Choosing Life and Living Abundantly

The following is the majority of the sermon I preached at American Lutheran Church in Filley, Nebraska on Sunday February 12, 2017. The passages appointed for the day by the revised common lectionary (Epiphany 6A) included Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37

american-filley-1
American Lutheran Church in Filley, Nebraska on a beautifully sunny February morning.

Grace and peace to you this day, and greetings from your 100,000 sisters and brothers across the Nebraska Synod. I know that Bishop Maas was with you a couple of months ago, and he again sends his greetings and gratitude. On his, and the whole synod’s behalf, I want to say thank you again for your generosity and the many ways you have stepped up to answer God’s call to serve your neighbor in your many ministries and special gifts in honor of American Lutheran’s 85 plus years of ministry now. So, with all my heart, please here my sincerest thanks and gratitude.

Thank you also to Pastor LuRae for the invitation to be with you today. I am excited to be here, to be present with you and hear some of your stories.

Again, my name is Timothy Siburg and I am the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod, and a deacon in the ELCA. Of all of my many tasks with my role and ministry, one of my great joys is getting to be out in congregations seeing God’s work lived out in creative and new ways, and hearing and sharing the many stories of God at work through the love shown for and through God’s people.

Stories of Abundance and Stewardship
Since moving to Nebraska this past fall from Washington state, I have had the chance to see the abundance of God in action all across this state. I have heard about congregations who have given up some of our their church building space, for example, to house a wood shop to create prayer chests and furniture for those in need in their community.

I have witnessed a congregation which has turned its entire basement into not just a “care closet,” full of donated clothes, shoes, and food, but it’s organized like a store, and people in need in the community can come and take what they need.

I have felt God’s abundance through the gratitude and graciousness of warm welcomes like I have received here in congregations like yours in Scottsbluff, North Platte, Wayne, Aurora, Tekamah, and many more. I’ve seen people show up and fill an auditorium for a benefit, like last night in Fremont for a friend in their community, a sister in Christ battling cancer. And I have seen partnerships with serving arms to do the good work of ministry through groups like Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, and many others.

I have seen how God’s abundance is being lived out in the way people live their lives, and steward all that they are, and all that they have- their time, their gifts, their possessions, their passions, vocations, questions, ideas, dreams, and stories. And in this, I have seen God’s story to continue to unfold, and to be able to help point to it.

Stories of God at Work
The beauty of God’s story is that it is on-going. Just as God is with us, Emmanuel, God will continue to be present with us.

In the Old Testament reading today from Deuteronomy, we hear some of the story of Moses preaching and laying out what’s at stake once again for God’s people, Israel. It’s a message that’s all about life, and abundant life that is only possible through the living God.

Moses proclaims, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”[1]

There’s no dancing around this for Moses. This is life and death sort of stuff, and has taken on tangible form in the midst of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, hoping to soon cross the Jordan to the land that God has promised to give to God’s people. Moses reminds the people again of the stories of God’s love and promises. The stories of the God of Abraham, and the promise God made with Abraham, the covenant of the Shema.

filley-2
Some of the baptismal banners that have been made at American in Filley for the recently baptized. These are reminders of the promises of God.

Moses so deeply wants the people to hear him and understand. He wants them to “Choose life so that they and their descendants may live.”[2] That’s God’s hope too. God wants us to choose life, abundant life, a life we can only find in God.

That really is also the point of the “law.” Lutherans like to talk about this thing called “law and gospel.” You might hear about how the “law brings you to your knees,” and the good news of the gospel frees you. This might well be true.

But there is another way to think about this law. One of my favorite seminary professors, Dr. Terence Fretheim, argued in class often that the purpose of the law is the hope that “life may go well for you.”

That really seems to be what Moses is getting at. He wants the people to remember their identity, and their relationship with their God. He wants them to enjoy and live the abundant life only possible through God.

Now putting on my stewardship hat for a minute, at the heart of stewardship is this hope and message of the abundance we know in God in Christ. It’s like what the writer of the letter of 1st Timothy compels, in order to “take hold of the life that really is life,”[3] the life, death, and resurrection of the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Life in Relationship
This abundant life though is not one in isolation. It’s also not just one in sole individual relationship with God. It’s one in relationship with each other, all of our fellow Children of God. And that seems to be what’s on Jesus’ mind in this portion we heard today of his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is offering thoughts, questions, and rhetorical responses to how to be in relationship with each other.

Jesus preaches, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”[4]

Now obviously as a Director for Stewardship, this passage catches my eye because it talks about the importance of giving and offering up of oneself, that which God has first entrusted to us. But that act of giving, is a deeply spiritual and relational one.

When we give, it’s not all about us. It’s about showing our gratitude for God by returning just a portion of all that God has given for us, and entrusted to us. It’s like the hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes, “We Give Thee But Thine Own,” using that which God has given to our care, to serve our neighbor.

filley-4
A beautiful bulletin board at American Lutheran in Filley. How might we be God’s little love bugs?

It’s about reaching out to those in need, those around us, to steward that which God has given for the sake of God’s world. A world that is called, created, and loved into being, to be in relationship with God.

Life is not abundant without relationships and community. And because of this, it also means life is not one absent of conflict. Why do we confess together just about every time we worship? Because we need to be reminded of the forgiveness that is given pure and simply through the gifts of God. Through God in Christ’s love, we are reconciled to God, and likewise, we are called to be reconciled to one another.

That’s why it’s such a beautiful thing for Jesus to frame our giving and offering around our relationships with each other. If there’s some area of hurt or forgiveness that’s needed, seek it and be reconciled. Through the reconciliation comes peace; forgiveness; freedom from pain, sorrow and guilt; and abundant life. It’s for this reason that in worship we often have a time of passing of the peace before offering, so that, perhaps, if you need to seek out another, you have the chance so that all may give back to God with joyful hearts.

Valentine’s and Vocation
This is all nice, well and good, I know. But what does it mean for us today?

Maybe an answer lies in Paul’s words to the Corinthians? Paul writes about how we are all called into vocations, lives of service to our neighbors in our relationships, roles, and duties. He writes that, “we are God’s servants, working together; we are God’s field, God’s building.”[5]

This recognition of our call to be for our neighbor is part of our joyful response to the goodness, gifts, and promises of God. Or put another way, how might you answer the question, “What is your joyful response to what God has done, continues to do, and promises to do for you?” “What will you do, because you are so moved by God’s love and gifts, that you will do for the sake of your neighbor?”

How will you steward your time? How will you share your talents, treasures, passions, stories, and gifts?

All of these and so much more, are who you are. Put another way, how will you live as a Child of God, freed and loved by God, but in that freedom and love, called to love and serve your neighbor?

This isn’t about earning brownie points to heaven. Salvation is a free gift of God, one that we can’t earn even by following all the laws laid down for us, which is impossible anyway. Rather the question about our response, is one about life. How will we live our lives? How will we live through the love and promises of God?

Will we live in scarcity and fear? Will we put up barriers between ourselves, and cut off relationships?

Or will we live in abundance and promise? Will we seek out relationships with our neighbors- those we know and those we don’t’ really know yet? Will we show up for our neighbors going through the hardest parts of life, joining them in our deep love we know through Christ?

filley-3
Speaking of Valentine’s Day, I saw this on a bulletin board downstairs at American in Filley near the Sunday School classrooms and fellowship hall.

As Valentine’s Day is this week, what is a way that you feel the love of God at work in your life? How about the love of God at work through the life of someone you know- a neighbor, family member, partner in ministry? How about how you see the love of God at work through those around you- your neighbors and strangers? Around your community? Around the world?

Today’s a good a day to remember all that God has done, and to open our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds, to see what God might be up to in God’s abundance in our midst. God is active. God is present. And God’s gift and promise of love is for you, and is shown to others through you.

Maybe that doesn’t make a great Valentine’s Card that Hallmark can market and sell- but the depth of it, makes it possible to show God’s love to all those you meet, through your words, actions, and the way you live your life in relationship with one another.

No matter how you answer the question of what will your joyful response to the gifts of God be; know that you are called, created, and loved to be uniquely who you are. And thank you for being the beautiful Child of God you are- sharing love, hope, light, and peace with the world. Amen.

References and Works Cited:

[1] Deuteronomy 30:15-16, NRSV.

[2] Paraphrased from Deuteronomy 30:19, NRSV.

[3] 1 Timothy 6:19, NRSV.

[4] Matthew 5:23-24, NRSV.

[5] 1 Corinthians 3:9, NRSV, paraphrased.

Child of God, Kingdom of Heaven, & the Love of the Refugee- our Neighbor

I was invited to preach this past weekend by my wife, Pastor Allison Siburg, at our congregation, Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle, Nebraska. When I was invited weeks ago, I was excited because the lectionary readings (Epiphany 4A) included a few of my favorites. That invitation, however, came before the refugee ban. In the midst of this, I shared what was on my heart. I have to admit, I was more nervous to preach this past weekend than I often am. But here is what I came up with and preached on Sunday January 29, 2017. 

The following sermon was based on the readings of Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, and Matthew 5:1-12. Included at the beginning of the manuscript is a poem that I found on Sunday January 29th. When I preached I did not include it in its entirety, just the final stanza. For the purpose of the blog, however, I have included it in full. 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.[1] Grace and peace from the one who knows you, claims you, and loves you. Amen.

I would like to start with a poem I read on Facebook this morning that has been with me ever since. It’s called, “Heaven Has No Borders,” and was written by Minnesota pastor Luke Stevens-Royer.

Where was it, where we first fell
into the delusion of our separateness.
Of our “other-ness”?

Was it somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates,
or at the Rio Grande –
or near the Mississippi.
Somewhere down from the tower of babel,
we fell into the first sin –
of fearing difference.
And we began to build walls.

And the walls that we place
to seemingly protect ourselves
we soon realize are prison walls
isolating us from the fabric of life
from our kindred –
which is all people.


We’ve built walls of prejudice, fear,
and a delusional false sense
of rightful ownership –
as if we all aren’t guests
on any land we inhabit.

Heaven has no borders.
When we forget this,
we set up the gates of hell.

But something happens.
When the hard heart
is watered with empathy
and the closed soul
soaked in compassion
the rigid borders dissolve.

Something happens
when the people remember they are family
and we have the tools we need
like Joshua at Jericho
to dance down the wall –
the walls come tumbling down
crumble to dust from the dancing rhythm
of the songs, the poems, the common work
of love made flesh – enough love to save us all.

And again,
the question from ancient scripture
echoes in our moral conscience –
behold, says the stranger,
the immigrant, the refugee,
behold,
I stand at the door and knock –

will you lift up your gates?[2] – Luke Stevens-Royer

Most of you know that, though I’m most importantly your pastor’s spouse, I am also a deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America- one called to preach, teach, and serve. In this, I’m the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod. As the days grow longer, there’ll be about two weekends a month that you won’t see me, as I’ll be preaching in Kearney, Holdrege, Filley, Wahoo, and many other places in between.

Since coming to Nebraska, I have been to Scottsbluff, North Platte, Aurora, Wakefield, Nebraska City, and so many other places. I have heard stories of ministry in action, of communities loving their neighbors in unique ways. From supporting the work of Mosaic, to starting a care closet that has taken over an entire church basement, to congregations who have partnered with Lutheran Family Services to sponsor refugee families. And congregations, like this, who understand Jesus’ welcome and love at a deep, deep level- the welcome Jesus talks about when he says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,”[3] like in the poem I opened with.

Looking at Today’s Words of God
That’s partly why it took me all week to be able to sit down and write a sermon. Today’s lectionary passages are some of the most well known in our faith- at least for describing who we are and what our character is called to be in our identity as Children of God, and the many vocations we serve as Children of God.

Psalm 15 asks, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?”[4] These are questions which lead to a list of some of the marks of character- of what it means and looks like to be a Child of God.

In this tumultuous time, a time of change, fake news, irrational fears, and fear driven decision making, Paul reminds us in his letter to the Corinthians, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”[5]

The prophet Micah asks and declares in one of my absolute favorite Bible verses, “O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you God?”[6]

And then of course, there is today’s gospel- commonly called the “Beatitudes,” or blessings, the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus paints a vast picture of the changes and reversal only possible through God, a glimpse of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, and a description of just what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like and might be.

This is Good News. But it can also drive us all to our knees, when we see just how far we have yet to go as people, society, and Children of God. It can drive us to prayer, confession, repentance, and Kyrie’s or songs of “Lord have mercy.”

God’s vision is big. God’s children are many, if not all. Because, think about it, if God creates all people, then aren’t we all, God’s children?

The Relationship of being a Child of God and our Neighbors
Martin Luther famously wrote about this in his work, The Freedom of a Christian.[7] Luther wrote basically that, “We are all perfectly free people, bound to none.”

We are freed through the gifts and promises of God. Yet at the same time, “We are all servants, bound to our neighbors.” We exist, for the sake of our neighbor.

vigil-refugees
Some of the turnout for a vigil for Refugees that was held in Omaha, Nebraska on January 31, 2017. I was there along with Allison, a number of colleagues from across the Nebraska Synod, and people from all faith backgrounds.

But, just who is our neighbor? Fred Rogers, or Mister Rogers as you probably know him, made a career out of this question. As a Presbyterian pastor, he knew the depth and complexity of it. We like to narrow our answer to who is our neighbor, to just a few people we like and can see, and certain groups of people we identify or agree with. The problem is, we can’t do this. We can’t narrow the definition of neighbor. If God creates all, if we’re all God’s children, we are then all neighbors to one another.

Think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.[8] If the Samaritan man had given into societal norms, there would have been no “good Samaritan.” But the Samaritan saw across boundaries, walls, societal norms, and our human nature to group and judge people. He showed mercy to his neighbor in need. He did as Jesus preached on the mount, “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.”

Think of the Holy Family in the gospel story we heard earlier this month on New Year’s Day.[9] Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape the power thirsty murderer, Herod, who felt threatened by the prospect of a possible king in the form of an infant. The Holy Family fled as refugees to the land, generations earlier, which had enslaved their ancestors.

This story convicts me as I think of the world around me, and remember the work of our Lutheran brothers and sisters in Christ who responded to the refugee crisis of World War II by creating the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Today, it is the second largest refugee resettlement organization in the country. It is a serving arm of the church responding to the largest refugee crisis now since World War II, with the help of organizations like Lutheran Family Services here in Nebraska.

A Nebraska Immigrant’s Story[10]


This past week I heard the story of Afghan refugee Feroz Mohmand here in the local news.[11] Now a permanent resident in Omaha with his wife, for Mohmand, being a refugee and fleeing Afghanistan in 2012 was a matter of life or death. “The reason I became a refugee was not my choice,” he said. He said that he received a phone call saying that he would have less than 24 hours to leave his country if he wanted to stay alive.

Mohmand and his wife worked alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai to protect education and abolish terrorist groups like the Taliban. Because of their work, extremist groups made them targets for attack. One day, kidnappers almost took his son. He said that, every morning when he left home he would hug his family, and think this might be the last hug.

His family was relocated to the United States in 2013, but Mohmand says the process typically takes much longer– even years. It’s not uncommon, especially in the case of Syrian refugees now, to be in refugee camps for upwards of 3-4 years. Can you imagine not knowing where you’ll live for 3, 4, or more years?[12]

Modern Beatitudes
Lutheran Bishop Michael Rinehart from Houston, put it this way in light of the Beatitudes,

“Blessed are the refugees. Blessed are all 65 million people, those who are victims of war and poverty; those who have been evicted; those who cannot return home; those who seek a safe place for their children; those who are feared and despised; those hated by both sides of the conflict; those for whom nobody seems to care. You are children of God. And the people of God care about you.”[13]

We could add any numbers of needs here. For example,

“Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the 48 million hungry Americans, those who are ridiculed; those who work multiple jobs, just to give their kids a chance; those who rely on food stamps and credits to provide a safe home for orphans and foster children; those with homes, and those without; those for whom nobody seems to care. You are children of God. And the people of God care about you.”

Or, another,

“Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who serve and have served, to bring freedom, hope, and a new day; those who resist the sinful ways to meet violence with violence; those who resist the sinful feelings of supremacy and power; those who some people fear are too soft, and others who think they don’t do enough; those who do not receive the care and support that they so greatly deserve. You servants are children of God. And the people of God care about you.”

I could keep going, but I don’t think I need to, because I deeply believe you feel this call too- this call to respond to God’s promises and blessings.

bishop-maas-refugees
Bishop Brian Maas sharing, praying, and responding at the vigil in Omaha on January 31, 2017. He said that he was there because “his boss called him to be there.”

I have seen it- in the warm welcome you give and have given. I have seen it in the way that this congregation serves, listens, and dreams about what God might be calling us to be. In the great capacity to grow, teach, and serve; and how I have heard from many of you wondering about, what are some new ways we might be being called to serve today? What are some new projects that we might be being called to be part of?

God’s Promises Today
Today may seem uncertain. The news may excite or terrify us. But in-spite of this, and through this, we are called, created, and loved by a God who came into this world as one of us.

A God who walked alongside us, and taught us, like in his Sermon on the Mount; who challenged the powers that be, overturned the money tables in the Temple, and who always showed up with the people that common sense and society had seemingly marginalized and pushed aside; who, for us, faced death and the grave… And not only faced them, Jesus beat them at their own game, once and for all.

God in Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, is a gift- a free gift we can do nothing to earn. A gift of the promise of salvation- abundant life eternal, and thanks be to God for that.

But that begs the question. What will you do in response to this pure gift? Or, as I like to say when preaching on stewardship, what will your joyful response be?

For all that God has done for you, and promises to do, what will you be so caught up in joy for the goodness of God that you will do in love and gratitude for your neighbor? How will you serve your neighbor? Meet them, and join them? How will you welcome your neighbor, the refugee? How will your life and story show God’s love in the world around you?

In worship this year, we’ll continue to journey through the Gospel of Matthew. And not to steal any of my wife’s thunder, or to flip to the last page of the book, but the Gospel of Matthew ends with the Great Commission- a call to baptize and teach.[14] A call to share the Good News of a God who has come near, and who is for all.

There are stories to tell- stories of God at work in and through all our lives. Stories of blessings and woes, joys and sorrows. Stories of how God has shown up and continues to show up. Stories of how God calls us each into our various roles, daily lives, and vocations to serve our neighbors.

Tell your stories. Live your stories. And please, go about the work of what it means and looks like to be a Child of God. For all of this- all of you- are part of God’s on-going story of promise and redemption. A story of the Kingdom of Heaven in our world- yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Amen.

————————–

Citations and References: 

[1] Based on Psalm 19:14.

[2] “Heaven Has No Borders,” Luke Stevens-Royer, shared on Facebook, 28 January, 2017.

[3] Matthew 25:35, NRSV.

[4] Psalm 15:1, NRSV.

[5] 1 Corinthians 1:31, NRSV.

[6] Micah 6:8, NRSV.

[7] Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, (1520), trans. Mark D. Tranvik, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008).

[8] Luke 10:25-37, NRSV.

[9] Matthew 2:13-23, NRSV.

[10] http://www.ketv.com/article/local-refugees-immigration-attorneys-react-to-president-trumps-executive-orders/8640197

[11] Ibid.

[12] If we turn our back on refugees, and all our neighbors in need, it’s not hard to imagine Jesus saying as Nebraska Bishop Brian Maas pointedly pondered this past week, “Depart from me… because I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me.” From Bishop Brian Maas, Facebook post, 27 January, 2017, quoting and reminding of Matthew 25:43, NRSV.

[13] Bishop Michael Rinehart, Facebook post, 26 January, 2017.

[14] Matthew 28:18-20, NRSV.

Consecration and Ordination

It’s New Year’s Eve, the last day of 2016. For many it’s been a year that couldn’t end soon enough. Even so, there has been a lot of great things that have happened this past year. My brother got married to the love of his life in September. My wife Allison was ordained in early November and is now serving as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Nebraska. I was also consecrated as a deacon in early November, and am serving as the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod.

consecration
The rostered ministers and leaders gathered at my consecration service on All Saints Sunday at First Lutheran (Poulsbo, WA).

I had originally planned to write and share some thoughts on our ordination and consecration back in November, but given events and news around the time, I just didn’t have the heart to. Well, with some space and the joy of being in the midst of the Twelve Days of Christmas, here’s what I know now.

  • Allison and I had a wonderful weekend. It was such a joy to be able to share a few days with our family, friends, and a number of fellow leaders of faith and the church gathered together in person and through the wonders of cyberspace. To all who were a part of it, near or far, thank you.
  • Having not one, but two, great professors from Luther Seminary be able to make the trip out to Washington to preach at our services was a gift, thank you Dr. Terri Elton and Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis.
allison-ordination-funny
It wouldn’t have been Allison’s ordination without a funny picture of the clergy and rostered ministers/leaders afterward.
  • Allison and I are both greatly blessed by two terrific home congregations, St. Andrew’s Lutheran (Bellevue, WA) and First Lutheran (Poulsbo, WA) whose pastors and congregations celebrated the work of the Holy Spirit with us. Thank you for the hospitality, support, and being the Body of Christ together.
  • Ministry, like most things in life, is not an individual thing. It’s something that is built on and through relationships and community. That was evident throughout the weekend- through our families, through our pastor friends and fellow rostered ministers/leaders of the church, through our long time friends who have been a part of our journeys from birth to high school to college to grad school to seminary, to life post-seminary and everything else in between.

    allison-family-photo
    Allison’s family photo after the ordination service.
  • God is clearly up to something. Allison and I have been called into our unique vocations, just as I believe all people are called into their unique vocations.
  • When the Holy Spirit moves, it calls us to pay attention. Hence, now we’re in Nebraska, and we are both grateful for the warm welcome here, as well as for all of the love and support in Washington.
  • There are some fantastic bishops in the church. I am excited to serve alongside (and under) Bishop Brian Maas in Nebraska and that he was able to preside at Allison’s ordination and my consecration. I am also grateful for Bishop Rick Jaech from the Southwestern Washington Synod, my home synod, who was able to assist, and who gave me great opportunities to serve over the previous year in the Northwest.
  • Some of the best advice I have ever received about ministry was repeated over this fantastic weekend: “Love the people,” “be good,” and “always say thank you.”
  • No matter what lies ahead in our ministry together, Allison and I believe that we are doing and called to be a part of God’s work in the world, together. That matters. That makes the good days great. It makes the challenging days bearable. It makes the darker days a little brighter. And it makes the bright days overflow.
family-photo
Family photo after my consecration service.

Thank you all for being a part of this network.

Thank you for serving faithfully in your vocations.

Thank you for helping me find hope and be positive in the midst of moments of doubt.

And most importantly, thank you for being a part of this work and life together.

God’s peace and blessings to you, and Happy New Year!

Collaboration Ministries

I have mentioned before about how grateful I am for my family of origin. Together over the past few years, they have discerned and created a new organization called “Collaboration Ministries.” Check out the organization’s website for more on the particulars, but in the following post, I share a few things that I am particularly excited about regarding this organization’s vision, mission, and scope. 

It is easy to look around your community, state, country, and the world and be discouraged. You might wonder, how come we can’t work together? Why does it seem impossible to rally around the common good?

In response to such depressing thoughts, and in the hopes of a brighter future, Collaboration Ministries was born.

The organization began through creating “menternships” or gap year experiences for young adults after college and before jumping into the workforce or graduate studies. After a few years of these offerings, it was time to dream. The organization’s first real brainstorming meeting  occurred around a hotel pool in the Twin Cities in Minnesota a few years ago.

From that, and in the work done since, Collaboration Ministries has become,

“a faith based social innovation consultancy composed of highly trained and skilled practitioners dedicated to facilitating strategic thinking and action of complex issues and problems. We are particularly focused on assisting faith based organizations, non-profits, government agencies and businesses striving to be social entrepreneurs in order to support Community Building, Creation Care, and Global Engagement.”

This vision alone gets me excited, but there are a number of things which I am excited about to watch this organization’s work and future unfold, as a family member, and as someone supportive of the organization at an arm’s length (or more) of distance.**

With the vision understood, here are my top nine other things that get me excited about the organization and its potential.

  1. Whenever my parents get excited and are passionate about something, things happen. Seeing how they are both creating opportunities and pursuing possibilities is exciting to watch from afar.
  2.  The principals combined have experience working on three different continents in a wide range of countries and contexts.
  3. The principals bring a wealth of experience and education to the table to think creatively and strategically. Between the team, there are six bachelors degrees and six masters degrees. Fields of study have ranged from management to social work, from music to religion, from psychology to economics, from theology to urban and regional planning.
  4. In the organization’s early days it provided full year “menternships” for at least three young adults in post-college discernment. From those, one has become a pastor, another a music teacher and professional, and another, a congregational and community director and coordinator.
  5.  Collaboration Ministries is built on the principles of accompaniment, appreciative inquiry, and the potential of world spirit labs, with a great appreciation for the power and importance of vocation.
  6. The strategies and practices have been diagramed in organizational and leadership diagrams which, for a management trained person like myself, are fun to look at and think about.
  7. Collaboration Ministries does not claim to offer easy answers. Rather, it wants to come alongside, discern, journey with, and work together for long-term sustainable growth and change in response to needs in communities and unique contexts.
  8. Project areas have included areas related to: climate stresses & eco-system stresses; congregational problems; economic opportunities; housing; infrastructure and services; juvenile justice; public health & well-being; racism; stakeholder engagement & organization mission achievement; and technology and connectedness.
  9. This organization offers cross-sector experience to respond creatively and sustainably to particular problems and challenges, bringing innovative and entrepreneurial ideas to bear. For example, how might a congregation (nonprofit) partner with a local business to create life supporting jobs and opportunities, housing, and meet other needs to help build a community? These are some of the type of questions that Collaboration Ministries can help explore.

What are your big questions? Might an organization like Collaboration Ministries be able to help you think about them?

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Check out the organization’s website, and see what you think. If you have feedback, ideas, or questions, please send them to the team.

**In the interest of full disclosure, Collaboration Ministries is led by my parents. In addition to them, my siblings, spouse and I are all part-owners. However, because of my role as the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod, I am currently a partner in name only. In caution for any perceived or potential conflicts of interest, I will not be doing any work or networking in Nebraska as part of Collaboration Ministries while serving in the Nebraska Synod, and most likely I would only be contributing through occasional writing projects and review of other projects from afar. 

Joy

The following is a reflection that I shared in worship on Wednesday December 14th at Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle, Nebraska as part of the congregation’s mid-week Advent worship series on “Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.” The focus passage for the evening was Luke 1:47-55

The beautiful words of Mary’s Magnificat ring in our ears. Perhaps the song we’ve been singing on Sundays during offering in Advent is playing in your mind from Holden Evening Prayer?

There’s not much more joy we can experience than rejoicing in God our Savior, recalling all that God has done, continues to do, and will do as God continues to promise and be present, with us, Emmanuel, and for us.

Now, I have a confession. I get to talk, share, teach, and preach about joy a lot as the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod. But don’t worry, I’m not entirely preaching about stewardship this evening.

I want to think a little about joy with all of you, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn a little more about each other- other than I’m just the pastor’s spouse who works for the synod in Omaha and drives all around Nebraska a fair amount. So, here’s a tiny bit of my story.

Growing up, nothing brought me more joy this time of year than decorating for Christmas, playing with my grandparents’ and parents’ nativity sets, and sharing the joy of the season through song, hosting Christmas parties, and participating in lots of worship services and concerts. I wonder, where do you find joy this time of year?

“And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Staring into the nativity at the base of our Christmas tree in the living room of the parsonage is like staring into a memory for me. You see, I grew up spending lots of time at my grandparents’ house, and this time of year, that meant lots of time telling stories and playing with the many pieces of the olive wood nativity from the Holy Land they had.

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The nativity from my grandparents at the base of our tree.

I loved that set so much, that for our wedding six years ago, Grandma gave that beautiful nativity set to Allison and me as our wedding present. It is such a vessel of joy- of telling the story of God, the birth of a savior, and the beginning of a great reversal and the uplifting of the lowly. It’s also a thing that brings great joy as I remember the love of my Grandpa and Grandma, and give thanks for them. Perhaps you have something that is near and dear to your heart, a Christmas decoration that tells a story or brings back a flood of memories- perhaps joy or something else of family, loved ones, friends, feelings, Advent or Christmases long, long ago…

Sung as from “Holden Evening Prayer”: “He has brought the mighty down from their thrones, and uplifted the humble of heart…”

I grew up in the choir loft of my church. My mom was the worship and music director- directing the choirs, worship band, and bell choirs. You might say I didn’t have a choice but to love music. So another way that I feel the joy this time of year is through song. Through singing the carols in the pews or out caroling. Through singing and playing on the piano, improvising on the many carols and Christmas melodies old and new.

My first solo ever was on Christmas morning, back in Elementary School singing “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” and for about 15 years straight, my brother, sister, and I (and later Allison with us) would sing and accompany “O Holy Night” each Christmas Eve in worship with our voices and our many instruments. And then singing “Silent Night” by candlelight, and flowing into the light by closing worship and being sent out together singing “Joy to the World.” So many memories. There’s just so much joy that we can express through song together, remembering and celebrating the stories of a God who loves us and is with us.

“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Through the ages, down from Abraham through the prophets, God’s promises were shared. The hope of their realization led the people forward. The wait and trust that the Messiah would come, longed for, prayed for, hoped for… That’s the gift of this story. That God in Christ has come, will come, and is with us.

I said I wasn’t preaching entirely on stewardship tonight, but I didn’t say I wouldn’t touch on stewardship. We know this story. We know the Christmas story from Luke 2. We hear it each year on Christmas Eve. Perhaps we watch it on the TV, listening to Linus recite the old poetic words from the King James version. It’s a beautiful story of God’s love breaking into the world. And we know the rest of the story of a life lived, of the Son of God both human and divine, who lived, walked, taught, preached, proclaimed, ate, suffered, died, was raised and ascended, all for us.

The on-going story though is where we all fit in. It’s where real joy comes, if you ask me. What is our joyful response? How do we live our lives in light of this pure gift of God, that of God’s son, given for us? How are our lives changed because of this?

The answers to these questions are unique to each and every one of us. But they are the starting place of sharing our stories of joy. Of sharing our faith with one another here, with our families, friends, and neighbors we meet at work, the store, on Facebook, or anywhere else. How do you show joy? How do you experience it? And what brings joy to you?

I shared a little about the joy of this time of the year for me, and I wonder, what does that look like for you?

Whatever your answers, may the joy of God born in an itty bitty baby be with you, and may it fill your heart and lead you out this evening to not help but be able to share it with others. Amen.

Returning to “Why,” in Hopes of Getting Off the Consumer Escalator

The following is an excerpt of a post that I wrote for the COMPASS blog in late November, pondering about faith and life in light of the ups and downs of our consumer culture. Please read this if you are interested, and then follow the link to the whole post and join the #faithandfinances conversation with COMPASS.

I want us to dig into the question of “why?” What really matters this time of the year, and how might focusing on that question make for a more faithful response and richer holiday experience?

For a Christian, the why can be found in the heart of the Christmas gospel in Luke 2:1-20, often read every Christmas Eve. Within that rich text, we hear the proclamation from the angel of the Lord,

“Do not be afraid, for see- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
– Luke 2:10-11, NRSV

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In the spirit of Christmas, here’s a picture of a Nativity Scene that I saw outside the Vatican in 2008

It might sound trite to say that this is the “reason for the season.” And I am not exactly trying to say that. But if we remember that this is at the heart of the celebrations, festivities, food, fellowship, and all of the gift giving this time of year; if we remember that it is the fulfillment of the promises of the prophets which guide our journey through the season of Advent to the manger; we might just have a chance to get off the consumer escalator.

Please continue reading the whole post here

Image Credit: “Why”

My Family- Happy Birthday Dad!

Today is my Dad’s birthday. I have already had a great phone call conversation wishing him a happy day today, and last week we got to celebrate a week early in person with a wonderful steak dinner out in Nebraska. But today, in honor of my Dad’s birthday, I want to share some personal reflections about my family.

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My Dad and Mom, next to Allison and myself after Allison was installed as Pastor at Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle, Nebraska. 

As I look proudly and gratefully at my family of origin, I can’t help but notice at least five things:

  • A Deep Sense of Vocation and Calling

Each person in my family (including my wife and myself) have a deep sense of vocation and calling. I am sure that my parents can trace this back to their families of origin, but my brother, sister, and I can certainly trace this back to our parents. We all deeply believe that God is at work and present in the world, calling us all to use whatever has been entrusted to us- our gifts, passions, stories, questions, strengths, capacities, ideas, etc., in service to our neighbors and communities. I live this out in my current role as the Nebraska Synod Director for Stewardship, but I also see this propelling on the rest of my family in the birth and continued growth of Collaboration Ministries.

  •  Passion for Partnership and Relationships

Though there may be some introverts in my family, everyone has a passion for working with others for the sake of the common good. We all might define common good differently, and we certainly all go about our work differently, but we have a passion for working together in relationship with each other, those we agree with most of the time, and some we hardly ever agree with. If there is potential for improving the world in some small way that we can be a part of, we want to be a part of it, accompanying others, because we feel that is part of our call and purpose.

  • We’re Lutheran Christians

This may be obvious to those of you who read this blog often, but I come from a family of Lutheran Christians, particularly those who are members of congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This faith identity and understanding of God’s grace, presence, forgiveness, love, and promises propels us forward as we live our lives in our unique joyful responses to the pure gifts and good news of the gospel.

  • We’re Grateful

I believe that this is true of everyone in my family, but speaking for my brother, sister, and myself, we deeply recognize how privileged we are to have grown up in a family with deep support of pursuing our passions and vocations in service to our neighbors. We are grateful for growing up in a family with the means of supporting our education, and in a home where questioning and processing were always held up as values, even when it might have made daily life a challenge.

We grew up in a family where talking about faith, money, politics, society, and economics (among other potentially conflict inducing topics) was welcomed around the dinner table, in the car on family road trips, and everywhere else. It’s because of this that for me, even on the hardest of days, I know I can’t backdown from asking critical and sometimes unpopular questions in the pursuit of growth and in following my sense of call.

  • Global Appreciation and Accompaniment

My family loves to travel locally, domestically, and internationally to learn, and experience all that the world has to offer. Experiencing cultures, learning from other viewpoints and perspectives, and listening to stories near and far I believe makes us all better people, human beings, and better members and participants in the larger human community. In this ever increasing globally connected world (even in this recent uptick of relative isolationism seen in political elections), it is imperative to have a global appreciation for each other.

It is critical to be willing to listen and come alongside, to serve and learn together; rather than to share an opinion as loud as possible and if someone doesn’t agree go in another direction kicking and screaming. Accompaniment, which means coming alongside, is the way to build relationships. It’s also an example of real leadership, as opposed to some people who seem to believe that leadership is about having the loudest voice in the room or the most blunt criticism in 140 characters on Twitter.

I could go on obviously, but this evening, as I think about my Dad, I am grateful for his leadership, for his and my mom’s passion to raise my brother and sister and I to be faithful people who are part of the larger world with senses tuned to continually discern how we might be called to be a part of God’s work in it.

I wonder, who in your life might be like my dad for you? What do you give thanks for about them and why?

Happy Birthday Dad, I love you!