Five years ago today I was installed as pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Rocklin, California. As with many things, it seems like it was both yesterday and a thousand years ago. But here are a few of my thoughts that have bubbled up along the way.
It takes about five years to get to know a congregation, and another five years to get to know a community. Years ago a seasoned pastor told me that, and I think it is generally true. Holy Cross is very much home for us now, and it is hard for me to imagine being anywhere else. California and Rocklin are still a bit surreal, but I expect that will keep coming along the way. It just takes a certain number of major life events to really get to know people. Baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals all shape the pastoral relationship with a congregation, as well as the week-to-week preaching and teaching and celebrating the Eucharist together.
California is not as weird as I thought. People are people, and while the context of ministry changes from place to place, our common humanity binds us together more than it separates. While there are some unique pastoral challenges here that weren’t in the Midwest, the Word remains the same, and Jesus remains the same in Wisconsin, or California, or to the uttermost parts of the earth.
Our common humanity is not as clear as it once was. The things that bind us together as human beings continue to become more blurry. Marriage, family, children, things that were once obvious and taken for granted are less so now. It’s hard to pin down, but there is a shift going on, no doubt about it. I have found myself addressing more issues of human sexuality today than I have in the past, and I believe that will continue and expand, not revert back to what it once was.
I love my family, and I recognize the sacrifices that they continue to make in order for me to serve Holy Cross. I’m not saying this because their sacrifices are so much bigger or more pious than anyone else. It is, however, a simple reality that we are really, really far away from our families. That continues to be the single biggest challenge to our living here.
I have grown as a pastor since being here. Going to a new congregation was very good for me as a pastor, even though it was terribly hard for me to leave all our friends in Kenosha. I am a bit more circumspect and a less impulsive when it comes to pastoral care and congregational leadership. Plus moving gives me a whole new opportunity to mess up and receive forgiveness! That has to be good.
Those are my thoughts on this Friday morning. Now it’s time to write a funeral sermon for a dear parishioner, finish up things for Sunday, and begin year six!
Last week I served in the chapel service for Higher Things in Fort Collins, Colorado, and watched all of the other pastors assist with Holy Communion. At this Higher Things event there were somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred pastors present. It is one of the more unusual blessings, that HT has so many pastors able to come, teach, preach, assist with services in various ways, and in a phrase, to be there.
The sacrifice isn’t really theirs, however. It is their wives (and children) who most often make the sacrifice.
Between serving in three districts, working in admissions, and graduating from both a seminary and a Concordia prep school (Go Seward Bulldogs!), I know a lot of pastors, and with that, a lot of pastor’s wives. Now my lens is clearly shaded toward that most awesome of all pastor’s wives, namely, my own wife. She has been by my side for twenty-one years, and almost all of those years have been while I was serving as a parish pastor. She is beautiful, passionate in all things, and is awesome. I have, however, seen these “patterns of awesomeness” repeated many, many times over the years, by lots of pastor’s wives. Here are just a few character traits that come to mind today. We could talk about each one, but the list will start to give you the picture:
We pastors are not always the wisest when it comes to how we use our time and energy. There are many times when my wife and family seem to get the left-overs. But through it all, God is merciful, the pastor’s family somehow stays together, and there is still food on the table and a bed to sleep on at night. And so much more. The only way I am able to serve the people whom God has entrusted to me is because my wife is by my side.
St. Paul says that an overseer must be the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2), and Solomon asks the question, “An excellent wife, who can find? She is far more precious than jewels” (Prov. 31:10). As I looked out over the thousand young people, pastors, chaperones and others in Fort Collins, it reminded me once again that the Ministry of the Word is never about one person. My wife isn’t a co-pastor or minister in some kind of cheesy way. She is much more than that. She is the one who serves, who loves, and who does all these things without anyone even seeing it, for the most part. That makes it all the more amazing.
Yes, I know pastor’s wives are sinners. Yes, I know sometimes they are a burden, just like everyone can be at some point or another. But generally speaking, husbands will serve their wife and family better by holding one another up, and by covering one another’s sins. I’m pretty sure that’s in the Bible, even.
So there you go, Wives of Awesomeness. You know who you are. This pastor salutes you, as do your husbands, and the whole church. And if anyone ever makes light of the burdens you bear and the sacrifices you make, send them to me. We will straighten them out real quick.
Do you know what it is to be hungry? I don’t mean I’m so hungry I could eat a fourth donut. Have you lived at a time when you did not know where your next meal comes from, or even if there will be one? Many in our world know the life of this widow from Zarephath. Many know what it means to tighten the belt one more notch, to give food to their children but not to themselves. For us Americans, It is far more likely that we will die from overeating than it is from starvation.
But here she is before you. This woman, this widow and her son. Her husband is dead. She is preparing her last meal for her and her son. She might as well be condemned. Can you feel her sadness and despair? Two sticks. That’s what she’s missing. Just two sticks. Put them together, start the fire and her life will burn out with her son and with the bread.
This is your life, if your life is only made up of what you can cobble together for yourself. You may not be starving, but you do long for a life that is full and abundant. You long for the daily bread that you need to live, but know that even with all you have, it will never be enough. No matter how much you consume, someday the apple will be like ash in your mouth. Some day, you will die, for that is the way of life under the curse of sin.
But for the widow, Elijah gives hope. “Do not fear,” he says in the words of the angels. The bread that the Lord makes for Elijah and the widow and her son will not run out. It is as if he prays the Psalm for her, “You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.” (Ps. 145:16) The widow and her son live. God gives hope to the hopeless. This bread that will not run out is life for them, real life.
Do you see yourself in this widow and her son? You are not here, in God’s house, because you look great, feel great, or have your life all perfect and tidy., You are not here because you were born into the right family or have the appropriate color of skin, whatever that may be. You are not here because you live in the right town, or the right part of the country, or the right country at all. There is nothing in you that makers you worthy to receive the mercies of God from His hand.
No, you are here because God feeds you with the bread of life, the bread that lasts for all the ages to come. You are here because Jesus Christ opens His hands to you and shows you the wounds, indeed bears the wounds of the cross for you for all time. You are here because Jesus Christ hungers and thirsts for you, that you would receive His righteousness as only He can give.
And according to the Word of the Lord, it is His own body that you eat and His own blood that you drink. And because of that, it is not just that you receive life. A life apart from God is no life at all. No, in receiving His own flesh and blood, the bread of life, you receive the life of God Himself. The hymn says “Thou hast desired Thy life for man” (LSB 834:1), and it is true. God put two sticks together on the cross so that you would live from that bread which never runs out.
God desires that you would live in Him and He in you. That is your hope, that is your future, that is the very bread you eat.
For those of you who don’t know, this summer I began to study for the Doctor of Ministry in Preaching degree at the Aquinas Institute of Theology. This is a decision that was a long time in coming, and helps to fulfill a longtime dream of mine to get back into the classroom not as a teacher, but as a student. We just finished our three day Orientation class here in St. Louis, and I am sitting in the airport waiting for my flight home. I thought it might be worthwhile to put down some of my initial thoughts about the experience, and establish a sort of baseline of my experience here, and where it will lead.
Frankly, it’s hard to begin on how to summarize my thoughts. After drinking from a firehouse for three days, I am a bit, uh, sated. However, I’ll give it my best shot.
For those of you who don’t know, I grew up in St. Charles, Missouri, which is just across the river from St. Louis. It is a special treat for me to have a reason to go home, especially since none of my family live here anymore. Between this and my work on the Board of Regents at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, I should be in St. Louis about half a dozen times a year.
Quite simply, I love St. Louis. It has always been one of my favorite cities, and not just because I grew up here. The sights, the sounds, the food, the drinks, the sports (Go Cards!), all of them are a part of my DNA, and I am thrilled to have an excuse to be here for a time. Except for the humidity. There is no good reason for humidity. Ugh.
Aquinas Institute of Theology
Aquinas is a Dominican (Roman Catholic) school. They train pastors, and offer several other degrees, but in many ways are best known for their DMIN program, which has been in existence for about 35 years. The campus is entirely housed in a converted adding machine factory, and is right next to St. Louis University, with whom they often collaborate. Somehow, the managed to pull off making a building that’s basically a big box into something that is intimate, professional, and Ecclesial. We can learn from them, because they have done it right. I’ll talk more about it in the future, I’m sure, but suffice it to say right now that I really like the space and how it is used.
Most of the students spent the week at the CSJ Motherhouse. This is a retreat house that is run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. I don’t really know anything about the space or the order at this time. I think they said there were seventeen nuns that live on campus. It is a beautiful old building, probably dating from the 1920s or so. They were kind, hospitable, and the meals were fantastic. What more can you ask for?
The DMIN Program is rigorous. I can see that already. It uses a cohort system, so the eleven of us that began the program together will take all of our classes together, work on projects together, listen to and critique each other’s sermons, and kind of do everything together. At this point I am glad to say that I like everyone, and I pray they feel the same way!
Our first professor is named Fr. Greg Heille, O.P. He is a kind man, both meticulous and articulate. I expect he will get us on the right path, and help to blow out the dust of academic writing that many of us are felling.
One of my big concerns coming into this program was whether I will be able to be true to my confession as a Lutheran. At this point I would say certainly yes, and that in many ways they welcome it.
The real joy of the week was the people. There are eleven of us in this cohort, and it is diverse, much more so that one might even expect. We can be divided up in many different ways. 10 Catholics, 1 Pentecostal and 1 Lutheran. Or 10 men and 1 woman (which, FYI, is one of the Catholics). Or two members of religious orders and 9 who were not. Or 8 North Americans, 1 Canadian, and 2 Nigerians. Or 5 parish priests, 2 pastors, 1 hospital chaplain, 1 permanent deacon, 1 lay ecclesial minister, and 1 Pastoral Associate for Adult Faith Formation.
But despite the various differences, it is actually our commonalities that are more interesting. All eleven have a deep desire to proclaim the Gospel (although what is the “Gospel” for each remains to be seen). Each person in their own way, sees preaching as a craft that can be learned, worked on, and improved, while at the same time, recognizing that it is the Holy Spirit who is at work through each. My impression thus far is that there is a fairly broad view in terms of the them-political spectrum, at least in Roman Catholic terms. But my familiarity with modern day Rome is quite limited, and I’m sure I’ll spend a great deal of time learning.
It is certainly fair to say that we are still getting to know each other. I am very much looking forward to that process, and think it may be the best part of the whole thing. I did not expect that.
THE LUTHERAN IN THE MOSTLY CATHOLIC ROOM
This is really the interesting and in some ways funny part of the whole thing. I am a Lutheran through and through. That is very much my DNA. But it would also be fair to say that I find that I have a much closer affinity to modern Rome than I do to modern Protestantism, or even more with Rome than with some groups that call themselves Lutheran. There are many Lutherans, even of my same confession (The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod) that would find themselves much closer in terms of practice with the Baptist or Evangelical than with a Roman Catholic. But I am clearly not one of them.A part of what this means is that it was both amusing and gratifying to see that by and large, this little band of Roman Catholics had about as many caricatures of me as I did (do?) of them. Crucifixes, consubstantiation, the authority of the Scriptures, the place of tradition, the Sacraments in general, private confession, vestments, we covered all kinds of Lutheran practices or caricatures. In the same way, I was asking questions throughout orientation about everything from the Monstrance to what it means to be a part of a religious order, to concelebration, to all kinds of peculiar terms that I’ve never even heard of. And I’m probably on the much more educated end of things when it comes to knowing about Catholicism!
But what the experience highlighted for me is that we really are separated brothers and sisters in Christ. I could not go to the Eucharist with them, nor would they let me if I tried. This is good and right. It means that words matter, that we have much work to do, and that maybe, just maybe, we can actually learn from each other.
Anyway, these are my initial thoughts on the orientation time. There’s a lot more to say, but I expect it will take time to digest before I can put it into words.
In the meantime, thank you, everyone, for your patience and kindness! We’ll see you next time.