Serve God Out Here

Pastors, are you feeling stuck and thinking that you might need a change of scenery? Are you passionate about serving the poor and living out the gospel? Are you tired of being surrounded by the same old buildings and being forced to live in cookie cutter neighborhoods or overpriced lofts?

Then have I got an idea for you. Answer the call to proclaim Christ crucified in a rural community.

I know what you’re thinking: but Josh, the action is where the people are. Here is where God’s voice and conviction is needed, in this population center.

That is true. God needs faithful servants in populated areas. As much as God needs the gospel proclaimed wherever God’s people are living. Some of the most interesting and dynamic locations happen to be in small towns and open country parishes.

And I know what else you might be wondering: but Josh, aren’t all those rural churches just grouchy, stuck-in-the-past congregations that need a hard word from the Bishop?

Not so fast, friend. There’s always going to be an example of a grumpy rural church in some cleric’s back pocket. There are also huge suburban churches and downtown urban sites that readily ignore the poor and sick right down their streets. There are magnificent bodies of Christ that are stuck obsessing about their heritage or the size of their building or the number of programs offered.

All I can tell you is, not every church is like that. And many of the great ones, the Christ centered, community focused ones, are “out here” in rural ministry.

Friends, I’ve been actively serving in rural ministry for 12 years and I want invite you to join me in this Spirit infused work. We wrestle with issues of racism, sexism (all the –isms), immigration, and how to be a truly welcome congregation for our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors. We use community organizing tools, we plan strategically, we worship with innovation and creativity. It is amazing work.

All I hope to do right now is reassure those of us who might be a little skeptical (or, be honest, cynical) about small town congregations that “out here” some of us are doing radical, bold, invigorating parish ministry. And as you’re contemplating your next call, that you would consider the gifts of rural ministry.

If you long to be involved in the heart of a community, come to rural ministry.

I serve a 170+ year old congregation in a northern Illinois town of roughly 3200. Let me tell you about the last couple of weeks we’ve had here.

Last week our congregation hosted our town’s annual Community VBS, a shared ministry between the Lutherans, Methodists and Brethren church. We welcomed kids from pre-K to 5th grade Monday through Friday, 9-12am, as well as a Friday night family celebration. This year we registered 101 participants and had 31 junior high and high school volunteers, along with several adults. And Community VBS is only one of many ministries that happen through and beyond our building.

I know my street cred is legit when kiddoes on bikes yell out “Hey Pastor Josh” when they going flying by. And their parents chasing them stop to chat. It is a gift from God to be easily recognized at school functions, grocery stores, and the park because I (loosely) represent Christ and a local church body. Also, it’s great because folks also see me as a father, husband, coach, and community volunteer.

If you have a passion for feeding people and breaking economic and education barriers, come to rural ministry.

Nearly every week of the summer my congregation partners with the Northern Illinois Foodbank and we offer free lunches on the lawn to anyone aged 1-18 who comes to the lawn. No documents, no questions, just a greeting and a free boxed lunch every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. We also have a friend of the church who brings library books every day for the kids to read, either to themselves or to younger sibs. We built two gardens to teach our young patrons about growing fresh vegetables. Two weeks ago one of our school band directors came by and introduced us to musical instruments. In a couple weeks, the Illinois Extension is coming to lead a week long course for kids about preparing easy meals. Some of our neighbors are starving for food and hungry for accessible enrichment options that don’t cost much (or anything) for their kids. Churches are full of literal bread and immense talents.

If you have a heart for ministry with the poor and neglected, come to rural ministry.

This week I spent about an hour working with a new resident who just got a job after a long unemployment, is battling medical problems, and is looking for a place to rent. Our congregation welcomes anyone who are struggling mightily with economic instability and have little outside support. Folks who move to small towns come for the cheap rent and slightly lower standard of living costs. I meet people who go on and off their prescriptions because they can’t afford them, who are facing eviction because they lost their job because their car died, who have been kicked out of their parents’ home, who are running from abusive relationships, who are trying hard to climb out and keep getting pushed down. Our neighbors come to our building site because we have resources to share and because we invite them to share their stories. Or simply sit on one of our couches and be alone in a safe space.

If you are trained in community organizing tactics and you love bringing people together, we need you now more than ever.

This week I was reminded of the opioid epidemic moving through this community. Our town is suffering from a rash of OD’s and the families left behind are crying out in anger and sadness. I’ve sat on the couches of loved ones who cannot decide whether to mourn or get angry. They want to protest the dealers’ homes. Because we all know who the dealers are and we know this drug isn’t going away. Families want to yell and know they’re being heard. Loved ones are ignored and written off by the wider community because of economic divides or the stigma of addiction. Sometimes they turn to me because I’m around and I’m safe. I pray with them, we talk strategies, we comfort each other, we sit silent and let the tears flow.

Friends, we need more faithful servants like you. We need you to join us in declaring Christ’s forgiveness and love in our smaller communities and open spaces.

Our people are suffering. Our people are being broken down. We get wrapped in our communal depression over what has been lost. Some of our people are desperate to know that God hasn’t abandoned us for the city life (yes, some of us use that language when we offer our prayers to God).

We also have fun. We live out our joy. We throw beach balls around during worship and we play kick ball on the front lawn after worship. We sing, we laugh, we listen for God’s Word and trust it still bears the power to convict and transform us through the sacraments.

We’d love more pastors like you to come on out and live with us. Help us navigate our discipleship as we stand together beneath the cross and around the communion table. I would love to welcome you as a colleague and ease your fears that there is good work to be done “out here.” Let your assumptions be shattered and bring your love of Christ to a small town that wants to hear about God’s Grace.

 

 

 

 

 

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Death Has No Say: Why Worship on Ash Wednesday

His hand was cold and thin. I don’t think he knew that he had held it toward me, yet when I grabbed it in my own, his arm relaxed. His grip lessened and his body stopped moving. I got down on a knee next to his bed and could hear the air passing through his lips.

Carl was dying, in the last stages of his life on earth. His family had been holding a vigil in his hospice room for nearly week and in these most recent days, he was no longer responding. All any of us could see was a slight turn of his head when we spoke, though he did not open his eyes and never made a sound. His body was a semi-random series of spasms, twitches or legs shifting, some of which lessened each time he received his morphine dose.

I had been visiting Carl off and on during his tenure with hospice. He was a member of my congregation and a beloved saint who lived gratitude and exemplified generosity. We had spent hours talking in his living room about great fishing adventures and his years as a site supervisor for a construction firm. He led Bible studies his entire life, he taught Sunday School and adored children. His hands had bent steel and hammered concrete and hurt my hand every time we shook them. They also gently held infants and fed toddlers and cupped his wife’s as they sat together on the couch whenever I passed by for a visit.

Now his hands were the size of mere mortals and lacked much dimension. It caught me off guard for a thought and I held on tight as I leaned in close to his ears and prayed for his promised rest.

It is nearly impossible for a pastor to express our incredible honor at commending a saint through their final breath. And I have to note, no one wants to be in that situation. No minister of God worth their stoles and robes looks forward to anointing foreheads and saying ending prayers. However, it is a privileged aspect of our calling and one we hold in high esteem. We get to stand, sit, kneel, and pray for God’s peace to fall upon a brother or sister who has been longing for their rest to come. We have the duty and blessing to speak for God in the most fragile moment of a dear saint’s life. A commendation prayer for the dying is a word of comfort for the family gathered in mourning, and it is a proclamation of defiance that death has no hold on this sister or brother in our care.

I was there to be with Carl as he was breathing his last. I am charged by my Lord to shepherd him into God’s glory. I am by his side to affirm Christ’s baptismal promise, likely made over him before he could utter a word, in the last hours when he can no longer speak of God for himself.

On Ash Wednesday, I will stand before my fellow disciples in worship and mark their foreheads with crosses made of ash. It can seem incredibly morbid and death obsessive, reminding ourselves that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Our faith is supposed to be proclaimed in life, ministries, education, worship, organizing our community to serve and love each other. Which is all true.

Yet at the core of our faith, at the foot of the cross, we remember that there is nothing we can do to gain God’s love. We cannot live more fully, love more deeply, worship more robustly, or learn more wisdom that will garner our Lord’s approval and protect us from anything. We will die, every last one of us. It is biology, it is systems theory, it is fact. God’s Grace is not revealed in a longer, healthier life or beating the odds.

God’s Grace is revealed in the cross. Jesus suffers on the cross for us broken humans because we suffer and cannot save ourselves. Jesus dies on the cross because the great power that wrenches us away from God’s love is death. On the third day Christ rises again because Creation is reborn in the tomb and every stone, earthen and man made barrier is rolled away. Through the cross, there is nothing left that stands between us and God.

Not even death. I grabbed hold of Carl’s hand and knelt at his side confident that he was on the threshold between this life and the next and that God was there with him. I trust that Christ will not abandon my friend in his final breath. Despite every outward sign and all of the logic I can muster, I know that Christ’s promise of eternal life will be fulfilled and he will know rest and peace.

To be there as God’s messenger and speak this promise one more time is a sacred joy, even as we cry and want badly for Carl to perk up. Our pain comes through our suffering and loss; our hope can only come through Christ, whose suffering forever exceeds ours in order to rise before us and claim us in love and Grace.

This is our Ash Wednesday declaration, that Christ has already gone ahead and he will bring us with him through the grave. The cross on our foreheads was placed there by Christ in holy waters and will not fade with time and sin. We are ash and dust, molecules and chemical reactions, in bondage to our brokenness.

We are God’s people, washed in baptism, fed from a communion table that sustains us along the journey, and declared new long after we have been buried in the ground. Death has no power over us. Even the earth from which we are born has no say over us. It is God’s love that has been and will forever be spoken on our behalf. Let this world and every act it can muster try its best to steal us away.

We belong to Christ. My friend Carl belongs to Christ. You, friend, belong to Christ. Not one thing from us or beyond us can take you or me from God’s love or keep us from God’s Grace. Ash Wednesday is a sacred day in which we can stand bold in the face of our impending death and proclaim Christ’s life, which sets us free to teach children and read the Bible and serve our neighbors and hold the hand of a dying saint, confident that God’s presence is forever with us.

This New Year We Will Love

We will continue to love.

As we enter this new year and consider new agendas being laid out for us. As we trust that we are sustained by faith in Christ alone and are being led forward in action by his presence.

We will continue to love.

As our newsfeeds are filled with casualties of war and nations that raise up weapons against each other. As refugees grab what little they own and clamor for safety in foreign lands.

We will continue to love.

As our people in the cities cry out for peace while guns ring out in the streets. As strangers flee chaos and become neighbors when they move out into our small communities.

We will continue to love.

As words of hate find voice through prominent leaders. As our brothers and sisters of color and from different religions are counted as different and disparaged for who they are.

We will continue to love.

As our own family members are declared unworthy of God’s Grace because of whom they love. As our grandchildren, our nieces, our cousins, and kids are pushed aside and told to stay away.

We will continue to love.

As every bone in our body wants to give in. As every part of our flesh does not want to cause a scene or speak a hard word. As our thoughts secretly agree with what is being said against God’s people.

We will continue to love.

Because Christ will continue to love us. Christ will continue to find us as we are and claim us through our baptism and free us from our death. Christ alone will save us from ourselves and make us right and whole with God.

We will continue to love.

We will confess our sins and confess our faith. We will eat from the table of life and we will dance in the hope of the Spirit. We will share our stories and walk through our sorrows and hold each other in devotion. As we always have. As Christ has always done.

We will continue to love. We will love without end and act out of love for our neighbors. Our friends. Our brothers and sisters. Our people who we will never meet and who we know should never suffer. Christ has died and Christ has risen. There is nothing left between us and God.

Except love, that we will share and proclaim through our human words and deeds this new year.

 

 

#RendTheHeavens Day 12 – At(one)ment

2 Peter 3.9: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

God loves you.

I love you.

I wish I had a beautiful story that might turn your heart away from what is destroying you right now. No doubt I could dig around and conjure one or two. I am a pastor after all.

I wish I knew what to say. What to do. What to offer or post on your feed that would break you out of your spiraling despair. I would. I will. I don’t know what will work.

God loves you.

I love you.

I get that you’ve been betrayed too many times. I understand, its not worth it to trust or be even a little off guard for a little while. You’ve got to stay vigilant. You’ve had to stay on point for so long because there are simply too many assholes in this world and too many of them have found their way into your life.

I know whatever I say or do is not enough. It may never be enough. I’m fully aware that any talk of love and forgiveness-real, transformative forgiveness-still rings hollow. Why should you listen to me? How many people have bothered to listen to you?

God loves you.

I love you.

Take it for what it is. For me it is truth. I will not stop listening. I will keep my mouth shut. I won’t approach until you offer. I will stay right here. Waiting.

God loves you.

I love you.

It’s all I want you to know. I think it’s enough. I pray every day it’s enough. That you know that God has not wandered off like everyone else. That you see that God has not abandoned you, but has always been with you, defying every other jerk. You don’t need to believe me. You don’t need to let down your walls. Please don’t stop protecting yourself because some idiot pastor told you you’re safe. I know you don’t feel safe.

All I want you to know, today, right now, is that God loves you. And yes, I love you. You are a child of God, worthy of love and life.

#RendTheHeavens Day 9 – Violation

Isaiah 24.5: The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.

It’s my wife’s fault that I got up late.

It’s that driver’s fault that I missed my turn.

It’s my boss’s fault that this work day sucks.

It’s the government’s fault that my check is too small.

It’s the fault of my bank that my loans are too large.

It’s the contractor’s fault that my basement leaks.

It’s the church’s fault for not preaching the gospel.

It’s the church’s fault for not living it out.

It’s that poor man’s fault for not getting a job.

It’s the rich man’s fault for not hiring anyone.

It’s his fault that hate is on the rise.

It’s not my fault that it’s all going to hell.

And God arrives and cuts me off. Calls me out. Convicts my sin.

I am not apart from the sorrows of my world. Through Grace I am shown that my place is in the center. My brokenness leads to brokenness, my sin furthers sin.

God will not allow me to wander off on my own. Today God confronts my every hard spoken word. God hears me and still loves me as I am silenced in redemption. God hears me and still loves me as I am sent out to speak God’s presence.

#RendTheHeavens Advent Day 3 – Fr(act)ured

Genesis 9.15: 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.

Say the word Fr(act)ured out loud. Go ahead, right there at your desk. Reading it off your phone while you’re waiting.

Fr(act)ured is not a word to be merely printed on a page, it is alive. It is full of hopeful life and ferocious death, it resonates and captures wandering attentions. It brings us back into the here and now with a relentless clash and bang of noise. Fr(act)ured will not let us keep moving as we are.

Say it out loud. See what happens. Feel its flow.

Fr(act)ured begins with wind that gathers in the chest, rushing and rattling teeth. Then comes an abrupt, brash crack as the gust is stopped short. Which is followed by a slow, draining leak of the last remnants of what could have been a message of power. And what becomes a whisper of defeat.

Fr(act)ured is the sound a forest makes as fire rages through it.

Fr(act)ured is what we hear when a gun is fired at another life.

Fr(act)ured is how we hear a storm raging and igniting our dimly lit homes.

Fr(act)ured is what shatters silence when a door is slammed in anger.

Fr(act)ured is water busting levees, tornadoes twisting solid wood beams, cars colliding at a random intersection.

Fr(act)ured is the violence of our shared humanity. It is a living effect of our brokenness and a hint of our common anxiety.

God promises that every act of destruction that sweeps across Creation will be silenced. Every sound of violence, every clamorous noise, every harsh word will be dropped from our lips. God has made this promise of life. May we hold fast to this Word given to us. May we, today, use words of forgiveness, respect and compassion which are overflowing with breath and hope. So that, through Christ who renews us today, we are no longer speaking the same old refrains.

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This Advent devotion is rooted in the daily devotional calendar #RendTheHeavens. Seek it out on the interwebs, its quite a thing that is being populated by some seriously wise and woke people of faith. Some of them are even Lutheran! Hit the link for the calendar here and imagine how these words are speaking to you this season.

#RendTheHeavens Advent Day 2 – Drought

#RendTheHeavens is an online Advent devotional calendar created by two ELCA Lutheran leaders, Tuhina Rasche and Jason Chesnut. Each day offers a new word and text upon which to center, reflect, and seek being lived out in our lives. You should check out Tuhina’s devotion for Day 1 here for a scope of the project, though please note that the language may not be for everyone. Its visceral and can bite down hard. It is also a deeply honest dialogue with God and not too far from what many of us have thought in the privacy of our minds. #RendTheHeavens is, as they describe it, the ‘PG version.’  My reflections using this daily calendar are my own and will be periodic.Search #RendTheHeavens in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites to see how others are using this Advent devotion to connect with God.

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Genesis 8.13: By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year,the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry.

I have no real idea what drought means. In the rural Midwest, where I’ve spent most of my life, we describe a few weeks without rain as a drought. Depending on the time of summer, the crops will start to look shriveled and rough around the edges. Our grass browns up a little and kids will run through sprinklers more than usual. Then, a big cloud rumbles over the hills and the creeks run wild again.

There has been no time when I have stood in my kitchen and wondered when I will eat my next meal. Or questioned when the utility bill will get paid, so I can turn on the fridge and fire up the furnace. Even when I have felt insecure and despondent, I have never felt unsafe.

References to droughts in the Bible can read like historical record and not lived reality. And because I don’t know the depth of a languishing lack of basics, I miss the connection that God makes with every single one. That a drought is a living sign of my separation from my siblings of God.

The mark of my bondage to sin is revealed in these stories of suffering from scripture, in the faces of people I meet in my community, and in news reports in my daily feed. Israelites starving and thirsting in an arid landscape where the water has been drained up by armies and developing nation-states. A neighbor down the street secretly couch surfing because they can’t afford rent and there are no jobs to be got. An immigrant who does everything by the book to be American and still feels threatened in this country. A brother or sister in Chicago, Cincinnati, Baltimore or Texas-anywhere-who isn’t going home because they are judged less than and unworthy of life.

God has bound me through the flood of baptism to Christ, who is bound to Creation through his birth. Christ’s presence proclaims that I am in the thick of it, creating hunger, racism and violent imbalance by creating separation between us.

And the cross of Christ declares that I am in it, made right to be Christ’s presence. Daily the distance between my life and my neighbors’ is closed by Christ’s new life risen through me. My sin is drowned, my old self is washed away. Today I am called to take note. To notice the suffering of God’s people-my people. To remember that I am responsible and I am redeemed to respond as a witness to the Grace that Christ has granted me.

God will end the drought; this is our expectation built on hope in Christ’s resurrection. There is no power in this world that has any power over God.

There is also no distance between myself and God, which means I am not an outsider. I don’t get to stay away, watching God work beyond me. God’s kingdom moves through me, a forgiven and fed follower of Christ. May God use me as a vessel of healing and reunion in the midst of the flood of Grace reconnecting our lives.

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