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Everyone has a moment

April 8th, 2019

By Brenda Blackhawk

As humans we have this incredible ability to move. By move I mean not remain stagnant. We can grow. We are forever making or facing transitions in our lives that will shape who we are going forward. When we are faced with such defining moments – holy occasions that guide us down one path or another – I think it is a good idea to listen. Sometimes God is calling us to serve.

I grew up in North Minneapolis in a mixed-race, multi-cultural family. Nothing about my personal life was monotone. My family, my friends, the people I dated, and my adopted brothers and sisters ranged far and wide in race, ethnicity, and culture. I didn’t know I was living a sheltered life until I went to Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

“I grew up in North Minneapolis in a mixed-race, multi-cultural family. Nothing about my personal life was monotone.”

Now, Minnesota is not known for being particularly racially varied, though some areas do have quite a bit of diversity. Moving to Iowa, experiencing the culture shock, and witnessing blatant racism and deeply privileged ignorance contributed significantly to shaping who I am. I learned the terminology to talk about justice in productive ways. I joined an honor society dedicated to intersectional gender justice. I started participating in vigils and protests. The decision to move to Iowa ultimately changed my life.

I graduated in May of 2016. The plan was to be a writer and an editor — to make a good living doing two of my favorite things: reading and correcting people. But two weeks before I moved home to Minnesota, another one of my defining moments occurred and I listened to God.

 

THAT DAY I WAS working with my friend Karissa, both of us restaurant servers with the spirits of social justice activists. As soon as the lunch rush died down, she pulled me aside to tell me that a Black man in the Twin Cities was murdered by the police.

I started panicking. “What was his name? Where was he? Who was it?”

After several minutes of research on our phones, we discovered that his name was Philando Castile. I lived in desperate fear for the minutes leading up to that discovery. Karissa and I held on to each other and we cried for his loss. But, if I’m honest, I also cried out of relief that he was a stranger to me and not one of those young men that I already loved.

“After that moment, I knew I would never be fully satisfied with a career as a writer and editor.”

After that moment, I knew I would never be fully satisfied with a career as a writer and editor. In whatever direction I went, a justice component would be essential. I listened to God, who I believe was encouraging me to use my gifts and experience to fight for a more just world.

When will our congregations have a defining moment around justice? When will we see our collective power as a tool to do as Jesus did and care for the poor, defend the oppressed, call for justice? Can we do so today? Are we listening to “the still, small voice of God”?

The Magic of Gathering

March 26th, 2019

By Pastor Kelly Chatman

Albert Einstein has been quoted to have said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” The congregation I serve is more than 100 years old and 50 years ago it was thriving, with neighborhood residents walking to worship on Sunday mornings.

The congregation was said to have had so many children that one of the classes was actually held in the boiler room. More recently we had reached a time when few people walked to church and few children attended Sunday school; the boiler room had become a quiet, seldom-entered space.

“Have we lost imagination for how and where God might show up.”

In spite of the changing circumstances, this congregation continued to do the same old things hoping and expecting a different result. In reality, people were not coming. The sanctuary remained beautiful, but seating space was readily available on Sunday mornings.

Desperate times demand desperate measures. I know this may sound shocking, but we tried something different.

 

REALIZING THAT CHILDREN WERE NOT flocking to participate in our after-school program, we noticed that a popcorn shop across the street had been closed for some time. The inside of the shop was in great shape and we began to wonder about that space as a possible location for our after-school program. We gathered enough resources to commit to renting the shop for a year and we launched our after-school outreach in the popcorn shop.

Three little girls who were sisters in family foster care began attending the after-school program. One of the girls asked our youth director, “Is [the after-school program] a church or a magical place?” It gets better. At the end of the year, the shop owner, who had been critical of the church, not only returned half the year’s rent, he had his son baptized at the church.

Not all the good stuff happens in the church building!

Sometimes our blessings come when we try new things. Sometimes magic happens in the boiler room. Sometimes it happens when we dare to encounter people who have given up on the church. Sometimes I wonder if God isn’t waiting for the church to show up outside the walls of our buildings.

“Sometimes magic happens in the boiler room.”

I wonder not because something inside is lacking, but because we have lost imagination for how and where God might show up. I mean, really, if Sunday school can happen in a boiler room and a popcorn shop can lead to baptism, maybe that little girl’s question is not such a stretch. Can the church also be a magical place?

So friends, let’s look around our church buildings and our neighborhoods. Where might there be opportunity to try something new as an outreach and service in your community? What opportunity might be waiting for our congregations and for us to become God’s imaginative people.

An Ode to Toast and the Limits of Winter

March 18th, 2019

By Emilie Bouvier

Wednesday, February 6, was the day that Charo was taken away. Who is Charo (other than a famous flamenco guitarist), you ask? Charo is the name of the large, delightfully warm, conveyor toaster that graces the dining hall of Holden Village. That is, when there’s enough power to keep her plugged in.

February is an interesting month at Holden Village, the remote intentional community where I’m spending this year pursuing my art practice. It’s the month when the sun finally begins to rise higher than Buckskin peak, meaning suddenly we get more than just two hours of direct sunlight a day in the valley (celebrated in the obscure Holden holiday dubbed “Sun Over Buckskin”). But it’s also the month when colder temperatures and a growing snow pack begin to significantly slow the creek that supplies our hydro power.

“We get so used to everything being immediate and at our convenience.”

It’s re-shaping, really, to be living in direct relationship with what the land allows for you. On days that are cold or that an avalanche clogs the stream and the power goes out, you adjust. On cold days you add more wood to the boiler and take shifts waking during the night to keep it running. When the power goes out you work by the light of a headlamp and do another task that doesn’t require that tool (be it a miter saw or printer).

We get so used to everything being immediate and at our convenience. We get used to thinking we have enough control and technology to manage whatever weather or nature throw at us, keeping all systems running smoothly.

“It’s re-shaping, really, to be living in direct relationship with what the land allows for you.”

Occasional logins to Facebook have informed me that you all in the Twin Cities area have been experiencing this in your own way – as evidenced by the posts of parents with young kiddos or of friends struggling to drive to and from work on the dangerous roads. I know you have been experiencing your own unique agony of interruption and inconvenience in these past weeks.

Every once in a while, we get that painful and viscerally felt reminder from our dear environment that we are not in control and would do well to live within her bounds.

 

FOR THESE NEXT COUPLE of months, I know I’ll be learning a lot about my own consumption of electricity, and learning (sometimes painfully) what I can better do without. I’ll charge my electronics only at night, use hot water sparingly, only use the lights and equipment that I absolutely need, and have patience with my laundry as I hang it to dry.

As much as I’ve thought about these things before (hello, EcoFaith energy team), I’m definitely experiencing electricity differently when caving to my longing for a second (or third) cup of pour-over coffee could be the ill-timed power surge that causes of an outage for the whole village. Yet even when it’s uncomfortable to live with less, I’m also finding out what’s actually fairly easy to let go of and how much I really don’t need. In the end I’m grateful for the ways I’m learning and being shaped by the landscape and the limitations of the winter – even when I really miss the toast.

The great give away

March 4th, 2019

By Pastor Deb Stehlin

It feels like grace

As I write this post, there is yet another windchill warning, and more snow is expected later this week. As a traveling preacher, I had kind of hoped that getting where I need to go would become easier now that it’s March. But I have to tell you that I’m really grateful for the blizzard last weekend.

I was scheduled to preach at Holy Trinity Lutheran in New Prague. When it was announced that Sunday morning travel was “not advised,” I decided to drive there on Saturday and stay at a hotel. Pastors Ben and Alicia Hilding insisted on making the arrangements for me. That was kind.

When I got to my room, a gift was waiting for me. Wow! Kindness upon unexpected kindness. Then, I was told that the staff and their families wanted me to come to dinner with them at the Fishtale Restaurant. “As long as we’ve been thrown a curveball, we might as well turn it into a party,” said Pastor Ben. It felt like grace.

 

THAT’S WHEN IT BECAME clear to me: This congregation knows how to embody God’s love. We are pretty good at telling people that God loves them, but it’s really when we provide an experience of God’s surprising, unexpected, undeserved love that it really sinks in.

“When we provide an experience of God’s surprising, unexpected, undeserved love, it really sinks in.”

God did the same thing for us. Rather than using only words, God came to us in Jesus, who embodied a radical, self-giving, undeserved love. And then, Jesus told us to love others the way he loves us.

I have two days to decide what my Lenten discipline will be. Right now, I’m thinking that I’m going to look for ways to demonstrate God’s surprising grace whenever I can. Because when you’ve received it, it’s not something you can keep to yourself. God’s grace is something you just have to give away.

“Workin’ my Committee for the Lord”

February 26th, 2019

By Pastor John Hulden

I go out to church now
     workin’ my committee for the Lord
I go every second Tuesday night
     workin’ my committee for the Lord

Jesus called disciples
     workin’ that committee for the Lord
yeah he went down to the lakeshore
     workin’ that committee for the Lord

Deward, Jean, Darlene, Vickie, Marlene, Tom, Alan — I can’t even begin to list all the church council presidents I worked with and learned from in my first 26 years in the parish. Today especially, I’m grateful for lay leaders in our ELCA congregations. Oh my goodness, what a gift they bring with their passion and leadership to congregations.

But why am I grateful this particular day?

Because miracles do happen. Two-hundred-and-fifty church leaders showed up this snowy Saturday morning — after a very snowy week — to do churchy work. Say what? 250? Yikes!

The synod’s annual Tool Kit and Conference Assemblies event just finished. There were churchy workshops about “Financial Best Practices,” “Safety and Emergency Preparedness,” “Who lives in my Neighborhood?,” “Connecting with your Community,” “Ready to Talk about Culture and Race?,” “Maximizing the Value of your Real Estate,” and more.

Teams of leaders came from congregations across our synod. (“Snowy roads? Big deal! I’ve got churchy workshops to go to!”) Speaking of miracles, most even brought their pastors.

 

IN MY WORK FOR YOU, one of the many blessings is to meet lay leaders – church council presidents, call committee chair people, confirmation mentors, choir members, music leaders, volunteer parish nurses. The wonderful list goes on and on.

And what to lay leaders do? They meet in meetings!

Whether we think it is a bane or blessing, the people of God need to organize themselves by meeting in meetings. Meetings move the mission of God forward through the ministry of a congregation. Well, that’s what I think happens at church meetings. Plus, a meeting gives the people of God the opportunity to grow, learn, support, and pray together. (Yes, don’t forget to check-in with each other and pray at your meetings!)

That reminds me of a missed opportunity for most of my last call up in Moorhead. It was only the last year or two I was there that I had the wherewithal to go visit the funeral servers as they got the funeral lunch ready. I would gather them together, thank them for their ministry, and then we’d pray. We’d pray for the grieving family. We’d pray for God to bless the funeral service and the hospitality offered. It took me 15 years at that call before I figured out that praying with the funeral servers just might be a good idea. Because after all, they were “workin’ their committee for the Lord”!

And, here are the last two verses of Jonathan Rundman’s song:

Luther took his hammer
     workin’ that committee for the Lord
yeah he walked up to the front door
     workin’ that committee for the Lord

Mildred goes to church now
     workin’ her committee for the Lord
she got her needle and her thread now
     workin’ her committee for the Lord

(Thanks to Jonathan Jonathan Rundman for allowing me to share these lyrics. You can find the song at track #10 on the Reservoir album at http://jonathanrundman.com/music.)

 

Of Mystics, Image, and Story

February 11th, 2019

By Emilie Bouvier

Hush, hush, my little root … my little pod
Hush … hush … my little grandmother

I read these words from Meridel Le Sueur two mornings ago to a room of women, rapt with silence, early in the morning on the first full day of the annual winter women’s retreat at Holden Village. My eyes strained as they read the lines in the low light, with images of my original artworks projected behind me. I chose to pair my “land-formed” photographs, as I like to call them, with texts of women – mystics, poets, theologians, and ordinary women who shared with me their wisdom. This cloud of voices spoke together about the land, about fire ecology, justice, seed and egg, grandmothers, light and obscurity.

After the last reading and the silence returned, I listened. I invited the room to share responses. One by one, these women started sharing deep and moving stories. One spoke of her love of the plains, the landscape she grew up in. Another shared through tears of emotion what it meant to her to trace her grandmother’s journey of immigration, and her learnings of how family histories are passed through our bodies, especially in the bodies of women. Another confided her struggles with male images of God and her longing for spiritual experience of God through the feminine. Another shared her own experience of forest fire, loss, and reshaping of her relationship with the land.

“The beauty of difference is that we each get to tell our own stories.”

I was floored. There was no way I had expected this deep or vulnerable of a response so immediately. This was the first time I had tried out pairing the images directly with reading that have grounded their making. In some ways it was hard to not jump in and start explaining, to let the varied voices have their own integrity and give them time to speak. But this clearly worked. Why?

 

THEN IT HIT ME – an old insight, returning. In my seminary days, I took a class with Sarah Bellamy of Penumbra Theatre, entitled Bearing Witness, the Power of Story. One of the many things I learned from her is that the best way to tell a story is not in the abstract, but in the particular. If you try to say something that speaks to everyone, you may well end up speaking to no one. But if you tell your own story in all its particularity and detail, it has the power to stir up story in others – even if that story for them is quite different.

This speaks to me also in the story of our faith. Holden is a place rooted in Lutheran-Christian identity but is open and welcoming to people of all (or no) faith background(s). I worship beside fellow community members who identify as agnostic, Buddhist, atheist, and non-denominational. Sometimes, in the presence of difference, we want to pull back and make a space held and word spoken one that encompasses everything – leaning toward the abstract and open. Yet, I think that can often do us a disservice. The beauty of difference is that we each get to tell our own stories, and in their gritty particulars, invite the experience and emotion of others, even if sometimes it’s held in tension with our own.

“If you try to say something that speaks to everyone, you may well end up speaking to no one.”

As we find ourselves in the space between the incarnation and the cross, I hold to the particulars of our Jesus story – the water-breaking, baptismal-claiming, teaching, healing, dying, rising, story of Christ. As we journey through these seasons, I hope you meet God in the details of the stories and that they give you good courage to share your own.

Shutdown slowdown blues

January 28th, 2019

By Pastor Craig Pederson

Before I felt the call to explore ordained ministry, I was a federal employee. Fresh out of college in the early 1990s, I secured a job as a claims representative for the Social Security Administration. Ironically, the Minneapolis District Office where I worked was a few blocks down Franklin Avenue just east of our synod office – and it’s still there. Perhaps some of you have visited that office to apply for a new Social Security card, or to apply for retirement or disability benefits, or to process survivor benefits upon the death of a loved one.

During the six years of my federal employment, I was a part of two government shutdowns. The first was in 1990, just a few months after I started; it lasted only three days. I was single and had only myself to support, so that was kind of like a paid holiday!

“Martin Luther would scoff at shutdowns as antithetical to the “good government” he believed was necessary for baptized Christians to live out their vocations.”

But, the second shutdown lasted 21 days. It took place in 1995-96, during my second year of seminary when I had cut back to halftime at my job in order to take a fulltime load of classes. With tuition, housing, and other family living expenses to manage, that shutdown had some really bit into my life.

I write this blog entry on the 35th day of the current federal government shutdown, which has dubiously broken the record for the longest shutdown in United States history. While hoping and praying that it will have ended by the time you read this, it appears unlikely.

 

STORIES CONTINUE TO MULTIPLY and intensify about the adverse effects of the shutdown on some 800,000 federal employees (who are promised to be paid eventually, but that doesn’t help their cash flow now), on contract employees who provide services to federal agencies (who will not receive any back pay, so their income losses continue to mount), and on the overall U.S. economy. And, we hear increasing concerns about air traffic safety, food and drug safety, tax return delays, deteriorating conditions at federal parks and museums and other attractions, and on it goes.

One of the benefits (if we can call it that) of these shutdowns is that they debunk the tired old stereotype of the nameless, faceless, uncaring government employee. My co-workers at Social Security were devoted, caring public servants who just wanted to report to work and do their jobs the best they could (I hope they would have said the same of me!).

But the troubling stories and concerns are very real and should compel elected leaders to get to the table and work out a compromise to get the federal government open and running again.

“My co-workers at Social Security were devoted, caring public servants who just wanted to report to work and do their jobs the best they could.”

I think Martin Luther would scoff at shutdowns as antithetical to the “good government” he believed was necessary for baptized Christians to live out their vocations. And beyond the disruption of civil order in our public life, shutdowns also point out the brokenness of our civic dialogue.

In the past week I’ve been asked more than once if there was any kind of collective response to the shutdown by the church. I am not aware of anything locally. In areas of the country where there are higher concentrations of federal employees, the church has been stepping up in some inspiring ways.

In the coming weeks, I would encourage you to reach out to federal employees you may know and offer your prayers and support. You may also want to consider reaching out to your elected federal representatives to let them know how you feel about the shutdown. Even if it ends soon, we still have serious work to do in making government work better – especially for the most vulnerable among us.

Christians can and should be part of that conversation, upholding the values of love, justice, and mercy that Jesus exemplified. That is our baptismal call; let us live it!

Editor’s Note: You can thank Craig for ending the shutdown! As he completed this blog on Friday afternoon, it was announced that President Trump will sign legislation reopening the government – at least for three weeks. Now we hope, pray, and encourage our elected leaders to form a more sustainable agreement that lasts beyond three weeks.

Measuring

January 22nd, 2019

By Pr. Deb Stehlin

With the turn of the calendar page to a new year, I find myself getting pulled into the world’s way of measuring. Is the number on the bathroom scale getting lower? How many times did I work out this week? What are my big, fabulous goals for finding success in 2019?

It’s annual performance review season, too. We make a list of the goals that were accomplished and describe the impact our work has had. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t evaluate our effectiveness – after all, this gospel work is important to the wellbeing of our neighbors. I actually enjoy annual review conversations with our synod’s mission developers. (I hope they do, too.) We get to look back at the year and remember the good things and the hard things, as well as look for signs of the movement of the Holy Spirit.

But we follow Jesus, who spent a lot of time questioning our measuring systems. Jesus accomplished his goal (telos) on a cross, being killed for going against the things the empire measures and revealing the true heart of God.

 

ONE OF THE QUESTIONS I include in the mission developer review is “What is God teaching you?” Here’s how one developer answered: “God has been teaching me that faithfulness is a better metric than success.”

Another mission developer urged his faith community (which has a budget of about $80,000) to give 156 percent more mission support for the work of the wider church than they had initially pledged. He said, “If we’re not faithful with how we use our money, how can we ask our participants to be faithful?” For him and his leaders, faithfulness is more important to measure than the size of the ministry’s bank account.

“What if you stopped measuring the “success” of your congregation in the usual ways?”

These things inspire me. They inspire me to “let the same mind be in me that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5) and question what we measure and how we measure it.

During the Minneapolis Area Synod’s Tool Kit for congregation leaders, I’m going lead a workshop called, “Five Marks of a Vital Congregation and Two Questions Not to Ask.” You should attend the Took Kit. It will be held February 23 at St. Stephen in Bloomington.

What if you stopped measuring the “success” of your congregation in the usual ways and asked instead, “How can we be faithful? What tangible things would we be doing to demonstrate our faithfulness?” I hope to see you there.

Spicing up your property management … with less salt

January 9th, 2019

By Bob Hulteen

How much does the Bible have to say about salt? A Lot. (Get it? That’s kind of funny, right? Okay, please don’t let a bad pun keep you from reading the rest of the blog.)

Another question: How much salt does it take to contaminate a five-gallon pail of water? Guesses? The answer is one teaspoon, according to Gael Zembal, education and outreach coordinator of the Nine Mile Creek Watershed District, headquartered in Eden Prairie.

That’s part of the reason Gael and her colleagues from Riley Purgatory Bluff Creek, Coon Creek, and the Minnehaha Creek watershed districts offer fall/winter workshops for church staff about the use of salt on parking lots and sidewalks. As significant property owners within a community, congregational leaders have a responsibility to reflect on the impact of choices on the lives of their neighbors.

 

UNEXPECTEDLY FOR ME, WORKSHOP LEADERS acknowledged early on the requirement for property managers to be concerned for safety. But, by teaching participants about proper techniques, safety can increase even while cost and environmental harm decrease. Like most things, intentionality is the primary requirement.

Sitting through a two-hour interactive presentation, I learned the difference between deicing and anti-icing, an appropriate distribution pattern for salt on sidewalks, storage best practices, and the impact of small changes on Minnesota’s water quality. I even got to take back to the office a pavement thermometer (because the temperature of the pavement – not air temperature – determines the effectiveness of the various surface treatments).

“How much salt does it take to contaminate a five-gallon pail of water?”

Our public institutions, including the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Pollution Control Agency, are committed to salt smart, meaning the use of an effective but limited amount of salt on roadways and walkways to protect public safety. These agencies have developed best practices. Watershed District office staff throughout our synod are willing to share their knowledge with institutional leaders (meaning us).

I encourage congregational leaders to do an assessment of salt use on your property. Then, coordinate with other congregations (either in your synod conference, text study group, or local ecumenical expression) to gather property managers and custodial staff for an in-service from your local watershed organization. It’s a fairly simple way to care for God’s creation.

After all, we are called to be “the salt of the earth,” not to salt our waterways. (Sorry, again, but that’s the best closing I could come up with. Look at the bright side; you don’t have to read any more.)

 

The story of about Lot’s wife being turned into salt is found in Genesis 19. The call to be the salt of the earth is from Matthew 5:13. Just FYI.

With joy and wonder

December 19th, 2018

By Grace Corbin

On the last Friday evening of November, surrounded by the winter-decorated sanctuary of Central Lutheran, I sat expectantly as I waited for Augsburg’s Vespers Service to begin. Augsburg Vespers is a concert and a worship experience, led by Augsburg’s Music Department and Campus Ministry. Maybe a few of you have attended this beautiful worship that marks the beginning of Advent.

Ringed by my former fellow choristers, I was quietly anticipating an event that shaped my choir experience at Augsburg. There’s always so much to take it when attending Vespers. The sanctuary was beautifully decorated with blue hues and lighted trees. You can’t help but sit there and know that something awe-inspiring is about to take place.

Soon the orchestra began to play its opening number, and I was immersed into the longing of Advent. Then the whole audience was invited to stand and sing “Unexpected and Mysterious.” I had never heard this hymn before, but quickly fell in love with its unique melody. As I reflect now on this flowing song I am taken by the last verse.

We are called to ponder myst’ry and await the coming Christ,
to embody God’s compassion for each fragile human life.
God is with us in our longing to bring healing to the earth,
while we watch with joy and wonder for the promised Savior’s birth.

 

THIS WHOLE VERSE sums up what advent means to me. I continue to come back to the second half of the verse, God is with us in our longing to bring healing for the earth, while we watch with joy and wonder for the promised Savior’s birth. On this last day in this season of longing, we still wait with anticipation for many things. We wait for a little boy to be born, we wait for peace to come to earth, we wait for a source of hope. And in our longing, God is with us. During this time of anticipation for the birth of Christ, we are not offered answers, but the gift of presence.

“During this time of anticipation for the birth of Christ, we are not offered answers, but the gift of presence.”

During what is a busy season for church folk, who are you being present to? Is there someone in your life who could use your gift of presence? Or maybe, in this busy time, are you in need of the gift of presence?

Remember to take a break, take a breath, and pause with those people who are in need of your gift of presence. Soon a little baby boy will be born and the waiting will be no more.

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