Love > …

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Old Lutheran is up to it again. This time they are reminding us, anyone who loosely considers themselves a church person, of the power of love. Love is greater than many things. It is certainly greater than hate, but it is also greater than status, than tradition, than money, and fear and jealousy (you get the point.). Old Lutheran has asked church leaders from around the country to write short reflections that draw us into discussion with one another on the power of love, and in particular God’s love. (You can search them with the hashtag #loveisgreater.)

I had the opportunity to write one on Love > Grief. Check it out. (Here are other short reflections  on Love > Hate – Go to the bottom of the page.) And my greater invitation is for  you to be part of a movement that spreads love, God’s love in the world. Read these reflections, talk about the power of love with your friends, get yourself a T-shirt and spread the word, or simply let love be your driving force today and in the days ahead. Remember #loveisgreater

and the floors need to be mopped

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It’s been a week since I pulled into my garage. As I walked into the house and set down my bags, I headed to the kitchen continuing the conversation my husband and I started in the car. “How’s work?” “Talked to the kids?” “What time will you be home from your meeting?” As I sat in the stairway I got a panoramic view of the house – the living room, dining room, kitchen. The floors need to be mopped, I thought.

Today I returned from Detroit were 1,050 church leaders connected, learned, and supported each other in our shared call to children, youth, and young adult ministry. Many were friends and colleagues I anticipate seeing year after year. I treasure our relationships and am amazed at how quickly hotel hallways can become holy spaces. Others were past students, now well established in ministry roles around the country. It is a pleasure to be partners in ministry with them. And other faces were unfamiliar only days ago and today their stories echo in my heart. Their stories express the joys and sadness of leading ministry in 2015.

Art, drama, song, worship, teaching, and conversation embedded the theme of story into the rhythm of each day and night. Rachel Kurtz’s “Make a Difference” made the group “Rise Up” as her voice and the melodies filled our souls. The gospel of Mark came alive as Phil proclaimed it in front of “the big book” Nate and Katelyn illustrated. Liz preached, Todd welcomed, Nikki prepared, Dawn orchestrated, and Chris, Tom, and Tim produced. The rugged, boxy cross and phonograph baptismal font claimed the ballroom, and us. And each day as characters stepped in our “theatre in the round” a room was transformed, and the lost were found. The story lives and moves inside us.

As my husband left, the house quieted and I went to get the mop and the broom. Almost Cinderella-like, I went about my cores as my mind wondered about my friends and the future. “Did our students make it home safely?” “What will come of my new friendships?” “What will next year be like?” “What time is it in our church?” “What do I do with this?” Seeing the new blanket of snow falling outside, I’m hopeful flights continue getting people home. Then the washing machine buzzer sounds; time for another load.

Many hands and minds make a gathering like this possible, and makes evident the claim, “many hands make light work.” But this gathering is not just about an event. It is not even just about growing as leaders. It’s about the church. It’s about people telling God’s story even as they tell a bit of their own.

Tomorrow I, like many others, will return to my “ordinary” work. Classes to teach, confirmation to prepare, sermons to write, retreats to plan, expense reports to complete, emails to return. The list will be long, the demands great, and the energy low. Then, after a full day of work, I, like many, will enter a church building and sit among Kentons, Alexes, Jakes, Jonahs, Justins, and Davins – with all the energy and curiosity 7th grade boys can bring. We’ll ask each other about our week. I’ll hear about soccer and basketball and math tests and siblings. They’ll hear about Detroit, getting 16 inches of snow, and what it’s like watching the Super Bowl with several hundred other people. And in the midst of telling our stories we will tell God’s story.

Perhaps big things will come of this week in Detroit. Some may have sensed a call to ministry, decided to take a new job, committed to go to seminary, or met the person they will marry. I hope the Spirit moved in such profound ways. But perhaps this week in Detroit has as much to do with the ordinary things – our to-do lists, conversations with our friends and family members, healing our hearts, reminding us we are not alone, and, well, mopping the floors. Tomorrow as I head off to work, I will hold this past week in my heart and pray my eyes are open to see God’s story in the people I encounter. Perhaps you will too.

#ext15

A visit to South Carolina

I’m wrapping up my time in South Carolina. It has been a great opportunity to teach seminary students located in a different region of the country. I have learned from them in class, I have discovered a bit of South Carolina’s history, and I have even tasted some southern cuisine. It has been nothing but delightful to join another learning community, even if for a short amount of time.

In class we have been talking about, rather wrestling with, ministry with children in this time. So many forces are shaping children today – consumerism, digital media, social networking, athletics – and it can be overwhelming for parents and ministry leaders as they try to engage in faith practices and learn about God’s story. While we are ending with more questions than answers, a few things have surfaced:

1. Our identity as people of faith comes from God, not society. Ground kids, ground us all, in that promise. Our identity as children of God never changes. While the world wants to commodify life, tell us what to wear, try to influence our values, and turn us into objects, God claims us and makes us subject of God’s love. That’s pretty cool.

2. Subjects need to live in community. As subjects of God’s love that means living in a relationship with God and with other of God’s subjects. Being in Christian community we are reminded of our identity and of the one who loves us and created us. In community we are formed and shaped as subjects of God’s love. In community we are informed of who is God is, and we grow deeper in our love for God, ourselves, and the world. And in community we are transformed, made new and empowered to love and serve others. And that leads to…

3. As subjects of God’s love we are also agents of God’s love. Yes, we gather with other Christian periodically, but we spend most of our time scattered in the world. And when we are scattered in the world, we have a role to play. We are to embody God’s love in the world, we get to give God’s love hands and feet and hearts and ears.

What if, at the heart of ministry with children (and their families), we helped children know theses three things? What if we shared these ideas with words and actions? What if we helped families do this as well? I don’t know what a typical week would look like in our congregations, but I’d hope we’d be spreading God’s love in the world.

Oh yea, and we have a guest who joined us. Check this out.

Hanging with Phil

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Phil, the compensated celebrity spokesperson for the ELCA Youth Ministry Network, invited me to spend a long weekend in St. Louis. I, along with 650, said yes. (Phil’s the one in the middle and here’s the invite if you want to see Phil in action – 

Honestly, it wasn’t convenient. (There were several things going on at work and at home which I had to miss.) But I missed it last year and I needed to go. Why?

First, as many will say (including Tara Ulrich and Organic Youth Ministry) the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Gathering is more than a learning event, it is a network. And while this network is always there – virtually accessible with local and regional opportunities to gather – there’s something powerful about being in a space where the virtual network is physically real.

I’ve been teaching children, youth, young adult and family ministry at Luther Seminary for the past 9 years … and the funny thing about students is…well, they graduate. So one of the coolest things I get to do at this gathering is hear how life and ministry is going today…on the “other side” of graduation. While in St. Louis I had dozens of conversations with Luther alumni, now working in some area of ministry in the first third of life. I heard their joys, and felt their struggles. I listened. We laughed. We worshipped together, and we dreamed about what it means to move the church forward into this new age. These conversations were rich, not only because we reconnected, but because we were now partners in ministry – colleagues and friends.

But that’s not all. For the past several years I have worked with a team of leaders on a church-wide initiative on equipping youth ministry leaders. When we started it was a new concept, never tried before. People were confused and unsure how it would go, but they went with it. Now, three years later, people are coming up to me and sharing really cool stories about how they are using the work of this initiative to empower leaders – adults and youth – in ministry and in integrating their faith into their daily life. The smiles, many accompanied with hugs, tell me their confusion has turned to hope. I love the church. But I also know the church has to rethink it’s frames and approaches to ministry if it is going to faithfully live out its calling. While in St. Louis, I had a glimpse of the change taking place in the church.

And there’s one other thing. Our church, the church I have been part of all my life, is shifting it’s leadership model. Oh, don’t get me wrong…we don’t have it all figured out  but we are on our way. And I got glimpses of a new future, a future were leaders are  humble, servant leaders with a mission and vision. There is a desire for faith to be alive among God’s people and God’s people to be active in God’s world. For two days after the big gathering, I had conversation with some of these leaders. They, like me, had other places they could have been and other things they could have been doing. But they came together in St Louis to think beyond their stream of work and vision about a new day, a day where our church initiatives are more connected and collaborative. Why? because fostering faith among those in the first third of life – babies, children, youth and young adults – matters! 

So today, I’m tired and having a hard time reentering the world I left behind. It’s so easy to get back to the daily tasks…and I will…but I want to reengage in light of what I just experienced. How might my daily work, my ordinary work, keep these ideas alive? How might my decisions, big and small, be part of our larger church’s exploration of what it means to be church in 2014 and beyond? These are just some of the questions which distract and challenge me today.

For those of you who were in St. Louis – thanks for your work. You matter, your work matters and your presence in the ELCA Youth Ministry Network matters. Help me, help us, help each other and the church live our calling. And to those who were not there but are in some way part of this larger network of God’s people seeking to faithfully live their faith everyday…stay connected, both virtually and physically, because it helps fuel the journey.

Terri

Open Hands, Open Hearts

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Yesterday I was a guest preacher in a congregation I had never been to before. I entered as I do many congregation, a friendly stranger, but left with more than I had anticipated – with a deep sense of connection to God and insight into what it means to be the body of Christ.

On all accounts, this congregation was welcoming. Several people came to me and introduced themselves as I entered. Many talked with me afterwards, sharing a bit about their lives and their concerns. A young boy engaged me in conversation as he sold me a candy bar. If I was assessing their hospitality, this congregation would have scored high. Yet interestingly enough the most transformational part of my experience was not their hospitality, but rather came in an ordinary and unexpected moment.

In addition to preaching, I served communion. As is typical in many congregations, people came to the front of the Sanctuary and knelt at the communion rail. As they did they rested their open hands on the railing and waited to receive the bread and wine. Moving slowly from person to person, breaking off bread as I went, I placed a piece in their hand and said, ‘the body of Christ broken for you.’ Simple, traditional words which turned opened up an extraordinary experience. You see, as I placed the bread in their hands and said these words, my eyes moved from their hands to their face. As their eyes met mine, my heart was touched, softened, nudged. With each new person the experience became more personal. As I made my way, I noticed something…not only were their faces unique, but so were their hands. Each pair of hands had its own character, told it’s own story. Many of the hands were twisted as a result of arthritis. Some were the hands of laborers, big and rugged; others were refined, soft and polished. Some hands were the hands of children, others assisted the elderly. Yet all were open.

Our church, the ELCA, has lifted up a mantra, ‘God’s Work, Our Hands.’ One of the ways this mantra has come to life was with hundreds of congregations beginning this fall season of ministry putting their faith into action, using their hands to speak GOD’s love in the world. We’ve been highlighting hands for months, but crazy as it may sound, I hadn’t paid much attention to actual hands. I mean really looked at people’s hands. That is, until today.

An interesting aspect of this story is this congregation’s location – New Orleans. It was one of the two Lutheran congregations hardest hit by Katrina. I, like many of you, have lifted this city and its people up in prayer regularly since Hurricane Katrina hit. I have seen first hand the devastation in the early months and I have witnessed its spirit renewed more and more each time I return. New Orleans is coming back. Sure this transformation did not happen overnight, and it was and is not easy, but the people of New Orleans opened their hands to others and put their hands to work. And today its a new day.

Over the years, as I have prayer, visited, and worked alongside the people of this city, I have come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of its culture and spirit. And yesterday, as I placed bread in the hands of its people and shared the promise of GOD’s love for the broken and vulnerable, I saw this spirit in the flesh. This is a community of people who use their hands and open their hearts.

Over our lifetime, our hands will tell a story. What story will they tell? Will we be willing to open our hands to God and our neighbor? Will we let our hands and our hearts be connected? Can our hands tangibly express the unbelievable promises of God’s love for us and the world? Ordinary, useful, weathered, hands are agent of GOD’s love. Yes, it is God’s mission for all the world to know, truly know, God loves them unconditionally. And we, GOD’s people, have been created each with a unique pair of hands. This is the body of Christ at work.

Perspectives on the ELCA

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This weekend is like the new year for churches. ‘Rally Day,’ as many call it, marks the shift in seasons – from summer to fall – and includes changes in worship, as well as things like Sunday School and confirmation ministry.

And while many congregations celebrate this change of seasons, my church – the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) – is also rethinking its practices. As we celebrate 25 years as a denomination, we also recognize our rich 400 years history. We see the changes in the culture, as we also honor tradition. We recognize our call to gather with other Christians, and our command to go into the world. We love God, but also know we are to love our neighbors.

I’m curious about what will emerge in the years ahead, and I’m keeping my eyes and ears open for hints of what’s coming. Many of you are too. Today I’d like to share some of what has caught my attention. These two pieces describe my church, my denomination, my tradition, in a way that gives me hope. Perhaps it might offer you hope as well.

1. “Day of Service helps Lutherans return to their roots.” An article in the StarTribune about the ELCA initiative for congregations to celebrate this new year by serving in their community.
http://www.startribune.com/local/222829931.html

2. A Krista Tippett interview with Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, a non-traditional pastor speaking about Lutheran theology, liturgy, and innovation for the sake of sharing the good news of Jesus.
http://www.onbeing.org/blog/nadia-bolz-weber-talks-tattoos-resurrection-and-gods-disruption-video/5921

One view of Church

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I’ve been in downtown Pittsburgh for 4 days. What a beautiful city in the summer with the rivers, parks, and outdoor restaurants. But the scenery and food are not what is most memorable about this trip.

I’m in Pittsburgh because I’m a member of the Evangelical Church in America (ELCA) and I’m representing Luther Seminary, the school where I teach, at the national gathering of ELCA Lutherans. My role is easy, I’m an advisor, a resource person. I’m not sure what I’m suppose to do, but here’s what I’ve done. I’ve Listened to pastors and lay leaders from across the ELCA talk about their faith, their love for the people in the communities in which they worship, and their passion for the church (collectively and locally) to make a difference in their lives, in their local communities, and in the world. They are filled with excitement, open to new ideas, and willing to change. And I have also had the opportunity to share what one little piece of the church, a school with a mission for educating leaders for Christian communities, is doing to contribute to the greater mission. I’ve had dinner with alumni, connected with colleagues, and begun dreaming with people about our future as a church.

Always being Made New‘ is the theme, and as this church celebrates its 25th birthday, it is putting those words into practice. Yesterday, for example, the voting assembly elected its first female presiding bishop (or top leader of the church). I was on the phone with my daughter as the results were coming in and I had to pause and soak in the moment. I have lived through the birthing of this expression of the Lutheran church and in my lifetime we have gone from not letting women be pastors to now having the top leader be a woman. Wow!

But as historic a moment as that was, it has not been the highlight. The highlight for me has been the under 35 crowd – the youth and young adults who have shown up, stepped up, and spoken up. (And tweeted, and blogged, and shared links, and…you get the picture.) Do they care about church governance? Some do, others don’t. But dealing with governance issues is only a small part of this gathering. What they do care about is the gospel, about putting faith into action, about global issues and local realities, about how we as a church handle our resources, and how much we are willing to change our patterns as we attend to these things. They are not naive, they know structures are needed to tend to such things, so they come to the table and ask really good, and often new, questions. They push and they listen. They ask for your opinion and offer their own. They can live in ambiguity and tension, but want to keep moving toward something important. I have found their presence refreshing AND helpful.

So as I pack up my things tomorrow night, and return to Minnesota, I do so refreshed and thankful. Thanks to the people who have nurtured these younger adults and listened to them. Thanks to the regional bodies who have entrusted them with real responsibility here, and hopefully at home. Thanks to the assembly for making room and listening to new, and often different, voices. And thanks be to God who reminds us, again and again, it’s the Spirit who makes all things new.

Current picture of ELCA by the numbers

Many of my ELCA peers have wondered about the impact of the churchwide vote on congregations leaving the ELCA. This past June The Lutheran gave a current picture by highlighting some of the numbers. And while numbers don’t tell us everything, they do note some of the changes. Here are some exerpts from the article:

“As of the beginning of April (2012), 915 congregations had taken first votes to leave the ELCA, with 684 passing and 231 failing. On the second vote (required to officially withdraw from the ELCA), 25 failed and 631 passed. Of those, 621 have been officially removed from the ELCA roster.” (bold mine)

Where was the impact?  Minnesota – 70 (6% of all ELCA churches there), Ohio – 53 (9%), Iowa – 53 (11%), Texas – 48 (13%), Pennsylvania – 40 (3%)

“With roughly 200 new starts over the past few years, the ELCA today claims about 9,800  congregations and 4.2 million members.”

What does this mean? Our church is changing…We are not stuck in the present and neither are we stranded by inaction in pining for some idealized past. We look and move forward with confidence like our forebears, placing our trust in the Lord to guide us.”

For more see: Numbers Tell a Tale of Change – Some up, done – always onward by Daniel Lehmann .The Lutheran, June 2012, access at http://www.thelutheran.org/article/article.cfm?article_id=10713