Monday, January 27, 2014

Always Being Made New (Pastor's Annual Report to Martin Luther Church)

(Note: This is the annual report I wrote for my congregation's annual meeting on January 26, 2014. I share it here for members of my community to find online and with the hope that others may find it useful in other congregations.)

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ: new creation! The old has passed away; the new has come to be.” (2 Corinthians 5:17, translation mine)

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) our national church body. To mark the occasion, this year’s triennial national assembly was convened under the theme “Always Being Made New.”  The theme was meant not just to celebrate our past, but to highlight that we are a church born from the Reformation and are always looking to the future and asking, “How is Jesus making us new now? What is the Spirit shaping us to be tomorrow?”

While these questions are always before us as Christians, they are especially apt for us at Martin Luther Church as we begin this new year. Our council and other leaders have been hard at work this past year in exploring new ways of being the church. We’ve moved to make Cross+Generational themes the center of our Christian Formation and VBS programs, successfully held a worship service at La Fuente Restaurant for Christmas, and are preparing to start a new worship service at 6pm on Sunday evenings. At the same time, our financial projection for the coming year continues a downward trend and the available resources to continue ministries (let alone plant new ones) are stretched to the limits.  

Our council is putting together a bold and broad agenda for the coming year of looking at everything we do as a church through the lens of our identified values and the 5 Cornerstones. Given the limitations before us, we are already asking some difficult questions about how to prioritize and possibly reduce certain areas in order for new fruit to come forward. These conversations are not easy, but they are a part of our constant renewal.  

The quotation I shared above is from the same passage that gave us the language adopted when we chose to become a RIC congregation, welcoming all people, and council has been using this passage as a focal point this year. Note how it speaks not just of new creation, but the passing away of old ways of being. This is core to the Christian life. Being alive in Christ means dying to our own ways. Being baptized into eternal life means drowning the “old creature” within us. There is never Easter without first confronting Good Friday. I read of a church that holds this before their members annually by asking, “What are we willing to give up in order to gain something new?”*

There are many exciting opportunities before us and I and council remain very positive about our long-term prospects. God has promised us new life eternally—which includes this year!—and I see that new life both in where this church has been and in where we are headed. As we seek that new life, we are challenged with these two questions: “How is Jesus making us new now?” and “What are we willing to give up in order to gain that new life?”  May God’s grace guide us always as we live as God’s new creation.

In God’s Amazing Grace,
Pastor Ari

*To be clear, not everything “old” is bad, nor is something good just because it’s “new.” But as Jesus says in John 15, healthy branches bear fruit. Renewal is asking, “Where is there fruit? Are there once-healthy branches that are no longer growing?”

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.” -Semisonic, "Closing Time"

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Pope Francis the Economist

Back at the beginning of December, Michael Gerson had an excellent op-ed piece for the Washington Post about Pope Francis' published exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel." (Side note: I'm in the middle of reading the exhortation myself. If you are interested, you can purchase it on Amazon or download a free digital copy for your e-reader here.) As explained in Gerson's article, part of the Pope's exhortation addresses the ethics of economic systems, warning against economic practices that turn people into commodities and value profit over human dignity. This quickly drew some howls of criticism from commentators who accused him of socialism and marxism, among other things.

Since I believe Gerson does an excellent job of refuting these accusations while simultaneously lifting up the themes of Advent, I won't waste time repeating his arguments. Instead, I want to pursue another thread of the debate that caught my attention.

In reading some of the comments and articles critical of the Pope's position, there was a theme running through much of the thinking that either implied or stated outright something like this: "Economics is not a spiritual issue and a pope has no authority to speak on this. The pope should stick to spiritual issues and let us deal with these real world issues." It was as if some were saying, "You stick to saving souls and let us save people's retirement accounts."

The problem with their line of thought is that money IS a spiritual matter. While we may think of the world in terms of spiritual and secular matters, the Bible doesn't. Everything is a spiritual matter because everything comes from and belongs to God.  And if we look at the Bible, it would seem that money especially is a spiritual matter.  

Jesus talks about money more than any topic other than the Kingdom of God. Yep. He has more recorded words on money than on prayer, heaven, hell, or sin.  Roughly 1 in 7 verses in the Gospel of Luke relates to money. (Or so I've read. I've never actually counted every verse to make sure.) In the Old Testament, much of the condemnation leveled by the prophets stems from people failing to do anything to help the poor, hungry, and unclothed.

Contrary to those who want to say economics is unrelated to "spiritual matters," it would seem that God cares an awful lot about how we think about and use our money. Pope Francis doesn't just have the authority to speak on economic issues, but as a spiritual leader, he has an obligation to address money issues. God expects to be Lord over our entire life, not just Sunday morning. If Jesus has redeemed our entire life, then that has an impact in how we spend our money, do our jobs, act in public, and so on. As Gerson points out in his article, the Pope doesn't hate business or money, but he rightly points out that they, like anything in this life, can be used for good or for ill and we need to be conscious of how we use them.

That's a struggle and I for one face it daily, but I cannot divide my life into two boxes called "spirtual" and "secular" and then hand one to God and say, "You can have this one, but don't worry about what's in the other one." That doesn't deepen my relationship to God. To use an economic term, that cheapens the relationship.

"That kind of luxe just ain't for us; we crave a different kind of buzz." -Lorde, "Royals"

Thursday, January 16, 2014

God's New Year Resolution

Every year, two things happen in January.

First of all, many people make New Year resolutions where they promise to make themselves better in some way this year.  "I will exercise more." "I will eat healthier." "I will laugh more... spend more time with my kids... quit smoking..." And so on. I generally do not make resolutions (the list of needed improvements is longer than can be tackled in one year), but I do usually at least think about what I'd like to see improved.

The second thing that happens every January, though largely ignored by everyone except church nerds like me, is Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. Baptism of Our Lord Sunday is always the Sunday after Epiphany on January 6 and is meant to remember the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. It can also be a day to remember and celebrate the baptisms of all believers and I usually like to have a celebration of baptism be part of worship on that day.

What has never occurred to me until this year is how these two things can be linked. Martin Luther talked about baptism as a daily renewal, a constant source of God working in us to make us more holy. Daily we are justified (meaning "put in line with God") by our baptism. To Luther, baptism isn't a one time event, but a way of living, a daily practice and reminder of God's work in us to make us who we are meant to be.

In other words, baptism is a daily New Year resolution. But it's not a resolution we make on our own; it's one that God has made to us and God partners with us to shape us into the best version of ourselves. It's also one that doesn't get abandoned after a month or two because God's promise to us doesn't disappear.

And here's the even deeper connection between these two things: most all the things we resolve to do for New Year's can be ways of honoring and serving God. Taking care of our bodies and making them healthy is caring for the dwelling place of God because "you are God's temple and God's spirit dwells in you" (1 Cor. 3:16). Have a healthy body also makes us better able to help and work for others. Spending more time with family and friends builds the loving relationships God calls for us to have. Getting our finances in order removes a distraction (and an idol?) and can free us to be more generous with our resources.

Being baptized into Christ means that God is constantly resolving to make us more healthy, whole people, both spiritually and physically, internally and externally. We are called to live baptized, to constantly be renewed and improved by the Spirit, not just in the New Year, but every year, every week, every day.

“I don’t want to leave unchanged.” -Shaun Groves, “After the Music Fades”