In Defense of the Holiness of Play

Happy summer everyone! I hope you have had a chance to vacation and enjoy these sunny days, or at least what’s left of them. I love being born in July; if you were born in July, I see you. Having a summer birthday is so much fun! Last week, me and two July birthday buddies of mine celebrated by going to Riverfront Park and having some fun. This kind of fun wasn’t your typical birthday routine- it was what I like to call "childlike fun." We fed the ducks, blew bubbles, lit candles, ran through the splash pad, and sang happy birthday to ourselves.  

I wouldn’t have done this a couple of years ago. I was way too serious about life back then, probably due to the trauma I experienced in childhood which made me grow up a bit too fast. In these last couple of years, however, I have found my inner child (or, I should say, she found me). I would describe the inner child as that space inside that gets excited about little things and is in wonder over the ordinary.  

I believe kids are our greatest teachers and I am so impressed with how God is constantly bringing us back into our childlike wonder by giving us the gift of children all around us. Kids teach us and invite us to play.  For a child, play is crucial for development, and, for an adult, play is important in sustaining a healthy life. Dr. Stewart Brown, whose Ted Talk I’ve attached below, says that play is a necessary part of being human and that the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression. 

When is the last time you played? Played not to win or to produce something, but just for the heck of it? I believe that God’s invitation to sabbath is an invitation to play.  It is an invitation to get excited about little things and be in wonder over the ordinary.  If sabbath keeping is difficult for you, maybe try by playing.  Play just for the fun of it and, in doing so, may you connect with your own humanity and discover the wonder that is this life.

View the Ted Talk Here

On Omaha

Hey Church!

I hope your summer is off to a wonderful start! I hope it has been a time for rest, fun, and rejuvenation! I wanted to get this message out to you all sooner, but I have struggled to figure out exactly what to write.

For the first time that I have been aware of, our parent denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, has made headlines in national news. We’ve been featured on CNN and the New York Times, among many local papers across the Midwest. Sadly, it is because we voted for the first time in our history at our Annual Meeting in Omaha to remove First Covenant Church of Minneapolis from our denomination because our denominational leadership felt they were no longer in harmony as a Covenant Church and some of this was informed by their stance in seeking equality for LGBTQ+ individuals in their community. Along with their expulsion, two pastors had their ordinations removed for officiating LGBTQ+ weddings and publicly disagreeing with the Covenant position.

I chose this denomination because it has felt like a place where St Thomas could comfortably do excellent ministry to people across the theological and political spectrums. One of our denomination’s founding pastors, C.V. Bowman described the Covenant like this, “The local church shall consist of only believing members but at the same time to have room for all true believers no matter what their viewpoints on controversial doctrines.” It was this sentiment and others like it that that solidified my belief that the Covenant was the right place for us.

I think that that is still true today, but I also want to state definitively and plainly to our LGBTQ+ members and their allies in our community that St Thomas is and will always remain a place where you are welcome, safe, and seen as beloved. For those in our community who may hold a more ‘traditional’ view of human sexuality and feel uncomfortable with my previous statement, I want to continue to say that we are a community of diverse perspectives and a community where these diverse perspectives are welcomed. We do not have to agree with one another, but we must believe the best in one another, seeking to love each other just as Jesus first loved us. As I have said many times, you do not have to agree with me as your pastor, you simply have to trust that I am doing my absolute best to follow Jesus and be true to how I believe the Bible invites me to live and pastor.

I want to invite anyone who has questions about these events or where St Thomas lands on any issue to sit down with me over a cup of coffee or a drink and speak as honestly and openly as you need. I hope to create space for some larger group conversations around all these difficult topics in the Fall.

For any that feel hurt, rejected, scared, or upset, I totally get it. Those are all emotions I have felt over the past week and a half since these decisions were made. None of your feelings are wrong or unwelcomed.  We are all in this together, and we can all rejoice in the fact that St Thomas is the healthiest we have ever been. Financially, we are comfortably in the black, we have the privilege of having Linda on staff, an incredible Associate Pastor, we have the most wonderful Leadership Team I could ever hope for, and we are closer to getting a building than we have been in the past (more on that soon!!). We are in a good place, and our church is not at risk, nor is anyone in it! So, join me in all of these emotions and in prayer for wisdom in how we navigate the complexities of this issue in our community and in our denomination. Also, join us on Sunday as we continue to do good and excellent work in the city of Salem for the kindom of God.

On Partnership

Partnership at St Thomas

 

We spent all of Lent talking about what it meant to become a partner at St Thomas, but because of the nature of our wonderful community and the fact that Spring Break fell within that window, many of us weren’t in the room for every message. So I thought I would take a few hundred words to summarize the messages. I want to do that by speaking to a few of the questions that I have heard from many of you.

Question 1: “Wait, what is happening?!”

Answer: Well, we are in the process of becoming a “member church” in our denomination, The Evangelical Covenant Church. That means that we are going from a church plant who is invited to listen at our denominational meetings and votes, to a full voting member who is able to share and participate in the direction of our denomination. Beyond that, it means we are moving from a church ruled by a hopefully benevolent dictator (me) to a church run by an elected Leadership Team made up of our members who will serve alternating two-year terms. (Currently, Lena Prine, Jana Loney, Kandi West, Jaken Garcia, Ryan West, Robert Garcia, Linda Ardelean, and myself.)

Question 2: “Well why are we in a denomination in the first place?”

Answer: I think denominations matter for a lot of reasons. Firstly, they provide all kinds of support through trainings, retreats, even finances, and help me to be a better, healthier pastor. And secondly, they provide accountability to keep me (and any future pastors) from ever abusing our positions, to protect our congregation from our blind spots, and to help our pastors find healing if they need it.

Question 3: “Okay so why’d you chose this denomination?”

Answer: There are tons of reasons! 1) The Covenant allows for a diversity of opinion more intentionally than any other denomination I know of, and that allows churches like us to have open and honest conversations without feeling the pressure to “tow the denominational line.” And 2) The Covenant cares deeply about diversity and equal representation around the table. They have worked incredibly intentionally over the last 20 years to go from a predominately Swedish denomination, led by white men, to a multiethnic, multicultural denomination lead by diverse men and women representative of those who call the Covenant home.

Question 4: “Got it, so what does this mean for me?”

Answer: That’s kind of up to you. As we become a member church we will have a ‘partnership’ roster. We will also have yearly meetings where the budgets are approved, and the vision of the church is laid out. If you would like to attend that meeting you can choose to do so. If you would like to vote at that meeting you will need to become a “partner.”  

Question 5: “What does ‘become a partner’ mean?”

Answer: A partner is someone who has decided they are “bought in” with the vision of St Thomas and partner with the rest of the church to make that vision a reality. To become a partner, fill out a card and meet with a member of the leadership team. Their job isn’t to decide if you are theologically sound enough to become a partner, but rather to make sure that any involvement at St Thomas starts with relationship.

Question 6: “Are there any other requirements to partnership?”

Answer: Some, because partners are responsible for approving the budget, they are also expected to help meet the budget, so every partner is expected to give to St Thomas. There is no minimum giving amount, however, so if money is tight right now, $1 a month is absolutely fine. Beyond that, we just want our partners to want St Thomas to continue refining and accomplishing our current vision of bringing about the kingdom of God to Salem. Like I said in my closing sermon, “We are not looking to define who is in, or who is out, we are looking around wanting to know who is going to help us over the next hill, and maybe more importantly, the mountain x number of hills down the road.”

Question 7: “When’s this all happen?”

Answer: We want to be REALLLLLY intentional with this process, so it will all happen slowly over the next two years. We will begin meeting with interested partners now. We’ll have a partnership Sunday next Spring. And we will become an official “Member church” in the Spring/Summer of 2021. We aren’t in a rush, so it’s okay to express hesitancy be a part of this process.

Question 8: “Okay…. I still have more questions, what do I do with that?”

Answer: Call or email Mat, Linda, or any member of the Leadership team and we will do our best to answer any questions you’ve got!

On Community

Hey Church! I hope you’ve had a great summer and I hope you are all, or at least those of you impacted by the school calendar, finding some time to stay sane this week. I know our family is holding on by the seat of our pants at the moment!

I have had the opportunity this summer to spend a lot of time praying and thinking about where I see God leading St Thomas this year. As I have prayed, listened, and wrestled one word really bubbled up to the surface for me. Community.

I am so proud of the church that St Thomas has become over the last 4 years. I am so, so grateful for the incredible men and women who I get to spend time with and grow with, and I am so excited for what lies ahead. That said, I would like to share a vision that hasn’t yet been fully realized. I envision St Thomas as a community that prioritizes relationship with one another and loves one another deeply. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his book, Life Together,

“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”

I don’t want to dream of a false community. I want to be a part of a real community that loves one another. I know we are all busy, but I think we are missing out on community that changes lives.

One of the things I heard so often this summer is, “Gosh we wish we could have been at church more, but we’ve just had something every Sunday night.” And I hear that. And I don’t blame ya. But let’s be honest and it call it what it is. Most of us are not victims of our schedule; we are prioritizing other things. If attending church isn’t high on your priority list, I get that. It’s okay to be in that place. We just have to name it.

I have heard many people say that they want to go deeper in their faith this year and one way to start doing that is to go deeper in community with one another. The best way to start doing that is by showing up.

SO, will you join me this year in showing up? Will you consider moving St Thomas one slot up on the priority list? This doesn’t mean St Thomas has to be your first priority. I’m not looking for perfect attendance or anyone trying to earn anyone’s approval. I want our church to go deeper in our life, our faith, and our relationships together. I’m committed to helping St Thomas get there. Will you join me?

For everyone who is not ready to make St Thomas your priority, please hear this: You are still welcome here. You are welcome at anything and everything St Thomas does, Sunday or Midweek, whenever you want to come. There is no judgement and no requirement to make this church a priority. This will always be a church that anyone is welcomed at, regardless of the level of commitment they are able or willing to make. For those of us that are able and willing, I want to invite us to go deeper in community this year and invest in relationships with fellow St Thomas folks. I believe the easiest way to start is to show up.

 

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

– Hebrews 10:24-25

Lent 2019

Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, kicks off the season of Lent for the western Church. At St Thomas we work to intentionally engage with the church calendar which is designed to invite Christians all over the world to participate in the holy rhythms of the life and ministry of Jesus. Each season of the calendar invites us into a different part of Jesus’ life and a different rhythm to incorporate into our own. Lent marks Jesus’ journey into the wilderness for forty days and invites us into the wilderness to come face to face with all the lies society likes to throw at us.

Beyond Jesus’ journey into the wilderness, there are other biblical parallels to lent. The story of the Exodus is, to me, the most impactful. I remember early in seminary listening to a professor discuss Exodus 14:11-12,

“They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”

As the professor finished reading the passage, he looked up and said, “it is only in the desert that slavery looks more appealing than freedom, and yet the only way out of slavery and into freedom is through the desert.”

            Lent is an opportunity for the Church, and all those who are a part of her, to walk into freedom by first walking into the desert. And while this may feel exhausting and hopeless to some of us, I want to point out one more thing in this story. Moses was not led into the desert alone. The people of Israel went together into that desert and came out together as free people. I want to encourage each of us to do some hard work over these next forty days. But I want to scream from the top of my lungs for all of us who are worn out readings these words, “You don’t have to do it alone!” We will go with you, Jesus has gone before you, and the cloud of witnesses surrounds you. You aren’t alone on this journey, and even though it can be so, so difficult it is a journey worth taking.

Sabbath

I love the “fresh start” feeling of a new year. There is this hint of possibility, the opportunity to be a better, more whole version of ourselves than we were in the year prior. There is an undeniable beauty to that, maybe even a hope. But if you’re like me, there is also a pressure. Some form of unnecessary stress that whispers, “If you make a mistake, you’ll be right back at this point next year with nothing to show for your time but a couple more wrinkles and a few more pounds!” It’s a pressure that I do not enjoy, and a pressure that makes it hard to stop, to breath, to rest, and to trust.

And so, I want to extend an invitation to each of us (myself included!). As the frenetic pace of January comes to a close, I want to invite each of us to carve out spaces to just “be” in February. To rest, to listen, and to reflect on this past month before we look ahead to the next. As I continue to follow after Jesus, his teachings on rest, on the Sabbath and the First Testament Prophets’ teachings before him, become all the more impactful and transformative.

Sabbath, at its core, is about trust. Trust that God can do more through me in six days than I can do on my own in seven. Trust that in those six days, the Kindom of God will come more fully than I could bring it about with all my energy in seven. This reality radiates through the whole of scripture and, to me, culminates in Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30. I love the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases it,

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

If I’m honest, I used to think of rest as a day vegging out on the couch marathoning something on Netflix (probably Parks and Rec), but I don’t think I have ever learned “the unforced rhythms of grace” in front of a TV. Real rest, sabbath rest, is more intentional and more restorative. It makes us more whole, refills our takes, and equips us to go out into the world and bring about the Kindom in new and incredible ways. So church, when it comes to your goals for 2019, go for it! But I want to invite you, all of you, to join me in really trying to carve out sabbath right alongside those goals. Because I really believe (most of the time) that God can do more with six of my days than I can do with seven. And with a six-month-old in the house, tired and worn out seem like pretty accurate descriptions of my life at the moment. So may 2019 be the year I catch a glimpse of the unforced rhythms of grace. And I hope you will too.

Advent 2018

This Advent season, we are invited to look into the dark, and there find the light of Christ.

It is in the midst of the darkness that the light is most easily seen. In the midst of our pain, our sadness, our seasonal depression, and our holiday stresses Christ’s light can have the greatest impact.

In fact, It is in the midst of the oppression, depravity, occupation, and poverty of this world that the light of Christ enters, grows, spreads, becomes human, and snuffs out the dark.

And it is in this season that we await that lights arrival. As the days get shorter, and the nights longer, as the heat of the day grows weaker and the promise of Spring seems but a whisper, we prepare for the lights arrival.

 We prepare by looking at the dark. By acknowledging how incomplete we are, and how far from beautiful this world can be. We do the light no service by pretending it is already here. We do the light no service by pretending we can do it on our own.

No, it is only by being honest about this present darkness that we actually prepare ourselves for the light.

So God of Light and life, may you give us the courage to look into the dark this advent. To acknowledge the deepest realities of our need, to name the ways you are not honored in our lives, and to long for a day when things will be better.

Come, Lord Jesus. May your light shine in the dark and may we become little flickering lights. Amen

Thoughts on this Election

As I have stepped into my role as pastor at St. Thomas Covenant Church over the past year, I have been burdened by so many of the terrible events that have come through the news cycle. I have struggled with how to respond to my black brothers and sisters as they watch loved ones gunned down in the streets. I have struggled to respond as my sisters in Christ are insulted, degraded, or objectified by presidential candidates. I have struggled to respond when an entire religion has been told it is evil and unwelcome in our country. And I have struggled to respond to the continued fracturing of Jesus’ Church over theological and political controversies small and large. In this midst of my “struggles” in knowing how to respond I recognize that I’m a straight, white, upper-middle class, educated man. Who needs to hear from another one of us!? That said, the way of Jesus is to stand up for and alongside all those who are hurting, who are scared, and who are oppressed. So, while this post has been a long time coming, I feel compelled to speak tonight.

With the election of Donald Trump, I have witnessed a visceral fear sweep over many individuals in my Church, while others who feel their voice has finally been heard rejoice. I have watched on Facebook and television as men and women who I love and respect have said absolutely terrible things to each other because of the candidate they voted for. At the same time, I have had many conversations with friends, family, and congregants who have shared just how scared they are for the future of this country; whether or not they will be allowed to remain in it; and what quality of life will be available to them.

However, I do not think it is fair or right to demonize those who did vote for President Elect Trump. He was able to harness a pain, fear, and anger that many of us were unaware existed. Those afraid, hurting, and angry people are our fellow citizens. Their voices matter. I have already seen them being written off as a “protest vote,” but I believe it is more than that. Millions of Americans have been crying out for someone to be their champion and acknowledge their anger; and Donald Trump did just that.

BUT, he did that by saying truly terrible, horrifying, and hurtful things. As I heard someone wisely say today, “Donald Trump did not attack what his opponents believed, but rather who they are.” There are so many people who have been hurt by things Donald Trump has said over the past 18 months. With his election, those words suddenly feel as if they were not only okay, but actually upheld by the American populous. By electing him, it seems we have chosen to affirm his hate rather than condemn it.

 I believe, in their anger, Trump voters were looking for someone to blame and went along with his hateful rhetoric, not because they are inherently hateful people, but because that rhetoric gave them a scapegoat for their pain. They are in pain because this country has changed, but not for the reasons Trump asserts. It is not because America has become more diverse that Trump voters feel pain, it is because our industries have changed. Jobs that once supported upwardly mobile families no longer exist and have been replaced with work that does not pay the bills. The belief that we are safe from our enemies has been shattered by extremists an ocean away that don’t play by the same rules we once operated under. And in the midst of these difficult and terrifying realities we have blamed our diversity for hampering our greatness.

The result of this misappropriated pain and the rhetoric used to harness it is that many of our brothers and sisters, African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Women of all races, those with mental and physical handicaps, and LGBTQ individuals, feel that they are no longer welcomed, or even safe in this country. The fact that they feel this way in a country that identifies as predominately Christian is simply not okay.

The times America has been at its worst have been when we have fought against our diversity. In those times we committed genocide against our indigenous brothers and sisters; we interned Japanese Americans; we lynched black men and women, we viewed slaves as 3/5ths of a person; we restricted women from voting and tried to keep them out of the work force; we segregated our nation; and we have categorized all Muslims of the world as terrorists. These events are the ugliest and most horrific parts of our nation’s past. And frankly I will not stand by as we move towards another instance of attempting to assert white supremacy. We are at our best when we highlight our diversity, not when we fight it. Without diversity we would not have the inspiring stories of Navaho Code talkers sending messages in World War II. Without diversity we would not have German scientists creating weapons the ended wars and rockets that sent us to the moon. Without diversity we would not have African Americans forever changing American music and art with Slave Spirituals, soul music, R&B, hip-hop, the Harlem Renaissance and so much more. (***Quick disclaimer on this one. We are a better nation because of the African American perspective. However, I recognize that much of what I am pointing to in this post is in regards to their fight for equality. It's a fight they should not still be fighting, and should never be fighting alone. I do, however, think we must acknowledge black culture's immeasurable contributions to this country.) We are a great nation because we look different, think different, have different skills, perspectives, hopes, and desires. We are at our best when the most unique voices are welcomed at the table. We ought to celebrate this diversity; we ought to protect this diversity; and we ought to seek out this diversity. When embraced, this diversity makes us more whole.  If there is one consistent theme in the Hebrew scriptures it is that when we care for the poor, the afflicted, and the “other” we become more complete versions of ourselves. When we love radically we benefit even more than those who we are loving.

And so my word to us all today is this: fight lies with truth, fight fear with hope, and fight hate with love. And remember the brilliant words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”