April 2013

We Celebrate A Birthday

The Ambassadors met on Sunday and celebrated our pastor’s birthday. We honored his 87 years—about ten of them spent with us. He may be the only SEPA pastor unafraid of his association with us. This all the more permanent because it is not official.

The plotting against us has always involved making sure we had no professional leadership. It would be a bit harder for Synod Assembly to vote against a church if they were voting against a colleague and not a bunch of worthless lay people.

Called pastors had a way of disappearing after meeting with the synod, but we were always able to find leaders on our own.

The beautiful April weather accommodated us and made for a pleasant outing. We had breakfast at the Manayunk Diner.

A nondenominational church, Epic, meets in the movie theater next door, holding two services, while we are locked out of our church. The parking lot was filled with cars and most were attending the worship service, we presume, because the diner was busy but not crowded. One of our Ambassadors attended Epic once and reported that the congregation was quite young—a demographic which eludes most Lutheran congregations.

Redeemer was also a young congregation. The average age of our 72-82 members at the time of synod’s onslaught was probably in the 30s. (We continued to grow even after the synod’s first actions.) We had a few newborns, a healthy group of children and parents, some youth and only two or three members over 70.

Ministry opportunities in East Falls are great but Lutherans are squandering them as they seek their own enrichment—not mission or service to God.

We asked our pastor his favorite hymn. It is Angel voices ever singing round the throne of God. It is not often sung anymore, but we remembered it and were able to piece the words together well enough to sing it with him.

Praise God for our faithful pastor and thanks for his long and devoted life.

He has always been such a good model for all of us, especially for our children—a true man of God. We can count on him to care for our members in need while other Lutherans can do no more than make lame offers to pray.

We wish him many more years and continued good health.

A Story from the Life of John

Little children, love one another.

My father, a retired Lutheran pastor, loves to tell this story—often through tears. I am proud to repeat it.

John, the disciple whom Jesus loved and the great gospel writer and visionary, didn’t have an easy life, but he lived to be quite old. In his later years, he was the sole survivor of the original Twelve.

John the evangelistHe was treated with great respect as he grew infirm. The early Christians would carry him into worship and seat him in a position of honor. The Christian community hung on every word he could share with them. After all, he actually knew Christ. He had stood at the foot of the cross.

One day, as a very feeble John was brought into the gathering of early Christians, the people asked him for advice and guidance.

“What would Jesus say?” they asked him.

John answered, “Little children, love one another.”

The people pressed on. “Really, most respected John, what would Jesus say? Tell us more. Please.”

They asked over and over and John had only one answer.

“Little children, love one another.”

That’s all folks. The Gospel in a nutshell.

John had spent some 50 years writing and preaching. In the end, the gospel message is five little words.

Little children, love one another.

Adult Object Lesson: Acts 10 and Acts 11:1-18


God’s Boundaries/Our Boundaries

Today’s object is a balloon.

The story of Peter’s dream addresses the concept of boundaries and rules in the Church. No wonder it is not one of the more prominent Bible stories.

I like to point out that as described in the preceding chapter of Acts (Acts 10) this message came to Peter at an inattentive moment. Peter was waiting for his host to put dinner on the table. Peter’s best intention was to spend some time on the rooftop “patio” in deep prayer. His intentions were derailed by his human shortcoming. He fell asleep.

No worries! God can use our shortcomings. He came to Peter in a dream. A rather bizarre dream . . . the kind you don’t forget when you open your eyes.

Blankets fell from the sky with all kinds of disgusting animals emptying from them. And God told Peter to kill them and eat, despite the fact that Jewish law forbids it.

God challenged Peter to open his mind and expand his thinking.

We have a way of creating boundaries. Boundaries usually begin as a way of defining who we are. They help us sort out what we believe and the kind of people we want to have around us. We often have no trouble justifying the boundaries we create even in the face of absurdity.

“All Welcome,” as we’ve pointed out before, is a common notation on church signage, but it often comes with unspoken caveats. Those who don’t fit in will know it and disappear. No need to dwell on it.

That many churches are nearly empty might be a sign that we need to expand our thinking.

We create rituals with rules that can change only with divisive confrontation. These rules create boundaries that often blind us to possibility and mission opportunity. Wine or grape juice? Cups or chalices? Contemporary or traditional music? Pastor’s job, women’s job, or men’s job—who is responsible? Should we waste our money reaching people who cannot contribute or should we court families with two incomes?

The big rule on Peter’s mind (perhaps in his subconscious and hence God’s use of a dream) was “Jew or Gentile?”. To open the community to Gentiles meant accepting ways that violated Jewish law and custom. Food was an obvious symbol of the differences but circumcision was among others. It was a problem to sit at the same table!

As you talk about this Bible story, pause now and then in puff into your balloon. Your congregation will watch it expand as you talk about how Peter’s dream led him to greater acceptance and expanded the community of believers.

Discuss God’s message.

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

As your balloon is about to pop, end with the thought: We will still create boundaries. It’s human nature. We will still argue about what God considers clean.

This could lead to many discussions on many topics (the age for communion, the role of women, the inclusion of modern customs, accepting diversity, the ordination of homosexuals).

Address what might be on your congregation’s mind.

You can let your balloon pop to make the message a bit more memorable. Or you can ask someone to come up and stick a pin in it.

The message of this lesson can be tied to the gospel message for today. Love one another. Period

photo credit: MildlyDiverting via photopin cc

Has the Culture of Church Changed?

Today, Seth Godin, renowned marketing blogger, quotes an organization he supports. In doing so he is exploring the impact of the mission statement.

Churches, these days, are heavily “into” mission statements.

There is more to mission than writing statements. Seth likes the term “manifesto.” It’s a stronger, more action-oriented term. Your manifesto defines your culture, while your mission statement collects dust. (Click to tweet).

Here’s the manifesto he quotes from an organization called Acumen:

Acumen: It starts by standing with the poor, listening to voices unheard, and recognizing potential where others see despair.

It demands investing as a means, not an end, daring to go where markets have failed and aid has fallen short. It makes capital work for us, not control us.

It thrives on moral imagination: the humility to see the world as it is and the audacity to imagine the world as it could be. It’s having the ambition to learn at the edge, the wisdom to admit failure, and the courage to start again.

It requires patience and kindness, resilience and grit: a hard-edged hope. It’s leadership that rejects complacency, breaks through bureaucracy, and challenges corruption. Doing what’s right, not what’s easy.

Acumen: it’s the radical idea of creating hope in a cynical world. Changing the way the world tackles poverty and building a world based on dignity.

Love the phrase “hard-edged hope.” It describes Redeemer.

The problems Redeemer has faced in the ELCA is that the ELCA has become a complacent church. Congregations seem to be increasingly self-focused. As long as things are fine for them, what problems can there be?

The problem is that this complacency quickly defines our culture.

Our culture is worshiping together in a fairly defined way. It is friendly chatter around coffee before or after worship. It is choosing from a fairly short list of acceptable public charities to support (Habitat for Humanity seems to be the most popular). Some congregations support or operate food pantries and nursery schools. Ladies Groups knit prayer blankets and fix meals. Toys are donated at Christmas. Cookie cutter ministries.

The church that grew from the biblical teachings of Martin Luther was anything but complacent. 

Lutheranism grew from the ability of Christians to question authority and to fashion ministry with scripture as a guide — not pronouncements from hierarchy. The whole structure of the Lutheran Church, which focuses on the congregation is designed so that congregations can look at local possibilities for mission and respond independently, without carrying the weight of bureaucracy.

The ELCA uses the word “interdependent” to define this structure. The intent is that each level of church might draw strength from one another. Our regional body has reinterpreted this to mean that they are authorities unto themselves. No one can question them. There is no structure above them to check their power. The churches below them are supposed to do that — but that has proven to be ineffective at best and risky at worst.

The result in our region is SEPA Synod—a collection of 160 congregations that instead of drawing strength from one another, tends to exist with each member church living in its own little world. The way to avoid challenge is to never stray from conventional ministry. Just keep doing the same thing as the world around us slips into history.

Redeemer, on the other hand, had fashioned a ministry around new challenges. This was made all the easier by SEPA’s refusal to provide pastoral leadership. Our priority was not in maintaining good relations with leadership. It was in exploring ministry possibilities. We continue to do so.

Redeemer’s manifesto addressed many of the same points as those quoted above. It was the mission plan we created in 2007.

We were fashioning multi-cultural ministry in a new way. Diverse cultures were joining together in ministry, worshiping  and serving together. We weren’t just sharing a building.

We were investing our resources in this ministry. Our resources. Not SEPA’s resources.

We were recognizing something that the rest of the Church does not want to admit. We cannot serve needy populations when the expectation for every congregation is to support a building and professional staff at a minimum budget of $130,000 before a dime is spent on mission or outreach. This model is creating a church where only the rich and middle class can expect to participate fully. This worked in a culture where everyone attended church and knew what was expected of them. It doesn’t work when you are trying to reach the vast and growing population of unchurched people.

Redeemer was responding to this economic challenge, not by pleading for stewardship. We taught stewardship, but we recognized that it would take decades to develop personal giving. (This was made much more difficult by SEPA raiding our bank account in 1998.)

The only way toward fiscal viability was to develop our own funding streams.

We were unafraid of failure. We learned from it. Our early attempts to reach the diversity of our neighborhood were not particularly successful. Our pastors were not comfortable with multicultural ministry, so evangelism was difficult. Our success came when we were free to find professional leadership who could actually further our mission beyond status quo Sunday worship. It came into full flower when we put outreach leadership into the hands of our immigrant members.

SEPA was so intent on seizing our resources that they never really looked at what was going on in our community. They ignored our success and dwelt on ancient failures.

The past five years have proven that they really don’t care about their congregations and their missions. They certainly don’t care about the people.

Our suggestion for congregations:

Spend more time writing your manifesto and less time on your mission statements. Let’s regain our Lutheran culture!


Ambassadors Visit Peace, Ben Salem

peace-bensalemFour Redeemer Ambassadors traveled to NE Philadelphia to visit Peace Lutheran Church in Ben Salem. We encountered a friendly, small congregation very much like Redeemer. There were about 30 in worship at their second service.

We were greeted by a very friendly woman who asked where we were from and sat with us for a short chat. She didn’t know where East Falls was and confessed to knowing little about Philadelphia. We suspect there are many in SEPA who don’t know much about East Falls or urban ministry but are less willing to admit it.

The sanctuary is small and comfortable. 100 people would fill it pretty well. There was a strong age representation.

A woman made an announcement that 198 meals had been prepared that week and announced other plans for their women’s group.

Someone offered to train anyone interested in handling church finances. The laity seemed to be showing leadership initiative—a very good thing.

A five-member choir sang new seasonal words to a Christmas tune — Rise Up Shepherds and Follow. The organist/choir director led hymns with an understated organ. Very nice. The hymns were favorites which made for comfortable worship.

Pastor Harold Evans strayed from the lectionary for the first time in more than a decade, he said, to address the age-old question, Where is God when bad things happen? He concluded with a quote: “He is in the same place He was when His Son was dying on the cross.” The message was an appropriate follow-up to a week accented by violence.There was also a prayer call to the altar.

We like the way they distributed communion. We see so many take and dunk “fast food” communion presentations where people file by stations. The purpose seems to be to get the ritual over with. Redeemer always took the time to gather together at the altar. So did Peace.

We enjoyed singing The Lord’s Prayer, even with that high F—or was it a G—at the end!

We spoke with several members after church and they seemed to be most congenial and good-humored.

Pastor Evans approached us after church and asked a few questions. He referred to the letters one of our Ambassadors sends from time to time. We had a nice conversation.

One of our Ambassadors will be looking up a Lutheran church in St. Augustine, Fla., next week. Who knows where the rest of us will go!?

Who Are Today’s Shepherds?

mother sheep and twin lambsWhat Does A Shepherd Do, Anyway?

My early years were spent fairly close to the earth. We were not a family of farmers but we always lived near farms and among farmers. I was born into a home that was across the country lane from a large poultry farm. Our parsonage lot was carved out of a cow pasture. We moved to our next parsonage. Its lot was carved out of a donated corn field. When our family finally moved into our own home it was the farmhouse of a working sheep farm.

My brother is among the few people who can start their résumés with the experience of being a shepherd.

Most people don’t know much about sheep or shepherding these days.

When Jesus claimed to be s shepherd, that meant something to the people whose families measured their wealth by counting sheep—a concept that puts us to sleep today.

What did Jesus mean? What does a shepherd do, anyway?

Here’s what I remember from the years when I woke to the sound of bleating sheep.

  • Sheep are not smart animals. They cannot get themselves out of trouble. If they fall into a ditch or catch a leg in a fence wire, there they will stay, crying for rescue.
  • Sheep follow without question. When one runs through the pasture and leaps, just because, the sheep following will leap when they get to the same spot, too.
  • Sheep like to stick together. They know their own kind.
  • Sheep are content to spend their lives nibbling on grass, seeing to their own interests.
  • Without a shepherd, when the grass runs out, they will stray. This is dangerous. Sheep rely on numbers. It’s the shepherd’s job to find grass and water.
  • Sheep have no ability to defend themselves from predators, outside of gathering together so that only one or two of their number are sacrificed to settle the wolves’ appetite.
  • Sheep need someone to watch their tails. They are born with long fluffy tails which just get in the way. Off they go.
  • Sheep will obey a ruler without question, even one that barks and runs around in circles.
  • Sheep, despite their weakness, have value. The wool from one or two sheep can keep a family warm. The milk from a few sheep can nourish a family. Some people like their meat—camouflaged with mint or wine sauces.
  • Sheep do not tend toward aggression, although a mean streak can sometimes be detected in individuals. They will quickly become mutton.
  • Sheep without a shepherd are in danger. Sheep with a lazy or negligent shepherd are in even more danger.
  • Ewes predominate in the flock, but both rams and ewes are needed to sustain the flock.
  • If we want to eat meat, an animal must die.
  • While sheep know their shepherd’s voice, sometimes shepherds have a hard time knowing one sheep from another. They splash a bit of color on their coats.
  • Fences make shepherding easier—or unnecessary.
  • The sounds of sheep are pleasant. The smell you get used to.
  • Sheep are good-looking bright spots in a green field.
  • Touching sheep makes your hands soft.
  • There are black sheep, brown sheep and white sheep. They all smell like sheep.
  • It is easier on your shoes to walk through a sheep pasture than a cow pasture.
  • Lambs make us laugh and forget ourselves.

Jesus had his shepherd hands full!

How does understanding sheep help us understand the biblical analogy of shepherd?

photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via photopin cc


Why Do We Live in Fear of Lobbyists?

Yesterday, our national leaders failed to pass a bill touted as “common sense” legislation that would extend the use of background checks in gun sales. It was hoped that the bill might help keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of people ill-equipped to use them for legal purposes. 

In the land of the free, the only adults who do not have a right to carry guns are those with already detected serious mental impairment and those with criminal convictions.

Who knows if the bill would have made a difference or not? Many of the gun tragedies are committed by people with  undetected mental impairment.

But at least, someone was trying. Someone was looking for answers outside the status quo.

If ever there was an opportunity to prevent the growing list of tragedies such as Sandy Hook, it is now—just four months after we buried 20 first-graders and the people who taught them.

Gun lobbyists stand in the way, promising to make election or reelection difficult for any candidate who attempts to tighten control on the rights of individuals to wield instruments of considerable destruction.

Military grade weaponry is impractical for personal defense. They just don’t fit in pocket or purse!

I can’t recall ever hearing that a home was protected by the fortunate owner of an AR-15 Bushmaster Semi-automatic Rifle, the weapon used at Sandy Hook. Perhaps just knowing it might be there by the nightstand is enough to keep the bad guys away. Just imagine the scene:

 Honey, I think I hear a burglar.

Don’t worry, dear. I just loaded my rifle with a 100-cartridge clip last night. 

There is an answer to the power of the lobbyists. It doesn’t require supporting a host of smooth-talking advocates to wine and dine your representatives in Washington.

The answer is to create an online lobby. There is nothing to join. No dues to pay. 

Use the mightiest weapon in the world. The keyboard. 

If you support tighter gun controls, write about it online. Don’t just write to your senators and congressional representatives. Write to the world.

Lobbyists are needed only when they represent a self-interest—most likely a minority self-interest. 

Their voice is heard because . . . well, because THEY use it.

Now, as Senator Toomey said, on to other problems like the economy. We don’t seem to be able to solve that one either.

Jesus as Shepherd: Images

Adult Object Lesson: Part 2

In yesterday’s post, which was our weekly object lesson idea for adult listeners, we proposed having your congregation draft a résumé for Jesus.

Modern résumés often included visuals and your resume for Jesus can take advantage of this.

We suggested that your listeners consider attaching a photo of Jesus as shepherd to their résumé to enhance your congregational discussion.

Images abound on the internet. We’ve chose a few that have varying nuances.

The topic is one of the earliest to be depicted in Christian art.








Here is an Eastern religious icon.

goodshepherd7There are more familiar depictions. The painting by German artist, Bernard Plockhorst, has been reproduced in stained glass art in sanctuaries all across America. Note the mother sheep nudging at Jesus left hand as if to encourage him to care for her lamb he is carrying. (See yesterday’s post.)




There are comforting presentations. In this image, Jesus pays careful attention to the youngest in the flock.








Here are two depictions that were published in France as prayer cards, probably in the 1800s.

The flock is chained to the cross. In the second depiction, Jesus seems to be engaged in work. There is intentional effort in his love.

goodshepherd5 goodshepherd4








Here we have a pensive Jesus. He is thinking of more than the sheep’s physical needs.







Last, we add a proactive, risk-taking Jesus, who under the shelter of an eagle’s wings risks his safety to reach out to sheep in danger.


Which image would you choose for Jesus’ résumé?

Adult Object Lesson: John 10: 22-30

Write A Résumé for Jesus

goodshepherdPlockhorstJohn’s Gospel has one major objective. John seeks to define Jesus in a way that people will believe him to be the Messiah or Christ.

Every incident in John’s narrative adds new dimension to this mysterious person named Jesus.

He is a carpenter’s son, part of a well-known but common family. Often he is seen as a rabbi or teacher. The woman at the well calls him a prophet. Son of God? Son of Man? There are attempts to anoint him as King. He teaches. He heals. He raises people from the dead. Who is Jesus?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes a pronouncement from the portico of the temple used by temple authorities to pronounce judgment. This is a place where people go to have difficult decisions explained to them.

So what Jesus says here —in this important place—may be his big moment.

The excitement must have been palpable. Would he declare himself King of the Jews? Would he use this moment to elevate his position? Would the lucky members of this audience experience an historic moment they will someday share with their grandchildren?

Jesus instead claims one of the lowliest jobs one can ever type into a résumé.

Occupation: Shepherd

Filling out a résumé is something your congregation will have experience doing. Ask them to write a résumé for Jesus. Describe his work experience as a shepherd and how these skills qualify him to be their spiritual leader.

Give them plenty of time to think beyond the obvious and do as little prompting as possible. Adults are capable of applying metaphors. Help them explore the metaphor more fully.

Be prepared for answers such as:

  • Comes from an experienced family
  • Save flock from predators
  • Ability to get rid of predators
  • Can feed flock
  • Can find clear water for flock
  • Keep the flock together
  • Heal the sick or wounded
  • Make each sheep feel wanted
  • Plays with lambs
  • Responsibility to account for each sheep and lamb
  • Seek fresh resources when food and water supplies are low
  • Train helpers when needed

Use a flip chart or white board to record the answers as you fill out Jesus’ résumé.

You might project some art. If you use several images, ask your members which one they would include on the résumé.

We’ll suggest some images tomorrow.

Watch with Whom You Pray!

I read this morning some February news about the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s leadership reaction to December’s tragic massacre of the innocents in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Their president, The Rev. Matthew Harrison, responded to criticism of the local Lutheran pastor for participating in a community prayer vigil in Sandy Hook, along with the leaders of other local faiths.

Why was this an issue? Common sense is for any Christian to grieve with the victims and the community, to demonstrate compassion and offer consolation.

No. As the nation wept inconsolably, some in the LCMS managed to dust off its rulebook to cite an ancient rule that their leaders are not to participate in interfaith prayer. All the grieving participants might get the idea that Lutherans agree with Muslims, Jews and Catholics, or perhaps—and heaven-forbid—love them. The grief of today does not measure in importance against eternal damnation for praying with those who believe differently.

Surely, interfaith dialog was the first thing on the minds of those attending.

At least one attendant would have understood. President Obama deals with the same progress-blocking thinking in politics. Party first! Denomination first! 

In politics, elected representatives easily become alienated from the people they serve as soon as they are surrounded daily by those with party interests. Clergy, too, surround themselves with colleagues with denominational self-interest. The air is thin in their lofty headquarters. 

But all is well, the offending pastor got the message. He humbly apologized, pointing out that he had taken steps to assure everyone present in Sandy Hook that he wasn’t endorsing the religious beliefs of other participating clergy.

The disclaimer before the benediction he delivered must have been a great comfort.

President Harrison, smugly acknowledges that the local pastor was in a difficult position and admonishes anyone from criticizing the repentant pastor too harshly. That falls a bit short of support.

Aren’t we, who live in multicultural society, often in this position? Lay people live and work every day with people of many faiths. Are we always to check the religious credentials of our neighbors before we address their needs—or our common needs—in prayer?

One of the objections seems to have been that the pastors were in their regalia. Perhaps they all should dress as Jesus did—just like everyone else!

While accepting the apology, President Harrison boasted of his leadership skills. He had taken the “unprecedented” step of contacting “the most prominent blogs in the synod and asking them to refrain from commenting on the issue.” He asked them to pull down any critical comments they had already posted.

“He [the pastor] didn’t need to be attacked,” Harrison said. He quickly turned his concern for the pastor and the traumatized community he serves back to concern for the denomination. “We don’t need a public airing of our pent-up grievances.”

The incident is so denominationally self-centered and so typical of the thinking of church leadership. In the wake of tragedies large and small, we tend to focus on denominational tenets and ignore all the teachings of the Lord we serve.

There are no atheists in a foxhole, they say. There are also no denominations. (Click to tweet.)

Meanwhile, we wonder. How long will it be before church leaders replicate President Harrison’s “unprecedented” step and make the monitoring of church bloggers a routine part of their perceived power?