Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Life is Like a River" by Siobhan O'Donnell

I was off practicing my sermon this morning (Christmas Eve) and when I came back my eleven-year-old daughter had written a poem for Christmas Eve. Here it is:

Life is Like a River

Life is like a river, bending and changing directions. At times it is smooth, and at times it is rough. A river has a beginning and an end, but where a river stops the water keeps flowing. So it is with life in Christ.--Siobhan E. O'Donnell


Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Giving Thanks for a Wonderful Father

"Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you." --the 4th Commandment (Exodus 20.12, ESV)

From James Earl O'Donnell

Pictured above is my father, James Earl O'Donnell, with his mother, Anna, some time in the early 1960s, when he was serving in the U.S. Navy, stationed at Okinawa, and spending a lot of time in and around Vietnam.

I had the occasion recently to meet a man who had little relationship with his father, even though they lived near one another. In fact, I was told, they went through a period where they did not speak for something like 20 years. This I find profoundly sad, for today my family remembers the seventeenth anniversary of my father's death, and--yes, for all his faults--I lived every day knowing that I had a father who loved me. As I grew older I began to realize the depth of his sacrifice for me and my siblings. I realize that more deeply every day.

Thus, on this day, I give thanks to my Heavenly Father for my earthly father, who parented with passion and much grace. Above all, in spite of his years of rebellion, I give thanks to the Lord for His forbearance in patiently teaching my father and calling him to public repentance just three days before he died. That God-given act of submission and humility, though I initially rejected it and was angered by it, became in these last seventeen years a constant source of encouragement and thanksgiving.

I think my father would be particularly pleased with where the Lord has now placed me, as pastor of St. Philip Lutheran Church and School in Chicago. I say this because my work is analogous to the work my father was doing at the time of his death. In 1988 he was given the opportunity to manage a couple GM parts factories in Mississippi. They were in big trouble; in danger of closing. Finally given the opportunity to exercise the breadth of his significant personal skills and experience, those plants in short order were transformed into clean, productive workplaces and, as I understand, models for the corporation. Many hundreds of jobs, I was told, were saved because Jim O'Donnell showed a love for people and gave them the opportunity to exercise their talents.

At St. Philip I have an analogous situation--a congregation with a great history and great people who have been through some challenging times. My task is to set people free through the Gospel, to help the people realize their God-given gifts and use them, in the congregation and the community. In this work, I recognize, I am simply an undershepherd, for St. Philip is Christ's congregation. I am a "steward of the mysteries of God," not the author and perfecter thereof.

O let the people praise Thy worth,

In all good works increasing;

The land shall plenteous fruit bring forth,

Thy Word is rich in blessing.

May god the Father, God the Son,

And God the Spirit bless us!

Let all the world praise Him alone,

Let solemn awe possess us.

Now let our hearts say, "Amen!"

--"May God Bestow on Us His Grace"

Lutheran Service Book #823 (CPH, 2006)

Monday, December 7, 2009

First Snow in Chicago & the Pastoral Journey

Pictured to the left is our parsonage and the adjacent Early Childhood Center on W. Bryn Mawr Ave. in Chicago. They are under the first snow of the 2009-10 winter. It was a lovely sight to see, though I know I'll be sick of the snow by late January or early February.

The kids were thrilled, and as I walked them to school this morning it was tough to keep them out of it! In any case, I welcome the snow. There is something about it that lightens my step, especially after the l-o-n-g day yesterday...

I was up at 4am (typical for a Sunday) and then off to practice my sermon and the service for a couple hours. My wife still has the flu, so I was able to help a bit with getting the kids ready for service. My eldest daughter volunteers to babysit some little kids while I teach a new member class at 9:00 a.m. The class went well, and then we had a fine worship service at 10:00 a.m. I am preaching a special series of sorts for the Sundays of Advent and Christmas that I am calling "St. Philip Celebrates." Each Sunday we meditate on a key concept from the Epistle reading. Here's an outline:

Advent 1 (29 Nov 2009): Love 1 Thes 3.9-11
Advent 2 (6 Dec 2009): Partnership Phil 1.2-11
Advent 3 (13 Dec 2009): Prayer Phil 4.4-7
Advent 4 (20 Dec 2009): Offerings Heb 10.5-10
Xmas Eve (24 Dec 2009): Family 1 Jn 4.7-16
Xmas Midnight (24 Dec 2009): Liberty Titus 2.11-14
Xmas Day (25 Dec 2009): Inheritance Titus 3.4-7
Sun > Xmas (27 Dec 2009): Patience 1 Jn 1.1-2.2

The readings from the New Testament epistles ("letters") are often commentary on the Gospel, which itself is fulfillment of the Old Testament, so it has been enjoyable to weave these together in a way--I am finding--that connects the whole of the Scripture to present.

After an enjoyable morning service and some cafe time afterwards, I continued my short after-service class entitled "Worship: Why We Do What We Do." After that, from 12-2pm we had a community open-house at the preschool and grade school. The open house provided the opportunity to meet some friendly prospective families, which was a pleasure. After the open house I had the less-pleasurable part of the day: two hours of budget meetings in which we're trying to figure a way to keep our program whole and somehow emerge from the recession without the benefit of a now-nearly-depleted endowment. Fortunately, we have some good minds on the project and a lot of excellent people serving St. Philip. We are trusting the Lord and working hard. It will be nice to look back and see how the Lord got us through this. The time in the valley now, however, is very challenging.

After the budget meeting I had the opportunity to preside at our new twice-monthly 1st & 3rd Sunday) Sunday Night Service at 5:00 p.m. This is an abbreviated service, held in a chapel, and conducted somewhat like what I do with my shut-in or nursing home communion services, but with the full Sunday morning sermon. The Sunday Night Service provides--as I found at my previous parish--a blessed "intimacy," an opportunity for worship for those who work on Sunday morning or late into the night on Saturday. It also provides an opportunity for those who--for whatever reason--find it difficult to walk through the big doors and see all the people at the typical Sunday morning service. It is, by virtue of the setting and numbers, a more "informal" service, a good place to either begin one's journey in Christ or begin the journey back for those who have been away for a while...

After the night service I went home to have dinner, put on my jammies, and "crash," but dinner was interrupted by an emergency phone call from a member about a fellow-member who is in the hospital with a stroke. Thus, it was back into uniform and service for a short trip to the hospital. There I was greeting by an active member who was doing quite well and surrounded by friends and family. So often at visits of this sort the person in the hospital is alone and feels a bit abandoned. Here, I could see, was a friend beloved by many. Thus, in spite of how tired I was, it was a great encouragement to see Christ at work.

All in all, it was a long day, but a blessed one. Now, today, I have another long day, but one that concludes with the joy of a prospective member visit, and then--hopefully--a little time with the family before bed time.

I am loving my pastoral journey in Chicago. It is challenging in every way that I imagined it would be... and in some ways that I would not have imagined!!! :)

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Live (almost) from Chicago!

I haven't posted since August 1, 2009, but I believe in this medium, and the opportunity that it affords to help me inform people about what is going on and to help them get to know me better. Thus, with apologies for the delay, here we go!

On August 16, 2009 I took office as the Pastor of St. Philip Lutheran Church and School on Chicago's north side. Truth be told, my work began well before that, but it has been particularly intense from the moment we arrived. I had my first meeting, an introduction to the Board of The Foundation for St. Philip, while the moving company was still unpacking the truck on August 10th. The next day (Aug 11th) the teachers reported for duty at the school, and I was there to get acquainted and prepare for the school year with them. We had a glorious installation service on the afternoon on August 16, 2009, and the next Sunday was the opening service for the school. Both were very well-attended by church and school families. Hope was--and is--in the air.
"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not [yet] seen." -Hebrews 11.1
Clearly, part of my responsibility as the Pastor of St. Philip is to proceed in faith and hope and conviction, or--as St. Paul puts it in Philippians 3:
"But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:13-14, ESV)

St. Philip has been through some years of struggle, and as with any family that has been through a period of struggle, a sort of homeostasis of struggle is achieved. That is, we get "used to" living in "survival mode" or in thoughts and actions that are, ultimately, unhelpful. (I read a very helpful book about this years ago, Generation to Generation by Edwin Friedman.) So it is that a key to my faithful service as St. Philip's pastor is to not get distracted by "what lies behind" but point myself and the people here at St. Philip ahead, constantly ahead, in assurance of the things hoped for.

The picture above is from the "Harvest Festival" held in the gym at St. Philip Lutheran School on November 14, 2009. It is a great example of that for which we must hope and strive: church families and school families coming together, enjoying one another and supporting Christ's ministry. And a glorious ministry it is! St. Philip is a congregation with a great future. Our forefathers have bequeathed to us a lovely facility in which to celebrate the Gospel and our school is strongly Christ-centered, with a consequent history of demonstrated academic excellence. Still, it is God's will for us to "strain forward to what lies ahead"; that is, to greater maturity in Christ--as individuals and as a congregation.

So it is, in my call as a missionary-pastor, that I take the example of St. Paul:

"Him [Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me." (Colossians 1:28-29, ESV)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

God Bless These Good People

Today we concluded another miraculous garage sale in Van Wert, Ohio. We had to sell a good bit of our furniture, as many items would not fit in our new parsonage in Chicago, Illinois. I say miraculous because, given the nearly 16% unemployment rate in Van Wert county, I didn't think it would be possible that we would sell our refrigerator, washer and dryer, hutch, dry sink, table and chairs, corner desk, wicker dresser set, etc., etc., etc...

Yet, we did.

When all was nearly said and done we packed the four kinds in Grandma and Grandpa Allen's van and sent them off to the lake, leaving my wife and I to finish up the sale, clean up, and then pack for the weekend in Michigan.

I was pondering this, my first official weekend as the former pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Van Wert, Ohio, while doing the post-sale clean up behind the garage. There I found the little treasure pictured above that expresses the feelings of our whole family.

The picture is of the back-side of a piece of the broken church bell. In my eldest daughter's handwriting is the message:

"from the O'Donnells
"God bless thease good pepple"

We'll forgive her the spelling, but that is exactly our prayer, that these people here at Emmanuel will be greatly blessed in the days and weeks and months and years ahead. They supported us heart and soul, and even as we make our preparations for St. Philip in Chicago we are profoundly thankful for the people of Emmanuel...and we always will be.
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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Moves Should Be Long and Slow

The best meal that I ever had was at a four or five star restaurant in St. Maarten during my honeymoon. I had the most exquisite Argentinian steak and the perfect glass of wine to match. To be sure, the food was great, but I think of this now and understand that the food was just part of the overall atmosphere. We ate slowly, Carrie and I, savoring the magnificent fare before us. We were not on a schedule; we did not feel the anxiety of a wait staff hungry for the tips that would come with a new customer. There was no pressure but to enjoy the food and, above all, each other.

I say all this because I am realizing again just how emotionally jarring family moves can be; realizing, perhaps, that they do not have to be so jarring.

I am pictured here taking apart the cradle that we had purchased and stained prior to our second child's arrival. I was in a hurry to take it apart and put it into its moving box so that I could get to other things. Then God intervened. I realized that I would probably never see this piece of furniture together again. I was rushing through my packing job like I would rush through the drive-through lane at a fast food restaurant. What I should have done is invite the children down to help me, and talk to them about when they slept in it, where we lived, etc. In that way the move could have been a blessed family time, as it would have led to other discussions about the way God has guided us in our past, and how He will do so in the future. Instead, the cradle was almost completely apart when, by God's grace, I was permitted a moment of insight. Thankfully interrupted, I went upstairs and invited the firstborn to come down and take a picture of her dad taking apart a piece of furniture.

It would be nice if we had a month or two to do this; that is, it would be a blessing for a move to be sacred time, a time to pause and remember how we got to where we are, to make of the sorting of artifacts a time of growth and renewal. Instead, moving time is mostly busy and physically efficient, with the occasional flicker of grace and insight. I am thankful for that latter moment now, thankful for the years of grace behind us that make a great foundation for what is ahead...
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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Little Treasures Found While Packing

Pictured to the left is my wife's Franklin Planner page for 18 November 2000. This was discovered last night as we sat up in the living room until midnight going through old papers that might be "pitched" in preparation for our move to Chicago.

Recorded with joy for posterity is a brief dinner table interchange between myself (L) and my first-born, a daughter (S), then just 27 months old. She was (and is!) an extraordinarily verbal child. While we found this is fairly common for girls, Carrie and I had marveled that we could actually have a conversation and reason with a child just a year-and-a-half old! Here at just over two, you can see that she has already developed a lively sense of verbal play, an ability that is blooming.

For those who cannot read the pictured text, here it is:

L to S: "Shall we pray?"
S: "No. I can't. I'm picking my nose."
L to S: "OK. Well, let us know when you're done picking your nose so we can pray."
S: "OK."

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Announcing a Farewell to a Beloved Congregation

Today I had to announce my acceptance of the call to be the Pastor of St. Philip Lutheran Church and School in Chicago, Illinois. Below is the text of the letter that I read to my congregation today at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Van Wert...

12 July, A.D. 2009

Emmanuel Lutheran Church

705 S. Washington St.

Van Wert, OH 45891

Dear Brothers and Sisters at Emmanuel,

As many of you know, I have accepted the call to St. Philip Lutheran Church and School in Chicago, Illinois. There is a temptation in such situations to say too much or too little. I will try to avoid both extremes.

Since our visit to Chicago in early May we have done a lot of thinking about the last seven years. I imagine myself in the pulpit, looking out over the congregation, and seeing how the “face” of the congregation has changed. There are a lot of new faces, many faces that returned in these last years, a few faces that left, and many faces that we will not see again until the Lord takes us to Himself. We have been through a lot together: a tornado, basement floods, a building project, a remodeling project, the expansion of our TV ministry, and the beginning of our Web ministry. We have grieved together, prayed together, rejoiced together. Here the O’Donnells welcomed a new daughter, buried a son, and labored together with our church family to make ours a family of six.

Here at Emmanuel I learned, with your help, to be a real Lutheran pastor. As a student and vicar I loved preaching, but you helped teach me in a new way to apply Law and Gospel to the deepest realities of peoples’ lives. While preaching and teaching the Gospel is my greatest joy in the Ministry, my greatest honor in the ministry is the care of the sick and shut-ins, especially the care of those nearing the end of life; here, too, you have helped me learn to be what the Germans call a Seelsorger, “curer of souls.”

Yet, these cannot be the only things considered. Back in the spring of 2002 I had been asking the Lord if it was time to leave graduate school early. “Lord,” we prayed, “do we stay or is it time to go?” Out of the blue, shortly after those prayers began, I was asked whether I would be willing to consider a call to Van Wert, and a few months later, on the heels of a tornado, we were in the parsonage. It has been a whirlwind ever since, but most definitely a blessed one. Nevertheless, early this year a similar question came back to my consciousness. I began to ask the Lord whether it might be time for new leadership at Emmanuel, and the only way to know was if I had a call to consider. I was told by the District that in the current climate it could take four years for a call to emerge. That was fine with me; thus, we were shocked when the phone call from St. Philip came less than four months later.

As I told you, St. Philip is an urban congregation with a school. The usual report in such situations is that the church is doing reasonably well and school is in trouble. That seems to be reversed at St. Philip. The school appears to be thriving. The church, on the other hand, appears to be in a situation similar to Emmanuel’s at the time of Pastor Barlow’s arrival, struggling from recent difficulties but with the possibility of recovery. It is a congregation that as of the late 1990s had over 300 in worship on Sunday in two services and now has 70 in one service. St. Philip is in one of the most ethnically diverse and densely populated areas in the U.S. It is a challenging ministry situation and, in a sense, a risky one. Needless to say, the call to serve there gave us a lot to consider.

In spite of the wonderful relationships that have developed, the great comfort and familiarity and prospects here in Ohio, versus the challenging ministry situation there—the starting over, the challenge to family life, the surprising timing, et cetera—after much reflection my conviction is that this is God’s will. I am confident that great things are in store for Van Wert and for Emmanuel. I believe that if the lay leadership at Emmanuel will rise to the challenge of the vacancy, especially the challenge of fulfilling the catechetical goals that we recently set, then Emmanuel will be poised to take advantage of the good things that I trust are going to happen in Van Wert. That is my prayer for you, that you will now begin a new season of growth in which God is preparing you for the great things that you cannot yet see.

Friends, it has been my honor to serve you, but I believe I must respectfully request your peaceful release, that I may begin my service at St. Philip.

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Lance Armstrong O’Donnell

Monday, June 29, 2009

Good Writing is Still Best Savored in Print

If you want to read a good story, one that will make a good day great or a cruddy day tolerable, go to a local store and purchase the June 28, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated. The cover story features big league catcher Joe Mauer, who is chasing a .400 batting average this season. His is a fine story, but the gem of the issue is the one pictured to left, "The Way It Should Be" by Thomas Lake. The picture is of the issue opened up on top of my wife's laptop with a post-it note in the middle saying "Read this."

Lake's essay tells the now-famous story of Mallory Holtman and Liz Wallace, who helped opponent Sara Tucholsky record her first and only collegiate home run. Tucholsky tore her anterior cruciate ligament while rounding the bases. These two opponents, led by Holtman, literally carried her around the bases, helping her touch each one along the way. You can see the a video essay by ESPN at the end of this post, but you should really read the story first.

To be sure, this is a great character story, but that is not my point. My point is that Lake's telling of the story makes one of the great character-though-sports moments of my life better, and reading it in print enabled me to savor the story in a way that a digital edition just cannot. The article is filled with anecdotes of how the story affected very different people all over the country and puts Holtman's act in the larger context of her story.

I began reading the article at the lunch table, and then I wadded up the magazine and took it to another room. Then phone calls interupted and I set it, open, on my desk. On the way back to work I picked it up and scanned where I left off. Taken again by the story, I was forced to sit down and finish the last few paragraphs. Along the way the pages were stained a bit by the oils of the bread from my sandwhich. The magazine had been opened and closed, pages folded and unfolded and krinkled. All of this indicated that the magazine had been handled quite a bit. Thus, the folded up pages on my wife's computer, stained by my finger prints, with the hand-written note communicated much more than the words on the note. It said, "This really moved me" in a way that cannot be replicated by an email or Facebook link or even a post-it note on a Kindle. I would like to think that this is significant, as my wife longs for the intimacy of knowing my thoughts, and like most men what I'm "feeling" often goes without notice.

Good writing is still best savored in print. Indeed, there is something about print that makes good writing qualitatively better, especially when it is shared.

It is a funny convergence, this reading of the Lake essay today, as I had been thinking about print and digital media since Friday, when Robb Krecklow, the publisher of the Van Wert Times Bulletin and a member of my congregation, published a column on how print media is still very much around, even if the digital revolution is changing things. I would love for the paper to start putting Robb's column up on the web.


Perhaps that would defeat part of the purpose.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dried Cork

One more night of vacation Bible school (VBS) to go! The kids are having lots of fun and (it appears) learning a bit in the process. By the end of the evening, however, I'm tired and like to unwind with a glass of vino. As a conoissuer of cheap Chilean wine I was ready to try my last remaining bottle; namely that of the 2004 Solterra carmenere grape. Now, I say I like to have a glass of wine, but the truth is that I'm no expert. I have a good and helpful little cork removal tool, and I haven't had any trouble with it in a while, but this evening was a disaster. First there was this:

Then there was this:

Thus, I forced to do this:

Now, I was expecting a bit more out of this wine, as I paid an additional $1 for this particular bottle (The "Reserve" got me.), but it ended up having the aroma of something like an alpaca farm. Thus, in addition to the totally dry cork that forced me to strain my vino, the wine itself did not go well with my low-fat Cheese-its.

In any case, it made for a good laugh with me and my wife, and that's always worth it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pastoring in a Rural City

Pastoring in a Rural City

by Rev. Lance Armstrong O’Donnell

12 April, A.D. 2007; rev. 9 June, A.D. 2009[1]

Earthly Point of Contact

“Hey, Lance!” I hear from the lane next door. I have just walked into the local bowling alley. It is early spring and my youth group is out for a little Sunday afternoon fun. I turn to see a couple familiar faces, but at first I cannot remember the names, so I say hello and we begin to talk. I became acquainted with this couple at a neighborhood association meeting, and our conversation is about some of the issues that drew us together in the first place, a conversation that quickly leads us to local politics, for two of my members are running for local office, and both are involved in the issues about which we are speaking. However, the member running for mayor is not mentioned, so I say, “What about so-and-so?”

“Oh, he hasn’t been here long enough. He’s only been here twenty years or so.”


The little interchange above says a great deal about what rural communities value and how they are organized and function. One must understand that I met this couple over city-type issues, namely, proposed changes to the increasingly busy state highway that runs right through town and right in front of my church building. Furthermore, the man speaking to me is not fond of the current mayor and knows that he has been a divisive figure. Moreover, the current mayor is not a native son of the community either. What matters, in the mind of this man and to most people in rural settings, is that the one of candidates has been here longer. Longevity reigns.

Now, in the larger cities in which I have lived and worked, it is hard for me to imagine the opponent of an unpopular mayor being dismissed because he’s “only been here twenty years or so.”

All this is to say that in a rural city you will have some “city” issues like indigents, traffic problems, drugs, crime, race, poverty. My experience suggests that such issues in suburban and urban communities are typically faced in a “can-do,” urgent, and functional manner. (The “inner city,” I believe, is another matter.) My experience in urban and suburban environments suggests, for example, that if the mayor isn’t doing his job well enough, then people will not have significant value conflict with electing a new mayor, even if he hasn’t been around that long. However, in a rural community, even a rural city, communal ties are strong and generational, and the value priorities are different: longevity reigns.

This is not to say that merit and function and urgency and a host of other values are irrelevant in the rural environment. It is simply a matter of priority, and this has profound implications for ministry.

What is a “Rural City”?

Before I continue, let me speak for a minute about the seeming paradox of the “rural city.” (The U.S. Census Bureau calls the city I’m talking about a “micropolitan,” but not all micropolitans are “rural,” so I’ll stick with “rural city.”) The rural city is a center of commerce and population that serves as the hub of a larger geographic area whose ethos is agricultural. The rural city has houses closely packed, some with small yards and many with no yards at all. It will have run down buildings and graffiti and--as I alluded before--in microcosm, most if not all of the issues faced by larger urban centers. The difference is that most of those living in the rural city, deep-down, do not think of themselves as “city people,” and for myriad reasons, they choose to stay even though moving to an urban center would present many of them with greater opportunities for economic and cultural “advancement.” They choose to stay, typically, because their value priorities are family, community, longevity, a tie to the land. These things trump all others.

Ministry in the Rural City

Many reading this will say, “Of course!” because they are from rural areas, but those from urban areas, or those who have acclimated to the suburban-urban value set, will find ministry in the rural city confounding. And, truth be told, even those from rural environments will be confounded because the very decision to leave and attend the seminary is a decision driven by different value priorities. One leaves “the plow” behind because the call to serve trumps all other things. When you make that decision, when the call to serve overrides all other values, you automatically are at odds with those who choose to stay.

Thus, I am increasingly convinced that the only way to overcome the longevity obstacle (and other values obstacles) and faithfully pastor in such an environment is to view one’s self as a missionary.

A missionary, of necessity, is a pastor and sociologist. A missionary understands that he is an outsider and that he will likely always be an outsider. He accepts that reality and even sees it as an advantage. His God-given task is to proclaim the Gospel, and as an outsider he may be able to understand the people to whom he is sent in ways that they cannot see themselves, and if he is wise he may be able to preach the Gospel to them in a manner that penetrates even more deeply into the soil of their lives. Thus, a missionary will consciously use all the tools at his disposal--earthly and theological. Like the missionary in a totally foreign land, he will immerse himself in their lives, taking the attitude of a learner, asking Who? What? Why? When? How? He will assiduously take notes. He will honor his “ancestors” in the ministry and the ancestors that make up the fabric of communal memory in the land to which he is sent. He will learn to speak ill of no one, for all are related. He will take, from the very beginning, the long view. He will not look vainly at his own ministry. He will see that it is Christ’s mission, and trust the Word to grow in due season. He will find his joy not in the immediate signs of “success” so important to the suburbanite, but in the glory of discovering the Word itself.

Indeed, the more the rural city missionary immerses himself in the people’s lives and comes to know them and their values, the more he agonizingly prays for wisdom as to how the Gospel is to be proclaimed, the more he will understand that he is Christ’s instrument, and the more he will find the Word taking deep root in himself.

Yes, pastoring in a rural city is a missionary task, and if this is your call, may our Lord Christ prosper the work of your hands.

[1]. This essay was submitted at the request of the Rev. Scott Stiegmeyer of Concordia Theological Seminary for a collection of essays for seminary students. It was not included among the final collection, but my convictions remain as a missiological and pastoral statement.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Revenge" Comes to Van Wert!

Our local newspaper, the Van Wert Times-Bulletin (, is reporting today that automotive design corporation Revenge Designs will build a new sedan in Van Wert, Ohio based around the radical and highly efficient new motor designed by Doug Pelmear. 

This is an E85-only engine that is reported to get 110 miles per gallon. The Times Bulletin reports that Pelmear "has placed one of his motors inside a 1986 Ford Mustang, qualifying for the multi-million dollar first prize in the Progressive Automobile X Prize by averaging 110 miles per gallon. Pelmear quickly pointed out, however, that this is not some gas-sipping motor that will be impractical for general use. It performed at that mileage level while still producing 400 horsepower and 500 ft.-lbs of torque."

Those are amazing figures, and great news for our area of the world!
For the Revenge Design facility story see "Revenge Designs Chooses Van Wert for Facility" (

For more on the innovative Pelmear engine see "Pelmear Opens Manufacturing Facility for 110 mpg Engine" at

Monday, June 1, 2009

The 2009 GM Bankruptcy and Childhood Lessons on Leadership and Responsibility

I think there is a lot that I should not say right now, so I will be brief, but the collapse of General Motors makes me want to SCREAM!!!!

Pictured to the left is an image of the Pontiac "J Car" that I lifted off wikipedia. I was just a kid when my father, a mid-level General Motors manager-executive, bought a new one of these for my mother and her long drive to and from work. It was a piece of #%^$ from the moment he brought it home, and that is a charitable statement coming from a pastor.

Look, I know that a lot of innocent people are going to be hurt by this, including MANY in my own family, but I can't see these headlines and ponder what is going to happen to my mother with the potential loss of my father's pension, and not think of the string of explitives that poured forth from my father's mouth when his brand new J car was falling apart. I can't help but think of the lessons on leadership that he gave that day. I was just a kid, but I vividly remember my dad talking about the better way of quality that he had learned while stationed in Japan in he early 1960s. I remember him being really *&^(& about that J car and telling me, basically, that union and management leadership failed in their moral responsibility to put the systems in place to build a better car when they knew it was possible. 

Leadership makes a difference, and though I'm not an auto industry insider, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that over the years the labor AND management leadership failed. To be sure, the quality of GM vehicles has improved markedly since that wretched J car, but any eejit with half a brain knew that the rise of the Eastern economies would at some point drive up demand for gas and that fuel prices would spike.  Yes, all these manufacturers are being hit by a big storm, but some are weathering it better than others, in part, because they had the foresight to invest in less profitable products in the short term because it would better help them to prepare for the future or other eventualities.

To see a future problem and look the other way, or to know a better way and choose to ignore it, is not just a "mistake," it is a moral failure--dare I say?--a sin.  This lesson applies in all areas of life. In fact, it's interesting just how often I think of that J car example in my pastoral work. It can be very easy for a pastor to see issues in his congregation and say to himself, "I'll leave it for the next guy to clean up." There is no faithfulness and love of neighbor in that sentiment. 

Whether as a pastor or a parent or as a worker on the line or as a senior executive, part of our responsibility to our neighbor whom God has called us to serve is to--in the words of Martin Luther--"help him to improve and protect his possessions and income." The collapse of General Motors will be an abiding lesson to me about the consequences of bad leadership. It reminds me of how my father passionately rejected my occasional --to use his words-- "half-@#!" effort at my childhood chores and always encouraged me to "do it right the first time."

We have a moral responsibility to do the best we can at what God has called us to do. There is no other way.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Pastor's Getaway

I'm a "Type A" guy, and I don't "throttle down" well. Given that I live in a parsonage that is literally attached to the church I serve, we have found that one of the best ways for me to truly relax is to leave the premises.

Pictured here is sunset on the lake where my in-laws live. Just two-and-a-half hours north of us, Grandma and Grandpa's place has been a place of true rest for me. There is something about the water that settles my nerves, whether it's sunset-calm as pictured here or whether it's covered in ice and snow. Part of the relaxing, strange as it may sound, is that the family is with me. I love to be surrounded by them. I love to hear the children laughing and playing in the snow or in the sandbox or in the water. That is heavenly to me. To sit with my wife and watch the sunset on the lake, with the children tucked in bed, is heavenly.

I know that many churches give very little time off for their pastors, and I think that that is flat-out, certifiably, crazy. Pastors are always on call, and there's a certain stress level with that, even in a smaller parish. If you live in proximity to the parish, as I do, there are always additional things that blur the boundaries between family and working life. There are the knocks on the door from indigents looking for help (I literally had someone looking for food money ignore the "private" sign on the parsonage door and walk right into our living room not too long ago.). There are also the after-hours knocks on the door from parishioners to have someone let them in the church because they forgot their keys. Such things are usually not a bother, not a "big deal," but they do contribute to the overall atmosphere that family time is never fully family time when we are home. And, of course, there is the sense (analogous to any family-owned business) that you could always do more, more, more.

Pastors need rest. I am thankful that my parish knows me well enough not to be bothered when we take off on a Friday afternoon for the lake and come back after dinner on Saturday night, and I am thankful that I have such a restful place to go.

Thank you, Lord, for my congregation's understanding that I rest best with uninterrupted family time, and thank you for providing such a marvelous place for us to gather.
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Friday, May 8, 2009

Great Idea: Tokens for "Screen Time"

Pictured to the left is our "littlest" man holding one of his big brother's new "screen tokens." Here's where all of this comes from...

At the 2009 Midwest Home School Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, lecturer Susan Wise Bauer talked about "screens" and education. Dr. Bauer is clearly an advocate of the discipline of reading and the written word (see, but she used two Macintosh laptops during her presentations (looked like one MacBook and one MacBook Air) and spoke with some degree of fluency about the media world. She also manages an eleborate web site or two, with discussion groups, so the woman is not anti-screen.

Among the many things that caught our attention in her presentations was the "token for screen time" policy that the Bauers use in their home school. Each child gets a certain amount of "screen time" per week, and these blocks of time are represented by tokens that are turned-in to the home educator. 

We adopted this policy as soon as we came home from the conference.

The classical curriculum demands that the "reading muscles" are well-toned, but part of the goal of a "neo-classical" education is to help a child learn how to gather information, evaluate it, and competently articulate an opinion. In the modern world, this also means learning the ability to gather and evaluate digital media. Clearly, a good neo-classical education in the modern world demands the teaching and use of computers, etc. Yet, the fact is that absorbing information from a screen (image-based) is much easier than reading (text-based); that is, screan viewing (and screen learning), as Dr. Bauer made clear, does not exercise the brain in the same way that book-learning does.

The Bauer's "token for screen time" idea is a great policy for
any home. It helps children learn to discipline their use of time in front of the computer or television; thus, in conjunction with an education that demands the disciplined exercise of the "reading muscles," it helps to train a mind well for the vagaries of digital life.
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Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Blessings of Morning Prayer with the Family

Christians are not either saint or sinner. They are, in fact, both saint and sinner simultaneously (Luther called this in the Latin, simul justus et peccator). St. Paul, writer of 1/3 of the New Testament, gives voice to this in his Letter to the Romans:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being [Christian nature], but I see in my members [the parts of the body, a.k.a. “the flesh”] another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. –Romans 7.21-25 (ESV)

One of the great things about having morning prayers with small children is the remarkable "innocence" with which the contrary natures display themselves. We had a lovely example of that this morning. After reading a summary of the
First Samuel account of David escaping King Saul through the friendship of Saul's son, Jonathan, we prayed The Lord's Prayer and the gave every one around the table the opportunity to add special things that were on their mind. We had lovely and simple prayers for a good school day, for the unemployed, for the little one to learn new words, and then we came to Mommy at the other end of the table. What happened next is "Exhibit A" of the simul justus et peccator teaching of St. Paul:

Mommy: [Devoutly, with hands folded and head bowed] "Lord, help us to have a good school day. Help us to be obedient..."
Two-year-old: [with smile on face and cream cheese smeared all over the place] "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!"

I rest my case.
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Friday, May 1, 2009


I woke up this morning to this beautiful sight, which reminded me again of some very memorable words:

Our Founders saw themselves in the light of posterity. We can do no less. Anyone who has ever watched a child's eyes wander into sleep knows what posterity is. Posterity is the world to come—the world for whom we hold our ideals, from whom we have borrowed our planet, and to whom we bear sacred responsibility.

William Jefferson Clinton

42nd President of The United States

First Inaugural Address

21 January, A.D. 1993

One need not agree with any of the former President's policy initiatives to see the wisdom of these words. I remember listening to that address from a small radio at the desk in my cubicle at Michigan's State Capitol. I was twenty-three, outside the church, newly without a father, and about to enter the most devastating months of my life. At that time I only knew I was without a father. I was only beginning to suffer the consequences of having rejected God the Father . . .

Yet these words have stuck with me all these years. When I woke up and saw my son's beautiful little face I quoted the paragraph from memory, though I remember little else of the President's speech, or of any other inaugural speech for that matter.

Such is the power of words, of language, of truth.

I am a Christian husband and father, and I am a pastor. These words of the former President, in my family and parish context, remind me of the "sacred responsibility" that I have to prepare my children, and the children of my parish, to live faithfully in this world and be watchful for the world to come.

Which brings me to related thoughts on the "Rethinking Confirmation" theme. . .

Dr. Susan Wise Bauer concluded her 2009 Midwest Home School Conference lecture, "The Joy of Classical Education in the Home," with a summary of her goals for a full classical education at home (K-12). We want a twelfth-grader, she said, to:

1. be able to get information and evaluate it;
2. know what he is good at;
3. speak and write with some authority.

What we are attempting to do by means of the classical model is teach our children to think, to be life-long learners. Indeed, Dr. Bauer repeated in many and various ways, that learning is a life-long project.

As I adapt this to the parish education context (In my case that is a context that does NOT include any level of parochial school.), and think of the little boy pictured above, we want to send him off to college with:

1. a comprehensive Biblical literacy. That is, he has gathered the information. He knows his way around the Scriptures. For example, he knows Israel's history and the life of Jesus and the early church (He will know this even better if, under the classical model, he has been taught this with a chronological world history.); and

2. a comprehensive doctrinal literacy. That is, he has evaluated the Biblical "data" and knows how, in Christ, all these events work together. He will, for example, not be bewildered by the near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 because he will understand how this, in a sense, foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ. For another example, he will see and understand the connection between the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, the life of Jesus, and the summary of God's teaching on providence in Romans 8.28: "God works all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose." Above all, he will understand the central teaching of the Scripture; namely, that man is accounted "righteous" before God purely and solely because of the work of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God. Thus, with a comprehensive Biblical and doctrinal literacy, he will live with

3. a functional Christian worldview. That is, he understands that his Baptism united him with the death and resurrection of Jesus, gave him the forgiveness of sin and eternal salvation, and that his life is as one who (though still having a sinful nature) is also a participant in the divine nature (A Christian is, this side of heaven, simultaneously saint and sinner.). He is to live as one liberated from the burden of perfection, freed to pursue the further development of his God-given gifts knowing that these are to be used in service of God and neighbor in a life of daily contrition and repentance. Moreover, one with a functional Christian worldview will articulate these truths in word and deed; that is, he understands the challenges of modern life, speaks (and writes with varying competency) Christian truth in the midst of this life, and acts in God-honoring ways in defense of the faith and in love toward their neighbor.

Notice that number 3 uses functional rather than comprehensive. This is because we are talking about eighteen-year-olds here. The goal of Christian catechesis is, indeed, to instill a comprehensive Christian worldview, but such a worldview is formed only through years of daily prayer, Biblical reflection, and testing of the faith. I am still experimenting with the English words that best correspond to these three ideas (I lean toward foundational, functional, and comprehensive.) and the classical education model for the Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric stages, but I am confident that with the active participation of the family and the parish an eighteen-year-old can have a comprehensive Biblical and doctrinal literacy (#s 1&2); I am confident, therefore, that any family and parish thusly committed to these goals will have prepared their children for adult life with a functional Christian worldview (#3) and the tools to see that worldview mature over time.

This is why I am pondering the possibility of either using The Rite of Confirmation as a culminatory rite for the senior year or commencing a new ritual that would celebrate the maturity of faith that diligent participation in catechetical life all through the schoool years suggests. If Confirmation were moved to the senior year it would mean the necessary separation of Confirmation and First Communion. In that case a Rite for First Communion (Lutheran Service Book has this) would replace Confirmation. I think that I would prefer this nomenclature, but there may be issues wth the broader church that mitigate against it (See the debate over the age for First Communion at Four and Twenty + Blackbirds on related issues.). I think that if we are to move to this type of paradigm that the church might want to offer some extra incentive, like a scholarship, for those who dedicate themselves to further catechesis and Christian service throughout high school.

God-willing, I shall reflect more on this in the coming days.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Goals for Christian Education

At the April voters’ meeting of Emmanuel Lutheran Church I presented an outline of Christian education goals for the congregation. Here is the text from a pamphlet I am working on:

The Gospel

of Christ rescues and renews human souls.

It is the heart and center of the Christian faith. Therefore, out of respect for peoples’ eternal souls, we at Emmanuel Lutheran Church maintain an absolute, unrelenting focus on forgiveness and the means by which Christ promises it.



We know that people—at school, at work, or wherever—are constantly confronted by personal and corporate “bait and switch” hypocrisy, so we strive to teach the Christian faith with historic authenticity: straight-up, no gimmicks. We know that Christ calls the church to be “in the world but not of the world.” Thus, like our Lord, we “meet people where they’re at”—we welcome all, regardless of background or situation—but we do not leave them there. All Christians are called to discipleship, and it is a lifelong journey.



The purpose of all Christian education at Emmanuel is:


to develop a comprehensive Biblical literacy

     (i.e., know what the Bible says); and

to develop a comprehensive doctrinal literacy

     (i.e., know what the Bible means); so that we might

instill a comprehensive Christian worldview

     (i.e., believe the Gospel and live it out).


From Christian Education

The Church is not like a fast-food restaurant or department store selling products that are here today and gone tomorrow. Our “business” is the Word of God, which is eternal and true. Therefore, all instruction aims to instill in the Baptized the confidence that comes with Christ’s forgiveness; all instruction aims to teach people who they are in Christ and prepare them to think and act wisely; all instruction aims to help people lead lives of “daily contrition and repentance.” 

—The People of Emmanuel Lutheran Church

Adopted 26 April, A.D. 2009