Posted in God's Love

Is It Worth It?

It’s a whole lotta money.

9 people.

9 airplane tickets

4 hotel rooms

9 registration fees

27 meals a day

It’s more than a thousand dollars per person to attend the ELCA National Youth Gathering – and the pre-Gathering conference called MYLE (Multi-cultural Youth Leadership Event). When I think of what that kind of money could do for a struggling family, or how it could pay for attorneys to help immigrants at the border have their cases heard, I wonder if we are spending God’s gifts faithfully.

In that light, let’s ponder (some of) what we get for that large wad of cash:

6 years ago, my son went to the National Youth Gathering when it was in New Orleans. He texted me from the arena where 30,000 Lutheran teenagers were gathered to hear speakers and sing praises and sing songs that taste like electricity. I expected his texts to say things about a great band that was on the stage or how much fun it was to be in the city of New Orleans earlier that day. But, one of his texts was a question: “Why didn’t I know that our presiding bishop is amazing?” Another text was a quote about grace from one of the main speakers, Pr. Nadia Bolz-Weber. Yet another was an ALL CAPS exclamation about how, together, the youth groups had brought nearly half a million dollars in offerings for ELCA World Hunger…and someone had promised to match those offerings dollar for dollar!

He’d been a church kid all his life. But, let me tell you something about your average Lutheran church: it is not big, not flashy, not the one everyone is talking about at school. It has a name like St. Peter or Emmanuel or Holy Trinity, nothing edgy like Summit or The Gathering Place or something about a Hill or a Star or a Mountain Top…unless Mount Pisgah counts, which, it doesn’t. It has about 100 people on a Sunday morning. Some have hundreds of people, but most have one hundred. A handful of ELCA congregations can use the word “thousand” when they talk about worship attendance, but loads of us have 50 people gathered in sanctuaries built for 400 people in the pews decades ago when you went to church on Sunday morning because…it was Sunday morning.

Most kids who grow up in these congregations know about praise bands and projection screens because they worshiped at their friend’s church one time after a Saturday night sleepover. And there is probably a guitarist at their church with a great voice who sometimes sings a solo during the offering – a song you can hear on K-LOVE in your car or at Hobby Lobby. But, Sunday mornings at St. Peter/Emmanuel/Trinity Lutheran Church all over the nation most often sound like organs played by older people because the young ones aren’t learning to play anymore. Sunday mornings at small Lutheran congregations that dot the towns and prairies and cities of our country have small choirs and pastors who can sing well enough to lead worship.

Most ELCA kids are members of small, loving congregations.

And every three years, we gather as one big congregation for four days.

Because there are 30,000 of us, we gather in a city large enough to have an arena where we can meet, hotels to house us, restaurants to feed us. Also, big cities have lots of opportunities for service, and while we come to worship and play together, we also come to serve. 10,000 of us each day for three days are bused into the city to participate in healing and wholeness for our host city. Three years ago in Detroit, we cleaned up vacant lots, boarded up old homes, cleaned up parks and greenways, visited local schools and day care centers to deliver books and read with children. We gathered and delivered thousands of packages of diapers to the various agencies in the city that serve young children or families with young children. We also learned how gorgeous and kind and fun the people of Detroit are.

We are headed to Houston next week. It was decided years ago that the city would be Houston, and just last year, hurricane winds and rains were swallowing up Texas and the Gulf Areas. I was moved to tears when I realized that after the first wave of rescue and recovery was done, when things are still a mess in some places and there are still areas that need a work force…30,000 of us in bright orange t-shirts and work gloves are headed your way, Houston!

I am the pastor of one of those beautiful, small congregations; her name is Emmanuel. When we collect money for disaster relief, we gather a few hundred dollars and send it in. When we collect peanut butter and jelly for the local food pantry, we put our dozens of containers in grocery bags and someone drives them across town to restock the shelves that are bare. We generally work in numbers like dozens and sometimes hundreds. Three years ago, the ELCA youth brought diapers to Detroit and stocked every cupboard and closet in every agency that needed them. It was incredible to be a part of a huge effort like that.

This year, we are bringing children’s books. They gave us a list to buy books from, and we could have them shipped to a local congregation who would receive them and ultimately get them to the giant Gathering, or we could bring them with us. Here in North Carolina, a long-haul trucker offered to take a load of books to Texas for us, so we loaded them up. I suppose that happened around the country, and there will be (tens of?) thousands of books to deliver to local school, agencies, doctor’s offices, and wherever children might sit a while and read.

Three years ago, we brought half a million dollars in offerings for ELCA Walk for Water – for digging wells and providing fresh water access in places around the globe that need it – and our dollars were also matched, to make it more than a million dollars to affect true and faithful change in the lives of God’s people!

This year, that dollar-for-dollar match has been offered again. And this year’s focus is about farmers. ELCA World Hunger’s Global Farm Challenge (click here for a 90 second video) is working to support farmers around the world. And I do not doubt that we will meet the challenge, filling the bank account that makes withdrawals on behalf of those in need…to the tune of a million dollars or more!

Our youth will fill an arena and sing great songs at the top of their lungs, and then each at their appointed time, speakers will come and take center stage to talk for a few minutes about things that our young people need to hear. Maybe one will speak about mental illness, working to reduce and finally remove the stigma about it. Maybe one will speak about gender identity and how God is creative and loves nuance – and this life and these bodies are not just black and white. And speaking of black and white, maybe one speaker will talk about what it means to be a Christian and how we can be anti-racist. Surely, at least one of the speakers will say clearly into the microphone that we who are gathered in the name of Jesus, though we are young, we are not the future of the Church: We are presently the Church! And I hope our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton says something about how there are future pastors sitting all over that arena – because I know a young woman who needs to hear women say that over and over and over.

And our kids will feel something new.

They will experience the Lutheran Church in a way that many of them never have before. They’ll see how big it is. That their congregation of 50 is part of something so alive and enormous, something that is big enough to say, “Let’s raise a million dollars to dig wells, so God’s children can drink clean water.” And then watch as a million dollars rolls in. That their little Trinity Lutheran in rural Iowa is a part of something so alive and intentional about bringing resurrection life everywhere that their 30 books are stacked on another congregation’s 25 books and the stacks grow until there are semi-trucks filled with books driving toward Houston, so that every child in a huge city can have a leg-up in literacy.

Our kids will walk around the Interactive Learning Center and stop at a booth that has little old ladies with gray hair and soft bodies (that look just like the ladies at their own church) and hear one of those women say, “We are WELCA, the Women of the ELCA, and we will not stand for human trafficking. Because we love you, we have some education for you, so you can identify if someone is trying to groom you away from your family. We also have hundreds of backpacks here you can help us fill with these toiletries and other supplies. We always need a supply of these backpacks, so when a person is rescued from a trafficker, they’ve got some basics – and they know someone cares.”

So, here’s the thing:

Our kids will tell the story of the church.

They will.

With their words or their lives, they will either engage with or leave the Church. They will tell people what it was like to be a Lutheran kid in the early 21st century. I want them to tell the story of their small, faithful church who loved God and loved them and loved the community. But, I also want them to be able to tell this story, the big story that blew their minds when they filled a huge arena with Lutheran teenagers and raised enormous amounts of money and cried and cared and heard people say things from the stage they had to really think about. I want them to feel connected and electric sometimes – because a lot of life in the church is not electric. But those parts are holy, too. After all, our little youth group from a little congregation in the middle of North Carolina will be traveling together for a week, sharing rooms and meals and bug spray. Super regular stuff.

And every minute and dollar spent will have been worth it.

Posted in Uncategorized

ELCA/Portico Biometric Screening

We clergy folk are among the least healthy folk.

(Don’t believe me? Here’s just one piece of journalism about it.)

I’m a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and my church is doing what it can to help me be healthy. Our benefits services include a “Call to Live Well”, with an abundance of resources for our spiritual, financial, emotional, social, intellectual, vocational, and physical health.

We have financial advisors, our health insurance covers services for emotional and mental health, and we are offered lots of opportunities for continuing education and even sabbaticals for our intellectual and vocational health.

It seems we might have a hard time taking advantage of the benefits regarding our physical health. Each year, they try something new to get us to pick up good habits, drop bad habits, and make good choices about our physical health.

Each year, there is a different challenge which literally pays off if you do it.

One year, we were asked to start and chart a new habit for 6 weeks: drinking more water (and less soda and Starbucks), tracking what we eat, walking more, attending to our sleep habits, etc.

That same year, we could choose, instead, to stop something: drinking sugary drinks, smoking, fast food, etc.

Upon completion of the 6 weeks, we were to log in to our benefits account, self-report what we had done, and write a few sentences about what we learned about ourselves while we did it.

I can’t remember the exact amount, but I think it was about $300 of Wellness Dollars. And when my husband was alive, he was eligible, also. So, each year, we earned hundreds of Wellness Dollars, which can be spent on medical expenses.

We used to take a wellness assessment online also (for more Wellness Dollars). One year, my health assessment resulted in the shocking news that I needed to exercise more! So, they let me have coach who set some goals with me, and then checked in with me each week over the phone to see how things were going. (Having the coach was completely my choice; nothing was required in that way.)

Things have changed a bit each year, as they work to find ways to help us be healthier.

This year, there are two ways to earn $200 Wellness Dollars.

  • $400 total
  • $800 if your spouse participates, too

ONE: Have a biometric screening.

TWO: Log in to your retirement account, make sure your retirement plan makes sense for your life plan, make any changes you might want to make, and when you click back to your Portico page – there are $200 Wellness Dollars in your account. Immediately. See? It probably took me 10 minutes to do a good thing for my financial life…and earn some money.

Okay, but what about the Biometric Screening? That sounds like way more work…and what’s it all about?

Seriously, it is not difficult. Here’s how it went for me:

I clicked on “Complete or review your biometric screening at Quest Diagnostics”, and it took me to a page where I could choose to:

  • print off a page and take it to my doctor to complete
  • find a diagnostic lab near me to complete it

I chose to just go to a lab near me, and right there online, chose a lab 1 mile from my house, selected an appointment for 2 days later, and received a confirmation email that my appointment had been set. Maybe 5 minutes for all that.

So, yesterday morning at 9:30, (having fasted after midnight and hydrated myself with plenty of water) I went to the lab near my house.

I signed in at 9:28.

She asked for a copy of my I.D.

I was called back into the office.

She measured my:

  • Height
  • Weight
  • Waist
  • Blood pressure

She drew 3 small vials of blood and asked for my signature.

By the time I got in my car, it was:

…and I went home to eat breakfast.

That was yesterday.

Today, I got this email in my inbox:


So, I clicked into it. Inside it was a link to the Portico site, where I logged in, and was able to view my results.

And it brought me to some pages of VERY EASY TO READ charts and explanations.

Here’s a page that says there is one area of my health that is out of the normal range when assessing for Metabolic Syndrome. I’ve cropped out all the personal information here, but the one area is my good cholesterol is too low. And it gives me suggestions for improving it.

If I click on the Heart Disease tab, it says 5 out of 5 of the criteria are in the normal range, so I don’t have an active risk of heart disease. Still, it suggests I get or remain active, taking walks, etc.

There is a one-page document that I saved to my computer in my “health” file. It simply lists my screening results in each category, and the normal range for reference.

So, I went to check to see if my $200 Wellness Dollars were in my account yet. But, I saw a notice there that said it may take 2 to 3 weeks to process that.

Why write all this here?

Because every year, some of my clergy friends do not claim this money.

Because all of us can use some help being healthier, and our employer is trying to help us.

Because I write things down sometimes.

Be gentle with you.

Posted in God's Love

remembering the gentle way Love shows up

I am a pastor in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Most pastors in my tradition don’t choose the biblical text from which we will preach each week; we use a lectionary, a calendar of texts.

Some use the Narrative Lectionary which has us reading through the story of God and God’s people…as a story. It has longer passages each week, and you pick up next week where you left off today, so you get a sense of the narrative of God’s action in the world. The Narrative Lectionary is a four-year cycle of readings. When you reach the end of it – start again! It’s been four years, and God has something new to say and new people who are listening.

Most use the Revised Common Lectionary which has us reading (mostly) through one of the gospels – and a few other texts from various parts of the Bible which work to help us better understand the gospel reading for that day. The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings.

Year A, we read through the Gospel According to Matthew – and some coordinated readings.

Year B, we read through the Gospel According to Mark – and other readings.

Year C, we read through the Gospel According to Luke – and other readings.

And St. John’s gospel gets lots of focus sprinkled throughout in all three years.

And some pastors in our tradition create their own lectionaries. For example, I once attended a church where we used the Gospel According to Luke all year, we didn’t insert any of St. John’s gospel where the RCL does. Other pastors do sermon series preaching and various other patterns for proclaiming who God is and what God has done in Jesus.

That’s a very long way to get to this: I use the Revised Common Lectionary. I mean I really use it. I have only been a pastor for 4 years, so I am not tired of the three-year cycle of readings, and I have a gut feeling that I should not be the person choosing the text for the week. So, I really do like using the RCL. I nearly never stray from it.

We are smack dab in the middle of St. Matthew’s gospel. We are in chapter 13 right now, and Jesus has a lot to say to the Pharisees who are furious that he is healing on the Sabbath and such. He uses lots of language about punishment and the fiery furnace and people gnashing their teeth in agony and suffering. It’s hard to hear. I know that we are sinful, and God is righteous. I know the wages of sin really are death, but sometimes in the middle of this gospel, I feel a bit desperate.

This week, the focus for our Wednesday evening time of worship and study is Christmas. We have something called Chrismons, symbols of Christ which hang like ornaments on a tree. This week, we’ll study the meanings of them, where those meanings are found in scripture, and how to make one. We will surely sing some Christmas hymns and tell the Christmas story.

As I sat to do some preparation for Wednesday evening, remembering the meaning of all the symbols, looking up some of Jesus’ names in scripture, and thumbing through the hymnal to choose a few Christmas hymns, I felt relaxed. As I sang through a few verses, I noticed that gentle feeling of familiarity settling around me. One of the joys of Christmas is hearing the first few notes of a hymns and thinking, “Oh, I love this one!”

It felt so different from last Sunday morning when I read from the pulpit that all evildoers will be collected and thrown into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The poetry of Christmas hymns works to wrap words around the mystery of the ways God loves the world. And while St. Matthew certainly reveals God’s love to us in the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – it’s sometimes a hard road following Jesus around Galilee.

So, this lectionary preacher decided that we will tell the Christmas story this Sunday in worship (for not all our folks come out for the mid-week classes). And, maybe since I never change the lectionary texts, I came here to write about it and process it, making sure it’s a good idea.

I guess Spirit is telling me in many and varied ways that it is always good to tell the story of God’s choice to “move into the neighborhood” as Eugene Peterson puts it. Surely, we need always to keep in focus the miracle and mystery of the choices God makes to be in relationship with us. The story of God’s birth is one of those choices.

In the midst of the language of punishment and gnashing of teeth, can you imagine Love growing in Mary’s womb in order to be born into this world ~ in order to teach us about Love? I think we need to imagine it again – in the middle of our journey through St. Matthew’s gospel. We need to peer into the manger to see the gentle way Love shows up.

Now, please join me in turning to hymn #283, Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.

After we sing, please wash your hands and come to the table where sugar cookies and icing is ready for you to make creative and delicious symbols of God’s love. (Now, you bigger ones be sure to help the littler ones among us.)