Election Day

Going out to vote is an important civic duty.

All of us should take the time to exercise this duty today.

However …

Yours or my voting has nothing to do with the church.

You can be a conservative, libertarian, progressive, or socialist.

None of it matters in church.

The church only cares that you know Jesus.

And not only that you know Him, but that you also understand His love for everyone.

Jesus doesn’t give us lists of people to vote for or against.

He just wants you to know Him.

To love Him.

To believe in Him.

As we build our new church, one principle that everyone will know is this:

We don’t care who you voted for.

We only care about your soul.

The 24/7 Steward

As a pastor, stewardship should not be relegated to November discussions. It needs to be something that we’re talking about all year. In fact, it is something we should challenge ourselves to do every single day!

What is Christian stewardship? It is using our lives for the growth of the Gospel. How are we taking those God-given talents every one of us has and making them useful for showing the Gospel in our daily lives?

Every one of us has impressive abilities even if we don’t consider the things we’re good at “talents.” Our goal is to use our strengths to make the story of Jesus relevant to others.

As an example – what if you are an amazing baker? Could you bake cookies for the family down the street who may be going through some hard times? Of course, you can!

When we think about stewardship, sadly our first thought when that word is raised in the church is money. Let’s be honest: Money is an essential part of the life of the church. I find it difficult to talk about money. It makes my stomach churn, and not in a good way.

Yesterday, Pastor Matt Peeples of Bethlehem Church in Ridgewood reminded me that when we look at the words of Jesus, our Lord speaks a lot about money. He was never afraid to mention money and how it is used to help people. As an example: A few weeks ago in worship, we read the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus asking Him how to attain eternal life. What does Jesus tell Him? To keep the commandments, first, and then to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and follow Him. Being comfortable with his wealth, the rich man walks away. He liked his stuff.

While pastors like me are generally afraid of raising the topic of money in church, Jesus never was.

We all need to do a better job at how we budget our financial and Christian lives. As we move ahead with our re-launch of our church, we need to be honest with ourselves about our talents and how we’re using them for the growth of the church.

More Than Just Sunday

When I released my overview plan to transform St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church into a mission center – a plan that I believe will change the direction of small churches in our church body – I did so to begin the discussion of one simple question: What is the Church today?

What the Church Was

At one time, most of our now small churches were vibrant, worshiping lots of people every Sunday. They were places where Sunday Schools were overflowing and ministry efforts were strong. And, most of these Lutheran Churches were ethnic at their core. German, Swedish, Chinese, you name it – many established Lutheran Churches had an ethnic component at their founding. For example, if you were German and Lutheran living in the northern New Milford area in the 1900s, you went to St. Matthew’s because it was a German Lutheran Church.

As time has gone on, the ethnic make up of neighborhoods and communities change and the numbers of people attending church every Sunday dwindles. Newer neighbors who have no connection to a Lutheran church are less inclined to attend, even if the church is around the corner from their house.

The challenge for these churches is to begin and sustain a real outreach effort to not just new neighbors but to families in the region. It is here where churches have stumbled. Outreach efforts cannot be sustained if there aren’t enough bodies in the pews or if the bank account is small. In small churches, they begin to look inward instead of outward.

Sunday Morning Church

In small churches, institutions that worship with less than 50 people per week, just because of the smaller attendance and weaker financials, church is Sunday morning. The focus of church leaders, including the pastor, is to make sure that the doors are open and the lights are on come sunrise on Sundays. Small churches, by their very nature, retract from daily ministry simply because “there aren’t enough bodies to get the work done.” When church events come up, there are always complaints that the same small group of people are doing the work. And as membership grows older, the numbers of people doing the “church things” drops, putting pressure on the remaining members to keep the doors open on Sunday morning.

An Idea

I believe that if we are to change the direction of small churches in our Synod, the first realization that all small worshiping communities have to come to is that there is no grand Daddy Warbucks coming to drop a ton of cash into the bank account. The Synod and all of our individual districts don’t have the resources to pour endlless amounts of dollars into helping keep up small churches. They’d go broke just trying.

Small churches have to realize that in order turn things around, they have to take the first step. They need to take a deep look at their ministry (if it even exists) and make a commitment to change.

Change is hard.

After doing the church thing one way for decades and decades, to admit to yourself that it is not working for the greater church is off-putting. It hurts. You’ve liked coming to that particular building for years and years. You’ve loved singing the same hymns week after week. Maybe there are even times when you like the pastor’s sermon. It is your church.

Admitting that change is needed – dramatic and soul-rattling change – is scary. We love our comforts. When doctors tell us to change our diets, no one wants to stop eating the foods that we like.

Yet to change the direction of a church, this type of change is needed. It means taking a serious look at the entirety of the church and making a true estimate of the effectiveness of the ministry. If at any time during your assessment you start looking inward at yourself and at your comfort level, stop. The assessment should be about how your church is doing and what direction is it headed.

If small churches take this assessment truthfully and without emotion, then they will say that change is needed.

We all have to remember two important aspects of our Christian lives: Churches are not buildings. Churches are the people of God.

Today in many of our small churches, the struggles of ministry and membership and finances are real. If we are to turn things around, we need to commit to major change. Churches need to be more than just a Sunday morning appointment on your calendar. Souls are at stake.

Focusing on Life

From the time I was sick back in 2011, I’ve been a relatively good follower of a whole foods, plant-based diet. “Relatively good” is a qualifier term meaning there were times when I fell off the wagon and ate fatty, non-animal things that were not healthy. For example, those amazing burgers made by Beyond Meat called “The Beyond Burger.” They look just like a real hamburger and taste terrific, though they are not meat.

Some of the nutritional makeup of these non-burger burgers:

  • Calories: 290
  • Fat: 22 gram
  • Saturated Fat: 5 grams
  • Cholesterol: 0 grams

I’m glad that there is no cholesterol in these things (compared to a regular hamburger that contains at least 80 grams), and a reduced amount of saturated fat (5 grams as compared to a regular hamburger of 0 grams). It is great that these are plant-based burgers (no cows were slaughtered to make them). However, when reading the ingredients, there are three forms of oil contained in them: Canola, Coconut, and Sunflower. As a doctor once told me, oil is evil. It packs on the pounds, the fat, and makes your health poor. Stay away from it.

Hence, in the times when I’ve fell off the plant-based diet that was strictly low fat, all plants and grains and beans and legumes, I’ve purchased items like the Beyond Burger and all those mock meats found in the frozen section of the grocery store. In my mind, since they were still plant-derived, I didn’t feel bad. I was following a plant-based diet; it just wasn’t with a lot of real plants like green leafy vegetables and fruit.

Late last year, I fell off the wagon. I bought the Beyond Burger at Shop-Rite here in town simply because I was surprised they were selling it. The first bite made me circle the drain. I started buying fried eggplant sandwiches at the local deli on a white roll. For some reason, non-dairy almond milk creamer for coffee found its way into my basket. I started drinking vegan protein powders that replaced meals. And the cheese – the Daiya cheese – and all kinds of vegan yogurts and spreads became staples of morning breakfast. I ate tofu crafted into “scrambles” topped with non-dairy cheese. Dinner became those mock meats with grains.

Last month, I wanted to kick myself when my doctor told me that my blood work was fine, but some of the markers to bad health were up. Cholesterol – total, LDL, and HDL – were up over my last test. Though lower when compared to someone eating a standard American diet, the numbers alarmed my doctor to check on my diet. After telling her, she exploded and told me that I was dumb to fall back to these “vegan comfort foods.”

Ordering me to “straighten up” my diet, I started really focusing on what I’ve eaten. Sticking to a low fat, whole foods, plant based diet since July 22nd, I’ve noticed some good things. I’m sleeping a bit better. My daily blood pressure is down, as is my resting heart rate. I’ve started to exercise again, though I will not win an award for intensity or length, as of this morning. My weight is down some 13 pounds since the morning of July 23rd, which is surprising because after battling anemia due to my previous chemotherapy treatments in 2011 and 2012, I’ve struggled with weight gain due to the medicine that helped fight the anemia and the virtual impossibility to drop the weight after treatment.

Finally, I am more focused on all aspects of life. I want to accomplish tasks, though my issue of wanting to do everything without help when it comes to my professional and social life is still very much a problem.

I’ve been trying to reduce the amount of coffee I drink. When in the very recent past, I would make a pot of coffee and drink three-quarters of it, now I am down to a cup in the morning. One cup. There are times when I will drink one or two additional cups throughout the day, but I’ve found that this is limited to my church’s Bible Study Time on Thursday. In coffee’s place – green tea.

Years back, my doctors who were treating me told me the most important part of life for me is to do everything that I can to prevent getting sick again. Encouraging me to forego the standard western diet based on animal products and strictly focus on plants for nourishment, they explained that eating in a healthful way would promote good health. One of the doctors explained that she hadn’t had a cold since she moved over to a low fat, whole foods, plant based diet. Describing her immune system as running at maximum goodness, she was able to fight off the cold viruses and flus that roam around the hospital where she worked. Oh, it was more than a decade since she had a cold or the flu.

For a tiny bit less than a month I’ve been more strict to what I’ve eaten. Good things are happening.

As my congregation contemplates what it means to be a church focused on missions’ work, one of the areas I believe we can serve our community is through the promotion of health. Our bodies are called temples of the Holy Spirit. Should we not want these temples to be the best that they can? Should our goal of offering a healthier spiritual life be combined with a healthier physical life? I think it should.

As California Burns, Lutherans Care

California is on fire.

Since mid-July, a group of complicated and ever-changing wildfires have destroyed the landscape and property in their paths, notably the Carr Fire in Shasta and Trinity counties and the Mendocino Complex Fire covering Colusa, Lake and Mendocino counties…

Several LCMS congregations have been affected directly by these fires. Trinity Lutheran Church and Early Learning Center in Redding, Calif., is only two miles from the flames of the Carr Fire.

Read more at LCMS Reporter: As California burns, Lutherans care

Comfort Zones

For more than a century, St. Matthew’s has been like nearly every other traditionally Lutheran Church: in a comfort zone.

All of us like what we like and we are comfortable liking it.

Nearly every Lutheran Church is the same. This doesn’t make any congregation that is in the comfort zone bad or out of touch – it makes them comfortable, relaxed, and happy that their church is open on Sunday mornings.

I believe it is time for a change, where we are not in a comfort zone, but are excited at possibilities of what bringing the Gospel to people means to our Christians lives. Excitement for the Gospel means we’re being led by the cross in all aspects of our church and outside-of-church lives. Hope in the Gospel is experiencing the true meaning of God’s love and forgiveness with others. 

Comfort zone church is history.

It is the time of living hope.