“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:3-8)
The quote above is Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, which is found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). This is an interesting parable that illustrates how people receive the “seed”--that is, the gospel--and I think we can also apply it to congregational ministries.
I love the Parable of the Sower because it really sums up my philosophy of ministry: that God calls me as a pastor and us together as a congregation to throw gospel seeds anywhere and everywhere, imitating God’s own scattering of gospel seeds. With congregational participation now seeming to be just another option on the buffet of ways in which folks might spend their time, we can no longer be content to wait for people to come to us. Instead, the Holy Spirit is sending us out to throw gospel seeds everywhere--even on people we might presuppose are the path, the rocky ground, or the thorns.
With this in mind, I am pleased to report a gospel seed that has recently fallen on good soil! That seed is Rejoicing Spirits, as it has so far introduced about 25 new people to Trinity’s heartfelt Welcome, gospel Nurture, and hearts that Serve our Lord Jesus. We are truly meeting a need in our community and wider region, and it would not surprise me in the least if Rejoicing Spirits grew to regularly see 100 or more people at the services within a couple of years because of the many connections we still have to make. These connections could also extend to our Sunday morning worship service as we build relationships with people.
This one gospel seed is developing roots and seems poised to yield thirty and sixty and a hundredfold, and this ministry’s surprising early success means that Trinity is now entering growth mode. Like many ELCA pastors my age, I have little experience working with growing congregations; however, there is one thing I do know for sure: growing congregations require hands--your hands--to join in God’s expanding work. As our Fall Mission Fuel-Up campaign gets going this month, I urge you to prayerfully consider how you might offer your hands for God’s work among us in the coming year. With your help, we can make the most of this opportunity to grow our congregation’s reach and impact in our community, and I invite you to not just come along for the ride but to take a shift in the driver’s seat as well!
This month’s article is a draft of a Mission Mt. Vernon trip recap article that will go to my synod committee for editing and then off to the ELCA’s Living Lutheran magazine for possible publication. This is what I was up to in southern Illinois back in the beginning of September! --Pastor Micah
June 30 loomed large for two pastors on opposite ends of the Peoria, Illinois metro area. On the east side, Pastor Elise Rothfusz, Director of Evangelical Mission for the Central/Southern Illinois Synod, monitored the registrations for “Mission Mt. Vernon”, a synod-wide mission trip scheduled for Labor Day weekend. One county to the west of Peoria, Pastor Micah Garnett, chair of the synod’s New & Renewing Congregations Committee that planned the trip, waited anxiously for the registration headcount. Mission Mt. Vernon would be the first synod-wide mission trip in the synod’s history, at least as far as anyone could recall...but it had to get off the ground first. When the headcount was sent from one side of Peoria to the other, the trip had a grand total of two registrants, not including the four committee members who planned to attend. With the situation looking grim, creativity came into play. The registration deadline was extended to July 31. Additional itinerary options--day-trip and overnight--were added to the planned two-night stay.
Fast-forward to Saturday, August 31, when 35 volunteers, including Bishop John Roth, checked in at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Mt. Vernon, Ill. for the opening devotions of Mission Mt. Vernon. The out-of-town volunteers joined with members of the host congregation to create a workforce of 51 people for the first day’s activities, which began with service projects around Mt. Vernon, a community of 15,000 at the junction of Interstates 57 and 64 in southern Illinois. One group visited a senior living facility, Nature Trail Health Care Center, to share music and games with the residents, while another group cleaned up three city parks. The Prince of Peace building and grounds also began buzzing with activity on Saturday afternoon with work on landscaping and maintenance projects. The first day concluded with a discussion about community ministry, followed by the Evening Prayer service from Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
Sunday began with an education hour led by Pastor Rothfusz, worship at Prince of Peace, and a wonderful potluck lunch. After the meal, the group got right back to its high level of productivity with maintenance projects despite the departure of Saturday’s roughly 20 day-trip volunteers, bolstered by an experienced ten-member mission team from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Champaign, Ill. that has worked together on several Habitat for Humanity mission trips to El Salvador. Good Shepherd team member Dean Olson said that the team was excited to participate in a more local mission, and he further added, “Let us know where the next trip is, and we’ll be there.” As the to-do list dwindled on Sunday afternoon, Prince of Peace council president Merle Hollman remarked that the expanded workforce was able to complete more maintenance work in two days than the congregation could finish in several months. After dinner that night, the group packed “birthday bags” for a local foster care agency--a project powered by a Thrivent Action Team grant--before holding their closing worship service that had been planned for Monday at noon and then giving volunteers an option to head home early due to small crew required for the final day’s projects.
Although little work was left for the group on Monday, some of God’s most important work would take place through the hands of Prince of Peace member Linda Mlot as she gathered the remaining workers into a circle to pray after breakfast. She asked everyone to hold their neighbors’ hands, and then to go around the circle with each person sharing something they were thankful for as the weekend drew to a close. The outpouring of emotion and gratitude In that prayer circle made it clear that this work trip, planned by a synod committee to support and encourage a congregation facing difficult times, had become much more than that. The trip became the embodiment of what it truly means to be a synod: a group that is on the way together, as the word “synod” comes to us from the Greek prefix syn- (meaning “with or together”) combined with the word hodos (meaning “way, path, or road”). While the New & Renewing Congregations Committee is just beginning to process all that they learned from conducting the trip, one thing is certain: the Central/Southern Illinois Synod will be on the way together to another community next year.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
As I write this article, I am in the process of ensuring that all of the last-minute details for our synod’s Mission Mt. Vernon trip are in place. So far, I am pleasantly surprised at how completely everything has come together, particularly given that I have never been in charge of a mission trip of this magnitude...let alone one that is not taking place in my area!
This Labor Day weekend, Mission Mt. Vernon will gather over 30 volunteers from around the synod (including Bishop Roth) in addition to several members from our host congregation, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Mt. Vernon. The jam-packed weekend will feature several community service projects, such as leading games and activities at Nature Trail Nursing Home, cleaning up four Mt. Vernon city parks, and packing Birthday Bags for a local food pantry. Another important part of the trip will be taking care of some much-needed maintenance work at Prince of Peace’s property, something that will be much more successful because there will be so many extra people to help. The recurring theme of our weekend will be prayer, with opening and closing prayers each day and Sunday morning worship at Prince of Peace that will be followed by a potluck meal. Attendees will even have some educational opportunities as Pastor Elise Rothfusz, our synod’s Director for Evangelical Mission, will lead a Sunday School conversation about evangelism and I will be presenting an evening “Community Ministry Toolkit” session. I am looking forward to teaching that workshop because it will give me a chance to share some of the neat things that are going on here, including the new SERVE Sundays for Sunday School. While I am in Mt. Vernon, stay tuned to the Trinity Facebook page for plenty of pictures and (probably) some videos!
To conclude this month’s article, then, I simply want to thank you for being a congregation who is and has been strongly connected to the work of our synod. It is a blessing to be the pastor of a congregation that understands that Christ’s church is greater when we work together! Trinity is not the largest, the wealthiest, or the most centrally located congregation in the Central/Southern Illinois Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; however, you have been committed over the years to being an active part of that greater whole, and that, in turn, helps me enjoy taking an active part as well. I love this vocation to which God has called me, and I love serving God’s call here with you!
Hard to believe that we have reached our final “month” of Favorite Hymns Summer! (I put “month” in quotes because local school years begin mid-month, with Canton starting on August 15.) As promised, this article is the last in my summer series describing the three hymns I selected for our summer of favorites.
This month’s selection is quite unlike those of the previous two months, as it has absolutely nothing to do with early Methodists--particularly Thomas Olivers, whose fifteen minutes of fame at Trinity included appearances in both our June and July articles. No, this month we take a look at “O Christ, What Can It Mean for Us” (#431 in our Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal), which comes to us from other branches of the Christian family. The text was written in 2001 by Delores Dufner, a nun in the Order of St. Benedict at St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota, while the tune, ALL SAINTS NEW, was composed by Episcopalian organist Henry S. Cutler (1825-1902).
The text is one of several great ones from Dufner that made it into our hymnal, and I appreciate her work because both she and I often do the same thing--pair fresh words and thoughts with good older tunes that are easy to sing but not used as frequently as they should be. Some of Dufner’s other texts that may be familiar to you include “What Feast of Love” (#487), “To Be Your Presence” (#546), and “The Spirit Sends Us Forth to Serve” (#551). Regarding “O Christ, What Can It Mean for Us”, I love Dufner’s text because it bids us wrestle with and flesh out what we mean when we proclaim Jesus Christ as our king. Indeed, many around Jesus seem quite confused when he demonstrates God’s power not through military or political might but through weakness, vulnerability, and complete submission to his Father’s will. Rather than obscure Dufner’s message with any additional commentary, I instead invite you to read through her words below a few times and reflect on the ways in which Jesus establishes himself as “a different kind of king.”
1. O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?
What royal face have you revealed whose praise the church would sing?
Aspiring not to glory’s height, to power, wealth, and fame,
you walked a different, lowly way, another’s will your aim.
2. You came, the image of our God, to heal and to forgive,
To shed your blood for sinners’ sake that we might rise and live.
To break the law of death you came, the law of love to bring:
A different rule of righteousness, a different kind of king
3. Though some would make their greatness felt and lord it over all,
You said the first must be the last and service be our call.
O Christ, in workplace, church, and home, let none to power cling;
For still, through us, you come to serve, a different kind of king.
4. You chose a humble human form and shunned the world’s renown;
You died for us upon a cross with thorns your only crown.
But still, beyond the span of years, our glad hosannas ring,
For now at God’s right hand you reign, a different kind of king!
Thank you for submitting your selections for this year’s Favorite Hymns Summer! As I said last month, my articles for this summer will be telling a bit of the stories behind the three hymns that I picked. With that said, on to number two on my list, “The God of Abraham Praise”!
This hymn has an extremely rich history. There are some scholars who attribute it to Immanuel of Rome, but the most complete information I can find attributes the text to Daniel ben Judah, a Jewish liturgical poet living in Rome in the fourteenth century. Whoever the actual author was, the poem is known as “Yigdal” (Hebrew for “magnify”) and is a Hebrew paraphrase of the thirteen articles of belief (like a creed) constructed by rabbi Maimonides in the 1100s. The Yigdal gained and continues to hold an important place in the liturgy of several strands of Judaism, often being used for morning prayer and the close of Sabbath evening services in the Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions over the last seven centuries.
If the history of the Hebrew text were not enough, though, its journey into the Christian hymn tradition is also very interesting! To tell this history, we have to bring back a character from last month’s article, the early Methodist Thomas Olivers (two whom the tune for “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” is credited).
Olivers visited the Great Synagogue of London in 1770, and he heard the Yigdal sung by opera singer Myer Lyon, more commonly known by his stage name of Michael Leoni. Impressed and intrigued, Olivers decided to translate and paraphrase the piece for use in Christian worship, birthing a new hymn that is a paraphrase of a paraphrase! The new hymn was set to the music that Lyon gave Olivers, causing the tune to appear in many Christian hymnals with the name LEONI, though our Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal simply uses YIGDAL as the tune name. The backstory between Lyon/Leoni and Olivers is a great example of embracing the common history linking Christianity and Judaism, and “The God of Abraham Praise” is sometimes sung at interfaith worship services.
Like the original text on which it is based, Olivers’ text contains a whopping thirteen verses! While I would be pleased as punch to sing all thirteen verses, I am an avowed “hymn nerd” and realize that more sensible folks would prefer a more compact version. Our hymnal’s version preserves and adapts eight verses of Olivers’ original, of which I list a few of my favorites below:
1. The God of Abraham praise, who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of everlasting days, and God of love -
"I Am the One I Am," - by earth and heav'n confessed;
I bow and bless the sacred name forever blest.
2. The God of Abraham praise! At your supreme command
from earth I rise and seek the joys at your right hand.
I all on earth forsake - its wisdom, fame, and pow'r -
and you my only portion make, my shield and tow'r.
3. The God of Abraham praise! Your all-sufficient grace
shall guide me all my pilgrim days in all my ways.
You deign to call me friend; you call yourself my God!
And you will save me to the end through Jesus' blood.
With the return of Favorite Hymns Summer on June 16, I thought a fun theme for my three summer Tidings articles might be to write about each of the three hymns I have entered as favorites this time:
With that, then, I will start at the top of this year’s list. “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” comes to us from the early days of the Methodist tradition. The text began as an early version written in 1750 by John Cennick but was later completely rewritten in 1758 by Cennick’s friend, Charles Wesley, brother of Methodist movement founder John Wesley. I feel relatively safe in saying that Charles Wesley is the most prolific hymnwriter that Christianity has ever known, as he wrote texts for more than 6,000 hymns! Ten of his hymns have made it across denominational lines as well as two and a half centuries to be included in the red Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal we use at Trinity, the most famous being the Christmas classic “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing“.
The tune for “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending”, named HELMSLEY, is credited (1763) to Thomas Olivers, another early Methodist. would very much like to write a new text someday to go along with this tune because it is one of many that deserve to be used more often than they currently are. Below is the version of the text that we have in our hymnal, which includes (with slight alterations) verses 1, 4, and 5 of Wesley’s text:
1. Lo, he comes with clouds descending, once for our salvation slain;
thousand thousand saints attending join to sing the glad refrain:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Christ the Lord returns to reign.
2. Now redemption, long expected, comes in solemn splendor near;
all the saints this world rejected thrill the trumpet sound to hear:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! See the day of God appear!
3. Yea, amen, let all adore thee, high on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the pow'r and glory, claim the kingdom as thine own.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Thou shalt reign, and thou alone!
You too can join in the fun of Favorite Hymns Summer by entering your favorites! I invite you to submit your selections any time through June 9th, even if you turned in picks back in 2017 when we first did this during the summer--I would like us to refresh the list every couple years as people join the congregation. Simply fill out a Favorite Hymns Summer card on the small table in the Fireside Room and drop it in the box to enter your favorites, or you can enter them on the Favorite Hymns Summer page of the site. I look forward to singing everyone’s favorites this summer!
I write these words to you just a few days before little Rosalind’s baptism (to take place on the first Sunday of this month, May 5th). On that morning, her new life in Christ will unfold in the same way as her mother’s and her father’s and many others in the Lutheran Christian tradition: by being baptized as an infant and sent out from that event with family members, godparents, and a local congregation to continue forming her in faith.
Rosalind’s path to Christian life has been the norm for Lutherans in our more than 500 years of history, something we inherited from our Roman Catholic roots (Martin Luther ended up being pushed out of that church body as a result of his Ninety-Five Theses and other writings from the year 1517 onward). It has been the norm for Lutherans because Lutheran Christianity has existed only during the Christendom period, wherein Christianity has been a state-sanctioned and/or majority religion in many Western nations. Simply put, people were born into Christian families and then grew up to build Christian families of their own.
While that system of passing down Christian faith through successive generations has been very effective over the centuries, population trends today give us a powerful reminder that Rosalind’s path is not (and cannot) be the only pattern in which the Holy Spirit works to form faith in people. A couple years ago, the Pew Research Center did a study on the religious landscape of the United States. Their findings provide some interesting information. Christianity is the nation’s majority religion, at 70.6% of the population. Lutherans of any denomination are 3.5%, and just 1.4% of the United States is specifically ELCA Lutheran.
Those numbers are minor and probably unsurprising facts. However, the Pew study did find some other information that is more surprising. According to the study, the fastest growing religious group is the “nones”--people who are not affiliated with any organized religious group at all--which is now up to 22.8%. A quick bit of math, and we discover that there are over 16 times as many “nones” in the United States as there are ELCA Lutherans!
These sorts of numbers may seem troubling to you. They might drive up your anxiety or push your mind into dark places. How is a congregation like Trinity to continue doing vital ministry for our next 129 years without the steady generational supply of Lutherans that existed for our first 129 years?
But what if there were a way to see those numbers not as a threat but rather as an opportunity? After all, knowing that there are 16 times more people around us to reach with the good news of Jesus Christ than we have people to send out means that God has lots of fruitful work for us to do! I say this not simply as a cheerleader for the Lord’s servants here--I say it because it is exactly the perspective of the early church, as we learn in the Book of Acts.
In the first years following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the apostles faced long odds and hostile environments for spreading the gospel; yet, the Holy Spirit worked through them to drive thousands of people to the emerging Christian movement. We will share stories of their work from the Book of Acts all through the Easter season, and I will be preaching a series on those weekly readings with an eye toward the topics of conversion and evangelism--things that are vital to making disciples out of “nones” and building a congregation that excels in welcoming people to share in the joy, sufferings, and salvation that come along with life in Christ!
As the waning Lenten season prepares to yield to the powerful drama of Holy Week and the pure joy of Easter, something struck me about the readings we have heard this season. I noticed recurring themes of repentance and new life in Christ across many of the lectionary selections:
All this talk of new life is quite inspiring and uplifting. It’s the stuff that great sermons, hymns, and books are made of. As encouraging as these passages are, however, the road between the old life we are used to and the new life God has for us in Christ can be long and difficult.
The observation that that road can be long and difficult is not a new idea, nor is it an original one. Like many matters of faith, though, it is an idea that Andrea and I have come to more fully appreciate in light of our recent journey to new life as parents. When we discovered last year that we were expecting, we had no idea of the curves, obstacles, and potholes we would encounter. Some of these were completely expected, including sleep deprivation in baby Rosalind’s first weeks and the process of adopting and adapting rhythms for family life. Even some of the medical challenges were anticipated, especially the need to diligently watch Andrea’s thyroid medication levels because the medicine provided all the thyroid hormone that she and Rosalind had to work with during the early period of Rosalind’s neurological development.
We expected those things and had at least some idea as to what we were getting into. We did not, however, expect such broad-ranging medical complications as Andrea’s preeclampsia and persistent (and still ongoing) battle with shingles or Rosalind’s need to spend ten days in the NICU at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois before getting to come home with us. The new life we ended up with is wonderfully full of joy, but the road to get there was far more involved than we had ever imagined.
As we continue in these final weeks of Lent, then, let us embrace whatever hard work and/or deep reflection and/or change in our ways that God sets before us on the road to the new way of life God has for us in Christ. The specifics will look different for each of us, and the journey continues beyond the Lenten season--indeed, through our entire lives. But in this special time of the church year when we remember Christ’s triumph over sin in hanging on a cross on Good Friday and his final victory over death by rising again at Easter, let us give thanks for the God who makes such new life possible for us and reminds us daily of that good news through Holy Baptism. In the words of our forefather Martin Luther:
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After a brief mountain trip for the festival of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on the 3rd, the month of March puts us in the “fast” lane with the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, the 6th. Fasting--that is, observing food restrictions at certain times--is a component of many world religions, including all of the “Big 5” religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism). Each religion has its own particular attitudes and practices toward fasting, and Christianity reflects the great diversity of opinions on fasting even within the same religion since each group of Christians takes a different approach. Many of you may be familiar with the Roman Catholic practice, for example, of refraining from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Eastern Orthodox Christians observe longer and more frequent fasting periods than that, while many Protestant denominations pay little or no attention to fasting.
As for us Lutherans, well...the situation is a bit more complicated. Martin Luther was steeped in the Roman Catholic tradition, so he was very well acquainted with the practice and its surrounding theology--namely, that depriving oneself of things you enjoy can draw you into closer relationship with God. He understood the intent behind the practice and had no problem with it, but he objected to the self-righteous use of fasting, which is the notion that fasting is a good work of faith that people can do to get into a more favorable state with God. The verdict, then, is that fasting is a proper part of life for Lutheran Christians, but we have to take a guarded approach to it so that we do not make it an end in itself.
We take that approach when we realize that fasting, while an unusual thing, is simply one of several physical faith practices that help to engage our bodies in religion, which could otherwise be pigeonholed as an activity solely for the mind. This puts fasting right alongside other things we do regularly, like sitting and standing during worship, making the sign of the cross, or processing down the center aisle during festival services. These sorts of faith practices remind us that our whole selves--even our bodies--belong to God and have been created for the purpose of glorifying God.
With that in mind, then, I invite you this year to the Lenten fast with new and broader definition of fasting, one that is not limited to just food. This year, let us think of fasting as stepping outside of our automatic behavior into purposeful spiritual adventures. Things change when we stop living any aspect of life on autopilot and devote the necessary attention to alter a particular behavior in order to more fully glorify God in what we do. Perhaps that altered behavior is a healthier eating pattern, to care for the body God has given you. Maybe it is spending more time interacting with people than with your phone, to better appreciate God’s wonderful gift of human community. Or, you might just take a classic approach and give up time spent doing literally anything else and divert it toward prayer or reading the Bible.
Whatever your Lenten fast looks like this year, I pray that your purposeful spiritual adventure is meaningful and eye-opening. Fasting is not simply prescribed food restrictions--it is a step outside the usual and into a space where only God knows what will happen!
During a recent Confirmation class, we got into a discussion about how God sometimes seems to act in noticeably different ways in Old Testament stories compared to New Testament stories. We all agreed that God is the same through both portions of the Bible, but we were grasping at straws for some greater understanding as to why God might act differently in these different situations. Grasping at straws, that is, until one student said something to this effect: “Well, you know how they say that having a kid changes you? Maybe having Jesus his Son in the world changed stuff for God.”
I am still puzzling that back and forth in my head and working out the theological nuances. Might be fodder for a future Tidings article. What I can say for certain, though, is that a new child entering one’s life is a catalyst for change--or at least it has been for me. Many of these changes will be ones that I can only identify someday with the help of years and years worth of hindsight. However, some of the changes occur rapidly and are easier to describe. For me, one such change is a fresh encounter with a Bible character to whom I previously gave only passing attention: Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist in the first chapter of Luke. I was plenty familiar with Zechariah’s story thanks to its common use during the season of Advent. I knew that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, became parents at an advanced (well beyond childbearing) age, a callback to the stories of Abraham and Sarah in the Book of Genesis. I laughed along with many hearers of the story when Zechariah, questioning God’s promise given through the angel Gabriel, is made mute--unable to speak--until after the birth and naming of John.
During this past Advent season in November and December, though, familiarity with and knowledge about Zechariah’s story was transformed by the Holy Spirit into experiencing and living his story.
My situation as a new parent was an opening for the Holy Spirit to help me see my own life reflected in a Bible story I never thought about very much; however, having a new baby at home is not the only life change that drives us to find new meaning in old scripture. I invite you to get out your own Bible and to listen intently to the readings as we worship God each week--you just never know when the Spirit will give you an old story that brings new perspective to your life!
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.