Pastor Chris Wogaman
Photo credit: Emily Ann Garcia, 2017
Pastor Chris Wogaman joined Trinity Lutheran Church, Park Forest, in February 2017. He has previously lived in Minneapolis, MN, New York, NY, Berkeley, CA, and New Haven, CT, where he earned his Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School/Institute of Sacred Music, where he focused his studies on liturgy.
Pastor Chris counts among his interests music and poetry composition, family history and visiting graveyards, playing piano and singing, cooking, conversing and getting to know people. He is openly gay and a member of the Proclaim community of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, a community of openly gay Lutheran seminarians and pastors. He is a singing member of the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus, and recently sung with the Grande Prairie Singers. Previously, Pastor Chris sang with the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus and the OneVoice Mixed Chorus in the Twin Cities.
If you make it to Trinity, make sure you introduce yourself to Pastor Chris!
A Round of Applause
It was really something, as we were processing from our historic buildings during our April 28th worship service, to our new, if temporary, home, to receive a round of applause from a congregation of fellow Christians at St. Irenaeus as we walked down Orchard lifting high the cross.
I don’t know if those who were driving over caught the whole effect of this ovation; I didn’t expect it. None of us did. I couldn’t have told you to anticipate it. The amazing thing is that neither did St. Irenaeus. I learned the story a little later on. I want to share it with you, because I think that it is part of the whole tapestry that God is weaving with Trinity and Park Forest in these days. You see, we’re not the only quilters in the universe. God is quite a quilter as well, I’d say.
It just happened, or maybe not “just happened,” that St. Irenaeus was in the midst of passing the peace before they entered into their celebration of the Eucharist, the giving of thanks for what Jesus did for us, entering into the mystery of the depth of God’s love.
Maybe it was Nick, a passionate supporter of prayer and Park Forest and his parish, who clued the congregation in to our coming by at that moment. He told me later that the moment could never have been scripted. But I think God might have had a little hand in the matter.
I think we will look back on this moment in years to come. Because I think that we will have years to come. And I think we will have years to come because God is not done with our ministry. And God is not done with Park Forest.
What? Is it possible for God to have a plan for our ministry that does not entail us closing because we have been shrinking in numbers for years? Is it indeed possible for God to have a plan for Park Forest that includes even our ministry, the ideas and dreams and hopes that are only on the horizon now, but may come into being as each of us did, as our congregation did, as this village did, as this new day did?
God, I’d say, is quite the quilter. My life has been a patchwork of experiences and relationships, locations and accomplishments, mistakes and regrets, fragilities and resiliences. I couldn’t have told you in college that I’d become a pastor, or a secretary, or a tend a store, or sell insurance like my Dad did.
I didn’t have a 5-year plan or 10-year goals. I didn’t know if I’d marry or live in the United States or even see 30. I’ve gotten to here and now over paths that had been untrodden, through perils I couldn’t have known, led by a God whom I didn’t always believe in. But God still had plans for me, many of which I have yet to learn about. In that way, I’m a lot like this congregation.
It recently became apparent to me that Trinity is not an elderly congregation. Sure, our average age is about 83, but we’re a young 83. I was an old kid. My Dad called me the 35 year old kid when I was 5. Now I’m 44 going on who knows what. And Trinity is 70 going on 16.
Yes. It became apparent to me that Trinity as a congregation is more like a teenager than an elder. I don’t mean any disrespect by saying this. Maybe the age of adolescence is rising. But I daresay we are just beginning to learn what it means to be a church, or, perhaps, what it means to venture out into a wider world, a world that now has literally extended past what we knew for years.
We will feel awkwardness. Growing pains. Unexpected hilarity. Occasionally deep wells of sadness. Feelings that we forgot we knew how to feel. Echoes of joy from a summer that seems like it could not possibly have been as long ago as it was, because in memory it was only last summer, and maybe will be the summer coming up.
Jesus was young. He was so young and alive. He called people out of their homes and their sacred places, out of their jobs and their usual lives. He was impossibly old as well, as old as time itself and older. Indeed, Jesus rewrote time itself, because time has always had its end in death, and Jesus destroyed the power of death. Jesus also has the power to reset the clock of our ministry, to join the circle of the communion of the saints above, here below, and yet to come.
It may not be entirely by chance that we were celebrated with a round of applause. Holy Family welcomed us with applause as well! Bless them in their openness to our congregation and to God's future. Because I believe that our saints above are applauding our new beginning as well. This is not by chance, but by design. God’s design. And it will be our adventure to grow further into that mystery of God’s love for us, for Park Forest, and for this world that needs as much of that deepest love of all.
And, as much as any pastor could rightly say this, I am proud of you all. And I am applauding you along with all as you open yourselves up to God’s deepest calling to you in community.
May God bless you every day!!
Looking Out Over the Future
(Adapted from Pastor Chris's sermon of January 27, 2019)
We are at a moment of a new and necessary reformation in our church. This reformation is necessary not only for Trinity Lutheran Church, or for churches in Park Forest, but in many places where churches are struggling to survive. I do have an inkling of that vision of the future of our struggling churches that I want to share with you.
In this vision, it is as if I am out on a long dock that extends a ways into a large lake, looking off into the night across a vast body of water.
I can’t see exactly what is on the other side, but I can see campfires burning in the night, far off in the distance, fires that are set to watch for the future, fires that have light for what is to come next. And I feel that we need to get a boat to travel to the other side and see what that light will show us.
The church of Christ will continue forever, whether or not Trinity will host it. We have spent the last several years adrift on that lake, not knowing which way the wind would blow us, or on which shore we would land.
But I can see the watchfires burning in a hundred circling camps, the watchfires of a new dawn of Christianity, one not based in guilt and shame and fear, nor in the accumulation of money or members or adherents, but one built in the love of the creation for the Creator, one which cannot bind that love up in a building but must literally take down the doors to let everyone in.
I have seen the watchfire of a new direction for how we live in community, when so many of our communities have been stretched beyond their breaking point and must find a new basis on which to come together, a new covenant of love and care.
We have been traveling the last six decades in a church that even looks like a ship. With our vote to sell this beautiful, historic facility, proceeds from the sale of our church could fund our journey to the other side of that lake, to bring us to the dim light that God might have for us burning in those distant watchfires.
I can't tell you today what our future will be. I don't have a plan to sell you. But we now have the opportunity to turn our church into a boat that could take us across this lake to look into God's destiny for us and perhaps for other churches as well that are facing the same challenges we are.
In the early years of the second world war, British prime Minister Winston Churchill proclaimed to his nation that their hardest times were ahead of them. The battle to save France from Nazi rule was over, and Nazis were advancing to Britain. The fate of the world really did at that point rest on Britain not being conquered.
Churchill told his nation in that time when their resolve was most needed in the world, when their nation may also easily have fallen to Nazi occupation, that if the British empire lasted a thousand years, people would look back on that time and say “this was their finest hour.”
It is easy to believe that the finest hour of the Christian church was when all the Sunday schools were bursting at the seams, or when all the pews in all the churches were filled to capacity and latecomers had to go to the balcony. By the standards of the world, that would have defined success.
We are not facing down a menace like the Nazi empire. But we are at a moment when the form of Christian community we have known has been changing, and we do not know what it will come to look like. That is the case in a majority of churches. We have seen some possible ways forward. I am convinced that we could find more, because when we step out in faith, God will always come to meet us.
Beloved in Christ, this is *our* finest hour. This is the hour in which we can take control of a ministry that has been drifting for a long time, in a form of church that has been taking on water and going under in church after church after church for years.
We can make a new life in ministry to bring good news to those who are poor, to bring freedom to those who live in captivity to fear, captivity to bad theology that shames and blames and scares, captivity to loneliness and to oppression of many kinds.
And I truly believe with the help of God working in and through us that we can help a culture that has lost its way through the intensity of its differences to find its way back to its better self, starting here, in this village of Park Forest, and working outward from here. Our village needs us. Our nation needs us. Our world needs us and all who carry the fire of God’s love into a world that is hurting from the fire of dictators’ populist lies, IEDs and nuclear weapons, and the hot pain of hunger in an underfed child’s belly.
Because this is the year of God’s favor. This is the year of jubilee, and with the power of the Holy Spirit working through us, with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus walking with us, I truly believe that we can claim the voice of love that God has given us to shout to the nations.
Because Jesus is risen and he lives, here, today, and not just for us, but for all who live under the shadow of death, either literal death of the body, or death of our churches from lack of membership or irrelevant messages. For in his death, there is eternal life. And by his wounds will come the healing of the nations.
Come, join the new reformation. It does not need great or famous or rich people to start it, because it is already underway through the working of the Holy Spirit. God needs living voices.
May God bless you every day,
CHURCH WALKS ON MOON
Recently, I purchased a stack of newspapers that highlighted some of the most momentous events of the 20th century from the Goodwill thrift store online auction.
Over the course of a mere 24 years, these newspapers trumpeted the end of World War 2 (“PEACE AT LAST,” August 15th, 1945), the assassination of President Kennedy (“PRESIDENT KILLED,” November 22, 1963), and finally the moon landing (“MAN WALKS ON MOON,” July 20, 1969).
I wonder what it was like before anyone had ever walked on the moon? In this year to come, our human race will mark 50 years since the first human beings stood on the surface of the moon, five years before I was born.
Many of our members at Trinity were alive when the astronauts from the United States landed on the moon. Many, indeed, likely remember that day, sitting in front of the TV, and watching this humanity-altering event with millions and millions of other people throughout the world. What must that have been like for people? What’s it like to think of this 50 years later?
And what must the level of change from that time to this have been like for all of us reading these words right now?
What must it have been like for you to deal with that much change in the world? Changes not only in how the world works, and how we as humans think about ourselves and each other?
As humanity often feels like we are alone and at the fate of forces beyond our control, to have lived in the last 100 years, as we all have, is to have dealt with changes that people could have foreseen but many would never believe could ever take place.
As a child, I met Buzz Aldrin, one of the astronauts who first stepped on the moon. He came to the University of North Dakota, to address a group of us “Young Astronauts” whose minds were lit afire with the possibilities of space travel. Not long after, the space shuttle Challenger was literally lit afire and lost, along with its crew of seven, and the hopes and dreams of a generation.
Still, that seed of exploration, of rocket propulsion, of going into places and realms that humans have never explored, still lives in my creative consciousness, still makes my heart beat a little faster. And I wonder if it might not come to germinate in the church of the 21st century as well?
As a church, not only as Trinity Lutheran Church, we are being called, in the words of a prayer we read together at the special congregational meeting on December 16th, “to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.” For some, these paths are too much to bear. More familiar paths are needed.
Others, I hope, will be up to the task of exploring what the church could look like in this century, in which churches are for the vast majority of people like the surface of the moon itself: something they would never set foot on. Weddings take place everywhere now, and funerals need not happen in churches. Confirmations for Christian children and bar/bat mitzvahs for Jewish children are not the rites of passage to adulthood they once were.
The church, including our own dear Trinity Lutheran Church of Park Forest, must change. Our message need not change, but our context must fundamentally change. Our call to change is like we are being called out to set foot on the moon. The “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful . . . magnificent desolation” was how the moon’s surface was described in 1969. This is the present reality of our church. Beautiful, magnificent, and in many cases, desolate.
We can approach the desolation of our churches with sadness, anxiety, and emptiness, or we can remember the rest of that prayer I mentioned earlier: “Send us out with good courage, knowing not where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.”
Because that love, which we celebrate on Christmas Day, is REAL. It can really guide and support us. And we must rest in it like there is no tomorrow. Because, literally, there is no tomorrow in the church without the love and guidance of God through our savior Jesus Christ.
We are about to live into our faith in a whole new way. For some, it will be like the church itself has stepped out onto the moon. Church will not look like it has. We don’t have many templates to follow. Only that what has worked no longer does, but the Gospel still lives, and it is our challenge, our duty, and our delight to find out what that way will be.
And, in the words of Frank Sinatra, with God’s had leading us and love supporting us, We will never walk alone.
May God bless you each day of the new year to come!
The Gift of Being Open
Earlier this week, a number of “church fathers and mothers” and myself met with George and Heather Zoellick, real estate agents, who were well-known to several at our table. George has sold many church properties, and we called him in to begin the conversation into what our property is worth on the current market and how this knowledge can potentially benefit our conversation about our future mission.
As I listened to the Zoellicks’ very helpful questions, and to others around the table, I heard a quality of voice that is essential to having any kind of future: that of true openness to wherever God might be calling us. I believe we have some questions to which we need answers that the Zoellicks can help us answer. The answers will not force us to act one way or another, but learning them now will give us options that we may not have if we started asking them in three more years.
On the other end of this month, I spent a few days near the village of Boring, Maryland (yes, there is such a place!), with my Proclaim community of LGBTQ+ Lutheran seminarians, clergy, and those waiting for call. We gathered at a Jewish retreat center, which kept a kosher dining area, as well as goats, sheep, and chickens. The feeling of the wet morning’s grass on my feet, the hair of the goats on my fingers, and the smell of the world waking up each day, renewed a connection with nature that I didn’t realize I needed to renew.
It was such a pleasure both to see old friends and colleagues and meet new ones, all of whom have a vocation to ministry, or are supporting spouses who do. We prayed and played together. We sang and worshiped. We made rainbow clergy collars! (I promise to wear mine soon.)
We also talked about what gifts we have and bring to others as LGBTQ+ people. One of our greatest gifts is our openness to ourselves and to our communities, especially to those who have not previously been welcome in the church. Not everyone is able to be as open as I am, and I am very thankful for the choice I made long ago to be out no matter what the cost may be. The higher cost, in my experience, comes in not being open. It is a cost that we pay with our souls. I was grateful, in conversation with one of our members, to hear that being out is a gift I gave to myself. I agree; it is a gift I also give to this community.
As a community, we also have a great gift in being open, both open to others who have never been to Trinity (as when we welcomed the family and friends of Edna when we celebrated her birthday), and open to a future that will not be like the past. God is not done with us yet. I don’t know ultimately where we will go, or what we will look like, who our people will be in the years to come, or if we will give as a gift the fruits of our ministry here to a future generation of ministry elsewhere.
But that voice of openness, curiosity, and care for the future that I heard last Tuesday, and have heard other times here at Trinity, gives me hope that whatever our direction will be, we are going in a faithful direction, and we are being good stewards of what we and our previous generations have given us to care for.
I and our Council leadership encourage you to share where you feel God may be leading us. Soon, we’ll begin the small group discussions that we’ve been talking about having for the last year. I like the phrase that Council President Becky Bruckner uses elsewhere, that the small groups will “focus on exploring our faith and our future, and how these and other elements relate to each other.” We’ll talk about prayer and faith, about listening for God, and reaching out to our community, about spending our resources wisely, and how we will approach the future intentionally.
At the table with the Zoellicks, it became clear as crystal that our future real estate needs will need to be driven by our mission direction, by the direction in which God is calling us. It would be fruitless to move if it didn’t serve God’s purposes for our ministry, just as it would not make sense to stay if that didn’t serve our mission. We need yet to spend some quality time in conversation and prayer around what that mission is. We can do this!
In the time to come, we will continue to support each other. We will also need to seek guidance from those outside our Trinity community, like the Zoellicks, and most of all we will need to rely on the crucified and risen Christ, who always leads us in a faithful direction. Open to his call, and to the Spirit’s leading, we will bring hope to those who need it; and maybe those who need it is ourselves. And many in the future, I suspect, will be grateful for the time and care we spent in these days and the days to come on figuring out our calling as a community, as I was in opening up the path here by being open about myself all those years ago.
May God bless you every day!
We Need More Mister Rogerses
I have heard it said lately that we need Mister Rogers more now than ever. I think this is true. I think we need more people who can talk to children and adults gently and truthfully about the realities of the world, who can explore and expand our imagination and our appreciation for people of many backgrounds. Mister Rogerses of color. And Ms. Rogerses. And trans Rogerses. Gender-nonbinary Rogerses. And Rogerses of other lands and cultures. Islamic Rogerses. Atheist Rogerses. And many, many Rogerses of faith.
Mister Rogers was a minister and the television was his church and most of the country and indeed the world was his parish. His message was to love our neighbors as ourselves—indeed, that we in fact even have neighbors. Different neighbors from ourselves. That we can and should love them. That it is ok to feel all of the feelings that we have, but that some feelings are ultimately more helpful than others, and that fear is often misplaced.
Our nation is now living under multiple kinds of fear, and we are as far from loving our neighbors as we have ever been. Our nation has grown narrow-minded like I was when I was 18, and afraid of people finding out that I was gay, afraid that I would be beaten and maybe killed if people knew, because those things did happen, and still do.
As a country, we are afraid of change more now than anytime I can remember. We are reactionary, letting fear lead. It’s quite easy to see how we might treat “aliens” as less than human; “aliens,” after all, aren’t human: they’re from another world. Why not take away their children at the border? These children aren’t human either, according to this narrative of “illegal aliens” supposedly “spilling over the border” like rats.
We are better than this. And our children deserve better. They deserve a better nation than whatever we are right now, tearing apart families and throwing actual human children into cages. Human beings. Not “aliens.” CHILDREN. INTO CAGES. And using the Bible to justify those actions. The Holy Bible.
We can do better than whatever we are doing right now. And we have to do better.
What would a movement of Rogerses look like? A broad swath of people who love their neighbors as much as themselves and aren’t afraid to let the whole world know it? Who are willing to have anyone as their neighbors? Even, maybe especially, if they don’t look the same, worship the same, if their family isn’t arranged the same? Knowing that some people are not safe, but that far more are more safe than not.
We’ve come to let the few people who aren’t safe control the many who are. And this is what we have got: we are all living in a cage. The definition of terrorism—living in terror. And this way of life is completely unnecessary.
A central message of Jesus is that we not only should love our neighbors as ourselves, but that that is exactly what we are called to do.
The fear that grips this nation will stop not only when we love our neighbors as ourselves, but when we return to politics as the way in which we negotiate our life together, and not rolling around in the bottom of a messy cage.
Perhaps we can even define a new way of negotiating our life together, which could happen when we determine a new way of calculating net worth not as financial, competitive, and inherently unequal, but as being the worth that we have as living, sentient children of God, who all lose our way and just want to be safe and loved and occasionally take advantage of other people and do horrible things, but are not the sum total of our good or ill works.
“Look for the helpers,” said Nancy McFeely Rogers, Mister Rogers’s mother. We need so many helpers right now. So many more than we have. So what can we do to make this nation better, this frightful and beautifully messed up world better?
I wonder what it would be like to go out and literally ask people to be our neighbor? On a large scale. To take that leap of faith that most of us aren’t going to steal their money or cut their throats or take away their jobs or guns or somehow make their children gay. This could fail, sure, but this could work. But it won’t unless we try.
What do you think?
May God bless you every day!
Deciding on a Mission
for Trinity Lutheran, Park Forest
Over this last month, we have begun to talk more openly about our future at Trinity Lutheran Church in Park Forest. During the worship services on May 6th and May 20th, we took time to begin to work towards deciding whether we have an outward-focused, future-focused, specific mission at Trinity. Anyone present was allowed to contribute their ideas, feelings, and thoughts regarding this conversation. I welcome conversation with you at any time should new ideas come to you.
I spoke about how our future ministry is limited if we do not turn outward towards our community, make an affirmative commitment to Park Forest, or decide together whether we are called somewhere else at this point in the life of Trinity’s ministry. The old model of church growth was trying, or rather hoping, that people would come to Trinity, join the life of our church, and give financially and of their talents. This is not a realistic path to the future, and even if it were, we would still be in need of affirmatively deciding how God is calling us beyond our walls at this point in our ministry.
I spoke of how mission is not an internally-focused, reactive way to proceed, but a future-focused, outward-focused, and more specific plan of proceeding together to realize God’s beloved community in this world. Old models of church growth looked at people as commodities, to replace members who had died or moved, who (we assume) would adopt our ways and learn to be like we are. I will say it again: very few people who are not yet here will want to come simply to keep our doors open. The only workable future for Trinity is to begin forming ties outside of our current congregation.
You spoke about how these are conversations that we need to have, and how it may be challenging to figure this mission out. I sense that our congregation is open to the conversation. We heard that nearly 90% of the children in the Park Forest school district live at or under the poverty level. That we are and have been a community of educators. That we need direction. That our buildings will need substantial work in years to come, even if they are currently serving us well outside of the accessibility issues.
We’re in a great place to talk about our future, now when we can, but not because we have no other choice. My hope and trust is that a new phase of the conversation will help bring more voices into the mix. After a very good conversation at the May Council meeting, we have made the decision to go forward with small-group discussions, hosted at people’s homes. We’re going to be figuring out a program of discussion, who can host (please feel free to volunteer!), and when to schedule these conversations beginning later in June. I will continue to keep our attention focused on the future, in the direction of what mission is (outward-focused, future-focused, and specific), and away from what it is not (“getting people in,” “attracting younger people”).
In addition to the conversations at Trinity, I will speak with our Synod leadership to determine exactly what our options might be from their standpoint. I want to encourage you as well to begin to identify possible conversation partners to help us in our conversations to a place where we can all agree on a mission to which all members and friends of Trinity, as well as many beyond our walls, will want to help us achieve. Once we have a better idea of what that mission will be, it will become easier to make more connections as a result of knowing what kinds of conversations we want and need to have.
This effort will be creative, enlivening, and dare I say, fun. It will not necessarily be smooth or easy. But when you call on the Holy Spirit, as we did at Pentecost, as we do each Sunday and every day in our own prayer lives, the Holy Spirit comes, and along with her there comes change. We will learn how to learn from the Spirit of all Truth, who speaks from God to us in our own time and place. I have seen the Spirit work in this way before, and I am excited to think that we will soon all be witnessing a new movement of the Spirit in our own congregation.
This effort may also not “bring in” new members, but if it brings us out as a congregation to help others, even on a small, brief scale, it will have been a success. We have a wise Council and many other helpful voices with us already. We will meet new people and have new conversations that will open up possibilities for us that none of us have thought about. I think that we still have some ministry to do here at Trinity, and even if it may be limited in time and scope, it will be truly serving our neighbors in the call that comes to us from our Lord, who walks with us each step of the way.
May God bless you every day!
Forums for Our Future
Dear friends at Trinity, we need to act on having some challenging, frank, loving, and wide-ranging conversations about our future ministry at Trinity. I have been talking about having these conversations for several months in my sermons, at the Annual meeting, and through some of my columns here in the Circulation newsletter. We’ve talked about some of these ideas at Bible Study on Wednesday mornings, and during our Council meetings.
But this can’t be a conversation that just a few people or even a few groups have. Trinity needs your ideas. Our Council will be hosting some “Forums for the Future” in the upcoming weeks and months that will help facilitate this conversation in our congregation.
Sometimes the seed of ministry nourished by a long-lived congregation can bear new fruit through new ministry. In February, I went to Houston to learn the skills of a redevelopment pastor for use at Trinity. The hard news of redevelopment is that few congregations generate new ministry in the place of a ministry that has, by all accounts, run well its course.
The harder news of redevelopment is that Trinity is not in a place for official redevelopment at the moment; that would require us to define an undeniable movement of the Holy Spirit in a new way, not only to sustain or regenerate our ministry, but to connect with our wider community and become absolutely vital in the lives of those beyond our doors.
Ministry is not about sustaining buildings, or keeping doors open, or even getting new members or generating new programs. Ministry is about mutual care in the name of Christ, and care chiefly for those beyond our walls.
I want as many voices as we can get to be part of this conversation on Trinity’s future. We are going to begin this conversation during worship on this Sunday, May 6th. We will have some structured, yet open, time in the place of the sermon that day, and continue that conversation on Wednesday morning, May 9th during the time of the Bible Study at 10:00am. We will be looking for further opportunities to bring you together after those days—please come with some ideas if you are able, or contact me, the church office, or a member of the Council if you can’t make it on the 6th or the 9th. Future Sunday dates will be a part of this conversation.
No doubt some will be concerned that we will be having conversations about closing our congregation. It is natural to be anxious, and it is OK, if we work together to guide that anxiety into a good place. Like the butterflies in the stomach that performers (and pastors!) get before making a public presentation or concert, that anxious energy, positively directed, can help fuel our best ideas.
In the words of the Prayer of St. Francis, “For it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Trinity will likely not have an eternal life as an ELCA congregation. But we can have a flourishing life, and we can engage this life intentionally.
I have seen congregations sell or move from their historic homes and live; it is possible, and new life can come from it. I have seen congregations rise through the Spirit to have a new life, and a new form, and a new beginning. God is the God of new beginnings. Jesus is the proof of that, and so am I, and so are many of you.
I want to emphasize that I am not hopeless, or disappointed, or anxious about our future. In taking a realistic view of the future, as with the past, Trinity has much to be proud of in our ministry. I love being your pastor and wish to stay for years to come. But I also want to be the most responsible shepherd for you that I can be, and to do that I need your help.
So, some questions, dear friends: What would it mean for Trinity to stay and work, or determine where else our ministry is needed? And what would it mean for Trinity to go in peace from its ministry?
Most of all, how will we live our joy and love for our neighbors in the time to come? Whether we have a year, or five years, or ten years, or a hundred years, this is a crucial question to determine the answer to together. Because Trinity is a loving, committed, and caring congregation. I think Trinity is a courageous congregation too, one that can have frank, open, and Spirit-filled conversation about how to approach our future together.
I have some outlandishly creative ideas. At some point I’d be happy to share them, after this process has gotten underway. But I am more interested in your outlandishly creative ideas. Or your very sensible ideas. Or just your honest, frank, and sincere ideas. Let’s have these conversations together. I will be with you for them, praying and rooting for our ministry at Trinity.
More importantly, Jesus will be walking with us, and he has been through some of the hardest times life can give us. We have nothing to fear with the King of Love on our side.
May God bless you every day!
Following the Way of the Cross
Every theology encourages a certain mission, and every Christian mission follows from certain theological ideas or premises. If we believed that our choice for Christ were crucial in our being able to obtain eternal life, this belief would powerfully inform our need to encourage others to make this choice. “Saving souls” would be our imperative in caring for our neighbors who were not saved.
This is not our way as Lutherans, however. Although we do believe that “by God’s grace we are saved through faith, and not by works [of the law],” even that faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We cannot even come to believe in God by our own act of will, so great is the power of our turning away from God. Yet God does not turn away from us.
Our freedom in Christ, which comes from Christ’s choice for us and for our salvation (in the words of the Nicene Creed), opens wide our mission in his name. With Christ as the savior of souls, and not us, we do not have to convince others to accept Jesus as their savior.
On the one hand, that opens up a much larger palate of possible colors with which to paint God’s picture of grace for others; on the other, it seems much harder to focus on what that mission should then indeed be. It is like when I sit and try to order from a huge menu. It has been said recently that it can take me 20 minutes to make up my mind for dinner! How much harder then would it be for a whole church community to discern its mission!
Whatever we figure our mission to be, whatever ways in which we find we must help our neighbors and receive their help in Christ’s name, that mission will become clear only when our eyes are on the cross of Christ. On the holy cross on which our savior died (we will hear these words at Good Friday), we see the clearest calling of God, not for us to crucify ourselves in God’s image, but to know a God that spared nothing, not even God’s own self, in making a way to reach us.
And so if God reached out to us in this incredible way, and we have received this calling to do likewise, and we have been freed to do so, and we have been given this life and these days in order to do it, how shall we care for others?
One place to start is to remember how our community of Lutheran Christian faith is unique in our area. We are Christ-centered, and, mostly, progressive Christians. These two elements are not often found together. We care for justice for those who are oppressed. We care for those put on the margins of our society, as for the one who was most marginalized in his own time and place, put to a shameful death in front of all including his own mother.
Are there people being put to death for whom we must intercede, or at least stand with? Are there those being separated from their families, or whose jobs are being unjustly taken away from them, or who are being put in harm’s way, or whose health care is being curtailed when they cannot afford to pay for it? Are there those who just need someone to talk to without being judged? Are there those who have been told that they are going to hell, whom we could tell that that is not true nor why Jesus came to earth? Are there those who have little hope, an empty table, or have lost a loved one, whom we could sit with?
This is following the way of the cross: in obedience to the call of Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit working through us, we help reveal the realm of God that has come near, nearer than the many hells of our world, and sometimes even of our own lives. And we don’t stop doing so until everybody knows that they are free in Christ, even ourselves.
Yours in the peace of Christ,
On the Road to Redevelopment
After a year with you as your pastor, I’ve been telling people that if I have been experiencing a “honeymoon” time with Trinity, it would probably have come to an end by now. But I still feel the same sense of excitement and joy in serving as I did when I first got here last year. Thank you to all of you for your support of our ministry at Trinity.
As I talked about at the Annual Meeting, we will need to journey together, make some changes, try and fail at a few things and relationships, and listen for God’s leading. I know that we will be called to respond in new ways to help our neighbors, but if we can continue working toward what we can realistically (or even a little unrealistically) do to help our neighbors and claim our voice as God’s open-hearted and open-minded people in the world, I know that we’ll be on the right track.
I write this column on the eve of making a trip to Houston, TX, for the rest of the week (February 20-24), to attend the Congregational Development Training Conference, Redeveloper section. This training will bring together bishops, directors for mission, and people who, like myself, were approved to be mission developers (pastors who begin new ministries) or redevelopers (pastors who help reimagine ministry in existing congregations) from all over the country.
Not only will I learn and be refreshed on many of the skills of being a mission redeveloper, I will also be meeting people and reconnecting with others who will be able to contribute to the well of ideas and inspirations from which we might draw together in our future ministry at Trinity. We are not a redevelopment congregation, since we are still self-sustaining, but most congregations, some might say every congregation, is in some stage of redevelopment as each community grows to meet the new and changing circumstances of its neighbors.
This time next month, we’ll be on the cusp of Holy Week, one of my favorite times in the Church calendar. We will have journeyed together during Lent, and enjoyed together our series of learning from our Theologian-in-Residence, Brach Jennings. I will also have begun to process with several of you and many others my learnings from Houston. I am excited to see what this new and fertile ground of learning may hold in store for us as an expansive, welcoming community in Christ.
However our community will look in the future, it will remain, I pray, a community formed by the cross of Christ, and under the steady and constant care of our loving God. And our community will evolve, I hope in equal measure, into the fullest extent of its resilience, a collective of each of our individual stories of resilience and strength through the challenges that God has seen each of us through over the course of our lives. The God who has gotten us through as individuals will see us through as a community into whatever our future will hold. And our collective wisdom, refracted through the prism of Christ’s cross and resurrection, will be a light to our wider community and to ourselves at a time when it needs all the light it can get.
May God bless you each day!
And the Word Became Flesh
And the Word became flesh and established his tabernacle among us . . . (John 1:14a)
In one telling of the story, we hear of a young woman, hardly more than a girl, who is pregnant and has become a social pariah, as the ancient societal double-standard has always made women who appear to have had sex before marriage. Who would even buy the story that some “Holy Spirit,” not even a part of anyone’s religion or philosophical system at the time of this happening, had “overshadowed” her and somehow gotten her into this late stage of pregnancy? Joseph “manned up” to the challenge of being with these “damaged goods,” taking responsibility for someone else’s baby. This story is not unique to Mary, but seems to have been the story told about her at the time that she and Joseph we starting to make a life together.
In another telling, one that values Mary in her human totality, Mary is empowered and resolved to accept the path in life that God has given her, and sings with a blazing prophecy of the path that she will physically clear for the Messiah of God. This Messiah is the true light that is coming into the world, who will upend the way things have always been, where the rich are filled and filled and filled, and those who are poor in worldly goods have even what little they have taken away. This has been the way of the world from time immemorial, and continues to this very day in many parts of the world, including in our own halls of power.
The incarnation is a miracle: as God takes on human flesh, the divine “descends” literally and metaphorically into the mess of human existence. This goes against other visions of the divine seen as elevated high above our human plane, never sullied by the messes that we humans get ourselves into, or live in, or create for others.
The question as to whether Mary was a virgin, whether she was “pure” in this very narrow and somewhat dubious way, entirely misses the point of the miracle of God taking on flesh. The miracle of the incarnation is that it entirely changes the meaning of human flesh. It makes holy that which had been profane, for all time. That God would enter into very human flesh makes even our own flesh holy.
The incarnation also cuts through the human value judgments of flesh being either “pure” and “soiled.” Human flesh degrades and dies. That is simply our nature. Human society has put value judgments on flesh in countless ways: on its age, its color or shade, its gender, its economic value, its sexual orientation or sexual experience, its having been violated by people who devalue the flesh of others through violence and exploitation. In all of these ways, through all of these value judgments, through all of the laws and unspoken mores that devalues or criminalizes or exploits human flesh, human societies over a wide span of time and space have told us that our flesh does not matter except in so far as how other people value it.
But our flesh does matter to God, apart from all of the value-laden judgments that humans would put on it, despite how we would attack the bodies of others with words, or hands, or fists, or laws, or guns, or bombs. Because God has made all flesh holy.
Sit for a moment and look at your skin and try out this simple prayer: “God, thank you for giving me my body, and for making my very human flesh holy through Jesus. Help me to see others as you have made them. Lead us all into new ways of blessing each other. For you have made all of your children holy through the One who has brought the light into the world, Jesus, in whose name I pray. Amen.”
As we look forward to a new year at Trinity, my prayer for you and for our entire community here at Trinity and beyond is that we might find new ways to bless each other both with our presence where it is most helpful and needed, and in the opening of our hearts to those whose flesh has not been valued, who have been ground down by the incessant messages that their flesh does not “measure up” somehow to society’s expectations, or who have been told in words or deeds that their lives do not truly matter.
In valuing the very human flesh of others, we value the flesh that God has taken on, the flesh of Jesus. And in that, we extend the miracle of the lives that God has given us all and sustains us in from day to day.
May God bless you every day!
Then Let the Servant Church Arise
The Church of Christ in every age
Beset by change but Spirit led,
Must claim and test its heritage
And keep on rising from the dead.
Has there never been a “potent” time for the Church of Christ to speak a word of challenge and solace to its society? This certainly seems like one of those times. On this late-August morning, as I write these words, I keep on my heart the prayers of our people at Trinity for healing, peace, strength, comfort, and consolation in loss.
I hear the cries of those across the nation, for justice from racial prejudice, religious persecution, sexual assault, financial peril, and those who are causing these conditions to happen. I hear the fear in the voices of those for whom the prospects of nuclear war grow more real, and then sink away again, and then rise again.
I hear the voice of a man disowning his white supremacist son, and his son trying to justify his anti-Semitic hatred with arguments about “white genocide” that spit in the face of those who have experienced actual genocide, such as happened to millions of Jews even within the span of some of our lifetimes.
I hear also the questions of what our path of ministry will be for the future, after a long and wonderful past here at Trinity. All churches are asking these questions, not just ours—questions of how to reach out, how to connect more with our neighbors—which often turn into questions of how we can “attract more members.”
The attractional model of church growth still has its day in some churches. Ours is not one of them. It is not that Trinity isn’t attractive; I think we are gorgeous. It is that, if we were going to attract our way into the future, it would have already happened. People would have already come en masse.
Coming to this realization is both frightening and liberating. It is frightening because nothing that we do is going to attract enough members to “replenish” our membership “supply.” Thank God. This doesn’t mean we want to try to be unwelcoming and scare people away; it just means that we don’t look to ourselves and our own attractiveness to grow the church.
And in that is the liberation. If we did nothing else but listen for the Spirit’s calling, we would be a Spirit-led church. I’ve been hearing some voices lately that strike me as the calling of the Spirit. One was a young person who came up to me after a recent peace vigil in Frankfort. They thanked me for speaking as a faith leader against white supremacy. They grew up Catholic, are not an atheist, but do not find churches to be making the connections and witness that are needed in our changing landscape.
Another voice is the mother of a young man whose life was lost to gun violence. As we spoke about what we could do here at Trinity to help those in our own community, the idea of holding a “listening post” came up—just set up a table and some chairs to listen to people. Not give advice, not give money, not give answers, set some basic time and space boundaries. And then just listen with respect, perhaps pray or perhaps not. Give people the humanity that the streets and homes and workplaces of our world so often take away.
This would take hardly any money, infrastructure, or resources, beyond simply having someone with an open ear and an open heart to listen, and someone who needs a caring, non-judgmental person to talk to. We have people like that here at Trinity, and perhaps there are people among our own number who need to be heard.
Fred Pratt Green’s hymn, “The Church of Christ in Every Age,” which we sing on August 27th and will sing many more times while I am here as your pastor, encapsulates so much of the present moment of his own time (1969) and ours, and every time. The first stanza is above; we must keep on rising from the dead. Not only our church. Not only the Lutheran church. But every church.
The third stanza is a call to that rising: Then let the servant Church arise,/A caring Church that longs to be/A partner in Christ's sacrifice,/And clothed in Christ's humanity. I long to be in a church that cares about people who are not cared for, and that rises up with Jesus for the sake of a world in need. That listens to the voice of the Holy Spirit and follows it in the path of Jesus. We have that here at Trinity.
What is the Spirit saying to you in these days? Please tell me, and I will continue to tell you what I am hearing.
May God bless you every day,
Proclaiming in the Open
As many of you may know, I love the ancient languages on which our Scriptures are based. In the New Testament, the act of speaking out is denoted by the words “kēryssō” and “euaggelizō.” The first word literally refers to the sound that a crow makes, so you could think of giving a sermon as “crowing.” The second is related to the word “angel,” which literally means one who announces, and is the basis for “Evangelical,” meaning “the Gospel” or “good message,” the word that begins our denomination’s name, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
In Latin, one term for these actions of speaking out is “proclamo,” “to call or cry out.” The root verb of “clamo/clamare,” means “a loud cry, shout, or complaint.” Think of the word “clamor.” But sometimes, isn’t it necessary to cry out? Sometimes there are truths that cannot stay silent, that need to be named, voiced, and even, sometimes, shouted out.
The week before last, I attended the yearly retreat gathering for the Proclaim community, a community of which I have been a member for many years. This community exists to bring together and support clergy and seminarians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer identifying (LGBTQ; the word “queer” includes many who find this term as one of support and identification rather than as a curse term), people whose sexual orientations and gender identities have, at times, been silenced, people who have been told not to proclaim about that aspect of their lives, even though it is an aspect that runs as deep as any can. You can learn more about the community online at www.elm.org/proclaim. I even have a biography there!
At the Proclaim retreat, which drew together about 80 people this year (including spouses and significant others), we had a chance to see old friends and make new ones, to worship, pray, and sing together, to engage in discussion over meals and at leisure, to learn together about ways to heal ourselves and our communities from violence, and to proclaim the deepest truths of our lives and callings, in a way that for many of us is still a challenge.
The Proclaim community now includes around 275 individuals. Many still have a challenging time finding a call, and many more are seminarians who are not able to be placed, as I was, in a supportive internship parish. The community has 4 chaplains who minister to these ministers. I was grateful to be nominated for one of these positions, and even more honored to be selected as a Proclaim chaplain. I will learn more in the next 2 years about the needs and prayers for this community through being a dedicated listener and prayer for people who are going through what I have gone through, in the wilderness of a church body that has not caught up with where Trinity is.
Trinity is the only Reconciling in Christ church in the south suburbs of Chicago. This means that we are the only Lutheran church that openly welcomes people like me, people whose sexual orientations and gender identities have historically been excluded from the fellowship of Christian community. We are not the only welcoming Lutheran congregation, but we are the only one that has publicly made that statement. We are a congregation that proclaims our welcome to LGBTQ people who, though dispersed in our communities, are still living, raising families, seeking community, and in need of the message that God loves them as much as God loves any of us.
We have a message of welcome to proclaim, out in the open. The messages of God’s love that we bring to others and our surrounding communities are literally saving words for some people. As I continue to become more acquainted with our community, I will continue to bring the message that Trinity welcomes all people, truly, not regardless of, but because of who God created them to be. That means you.
I need a lot of help in getting this welcoming message out. If you can think of someone in your own life, anyone who needs the message that God loves them and that our community at Trinity will support them, please consider proclaiming to them that simple, yet saving message. I am grateful for all that you are already doing to support and grow our community. We may still be small in number, but we are great in spirit, and God is with us.
May God bless you every day!