Monday, December 1, 2008

Pastor Erik--Dec 2008

It's that time of year again when we start thinking about giving thanks and giving gifts. In a time of economic hardship we can get discouraged about how little it seems like we have, wondering how to pay our rising heat bills and stretch our Christmas dollar. Its so easy to let our bank accounts, our shrinking 401k portfolios, and the daily bad economic news distract us and keep us from remembering that God gives abundantly and generously, and calls us to do the same. When we are called by God to a mission, God gives us what we need to make that mission happen—and sometimes that means being creative and trusting that God will use what we have to offer for amazing purposes (read 1 Kings 17 for a great example of this). Whatever gifts we have, when offered wholly to God, can have incredible, unexpected results—and even can result in miracles.

The week I arrived in Spokane in 2006 and began this call at Bethlehem was the week of the Synod Assembly. At that assembly one of the speakers was talking about gifts, how we all have them, how we have more than we realize, and how God can use even what seems like the most insignificant gift for his purposes. He had all of us make a list of the gifts we have, talents, passions, money, time, etc. Then he had everyone list a gift that they had that they thought couldn't be used by God. So I wrote down “drinking coffee.” Now, most of you know that drinking coffee—the stronger the better—is one of my great joys (in fact, I just poured a fresh cup). But I had no idea how God could possibly use such a silly gift to his purposes, but I wrote it down and offered it up to him none the less.

When I came back to Spokane and began to explore the neighborhood around our congregation, I wandered into a place called “Black Tie Coffee Co.” I immediately noticed lots of information about Fair Trade Coffee and when I ordered a cup and was brought out a strong, dark, steaming brew I knew I was right at home. About once a week after that I have found my way up to Black Tie, often for prayer or to study for my sermon, or to meet with someone—always with this “drinking coffee” gift in the back of my mind. I came to find out that Tom, the owner of the shop, is a Christian and not only are talk about God and faith allowed there, he actually encourages it. I began to wonder if maybe God was going to use this silly gift after all.

Over the past two years (and many cups of coffee) Tom and I have dreamed about what God is up to in our neighborhood, I've talked about faith with the employees and customers at Black Tie, we passed along a gift of Bibles that we didn't need that were an answer to a youth group's prayer, we've had the folks at Black Tie at our Fair Trade events, and we've shared our building a few times with Tom's church for their Bible study group and worship. God is clearly at work.

So when I got a crazy idea near the end of summer that involved coffee, it was only natural that I take it to Tom at Black Tie. I'd been thinking about ways to connect to our neighbors, and the school a few blocks down seemed like a natural choice. “Hey Tom,” I said one day while he was making my coffee, “I've got this crazy idea to bring free coffee to all the teachers at Lincoln Heights Elementary on the first day of school. Could you cut me a deal on a couple of thermos pots of coffee?” Instead of a discount, Tom said that if I'd take the orders and handle the delivery, he'd make free espresso drinks to order for every teacher in the school. I was blown away with his generosity.

And so, early on the first day of school I headed out notebook in hand to every teacher in the school. They were blown away too. “Free?” they'd insist, “Whatever I want?” “Yep,” I'd say “from your friends at Bethlehem Lutheran and Black Tie Coffee. Have a great first day of school.” I have to tell you, taking free coffee to stressed out teachers was a whole lot of fun. And thanks to the help of the Bethlehem Quilters, everybody got their lattes and mochas piping hot. I left the school that morning giving thanks to God for such a fun and creative way to connect to our neighbors—and what a way to use this silly gift I'd offered.

Later that day I got the following email from one of the teachers: “When you came into my classroom this morning, I was just praying silently for God to help me. If everything could go wrong, it did this morning, yet by His grace and your kindness, my mind calmed down and the Holy Spirit was able to do its job! I got out of the way and enjoyed the delicious cup of coffee. Now mind you, the day was still hectic, but yet filled with joy and and a sense of love of kindness. Thank you Pastor and please thank the sweet ladies who helped you. What a wonderful gift you brought to our room.”

If you've ever experienced God using you (quite without your knowledge or intention) to work a miracle in somebody else's life you know its an amazing feeling. Who knew God could work such miracles in a simple cup of coffee? But it didn't stop there. Later that week I got a call from Tom saying he wants to do it again somewhere else—and my coffee ministry continues, who knows where it will lead. All this from being willing to offer up a silly, seemingly insignificant gift to God's purposes and paying attention to when the call came to put it to use.

What silly, seemingly insignificant gift do you have that you could offer up to God? Give it a shot and let me know what miracles God works in and through you.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Pastor Erik--November 2008

Last August, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America met in Churchwide Assembly in Chicago. Among the various items for discussion was something called the “Book of Faith Initiative.” Its intent, in a nutshell, is to put before the church these questions: “We Lutherans take the Bible seriously, right? Well than don’t you think we all ought to read it more? And shouldn’t we all do this together?” The answer, as you might guess, was a resounding “Yes we should!” And our church went to work figuring out how we were going to encourage every synod, every congregation, every disciple of Jesus to dig in once again to the Bible, our Book of Faith.

One of the ways our wider church is helping us do this is through the publications of resources for Bible study, the first of which we have been using for our Adult Education class here at Bethlehem this fall. It’s called “Opening the Book of Faith” and its purpose is to get us started on this renewed journey into God’s Word for us. This is only the beginning of this journey, we will continue to use the Book of Faith resources as they come out (next is “Rediscovering the Book of Faith”) and very likely will have other places and groups using the series so that more and more of us can get on board. One of the taglines of the Book of Faith initiative is “Open Scripture. Join the Conversation.” I hope that all of us will.

There is another tagline that some folks at Bethlehem have asked questions about: “The language of scripture is our first language of faith.” This is not a call for all of us to suddenly become Hebrew and Greek scholars, but to deeply learn the “language” of the stories of the Bible, how God has acted in the lives of God’s people throughout time and history, and to learn to “hear” and “speak” this language in our daily lives. As the leaders’ material puts it “The language of the Bible becomes our language. It shapes how we think and speak about God, about the world, and about ourselves. We become renewed, enlivened, and empowered as the language of Scripture forms our hearts, our minds, our community conversation, and our commitments.”

If this is all a bit confusing, how about a story. My mom wears a silver bracelet with a Native American image of a whale on it. If you ask her about it, she will tell you the story of Jonah and the whale (well, in the Bible it says “big fish” but that ruins this story, so lets stick with whale). Jonah, if you recall, was told by God to go to the town of Nineveh and preach to the people there. Jonah didn’t listen, and embarked on a wild journey to avoid God’s call for him. He ended up on a ship in a storm, was thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale. Finally Jonah did what God asked him to do (though he was grumpy about it) and the city of Nineveh was saved.

But why, you would likely ask her, do you have a whale bracelet? Then she’ll tell you about how she was sitting in church one Sunday feeling overwhelmed with all of the demands on her time, longing for a sense of balance, and she heard again the story of Jonah. But as she listened, the call from God became not just a call for Jonah, but also for her. And the call from God was not to go to Nineveh, but to simplify and find some balance in her life. However, the final message she heard from God was the same: “Do what I say or I’ll send a whale to swallow you up!”

Fast forward a few months, and she and my dad are in London at the British Natural History Museum. When she walked into the room with a full size whale (bones and skin) hanging from the ceiling she involuntarily jumped back. Her heart started to beat fast and she thought. "Yikes, God, so you really mean it!" Thankfully, the whale did not come crashing to the ground as she feared. From that moment of awakening, however, my mom started making some changes in her life. She now wears her whale bracelet every day and thinks of it as a tangible reminder to focus on balance and try to listen to what God is calling her to do and not what she has put on her own to-do list.

So can you see how the “language” of the story of Jonah from the Bible became the “language of faith” for my mom? She knew this story deep down, from when she was a child—but that Sunday heard it in a new way for her. And then, months later, the story gives the occasion for a flash of insight, and she sees her life through the lens of Jonah and the whale. Because that story, in the “first language” of the scriptures, was part of my mom’s story, God was able to use it to work a miracle in her life. And now she (quite literally) keeps that story with her every day and it shapes the decisions she makes moment to moment. This is how the Bible is supposed to work in our lives. God breathes new life into stories written thousands of years ago so they can become alive again in our hearing, and shape our lives to be part of the one great story, God’s story. That’s what our “Book of Faith” is for. I do hope you’ll join in the fun.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pastor Erik--October 2008

A few weeks ago I was forwarded an email with some outrageous claims about one of the candidates for President of the United States. Now I get these sorts of emails all the time, about both candidates as well as other political figures, and usually I just delete them. But this one was supposedly from a Christian source that was using the Book of Revelation from the Bible as the backup for its claim—and it got me thinking about our role as Christians in the political realm.

According to this email, Chapter 13 of the Book of Revelation outlines the reign of the Anti-Christ as 42 months, which is nearly a presidential term. It then goes on to claim that one of the candidates for president fits the Book of Revelation's description of the Anti-Christ perfectly—his age, his background, his demeanor all are clearly laid out in Revelation. The implication is that if someone votes for this candidate, that they will be electing the Anti-Christ and therefore a good Christian would never be foolish enough to do this. And so, following the logic of the email, the only possible vote a “Christian” could make would be for this man's opponent.

Go ahead and grab a Bible and flip to Revelation 13. See if you can figure out which candidate was described in the email. Unless one of the candidates has sprouted six more heads, a bunch of horns, and all sorts of animal parts since his last television appearance, it's not entirely apparent to me who this might be so “clearly” referring to. You might have a hard time finding the term “Anti-Christ” as well, since this term doesn't actually appear in the Book of Revelation at all. (It is in 1 and 2 John, but never with a description except that the Anti-Christ will deny the divinity of Jesus. This is something neither candidate has ever done to my knowledge.) The Book of Revelation is not one of those books that lays anything out clearly anyway—its language is figurative and symbolic. And throughout history people have been convinced that what is going on in their day and age (or in the past or future) is what the author of Revelation was warning us about. Though, unlike this email, people usually try to make this claim by connecting a person or situation to some sort details that could actually be found in Revelation.

So the email is baloney, so what? We all get a hundred emails a week with all sorts of garbage in them, why should we care? There are many problems I have with this email: it plays fast and loose with the Bible, it uses fear and deception to try to bully people into thinking a particular way, and it's just downright mean spirited. But what troubles me the most about this email is that it implies that there is only one “Christian” way to vote—and that there is no need for Christians to engage in the political process and no need to debate or exchange ideas. One only has to find the right “Christian” candidate and the discussion is over before it begins—and of course Christians are all of one mind and so the decision is clear.

I do agree that as Christians it is essential that we take our faith, our values, and our morals into the voting booth with us (OK, to our kitchen tables or wherever we now do our voting). We pray continually that “God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and part of that means electing leaders and supporting positions that we believe bring us closer to God's dream for us and creation, rather than farther from. But to assume that Christians are all of one mind and so debate and discussion isn't needed is simply false. I know for a fact that in our congregations are Republicans and Democrats (and at least one Libertarian). There are people who think abortion should be legal and those who think it should be outlawed, there are people for and against gay marriage, prayer in schools, the death penalty, offshore drilling, tax stimulus checks, bailouts for financial firms, and a whole host of other issues. And these folks support these candidates and positions not simply because of partisan politics or because they have been duped by the media, but because of honest attempts to apply their faith and the teachings of Jesus to the real world—a world where the answer to “how can God's will best be done?” is not always so clear.

I happen to be for one particular candidate (as I assume you are as well), but I don't think that makes me (or him) more Christian—and I certainly don't think that anyone who disagrees with me is any less Christian. Whatever our politics, it is essential that we are able to live together in community—and that doesn't simply mean ignoring our differences. I would like to see those of us who are Christian be an example of Christ's teachings to the world and approach our political life with the same sort of Christian values that we live by in the rest of our life. This means at the very least speaking the truth in love (and not spreading falsehoods and rumors), giving our neighbor the benefit of the doubt, and still being able to live in community (and share a table) with those we profoundly disagree with.

And so as this political season begins to really heat up, and the fear based politics and baloney continue to increase, I hope that we as Christian people and as a Christian community are able to engage with one another (and with the political process) without giving in to fear and the spreading of falsehoods. In the end, our unity comes not from all agreeing with a particular candidate or position—or even from agreeing with one another—but because we have been claimed by God and made one in baptism. Our unity is in Christ and this trumps all divisions that we can come up with—political or otherwise. So roll up your sleeves and be a part of the political process, but do so with humility and compassion for your brothers and sisters who disagree with you—remembering that your will is not the same as God's will, and that you may be sharing a pew with your so-called opponent on Sunday morning. And when the time comes to pass the peace we put aside all those differences so we—Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians alike—can come to Christ's table as one people, who share one meal, for the sake of God's world. Doesn't that sound like God's will?

Pastor Erik

PS. If you ever want to know the baloney factor of emails you get, check out, the recognized online authority for such things.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Pastor Erik--September 2008

All this summer we have been focusing on mission in our neighborhood. We hosted a neighborhood BBQ, delivered lots of fliers, watched movies out on our lawn with our neighbors, attended the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Association meeting, and have even started digging up our property in order to make it more welcoming and accessible to our neighbors. We’ve learned that we don’t really know our neighbors very well at all, and that our neighbors don’t really know each other either. But we’ve also learned that God is up to something in our neighborhood, and is calling us to be a part of it—getting to know our neighbors is just the first step in figuring out just what this is, and this will be a process that continues throughout the year and beyond. The word is out, Bethlehem Lutheran wants to be an active part of this neighborhood again. It will be fun to see what God does with this desire.

As we move into fall, we’re shifting our mission focus just a bit. We kick off September with a number of events that draw us into thinking about what God is up to not only near us, but all over the world. Our Global Mission team has put together a huge slate of events this year. On Sunday, September 7th we’ll be joined by Rev. Mark Nelson, assistant to the bishop, who will fill us in on our companion Synod in Tanzania. He’s recently back from a trip there and the installation of their new bishop so he’s chock full of stories about what God is doing through our partnership with this other Synod.

Then on Saturday, September 13th we’re having a Fair Trade Fair featuring food and crafts from around the world that have been made without harming people, the environment, or local communities. But don’t think this is just a shopping day (though it is a great time to pick up Christmas gifts for loved ones). It’s going to be an emersion experience designed to give us a taste of life in Tanzania.

The high point of all of this will be our Global Mission Festival Worship on Sunday, September 14th. From our summer worship space downstairs we’ll be journeying back up to the sanctuary. And with drums and music from around the world we will worship God with joy and energy. We’ll hear several “mission homilies” throughout the service, including a live video feed from Africa with missionaries Arden and Susan Strasser. This is one Sunday you won’t want to miss!

With all this talk of global mission, I hope you don’t think I intend us to ignore the local missions we participate in as well. It is my sincere prayer that through local and neighborhood missions we will be stirred to wonder about what God is up to around the world and how we can be a part of it. And in the same way, I pray that through global missions we will be stirred to wonder about what God is up to closer to home and how we can be a part of it. God is loose in the world, both here and far away. Its time to celebrate what God is up to and get on board!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Pastor Erik--August 2008

We’ve shortened our service and moved downstairs for the hot days of July and August—and we’re encouraging our community to feel free to dress comfortably (yes, shorts in church!). Since our regular worship service is shorter this summer, we are offering several other worshipful activity options that people can do before the service, after the service, and during the week. We are calling this “Open Space”—a time to open some space in your life and your heart to experience God and to remember that we don’t just worship God an hour on Sunday mornings, but in many ways and with our whole lives. You are free to choose any of the options, try several, or spend the time in whatever way is most meaningful and helpful for you. The weeks options are available on our website, follow the “Open Space” link at

I know that many of you are asking, where on earth does Pastor Erik come up with these crazy ideas that he keeps trying out on us? Most of them (particularly the ones that seem to flop) come out of my own warped imagination. This idea, however, has some interesting roots that I thought I’d share.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been reading and keeping up on a movement in Christianity that has various names, most typically it is referred to as some variation on the “emerging church” or “emergent church” (I happen to like “emerging missional church”). While its hard to pin down exactly what this movement looks like or what it is all about (it’s very postmodern that way) these experimental worshiping communities are finding that the things that they are up to are really resonating with people in their 20s and 30s—the group that is largely absent from churches world wide. And the appeal is not what you might think—gone are rock bands, big screens, and stadium style worship entertainment events. The emerging missional movement is all about authenticity—in worship, in community, in discipleship and it goes about renewing the life of the church by going deeper into our roots. Small groups of Christians throughout the world are reclaiming some of the traditions and rituals of the Christian faith and re-appropriating them to speak in new ways in our context. They are finding small groups with which to gather and pray, to experience God in worship and service, to grow disciples of Jesus and make a difference in the world—and they are doing this more often in places like coffee shops and bars than in sanctuaries. The Community of Taizé is one such example of this, and there are communities cropping up around the world that are seeking to “be church” in new (and yet ancient) ways. The idea for “open space” worship I stole from one of these communities, The Church of the Apostles in Seattle, of which my brother is a member.

The reason I’m encouraging this experiment with us is not to be “hip and trendy” and figure out if we can “attract” more people (in their 20s and 30s or otherwise). In fact, one of the main tenets of the “emerging missional church” is getting away from the “attractional” model of outreach—authentic community is the model instead. As I’ve been reading about and experiencing the worship of these “emergent missional communities,” I’ve seen some real parallels to the sorts of things we have been talking about in Transformation, as well as some deep connections to our Lutheran roots and theology—and things we already do as Lutheran Christians.

Every worship at Bethlehem is meant to help those who are a part of it to encounter God and their neighbor. The entire service is shaped around the Bible lessons of the day and the sacraments of Baptism and Communion—the sermon, hymns, prayers, and the entire liturgy itself is planned and shaped to help all of us experience God through these “means of grace,” that is to say these ways that God communicates to us. Worship in “emerging missional communities” is reclaiming this element of worship that has often been neglected in many Christian communities—both in its “traditional” and “contemporary” forms. The “emerging missional communities” are rediscovering something that we have known all along—that worship is more than just going through the motions of liturgy and it’s more than just a few praise songs and a long sermon. Instead it’s about encountering and being transformed by God revealed to us in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

I hope in the next few weeks that you will try out some of these “unusual” worship elements that are part of this “Open Space” experiment. They are designed to stretch us into thinking about and experiencing worship in new ways and to help bridge the artificial gap between church and “real life.” I’m also really hoping for some feedback—both positive and negative. One of the challenges of many “emerging missional communities” is that they struggle with being intergenerational, the sorts of things that really connect with the younger folks don’t always with the older folks. But my theory is that these experiments are tapping into something deeper than just what’s “hot” at the moment—and I think there’s that multi-generation churches like ours could add something important to this movement. Let me know what you think and if you have any ideas on new elements to try. And thanks for being such gracious guinea pigs!

Pastor Erik

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Pastor Erik--July 2008

Loving our Neighbors

One day, Jesus was being questioned by some religious folks who wanted to know what the most important commandment of God was. Perhaps they thought they were so religious, so holy, so good at keeping laws that they would surely be found to be keeping whatever this most important commandment was. Jesus’ response was: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39) That particular answer didn’t go over so well.

The problem for us when we are confronted by God’s commandments, is that we pretty much never measure up. I love the Lord my God, but do I really do it with ALL my heart, and ALL my soul, and ALL my mind? ALL the time? No way. And is it even possible for me to care as much for my neighbors as I do for myself? Would I really sacrifice my own money, or food, or shelter for the guy living next door to me? Or would I expect him to face life on his own? If these are really the greatest commandments of God, I for one am in big trouble.

We expect this as Lutheran Christians, I think. We know that we are saved by God’s grace through trusting faith—and know that when we fail to live up to God’s expectations, that God will love us anyway. But we also know, as Lutheran Christians, that because we are loved by God and don’t HAVE to do anything, that we become free to fulfill those dreams that God has for us. Imagine, for a moment, if all of us could actually love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves—wouldn’t life on earth be pretty amazing? No more poverty, war, violence, self-centeredness. Even though we know that the world is more complicated than that and that we’ll never make that happen, doesn’t that sound a lot like what God wants for us and for all humanity?

But hold on for a second if you think I’m suggesting we set up some sort of religious-hippy commune where we are all happy and high on God—because I’m not. But what is our life together if not living together in a community shaped by Christ, in which we worship, pray, eat, serve and seek to live more fully into God dream (even if it never quite appears in it’s fullest form)? And, according to Jesus, this dream that God has is never just about us and God, but always includes our neighbors near and far—in fact, the whole of creation.

So, how are we doing on this “love your neighbor” stuff? Our Guiding Principles might help us here. I’ve been impressed, again and again, at how well we live into our principle “Everyone is welcome.” The way in which the people of Bethlehem reach out to and interact with visitors and new folks is inspiring—and I keep hearing talk of how we can make this place more welcoming to visitors and make clear that the hospitality we offer comes from God’s hospitality. This hospitality and welcoming presence is an amazing gift that God has given to us, and we use it to share the love of God and bring people into the community we share with one another in Jesus Christ. It’s a powerful witness of God to all who worship with us.

We’ve got another Guiding Principle, however, that we don’t live out as fully as we might: “We are called to work in God’s world.” We do, however, recognize this call, even when we aren’t fully living out what that call is. And it’s not as if we don’t try—but so often it’s hard to know just what our calling in the world is meant to be. As a community, we’ve recognized this as one of our growing edges—the place in which God is calling us to grow into that dream God has for us. And it’s strongly connected to this whole idea of “love your neighbor as yourself.”

But how, exactly, do we get there? As I’ve been thinking about this particular Guiding Principle, and this command to love our neighbors, I was struck with a question: “How am I supposed to LOVE my neighbor, if I don’t even KNOW my neighbor?” How many of us know the people who live in the houses immediately around ours? How many of us have shared a meal with those folks? And how about our church neighbors? Do you know the names of the folks we can see from our windows on Sunday morning? I don’t. And we certainly haven’t eaten with them.

But God has given us some great opportunities to get to know our neighbors. This summer, there are several events in which there is a good chance that our neighbors will be around and we will get the chance to get to know them: the neighborhood BBQ we are hosting on July 12th and the Outdoor Movie Nights in July and August (see the schedule elsewhere in this newsletter). While these events are fun, what if we were to see them as more than a fun way to spend the evening (or stay away because it’s not what we think is a good time)? What if instead we saw these events (and the people who come) as gifts that God is giving us so that we can get to know our neighbors and neighborhood better? We’ve got lots of practice on Sunday morning during coffee hour getting to know and sharing stories with the new people who come our way. What if we were to do the same with the folks who might wander into our BBQ and movie nights? Surely through our neighbors we will get a fuller picture of what God is up to in our neighborhood, and might just get clued into the ways in which we might be “called to work in God’s world.” I hope you will come this summer to get to know our neighbors.

Pastor Erik

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Pastor Erik--June 2008

At the Synod Assembly last month I attended a workshop on evangelism by Pastor Michael Nel. This was quite possibly one of the most interesting, informative, and useful hours I have ever spent. Pastor Nel’s main point was that when churches do evangelism, it’s all about anxiety—and this is not a good thing.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Of course evangelism is about anxiety! What could cause more anxiety than telling me I have to go up to complete strangers and try to convince them to believe in Jesus?” And, while its true that talk of evangelism is enough to raise most Christians’ blood pressure—this isn’t the sort of anxiety that Pastor Nel was talking about (and this also isn’t the sort of evangelism he was talking about either).

Pastor Nel talked about anxiety not in individuals, but in a church as a whole. When things are going well, he said, most churches go through life quite happy to avoid evangelism. But when things start to look grim—worship attendance slips, offerings are down, it’s hard to find people for leadership positions—the church gets anxious. When this happens, someone is sure to pipe up with “You know what we need? An evangelism campaign!” And everyone agrees, more people, more money, and some new blood in leadership could do us wonders. And so a church sets out to spread the Good News and attract some new folks. This, says Nel, is exactly the WORST way to do evangelism, because we do it out of anxiety—and on top of that, it just plain doesn’t work.

Here’s why. When we do evangelism in this way, the message we are spreading is really not the Good News of Jesus Christ. It’s something more along the lines of “We are really anxious that our church is having trouble. Wouldn’t you like to come join us, do some work, pay some money, and help us feel better about ourselves? Then our lives will be so much easier and we won’t have to worry about our church going under.” But who wants to come and be a part of a church that is so anxious that it’s out recruiting other people to solve its problems? No wonder “evangelism” as we usually conceive it is so terrifying—if we don’t recruit some more people to save us, our very survival is at stake. And in reality, this so-called evangelism has nearly nothing to do with God and everything to do with us, our needs and wants.

So what’s the alternative? Pastor Nel redefines evangelism away from “convince people to believe in Jesus” and even “convince (or attract) people to come join our church.” Instead, he says evangelism is “The process of defining oneself as a Christian to the world around one.” In other words, letting the world know you are a Christian—and telling the story of what God is up to in your life in public. What people do with this information is their own business. Of course, we hope and pray that God will stir up a desire for faith, perhaps even that they will want to come and see what’s going on at our church—but in reality the call to evangelize is not to “recruit” but simply to bear witness to what God is up to in our lives. It’s about planting seeds and trusting that God will nurture them into plants that bear fruit.

So then, what does this mean for us? This is an exciting time in the life of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Ministry is flourishing, the Holy Spirit is loose among us, Transformation is growing deep and spreading throughout our congregation, hope is alive and well, and people are daring to dream about the future of Bethlehem Lutheran in God’s mission in the world. On Pentecost Sunday we celebrated all the things that the Holy Spirit has been doing in our midst, ending with a list of miracles shouted out by the congregation (you can listen to the podcast on our website if you missed it). There is much to tell about what God has been up to among us!

And it would be easy to just sit back and soak it all in—to coast for a while thinking everything is OK. But now is exactly the time that we should be thinking about evangelism and about connecting what God has been doing among us to what God is up to in our neighborhood and beyond. So in the next several months don’t be surprised to be hearing more about how we can live into our guiding principle “We are called to work in God’s world” through Global Mission, through service locally, through reconnecting to our neighborhood and getting to know our neighbors—not so we can recruit them to bail us out, but so that we can share the hope, the joy, and the love of God we have experienced and also receive new gifts, new passions, and new challenges. God has done way too much at Bethlehem Lutheran for us to keep it for ourselves. We are called to share, to bear witness, to be messengers of God’s love for the sake of the world. And so, here we go…

Pastor Erik

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Pastor Erik--May 2008

A few weeks ago I was part of something called the “First Call Theological Education Summit” at the ELCA Churchwide offices in Chicago. When I get invited to things such as this where I get to work with the other expressions of this church (the three expressions being: congregation, synod, churchwide) I usually try to take them up on their offer. I always come away having learned something more about what God is up to in the ELCA, hear exciting stories of mission and ministry from around the country, and come away inspired with something to bring back to our work here together. This trip was no exception.

The purpose of this “summit” (a fancy word for conference I think) was to talk about best practices for “First Call Theological Education” as well as what makes a healthy and supportive “First Call Congregation.” First Call Theological Education is a mandatory three year process that all pastors coming out of seminary participate in (including me). Just what is looks like varies from synod to synod and region to region. First Call Congregations are congregations (such as ours) who have called a pastor in their first call out of seminary. This event brought together those who plan First Call Theological Education, some of us who are participating in it (that’s why I was invited), as well as lay leaders and pastors from some First Call Congregations. Central to the conference was the presentation (in various forms) of the results of a research project the ELCA has undertaken (funded by the Lilly Foundation). First Call Congregations from around the country who were identified as “exemplary” were studied to find out just what are the things that make for successful First Calls—for the pastor and for the congregation.

As they were sharing the results and stories that came out of these exemplary First Call congregations, I kept thinking to myself “Man, Bethlehem should have been part of this!” When it came time to report the themes that the researchers found in these congregations, I realized why. Here are the themes that this research found make for a healthy and supportive First Call Congregation:

  • Nurturing: welcoming and supportive of their new pastor (including forgiving the pastor’s mistakes!, and creating a community of care for one another

  • Connected: to each other, to their past, across generations, to the local community, to synod and churchwide

  • Flexible: having deep, connected roots allowing for building on the strengths of the past while holding an attitude of openness and flexibility

  • Strong Lay Leadership: committed, faithful lay leaders who are called to ministries in the congregation and the world (including those that have traditionally been “the pastor’s job”)

  • Spiritually Practiced: centered on prayer, reading the Bible together, care for one another and those in need, mentoring and supportive of youth, practicing hospitality

I realized that these are the very traits that lie at the heart of what this community is all about, and they are all things that God has been bringing even more to the surface through our Transformation process. Having been built up in all of these areas over the past few years, we are now in a period of vibrant ministry in which God is using us in new and different ways. It’s exciting to imagine what God has in mind for us, and how these strengths of our community will be called forth for work in the world. Isn’t Transformation fun?

Pastor Erik

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Pastor Erik--April 2008

Last month I wrote about our Guiding Principles, and how I wasn’t going to tell you just how we are supposed to use them. I know this was less than satisfying for many of you, who are still trying to wrap your heads around these six statements and what they mean. I’m with you. It’s not clear how God is going to continue to transform us through these statements. But…I’ve got another example to share—one that took place even before these guiding principles were put to paper (or bulletin, or business card, or giant full color poster, or T-shirt). And once again, it has to do with our doors.

Back in September, I wrote about how I saw in the process of replacing our front doors what I thought would be one of our Guiding Principles—the principle that came out “Everyone is Welcome”. Well, now it’s clear to me that God had us using all of our Guiding Principles in that process—even though we didn’t consciously know what they were yet. And here’s how:

1)Jesus is Lord and Savior. Conversations about our broken doors and whether we thought they ought to be repaired (again) or replaced have been going on around here for years. Some people wanted new doors, some people didn’t think we needed them. Hours and hours were spent in council meetings on whose opinion should win, but nobody wanted to hurt anybodies feelings, and so nothing ever seemed to happen. That is until the conversation started to move away from “what do we want/need/think is best” and towards “What is God calling us to do?” Jesus—not me, the council, or even the congregation—is Lord, and when we started to think in this way it lead to…

2) Everyone is Welcome. When we started to think about what God is calling us to do and be, and how we proclaim (or don’t proclaim) Jesus to the world it quickly became clear that we believe “Everyone is Welcome” but our old, clunky, broken doors were communicating “Everyone Stay Out!” In a clear use of our emerging Guiding Principle, the old doors were quickly gone, funds raised, and new ones installed—not because somebody wanted it and they one, but because we together saw how we weren’t living up to something very central to us, and were communicating to the world exactly the opposite of what God was calling us to.

3) Love Changes People. Though the process to replace the doors happened quickly, there continued to be different opinions on whether this was the right move or the right time. Rather than pushing for their way, those who felt called to lead us into getting new doors helped us gently see the possibility of change, loving us into a new future. It was actually the kids who got most excited about this, each week they pasted a picture of one sort of door we might want to get onto the old doors. Little by little the dream began to spread, lovingly rather than by force, and pretty soon the congregation was alive with talk of the vision of new doors. Rather than conflict, I heard those with objections being heard, their opinions valued and listened to, and instead of being the “loosers” were part of the process, whether they every thought replacing the doors was a good idea or not.

4) We are Called to Work in God’s World One of the best reasons against the doors that was raised was “wouldn’t this money be better spent in helping the needy?” If we believe “we are called to work in God’s world” we should always ask this question—and carefully weigh our decision. As the people of God we should not simply think of ourselves, our own needs and wants, but should always be mindful of our role in the world and the plight of those who struggle to survive. But rather than a selfish “we want our church to look pretty” decision, in the end the motivation for the new doors was welcoming those outside our community, done not for us, but for others—following God’s call to hospitality.

5) God Uses Ordinary People Like Us. Though the council had gone back and forth about the old doors, this transformation happened not because of a council decision, but because ordinary people felt called to lead, and to hold us to our Guiding Principle “Everyone is Welcome”. The official vote came long after the vision had been stirred, a good portion of money raised, and real excitement built over this transformation. And though there were a few people who contributed a large amount of money, each of us who put even a few dollars into the plate for the doors helped to make this happen. In small and large ways God used us to make this transformation happen, a visible sign to us and to all who enter that God is at work at Bethlehem—that we are being transformed from the inside out. And through something as simple as some new doors.

6) God Shows the Way. In the end, the success of our new doors had little to do with our efforts, our casting of the vision, or anything else that we did. Instead, because we took the time to listen to God, to pray and dream about what God might want us to do and the sort of church God wants us to be, God lead us into transformation. And through this process we got a taste of what it looks like to engage in transformational ministry, to use our Guiding Principles (even if we didn’t know it at the time), and to follow God’s lead.

Isn’t Transformation fun?

Pastor Erik

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Pastor Erik--March 2008

At our annual meeting at the end of January, our congregation adopted these Guiding Principles:

  • Jesus is Lord and Savior
  • Everyone is welcome
  • Love changes people
  • We are called to work in God's world
  • God uses ordinary people like us
  • God shows the way

These six statements represent those things that are most central to our life together as followers of Jesus in this place. They came from months of Bible study, prayer, and conversation by many people in our congregation. As God continues the work of transformation among us, these principles will help us make decisions, help engage us in mission, and help draw us more fully into God's dream for us.

In the past month, many people have asked “Just how are these Guiding Principles supposed to work?” It's a great question to ask, because if we just agree that these statements sound good, adopt them, but never put them to use they really won't impact us. If they are really going to serve as guides, we will need to seek to use them at every opportunity. Part of our task of the next several months is figuring out together just how these Guiding Principles will guide us. What sort of changes will we need to make together? What sort of callings might we take up (or put down!) because of them? How will we continue to check the principles themselves against God's Word and what we believe God is calling us to do and to be? Its up to every one of us to help our congregation claim these Guiding Principles and figure out how to live them out more fully and in new ways.

“So, pastor,” you might be saying to yourself, “what you're saying is you're pretty much not going to tell us how Guiding Principles are supposed to work.” And I suppose that's true, but not just because I want to be difficult. There are several reasons that our use of Guiding Principles can't just be laid out by me and followed by everyone else. The first reason is that they aren't just my Guiding Principles, or the Guiding Principles of the Transformation Team or the Church Council—they are our Guiding Principles. Another reason is that a big part of using them comes from the process of figuring out how we are going to use them, together, as a community of faith—to guide our life together as a congregation, to guide each of us as we seek to follow Jesus, and to guide our interactions with the community outside our walls. But the main reason I'm not going to just tell you all how we're going to use the Guiding Principles is that I actually don't know how they are going to work on us, or just what God has in store for us as we seek to live them out. But I'm excited see!

Over the next several months there will be many opportunities for us to use, think about, and apply our Guiding Principles, both in hypothetical situations and in the real life decisions we make together. And we should be prepared for God to transform us through them—and in ways we can't even imagine. To illustrate, I'll share a story from another Transformation congregation much like ours in Phoenix, Arizona: Alleluia Lutheran Church. They adopted a set of Guiding Principles (which are actually quite similar to ours) and they decided to propose a hypothetical situation to the congregation as a way to help people see how they might work. “Suppose,” they said “the City of Phoenix was looking for a solution to help homeless people find shelter on the coldest days and they asked our congregation if we would be willing to share our facilities to help.” Instead of pitting it as an argument between one side that thinks this is a good idea, and one side that thinks its a bad idea, they used their Guiding Principles, asking “If we were to take these principles seriously what sort of decision would we make?” When they used their Guiding Principles (Jesus is Lord, God welcomes everyone, Everything we have belongs to God, Everyone is on God's team, and Everyone needs a neighbor like us) they decided that choosing to help with the homeless project would be more in line with their principles (and closer to God's dream for them) than deciding not to. “God's welcome really is for everyone, including the homeless,” they decided, “and since our stuff is really God's stuff and we are part of God's team, we should share what we have with them—and doing so is being the sort of neighbor we would like to have.” If this sort of proposal were in front of them, they said, they would participate.

Well wouldn't you know it, that very same week—completely out of the blue—they got a letter from the Mayor of Phoenix asking if they would be interested in participating in a program very much like their hypothetical one. Who would have thought! It seems as though God was calling them to be serious about their Guiding Principles! Through their Guiding Principles God has continued to challenge them and is transforming them from a dying little Lutheran congregation, into a thriving, relevant, disciple-making community of faith. I look forward to see what God is planning for us as well!

To learn more about our Guiding Principles, the process we went though to develop them, and more about Transformation in general (including a link to Alleluia Lutheran Church) click on the “Transformation” link at

Friday, February 1, 2008

Pastor Erik--February 2008

It's hard to believe that its time to start thinking about Lent already.

As I write this, my Christmas lights still hang on my house (no matter what I claimed I would be up to on Epiphany Sunday afternoon!) and a heavy blanket of snow which fell yesterday makes it hard to imagine spring as anything close to right around the corner. Nevertheless, Ash Wednesday is on February 3rd this year, one day later than the earliest it can possibly be—in fact the earliest it will be until the year 2160. The system for choosing the date for Easter is unbelievably complicated and has to do with the phases of the moon, the vernal equinox, and a 2000 year debate over which calendar one is meant to use. Suffice it to say, Easter comes 40 days after Ash Wednesday and it always falls (for Christians in the West) between March 22 and April 25th (inclusive). Sundays during Lent are not counted in the 40 days, because while Lent is meant to be a time of prayer, fasting, and preparation for the celebration of Christ's resurrection, every single Sunday is a “little Easter” when we gather together to celebrate Christ's resurrection. Sundays are times to celebrate and feast—no fasting allowed! I have to admit, as interesting as it may be to ponder church church calendar, our family calendar this month is dominated by another date—February 16th—the day Tauni is due to give birth to our second daughter. The Bethlehem church council has voted to give me some leave to be with my family during this important time and so our Lenten time together this year will be a bit different. For two weeks following the baby's birth I will be on paternity leave. On Sundays during those two weeks we will be having “Hymn Sing” services where we will sing our congregation's favorite hymns (and there are many!) from the lists you all have submitted in the last several weeks. I have to admit, I'm disappointed that I will miss these. If you have an emergency and need pastoral care during these two weeks, call the church cell phone number (252-0445) which will be forwarded to a local Lutheran pastor who will be filling in during my absence. After that, for four weeks I'll be preaching and leading adult education on Sundays, I'll be in the office on Tuesdays from 9:30-12:30, but otherwise working half time from home. I'll check messages and email and will have my cell phone back in case of emergencies. Our Wednesday night Akaloo education program with our other 6 cluster churches is on hold for Lent (we start back again March 25th). On Ash Wednesday we will use a service that combines the Ash Wednesday ritual from our new hymnal together with Taizé prayer. Throughout Lent we will continue our Bethlehem tradition of Wednesday night soup suppers (6:15pm) and will be joining together in Holden Evening Prayer (7:00pm) led by our some of our congregation's many gifted singers. There will be no soup supper or service on the Wednesday before Easter (March 19th), but we will be celebrating a full Passover Seder Supper on Maundy Thursday (March 20, 6:30pm) as we did last year to much acclaim. Good Friday (March 21, 7pm) will again be Taizé prayer, there will be no Easter Vigil this year, and Easter Sunday we will worship at 10:30am. As we welcome another child into our family Tauni and I appreciate Bethlehem's willingness to give me a bit of time away from our church family. Please pray for us as we enter this new journey—and may God be with you on your Lenten journey.

Pastor Erik


Bethlehem Lutheran Church's Guiding Principles (Passed at the Annual Meeting January 27th 2008)
  • Jesus is Lord and Savior
  • Everyone is welcome
  • Love changes people
  • We are called to work in God’s world
  • God uses ordinary people like us
  • God shows the way

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Pastor Erik--January 2008

In the early 1990's there was a show on TV called “Quantum Leap” that remains one of my favorite series. It starred Scott Bakula as “Dr. Sam Beckett,” a physicist from the future whose experiments with time travel had gone awry causing him to be (perhaps forever) suck “leaping” into various points in history. Each episode would begin with Sam “leaping” into someone else's life in a new time and place. Only the TV viewers saw and heard Sam; when he looked in the mirror he (and we) got to see who he had become. Each episode was the story of one such “leap” as we followed Sam (as the show's intro explains) “striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.” Sam was guided by a hologram named Al, a friend from the future who helped Sam navigate his new surroundings and fulfill his purpose in that time and place.

In each situation Sam had a particular job to do—saving someone from one disaster or another, or stopping someone from making a life altering decision, or any number of other wrongs—and he and Al spent much of their time figuring out just what that purpose was supposed to be. Very often, however, Sam's purpose didn't become clear until the last few minutes of the episode—and often not at all in the way that Sam, Al, or the viewers expect. Once his purpose had been fulfilled Sam would “leap” into the next situation, into another time and place, just as unclear as to what his new purpose was meant to be. As the series progresses, it becomes clear that Sam's “leaps” are not just random chance, but that there is some method to the madness. Sam's seemingly minor actions have huge consequences: wars are averted, tragedies minimized, and life is better for everyone—with effects way beyond the people Sam interacts with. And as Sam “leaps” from life to life he, and Al (and the viewers), begin to wonder if maybe Sam's little purposes aren't part of a bigger mission—and that, perhaps, the method to the madness might just be God.

In the next couple of months we will be talking a great deal about mission and purpose as we continue our work of Transformation. Now I know trying to base our Transformation work off of anything other than the Bible is downright silly (especially some old TV show...somebody call the Bishop!). But I bring up “Quantum Leap” because I think it helps illustrate a key distinction as we continue in this work: the difference between “mission” and “purpose.”

Most organizations, businesses, non-profits, and even some individual people have developed “mission statements”—key statements about what that group is all about and how they go about their work. Many churches (including ours) develop mission statements as well, though more often than not they occupy some forgotten file drawer or are posted and forgotten. In thinking about mission and purpose it is essential that we remember that the Church's mission (and I mean the whole Christian Church on earth) is really God's mission. The Church exists not because its good in and of itself, but because it is a way that God works towards God's mission in and for the world. We play a part in that for sure, but whatever the Church is about (and whatever Bethlehem is about) is always going to be in relationship to what God is about.

But like the larger mission for Sam's “leaping” throughout history, just exactly what God has in mind for all creation is not always so crystal clear (though “putting right what has gone wrong” is not too bad!). In Adult Ed we have been reading a book called “Living Lutheran” and one of the exercises is to pray the Lord's Prayer but to repeat the line “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” This is in part to remind us that God's dream for us, for the world, and for all creation isn't completed yet—that the kingdom of God, while here on earth, is not fully completed—and won't be until God's reign is fully expressed “on earth as in heaven.” God is continuing the work of creation, loving and blessing the world until it is as God wishes it to be. That is God's mission, and we, as the Church, are called to take part in it.

Like Sam, Bethlehem Lutheran has found itself in a particular time and place. Our job is not the same as God's—it is not our role to save the world and make it the way God wants it to be. But nevertheless God has a purpose in mind for us: it may be large, it may be small, but it is particularly ours (and may lead to other purposes as well). We may or may not get to see how our purpose fits into God's larger mission, and we may never know the full impact of our living out of God's purpose for us. But my hunch is that once we are able to figure out our particular purpose right now in God's larger mission—and seek to live it out faithfully—some hints of the larger pattern will start to appear to us too. That's what happens in the Book of Acts as the disciples try to live faithfully as followers of Jesus by eating and praying together and telling the story of Jesus. Suddenly they found themselves being called and sent to the ends of the earth—a purpose they never even imagined, but it became clear this was where God was calling them. And God used them as they lived out their particular purpose for the bigger mission that God had in mind. And their guide (the Holy Spirit) is even more helpful than a hologram named Al. It's the Holy Spirit who guides us too as we seek to figure out our particular purpose in what God is up to in the world—even if God's whole mission is not entirely clear to us. And so we are called to “leap” into the time and place into which we have found ourselves, trusting that as we seek out our purpose that God is using us in ways we don't even realize, and along the way will begin to see that we are part of something much larger than ourselves—the mission of God in the world.

Pastor Erik