2015 NGLS Worship Presentation

At the 2015 Assembly of the Northern Great Lakes Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I gave a presentation on worship titled The Who, What, Why, When, and How of Worship. It was a presentation that focused on mainly two things: what is all that stuff in the sanctuary, and why do we do what we do?

I have uploaded the presentation in both Microsoft PowerPoint and PDF formats.

SynodAssemblyWorkshop (ppt)
SynodAssemblyWorkshop (pdf)

The Prophecy of Amos, Revised

Pastor Ken:

Samantha Field of “Defeating the Dragons” takes an ancient prophecy and adapts (not interprets) it for us today.

Originally posted on Defeating the Dragons:

Prophet number 2
[artwork by John Jude Palancar]

Note: what appears in this post isn’t intended to be a translation– it’s a reaction to the words of Amos as I read them in English in the NIV, ESV, King James, and the Message. It’s an interpretation based on trying to find modern meaning and truth in an ancient text. Also, I am aware of the problems of taking passages that apply to ancient Israel and forcing them onto modern-day America.


Amos 2 : 6-8

This is what God says:

For your sins I will not turn back my wrath.
You sell the innocent for middle-class comfort and
ignore the needs of our immigrants for tomatoes you don’t want to pick.
You climb your corporate ladders on the backs of minorities
And claim that Ferguson and Baltimore “isn’t about race.”

Father and son sexualize and objectify every woman they see

View original 564 more words

Cut It Out

Fifth Sunday in Easter B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

We long ago established that I am not a gardener. Yesterday, Debbie went out into the garden to tend to her plants and flowers, and I dutifully stayed away while she worked, so that I wouldn’t accidentally kill anything.

The truth is, when Jesus talks about being a vine and producing fruit and pruning, I don’t always pay attention. I know what pruning is, and why it’s important—by cutting off growth in certain places, you allow new, better growth, to flourish—but I couldn’t tell you about any of the techniques involved, or how you know what to prune when, or any of the details. Plants are not my thing.

So let me approach this metaphor from another angle.

High school, college, and seminary are all four year programs. You enter as a first-year student, and assuming everything goes smoothly, without interruption, you leave four years later. I’m not saying anything shocking or revolutionary, am I? Good.

We see this system every day, so it seems only natural, the way it should be.. As the older students leave, newer students come in.

Now, imagine for a moment if, after you started high school, college, or seminary, you never left. Four years go by. Five years. Eight years. Every student who enters never leaves, but more students keep entering.

Is this a healthy schooling model? Will the school be able to support all of these students? And worse, are these students, who never leave, becoming the people they were meant to be? Probably not.

In order for schools to function properly, and to continue producing good, graduated students, students have to leave. There’s no choice. They can’t stick around just because they want to. They’d become too much of a burden, the entire system collapses, and now, there’s no students learning and no good graduates being produced.

This sort of cycle, this action, is inevitable. You can’t just keep adding and adding, holding on to anything and everything, and expect new growth to happen. This is why a gardener has to prune a vine or a fruit-producing tree. The tree has to let go of some of its bulk and weight and make room for new growth if it is to continue producing fruit.

This is one of those times when Jesus comes out and tells the disciples what his metaphor means. “I am the vine,” he says, “YOU are the branches.” The gardener, in this case, God, cuts off any branch that doesn’t produce fruit—it’s dead weight, and useless.

But even the good branches, the ones that produce fruit, need to be cut back. They need to be pruned, having some of their unnecessary parts cut away so that they can continue to grow new life and produce fruit.

So the branches, the disciples, the many followers of Christ, need to produce fruit or be cut away. But even those that do, even those who react to the presence of the Spirit in the vine and who take that nourishment and turn it into good, powerful action; even they need to be cut back every once in a while, or else they, too, can be become dead branches.

This is not an altogether cheery or happy metaphor, Jesus. Because whether or not we are good, fruit producing branches or bad, dead branches, being a part of the vine of Jesus involves cutting back, stripping away, and losing something we were holding onto.

This is a terrible message for churches. Churches hate letting go of anything. I’ve told the story before of the church I worked in that attempted to throw away a ton of junk, but slowly, a lot of it ended up back in storage because somebody just couldn’t let go of each piece of useless junk.

It’s not just items. Church programs are famous for this. Programs continue on long past their expiration date, long past when they are doing any good, because “that’s how we’ve always done it.”

We build more buildings, even though gathering in a meeting hall works just fine, because that’s what churches are supposed to do. And then we hold onto those buildings at all cost, because, even though they no longer serve our needs and are killing us, we can’t let them go.

We continue programs like Sunday School, First Communion, Confirmation, Children’s Church, Youth Group, Men’s and Women’s Groups, large numbers of committees, even when they don’t serve any theological or practical purpose; we’ve just always had them.

We see the world and the environment changing around us, necessitating a reorientation of the church, but that means leaving behind old ways of doing and being church, and so we can’t.

Churches are so afraid of what pruning might mean, of what cutting away might bring, that instead of seeing the new life that such pruning will bring, all they can see is the loss. It’s why there are  parishes all over made up of three congregations in three different buildings, and between the three of them, they can’t afford a Pastor—yet they insist on having three services on Christmas, one at each congregation, because they absolutely must have their own.

Churches are so afraid of losing any little bit of themselves to let new life grow that they’d rather become dead branches. At least they’ll be big and whole; but still dead.

What are we afraid of? Have we forgotten that a branch doesn’t exist on its own? That wherever a branch is growing, it is attached to something else, something that nourishes it and provides it with life?

“I am the vine,” Jesus says, “you are the branches.” You see, I’m grateful for that. A branch doesn’t have to worry about getting roots down deep. It doesn’t have to worry about taking in enough sunlight for the vine. It doesn’t have to worry about feeding the other branches, or managing the whole affair of being a plant. It’s just a branch.

The vine itself, the one putting out the branches, that’s where the life comes from. That’s where the branch gets its water, and gets the nourishment it can’t get itself. When it produces fruit, it’s because the vine has given it the strength to do so. And when it’s pruned, when it’s cut back, it’s the vine that makes it grow new life.

That’s what pruning does—it makes room for new life. A properly pruned plant produces MORE and better fruit than a plant that’s never been pruned, that’s never had to let go of anything. It will be continually renewed, flourishing, giving its fruit in abundance precisely because it has room to grow again and again and again.

Some people, like me, are terrible gardeners. A plant that relies on me will surely become one big dead branch. But the church, a branch of the vine of Jesus, is not gardened or cared for by human hands. It is cared for by God’s hands, the very same hands that created the vine, grew the branches, and produced the fruit.

Watered in baptism and fed at the Lord’s supper, the church grows and produces fruit wherever it let’s itself be pruned by God, making way for the good news, the good fruit, good works. But it has to let go. It has to realize that a dead branch is no branch at all, but a piece of wood good for little more than fuel.

We are a branch of the vine, grown out of the good news of Jesus Christ. We are not alone—we are connected not only to other branches, but to the vine itself, given life by the Holy Spirit. This is not of our own doing, but is the gift of God, who tends the vine and rejoices in the fruit it produces.

We are not a dead branch, but a living, breathing part of the body of Christ. We live and grow in spite of our efforts, in spite of our best intentions. We are all clothed in Christ. That is who we are; not lifeless wood, but living products of God’s loving care, care that does involve cutting away to allow room for the Holy Spirit to produce new life.

It’s terrifying. It goes against everything we tend to understand about growing. But by letting go, cutting away, we grow and flourish and produce abundant fruit.

“I am the vine,” says Jesus. “You are the branches.” Cut it out, let go, and get ready to produce good fruit.

Featured Image: “Winter Pruning Complete” by Jim Fischer is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The Reign of God

I am fond of Jesus’s first preached words in his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15 NRSV). It’s the heart of Jesus’s message, and through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus demonstrates that the reign of God has truly come near.

The reality of the reign of God coming near has always been difficult to comprehend because we understand it as a “already/not yet” reality. The reign of God has absolutely come near, and it’s effects are felt in the present. But it hasn’t yet been fully realized–there is still more to come. We’ve only gotten a taste of it.

Pastor Katherine Finegan, in her article for my synod’s newsletter, gave me the perfect way to describe the reign of God: Spring in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.

According to astronomical/solar reckoning, the Spring Equinox (March 19-21, depending on the year) is, in many northern-hemisphere cultures, the start of the Spring season. In some cultures, it is the mid-point of spring (which makes more sense to me). Either way, at the Equinox, Spring, the season of new life, of growing plants, flowers, and warming weather, is definitely here.

On the other hand, even as I look out my window today, there is still a tiny bit of snowdrift left from last week’s snow. Yes, up here, it frequently snows in late April. There isn’t a lot of green yet. The temperatures only just got out of the freezing range. The calendar said it was Spring–and it was. But the ground, the air, the water, it all said that we were stuck in winter. It was, in a sense, “already/not yet” Spring.

Oh, there were signs–now that the snow is nearly entirely gone, even in the shade, the grass has gotten greener. It’s been in the 50s and 60s this week. But, it was easy to look at the snowy April ground and believe that Spring had missed the memo and forgotten to arrive. But it was here. Under the snow, things were starting to stir. Warmer air was blowing in. The presence of Spring was being made known even as Winter clung to the ground.

So it is with the reign of God. It is here. It has come near. But it doesn’t always look like it.  Take a cursory glance at our nation’s news for the past couple weeks and you’ll definitely feel like the reign of God is nowhere to be found.

But it is here. The reign of God has certainly come near. It is already here, but not yet fully visible. Even in the snow, flowers grow, when Spring has made its mark.

Featured Image: “SnowFlowers-3″ by nelgdev is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Shepherd Me, O God

Fourth Sunday of Easter B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

Yesterday, at approximately 1:00 am our time, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the Asian country of Nepal. Then a second, 6.6 magnitude earthquake struck, followed by over 30 aftershocks.

At 2:00 pm our time, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America released this press statement.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

It is at times like these that the words of Psalm 23 ring most true. It’s one of the most beloved psalms. It has been translated into some of the most beautiful songs, including the one I just quoted (Shepherd Me, O God) and our Hymn of the Day (The King of Love My Shepherd Is). Frequently, when reciting this psalm, the image of lush green fields, babbling brooks, sunny days, and Jesus carrying a gentle lamb in his arms come to mind. It is a happy, idyllic scene captured in many paintings.

But that’s not the scene in Nepal, which is surely, today, one of the darkest valleys. In the press release I read, it said that over 1000 people have died. As of this morning, that number is closer to 2300, with more still trapped, and the death toll is expected to continue rising.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

When events like these take place, one of the most asked questions is, “Why did God let this happen?” or “Where is God in all this?” I can’t answer the first, as I don’t believe it’s the right question. But the second, I can answer. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.”

This is not just a statement about God walking beside us in green fields. It’s an affirmation that, even and especially in times of great disaster, and pain, and death, God is walking alongside those trapped under the rubble, alongside those who have died, and alongside those who are searching for, rescuing, and aiding the survivors.

At least 20 countries have already mobilized money and/or emergency rescue personnel. International relief agencies, such as our own Lutheran Disaster Relief, immediately dispatched emergency personnel. Even websites such as Facebook and Google are involved, with Facebook allowing people in the area to mark themselves and their family and friends online as “safe” and Google launched its Person Finder tool to help people locate missing persons.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

It isn’t surprising that Psalm 23 is often chosen to be read at funerals. It is a powerful statement of our trust in God’s ability to lead us in death to new life. We know nothing about that journey. Nothing about how it happens, nothing about what it will be like. We have images and poetry in our scriptures that attempt to describe the new life we will have, but they all come up short. In this, we really are like dumb sheep, absolutely at the mercy of our shepherd to provide for our every need, to keep us safe from things we don’t even know are out there, and to lead us along the way, through dark valleys, through the presence of enemies and evil forces that would seek to destroy us along the way.

We put our trust and our faith in a God that is able to be our shepherd from death to life, because we put our trust and faith in a God who’s already walked that road. The Easter season is the bold proclamation that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. It is the firm belief, the bedrock of our faith, that death, no matter how tragic or how disastrous, does not have the final say, does not hold any power, does not dictate terms to us any longer.

As often as we walk scared-stiff through the darkest valleys in life, God walks beside us, keeping us away from the shadows and the beasts. In Nepal, God walks beside everyone, giving comfort and rest to the survivors and taking the dead into God’s own care for their own journey.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

It is not a psalm about the pleasant things in life, but a psalm about the the worst experiences in life. It is there, in those horrible places, in those tragedies, at our lowest points, that God is most present with us, leading us beside still waters, leading us along right paths. Even in death, we are still carried back again to the house of the Lord for as long as we have new life.

This Easter season, we celebrate with great joy both our baptisms and the new life given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose body and blood we eat and drink in Holy Communion. In our baptisms, we died. We died with Christ. We entered a dark valley. And as we came up from the water, we came up to new life, where a table was set before us even as the old ways, the old life was still there waiting to devour us once more.

Today, especially, we celebrate with our new communicant, who takes her place at the table that is her baptismal right, a place that was set for her years ago. As we celebrate with her, and hear the words for ourselves again, “The body of Christ broken for you,” and “The blood of Christ shed for you,” we remember to what lengths God went to protect us sheep.

We do this in remembrance of the good shepherd, who willingly gave his life for the sheep and was raised to a new one. We do this in remembrance of all those who have died, especially those in Nepal. And we do it for all those who live and will live, who will return to the house of the Lord at the appointed time.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

Featured Image: “nepal” by Mapbox is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

An ELCA Pastor's reflections on life and the church


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