People of God called St. Paul,
Read the Listening Campaign Report first. Here, I’ll focus on “What next?”
At the Listening Campaign Brunch, Jeannette Klare was adamant we use this report to take action. “Are we just going to put this report on a dusty shelf, or are we going to do something?” Jeannette asked this, and I didn’t even slip her any cash before the meeting!
Of all five suggested next steps, Jeannette is most passionate about reducing homelessness in Clinton. So she agreed to set a date and host a meeting of people who are interested in the same thing.
The story, Stone Soup, is the example I shared at the brunch. In that story, the main character is not a master chef. Instead, he goes door to door with a stone and says, “I’m making stone soup. Will you help me?” And the people say, “I don’t know how.” And he answers, “Well, what do you have?” And they say, “carrots” or “tomatoes” or “celery.” And he says, “Great! That’s an ingredient we need! Get it and let’s go make stone soup.”
Jeannette isn’t claiming to be an expert on reducing homelessness. She’s just bringing her stone—her interest in doing something about homelessness—and asking others with the same interest to come and share what they have.
At that same brunch, several others committed to hosting meetings about the other four suggestions. Below, I’ll share all those meeting topics, dates, times, and hosts.
Come to the meetings you have an interest in. If in your one-to-one conversation with a listening team member, you mentioned your interest in one of these topics, you can expect a personal invitation.
If you’re interested, and you can’t make that date and time, be in touch with a host!
What can you expect at these meetings? Expect them to take about hour. Here’s a sample agenda:
After taking action, we step back and reflect on what we learned. Then based on this, we take action again, then reflect again…act, reflect, act, reflect…and so on. This is called the Action-Reflection Model.
The most important challenges in life don’t come with instruction manuals. Trial and error is the only way humans learn. It’s also the only way congregations make progress on their toughest problems.
Jesus’ ministry ended in failure—the cross. And right there, it also began again. In other words, it’s okay with God if we don’t get it right the first time. Jesus says, “Follow me!”
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith
Joy C. is one St. Paul person who grew up Mormon. Maybe others of us did too. And even if not, maybe you know, each Mormon young person must go on a two-year mission. It happens at about age 20, and they could go anywhere in the world. First, they go to special mission school. They learn the language of the people where they’re going. They’re given a partner, and then, they are sent.
One of the guys in my freshman dorm left college for his two-year mission. Interrupted his degree. Left his new friends. It is a surprising investment of time, money, and effort.
And what would you guess is the return on this investment?
On average, two Mormon missionaries, working for two-years, will convert two people. And one of them will fall away from the church. For all of that work, the gain is one new Mormon.
So you might wonder. Is it worth it? It seems like a waste, doesn’t it?
You might guess. The leaders of the church must be clueless about how ineffective their missionary program is, right? But they’re not. They know full-well the odds. And they do it anyway.
So what is the point? From Mormon leaders’ point of view, why do it? The answer is, mission converts the missionary. That’s why they do it. They are focused on who these young people be when they come home. Who will they be for their own families, their own communities. The deeper reliance on God they will have. The new capacity to speak about their faith, despite the risk of rejection. The invaluable bond with sisters and brothers who shared in common a very uncommon experience. That’s why.
God’s work changes people—the worker first. The mission is initiation into a whole new life.
And Jesus seems to understand this.
Jesus has compassion for the masses of harassed and helpless people. Born into those same masses, Jesus called from those masses 12. Jesus gave them a new experience, showed them a new way. And when the time was ripe, Jesus summoned and sent workers into God’s harvest.
The first time I drove a car, it wasn’t on the highway. It was in a parking lot. And then, when I was ready, my dad let me drive home from that parking lot. And then I crashed the car into our garage door. And that showed me what kind of damage I could do.
Giving people power is useless, unless they also learn how to use it. Unless they also gain wisdom and character to wield power responsibly, they will abuse and misuse it. Instead of paying their dues to God and their community, they will waste their own potential and lay waste to society in greed and self-gratification.
This is what Jesus saw Rome doing, and his own religious leaders, the Temple leaders in collusion with Rome. The people were “like sheep without a shepherd” exactly because their leaders were no leaders at all.
And, Jesus understood, wisdom and character do not happen spontaneously. Nor are they it taught through lectures. People catch them from elders of wisdom and character and courage.
Giving his disciples a chance to catch on is what Jesus had been doing all along. From the moment Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John away from their fathers and their fishing nets. From the moment Jesus called Matthew away from his lucrative tax collecting booth. Jesus called those 12 out of the bubble of their former lives, and Jesus let those 12 catch him, his spirit and wisdom and life.
And only then, his authority. What we saw today—Jesus giving them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out and to cure every disease and every sickness. This authority, Jesus himself wielded. And that message of good news, was Jesus’ own message.
Jesus initiated them into God’s work through contact with suffering, their own and that of others. Ultimately, Jesus’ own suffering on the cross initiated them. And this suffering—both real and symbolic—prepared them to exercise God’s own power, with Jesus’ own compassion.
Both by design and by accident, confirmation has done this—to some modest degree. So now, like his fellow students before him, Jack also will stand and speak from this very pulpit. People must be initiated to speak from this place. To speak with wisdom, character, and courage—to speak grace and judgment, both expressions of God’s love. Only the Holy Spirit can empower people to do this, always through communities of Christ’s love, like St. Paul.
So now, I invite Jack.
[Jack’s faith statement]
You should know. What Jack just did was not a requirement for confirmation that I came up with. Jack and the rest of his class chose it. This did not come out of the blue. As they grew up, these young people have seen confirmation students share faith statements. They learned to expect this of themselves. They expected to be challenged in this way. And so, they challenged themselves. They created the requirement. Then they did it. Which is a lesson in itself, for all of us.
The looming question is: when will adults of St. Paul be given a similar chance to catch the wisdom, character, and courage of Jesus?
In this moment, St. Paul people are giving a great deal of attention on the formation of young people. It’s good to give this attention. How are St. Paul adults being formed?
Initiation is not for the young only. Because sometimes, maybe often, the young miss it. Or they don’t catch on. Or not fully.
I myself was never confirmed. Your pastor never went through confirmation.
These days, every congregation is confronted with harsh reality. It used to seem like a safe bet that young people raised in the church would automatically catch the faith and live their whole lives in communion with the church. But that is now exposed as a dangerous myth. More is needed. And more also than a young pastor, a room with a ping pong table, or a full slate of youth-targeted programming.
The world does not conform the patterns of Lutheranism. And even on good Lutheran Christians, the world exerts a corrosive pressure. Is there a reason the experience of confirmation should be for young people only?
Every week, Jack and his classmates ate together, read scripture together, prayed together, goofed off together. When suffering came, these weekly patterns were the grace they needed. It’s a grace they still need. We all need. Grace is opposed to earning, not effort. This is true for young and old alike. And also all the middle-aged people—say 18 to 80—who, for the sake of survival, need daily to pretend they have it all under control, thank you very much. The young and old are harassed and helpless, and so is everyone in between.
People of all ages are dying without initiation into the crucified life of Jesus. And even the initiated need support to stay on-mission, or the suffering of life overwhelms them.
Physical hunger and spiritual hunger go together. The same devouring evil produces them. Jesus called us to respond to both. Many are called, but few let themselves be chosen to give their lives to this work of God.
“The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few,” Jesus said. And then, Jesus invited them to pray.
So it is good that we are together for worship. Otherwise we might be overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the need. Worship is prayer in community. Here we reunite with God, the source of the mission and of everything else we need.
The church needs all kinds of leaders. I’m praying for leaders of adult formation, alongside all kinds of other leaders.
And notice also. Jesus invited the 12 to pray with their feet. Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned abolitionist leader, said, “Every day for 20 years, I prayed for my freedom. And nothing changed until I started praying with my feet.”
Jesus invited the disciples to see that they were the answer to their prayer. They were the workers they were looking for. They were the leaders the people lacked.
That’s Jack. That’s you. Answers to prayer.
Thanks be to God.
--Pastor Clark Olson-Smith
People of God called St. Paul,
I set three goals for myself as pastor. The first is: Foster deep biblical community. What do I mean?
In his little book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Christian community “grace, nothing but grace.”
He wrote: “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.”
When Bonhoeffer wrote these words, he was leading a small clandestine seminary in Nazi Germany. It was an illegal seminary, training pastors for the “Confessing Church,” a splinter which refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler, as the rest of the German (Lutheran and Catholic) Church had. There, Bonhoeffer lived every day in emergency-built houses with the seminary’s 25 students.
So we can maybe hear Bonhoeffer’s own experience of that Christian community, in the midst of its enemies: “what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day.” As if he lamented his own tendency to take the gift for granted.
So this goal—foster deep biblical community—is first a call to myself to recognize and honor the gift, in and through Christ, that is being together with you. Only after, is it my reminder to myself gently to awaken you and others to this gift of pure grace.
The words of Bonhoeffer resonate with the words of one of my mentors. “We cannot build community. Community is a gift God gives. Instead, we build relationships with the capacity to receive the gift of community.”
Fostering deep biblical community is about the relationships I build as pastor. If I am to invite or teach anything, I must first do it myself. When I use the adjectives “deep” and “biblical,” I’m talking also about the quality and direction of the relationships I want to build.
Jesus talked about a farmer who sowed seed. Some seed fell on rocky ground. It sprouted quickly but wilted just as quickly because its roots were shallow. A greeter at Wal-Mart can be friendly and welcoming. But a greeter at Wal-Mart has no depth of relationship with me. When my marriage is failing, when my child is dying, when I've lost my job and exhausted every avenue for finding a new one that will support my family, I certainly need friendly and welcoming as a start. I also need more.
Jesus told his disciples, “By this, they will know you all are my disciples: if you all have love for one another.” By “love,” I understand Jesus to mean the depth and truth and tenacity of relationship, evident in the way Jesus himself loved people. And speaking in the plural—“you all”—I hear Jesus inviting Christians to let that depth, truth, and tenacity called love shine through the very culture of their congregations. So people may come to know Jesus and be attracted to St. Paul because of how we relate to each other. People will say, “I want that in my life. My life depends on it.”
A song I learned in Sunday school puts to music part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the “School of Hope.”
Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness
And all these things shall be added unto you. Allelu alleluia
Recently friends had us over for dinner. Before we ate, we corralled all our kids, and our hosts invited us to sing this song with them as our meal prayer. Singing it, I felt the warmth of childhood nostalgia, and more, I felt a zing of truth and life. What a radical song to sing before eating!
To a crowd of both rich and poor disciples, Jesus said, "Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ Because it’s the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
The relationships Jesus formed went somewhere. Jesus gathered community for a reason. That direction and purpose was, is, and will be the kingdom of God.
“Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years,” Bonhoeffer wrote, this is “the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.” My goal is to celebrate and encourage who we are for each other, by the grace of God alone: messengers of salvation, who sometimes also bring casseroles and coats to share.
And this, so each of us may go back where we belong, “in the thick of foes,” “to bring peace to God’s enemies.”
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith
I grew up in a Christian tradition that took heaven and hell seriously. They were real places, full of glorious wonder and fiery punishment.
One night as a young child, I lay awake praying desperately. I was afraid that, in the night, Christ would return, and I would be found unworthy and thrown into hell. I was five years old. Maybe six or seven. Over and over I prayed, “Jesus, come into my heart.” But he didn’t. Finally exhausted, I fell asleep, the terrors of hell still burning within me.
A few years later, my Sunday school teacher spoke with real affection to our young class. She encouraged each of us to find and memorize the date of our baptism. She said when Satan terrorized her with similar fears, she would gather her courage and say, “You get away from here, Satan! I was baptized on such-and-so day.” That’s what worked for her.
What do you make of experiences like these? Many Christians find them strange, even flat-out wrong or dangerous. But I try to avoid theological snobbery. In vivid language, Martin Luther himself described his own terrors and encounters with the devil.
Tim Wengert would know. He is a scholar of Reformation history, as well as a teacher and theologian. In an essay on Luther’s “theology of the cross,” in Theology Today, he called these experiences “the heavy weight of hell crossing the thin line of my soul.” He knows them personally and considers them universal in human experience. Suffering and terror are unavoidable in life. Wengert doesn’t cast blame on Christianity or on bad Christian theology. He simply points to Jesus and his cross.
“…the cross of Jesus Christ forges the inescapable link between my suffering and God. Luther's soul experienced being stretched out with Christ on the cross, bones exposed, reduced to naked cries and groaning. There can be no voyeurism here—we view Christ's cross from the experience of our own God-forsaken lives.”
Don’t take offense at his choice of “God-forsaken” to describe our lives. Wengert isn’t condemning, only describing. We all feel the heavy weight of hell crossing the thin line of our souls, even though we may hide it from each other and even from our own selves. In life, and ultimately on the cross, Christ himself experienced the God-forsaken weight of hell.
So here is our salvation. You are not alone. From the cross, Christ sees and hears you when, burdened and suffering, you cry out. The Easter victory is yours. Christ crucified lives! You live with him.
During Lent, St. Paul people will study Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. In an interview, Beck said:
“I like to think of the language of hell as God’s…emotional involvement in what happens. And that the language of blessing and grace and hell and damnation are the terms and the language of the prophets to communicate God’s deep investment with what’s happening right now in this world.”
“And God’s deep investment with what’s happening with you personally,” I would add.
Beck went onto say, without the language of hell, all we have is politics or psychology. “Something is either illegal or mentally ill”—which simply trivializes many experiences. We need more powerful language, he said. And thankfully, hell expresses “the deep, deep sense that creation has gone awry and things are not right and God in heaven cries out against these things.”
With stories of exorcisms and temptation by the devil, the gospels describe a cosmic struggle against evil. Born human, God plunged headlong into this struggle, for love for you and for the world. By his cross, Jesus stormed the gates of hell and set us free from the devil and all his empty promises, from even the worst terrors the devil can muster.
So maybe my Sunday school teacher was on to something. Remember your baptism. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith
And let me suggest a definition different than the typical one.
Politics is people living together, making decisions and acting together.
Typically, when we don’t like certain decisions and actions, we slap on the label “politics.” So it’s become a word underlining the “bad” behavior of others, or the behavior of “bad” people. “Family politics.” “National politics.” “Church politics.” Doesn’t adding the word politics call to mind the worst of family, nation, and church?
But what happens when we focus on the worst? It breeds cynicism and ingratitude. It creates learned helplessness. The typical view of politics feeds the problem. Consider the extreme. Rarely is it put into words, but action reveals truth.
If all politics are bad, then good can only be found alone. By myself. I decide and act only in private. Because there is no such thing as a “common good,” I do best when I ignore public relationships and shared consequences. What happens in my family, nation, or church is literally not my problem. Because I’m a good guy, and I stay out of politics.
Withdrawal from politics is withdrawal from community. You cannot have one without the other. Citizenship in a nation, membership in a church, birth into a family come with responsibility to the whole. And the word for exercising that responsibility is politics. Even more, the private depends on the public. As we build relationships, make decisions, and act together—politics!—we receive the gift of community.
Paul wrote, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. … The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ … If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Participating in politics expresses our need for one another. We all need all others—not just some as if we can withdraw from the rest, but all, with no exceptions. Paul’s are political words. In fact, they lead right into some of his most well-known words. His next words are often read at weddings, but Paul wrote them to a politically polarized community. They are political words too.
“Love is patient. Love is kind,” Paul wrote. And many hear an invitation to retreat into private, ensconced in the illusion that the welfare of their neighbors is no concern of theirs. We must struggle against this temptation!
The Jesus of the gospels preached, taught, and healed people in public. When Jesus healed people and cast out their demons, Jesus also restored them to community, to politics. Jesus led a diverse movement of people to march on the capital in Jerusalem! And Jesus died to create local gatherings of people who worship and who care for the orphan, widow, and stranger in their own neighborhoods—whether they came to worship or not.
Jesus lived, died, and rose again for politics, which is community, which is love, which is life. Jesus’ kind of politics are impossible without faith and hope, and Jesus’ politics are fulfilled by love.
By love, we evaluate politics. With and for love, we participate and transform politics.
As messy and imperfect as it can be, we cannot follow Jesus apart from politics with our families, nation, church and beyond. And it’s not all messy and imperfect! All that is good and just and holy in them was also born through politics.
Love leads to politics. Through politics, we get to express love.
Thanks be to God.
It’s the new year! And it’s not the new year, at the same time.
We are the church, and we live by at least two calendars. One says the new year begins January 1st. Meanwhile, the new church year began on November 27th, the first Sunday in Advent.
In Davenport, we live near an elementary school, and in New Jersey, we did too. And when I was in between school—after I finished school, and before Susannah began preschool—I would be surprised twice a year every year. Where did all these cars suddenly come from? And then, where did everybody go? It was a reminder. Not everyone lived on my calendar. There are other ways of marking time.
Take the creation story. “It was evening and morning, the first day,” says Genesis 1. Seems backwards, right? But there’s more than one way to count a day. For us, one day is sunrise to sunrise. For the ancient Hebrews, God’s people Israel who lived and wrote much of the bible, one day was sunset to sunset.
Does it matter? Isn’t a day is a day no matter when you slice it?
Maybe both are good but wholly different rhythms of life. The day beginning in the evening: with dinner and rest, perhaps gathered together as family, community. And only after, ending with work, time scattered and busy.
Fighting for a day of rest
When the people of Israel put the creation story to paper, it was a new time. After losing a devastating war, many were slaves in Babylon. They feared forgetting their homeland and their God. The same holy stories they’d always remembered out loud, they now told in new ways. In Babylon, they wrote. And so, the war raged on in competing stories about the divine…and competing calendars.
Babylon worshipped other gods. Babylon’s gods created the world in an act of murderous violence. Humans were made to be slaves of those brutal gods and their earthly stand-in, the king of Babylon. Imagine the rhythm of their calendar. In Babylon, every day was a day of work.
For the people of Israel, remembering their God’s creation story was an act of resistance. Built into the story was another way of marking time. Israel’s God created the world in love. On the seventh day, Israel’s God rested. And so may humans.
What a gift! A full day, sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It was a defiant symbol of a holy and humane way of living, a sharply contrasting vision of what life is for. Humans were made to be enjoyed by God and to enjoy loving community with God and all creation.
Early on, Christians began to worship on Sunday, with the sunrise on the day of the Sun a symbol for the resurrection. Early Christians called it the eighth day, the first day of a new creation. During the Reformation, Martin Luther said many times, Sabbath law no longer binds Christians. We modern people may consider it progress to say: Every day is holy, and all of life is holy, and practices that immerse us individually and as a community in God's holiness are good every day.
True enough, but incomplete. When I go to a restaurant for Sunday brunch, someone else is working to serve me. And I wonder, when does my server rest?
Two times, God said through the prophets, "I hate your worship and prayers and songs, because as you do them, you as a society cheat the poor and favor the rich" (Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 1:12-17).
Labor unions in this country organized and won a five-day work week—two whole days of rest. But as conservatives undermine unions, and jobs shift to non-unionized sectors, corporate calendars cheat people out of time. Many never get a day off. They can’t afford it.
And yet, a day of rest is the birthright of all God’s children. In the language of Leviticus 23, you, your family, your livestock, the foreigners in your country, even your slaves must rest on the Sabbath. Everyone with no exceptions. At stake is what God wrote into the fabric of creation and won in the exodus from Egypt and the return from exile in Babylon: freedom for all.
A new year
True worship leads us, as an act of love, to begin changing our calendars and the calendar of society.
January 1st is as good and holy a day as any to notice and wonder. How do I schedule work and rest? Who is working today and who is resting? And what work does our other calendar suggest, so all may rejoice and be glad for this day that God has made?
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith