Lutheran Magazine

The Lutheran

The Lutheran magazine belongs to the people of the ELCA in all our diversity. The magazine nurtures awareness of Christ's presence in our lives and the world, shares stories of God's people living their faith, connects us with the global Christian community, provides an open forum for discussion and challenges us to bring God's grace and care to all.
  • Wartburg Seminary senior Joshua Johnson jokes, a bit seriously, that only a year ago you could stand in the middle of his living room to figure out the wind’s direction. Likewise, senior Hannah Benedict said that she, her husband Josiah and their daughter Eve used to “pile on blankets and crank up the heat.”   Until October 2014 drafty windows and doors were a given with the seminary’s family housing, made up of 10 units built in 1968. “While the houses had been kept up very well by our maintenance staff, time was beginning to take its toll,” Johnson said.  Enter “Mission Possible-Wartburg Theological Seminary,” a joint renovation effort of the Dubuque, Iowa, seminary; the Northeastern Iowa Synod; and several congregations, including Nazareth Lutheran, Cedar Falls, Iowa.  Thanks to synod volunteers, this past winter students and their families were not only more comfortable in energy-efficient homes, but they and the seminary saved money. Johnson said his portion of the costs for electricity, after a subsidy from the seminary, dropped from $40 to $73 a month to $0 to $12 a month. An added bonus: they no longer hear the train go by in the middle of the night.   Benedict agreed: “Everyone’s been blown away by how comfortable the homes are, how beautiful they look … and how much light and warmth there is.”  Meeting the need Nazareth and its pastor, Brian King, a Wartburg alumnus, played a major role in the project. As soon as they heard of the need for renovations, the congregation and its all-volunteer “Naz Builders” were on board. Nazareth also made an initial gift of $20,000 toward materials.  Knowing more funds were needed for supplies, project coordinator Hank Wellnitz, who co-chairs the Naz Builders with Del Carpenter, spoke at the 2014 synod assembly, asking congregations to help. Mark A. Anderson, assistant to the synod bishop, followed up afterward with many calls to pastors.  And people responded. Nazareth’s gift was more than matched by individuals and congregations, as well as by seminary alumni. From January to October 2014, 26 volunteers from the Naz Builders and other congregations gave a total of 2,680 hours of labor.  “We’d take one house at a time,” Wellnitz said. “We’d replace all of the windows and [exterior] doors, apply sheet insulation to the outside of the house, put on new vinyl siding, and [install] soffits and fascia.”

  • Easter, the preachers and theologians tell us, is the pinnacle of the church’s liturgical life.  With the lighting of the Easter Vigil’s new fire we proclaim that death no longer has the last word. When the morning comes, it will do so with golden paraments and lilies, with well-rehearsed choirs and perhaps some brass to accompany the congregation. When morning comes we will offer confident call-and-response proclamations and revive the hallelujahs from their Lenten game of hide-and-go-seek. If we’re lucky, even worship attendance will momentarily rise along with Christ, and for at least an hour (a little more if the pastor is feeling inspired) the church itself will be alive again. Yet at times I’ve wondered if all of this reflects paschal mystery or paschal predictability.  Easter is about a lot of things, but predictability isn’t one of them. The Gospel narratives tell us the morning at the tomb was a fearful, doubt-filled surprise for Jesus’ friends, despite the promises of the Scriptures and Jesus’ predictions.  When Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, she goes to embrace him. He says: “Don’t cling to me.” So what do we cling to that prevents us from experiencing Easter as mystery? What fears and doubts might we avoid facing with paschal predictability?  When we light the Vigil’s new fire this Easter, may we resist the urge to ignite only a controlled burn. May the Easter Vigil flames blaze in us and illuminate a surprising way forward.

  • I write oodles of children’s curriculum, so I’m typically boiling down a Bible text and finding age-appropriate ways to deliver God’s truths to little ones. For example, with young children the concept of “before and after” works well as a way to teach about Easter. Before Easter, Jesus was gone, his friends felt sad and the world seemed gray. After Easter, Jesus had risen from the dead, his friends felt hugely relieved and colorful new life sprang up all around.  This concept of “Happily Ever Easter” works well for kids, and that’s great. After all, what more could we want for our children than to believe the Easter news that good wins over evil, Jesus is with us still and new life is at the center of our faith? In a sense, our popular culture looks at life in a kid-like, before-and-after sort of way. All around us we see before-and-after shows and magazine articles about dramatic weight loss and home renovation. Just like it’s good news when kids appreciate positive changes, it’s also wonderful for adults to improve their lives and get active. But Easter goes well beyond our “before and after” changes to God’s miracle of love and transformation.   Before the ‘before’ Viewing the world in Jesus’ time is kind of like looking at the before picture of the 1950s era kitchen in which the tiles are rotted and the cupboards are falling apart. It was a mess. Jesus lived within a context of oppression and despair, where most people enjoyed neither dignity nor enough. But Jesus plunged right in to challenge and upend what was wrong and lift up what was right. He looked beyond the despairing lives to see the beauty of God’s kingdom within each man, woman and child.   Our lives can also be a mess, with power skewed, love ignored and others mistreated. We can certainly look like before photos — stained by sin, seduced by addiction and weathered by life. It’s easy to see why we might want to hide from ourselves as well as Jesus. Or hope he might just stay in the tomb and leave us imprisoned in our personal cells of self-obsession.  But that’s not how God works, nor how the Easter message plays out. God sees our flaws, uses our impediments, calls out our sin and dispenses a grace that doesn’t measure us as we measure ourselves. We’re not just a before picture to God, any more than the world of Jesus’ time was a place beyond hope and salvation.  After the ‘after’   And now for the “afters.” We can’t wait to check out the after photos, can we? Marble-topped kitchen islands and cinched-up waistlines provide a satisfying differential to what went before. New life can indeed be thrilling — bravo to new kitchens and bodies.

  • Jennifer and her seventh-grade daughter, Maria, attended a congregation’s confirmation ministry for the first time. The family had no church home, but Jennifer wanted her daughter to be part of a community that would show her love, care and support.  Jim, a guidance counselor at a large suburban high school, is working with a congregation to provide much needed career mentors for students who may fall through the cracks after graduating.  Rosa, a principal, not only encourages members of a church to come to the elementary school library to help students with homework, but asked other local principals to do the same. Not interested in church herself, she nonetheless has invited members of this same church to offer a Bible study for parents and families in the school building. These examples of trusting partnerships are happening, but are coming about in a way that may be counterintuitive to many of us. Authentic relationships involve mutual trust and dying to our own agendas. Christian congregations, which for decades have been the trusted center of communities, have in many cases become disconnected from their neighbors. Some congregations are seen as self-serving, judgmental and unsafe places. There is good reason for this skepticism. Instead of unconditionally loving their neighbors, they have looked at them primarily as a way to bolster the church’s membership. In a time of numerical decline in congregations across denominations and the country, it’s tempting to think of the neighborhood around the church as merely a resource to be tapped. So we advertise programs, exude hospitality, jazz up our worship and more, all in an attempt to get the neighbors into our building. We all want to dodge the “congregation-in-decline” label and can become frantic in our efforts to avoid it. With good intentions, we pour increasing amounts of energy into improving our worship attendance numbers but often don’t see the intended results. Be aware of motivation As long as filling pews on a Sunday morning is our motivation, our neighborhood will rightly perceive the church as self-serving and be less likely to trust us. Whether we mean to or not, the message our neighbors hear is: “We don’t really care about you, we just want you to fill our building (as well as our offering plate).” Jesus speaks to this and reminds us: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). Our internal focus is partially understandable, as we love our congregations and sincerely want to share the joy and meaning we’ve found there with others. But in our efforts to stop the decline in our numbers, we can forget why we are there in the first place. Consider the possibility that the more energy we put into improving our numbers, the less energy we may be putting into developing trusting relationships with our neighbors.  What’s more, not only are trusting, self-giving relationships between neighborhoods and congregations a good strategy for the work of the church, they are also in the image of God.  The Trinity can authentically be described as God-in-relationship. The identity of one person of the Trinity can best be understood through one’s relationship with the other two. Throughout biblical history, God has worked by establishing relationships with individuals or groups, including Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Moses. A relationship with God was opened to all directly through the Son, Jesus.

  • Soon after Shirley Protis arrived at the Kyriazes’ home, she began playing music from her iPod. As Andrew listened to the melody, he moved his fingers as if strumming, until his wife, Despina, brought out his mandolin. “He remembered some of the chords — he was trying his darndest to play,” Protis recalled of Andrew, who had been a professional musician. “Music has become a wonderful thing for us to enjoy. We sing along and have a nice time together.” The couple look forward to Protis’ visits each week. As a Legacy Corps volunteer, she spends time with Andrew, who has dementia, giving Despina free time. Legacy Corps, an AmeriCorps program administered by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, provides veterans like Andrew and their caregivers in-home respite. That can include services like preparing light meals and providing transportation to medical appointments and other outings. Help for difficult days “Respite is so important because some days are more difficult than others,” Despina said. “Family and friends can’t always help. My husband is getting weaker and it’s harder for me to get out. I don’t know what I’d do without Shirley. She is an angel on earth. I know Andrew enjoys her visits too. He doesn’t remember her from week to week, but he enjoys seeing her and is disappointed when she leaves.” Respite allows caregivers to run errands, go to a doctor’s appointment or get a cup of coffee, said Peg Saintcross, Legacy Corps program manager. “It makes a world of difference. It gives caregivers the energy and strength to keep going. It’s a 24/7 job — it never lets up,” she said. “Not only do we thoroughly enjoy our time with clients, caregivers get a much-needed break.” At first Despina didn’t know what to do with her free time when Protis began her visits a year ago. “She started out with grocery shopping,” Protis said. “I told her, ‘Go out and do something fun.’ So she started going to the senior center to play dominoes. Now she goes to her prayer group at church and out to lunch with friends. At first she had a guilty feeling leaving her husband, but I explained that she needed to take care of herself too.” Easing family stress Cathy Gillie understands the challenges caregivers face. She has watched her mother provide round-the-clock care after her father broke his neck and needed help with walking and other everyday activities.   “It has been really hard seeing my dad become so incapacitated. It takes a toll on you mentally and physically,” Gillie said. “Stressing about both my parents has impacted me from a distance — and I wasn’t living it like my mother was.” “Legacy Corps has provided our family with peace of mind,” Gillie said. “My parents connected with Christine Dunn (their Legacy Corps volunteer) very well. It has developed into a really wonderful relationship.”