Water, Wine and Vegas

To be honest reading the text of John 2:1-12 earlier this week, a narrative of transforming water to wine,  it made my stomach turn a bit.

Our news cycle here in the US has been dominated these past few days by stories of Las Vegas. Personally speaking it’s tough to see how Jesus changing H2O into something with a higher alcoholic content fits into any of that.  But still, it’s difficult to get the events that went down from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay safely at bay from our collective conscience.

Wine-making
On the surface this water-to-wine narrative, done at a wedding celebration no less, almost makes the savior of the world sound like a frat boy, going out to restock with another keg, to make sure everyone has enough to drink for the big bash. The text tells us that six jars, each holding twenty or thirty gallons, were suddenly filled with wine. That’s no small amount, 180 gallons, that’s about 1,000 bottles of vino. And this isn’t just any vino, it’s the good stuff, even better than the wine that had just run out.

To me it almost sounds excessive. It sounds almost scandalous.

Now this scripture does have scandal, tho I’d suggest it’s not in the miracle being performed, but in the need for it.  In biblical times marriage was celebrated not with a honeymoon but instead with a seven-day wedding feast. To the family that’s responsible for keeping this celebration going, running out of wine, only three days into the week-long event, well, that’s a scandal in the making.

The mother of Jesus, aware of the cultural scandal of empty wine glasses, mid-celebration, petitions her Son.  “They have no wine, she says. There’s a problem here, Jesus, she suggests, please fix it.

The response of Christ, at least initially, is not quite what maybe we’d expect. Here Jesus replies, “what concern is that to you and me? My time has not yet come.”  Now, to be fair, the identity of Jesus as Christ was not yet known to many. This story comes very early in his ministry; that identity isn’t fully revealed until Christ’s death and resurrection, which is still several years away.

Yet here we have the mother of Jesus, petitioning him to solve a very real problem. A problem staring them right in the eyes.

Theologian Carol Lakey Hess refers to this as the scandal of divine reluctance, and it is indeed enough to raise an eyebrow.

Despite this possible hesitation, and not being one to let her petition go so easily, mother Mary carries on, asking the wedding servers to do whatever Jesus tells them.

You know the end to this story, Jesus takes action. The 1,000 wine bottles miraculously appear. The week-long wedding festivities continue. The potential cultural embarrassment of this moment has been averted. The God of abundance has shown up, bringing new life, new hope, new celebration for all of Creation. It is a happy, happy ending.

Vegas
So what do we do, when, culturally speaking at least, our wine has run low? What happens when the party is unexpectedly, tragically, cut short? I’d suggest that’s exactly what happened Sunday night, right there, in the middle of a music festival on the Las Vegas strip.

In these moments, perhaps mirroring an approach found in scripture is in order. So if you find yourself wondering how to feel, what to think, what to do, consider this basic game plan.

Be like the mother of Jesus: petition our Lord. Cry out to the heavens at the injustice of the largest mass shooting in our nation’s history.  Ask God to fix this.

Also be like Jesus, grapple with the issue at hand. Ask yourself, candidly, what concern is that to you and me? Keep asking until your answer becomes clear. Wonder aloud, as Jesus did, has your hour not yet come? Or, is the hour for you, and for our society, now here?

And then be like Jesus again: take action. Participate in the conversations, the process, the policy discussions, the – let’s be honest – the miracle needed, to end this unfortunate reality.

For when we do, we refill our supply of not just wine, but the good wine, the divine wine. A divine wine that gets us back to a grand party, together, as the God of abundance, the God of peace, and the God of unexpected miracles, intends for us all.  AMEN.

Sola Scriptura 2017

Modern Words
I’d like to show you something, you probably recognize what this is, it’s a cellphone, my personal phone.  Cell phones have been around a while, Motorola produced the first mobile handheld phone some 44 years ago. And before that the first telephone patent was given to Alexander Graham Bell way back in 1876. By the year 2000 over a billion cell phones were in use around the world.

Now this cell phone is kinda smart, it can do much more than just talk and text. Smart phones can access the internet, and are connected to app stores, which give these devices all kinds of bells and whistles. With just a few button presses or swipes this phone can direct me to the closest grocery store, and even factor in traffic conditions in real time. Or I could connect with Facebook and catch up with what my friends from around the world are doing. Or I could fire up Candy Crush, that’s a favorite game of mine, for some mindless distraction before nodding off to bed.

And as of 2012 there were a billion smart phones in use around the world. Speaking more locally a Pew Research study from last year found that 77%, or over three-quarters of Americans, own and use a smart phone. So if you’re in that number you too have the convenience of these bells and whistles sitting in your pocket or purse.

There’s one app in particular I really like to use, it’s called Biblegateway. That app provides access to the entire Bible, and with it I can read any book, chapter and verse of scripture within seconds. And the choices of translation, my gosh! You don’t have to just pick between the NIV or the NRSV, this one source, as of last count, has 56 different English language translations.

And if you happen to know, speak and read another language you too are in luck. Biblegateway also offers 143 non-English translations, in 65 different languages, including everything from Russian to Chinese to German to Arabic to Tagalog; that’s a language native to the Philippines.

And even better? This app is free. Just fire up your phone, connect to a wifi network, or use your phone’s data plan, download the app and it’s off to the races with your biblical translation of choice.

Reformation Words
Of course all this choice, and the convenience of having all these scriptural possibilities within arm’s reach, in a small electronic device, this is all fairly new. Back in Martin Luther’s era five centuries ago the world looked a little different.

In most of Europe at the time the literacy rate was around 10%, most people couldn’t read. Because of this people relied heavily on the spoken word, and would gather to listen to others read to them in public. One common gathering place was the church. The official language of the Catholic Church at the time was Latin. All liturgy, and all scripture read during the service was in Latin. Latin was the language of the educated; very few people sitting in the churches of the day could understand what was being spoken. Imagine if I were standing here using a language you couldn’t understand, my guess is you wouldn’t get too much out of it. Hopefully this doesn’t sound like Latin, or Greek, to you 🙂

For Martin Luther, this disconnect, between the language of the people and the language of the church, this was a problem. Luther had been educated in both Latin and Greek, and, after a careful reading of scripture, he realized that some of the teachings of the Catholic Church of his day did not seem consistent with biblical text.

This disconnect, between church teaching and biblical text, led him to post the 95 theses, which highlighted many of his observations. And if you haven’t seen it yet Pastor Bryan has been blogging on the 95 Thesis this fall on this website, covering one thesis each day. He’s about halfway through now, and it makes for a really good read, I highly recommend it.
Luther’s attempt to resolve this disconnect eventually led to the coining of the phrase sola scriptura, or in English “scripture alone.” Sola scriptura, sometimes called the formal principle of the Reformation, asserts that all church traditions, creeds and teachings must be in unity with the divinely inspired Word of God.

This concept, sola scriptura, draws heavily from the 2nd Timothy reading you heard earlier, particularly chapter three verse sixteen. That passage says that all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.
But if all scripture is useful, for all those great things, yet scripture isn’t readily available, in a language people can understand, well, this creates a problem. This problem, and his solution to it, is a central reason Luther set out to translate the bible from the original Greek and Hebrew, into then-contemporary German.

Translating from the original Greek and Hebrew meant the translation would be accurate. To help Luther translate into German he would travel to nearby towns and markets to listen to people speaking. This approach, of translating from the original languages, and translating to the language of the people, ensured this translation was both accurate, and understandable. When we’re talking about the inspired word of God, that matters, a great deal.

Another factor that really got the reformation rolling was a new technological innovation. While we have our computers and cell phones and apps, oh my, 15th century Germany had their own major technological advance: the Gutenberg printing press. Prior to the printing press books were produced by hand, an arduous, labor heavy, and expensive task. With the advent of the printing press books, including the bible, could be made much faster, and significantly cheaper than they had before.

And this bible, the inspired word of God, has over 5 billion copies sold, making it the best selling, best-distributed book of all time. While that doesn’t quite equate to scripture alone, it is certainly scripture prioritized, scripture readily available.

Sacred Words
To illustrate why sola scriptura is still relevant I’d like to tell you a personal story. It happened a few years ago during my CPE, or Clinical Pastoral Education. That’s a 400 hour seminary internship designed to bring you into real-world situations with people needing spiritual care. For my CPE I served as a hospice chaplain. As a hospice chaplain you visit with patients facing a terminal illness, and often their families as well, helping them to process their grief. And helping them prepare, from a spiritual perspective, for this upcoming death. This was done alongside a team of nurses, doctors and social workers, and over time I grew to really appreciate the very real spiritual needs many people have as they near the end of their time on this earth.

Hospice patients struggle with a variety of conditions, I learned, each with their own set of physical and mental challenges. The toughest cases, for me, were always the non-verbal patients. Many pastors have a reputation of being chatterboxes, it’s a relational field, I certainly fit that description, Pastor Bryan, I sense that in you too, it seems we both like to talk 🙂

But often when facing life’s most difficult moments it’s more important to listen, to listen deeply, to listen well. And when you’re working with patients experiencing the late stages of Alzheimer’s, a debilitating disease that, over time, takes away memory, and eventually the ability to communicate, and even the ability to control your movements, this listening can be kinda difficult. Often I’d find myself at a loss of what exactly to do to help connect with people in the throes of Alzheimer’s. And to address their spiritual needs? That seemed almost impossible.

One patient in particular really stands out, we’ll call her Margie. Margie lived in a group home, and was experiencing late stage Alzheimer’s. Her chart said she was in her mid-90s, and a Baptist.

The nurse on duty told me Margie would occasionally shake her head yes, or no, when asked a direct question. But, beyond that, her day was pretty quiet I was told, only briefly being interrupted by healthcare providers that would help her eat, change clothes and check vital signs. The nurse told me her bible was in a drawer next to her bed, perhaps she’d like to hear someone read from it.

After introducing myself to Margie I asked if she’d like me to read some from her bible; she nodded her head slightly in approval. I finally found the book in her desk, sitting below a few other things, it was leather bound and had those pretty golf leaf pages. And Margie’s name was imprinted on the front cover, yes this was definitely her bible. We then sat there, holding hands, as I opened the book to read.

As I turned the pages I notice her bible is the King James Version, that’s the one originally published way back in 1611. You may know it as the version with all the thees and thines, the doths and saiths; it’s Old English. And it was an old bible, the copyright date in hers is from the 1920s, and the pages were well worn. How many times had she read though this book, I found myself wondering? Maybe 100? There was just no way to know.

With this thought still fresh on my mind I opened to the book of John, and started to read. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” chapter one begins. As I read I noticed, out of the corner of one eye, that Margie was speaking this passage, from memory, in a hushed whisper. I then watched in amazement as she spoke, in hushed tones, saying scripture, from memory, as I read the verses. At some point she had memorized the entire first chapter of John, and also knew many other sections of John too, saying them right alongside me as I spoke.

And as she spoke I noticed her body grew calm. Her limbs, normally jittering with an uncontrollable motion were now still. Her face, which had appeared tense and troubled just moments before, was now relaxed. She seemed to be at peace.

One of her nurses later told me they hadn’t seen her talk in weeks. And yet in this moment, as we spoke scripture together, she was able to access words. Was able to access God’s words. All seemed well with her soul.

Perhaps in that moment, as she prepared for death, prepared to enter the grand beyond, prepared to meet her glorious Maker, perhaps sola scriptura was all she needed. My sense is there was no theology, no priest, no pope, no pastor, no medicine, no doctor, no nurse that could have brought that sense of calm to her mind and her body, as we sat and read scripture. It was a beautiful beautiful moment.

Close
I’d like to show you something.  I’d like to show you God’s Word. You can access it any way you like, be it by book, or computer, tablet or cellphone. It’s available in hundreds of languages and countless translations. One of them is just bound to speak to you. We have endless distractions, from work to school to kids to yes, even church potlucks, and multiple voices competing for our attention, it never seems to end. Yet starting here, with this book, and letting it filter through the rest of your life, well, that’s all you ever really need.  AMEN.

 

A Question of Identity

A homily on Matthew 16:13-20 .

Personal Identity
Who do you say that I am? Personally speaking, and this is Ryan talking here, I go by many names. To my children I am Dad.  Lately Bean – that’s the nickname for our 2nd grade daughter Hannah – she’s been calling me “poppa” and that’s kinda fun. To my wife Kathi I am husband, she’ll admit to that, at least on a good day.  To some of you I am Pastor, again, hopefully you’ll also admit to that, at least on a good day.  🙂

In seminary I had a nickname – there were *far* too many Ryan’s at Luther Seminary for any of our good – it seemed like all those Ryan’s running around a small graduate school campus would get confusing pretty fast. So instead, on the first day of class, of each semester, as the professor read our names, to check attendance, when hearing my name I’d respond, “Here.  But please, call me Ishmael.” That little literary reference too was fun, and the nickname has stuck, at least for many of my good friends.

And if you think about yourself, and the multiple roles and identities that you have, you too can easily come up with many, many responses to that simple question, Who do you say that I am? Just by your existence you are all son or daughter, or perhaps also brother or sister, husband or wife, mom or dad, uncle or aunt, niece or nephew. And then there are the names that your education, jobs, and civic organizations will place on you. You could be doctor, priest, president, custodian, director, principal, treasurer, landscaper, perhaps also a super-volunteer as well.

Divine Identity
All these questions, of identity, and the names we go by, all of this is central to today’s text in Matthew chapter 16. Here we have Jesus, surrounded by his disciples, preparing them, and us, for a very important moment. Christ starts out by asking a more general question, consider it an ancient form of an ice-breaker, designed to get people talking. It’s the kind of question you ask before moving on to tougher, more personal questions.

The ice breaker he asks the disciples is fairly broad, he wonders, “Who do people say that I am?” It’s almost like Christ is trying to get a sense of the local chatter. He’s asking his disciples what are you hearing? Or what’s the good word? They respond with a mountain of possibilities, in each case connecting Jesus with someone else. Some thought Jesus was John the Baptist; both men roamed the earth at the same time, both baptized, both were religious figures of their era. So maybe John and Jesus were the same, simply a case of mistaken identity. Still others thought Jesus was a reincarnated version of another Jewish religious figure, either Elijah, or Jeremiah, or maybe another prophet. Coming from his disciples, sharing the local gossip of the day, any of those, at least for us, would be considered a major compliment.

But as nice as all of those possible identities may sound, they still weren’t quite right. To get at his real identity Jesus asks the disciples that more pointed, direct question, the one we started with, Who do *you* say that I am? Here Peter, in a moment of clarity Jesus says came directly from God, here Peter exclaims “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

“Blessed are you,” Jesus, the Christ, tells Peter, “for on this rock I will build this church.” Now I think many of us have some notion of what the church is, it’s a group of people who come together, a people who share a lot in common: shared holy scriptures, shared doctrines, shared creeds. And, ideally at least, this shared identity leads to a shared vision of our purpose here on earth. And even more ideally this shared identity informs how we live into that purpose while we’re here.

But what we may be less certain of pertains to this rock. What exactly is this rock Jesus speaks of? And what exactly is Jesus saying here about how he will build this church? One interpretation is to say Peter, literally, is the rock. And that Christ’s church will be built by, and through, Peter. Our Roman Catholic brethren are certainly of this mindset, Peter was the first Pope. And all Popes since then can trace their identity as leader of the Catholic church directly back to Peter. On one level that certainly makes a lot of sense.

Another way to look at this is to say that it isn’t Peter himself, but instead it is Peter’s faith, that that is where Christ will build his church. Said differently it is Peter’s boldness, Peter’s proclamation, of who Jesus is, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, it is that proclamation that builds the church. And that’s where you and I come in.

For it is our boldness, our proclamation of who Jesus is, and then what we do with that identity, *that* is what builds the church. From that vantage point proclamation becomes our rallying cry, it’s the reason we heal the sick, why we feed the hungry, why we clothe the naked. That identity, of Jesus, as the Christ, becomes our shared identity as the church, and leads us into God’s mission for the world.

Close
Who do you say that I am? We get asked that question, in one form another, all the time. And we respond to that question in all kinds of ways. The next time someone asks you your name, or what you prefer to go by, considering telling them this:

I am a follower of Christ, who is Son of the living God. I too am a child of this living God, and am created in God’s own image. And I take part, as best I’m able, in God’s redemptive mission for the world.

For it is the answer to this question, who do you say that I am, both in our response, and in how we live into that response, it is that, my friends, that can change EVERYTHING. Amen.

 

A Beautiful Paradox

A message about a favorite movie, a favorite reformer and a favorite piece of art, all tied together with themes from the Protestant Reformation and Romans 7:15-25.

A Beautiful Mind
Who here has seen the movie A Beautiful Mind?  The film came out in 2001 and starred the likes of Russell Crowe, Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly. And it was pretty well received by critics and audiences, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four of them, and grossing over 300 million dollars worldwide. What is it that made this movie so successful?

The film tells the real-life story of John Nash, a brilliant economist and mathematician. As the story unfolds we watch as John’s life achievements pile up; he earns a PhD from a prestigious Ivy League college, becomes a professor at MIT, and publishes articles that eventually lead him to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics. Along the way he also falls in love, marries the girl of his dreams and becomes a father. On the surface it’s the kind of American success story many of us aspire to, either for ourselves or our children.

But unfortunately, as is often the case, to capture the essence of a person we have to dig deeper, and go beyond just personal and professional successes. As the film goes on, we find out that John Nash suffers from a debilitating mental illness; John is a paranoid schizophrenic. Schizophrenia defined is a separation from reality, and in his case it causes John to experience auditory hallucinations. The film takes some liberties here and adds in visual hallucinations as well, John first hears, then sees, people that aren’t really there.

As you can imagine this illness takes a tremendous toll on John’s friends, colleagues, and especially his supportive wife. Once John becomes aware of his ailment there’s this remarkable scene in the movie where he grapples with what to do to resolve his problem.

In the scene John tells his psychiatrist: “It’s a problem, that’s all it is. It’s a problem with no solution. That’s what I do, I solve problems.” The psychiatrist replies, “This isn’t math. You can’t come up with a formula to change the way you experience the world.” John disagrees, replying “All I have to do is apply my mind.” The psychiatrist counters, saying, “There is no theorem, no proof, you can’t reason your way out of this.” “Why not?!? Why can’t I?” John wonders. “Because,” the psychiatrist tells him, “your mind is where the problem is in the first place.”

Despite his brilliance, his achievements, his successes and gifts, there is nothing John can do on his own to heal his mental illness. Perhaps it’s this paradox, of a highly successful person, who also is highly flawed, unable to fix his own problems, perhaps that is what attracted audiences to this movie in droves.

A Beautiful Reformation
This dilemma, of being created as good, as we all were in the beginning, and yet stricken with an illness, or perhaps a certain brokenness, or what some refer to as sin; this also haunted Martin Luther.

Luther’s insights into this dilemma, along with so many other of his insights paved the way for the Protestant Reformation. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of that reformation Pastor Bryan and I will take a deep dive, by way of a sermon series, to explore several revolutionary, scriptural concepts that led to this historic moment. Today marks the first week of that series. If you enjoy the message this week we certainly hope you return for more. And if you don’t enjoy it, well, still come back, as Pastor Bryan’s message next week may just catch your fancy instead 😉

Anyways, back to Martin Luther, the law student turned monk, turned priest, turned professor turned reformer. Similar to John Nash, Luther also had his own struggles. As a young adult Luther lived in a monastery, and worried about sin, constantly fearing that he may have committed it. When he thought he had sinned he would apologize to God, through confession, whenever he failed. He did A LOT of confessing.

Luther was so concerned with his own sin that he would often wake up the head monk in the middle of the night to confess. And at times Luther was so obsessed with sin he would literally whip himself, again, and again and again, as punishment. Painful stuff. So why all this extreme behavior? Because Luther believed that if he died without confessing all his sins that he was destined for hell. I can only imagine the hell this must have been for Luther, unable to stop sinning, or at least unable to believe he could, unable to save himself, with his salvation seemingly always hanging in the balance.

A Beautiful Paradox
Eventually Luther moved past this dark time in his life, due in part to a careful reading of scripture that includes the Romans 7 text we heard earlier. In that passage we have the apostle Paul saying all kinds of strange things, like in verse 15 where he finds that I do not understand my own actions and that I do the very thing I hate. Paul continues to struggle with his own identity in verses 22-23, saying for I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I am at war with the law of my mind.

At war, with the law of my mind. Does that remind you of anyone? Perhaps it reminds you of Martin Luther, at war with his own tendency to sin. And then beating himself, physically, because he was so distraught. Or perhaps it reminds you of John Nash, the brilliant economist who also happened to be schizophrenic. At war with his own mind, unable to heal himself of this terrible illness.

Who else does this war with the mind remind you of? It reminds me of, well, myself. Of course I struggle with sin, hopefully that’s no surprise. We all struggle with our own brokenness, struggle with our own inability to fully live into the inherent goodness that God has created within each of us.

So the Apostle Paul’s struggles described in Romans 7, of doing the very things we hate reflect Martin Luther’s struggles, and John Nash’s struggles, and my struggles, and yes, your struggles, indeed all of our struggles. It is, after all, the human condition.

Fortunately, when reading Romans chapter seven one day Martin Luther had an aha moment about this paradox, about this dual state we find ourselves in. From this passage Luther coined the Latin phrase simul justus et peccator (pronounced simil usetess et pe-caht-tor). The translation, loosely, means simultaneously saint and sinner. Meaning that, since the time of original sin, where Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, ever since, humanity has retained that sinful nature, it is part of us. And something we cannot overcome ourselves. The good news is that, through the life, death and resurrection of Christ we are made righteous in the eyes of God, made to be as saints.

This paradox, this dual identity is so important to what it means to be Lutheran that, during seminary, I ended up with two different articles of clothing that have some variation of simul justus et peccator written on it. The first is a t-shirt, in fact I wore it earlier this week when writing this message, kinda figured it would be good luck.  On the front of the shirt is that Latin phrase, in big letters. When people see me wearing it and ask what the phrase means, which happens a lot – I mean really, who knows Latin? – I’ll turn around and show them the translation, simultaneously saint and sinner, that’s written on the back of the shirt in small letters. It’s a fun thing to do; you too will likely see me wearing this shirt around one of these days as well.

The second article of clothing I have that relates to this theme is a sweatshirt, with an ambigram on it. An ambigram is an image – really a piece of art – that says one thing when you look at it from one direction. And says another thing when you look at it from the other direction. I brought this sweatshirt so you can see how exactly it works.

If you were to look at me wearing this sweatshirt you’d see this:

And when I look at this same image, while looking down, well, I see this:

This dual state, of being simultaneously saint and sinner, and being able to see that, together, in one image, I think it’s kinda helpful. It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t get too high on our horse in our identity as a saint. And on the flip side we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much about our identity as a sinner, it’s baked into who we are, something each of us struggle with.

This saint and sinner identity covers all kinds of people, from Nobel prize winners to church reformers to biblical apostles. What made this notion so revolutionary 500 years ago is that it cuts across all classes of society, from clergy to peasants, from kings to paupers. Even today it includes the richest of the rich, the poorest of the poor, and everyone in the middle. It includes the PhDs and those that have never spent a day in school. It covers the biggest givers at church, the non-givers, and the non-attenders too. If you volunteer a ton, you’re part of it. If you don’t, well, I think you get the idea. We are saints. We are sinners.

In the coming weeks, as Pastor Bryan and I continue to delve into the reformation we may greet you by saying good morning, saints! When you hear that please respond with an enthusiastic good morning! And we may also greet you with a good morning sinners! Please also reply, with the same energy, good morning! Both, at all times, are true.

Close
Before we close I’d like to ask you to do something this coming week, consider it your homework. Try to see everyone you meet as a saint, for indeed they are, made in the image of God. At the same time, recognize that everyone you meet also has their flaws – some noticeable, others hidden deep below the surface – that’s the sinner part. And remember that this paradox, of being a sinner, with no ability to save ourselves, yet also being a saint, created in the image of God, and still seen as good in the eyes of God, all this is made possible by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Amen.

Charting course

I have a confession to make: Until recently I’d never been to Iowa.

Disney World, Spring 2017

Sure, I’ve travelled some, and have been to and through thirty-four states during various road trips and vacations spanning my forty-two years of life. Exploring different parts of the country is downright fun. And I’ve lived in seven of those states, including nearby Missouri and Indiana, along with other parts of the Midwest, South and East Coast. But, at least until recently, I’d never been to Iowa. And then, in late April, not so long ago, the phone rang.

It was a call from the Southeastern Iowa Synod, who had just been forwarded my pastoral mobility paperwork. They asked if I was open to exploring an opportunity in their neck of the woods. An opportunity that, at least on paper, looked like it could be a really good fit. The opportunity was for an Associate Pastor role, at Bethesda Lutheran, in Ames. After asking a few questions of the synod, poring over paperwork from the congregation, website and newsletter, then speaking with my wife Kathi, and praying – a lot – after two days of all this we said, why yes, we’d like to explore this some more.

Around this same time the Bethesda Call Committee, formed with a goal of finding an Associate Pastor, met to do many of the same things. They too pored over paperwork. They met. They discussed. They too prayed. And they watched a video of one of my sermons. And if you ever happen across Council President Rod Place ask him to tell you about his recent experience with a snake in the garden. He shared this tale with me recently; it’s a real life story of how the people of Bethesda Lutheran Ames, and me, a Pastor from South Florida awaiting call, came to be joined together. Thinking about it now as I write, surrounded by moving boxes, well, it gives me goosebumps.

After all this, the call committee said yes, we too see potential here, and they asked Kathi and I to come visit and interview. And before we knew it we found ourselves leaving on a jet plane, destined for Des Moines, with a car rental ready to take us thirty miles north.

South Florida to Ames, Iowa: 1,538 miles

And what did we find during our three days in Ames in the middle of June? We found a town full of kind people. Our family has lived in South Florida for the past 16 years. Prior to that Kathi has lived in or near Chicago for most of her life. We both went to undergrad at Valparaiso University, in Northwest Indiana. We both realized on this trip we missed “Midwestern nice.” Ames has that in spades.

While there we found Iowa State University, which is exciting to us for several reasons. Part of my sense of call is to connect with groups that can best be described by taglines like GenXers, Millennials, the unchurched, de-churched, atheists and agnostics. Many of these groups can be found, in large quantities, among young adults. And certainly among a Big 12 college with 37,000 students. In my previous career I worked for Nielsen, the TV ratings company, and absolutely love the challenge of reaching new audiences in new ways. In this last career at Nielsen we called it marketing. In this next vocation, as Pastor, it’s simply evangelism.

Kathi is also excited about Iowa State, but for another reason. She found out the university recently approved a Nursing program at ISU. Kathi has a PhD in Nursing, and has been interested in pursuing her own call, to academia, for some time now. It’s fun to imagine what that could look like for her, fun to imagine what those possibilities, as this new nursing program launches, could be.

We also found, of course, Bethesda Lutheran. We found a call committee, filled with passionate church members, excitedly sharing all they do, both locally and abroad. (Side note – mission to Tanzania? Cool!) We found Bethesda youth, who gave great perspective about the educational gem that is the Ames public schools. We found Bethesda young adults, on fire with energy about the emerging church, and what faith communities in the US will look like in the coming years. And we found retirees, the backbone of Bethesda, the group perhaps most adept at giving of their time, talents and treasures, more-so than most any other demographic. The South Florida congregations I have served in various capacities, including during my seminary internship year, are *filled* with high energy, dynamic retirees. Self-actualized people, living lives of meaning, lives of purpose. Lives as Christ followers, actively showing a disciple’s heart in all they do.

We also found Pastor Bryan, and wife Tricia, clearly beloved by the congregation. Pastor Bryan is a downright dream to work alongside as an Associate, believe me, I’ve been looking – (can you tell we like him?!?). We found Bethesda staff, who seem to know how to have some fun, all while doing what they do so well.

Heck we even found a house to live in (yeah!) and closed on that earlier this month.

We have a confession to make, Kathi and I.  We found something during this three day visit to Central Iowa in the middle of June.  We found something, for the two of us, for our seven-year-old Hannah and three-year-old Graham, and for our elderly toy fox terrier Chips.  We found something we’ve been searching a while for.  We found home.

Ames Iowa, June 2017

Article originally appeared in the August 2017 edition of the Bethesda Lutheran newsletter The Wellspring.