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!
We have just come through our busiest and most exciting month of the year, loaded with joyful activities focused on the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. We helped local people have a great Christmas by adopting a girl through the Salvation Army Angel Tree and supporting Courtyard Estates’ “Santa for a Senior” program. We delighted in the different perspectives of the four Gospel authors through the “Christmas in Four-Part Harmony” presentation on Youth Advent Sunday. We shared Christmas joy with our homebound brothers and sisters and local senior community residents in our annual evening of Christmas caroling. We shared the good news of Jesus in song and spoken word in the Christmas Eve Service of Seven Lessons and Carols.
But the calendar has now turned over to a new year, and all of those joyful events have come and gone. Yes, the twelve days of Christmas are ongoing as this month begins, concluding with our Epiphany service on January 6; however, things certainly feel different once the Christmas season is on the downswing. We emerge from that moving, engaging, and peculiarly special season into the bleak midwinter period of regular routines disrupted perhaps only by inclement weather. December’s “ho-ho-ho” yields all too quickly to January’s ho-hum, and the Christmas season of wonder ends with us feeling bored and wondering what to do next.
It is in this transition to boring, predictable, and routine, though, that the we have pause to consider the meaning of all that we have just celebrated, to consider what it means for us and for the world on an everyday basis that Christ, the Savior, is born. The seasons of Advent and Christmas fill us with joy in the truth and reality of Jesus, but then God sends us out the rest of the year to show people the difference it makes that the good news of Jesus is real and true. God sends us out to give people a foretaste of eternal redemption through Christ by improving their lives in the here and now. God sends us out to model a community lifestyle of equality and fellowship, as all of us stand before God as equals due to the human sinfulness we share in common (and, along with that, our need for God’s saving grace in Christ). God sends us out to share the peace and connectedness of our congregation with people who are in need of just those sorts of things.
We have two upcoming opportunities to share in this work to which the Christmas message inspires us:
Though the Christmas lights and decorations will be coming down on January 6 after worship, let us go out to reveal Christ to the people around us. Even when the joyful events of Christmas have come and gone, we servants of the Lord rejoice because it is now that the work of Christmas has begun, as our choir sang in their postlude on Christmas Eve:
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken,
To feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations; to bring peace among brothers,
To make music from the heart.
The peace of the Lord be with you as we join together in this work!
To be honest with you, I thought a little while ago that I had this month’s article made in the shade, that everything was aligning for me to be in perfect condition to speak about the season of Advent as it begins in December. I would have written (at least I hope) a touching and inspiring piece on the theme of expecting as my bullet train to impending parenthood with a due date of December 7. I would have mused about Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem and marveled at its difficulty in comparison to the 30-mile drive we would be making to Peoria with the comforts of heat and cruise control. I would have made comparisons between the uniqueness of Mary’s divinely-established pregnancy and the unique pregnancy I had watched Andrea go through over many months (including such medical curiosities as a mother who no longer had her thyroid, a persistent case of shingles, and some preeclampsia to boot).
However, things have changed--quite significantly--since I first dreamed up that grand plan for my December Tidings article, as unto us (Andrea and me, anyhow) a child is born! Our daughter, Rosalind Vivienne Garnett, was born at 10:03pm on November 15 at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, measuring 18½ inches and weighing 6 pounds even. We had not expected our little “Ros” to be born in November like her daddy rather than in December like her mommy. We also had not expected to have a premature baby, but that was what turned out to be the case since Andrea’s preeclampsia necessitated Rosalind’s birth a mere 117 minutes short of her being considered full-term (37 weeks gestation).
Given all these developments, then, our time of expecting has apparently ended, and it seems that I have to find another lens through which to view this Advent season. God has given us a good gift beyond anything we could have imagined--a wonderful baby daughter who is healthy despite all that could have gone wrong. I thought: such a gift has been given to us that we could not possibly be expecting anything else, right?
And with that one meandering thought, the season of Advent took on a new and richer meaning for me to share with you. Perhaps Advent brings us to realize that even though God has, in Jesus Christ, given such a great gift and fulfilled God’s own promises from all the ages, the human sense of “expecting” does not end with Mary’s unique experience in a stable’s “labor and delivery ward.” As easily as we can see God ultimately fulfilling all at the manger, maybe the point of that first Christmas moment is to remind us that every day for us is to be lived with that “expecting” outlook of Advent--to be an exercise in watching for whatever new gifts God gives each day...and trusting that there are always more good gifts to come.
The Gospel writers understood this all too well, as we will discover in our “Christmas in Four-Part Harmony” youth service on December 16. That morning the Sunday School, Confirmation class, and Youth Group will help us explore the different views of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John regarding the origins of Jesus. The stories are all shorter than we might imagine considering the importance of the Christmas event, but that in itself is the point--God always has new blessings and gifts to reveal to humanity. Through all four of their Gospels, they tell of God revealing gifts of grace, health, social equality, courage, humility, and so much more as Jesus lives as one of us, dies a human death, and rises on the third day to forever destroy the power of death. Furthermore, even Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection were not enough for God, who also gave us the Holy Spirit to guide us each and every day.
Even though the anticipation and excitement of impending parenthood in my home have given way to the sleep-deprived realities of deciphering newborn sounds and mastering swaddling techniques, our sense of expecting remains after all. We invite you to join us this Advent in a life of expecting even more from the God who has already given us all things!
The 11th of this month will mark 100 years since the armistice that effectively ended fighting one of the most significant multi-national conflicts in modern history--the conflict known originally as the Great War (only to be renamed World War I once humanity was self-destructive enough to engage in an even larger conflict that would result in the deaths of about five times as many people). At the eleventh hour (11:00am Paris time) on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, shots ceased to be fired in the battlefields on the Western Front of World War I. While that ended the active fighting, it did not officially end the war--most of the belligerent nations signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the United States conducted separate treaties with several nations in 1921, and the (then) new country of Turkey did not have its final treaty in place until 1923.
I am no professional historian, but I have a lot of interest in World War I. It is a painful case study exposing the astounding limitlessness to human brokenness, with the belligerent nations each seeing themselves as fighting for honor, allegiance, sovereignty, tradition, and other high human ideals. Groups and individual people were so dedicated to those ideals that they failed to see human beings on the opposing side, seeing instead only targets for destruction. They devoted the best of human ingenuity to developing ever more destructive weapons--some of which, such as chlorine gas shells, were even acknowledged as being excessive. They destroyed irreplaceable cultural artifacts. They created new nation states...but did so by drawing lines of their own convenience rather than listening to what the local people wanted or, worse yet, sometimes even killed thousands of people solely because of their ethnic identity. They discovered technologies, medicines, and formulas--many of which we are thankful for today--but were solving problems that should never have arisen in the first place. And, for icing on the human brokenness cake, victorious French leader Marshal Ferdinand Foch failed to institute a truce or ceasefire while the terms of the inevitable armistice were being finalized, which led to 10,944 casualties (2,738 deaths) on the final day of the 52-month war.
I will readily admit that what I have just detailed in writing here is pretty dismal. Even simply putting it on paper made me feel worse about our human condition, and it caused me to take a break from writing this article to question my interest in such a subject. However, in reflecting on that question for a few minutes, an answer came to me. I realized that such painful reminders of human brokenness, while they foster powerful recognition of our sin, also drive us to praise the God who steadfastly refuses to give up on us even though that sin exists. The worst of us (be that “us” humanity as a whole, our families, or our individual lives) causes us to seek the only unfailing source of good that exists--God.
Despite the sinfulness of World War I, God has yet chosen to redeem humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to work through our hands so that God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. Despite the sinfulness of a hate-driven man who murdered eleven worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue late last month, God has yet chosen to love humankind and remind us that we are children of the Heavenly Father. Despite the sinfulness of injustice, fear, and oppression that make life so difficult for people everywhere, God has yet chosen to suffer along with the brokenhearted and use broken people to bring hope through words and actions.
God’s peace to you amid whatever brokenness is providing challenges for you and/or your loved ones at the moment. In those difficulties, remember the truth of the words of blessing you hear each week at the end of the worship service: The Lord blesses you and keeps you. The Lord makes his face to shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord looks upon you with favor, and gives you peace. Amen.
I’ll begin this month with some words of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer: “In fact, God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and among us.”
In that little sentence, Luther points out the obvious: that our infinitely good and powerful God can do whatever our infinitely good and powerful God wants to do. However, he also points out something much more bold about the intent of our praying the Lord’s prayer: that what God wants to do may be accomplished through human hands. In other words, God doesn’t need or require us or our effort to effect what God wants for the world...yet, God nonetheless pulls us into the mix anyway, using our imperfect human hands for holy work.
This surprising action of God--engaging human hands to effect God’s will in the world--is what we call God’s mission, and that is a frequent topic among us. As this month progresses, though, we will take September’s Mission Sundays a step further. Now that we have reflected on what the mission is to which God has called us, we can turn our attention to how God’s mission catches fire among us.
The fire of God’s mission is ignited by God’s own self--by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who moved over the waters of creation of the world (Genesis 1:2) and the divine spark of inspiration through all the ages. This spark finds kindling in the life of Holy Baptism as we each receive the Holy Spirit and discover the unique child of God we have been created to become, filled with gifts of the Spirit--raw materials for God to use and refine every day of our lives. Individually, then, we are embers of God’s work, smoldering in our own little spheres of influence.
Embers are indeed a good start, but there is one more ingredient needed for a full-fledged fire: fuel. Fuel helps God’s mission to catch fire among us and in the world, and it is the assortment of things we give to and employ in God’s work on earth--time, money, skills, goods, energy, possessions. All of these fuel sources make the fire of God’s mission shine brightly to the people around us through community service ministries, worship, Christian care ministry, education, and fellowship.
While we are the ones putting the fuel onto the Welcome, Nurture, Serve fire of God’s mission that is burning Trinity Lutheran Church, though, that fuel doesn’t belong to us. It is all given to us by God, as Martin Luther reminds us in the Small Catechism (Creed, First Article): “God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life...and all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all! For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him.” God gives us all that we have, and we give it back to God as fuel for God’s mission...and we do so with joy because we delight in the eternal life God has secured for us through the most selfless gift of all--Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
We will share more about this throughout the fall season in our Mission Fuel-Up campaign that begins Oct. 21 with celebrating the Holy Baptism of Cara Elizabeth Timmons, granddaughter of Kent and Donna Charlesworth. We also will be introducing online giving through the new ELCA partner organization Tithe.ly this fall and offering a Thrivent Legacy & Estate Planning Workshop on Nov. 4 through our local Thrivent agent, Alex Lamprecht. I will also be throwing a new hymn into the mix this season that reflects on stewardship not as a fancy word for fundraising but rather as fueling the fire of God’s mission. If that sounds familiar, that’s great--writing this article for you helped me make sense of what I had been grasping at for the hymn!
Peace to you all as we work together to fuel God’s Welcome, Nurture, Serve mission for Trinity!
By now, many of you have probably noticed that I write quite a few new hymns. I have been a hymn nerd since was five or six years old, and have been writing my own hymns for about ten years now; however, it is just within the last three years or so that I have begun to be consistently pleased with their quality. I truly appreciate the support you express for my acting upon this particular piece of my spirituality, and so, I thought I would use this article to give you a “view from inside the hymn writer’s workshop!”
Developing Subject Matter
I tend to prefer structured source material on which to base my hymn texts, as structured material helps me to make sure my hymns are really saying something rather than simply being heaps of empty phrases with no context. Like Martin Luther, I believe that singing hymns is even more effective for teaching tenets of the faith than reading or other strategies--essentially, I see it as preaching with music added. Some “structured” examples:
This piece of the process can be quite interesting. Sometimes, the tune choice provides an opportunity for me to connect to some detail that underlies the hymn’s origin or purpose, almost like an “in-joke” between friends that you can only understand if you know the story. Some examples:
I hope this little trip to the workshop was interesting for you! Thanks again for the freedom you give me to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ using all the tools that God has given me!
When the month of August rolls around, the first thing that comes to my mind is that we are entering the “dog days” of summer--the most oppressively hot and stiflingly humid days of the season, I was sure that this was the meaning of that phrase “dog days.” I would have had no doubts giving that answer on a quiz show with financial gain on the line, or at a trivia night as I campaigned for bragging rights and nerd-prestige. Despite this great sense of certainty, though, I dared to look up the origin of the phrase and found that “dog days” isn’t a folksy English-language idiom to describe hot weather but rather a much older phrase that comes from Greek and Roman observations of the star Sirius. Often called the “dog star” because it appears to “follow” the constellation Orion in the sky like a dog follows its master, Sirius is only visible for a portion of the year, and the Greeks and Romans casually observed a connection between its first appearance (often in July or August) and a rash of hot summer weather--thus, the term “dog days.” While my earlier answer wasn’t entirely wrong, I certainly learned something about a topic I thought was simple!
This little learning journey gave me pause to reflect on our life as Christians, and more specifically as Christians who are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). If there is one thing I can honestly say that I love about being a pastor in the ELCA corner of Christ’s Church, it is that we generally take the perspective that we always have something more to learn about God, about the Bible, and about life in God’s world. Even the most essential elements of our faith--say, the reality that Jesus loves us--is like an onion with layers that we peel throughout our lives, discovering fresh nuance and new richness. Such a passion for learning comes to us from the earliest days of the Lutheran tradition over 500 years ago, with Martin Luther’s extensive writings contributing greatly to the literacy rate in Germany during the 1500s. Also, beyond this historical connection, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ here at Trinity have embraced education as their vocation through teaching, administration, student support, and other work in schools.
In thanksgiving for this interest in learning that the Holy Spirit has woven into our life together as Trinity Lutheran Church, we will have an Education Celebration Sunday on August 26th. We will lift up God’s gift of education through presentation of the 2018 Trinity Scholarships and our annual Blessing of the Backpacks, an invitation to which will be extended to all local school employees. I am also excited to be inviting local families who will be receiving some of the extra desks that we have around the church building, in hopes that these desks will inspire the children through a dedicated place to do their school work. All told, the Education Celebration Sunday will be a joyful time of prayer and blessing as school gets underway across Fulton County!
So far, this summer has found me largely feeling like a nomad. I just haven't been able to stay in any one place for more than a few days at a time. First came the Central/Southern Illinois Synod Assembly in Champaign in early June. Then, I returned to Canton for less than 24 hours to lead worship on June 10 before setting off for two weeks of vacation that took me and Andrea to visit each of our families and enjoy a couple days at Niagara Falls--a trip which, although it was a vacation, was not without its challenges as I discovered that my cell phone had no service in Canada. Finally, less than three days after getting back for worship on June 24, I boarded an Amtrak Texas Eagle train bound for Houston and the ELCA Youth Gathering...and I am sitting on that same train, somewhere south of St. Louis, as I write this to you.
Our Youth Gathering trip is going well so far. A few of the youth have decided to call it a night, while the rest are enjoying card games with Youth Gathering participants from other congregations who are also riding our train. I look forward to having a front-row seat to all that the Holy Spirit will do in these young people's lives throughout the coming week as they serve people in Jesus's name and encounter God in worship, Bible study, and fellowship. Everything is possible with God (Luke 1:37), so I won't even begin to speculate what all God will do with them--in just going to celebrate whatever that is!
A quarter of the way into a roughly 20-hour combined train and bus trip after weeks of practically non-stop travel, I just had a moment to reflect on how traveling has been a Christian faith practice from the very beginning. This thoughtful wandering began as I considered the Gospel reading for July 8 (Mark 6:1-13), the second half of which is the story of Jesus sending out the twelve disciples to take his healing power to the villages of Galilee. This story, in conjunction with Luke's story of Jesus sending out 70 disciples and the missionary journeys of Paul, gives me a new appreciation for the importance of travel in the first years of the church.
But that new appreciation soon came with a new conundrum when I realized how accordingly paradoxical it is that the Spirit calls and gathers us in particular places as Christ's church to minister to people in those places. For example, the Holy Spirit has called you and me to share the good news of Jesus in the Canton area. We are rooted in this place, with most of us not poised for travel adventures like the missionaries in the New Testament or the full-time missionaries we help fund through our ELCA.
Perhaps we can resolve this paradox a bit, though, if we think about it a little differently. Maybe the point of all that traveling in the New Testament isn't the traveling itself--it's that Christians are sent out by Jesus to be his compassionate and loving presence in the world, wherever we are. Christian ministry is summed up not primarily by where God works through our hands but rather what God does through them.
Just as I make no presumptions regarding what amazing things God will do through the hands of Trinity's youth at the ELCA Youth Gathering, neither will I make any about what God will do through you today, wherever you are--I will simply trust that almighty God is at at work through you and give thanks for your ministry as you so prayerfully give thanks for mine!
Pastor Micah Garnett has been our Pastor since 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 spending time with his family.