2018 is the bicentennial year for Illinois, and there will be undoubtedly be many celebrations this year that lift up key people and moments over 200 years of the Land of Lincoln. Unlike Illinois, though, my home state of Pennsylvania doesn’t have that one historical figure that looms as a giant over all the others. Pennsylvania’s state nickname is the “Keystone State,” named as such because of its importance to and central location in the original thirteen states and the colonial period that preceded the United States. I can’t say that my home state has been consistently noteworthy since then, but at least for a time, we were the keystone that held a fledgling nation together.
This April begins with a keystone of an entirely different sort as we begin the month with Easter Sunday. That keystone is the truth that is revealed in the Easter stories of all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and to which the rest of the New Testament writers testified--that Jesus is the crucified and risen messiah of God. The confession of Jesus Christ crucified and risen is the essential element of Christian faith, the building block on which the Holy Spirit has built the church over nearly two thousand years.
Given our present-day culture’s much higher engagement with Christmas than Easter, it may surprise you to discover that the church’s observance of Easter developed several centuries before our celebration of Christmas; however, that order of things makes more sense when considering the context of these two important stories of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is what makes his birth noteworthy. Indeed, the confession of Jesus Christ crucified and risen is so central to the church’s mission that Easter is not just one day but rather an entire season in the church year. We devote fifty days each year to unpacking what Jesus’ resurrection means for us, beginning with Easter Sunday (Apr. 1 this year) and continuing all the way through the festival of Pentecost (May 20).
Jesus, the crucified and risen messiah of God, was not to be forgotten as were the flash-in-the-pan miracle men throughout history. No, people continue to gather in Jesus’ name. People continue to praise Jesus for his victory over sin and death. People continue to cling to the hope of Jesus’ resurrection and trust in God’s proven ability to create something new where the former things have passed away, even if that means doing something that seems impossible. The Easter good news that we share is simple and powerful: Jesus is the crucified one who died for us, and the risen one in whose resurrection we finally have assurance of God’s forgiveness and hope of eternal life.
Together, then, let us join the loud and joyful shout of faith that will resound throughout these fifty days of Easter: Christ is risen! Alleluia!
I love to tell the story: how pleasant to repeat
what seems, each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story, for some have never heard
The message of salvation from God’s own holy word.
I love to tell the story; ‘twill be my theme in glory
to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.
We begin this month with the wonderful words of the second verse of English missionary Katherine Hankey’s hymn as we move into our second month of our 2018 theme, “I Love to Tell the Story.” Last month, I kicked off the year with the more familiar first verse, but this second verse really fits well with the Lent seasonal activities begin in February!
The season of Lent begins with our Ash Wednesday service at 6:30pm on Feb. 14 (otherwise known as Valentine’s Day). I assure you that the apparent contradiction between Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day is not lost on me--it certainly makes this year’s rendition of Ash Wednesday quite interesting...and quite possibly transformative in my thinking. Like many Lutherans throughout the ages, I have always thought of Ash Wednesday in terms of my incredible insignificance in the grand scheme of God’s wide world. I have always seen that day of the church year through the lens of Genesis 3:19: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But with Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day colliding this year, I am looking at Ash Wednesday differently. I am looking at it not just as a day to confess our sinfulness and pray for forgiveness and reconciliation, but rather as a day that is grounded in what makes confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation work in the first place--God’s love. You might say that instead of simply repeating the old, old story, we will tell that story with a fresh perspective.
As the season progresses, though, we will do more than reframe an old perspective on a single day. Much of our attention during Lent will go toward training ourselves to look for and share news of God’s work in the world around us. We will get quite a bit of practice at this throughout the 40 days of Lent, constantly engaging the question: “Where have you seen God at work?” This will be the central question of our Wednesday night series, which we are calling the “Lent Share & Prayer” series. Each Wednesday night from Feb. 21 through Mar. 21, we will gather for a simple supper at 5:30pm followed by a prayer service that begins with a time of sharing our stories of where we have seen God at work throughout the week and concludes with the beautiful music of Holden Evening Prayer by Lutheran composer Marty Haugen. Through the week, we will continue to exercise our storytelling muscles on the church Facebook page as we invite you to share in our “40 Days of God Sightings.” I am still coming up with a helpful and manageable way to field your comments on the page for this 40-day campaign, but stay tuned for more information and be on the lookout for God’s next action around you!
I love to tell the story / of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory, / of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story / because I know it’s true;
it satisfies my longings / as nothing else could do.
I love to tell the story / ‘twill be my theme in glory
to tell the old, old story / of Jesus and his love.
You might recognize the text above as the beloved hymn “I Love to Tell the Story.” Published in 1869 with text by English missionary Katherine Hankey and tune by William G. Fischer, this hymn has been a staple for Sunday Schools, and it remains a favorite for many people to this day. It is certainly a favorite here at Trinity, as it tied for the top spot in last year’s Favorite Hymns Summer based on the number of people who requested the hymn. As much as we collectively love this hymn, though, it can be difficult for us to take its text to heart. We love the old, old story of Jesus and his love. We love to hear and read that old, old story in worship. We love to sing that old, old story in the hymns every week. But Katherine Hankey’s words really up the ante and push us out of our hearing/reading/singing comfort zone to wrestle with a challenging question: Do we really love to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love?
Historically, Lutherans have often been reserved, quiet people when it comes to the evangelistic mission of the church--that is, sharing our faith with others and telling the old, old story of Jesus and his love. We have been (and often still are) more likely to show people Jesus’ love rather than to tell them about it. For instance, Lutherans have shown Jesus’ love in their communities through social service agencies like Lutheran Social Services of Illinois and MOSAIC, operating schools and hospitals, and by feeding hungry people through programs like Canton Meals on Wheels. We love getting in the trenches and serving others as God works through our hands.
But things change for us in a hurry when we begin to tell in our own words the old, old story of Jesus and his love. We can easily become anxious, worrying about what we should say, how we might say it, and what our next move might be if our message is rebuffed or not understood. Telling the story is a different ball game than our more comfortable activities like worship and Bible study.
That is why, brothers and sisters in Christ, I am excited to embark with you this year on a journey toward greater confidence and comfort with sharing our faith with others. That will be a focus of my preaching this year as we work through the Gospels of Mark and John, two great storytellers of their own accord. Telling the story will also be a focus of Adult Forum classes, and perhaps even part of this year’s Lent services.
I am unsure as of right now what all we will be doing, but what I do know is that it will be an exciting time of nurturing faith that we can share with others around us. Let us all learn day by day how we might love to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love!
December has arrived, and Christmas preparations are in full swing all around us. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday have all flown by, complete with the requisite facts, figures, and news headlines. Christmas decorations adorn homes and downtown areas. Favorite holiday songs abound on the radio and in concerts throughout the community--in the words of one of those songs, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” (minus the spate of 60-degree temperatures as the month begins).
Known as “Christmas creep,” this phenomenon--the sudden onslaught of Christmas everything before December has even found its footing--is well documented. I have wrestled for quite some time with what Christmas creep says about our society, and the first thoughts that came to my mind were less than encouraging. I thought of powerful forces of consumerism that drive us to acquire more and more things. I thought of cultural addiction to instant gratification--we want what we want, and we want it NOW. And, even stranger, the church season of Advent this year suffers itself from Christmas creep, as the Fourth Sunday of Advent occurs on December 24!
Although I am still concerned about things like consumerism and a need for instant gratification, this year’s unusual Advent calendar redirected my thinking a bit. Many people (myself included) like to put off Christmas celebrations until the Twelve Days of Christmas (evening of December 24 through evening of January 5), but there are two points that are spiritually nourishing about Christmas being constantly in our midst throughout this month. First, the intermingling of Advent’s anxious waiting with the joyous Christmas sense of fulfillment matches up well with the “already/not yet” reality of the Kingdom of God: God has already broken into the world and created it anew through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ...but God’s reign is not yet fully in place in the world, and God will continue breaking into the world through the Holy Spirit. Secondly, the popularity and accessibility of Christmas present followers of Jesus with wonderful opportunities to share the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ with people who--possibly unbeknownst to us--hunger for that good news!
These two “good news notes” of Christmas creep are themes we will hear throughout the upcoming church year as we study the Gospels of Mark and John. Of the four Gospels, Mark is the king of “already/not yet” theology, and the entire purpose of John is to share Jesus with others so that they join the journey of faith that leads to eternal life, as the author of John reveals in John 20:31: “these [signs of Jesus] were written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that, through believing you may have life in his name.”
So, perhaps my prior Christmas creep grumbling was at least partially short-sighted. Maybe that phenomenon is simply one more thing that joins with all others to “work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Let us enjoy this intriguingly intermingled month and these events it has in store for us!
I write to you fresh off the wonderful Reformation 500th Anniversary Celebration on October 29. While I will not list names here since since I will inevitably miss someone who helped create our great experience, I extend my deepest thanks to everyone who participated in the worship service, the musicians, the Sunday School and Adult Forum participants, the actors in our Luther skit, and the servers and cooks who set up the best potluck meal I have ever seen!
For November, we will continue our Reformation adventure by exploring how Lutheran worship has changed and evolved during Trinity’s existence. We will do this through special worship services, two that I am calling “Throwback Sundays” (Nov. 12 and 19) and then ending the month on Nov. 26 with a “Luther All Year Long” service.
Our first “Throwback Sunday” will be on Nov. 12, as we will worship using the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church Hymnal (1926). This is the hymnal that Trinity used around the time of our congregational name changes (Bethlehem Swedish Lutheran Church to Bethlehem English Lutheran Church in 1926, and finally to Trinity Lutheran Church in 1927) and the move to our current building in 1927. Having grown up in Pennsylvania among German-descended Lutherans, I had very little knowledge about the Augustana Synod before undertaking this worship project, but I had the good fortune to randomly pick up an old Augustana hymnal at church that happened to be used by a Trinity organist (likely in the 1940s or 1950s)!
The following week, we will move on to the next hymnal Trinity used, the Service Book and Hymnal (1958). We used this book during our time in the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), after the Augustana Synod merged into the LCA in 1962. While my 1984 birthdate means that I never used this hymnal for myself (the green Lutheran Book of Worship debuted in 1978), I am considerably more familiar with it because my home churches in Pennsylvania used this book before the green one; however, my Pennsylvania folks used the First Setting from this book (the mostly German one), while Trinity used the Second Setting (the mostly Swedish one). On the plus side, The Service Book and Hymnal service will seem familiar to people who have attended Trinity or other ELCA congregations over the last several decades, as much of the music in that hymnal survives today in the red Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal we normally use.
We will then bring the church year to a close on Nov. 26 with Christ the King Sunday and a service that I am calling “Lutheran All Year Long.” We will spend our morning singing hymns written by Martin Luther and other Lutherans as we cycle through the entire church year (seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost) in a single service. Let us enjoy this opportunity for a look at Lutheran spirituality over the 500 years of our Lutheran tradition! As a hymnwriter myself, I can attest to the Holy Spirit’s work in the the process of writing hymn texts, as well as to the creativity and honesty that goes into expressing theology in song!
Toward the end of this month, Lutherans and many other Protestant Christians will join in remembering the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation with Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses on October 31, 2017. In many of my recent articles, I’ve been sharing some unique pieces of our Lutheran heritage, and today is another in that series.
Since this month will be one so steeped in remembrance of Luther’s storied actions of that day in 1517, I have decided to focus this month’s article on the wonderful Lutheran theological tradition. Theology is an important word in the study of religion, and it’s a word that comes from two ancient Greek words: theos (God) and logos (word or message). Thus, whenever we talk about theology, we are referring to words or messages about God.
Theology is an inexhaustible field of study, as it is impossible to know absolutely everything about God, who is limitless and boundless. While no one can understand God completely, though, God does give gifts of the Holy Spirit to all who are baptized into Christ. As Jesus invites us into relationship with him in Holy Baptism, he also invites us to be attentive as God’s gracious work is revealed throughout our lives. We then tell others about our experiences of God--maybe formally at church or in writing, or maybe informally by processing life events with friends--and there you have it...we ourselves have produced theology!
We all experience God, and so it’s safe to say that theology isn’t just for professionals. However, the Lutheran branch of the Christian family has had more than our fair share of theological heavyweights. Of course, our tradition began with the foundational work of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon. Martin Chemnitz came along in the next generation after them, helping to tie up a lot of loose ends in early Lutheran writings. Later years brought the brave writings of the Danish Lutheran Søren Kierkegaard, who has inspired many with his “leap to faith” concept. The upheaval of World War II was addressed by the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich, and the rich Lutheran theological tradition continues today with Martin Marty and two of my personal favorites, the Canadian Douglas John Hall and the German Ingolf Dalferth.
These are some noteworthy names, but one thing unites the work of all these folks: the desire to dig deeper into the amazing grace of God expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as revealed in scripture. The mystery of how and why such a great God would be so generous to broken sinners has no doubt been compelling since the first generation of Christians, but Lutherans throughout the ages have been particularly attentive to this good news and have made it the true focus of our theology even when the prevailing culture has found other things to seem more interesting. I am very excited to engage this rich theological tradition with you this month in worship and our educational programming!
I leave you with a few highlights of our life together this month:
Over the past several months during this 500th Anniversary year of the Reformation, I have been reflecting on various aspects of what it means to be Lutheran. So far, we have explored community service (May), Holy Baptism (June), technology and ministry (July), and youth ministry (August). I will return to that series in October, but for this month, I wanted to give you a bit of a road map for our life together as we continue in this 500th Anniversary year!
September will be a busy month for us as we get back in the swing of things following our summer of recharging. I look forward to our educational programs starting up again on the 10th as we celebrate the commissioning of our Sunday School teachers. For that Sunday and the 17th, the Adult Forum class will be joining with the Youth Group and Confirmation class to explore Reformation history with the movie Rick Steves’ Luther and the Reformation. (Any of you Star Wars aficionados out there might be excited to know that I am putting together the two weeks of discussion under the working titles A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back!) On the 10th and 17th, we will also offer signup assistance during coffee for our Church Directory photo sessions that will be held October 5 & 6 (2-9pm) and Oct. 7 (10am-5pm).
The last Sunday of September will kick off our Mission Sundays series, which will run through October 15. During these Sundays, we will celebrate how God’s Welcome, Nurture, Serve mission for Trinity has progressed this year. Along the way, we will also be celebrating at least 4 baptisms (Albin children on Sep. 24, Brackett twins on Oct. 15). Adult Forum will be turning our attention during October toward some important theological developments in Lutheranism.
November will be a month that focuses heavily on the evolution of worship in the Lutheran tradition, with a number of highlights in our Sunday gatherings. We begin that month with Confirmation Sunday on Nov. 5, a day of commissioning six of our youth and launching them on their way to greater ministry in the congregation and community. The next two Sundays will be “Throwback Sundays,” when we pull out our old hymnals and revisit what Trinity’s worship looked like in past years. This will prove quite interesting for me, as Nov. 12 will be my first experience leading worship from the 1925 Augustana Synod Hymnal and the 19th will be my first attempt at the 1958 Service Book and Hymnal. We will then end November with Christ the King Sunday, singing hymns of Martin Luther (and maybe some other Lutheran hymnwriters) that take us through the entire church year in a single service.
December seems a long way away, but for now, it is enough to know that we will be turning our attention to understanding several other Christian denominations that came out of the Reformation. The highlight of December will be the Dec. 10 combined worship service and choir cantata with our neighbors at the Church of the Brethren--it will be a great opportunity for church neighbors to become better friends!
The peace of the Lord be with you all as the busy rhythms of life return this month. From what I have just written here as my to-do list, I will be in just as great need of such peace!
Welcome to the next article in my 500 Years of Lutheranism series! This time, we will explore another topic that may not strike you as particular to Lutherans--youth ministry. Today, youth ministry is an area of emphasis for all kinds of Christian congregations, but Lutherans have made some great contributions over the years to the ways that the church shares faith with young people.
Perhaps the greatest of these came from Martin Luther himself in 1529, when he published his Small Catechism. Our Confirmation class joined the Adult Forum class during Lent this year for a study of this important little book. While it was wonderful to study the Small Catechism in a class format, the real power of the Small Catechism is best experienced beyond the walls of church buildings. Luther clearly intended the book to be used in the home, as he spelled out in his introduction to each portion of the Small Catechism: In a simple way in which the head of a household is to present them to the household. Luther’s Small Catechism, then, was a tool used, from its earliest days, to help parents share their faith with their children.
As time went on, Lutherans would impact the lives of many young people through Confirmation classes and schools. Of the many American Lutheran denominations that would eventually lead to our ELCA, the mostly Swedish Augustana Synod (1860-1962) had an especially strong reputation in the area of youth ministry. Trinity actually began in the Augustana Synod in 1890 under the name Bethlehem Swedish Lutheran Church, so we grew up with youth ministry as part of our congregational DNA. Scarcely a week passes for me as your pastor without someone sharing fond memories of Trinity’s positive impact on young people over the years, ranging from youth-led worship services to Leadership Lab at Augustana College to a rambunctious youth who eventually became a pastor.
These memories are wonderful, but like I said, youth ministry is in our DNA. This means that youth ministry is not just a thing of the past for Trinity, but something about which we continue to be excited! Our great youth leaders, Kathy Clifford and Tricia Davis, are inspiring young people here and building energy in advance of the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston that our youth will be attending next summer. During this month, I invite you to help stoke the Holy Spirit’s fire of youth ministry here by supporting the Trinity Youth’s upcoming fundraisers this month, listed below. Thank you for your support!
Pastor Micah Garnett has been our Pastor since July 2016. He grew up in York, PA and graduated from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in 2011. He enjoys worship, working with social services in Fulton County, writing hymns, and cycling.