On the Journey: New Seasons

The signs are all around us; squirrels and children know this well – the season is changing.  As back to school sales and Packer’s preseason games are underway, so, too, are we gearing up for a new season of ministry as Memorial Baptist Church, and as followers of Christ.

There is a lot to celebrate in this time: we’ve been blessed and refreshed with experiences of community and celebration together at the Timber Rattlers’ game, at the August potluck after worship and at the Fish Fry.  (Have we noticed lots of these things revolve around food?)  We rejoiced together as boxes upon boxes of knitted hats, scarves, and mittens were dedicated to the Back to School program.  And God continues to bless and work through Stone Soup as community deepens and as we begin a new facet of the ministry to allow intentional space for God conversations.  We have a full slate of Christian education opportunities for all ages, as Pat Olson has worked hard to organize materials for our children and adult leaders offer a variety of classes and small groups.  The men’s and women’s ministries are likewise gearing up and retooling for the fall.

This is part of preparing for the normal rhythm of the seasons of church life together.  And it has been a blessing to see how many have participated in the intentional conversations after worship this past month.  For we are also in a new season culturally and as a church, and it’s important to hear from one another in order to respond both faithfully and effectively.

Starting with the core purposes of the church – to proclaim and embody the love of God through Jesus Christ, and to build each other up in maturity in the image of Jesus – we’ve begun to look at our strengths, challenges and opportunities.

Strengths like embodying Christ-like love and welcome, being a safe place to nurture and grow in faith, seeking to live out of a centeredness in Jesus and trying not to fall victim to the vicious pull of polarization in our culture.

We also have challenges – not necessarily unique to us: discerning how to focus our energy, letting go of trying to emulate larger churches or even our own past, working on loving and open communication, asking what kind of structure best enables us to live out our ministry.

In the midst of that, this is also a season of opportunities; these things can spur us to action and attention to what God is doing in our midst.  Who is God bringing us into contact with?  Where are we finding people open and responsive to the Gospel?  Where are we finding partners inside and outside the church for the ministry God calls us into?  Leaning faithfully and humbly into the answers to these questions, I am confident that God will lead Memorial Baptist Church into this new season of life as a blessing for all who are a part of it.

Blessings on the Journey,

Pastor Brian

On the Journey

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:15-16

“Ghosting” the Body of Christ

Eli Wiesel said “The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.”  I suspect that indifference is often not so much a conscious decision that someone else doesn’t matter, as much as it is not taking into consideration the impact of our actions and words on others.

The term “ghosting” has crept into wider use in the past years.  Originally a term used in dating when the other person suddenly “disappeared” with no communication or explanation, ghosting has become a common response in many spheres of life, from the workplace to friendships to church.  News articles abound (including Bloomburg and USA Today) of ghosting in the workplace – people not showing up to jobs after accepting them, blowing off interviews, or simply disappearing from the workplace with no notice.

Ghosting is an issue of communication, emotional maturity, and lack of value for the other person or group.  It is the practice of avoiding something potentially painful or conflictual by simply disappearing.  Psychology Today, in an article published in November of 2015, writes that sometimes people “ghost” because they weren’t able to figure out their own feelings, or because it felt like the easiest way out.

We know that ghosting also happens in the church (all churches), and that it hurts.  We invest time and care into others, we make ourselves vulnerable, and when that connection is severed without explanation, opportunity for closure, or recognition of the value we have seen in one another, it causes tremendous pain.  Often, some people may know why a person has disconnected, but this too places a burden on those “in the know” to either protect confidentiality, or be the ones left behind to explain the absent person’s behavior.  Many will never hear the reason, and will simply grieve and wonder.  Worse, over time, the pain of ghosting can affect the willingness and ability to enter into the kind of connections where we are vulnerable.  Avoiding pain or conflict in unhealthy ways just leads to more pain down the road.

But there’s a lower level of ghosting that isn’t about leaving the church, but about communicating, and this one, believe it or not, can be even more damaging to the health of the church.  That’s the kind of ghosting where we just don’t respond back to attempts to communicate.  Emails go unanswered.  Voice mail never returned.  Texts or Messages never replied to.

On one level, it’s understandable – we’re surrounded by ways in which people can attempt to communicate with us, and it can be overwhelming, particularly when we take on the assumption that if someone doesn’t reply immediately, there’s something wrong.  That’s not what I’m referring to here; this is about not ever getting around to responding when people try to reach out and communicate.

Healthy communication is one of the core channels of demonstrating Christ-like love to others, and that’s a reality whether we’re talking about our families, our workplaces or schools, or within the church.

Along with leaders and volunteers, I’ve seen and experienced personally the frustration and pain caused by this kind of quasi-ghosting within the church in the process of seeking feedback and sharing information.  Leaders I’ve spoken with have shared that even a “no thanks, I’m not interested” would be a helpful way of knowing that it’s ok to stop, refine or reframe what we’re doing.

When Paul writes about “speaking the truth in love”, he’s doing so in the context of growing into maturity together as followers of Jesus.  It’s a commitment to living out our identity together as the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13).  It means finding ways of expressing what we’re thinking and feeling to one another, even if they cause some discomfort, while holding on to our love for one another and for Christ, who joins us together into one body.  In other words, it’s trusting that what (Who) holds us together is stronger than the things we inevitably will need to work through.

The biggest problem with ghosting is that it doesn’t allow that opportunity to grow, learn or change things that need to change.  We’re left guessing.  Instead, may our words and actions reflect Jesus’ call to build one another up, honoring the connections we share.  

Blessings on the Journey,

Pastor Brian

On the Journey

“…speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” – Ephesians 4:15-16

Paul is talking about what it means to live out our identity as the church, as part of the body of Christ, each one of us called and gifted to a life of purpose, a life that not only enjoys the presence and blessing of God, but life that reflects and shares God’s love and invitation with others.

It doesn’t take much reading through the letters of the New Testament to realize that the earliest church (which we sometimes idealize) had its own share of struggles and challenges and cultural pressures and change that they had to navigate through.  That’s an encouraging thought to me, as we continue to work out what it means to be faithful and obedient in following Jesus into the mission of God as part of the family of God.

What stands out to me in this brief section of his letter to Christians everywhere, and particularly to those in Ephesus, is how he bookends this thought with love: the kind of love that is rooted in God’s love and God’s purpose for us – that we grow, growing into unity with God through Christ, growing in love for God and one another.  Earlier, Paul has talked about the importance of understanding each of us as being given gifts and a place in this family, that it takes all of us working together to live out our calling and purpose.  Here, Paul emphasizes the need for speaking the truth in love, understanding that God intends for us to grow and grow together.

In times of struggle and change, this emphasis on love, truth, and purpose are critical.

We have some important questions to work out together, and we will need all three in view.

In love, we need to seek the truth together about what the church is really for: what God is calling us to here and now, and who we will be, what we will do, in response to that calling.

Some thoughts I want to offer as starting points to those conversations:

  • There are different kinds of change.  And we can spend lots of energy on the kinds of change that won’t matter.  There’s a difference between technical change and adaptive change.  Technical change is tactics; it’s talking about curriculum or advertising or what kind of music we do on Sunday morning.   Adaptive change keeps the purpose in view: what is the core of what we’re about, and are we willing to put everything on the table except our core, in order to live out our purpose?
  • Aim first.  Ask first.  Instead of jumping to solutions to the challenges, let’s make sure we do the work of trying to ask the right questions.   When we’re stressed, we are most tempted to revert to what we’re most comfortable with, what we grew up with, including patterns that aren’t helpful, or that used to be helpful but aren’t anymore.  Part of speaking the truth in love includes being quick to listen (James 1:19).  If we offer answers to things that are important to us, but not to others, we aren’t going to get far.
  • Speaking truth (being honest, being real), and doing so in love.  Sometimes we don’t say things that need to be said because we’re afraid of hurting each other’s feelings.  Sometimes we don’t say it to the right person because we don’t want to jeopardize the relationship.  Sometimes we avoid difficult topics because, well, let’s face it – it can be painful, and who really wants to seek that out?  But when we are willing to have those conversations, grounded in the desire to help each other grow, recognizing our own fears and hopes and gifts and failings, we can start to have the kinds of conversations that surface what we are really thinking, and enable us to listen for God’s guidance together, inviting us into new places we may not have been able to envision before.

Challenges and change are not new – and they’re not a surprise to God or anything God cannot lead us through.  As the leaders and pastor of Memorial Baptist, we want to get together with you, to listen and share and pray.  We’ll be offering times through the summer and I’ll be around after worship; I would love to get together and talk.  

Blessings on the way,

Pastor Brian

On the Journey: “Keep Moving on the Journey Together”

“They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, He has prepared a city for them.” – Hebrews 11:13b-16

Writing of the faith of men and women before the coming of Jesus, Hebrews describes the journey that they and we are on.  In Hebrews 12, in light of God’s work in Christ, we find the call to run the race of our faith, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, both the source of our hope and the one who will bring our faith to perfection.

This journey image is powerful as we consider the challenges of living out our faith together in these present times of change.   Like the Lewis and Clark expedition which found that to continue their mission, they had to abandon their canoes for new ways forward into the uncharted territory, we at Memorial Baptist continue to explore our way forward as a church.

The thought that comes to mind today as we continue to unpack that rich imagery is the need to keep moving, keep exploring.

As we try new things as a church family, while keeping our purpose and mission in Christ fixed in view, some things will pan out in unexpected ways, like the Yarnians or Stone Soup.  Other things we try may not take off immediately, or may go for a while and come to an end.  Sometimes it’s because something just didn’t work, or needed tweaking.  Other times, it did exactly what it was supposed to do for that given time.

Even when we prayerfully seek to follow Jesus, not everything will be smooth and clear cut – even when we are listening and following to the best of our ability.  What will happen is that God connects the threads of our obedience to open up new opportunities to grow and serve together.  One trail taken leads to another, and then another.

A friend of mine in ministry puts it this way: it’s a lot easier to turn a ship that’s in motion than one which is standing still.

Not that we are frantically overpacking our schedules in a frenzy of all the good things we could be doing with our church, our families, our friends and selves, but intentionally considering how we are going to invest our time as part of the community God has created us for.

This summer, how will we look for where the Spirit of God is at work in our church and community, and how will we choose to be a part of that?

Blessings on the Journey,

Pastor Brian

On the Journey: “Humble with Our Heads Held High”

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness (poverty), or peril, or sword?  As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’  No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

– Romans 8:35-37

Humility with confidence sounds like a contradiction, but for those who walk with Christ, it is part of what it means to be walking in Jesus’ footsteps.

Paul writes in Philippians 2:7 that Jesus was humbled in “emptying Himself [of the glory and attributes of being God], taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”  Jesus’ humility was not that He was broken, but that in His humanity, He depended on others: His mother, the people around him.  He ministered not out of His own power, but in the power of God the Father, depending on the Father’s guidance, empowering, and ultimately on the cross, trusting God the Father to vindicate Him in resurrection.

We so often try to minimize or mask our brokenness, our vulnerabilities and needs.  Humility is when we stop hiding and acknowledge where we are and who we are.  What makes that possible is when we realize that we are already fully known and already loved by God.  The God who created and sustains all things reaches out to us and calls on us to simply trust Him.

The more we grasp that we are safe in God’s hands, the more we are able to live in confidence, able to see ourselves truly, in all our gifts and faults, and knowing God is both able and willing to be our strength and our hope in this world whatever our circumstances.  In this we find joy in God that gives us strength.

In Paul’s time, the Roman empire would demonstrate its power by marching its victorious troops down the street, along with captives and the spoils of victory in battle.  Paul knew that for many, to follow Jesus would mean being marched down those roads to be martyred.  Yet in the midst of this, it is we who are more than conquerors in Christ – we can have the confidence that God ultimately is victorious.

Why?  Because of the victory parade Jesus took from the temple to Golgotha.  What looked like weakness and shame was His glory – the unveiling of the depth of the love of God – Father, Son, Spirit – for all of us.  In this love, this sacrifice, this resurrection, Christ has conquered, and in Him, we too can have this confidence that nothing in this world can separate us from the love, the power, and the purposes of God to restore and redeem and hold on to us.

May this be the good news that gives us courage, and the good news we proclaim with our lives and words.

Blessings on the Journey,

Pastor Brian

Snowed out Sermon: God’s Faithfulness

At Memorial we have a standing goal in wintertime, whatever the weather, as long as we can get into the parking lot, we aim to be there, and worship with whoever can come, just be safe and wise about your own circumstances when it comes to deciding whether or not to come to church.

That said, as you know, this past Sunday was a doozy.  Not just with the snow and ice that had already fallen, but in light of the continuing precipitation, it didn’t seem wise or safe to hold services.  So here’s the text of the message prepared for Sunday, for those who would like to follow along.

The Faithfulness of God

Scripture: Psalm 33:4-5, and drawing on Psalm 25:1-5 (which was our Call to Worship)

A few weeks ago, someone I know from way back shared a sarcastic meme online.  It said, “I prefer the Greek gods, because they were like a soap opera, they were imperfect, they fought, there was drama.  Christians, on the other hand, say that their God is all knowing, and all powerful, is everywhere, is perfect.  In other words, Christians have invented a  mary sue”; an idealized fictional character.

The thing is, I don’t think this meme has thought it all the way through.  If he’s right, that the real gods are like the ones in Greek and Roman mythology, petty and capricious  – we’re all in trouble.    More to the point today, if all of this is just fiction that we’ve made up to feel better about life, then there is no such thing as a purpose to this life that we don’t make up, that’s not ultimately futile, shouting into the wind.

Paul’s message about the kind of God he had come to know, and ultimately revealed in the person of Jesus, the Son of God, this was good news to people in Paul’s time, and it’s good news to us.  But what is it, exactly, that we are saying about God when we describe who God is:

If someone were to ask you, as a believer, what is God like, what would you say?  

How would you describe the person, the character of God? 

Ok, now I want to follow up on that.  As words or images come to mind, let me ask a second question:

Why?  Why do we believe that about God – what shapes our image of God’s character?

This morning, I want to connect those two questions through one of the key words in the Old Testament, a word that English has kind of a tough time translating.

In Psalm 33:5, the NIV says “the earth is full of his unfailing love.”

The NRSV says “steadfast love”

New King James reads: “goodness”

The New American Standard Version says “lovingkindness”.

The Hebrew is ‘chesed’. ( חֶ֫סֶד )

Chesed shows up over and over through the whole Old Testament, across centuries of writing by different authors, to describe the character of God they had experienced and seen at work in their lives and as they looked back on the ways God had dealt with them and their people.

Chesed is about the character of God that is revealed in the ins and outs, the ups and downs of life.  Chesed is about strength, but not just any kind of strength, a strength that is directed by love.  And it’s not just a passing good intention, but shown steadfastly over time.

Chesed is shown relationship, particularly in the context of covenant, which reminds us that relationship includes commitments.  It’s the kind of commitment where we look to God for protection and blessing, but with the understanding that we’re not in control.  It’s the kind of commitment where God has promised to do so, but retains freedom in how God fulfills those promises.  This covenant language echoes the kind of treaties between a king and that king’s people, or between a stronger country and a weaker one.

But Chesed goes deeper than a kind of formal treaty or agreement – it implies personal involvement, personal connection and investment that binds us together.  These promises are made by God out of love, and because of who God is, the Chesed of God is experienced as grace and mercy.

What that means is that God’s character is expressed in a commitment to humanity; demonstrated in various ways throughout time, but personally and particularly in relationship with a group of people we know through the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament.  We make these claims about God in part because of we have come to know God through history as witnessed in the lives of people who lived and wrote the scriptures which ultimately point to Jesus the Son of God.   In the Bible, chesed isn’t a theoretical idea, but the declaration that God’s commitment is and has been and will be expressed in concrete action, redemptive action.  Critically, we make these claims not only because of scripture, but because we too, having trusted God revealed in Jesus, can look back on our lives, and see how God has been faithful to God’s purposes and promises, including us in the larger story that is unfolding.

This faithfulness of God matters because as we read back through that story, and as we think of our own story, we realize that the good news isn’t located in our ability to keep our end of the covenant or reciprocate, but it is rooted in the character, mercy and purposes of God.  Over and over through scripture, we read about people giving up on God when things got tough, on letting God down with their actions.  They ran around and deserted their commitments when they were inconvenient.  We, along with them, have grieved God by giving credit for all we have and are to false gods of our own making and ignoring the one who created us.  We lie to ourselves and to God about what’s really going on inside of us, shifting the blame anywhere else, and hurting the people around us in the process.

In the framework of covenant, God could just walk away.   But throughout human history, through the whole story of Israel, throughout the whole of our lives, God remains faithful, not just to the covenant, but to God’s own character of a mercy that goes beyond the letter of the law.  As Paul declares in Romans 3:3, their faithlessness, our faithlessness doesn’t nullify the faithfulness of God.  God’s love and mercy goes beyond the economy of this world.  It is not about our capacity to reciprocate, but is located in who God is.

A little over a week ago, Gabrielle and I had the honor of hearing the crew of Apollo 8: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, speak at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  This was part of a book release about that mission, and it focused not just on the mission, but on the decision to go, and critically, it highlighted the critical support their wives gave, and the sacrifices they made in all of this.  In some ways, this book was also a love story.  This particular crew was the only one in all of the Gemini and Apollo programs where each crewmember’s marriage survived the experience.  But was one part of this story that deeply moved me, and I think it speaks not just to what we’re talking about today, but on things many of us can connect with.  Frank Borman is 90 years old.  I think he fell asleep once or twice during the panel discussion, but he was sharp as a tack responding to the questions and engaging with his crewmates and the author.  He commanded the first manned mission to orbit the moon, and could have gone on to walk on the moon in a future mission.  But he didn’t.  He chose to leave at that point for the well-being of his family.  I knew that part of his story.  But what I hadn’t known is that for a number of years, his wife Susan has suffered from Alzheimer’s, to the point where she doesn’t know who he is anymore.  But he gets up every morning at 5:30 to exercise, to stay healthy so that he can visit and care for her as long as he can.  His love isn’t located in her ability to reciprocate, but in the fact that she is beloved.   Love isn’t 50% 50%.  That’s chesed.

But love, God’s love does seek to draw the very best out of us that we are capable of.   And the covenant nature of chesed reminds us that God is not just acting unilaterally, but invites us to reciprocate, calls on us to respond, as we read in Hosea 6:6 “For I desire steadfast love (chesed), not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”, and Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness (chesed), and to walk humbly with your God?

In the beginning of our worship service, we heard the beginning of Psalm 25; a prayer of humility before God, relying on and trusting in God to provide.  Asking God for guidance.  Asking for God’s forgiveness according to God’s character, which we find described in the verses from Psalm 33 we started with.

What is God like?  God is good, God is faithful, merciful, strong – not just when we deserve it, but all the time.  When everything else fails, we can trust in God either to shield us from it or carry us through it.  How do we know this?  How can we trust this?  Because we’ve seen it.  We’ve experienced it.  It is the story that goes before us; in scripture.  It is the living story that shaped the lives of the disciples, the story that strengthened the generations that went before us.  It is the reality that we have experienced, looking back on life and seeing God at work.  And out of that reality, God beckons us to live.  To extend that kind of loving faithfulness to those around us.  To allow God’s Holy Spirit to create space that operates in redeeming grace that seeks righteousness, pursues justice, and does so in faithful, steadfast love.

On the Journey: “Enfolded by Grace”

Jesus once told a story about a man and his two sons.  The younger son asks for his inheritance early, leaves home with it, loses it and finds himself destitute in a foreign land amidst a famine.  He decides to try to return home and beg for forgiveness, to be taken back into the household as a hired worker (Luke 15:11-32).

It’s the story of the Prodigal Son.

Or is it the story of the Unforgiving Brother?

Or is it the story of the Radically Loving Father?

In truth, it’s wise to place ourselves in the shoes of each of them and consider what the story reveals about God, and where scripture holds a mirror up to us.  But today, I want to lift up the astonishing grace we find in this story.

In a Father who grants the desire of the younger son for his portion of the inheritance – a request that was in essence saying “you’re not dying fast enough; I want my share now”.

In a Father who kept watch for the son who had rejected and abandoned the family.

In a Father who runs to meet the son as he returns, embracing him on the road, heedless of the disapproving looks from the neighbors.

In a Father who hardly waits for the son to finish his speech before restoring him to the family.

In a Father who is filled with joy and gladness at the return of the son.

And in a Father who also has compassion for the older son who also misunderstands.

Grace is the expression of God’s love that meets us as pure gift.  Grace, gift, comes to us because of who God is, not who we are.  The grace of God goes before us, before we were born, in the gift of this world in which we live, in the gift of choice.  We encounter grace in the stubborn love God has for us even when we reject him, when we set out on dark roads.  Like a shepherd with a missing sheep, like a woman who has lost a coin, God pursues us, calls us, seeks for us, and invites us home.  God rejoices when we are found, rejoices over our restoration.

For the prodigal and the elder sibling in each of us – may the love of God call us home, may the joy of God over us fill our lives, and may the grace of God shape our journey.

Blessings on the way,

Pastor Brian

On the Journey: “Forty”

The 40 days before Easter (not counting Sunday) are known among Christians of many denominations as the season of Lent.  It is a time of preparation – for the joy of celebrating Jesus’ resurrection, and for the commitment to follow as His disciples.

But why would Lent last 40 days?  Is it just some arbitrary number tossed out there?  Not quite.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels, we read that after Jesus was baptized by His cousin John, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert where He fasted and was tempted by the devil for 40 days and 40 nights.  In all of this, Jesus refused to take the easy way to accomplish his purpose, relying on God the Father and trusting in a cross-shaped path.

That amount of time and those tests were no coincidence.  The people of Israel had spent 40 years in the wilderness.  God had rescued them from slavery and genocide in Egypt, but time and again they didn’t trust God, didn’t want to follow.  How then, could God fulfill the promise that through Abraham, the world would be blessed?  It was fulfilled in Jesus’ obedience.

And we find other significant 40s in the Bible.  Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain with the LORD (Exodus 34:28).  In the story of Noah, the rains came for 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:12).  In the book of Acts, Jesus was with the disciples for 40 days after His resurrection, until He ascended to the presence of the Father (Acts 1:3).

What I notice in all of these stories is that they mark a time of transition – of the ending of something and the beginning of something new.  In Genesis, the ending of rampant bloodshed and the re-establishing of the blessing and commission to human beings made in God’s image.  In Exodus, the ending of a time of ignorance and the beginning of a covenant to teach Israel and the nations what living in relationship with God and others looks like.  In the Sinai wilderness, we find the ending of a generation of those who rebelled against God and the beginning of a new generation who were called to live into their promise and their purpose.  For Jesus, it was the ending of a (presumably) quiet life as a carpenter, and the embracing of the Father’s mission.   And in Acts, we find Jesus handing this mission over to the disciples until His return.

What then, does this season of Lent mean to us?  In what we give up or let go of, in what we embrace and take hold of, what must pass away in order for the new life and purpose of God to take root and bloom?  How will you use this time to seek what God may have for us in this coming year?

Blessings on the Journey,

Pastor Brian

On the Journey: “To Know Our Stories”

If you asked me to share my favorite stories, I could point to a pile of books that have meant a lot to me at different points in my life.  But stories aren’t just found in books that we read.  Stories are told in movies, television and podcasts.  Even songs that we listen to tell a story about the things we value and how we look at them.  Stories are also told around the dinner table and living room, as family and friends catch up with each other, recounting the things that have happened, whether funny or sad or joyous.

We latch on to the stories we find important, the stories that resonate with us.  And in turn, they shape our sense of what is good and what is not.  They open up what is possible, and sometimes they hold a mirror up to us so that we see ourselves in a way we’ve never considered before.   Stories give us a lens not just to see reality and to process facts, but to consider what they mean.

Elie Wiesel wrote that God made man because He loves stories.  And I don’t believe it’s an accident that for all the different kinds of literature in the Bible – poetry, history, laws and instructions – ultimately they are woven into something that is a collection of stories that form one story.  Our story, God’s story.

When we read the Bible, not as a collection of nuggets to be mined from rock, or dissected for a verse here or there, but as the unfolding story of God working among people and cultures in all of the brilliance and brokenness we find in life, we find ourselves in their story.  And like the sweep of scripture, we find ourselves being pointed not just to more words, but to an encounter with the living Word of God, Jesus, who enters into this story, our story, to transform and heal it.

I remember being given an exercise to do when I was a high school student, attending a youth conference in Green Lake.  I was to draw a line representing my life, and then to list all the significant events I could think of – good and bad – across that timeline.  And then I was asked to consider where I had seen or experienced God in those times.  What did God’s presence look like, feel like?  Were there times where I felt God was absent?  Were there times when God felt particularly close?  Had my perception of those moments changed over time?

Our lives, our stories, are part of that unfolding story we read about in the Bible.  The God of Abraham and Sarah is our God.  The Jesus who called Peter calls us.  The One who offered living water to the woman at the well offers us life.  If you were to sketch out the story of your life, and of God in it, what would that story look like?  How would you tell it?  What would you like the next chapters to look like as you write them with God, and live them out with the people around you?

Blessings on the Journey, and into the Story,

Pastor Brian

From the Pastor

Tod Bolsinger writes about the moment when Lewis & Clark, on their famous expedition in the first years of the 1800’s, find themselves literally “off the map” and figuring out where to go from here.  Bolsinger compares it to the situation of the church today, and the challenge of doing ministry together in uncharted territory.

Given the season, I also can’t help but think about the magi in the Gospel of Matthew – renowned for their wisdom, but relying on the star of God’s guidance to bring them to the place where they encounter the true King of Kings.  It reminds me that while we may be in uncharted territory – like the magi, like Abraham, like the people of Israel in the desert, like Paul in Asia Minor – God is there to guide if we are willing to follow.

Part of that uncharted territory for all of us in 2018 is the transition of the pastor’s position to 80% of full time, subject to a review after 6 months to see what is feasible at that point.  I worked closely with our Finance Team, Diaconate and the Administrative Team as we looked at the budget realities and the broader ministry concerns we had, and am convinced that this was the most prudent thing to do at the time.

One of the challenging aspects of making this decision at our Annual Meeting is that there was so much to process in this, that it is hard, perhaps impossible in the timeframe, to really do justice to everyone’s questions, thoughts, and concerns.  There have been generous offers of support made, and heartfelt ideas forwarded about how we might make things work.  While this is ultimately about discerning how we can best allocate resources to fulfill God’s mission, I feel very supported and encouraged by the members of the church who are concerned about how this impacts Gabrielle and I as well as all of us.  I realize that there are lots of conversations that still need to happen, questions and ideas that need to be raised, and communication that we still need to improve on together.  After the meeting, I was grateful when someone came to me with concerns and questions that we hadn’t adequately spoken to during the meeting.  It gave me better insight into things I missed, things we could have done better at explaining and the opportunity to try and address those questions in a more helpful way.  So please, please, talk to one of the appropriate church leaders or me, if you have questions, concerns, or feedback that you would like to offer.

We are in this together, and we need to discern God’s guidance in the mission together.  God’s mission isn’t either “outside” or “inside” the church walls as much as it is about incorporating the priorities of discipleship, community, and making God’s love tangible in ever widening circles, in whatever we do.

Part of why I think it is important we make this adjustment now, and not in the future, is that it encourages us, if we are willing, to wrestle with key questions:

While part of our challenge is to increase our participation and to invite people to step into leadership roles, as well as in our financial support, this isn’t about making people feel guilty about what we can’t do, as much as recognizing that given limited resources of time, people and money, how are we focusing what we do in the most effective ways as a church?  Whether part time, or whether we can move back to full time mid-year, what are the most important tasks of a pastor to help the church as a whole own and carry out its mission?

These are all challenges, and I will be the first to admit that humanly speaking, it scares me too.  But I see God at work in this congregation.  I see it in our small groups and individuals, a desire to know not just more about God, but to know God more deeply.  I see it in the way we take care of each other, particularly with a heart for people in our community who are the most vulnerable.  I love our church’s heart for those struggling with mental illness, even though we know that’s not always an easy road to walk along with someone.  I love the ways that we connect our faith back out into everyday life, carrying it into our workplaces, being generous and compassionate in ways that will never bring credit or attention in the eyes of the world, but which our Father in heaven notices.  I love the way we strive to keep the main thing the main thing, and give each other grace in the matters that aren’t essential.  I love how we are continuing to learn from our brothers and sisters in recovery about the need to be honest with God and others about our brokenness, and how freedom follows from allowing His grace in.  Time and again, I’ve seen our church be part of things that bring a taste of the Kingdom to Fond du Lac.  This may never bring financial security or big membership rolls – but if we focus on what God calls us into, someday by grace we will see a harvest of far more value.

We have a great church.  It is a vision of community that I am privileged to be a part of.  I don’t know what 2018 will bring, some of it will be challenging, some of it will be a blessing.  But I do know that God is faithful, that God is at work among us, and that whatever it holds, we don’t walk into this new year alone.

Thank you for being part of this journey together,

Pastor Brian

PS: I’m serious about the contacting us thing – if you have any ideas, questions, concerns, or feedback, let me know.  Let one of our deacons or other leaders know.  Whether at the church or over a cup of coffee – let’s talk.