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)