the enticing question. What would I do with a billion dollars? I won’t lie—I’d love to pay off debts accrued, ensure our children debt-free education, guarantee ourselves an unencumbered early retirement, enjoy some otherwise unaffordable niceties, support ministries and missions doing good work across the globe. But honestly, would I follow through with all of these aspirations? Probably not entirely. Lest we forget, they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The interesting thing about that list of wishes for my dreamt riches, and maybe you already noticed it, is that they’re all about ME. Even when it’s about giving toward someone or something else, the thought is not completely altruistic. The thinly veiled temptation remains to make it about my gift, my affect, and finally turning it into my achievement. No matter where you stand on gambling (because regardless the name that’s what it is), its insatiable allurement points to a deeper idolatry—focusing on ourselves above (and at the expense of) all else. Incurvatus in se.

We can neither write this off as a way of the world outside of the church—disregarding it in our constant private pursuit of holiness, nor swiftly swing the hammer of judgment with instant and unbridled condemnation—sharply convicting people into changing their ways or else. There is a problem, but perhaps an answer is more difficult than picking the right six numbers. Like shining a black light upon our deep dark hidden desires, in spite of the façade the invisible ink of our idolatry glows hauntingly bright. More and more, the conversation keeps circling back to money/wealth. Who’s got it? How much? Where’d it come from? When’s my turn to get rich? So we hear and see about these “get rich quick” schemes and double down just waiting for it to rain Benjamins. This covetousness—looking and wishing for what others (appear to) have—is, at its very root, idolatry. We’ve replaced the slogan on our dollar bill, “In God we trust,” with putting our faith in the printed paper itself. In misvaluing money (creation), we in turn devalue the Creator. When money no longer functions as a gift to be used as a means (among countless others) in daily living and instead becomes the end sought after, we fail to live as God intends for us—shackling ourselves in servitude to an empty promise, and throwing the key away. Theologically, the whole matter points to a question of stewardship. All things, every blessing—our selves, relationships, time, and finally even possessions of every kind—is entrusted to us by God. All that we have and hold ultimately belongs to God and is on loan to us. Like the man and woman in the garden of Eden, we are called merely to tend to God’s gifts—not lose ourselves in them. It might be strange to think of the Mega Millions jackpot being God’s money; but beneath all the glitz and green, this too is a creation of God that we can either steward responsibly or squander poorly. With the word that a winner has been identified, maybe we can all take a break, breath, and back up to see the situation for what it is. I’m not saying whether or not you should buy a lotto ticket. But what if we were to change the question we ask ourselves in this and other such situations, adjusting the focal pronoun me to the more faithful owner, God. Instead of wondering what I would do with a billion dollars, if given the chance how could I let God and God’s purposes determine how such a blessed opportunity can and should be shared and/or used? Feeding the poor. Lifting families out of poverty. Ensuring equal opportunities for children across various communities. Eradicating deadly diseases. Renewing creation to be livable for all who inhabit it. Pursuing enriched life together. Both the needs and possibilities are endless. What is God calling us to do with all that God gives us?

– Pastor Andrew

An Alternative Community of Trust

These days trust is so hard to come by. Watching the news each day, we wonder if we can trust the validity of its many and various claims. As public figures stoke our fears and anxieties, we question the trustworthiness of our neighbor. With reports of corruption and deception, our trust in particular institutions and organizations is shaken. Every time we are faced with a crisis, our trust in God is put to the test. Some days, trusting loved ones, let alone ourselves, can be a task all in itself. Trust can no longer be assumed, if it ever was in the first hand. The inability to trust what cannot be seen has become sharpened to the painfully dangerous point of unwillingness to trust what is not fully agreed upon. Like credentials required for relationship, we treat trust as if it must be laboriously earned and regularly renewed. If ever elapsing or expiring, it can be nearly impossible to regain. We struggle to trust those who look and live differently than us. To trust anyone who thinks or expresses themselves adversely from us is unfathomable. More and more, opinions and beliefs are deemed the enemies of trust. One run-in with someone of opposing views/ways—Fool me once, shame on you. I will not be fooled again!—and immediately we become the frightful disciples following Jesus’s death, hiding behind locked doors and fearful hearts. How can we trust this one who passes through walls, calls us by name, and shows his scars to be touched? That’s not enough for me to trust him! When trust is lost, tribalism and isolation seep into the vacuous void pried open by despair. We wonder if and how much we can trust those around us—colleagues and classmates, family or friends. The neighbor—no matter who they are—is a stranger, guilty until proven trustworthy. Even when I’m clearly in the wrong, the temptation is still there to discredit and distrust the other. Without trust, we are relationally-reclusive and spiritually-suicidal—unable to live life as God intends for us with those whom we are given as companions along the journey.

All that we say and do as the church is built upon trust. Without it, our message is less than good news and we become just another institution alongside countless others. This foundation distinguishes (not to be confused with separating or elevating) us, as a community, from all others. Each time we gather together—whether for worship, service, study, or fellowship—we do so trusting that it is God’s Spirit who draws and binds us into community with one another. The sacraments, baptism and communion, are means of grace we receive in faith—trusting that Christ is present in that very place and time, freely giving us God’s gifts of love, forgiveness, and new life. The various parts of worship we participate in are engaged with trust that God hears our prayers of both praise and petition, we are valued members of the body, and the Spirit empowers us to take all that we have received to share out into the world. At a fundamental level, each time the congregation corporately confesses its sins and hears the presiding minister’s response of speaking God’s full forgiveness, we are trusting this word of comfort and hope to be efficacious. We trust our leaders to lead and guide us into faithful discipleship, just as we trust our fellow sisters and brothers of the faith to love and support us throughout the entirety (highs and lows) of life’s journey. The gifts we give in thankfulness we trust will be stewarded appropriately. The ministries we invest ourselves in we do so trusting that—no matter how great or small—they are helping in part to bring the kingdom of God into the world, here and now. We trust what we hear and learn to be no less true than the practices of compassion and empathy we instill in each generation and seek to model daily. Whenever we profess our faith—either publicly or privately—it is spoken and demonstrated out of a personal trust in the message itself. All of this is grounded upon what God has first done for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit gives us the gift of faith to trust this scandalous event has significant meaning and purpose for us—in the present and future. To remove trust from the picture would leave it cold, coarse, and calloused.

With trust waning in this time—causing us to question where we can find it, if any place—it’s tempting to make it the equivalent of a super secret handshake checked at the church door before admittance. To do so, however, removes grace—upon which trust stands. Forced trust is nothing more than coercion in sheep’s wool. One simply cannot invest, much less experience, the fullness of congregational life without trust. Its absence, in either giving or reciprocating, makes a burden of the church upon a person. So, how do we invite others into this alternative community of trust, respecting that trust is neither easy nor immediate? Many of us have probably experienced church(es) in such a manner where trust feels wanting. If our trust is guarded, perhaps it is because of an encounter in/with the church that left us dismayed and distanced, hurting and hopeless. For those whose trust has been battered and broken—either by individuals or the church itself—how do we meet them where they are and speak resurrection towards what has died? By what means do we nurture trust for people along different points of the faith journey—new and just beginning, timidly recovering, continually questioning? Unfortunately, too often we just try to respond with the pre-packaged: “You just gotta have faith (trust).” Such a declaration can miss the mark on empathy or explanation with regards to the complexity of trust in the life and community of faith. And still we wonder: Can we trust those whom we worship alongside who likely differ from us in one way or another? Is the church, with all its sin and brokenness, trustworthy? These are questions, I believe, that we people of faith (trust) must wrestle and sit with—individually and congregationally. If we are to truly live into Christ’s call to be an alternative community of trust in the world, we must hold trust up as core to who we are, what we do, and why. Do we trust God to give us the words to speak hope amidst such contagious fear and anxiety overwhelming us? How do we communicate a message of trust in Christ worth trusting amidst its apparent death today? I believe the world around us is looking and listening, watching and waiting, to see how we will respond to these critical questions in this crucial time. I trust the Spirit will continue to stir our hearts and minds on what it means and looks like to be an alternative community of trust.

– Pastor Andrew

The Honeymoon is Over

I still remember it as if it was yesterday. The cruise ship was making its way into port. Our time at sea was coming to an end. The concierge staff had already taken our packed bags, which we would receive upon disembarking. As we neared the shore—passing through the jetties—my cellphone began to go off with a flood of notifications. Ding! Ding! Ding! Before I could listen to voicemails, it rang with a call from my mom. She and my dad were heading our way, and would be picking us up from the dock. There was some news they had wanted to discuss with me over lunch. So much for easing back into the rigmarole. I would soon discover that my car had been heavily damaged by a freak hailstorm in Iowa while my bride and I were soaking up the sun in the Caribbean. Oh geez! Now it was time to catch a flight back to seminary and return to the busy schedule of classes, alongside a whole list of other things, before finishing the semester. The honeymoon was over. 

It’s truly an unfortunate term, if you think about it. As if the goal, or most important thing, is a small single trip, and after that high it’s back to the drudge of the trenches. We long to escape, and the return is unbearable. It was fun, easy, and nice while it lasted—but now that’s all over. We think like this not just with marriage, but also in regards to work. At first it’s all perfect—still having the new car smell (yet another hopeless metaphor)—until finally the rubber hits the road, the niceties wear off, and you’re faced with the tough bone beneath the succulently smoked meat. Ouch! It happens to all of us—even in those jobs we find greatest joy and fulfillment. If I’m completely honest, it recently happened to me too. These past couple of weeks have been particularly trying for me vocationally. The church is not perfect; we know that, in spite of our many vain efforts to display otherwise. Persons thinking their idea/opinion/ministry is the most important within the congregation, above all others. Criticisms towards ministries that I’ve been tasked with overseeing. Walls shooting sky-high when the thought or mention of change arises. Infighting over what and how x, y, or z should be done. Coming face to face with others’ demons and trying to hang onto the bucking bronco to which there is no bell to jump off. Jesus warned us; but don’t go running for the hills just yet. These situations are no more unique to St. Martin’s than anywhere else. Any and every place that has “church” on the marquee or in the minds of those attending bears these issues more or less. That being said, it’s hard to not feel a little depreciated as a pastor in a month when the opposite is generally lifted up. And people wonder why pastoral burnout and turnover is as high as it is. 

Heaviness of heart, unfortunately, is part and parcel to investing oneself into a congregation. It comes with the territory and work. Don’t believe me? Ask another pastor. At the risk of sounding whiny, I share this publicly not as a complaint, but in clerical candor. Just like any union of two people, clergy struggle from time to time in our relationship with the church. We make promises—vows, if you will—to love and serve a congregation, entering into a marriage of sorts, with all the baggage that entails. And eventually the honeymoon is over. Our joys sometimes turn to pain. Gladness is never far from grief. The hope we proclaim each week from the pulpit is not without its despair. Ordained marriage, er ministry, is no cakewalk. It can chew up and spit out those unwilling or unable to wade neck-deep in the murkiness of what it means to be a community of faith (trust). All that being said, hear this: my call to serve alongside you all in this place is as strong, at times jarring, as the day I first felt the Spirit drawing me here. As pained as I’ve felt recently, I believe Christ has called me to this time and space for a particular reason, though somedays it seems as clear as mud. The blissfulness may have washed away with the autumn showers, but the promises made are as sure today as the day we exchanged them at my installation. Marriage is trying, exciting, a heavy load to carry, and a bountiful blessing—all wrapped up into one. So it is with pastoral ministry. As I’ve been thinking and praying about it, I’m reminded that nothing worth having doesn’t come without some challenges. I’m learning and growing even in the wrestling. I hope this is heard with grace and understanding. Sitting here, processing through it all, I’m reminded of something I heard in a wedding sermon five years ago. The pastor said to the couple: “When all else fails, fall onto the promises made here today. The promises by your spouse, your family and friends, and the promises of Christ who binds you together as one—let those promises hold you up when things get difficult, as they eventually will. Rest your trust and hope in these promises.” Hopefully this week will be better than the last. And maybe the following will be more affirming yet. I pray God gives me courage amidst my fear, faith amidst my doubts, and hope to dispel despair. Through it all, may I fall onto and be held up by the promises we have made together in our shared relationship of ministry.

– Pastor Andrew

My Obligation to Your Daughters

I’m the exceedingly proud father of two little boys: a rambunctious five year old and his adorably sweet fourteen month old brother. They mean the world to me. This past week, however, I was force-fitted with a new pair of lenses through which I must now view them. Situations I blissfully never had to consider with regards to my sons, I’m now having to heavily ponder in light of the growing (and long overdue) public conversation about men, societal expectations, inexcusable behaviors, and interpersonal relationships. To think of my oldest, who just excitedly began kindergarten six weeks ago, getting blacked-out drunk at house parties is beyond my imagination. As I look at my youngest wobbly walking around the living room and babbling to the dog, the idea of him some years down the road sexually assaulting a classmate is an atrocious task I just can’t bring myself to do. To me, their childish innocence still prevents the possibility of them ever doing anything of the sort. And I guess I wish that would never change—even though I know one day they could each do something that can’t be brushed under the proverbial rug. My gut is wrenched and heart sinks at the idea that either of my boys would carelessly hurt themselves or, worse yet, someone else. Theologically, I know no one is without sin; but parentally, I wasn’t quite ready to wrestle with the potential that my kids could ever cause another great harm. I pray fervently such a nightmare never materializes. As much as I wish I could ignore the topic, to do so would only silently permit that which is impermissible. I owe it to both my boys to be frank and forward about what is acceptable, appropriate, and absolutely NOT; but even more, I’m obligated to every father’s daughter to help protect them from what has become a shameful statistic in our don’t ask don’t tell misogynist culture.

As a white, heterosexual, middle-class man in 21st century America, I stand upon more privilege than I will ever fully know. I will likely never encounter, nor understand, the abuse and assault that hundreds of thousands of women (from young to old, across every demographic) experience each year in the US (not to mention elsewhere around the globe). For most of my life, I’ve been pleasantly perched well above the discomfort of that truly difficult conversation. You don’t realize the great ease of your ignorance until that veil is torn down and cannot be rehung to hide the horrific scenes already happening in plain sight. My silent resignation in the contemporary public discussion of sexual harassment and sexual assault leaves me convicted, recalling the words of confession at worship: “we have sinned against you [God] in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone…we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” As I sheepishly tiptoe into the periphery of the conversation, I know that I have a responsibility not just as a man but also a father—to listen, hear, and respond to the cries and pleas of those who have been abused. With that, I have an obligation to all those girls and young women who are inheriting this broken world we’ve carelessly passed down—and passing off as no big deal. As a parent, I am entrusted with a seldom spoken responsibility to raise my children with an understanding of what is right and wrong, respectful and not, modeling for them what it is to live in healthy relationships with others. I cannot, in good faith, crouch fearfully behind such blatant euphemisms such as “boys will be boys.” That won’t fly! The father’s sin of silence becomes the sons’ sins of recklessness. To not have the tough conversation with the next generation is ultimately to excuse (dare I say, bless) their transgressions.

Like a tightly woven tapestry, we are all bound together—each overlapping and intertwined into one. When a single thread is ripped, it has an affect on all the rest. The pain and hurt of a single member is shared, in part or in full, by the whole. An abuse against one member—no matter how removed by time or space—is an abuse against the entire body. Likewise, an allegation against an individual—regardless the details—is an allegation against the community. We share, in effect and ramifications, that which we each bear. The tear in your humanity is a scar worn by all of humanity; and a blemish on someone else becomes indistinguishably my stain. Our opportunity and obligation to address the progressive problem at hand cannot be divorced. The way I see it (with my limited vision) is either I prepare myself to one day talk with my boys about relationships and respect, consent and control, instilling within them practices of care, empathy, and compassion—or else be damned by my unwillingness. With each passing day, as I am more and more inundated by the reality of harassment and abuse that we all wish wasn’t, I feel pierced. Truth cuts to the bone. If I fail to set my sons upon the right path with regards to how they are to act and live with one another, my failure eventually falls upon those young women who will one day cross paths with them. They won’t always remain little boys, as much as my wife and I would prefer. They will grow up to be men whose words and actions will have a lasting impact, one way or another, on those and the world around them. If I am to be faithful as a father, I owe it to both my boys to be frank and forward about what is acceptable, appropriate, and absolutely NOT. The exceedingly proud father of two little boys that I am, I am obligated to every other father’s daughter to help prevent what has happened to far too many women. To fearfully avoid the topic, is to ignore the pain and suffering of those abused daily. None of us is immune or disconnected from the issue at hand.

– Pastor Andrew

Hope Amidst & In Spite of Complexity

I’ve come to believe that the same Spirit who breathes within us the words to speak, from time to time, also blesses us with barriers when our words are less than right or opportune. I’m reminded of the Gospel of Luke, when the angel Gabriel makes Zechariah, the father of John the baptizer, mute until his newborn son’s name is announced. Lord knows there’s more times than not when I would benefit immensely from such divine intervention. 😉 I imagine the Spirit reaching in and pausing, diverting, or even stimulating specific brain synapses, so as to shift our eyes and ears, hearts and minds, to something more faithful/important/relevant in the moment—a physiological encouragement of sorts. Not sure it’s orthodox, but what if? I say this, in part, because these past couple days I’ve been racking my brain trying to flush out an idea I want to blog about. Each time I think I’ve got it figured out and sit down to type away—SMASH!—another mental block to the forehead. Ok, maybe it’s a lack of coffee or I’m just not firing on all cylinders, but what if—my hindrances and limitations aside—it’s the Holy steering me elsewhere. Perhaps it’s God’s way of saying: let it percolate a little longer, it’s not fully brewed yet. So the other day the calling and enlightening Spirit, with the keen gentleness of a wise parent, redirected me to something else I needed to hear and ponder on. The event: an agenda-less talk with a parishioner, which had been planned weeks beforehand, that can be described as nothing less than Spirit-driven. Even as I think about it here many hours later, I give thanks to God for pointing and guiding me towards it in a manner not so different from how my wife does with our youngest. To recall the whole lunch conversation would be unfair to the person and is frankly impossible given my sluggish mind in the PM. One thing that’s been perched upon my heart since then, however, is the topic that spontaneously arose of hopefulness amidst and in spite of complexity.

The church is a complex system, not just theologically but also socially. (I imagine some people laughing in agreement with this statement, based on experience—because I chuckled writing it.) At the risk of sounding like a 1980s Transformers theme song, churches are more than meets the eye. Just as the human body is made up of its tissues, veins, nerves, bones, organs, etc., so also the church possesses endless channels of meaning and varying levels of memory—multiplied infinitely by each parishioner, those who have come and gone before, and even people outside the church. At each moment, historical, social, familial, emotional, psychological, theological, political, and religious facets are in some form or fashion at play in what is being said, done, or otherwise. Sounds like a mine field, doesn’t it? Congregations are relational organisms, there is never simply just one dimension. The complexity of the church cannot be understated; but, on the other hand, to give it too much explanation might cause some to wonder where God is in the mix. Fair question. Christ is in the fray. I believe this because if Jesus weren’t involved, the church would’ve surely died off a long time ago. Weaving together the many thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of a diverse, ever-changing host of people into a cohesive (and hopefully functional) tapestry is no easy task. Thanks be to God for the Spiritus Creator! Given enough time in the system, anyone—parishioners and pastors alike—can become discouraged if not apathetic by the underbelly of the beast. Not to dissuade you from serving in congregational leadership. 😀 Perhaps all of this is to say hope is central to our Christian identity, not just for the eschaton (end times) but also for here and now. To be the church is to live and serve in hope. We hope for God’s promises to be made manifest today in and through us. We hope for renewal and resurrection with each new day. We hope for the Spirit’s gifts and guidance as we participate in embodying the gospel for the whole world. So we recall with faith the words of the Apostle Paul: “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

No matter the context, I find that, pastorally, one-on-one conversations with parishioners not only give me great joy in meeting people and hearing their life stories, but are also the primary means by which I learn about the collective identity of the church. I remember sitting there as my parishioner across the table held in tension the themes of complexity and hope, and thinking to myself: “Oh my God, he’s on to something!” You could say it was some free, Spirit-inspired continuing education. SPOILER ALERT. St. Martin’s is a complex community. Chances are you’ve already caught on to this reality much quicker than I have. That being so, we bear both our challenges and our gifts. The task is never to eliminate the complexity (talk about an impossibility), but rather I believe to meet it with hope. Hope does not get lost in maintaining every square inch of keeping the boat in shipshape. Nor does hope speculate on when or from where the wind will blow. When there’s water in the hull, it sees the leak for what it is; all the while keeping one’s sight on the horizon and not the depths. Hope binds us together in our identity and fuels our mission forward. Sometimes the Spirit closes our minds and mouths temporarily so that our eyes and ears can receive the gift of hope—to be shared in the community of faith. It cannot be said enough: I give thanks to God for the times the Spirit blesses me with a barrier on my words when they are less than right or opportune. I give thanks to God for whenever the Spirit opens my eyes and ears, heart and mind, to receive what is most needed in any given moment. I give thanks to God for my parishioners and drawing us into relationship, to learn and grow together. I give thanks to God for the gift of hope amidst and in spite of complexity.

– Pastor Andrew

More than Just Words, Welcoming Actions

Actions speak louder than words. We’ve probably all heard this statement one time or another. Perhaps it was from a parent correcting us, teacher encouraging us, or authoritative figure who recited as a means of inspiring integrity. As we heard in this last week’s pericope, the Apostle James sternly speaks towards the power of our words and how we must exercise temperance in speaking (3:1-12). Our actions bear equal gravity. We affirm this reality and its consequences when we confess at the beginning of worship: “We have sinned against you [God] in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone…” That which we do, or abstain from doing, is telling—permeating outward with a substantial ripple-effect. When it comes to cohesively wedding our words and actions, the church is no less guilty of dissonance than anywhere else. If and when our message—the gospel—does not match our actions—discipleship, we become yet another version of Charlie Brown’s teacher, Miss Othmar. Wah wah woh wah wah. The temptation is not to become a clanging cymbal; but it is the result when we fail to walk the walk that matches the talk we talk.

When faced with a group of followers whose heads are stuck in the clouds—speculating on the misperceived breadth of their greatness—Jesus pulls the platform of inflated pride out from underneath them, bringing the whole lot crashing down to a healthy level of helplessness. Redefining the metric by which they should measure themselves, Jesus views honor through the lens of servanthood. Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. It’s not enough to move to the back of the line—one must also put on their gloves and generously fill the plates of all who come through before themselves finally picking through the leftovers. Never one to miss using an object-lesson, Jesus points to a little one and says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). Four times, the Greek verb δέχομαι is used—meaning to welcome or receive as a guest. Receiving the least of these is ultimately to receive the One who alone defines and bestows greatness. The call is clear: humble yourselves so as to offer hospitality to even those who cannot give anything in return. Welcoming the vulnerable, welcomes also the powerful.

What does it mean (and therefore look like) for us, as a congregation, to be welcoming? That’s the age old question, isn’t it? If we are welcomed by Jesus into the body of Christ as beloved sisters and brothers—as we indeed are—and called to do likewise for others, how does that translate outwardly through our words and actions? Anyone can say they’re a welcoming congregation. It seems like every church’s go-to-mantra, especially for us in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, is: “All are welcome!As if just saying it, much less pasting it on our marquees, bulletins, newsletters, websites, letterhead, etc., is all we need to do. Even the unwelcome places say it; but do we actually demonstrate it? “Honey, the people at that church were cold and stand-offish…but their sign says they’re ‘welcoming.’ Seems good enough for mesaid no one ever. Wake up, Church! Actions speak louder than words. Jesus is calling us to real—present and engaged, full-bodied, relationship-oriented HOSPITALITY. Sunday morning, are our doors—not just one, but ALL OF THEM—wide open for the world around us to look and see that something special is going on in here? Are our hands open to grasp and receive EVERY SINGLE PERSON—young, old, member, visitor, similar, or stranger—who enters in and joins us? Are our hearts prepared to receive with gladness the new and different face as one who—no matter their situation or background—is to be honored and celebrated as a sister or brother, beloved in the eyes of God? I believe if we’re not asking ourselves these and other similar questions—truly evaluating (and continually reevaluating) our actions—than we’re relying on putting all of our weight on just one foot. Hopping around on one leg is hardly following after Christ. How are we answering the call to be welcoming in all that we say and do here at St. Martin’s?

– Pastor Andrew

Who do people say we are?

In this coming week’s gospel pericope, we hear Jesus ask his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). Whether he’s legitimately interested in the marketplace mutterings about him or maybe just fishing for a particular answer, the response he gets represents a dissonance in perception. Some think he is his beheaded cousin, having return from the dead. Others are convinced he is the ancient prophet Elijah, having return from his divine Lyft to the heavens. And still others assume he is one of the other dozen or so prophets. The only consensus seems to be that no one has a clear understanding of this itinerant miracle worker’s true identity. It’s a mystery—and apparently Jesus wants it to remain that way, in spite of the faithful claim by star pupil Peter. “You are the Messiah.” Interestingly, the translators close this statement with a period (.) but really I think it must be read aloud with either exclamation (!) or wonderment (?). Such a proclamation cannot merely be spoken; it demands to either be shouted with joy or begging for clarification. Regardless, it isn’t until sometime later, on a darkened afternoon outside the walls of Jerusalem—in the humiliation and shame of a public crucifixion, that his followers will finally begin to see who Jesus really is. The one (Peter) who professed Jesus being the Christ (Greek for Messiah), however, is nowhere to be seen when the truth is revealed hanging lifeless from a cross. It is in his death, that Jesus’s identity is most visible for all those (us included) who got it wrong beforehand.

As I think about this passage, I’m reminded of an encounter I had at camp this past summer. Sitting on the couch in the sponsors cabin, reading a book, a pastor walks in carrying his bag. I hop up to introduce myself and meet a new-to-me synod colleague. We exchange pleasantries. Towards the end of our conversation, he recalls: “You said you’re at St. Martin’s in Austin?” “Yep.” “That’s that music church, right?” Thrown off by the narrow descriptor, I pause: “That is one of our exceeding gifts.” As I thought more about that short exchange later, I felt a mix of disappointment and challenge. Yes, we are—without a doubt—a musically gifted congregation, generously so at that. That is to be affirmed and honored in the many ways it enhances our ministry, both in worship and as a means of evangelism and outreach throughout our community. We are so tremendously blessed by the endless voices and instruments we have to express our thanks and praise in worship—a wealth of opportunities that other churches can only dream of dabbling in with less. That being said, St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in downtown Austin, Texas is not just a music church. To claim so is a gross diluting of our gifts and misunderstanding of our identity which is shaped by this congregation’s mission and ministry. For any of us to refer to ourselves as a/the music church means we don’t know who we are called to be, and thus failing in discipleship. And for anyone beyond this place to make the same claim of us means we have, in one way or another, missed the mark of faithfully communicating the myriad of gifts that altogether make us so much more than a single trait organization. We are more than just a (fill in the blank) church! Who do people say we—St. Martin’s Lutheran Church—are? Clearly, there are some “images” floating around, whether we’ve contributed towards them or not, that call us into question.

Who do people say we are? I think we need to begin by opening up our own hearts and minds—our imaginations of God’s hopes for us—before we can then speak faithfully to others about whom we believe God has created and called us to be for this place. No single adjective will suffice. We are many things—first, only because God has drawn and equipped us into being them, and then secondly, if we live into these holy identities through faithful discipleship. Are we embodying daily who we say we are? That’s a question that is never fully answered, but must always stay on the edge of our lips. As I continue to be in conversation with you all in the congregation and those beyond our walls, I believe there is a great many things we are. Who do people say that we are? We are a welcoming and inclusive church. We are a teaching and ever-learning church. We are a youthful and growing church. We are a serving and interconnected church. We are a musically diverse and encouraging church. We are a gifted and giving church. We are a changing and still very relevant church. We are a regional church. We are a relational church—bound together as one in Christ. The creative Spirit is reforming us to be all these things and more. I encourage you to ask yourselves, others in this congregation, and your neighbors outside of this place: Who do you say we are? What are others’ perceptions, valid or otherwise, of us? Are they congruent with what we claim? Is it grounds for (re)evaluating ourselves, what we say and do? I think it’s worth a consideration and conversation. Who do people say we are?

– Pastor Andrew

A Senator’s Death, Nation’s Mourning, & Call for Truth-Telling

This past week the news was flooded with memorials for a seasoned senator from Arizona who died of brain cancer. A significant public figure in U.S. politics, interestingly he’s being remembered by many at a level akin to that of past presidents—honored with accolades few others have received. More than just an extensive term of service, something else seems to set this particular individual apart from others. As I’ve watched the memorials for the senator this week, I’ve been struck by how national respect for a beloved patriot has been lifted to the level of exceeding reverence. Pondering on it, the other day I asked a parishioner why he thought this was the case. Is it the individual or perhaps a symptom of something deeper that we, as a country, are mourning the loss of in this time? What about this particular life and its loss is leaving us in sorrowful want—a trait not visible in others, or quality absent from public discourse? Is our grief in this historical moment tied up in something far greater than we’re able or willing to acknowledge?

Partisan persuasions aside, at best I’m an armchair political commentator—the worst kind—engaged just enough these days to put me somewhere between dangerously hopeful and apathetically resigned. In this situation, however, the politics appear to be pointing towards a theological problem beneath the surface. The idolization of qualities such as civility, honesty, and respect amidst a time marked by embattled polarization demonstrates that the tides are turning, the pendulum beginning to swing back. Those characteristics eulogized in the late senator, each and altogether, I believe point towards our society’s great longing to hear again and practice with renewed hearts the 8th commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The (perceived) image of our neighbor has drastically changed in recent years, unfortunately for the worse. What once was a dutiful obligation by all to serve the other has recently become a distancing fueled by fear of difference. Still, at the core of this commandment is a call to recognize the image of God (imago Dei) in another and practice truth-telling in every instance. When we fail to do either of these, our relationships with one another are doomed to fail—sending God’s whole creation into a wildly unfathomable tailspin.

We have fallen prey to the temptation of scapegoating those who look, sound, or believe differently than we do. That which we despise within ourselves we place upon the other, in hopes of sacrificing its power over us, yet only further feeding its fierce control inside. The ease with which we label our neighbor(s) as evil explicitly demonstrates our blindness to truly see them as one whom God has lovingly created. This, therefore, opens the way for us to speak in hateful and exclusionary ways that divide and distance us from one another. Such is a slippery slope over deep, unforgiving waters. One can only tread here for so long before sinking to the bottom. When we bear a false witness against our neighbor, we continually shrink the circle around us until we find ourselves completely alone—isolated from all others. Though faint, I believe there is a swelling plea in this time for mutual love and respect, and to speak the truth—even when it isn’t personally beneficial. The subversive Spirit is stirring in our midst, uncomfortably pressing upon us to move beyond fearmongering and silent resignation. To fear and love God, as Luther begins his explication of each commandment, is embodied in loving the image of God in another and speaking truth at every opportunity—no matter what comes of it. The world is looking and longing for light in the darkness. Bearing God’s imprint upon our very being, we help to reflect the light—so that all might see the radiant truth as plain as day. I believe our society is in desperate need for truthful witnessing. I believe we are being called to speak and live this in our daily lives. I believe this is what it means, in part, to be disciples of Jesus.

– Pastor Andrew

Building and Nurturing Relationships in Christ

This week’s got me busier than most others recently. Things are picking up with greater pace. I knew if I didn’t seize the opportunity to sit down and write, I’d miss it with all else going on. Our new youth director has arrived—I’M SUPER STOKED—and I’ve been working with him on getting settled into the office and prepared for the various ministries he will be coordinating. Cason comes to us with extensive experience and an energy unmatched—he is a tremendous asset to the staff and I believe will be a blessing to the congregation by his many gifts. There’s much to be done as the new program year quickly draws near with everything kicking off on Rally Day (Sept. 9th)—and no time to waste! It’s both a nerve-racking and exciting time to be the church. We’ve been talking about various ministries that are core to St. Martin’s, brainstorming about how to meet the challenges we face and implement good change along the way, and—perhaps most importantly—dreaming about God’s future for the congregation in its outreach and service, particular through our youth. The list of to-do’s is substantial. Confirmation curriculum, resource engagement, retreat planning. High school curriculum, event planning, etc. And fundamental to it all: building relationships with students, parents, and parishioners. The three cups of coffee each day just don’t seem to be enough.

As I think about all of this with Cason’s arrival and our preparations for the program year, I’m reminded of the church I grew up in down in Victoria. I remember when I was in high school there hearing someone, probably the pastor, talk about our congregation’s mission statement and how it should guide us in our ministries. I’m not sure that everyone gave it so much thought, but the statement was catchy and for whatever reason it got stuck in my head—pesky Holy Spirit—seeping into my theological framework. Ever since then, it’s bounced around in my thinking with regards to how I envision ministry happening. The mission statement: Building and nurturing relationships in Christ. It was simple (not simplistic), straightforward, and to the point. A no-brainer, right? It honed in on the fact that we are relational creatures, everything we do—anything worth truly doing—is founded upon the relationships we form and tend to with one another. It’s a call to more than unembodied handouts or faceless outreach. At the same time, it proclaims the Christian truth posed by the Apostle Paul that we are all bound together in relationship in, with, and under Christ who makes us one (1 Corinthians 12). God creates us to be relational. Christ relates with us—meeting us in our daily life, needs, suffering, and death itself—renewing us and our relationships. The Spirit equips and guides us to go out, building and nurturing our relationships with all our neighbors. Though it’s not our mission statement here, it is integral to this congregation’s identity and ministries. We build and nurture relationships in Christ in many and various ways, whether we realize it or not.

I wonder: in what ways might the Spirit being calling us—individually and altogether as a community of faith—to build and nurture relationships in Christ? What does this look like in worship, Christian education, and fellowship? What are some means by which this can be translated into our daily lives—through the particular ministries we participate in, among our personal vocations, beyond the walls of our building? Maybe we must first ponder on what it means to be relational. Engaging with one another in a culture that appears to be less and less physically connected. Truly meeting people where(ever) they are—listening, affirming, supporting others through their joys, struggles, and sorrows. Seeing the image of God in a face that looks or life lived differently than ours. Celebrating diversity—not just in attendance, but also among gifts and service done together. As a downtown church, the challenge to be relational is acutely explicit for us. Opportunities to be with one another that other congregations may take for granted, don’t always come so easy for us here. Still, that’s no pass to be anything less than what God creates, Christ saves, and the Spirit calls us to be. As we transition into our fall programming, and all that that entails, how might we be more intentional towards building and nurturing relationships in Christ? A couple suggestions. For one, I invite you to reach out and get to know Cason, our new youth director—offering your prayers and support, affirming his important ministry in this place. Secondly, next time you’re at church, look around, find that face you either don’t know or are unfamiliar with and introduce yourself to them. Finally, give yourself an opportunity this week to listen and truly hear something new about someone in your life—whether it be an extended family member, colleague, or next door neighbor. You might just find yourself surprised by what you learn. I give thanks to God for the relationships being formed with you all and those beyond this place. We all are one in Christ.

– Pastor Andrew

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