Monday, April 7, 2014

The Beauty of a Small Church

I've been an active disciples in churches of all sizes, from 500 in worship to 25 in worship and everything in between. I've also examined many churches and the way they function as the people of God who are on a mission in the world. After having served a church with around 100 in worship for the past 12 years* I am more than ever convinced that the small church is the church with the biggest mission per disciple. This is not a competition, of course, just my own personal reflections as a parish pastor and an encouragement to any who might come across this post who wonder if the small church is worth investing in.

In a small church:

* it's impossible to remain anonymous (unless you simply don't participate and, well then. . .)

* when you show up, you are surrounded by friends

* when you don't show up, people are concerned about your health and well being- even if you are just on vacation

* there's a job for everyone which means the pastor can't and won't "do it all"

* because there's a job for everyone, everyone is using their gifts and talents for the Kingdom of God

* there's a collaborative spirit in the small church because we know what it's like to work on a shoestring budget, with minimal resources, and we are great at tapping into our collective creativity

* worship is like a family gathering EVERY week

* the announcements at the beginning of worship are very personal because we care about all aspects of each other's lives

* children are a major focus and are included in everything; so are the elderly!

* we have the joy of watching each other grow over the years as God draws us deeper into faith and service as we have a common vision for what God is calling us to be and do in the name of Christ

* history and tradition are important foundations for the community

* we have a lot of fun together and that Spirit of joy can be felt as soon as a visitor walks in the room

* it's easy to become a part of the faith family; we welcome everyone!

In a culture that celebrates "bigger is better," the small church simply exists to serve its neighbor. No church is the church for everyone. Each has its own character. But before you write off the small church in your search for a faith home, consider what you are looking for. The small church isn't around to entertain but to inspire. The small church is a true community where love and forgiveness prevail, where spiritual growth is expected, and where we serve side by side in Christ's name.

In Christ,

* When I began serving Trinity Lutheran Church we were only 35-40 but have grown in many ways, including numerically, over the years.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Letter to Rose: On Being a Sister

My beautiful niece, Rose, and handsome nephew, Will.
Dear Rose,

Look how fast you are growing up! You are already so smart and beautiful that I simply cannot imagine what God has in store for your life. Maybe you'll be a pharmacist like your Daddy, or a teacher like Uncle Jeff, or a Speech Pathologist like your Mama. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination and drive, and we have seen already just how persistent you can be when you want something. (That's a good thing, by the way!)

There is one thing though, sweet girl, that you will always be. Your life changed when Will was born and it took on new meaning, even if you haven't considered it that way quite yet. Forever and always you will be a "big sister." This is something new in our family. Your mom is a little sister, I am a little sister, Anna and Ashley are both little sisters. Even Grandma Little is a younger sister. But you, you're special! You, my dear, are a BIG SISTER.

So what does this mean, you might wonder? Well it means that you are a natural born leader, first of all. We've seen this already in the way you ask us to play with you and how you know your own mind, even at such a young age. More than likely you will grow up and be the one that others go to for advice, to lead, and to be in charge. But be careful, little one, there's a fine line between leadership and being bossy. Most of your friends might fuss at you if you get too bossy. Will might fuss at you if you get too bossy, but he will certainly look up to you and appreciate your presence in his life as he gets older. You will give him opportunities that you haven't even thought about, just by going first. In school the teachers will know you and they will accept him, because he's your brother. They will expect him to be just as smart and kind and wonderful as you are! In sports you will help him develop his skills just by playing with him in the backyard. He will be your first best friend! And you will be his. And for your whole lives you will trust each other to tell the truth when it needs to be told, to be each other's biggest fan, and to be there for one another whenever you are in need.

As an oldest child, dear Rose, your confidence will shine through and your intelligence will serve you well in this world. You have so much to look forward to, so take advantage of every opportunity that intrigues you. I know you will do well. And, as your godmother, it is my job to remind you to keep your eyes on Jesus. He will never leave you and when you pray to him he will answer your deepest needs.

So, you're almost two, little lady! We are all so proud of you and love you very much. Keep up the good work! Be a good sister and teach Will everything you know, okay?


Aunt Amy

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Why Being A Coach Matters

Swimmer Paulina Reyes & Coach Little

If you've ever been on a sports team you know how important the coach is to the overall emotional atmosphere on the court, field, pool, course, and so on. The coach sets the tone for the game. The coach is the leader, who leads by example. He may not be able to play the game anymore, as bones do get old and muscles get tighter as we age, but the depth of knowledge stored in a coach's brain is priceless. The ability to see things in super-slow motion only comes with years of experience. The gift of relationships is even more critical to the game than the skills. I make this bold statement because the skills are developed early and honed over time, but the absence of relationships creates a barrier that prohibits the athlete from excelling to the next level. A coach who knows everything about technique but fails to relate the athlete will only see limited response from that young person. If you want an athlete to "leave it all on the court" then a deep trust has to be formed first. This takes patience and a willingness to commit to the persons involved, not just the sport. I've never met a coach who "does it for the money." We do it because we love kids and we want to be a positive influence in their lives. We want to see them improve every week. We want to see them succeed in the game of life. 

Meanwhile, they touch our hearts. They change us as people and we have a different relationship with each and every student-athlete because each of them are different people. These amazing young athletes continue to shape us as human beings as bonds are formed in practice, in competition, and for many coaches who are also first and foremost teachers, in the classroom. This coach is a pastor, so in many ways a teacher. . . just not in a schoolroom. 

Being a coach matters. It's a huge time commitment! But it is worth every minute spent with these young people who matter. They matter to their parents, their friends, but mostly they matter to God. A coach does kingdom work. Think about it. . . encouraging is a kingdom job, teaching is also a kingdom job, picking up the pieces of a bad day is holy work, walking alongside a person who is becoming more and more who God made them to be is sacred business. We can't check our faith at the door of the gym. We can't stop being who we are in Christ at the entrance to the track. We cannot deny our faith as we enter the natatorium. And we may not talk about it, but it shines through. It really does. 

I can remember the names of the kids I had on my very first track team that I coached circa 1994. There was that amazingly energetic girl named January, and that fellow who became a pastor years later named Mike. Many of the kids I've coached have graduated college and are now coaches themselves. And ones that are still in High School have hopes of being coaches when their time comes. My coach in college taught me more about life by being on that track with me than I can ever tell you. Thank you, Coach! Thanks for staying with me so many nights at the high jump when everyone else had gone. Thanks for the kick in the butt when I needed it. Thanks for the hugs and affirmation when it was necessary. Thanks for being you and being a huge part of my life. It mattered. It still matters. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Practical Wisdom on Our Words: Proverbs 18

Proverbs 18 is our Lenten Reading today. Read here.

Words, words, words. One of my favorite movies of all time is "On Golden Pond." 
Henry Fonda plays the cantankerous dad, Norman, of his real life daughter, Jane Fonda,  who is Chelsea in the movie. They don't get along very well but perhaps that's because they are so much alike: stubborn, wounded, opinionated, looking for the other to accept them as they are. At one point Norman, who is a man of few words gets tired of all the talking and says this quote, (that apparently I am the only one in the world who thinks is funny or poignant because I couldn't find it online ANYWHERE!) "I don't know why everybody has to talk about everything all the time."

Sometimes it just seems like there is too much talking going on. It seems like everyone has something to say, and most of it could be left unsaid. Words just spoken for the sake of speaking. I yearn for quiet. Do you? I yearn for simple company in the presence of another where words do not have to be spoken. Where translations don't have to be made, "What did you mean by that?" or "Why did you say that?"  There are but a few people I know who don't say something unless it is worth being said. You can count on them to speak when they have something important to say, otherwise they just keep their mouths shut. I admire that quality so much!

"A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion."
Hmmm. We don't listen enough, do we?

"The words of a man's mouth are deep waters, the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook." Our words can encourage rather than tear down.

"A fool's lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating." Our words can get us into serious trouble. 

"A fool's mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul." Our words injure others and not easily forgotten. 

"The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body." Gossip and malicious talk hurt deeply.

"If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame." Again with the inability to listen carefully and attentively. We jump too quick without thinking things through. Perhaps we need a "time-out." 

"An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge." What better knowledge and wisdom is there than the fear of the Lord?

"The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him." Consider that one.

"Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits." Our words have such power, why not use them for good rather than evil? 

Something to ponder for today. What do you think? 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Straddling the Fence

Imagine in your mind's eye a beautiful green meadow. There are farm animals wandering around: sheep, cows, the occasional horse so you hear their sounds in your highly attuned ears. Smell the grass in all of its sweetness. See that fencing over there? Walk toward it in your mind. You can see that its sturdy, even if it is a bit rustic. Not one of those perfectly formed plank fences. This one has spots that are higher near the posts and lower in the middle due to time in the sun that caused it to sag just a bit. You decided to climb over to the other side. As you raise one leg over the crosspiece you soon realize that it is higher than you thought. Now you have one leg touching the ground on the side you approached from and one on the other side, unable to make it all the way to the ground beneath. This is what they call, "straddling the fence." Part of you on one side and the rest of you on the other.

Listen to Paul's words to the church in Corinth and imagine yourself straddling that fence again (2 Corinthians 6:2-7):
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God. 

Look at that list again: it's like Paul's saying, "Do you want the bad news or the good news first?" The bad news in that on one side of our faith fence the tough stuff; on the other side of that same fence are the good gifts. They go together. He goes on to make it more explicit (6:9-10). We have to manage a whole lot of fence straddling as followers of Christ:

treated as imposters              standing in the truth

unknown                                  well known by God

dying                                         fully alive in Christ

punished                                  but not killed

sorrowful                                  always rejoicing

poor                                           making many rich

having nothing                        possessing everything

This is the call to discipleship in Christ. The call to straddle the fences of this world that looks at us with dirt and ashes on our heads and mutter to themselves that we are weird, unusual, foolish even. To be an ambassador for Christ is to do our very best to live like he lived and to die to old selves so that all may know the joys of his life and love. Be not afraid, for the Lord your God is with you! On both sides of that tricky fence!