Today’s worship service was our first live Zoom worship. Click HERE to watch the video recording. I hope you’ll join us again next week for worship.
Come to Our “Service Saturday” Worship! Tomorrow, September 18th at 5 p.m.!
This week you have probably heard that we will not be worshiping on Sunday, but are inviting all members to come to a special Saturday worship at 5pm. Our text for Saturday will be one that rings loudly in the hearts and minds of those in this church “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”(Mark 9:35) and “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Mark 9: 37).
We are all called to be servants when we are called to be disciples. Luther said that the freedom of being a Christian meant that you were simultaneously Lord of All and Servant of All. Every September the ELCA invites congregations to participate in a God’s Work Our Hands Saturday or Sunday, often with a shared service experience with a worship service on site rather than at the church. We are not taking that step this year, but we are going to use this Saturday as a time to lift up all the service that our members do in this community and beyond, and all the opportunities our members have to serve others. We will have special music from Werner and Gary featuring spiritual, jazz and even a Sunday School song.
First Lutheran is supported by the generosity of our members past and present, and we also give beyond our front doors. Some of that service is hands on. Our congregation is well known for our Food Pantry, one of the first in the area and our ministry Operation Christmas Stocking has invited others in our community to open their hearts with generosity. Our Sew and Sew Quilters are preparing for their Quilt Blessing on Sunday, October 3rd before they are donated to Lutheran World Relief.
Other service is done through our support of others’ service. This year we gave our benevolence to the Synod and ELCA that supports our denominational mission and ministry. And with the generous gift of our endowment fund we are able to give even more to Lutheran World Relief, Serenity Inn, ERAS Senior Network, Street Angels, Operation Christmas Stocking, Serving Older Adults, Outreach for Hope, An Exceptional Chorus and Los Heroes Sewing School in El Salvador. We are impacting our community and the world in many positive ways through these gifts.
In the last month, we have also promoted more ways to give locally by sponsoring Paul and I in our bike ride to raise money for Outreach for Hope and also to address relief efforts for Afghan Refugees through Lutheran Social Services and those affected by the Earthquake in Haiti and wildfires in the United States through Lutheran Disaster Response.
When we share in these efforts, we are able to really make a difference in people’s lives when they most need it and stand with the vulnerable who most need to know God’s love through human care.
I am grateful whenever First Lutheran gets right in the middle of these efforts because it is inspiring and brings us closer to Jesus, just as he taught us that when we serve those in need we also serve him.
And this Sunday, as we will not have worship, I invite all of you to consider how you live out a life of service with our hearts, hands, prayers, and resources. See if you are inspired to volunteer, make phone calls, pray or give as the Spirit leads you!
Thank you for your service and generosity! Let’s celebrate what we have done this year and cheer on new efforts to come!
A Statement from Bishop Erickson On CDC Guidance on Mask Wearing by Vaccinated Individuals
Friends in Christ:
Like many of you, I was surprised by the recent updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the use of masks by vaccinated individuals. This guidance has caused many businesses and state and local governments to revise their policies, and many are discontinuing their mask mandates and other restrictions. In many ways, this is great news, as we are learning that vaccinated individuals have a reduced risk of transmitting the virus to others.
These developments also raise numerous questions for our congregations and leaders as we try to make decisions that will respect the diverse needs of people attending worship services and other activities. I encourage all our synod’s congregations and ministries that are considering resuming in person gatherings to continue to explore ways to do so safely, bearing in mind the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors. I also encourage you to review the recent guidance issued by the Wisconsin Council of Churches.
While we are all tired of the many restrictions brought on by the pandemic, I urge continued caution and thoughtful deliberations as we explore how to move forward, keeping these things in mind:
• The recent CDC guidance addresses the behavior of vaccinated individuals, not large, mixed groups.
• Worship is a public event and congregations need to presume that not all those participating will be vaccinated. Children under 12, people with compromised immune systems, and others who have not had the opportunity to be vaccinated will likely be present.
• People have varying levels of willingness and ability to tolerate risk. Congregations are encouraged to continue to choose practices that minimize risk (worshipping outdoors, limiting singing, wearing masks indoors, etc.) so as to create a welcoming space for all.
• Even though vaccinations are increasing, and infection rates are falling, most counties in our synod have vaccination rates less than 50% and case rates of between 5-10 per 100,000 in population. While we are moving toward a time when it is safer to gather in various ways, we are not out of the woods just yet.
Finally, let me offer a word of deep gratitude. I am convinced that the choices and sacrifices we have made this past year have saved lives, and I am proud of the ways that the congregations and leaders of this synod have prioritized our calling to love and serve our neighbors. Grounded in faith and guided by love, I pray we will continue to discover God’s amazing grace and sustaining power.
In love and hope,
Bishop Paul Erickson
Yesterday, we held a memorial for one of God’s special creatures, a dog named Benji who was a faithful and loving companion to our newest member Jeanie, but who sadly succumbed to an ongoing illness due to his heart being too big. Jeanie knew Benji needed extra love when she adopted him as a rescue animal. The memorial was for Benji and Jeanie’s previous dog, a Jack Russel who lived to be almost 20 years old with a caregiver like Jeanie. She is really made to care for animals that need extra care as a gift and calling.
Caring for pets is a value that we have presented to the community and they have responded to. Jeanie was one of 25 mostly nonmembers that came to our Pet Blessing in October under the canopy. The event yesterday outside the Carnegie Apartments was attended by 15 people. Pets and faith are deeply intertwined for many people.
For anyone, who has had a pet that they loved, we know how connected we become to them. Dogs have always been examples of God’s unconditional love for me. As I said at the memorial, our pets help us to accept love and learn to give love to others. People are sometimes harder to love than pets, but when we practice love with our animals, we are more ready to share love with our neighbors and loved ones as well.
The event was a great memorial for these pets and the others that people named or brought. It was also an opportunity for me to get out in the community and meet more neighbors, several of which were interested in becoming members of First after the service and conversations with Jeanie. Sometimes a shared love, like being dog owners can lead to deeper connections between people. We don’t always know how we will connect with others, but I love that God’s creatures seem to be helping to lead people to First.
Jeanie sometimes wonders if Benji is a presence in her new dog Cooper’s life, when he jumps up on the windowsill, the same perch where Benji faithfully watched over the neighborhood. And I wonder if we are also living into a legacy through extending a love for animals and following that into new connections with those seeking a faith community that also cares about their pets. After all, the reason we are able to do the ministry we do now is because of the generosity of a woman who was passionate about First and care for animals, giving us our Memorial as well as to the Humane Society.
The 23rd Psalm closes by saying “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”. The word for follow is actually a term for guiding that is the same word as dogs shepherding sheep. Perhaps when we care for God’s creatures they return the favor and guide us on the paths God intends for us!
A Lenten and Easter Reflection from the Holy Land
By Meghan and Gabi Aelabouni, area desk director for the Middle East and North Africa
One spring afternoon, in the open courtyard inside the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City, we met with the Rev. Carrie Ballenger, fellow ELCA missionary, and the Rev. Ibrahim Azar, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), to record the bishop’s short video greeting for upcoming ELCA synod assemblies. As the group prepared to record, the silence of the courtyard was suddenly broken. The Hebrew words of a Jewish song filled the air, likely coming from the roof of a settlement next to Redeemer. As if in response, the Arabic call to prayer arose from a nearby mosque, and a quick glance at the clock revealed that the noon bells of Redeemer would soon follow.
In the land called “holy” by the three Abrahamic traditions, expressions of faith are not only found in the sights of ancient buildings and artwork. Faith is in the air itself, in the overlapping — and sometimes competing — sounds of human prayer and praise. The COVID-19 pandemic in Israel/Palestine has been unnerving in part because of the silence it has brought: the silence of empty buildings and streets and closed shops and cafes; the absence of the cacophony of prayer and conversation, in a myriad of languages, that typically bubbles up from the visitors who come from all over the world to visit the Holy Land.
The tourism industry provides a livelihood to many Palestinian Christians, both in Jerusalem and in the West Bank, who wait anxiously and wonder when visitors may return — and how to feed their families in the meantime. In the past year, the echoing quiet of lockdowns and quarantines has underscored the fact that the vitality of the Holy Land is ultimately found not in its ancient stones, but in its people.
Part of the ELCA’s ministry of accompaniment in Israel/Palestine is to help amplify the voices of those people: particularly Palestinian Christians, who as the “minority of the minority” among Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians are less frequently heard in global conversations about Israel/Palestine, and whose voices are too often dampened or silenced by occupation. Like the church bells, their stories say to the world: We are still here. Do not forget us.
This Lent, the world has found itself on an uncertain journey — as uncertain as that of the first followers of Jesus, who accompanied Jesus on his path to the cross and to death, wondering all the time what it all meant and how the story would end. Like those first disciples, Palestinian Christians today recall the promises of God: that even from the silence of death and the grave, a song of resurrection will come — for them, and for all people.
Pastor’s Corner: Wedding Edition
One of the things I’ve missed in our services this year is the presence of kids and all they bring to our worship experience and lives together as church. We are very grateful to the Sunday School and its leaders who have been sharing what that group has been up to throughout the pandemic. And in the spring when we had kids and their parents serve as readers and worship assistants for our online services it made the worship experience much more exciting and fun for me. But I look forward to having kids as even more a part of our community soon.
When we invite kids into worship and our church community, we also invite in a certain level of chaos and disruption into a setting that many people want to keep organized and secure. There are many interpretations of Jesus saying that we are to receive the kingdom of God as a child (Matthew 19: 13-14), and why Jesus shooed away his followers who tried to eliminate the disruption of children from their leaders lessons, rather than shoo away the children as expected. (Mark 10: 13-16). For me, I think it connects to the holy disruption and relational reordering of religion that Jesus is always interested in, as I preached on this last week about Jesus cleansing the Temple.
Inviting kids in, makes an uncontrolled impact and we need to be prepared for all that it brings if we are to follow in Jesus footsteps and welcome children back to our church.
Sarah and my wedding ceremony this past week was a great example of what happens when you invite kids into the middle of worship. We knew we wanted my stepson Paul to participate in the service as much as he was comfortable with and so I asked him if he would like to bring us our rings during the ceremony. When he did, this aspiring magician played a little trick on us by putting Sarah’s ring inside of mine when he delivered the box. So I, of course, asked where the other ring was to which he shrugged his shoulders and skipped down the aisle.
After finding Sarah’s ring inside of mine, a triumphant Paul returned to the front of the sanctuary, this time with our cat Pickles, who our wonderful hosts at Lake Park Lutheran had allowed to be present at the ceremony. Paul, had a feeling that the cat didn’t want to enjoy the service from a cage, looking at the back of a pew, so he got him out and pulled him by his little cat leash down the aisle. A scared creature was reassured when Paul put Pickles into his mother’s arms as we were exchanging rings.
So when we invited Paul in, he invited a little bit of God’s creation in as well, in the form of the cat who has connected our family in love during the last six months, and also a lot of God’s love for surprises and spontaneity.
Paul loved the service, as is evidenced by the jumping, clapping, and peace signs he showed after announcing us and at the end of the service he affirmed that it was “good wedding” as we were prayed over as a new family. We had a lot of fun and it was more fun because of Paul.
We had chosen to not broadcast the ring exchange and vows online, but to share that intimate part of the service with the small group of people present in the sanctuary. Perhaps doing that allowed Paul to shine a little brighter with the joy he was feeling. It definitely allowed our new family’s love and joy to grow as well and be seen by those who tuned in after this episode, as we all were laughing about what had happened with Paul and the cat.
In a time when we have experienced a need for control, security and safety to battle the coronavirus, I hope we all can be invited back into the joy of holy disruptions to our world and plans, through the presence of kids and creatures in our lives together.
I also invite you all to see the awesome chalk art that the Sunday School kids drew for Sarah, Paul, Pickles and I on Saturday. The kids are still marking our community with love, art, and holy disruption too!
Respectful Communication Guidelines
At one of the Together in Mission sessions that was offered by the synod last Saturday, we learned about how to handle conflict in congregations. One of the ways that we learned to best address conflict was to address the way we communicate in our communities, so that negative feelings and assumptions don’t lead to frustrations and reactions that create more conflict. Learning how to communicate and listen in a respectful way is one of the hidden lessons that can help you in life, but it is not taught in any class and many people never learn. The GM Synod shares their recommendation for Respectful Communication Guidelines through a practice developed by the Kaleidoscope Institute HERE. The Kaleidoscope Institute compares this learning to a Driver’s Test. We need to take a test in order to be approved to drive a car, so that people know we can drive a car without creating harm, but we don’t take any tests to show we know how to communicate with others without creating harm.
Churches that create cultures that model care and respect in communication, can lead to greater care and respect in other relationships as well, among families, friends, coworkers, and strangers. Learning better practices and behaviors allows us to share with the world our best selves and model and witness to a way of treating others the way we would like to be treated.
When I talk about Sharing Lessons for 21st Century Discipleship, these are the types of lessons that I will be teaching and inviting First Lutheran to practice, so that we are better able to practice what we preach in our community and in the world. When we are able to learn new behaviors that represent the values of Jesus’ kingdom we are better able to invite others into that way of seeing, hearing and being in the world.
Respectful communication and listening is one of the first ways of improving our culture and reducing conflicts in our communities. Take a look at the practices in the link and think about whether you use them in your communication. Does anyone you know seem to use them?
There are many ways to guide our conversations at First, and it may take us some time to find the right fit, but I’ll be sharing the Synod’s recommendation for Respectful Communication Guidelines with the Church Council and Mission Planning Team as a starting point as we begin our important work together in this new church year.
Wednesday Lenten Bible Studies: Light for Lent
At the first Greater Milwaukee Synod “Together in Mission” Gathering, we were reminded that the word “synod” means walking together. A synod pastor shared a story about innovation, about how her church had created a worship podcast for people while they walked their dogs. These people began to share photos of where they saw God in their walks and these podcasts and walks grew in popularity.
Lent is most commonly connected to the Latin word for 40 Days. Our 40 Day walk is intended to not only be solitary journey but one communities embark on together. In one of my last congregations, we took Lenten Walk literally and challenged able-bodied members to take prayer walks each day into their neighborhoods. Now that may not sound great during the cold we have been experiencing lately, but those of us up in Fargo-Moorhead found a way to do it!
I hope each of you find a time to develop an internal (Like a daily Devotion or new prayer practice) and external practice (like walking, serving, or writing a letter). During the 40 Days of Lent, I want to focus the attention of our Lenten Bible Study on another theme: Light!
We don’t often think of Lent as a time of light, but one of the many origins of this word is from the old English word for Spring and the Germanic word for “lengthening” as in the lengthening of days.
As we complete our first year of the pandemic, we are all stretching toward the hope of a safe return to gatherings and life together in person. We look toward the light each day as the days get longer, but we also lean into the light of Christ shining in our life each day as we return to trust in God’s promises.
Lent is a time to go deeper into the world around us, deeper into what it means to be human, and at the same time we look closer at what may seem common or mundane, we are reminded of the promise of Saint Augustine that the “finite contains the infinite” when the eternal light of God is found in our midst. So as the spring opens up light into our world, we imagine the light of God growing and lengthening in our souls and spreading throughout our world in sharing the gospel’s truth.
Studying Scripture together can help us see God’s light in our lives during our Lenten journeys and I hope you will join us for our Lenten Series on the theme of light. Please RSVP to participate and you will receive a link and phone number to use to join in these zoom sessions!
Session 1: The Light of Truth – February 24th, 2021, 12pm and 6pm
Being honest with God means being honest with ourselves. During Ash Wednesday we hear the words of Psalm 51 attributed to David, and remember the story of the Prophet Nathan shining the light of truth on him in a way that lead to repentance.
Session 2: The Light of Liberation – March 3rd, 2021, 12pm and 6pm
“Then your light will break will break forth like the dawn… and your night will become as noonday” Psalm 58: 8-10. We will study the call of God to a communal fast of service and liberation. This is the section of scripture that is posted on the walls of First Lutheran’s food pantry.
Session 3: The Light of Christ – March 10th, 2021, 12pm and 6pm
Jesus is referred to and refers to himself as light. What does this mean for him, in the Biblical narrative and in our lives?
Session 4: Seeing the Light – March 17th, 2021, 12pm and 6pm Jesus’ healings of blind people often refer to an understanding of light and a call to have eyes to see the kingdom of God all around us.
Session 5: Let Your Light Shine – March 24th, 2021, 12pm and 6pm
Our baptisms end with the call to “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5: 16). How do we understand our call to share, reflect, and magnify the light of God in our own lives?
I get excited when I talk about the Mission Planning Team, because it comes from the initial proposal that I presented to the Council and Call Committee last year at this time. In that proposal, I charted out how I was sensing God calling me to First Lutheran and the ways I felt I could use my background and training to best support this community, at this particular moment in its life. I decided to present this proposal at the start of my call, because I wanted to hear whether this congregation felt that call too! And you did!
But what was that proposal?
As I listened and talked with leaders while discerning this call, I assessed that while you would not need to do a full Mission Exploration Team (MET) process, the way churches do in the interim process, I felt that some of the lessons and learnings of Mission Exploration would help First Lutheran at this time. This would give First a structured way to look at our past, our present community and context, and the values and identity we carry with us into the future.
I will supplement the MET Process with some of the useful tools, practices and knowledge I’ve received in my training as an ELCA Mission Developer, Interim Ministry Network, as a Community Organizer through the PICO Network (People Empowering Communities through Organizing). I want more people to know what I know and to help equip the team for their work and to be great leaders in the congregation and community.
Like a MET, we want the team to be representative of the congregation, and have a diversity of demographics, experiences and opinions. Our time together as a Mission Planning Team will be centered in prayer as we invite the Holy Spirit and God’s Wisdom into our work and discernment. Learning to listen to God helps us listen to others and the world around us. And like the disciples being sent out two by two, we will send out team members to listen and learn in specific ways based on what they are most interested in and what they feel most called to learn about.
Some team members will learn more about churches in our neighborhood and how our story and purpose can thrive in the midst of them and how we can work together to serve the needs of the neighborhood. Others will focus on possibilities for collaboration and church redevelopments, studying creative ways this works in other places, and participating in a recently formed Area Ministry Strategy dialogue with pastors and leaders of four other ELCA congregations in West Allis. And we may find ourselves invited into mission exploration work with other congregations that are doing that at the same time we are. Other team members could be called to engage in the work of the synod and the ELCA, to review and experience resources that they are recommending. This can include participating in events like the Together in Mission Gatherings in February, or Anti-Racism Trainings, or reviewing resources provided to congregations that we often just don’t know about. Others could study new models and best practices for being church, in our denomination and outside of it, to inspire us and give us ideas.
We will bring our work back to the larger group and the congregation and in the process, I hope the MPT, shaped by what we are hearing and learning, can become the heart of our community as we move into the future and invite more people in.
I hope you will consider being a part of this exciting and valuable experience!
Although we will miss being in person this year, we are still excited to invite you to Lutheran Campus Ministry’s Annual Chili Cook Off this coming Saturday, January 30th! Register for free at the link below and receive an email with recipes to our past award winning chilis and links for two virtual opportunities to engage with students:
4:00pm Chili Chats: Get to know our LCM students while cooking chili with them via Zoom using the award-winning recipes from past years. UWM will be cooking up some Veggie Chili and Marquette the Meat Chili.
6:30pm Virtual Gathering: Grab your bowl of chili and join us on Facebook to watch a pre-recorded program of stories and thanks from students, pastors, and alumni and consider a gift online or via a check so that our work can continue.
We hope to see you on Saturday!!
Peace, Pastor Rachel