“Love the Lord your God, walk in all God’s ways, keep God’s commandments, hold fast and serve God with all
your heart and with all your soul” (Joshua 22:5).
As Faith Formation, Confirmation and Worship Services get into full swing after summer hiatus, congregations
often attempt to offer a full fall schedule of programs and services to meet the needs of its active members,
inactive members and potential new members. The question becomes, “What services do you offer at your
church?” We may wish to respond, “we offer some of the best services in the area!” We may be envious of
those who seem to offer more and better “services” than we do, or be disheartened because our “services” are
somehow not as attractive.
As a pastor I struggle to maintain that balance between “offering services” and living with integrity and
proclaiming Joshua’s message, “to love God and serve God with all our heart and soul.” It was Joshua who
remembered the failure of the people and the servanthood of Moses and said, “as for me and my household, we
will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). We are called, gathered and sent, not to be served…but to serve. So how
do we together become known as the place that loves God and serves?
This is the struggle…to serve and not be served, or perhaps to first be served and then be sent to serve. This is
perhaps best illustrated on the night before his betrayal when Jesus washed his disciple’s feet, fed and served
them (John 13:1-20). Remembering his life, love and promise of forgiveness, we gather on Sundays, the day of
Christ’s Resurrection to do as he commanded; be washed and fed, worship and learn how to be sent out in
service. Each week we end with some form of a sending, “Our worship has ended, go out in service!” to which
we respond with a hearty, “Amen!”
But, sometimes we forget, in our use of language, that we don’t come to church (this building) seeking primarily
“services.” Together we gather in this place for opportunities to worship, learn and serve. We are sent out with
those experiences, equipped and inspired to be the church (God’s people) in the world. Too often we come to
church (the building) as consumers asking, “what services do you offer?” and when those services don’t meet
our needs we complain or go church shopping, looking for the place that best serves us! We have come to see
the church as a building, where another commodity to consume is offered, in an overly very busy world that
saturates us with choices and lures us in by seeking to satisfy our wants and needs. Should this be the church’s
With an increasing awareness of membership decline, church growth specialists - often for a substantial fee –
gave advice on how to offer a better experience based on best practices in the service and hospitality industry.
For over a decade churches were told how to have better signage, parking lots, bathrooms, webpages and
effective social media and sometimes a menu of service times and styles to meet the expectations of that
elusive group of individuals who were church shopping. That became the central focus, meeting the
expectations of those seeking better “services.” But, Jesus did not look kindly on those who made places of
worship into marketplaces (John 2:13-23).
After a decade of continuing decline, some church growth specialists began to realize something interesting. Of
those churches that truly embraced membership growth based on the best practices of the service and
hospitality industry, roughly a third saw some measure of increased attendance. Another third found the
changes too difficult, divisive and expensive and it actually had an aversive effect on the congregation, and for a
final third of the congregations, their attempts had no qualitative or quantitative effect at all. Perhaps there
needs to be a different focus other than market driven analysis. So now we are hearing thankfully more about
discipleship and faith formation and reclaiming our identity, becoming places where people have the
opportunity for a deeper connection to their faith and learn how to practice that faith in their daily lives.
Churches can’t offer better coffee than Starbucks, we can’t out entertain or outperform the plethora of other
opportunities available on Sundays. But we do have an unmatched identity! We belong to God! In our
sometimes frenetic attempts to grow based on marketplace principles, maybe we lost our focus and mission. I
wonder if we can now reclaim our identity and become a community that truly offers sabbath rest and the
shalom, hope, love and forgiveness God offers and some still seek.
We are at our best when we are faithful to what has brought people together in almost every time and place,
the good news and promise of good things to come, from God alone. Here we learn we are more just members
of a consumer society who just happen to meet once a week at a building on 401 S. Lake Street, in Lake Mills,
Iowa. Here we are set free, to live in God’s kingdom and share that promise hope and vision with others, to love
and serve God and our neighbor.
“The Lord now sends us forth with hands to serve and give, to make of all the earth a better place to live. The
angels are not sent into our world of pain to do what we were meant to do in Jesus’ name; that falls to you and
me and all who are made free. Help us, O Lord, we pray, to do your will today” (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnal
This is the second in a series of “let’s get on board!” articles I hope to share with you. As I shared with you last
month, I really do believe God has great plans for us at Salem (Jeremiah 18:11). Surely God has planned for us a
great and hopeful future. We just have to “get on board” pray, listen, worship, have open conversations and
participate in those plans!
As I shared with the call committee during our first conversations, I have a fascination for boats and boat stories.
The ship has been used as a metaphor for the church since its inception. Images of boats and ships have been
found in ancient archeological sites. Stories of faithful, and sometimes not so faithful people, sailing in ships are
found in scripture and nautical words and phrases have found their way into our language of faith.
The main part of the sanctuary in which the assembly is seated has been called the “nave,” a medieval Latin
word which means ship. Some ship metaphors and idioms used in our common language, include: don’t
abandon ship, it’s time to jump ship, you run a tight ship, show me the ropes, all hands on deck, the ship has run
aground, it’s all smooth sailing from here, that ship has sailed, this ship is well anchored. You may know of some
other seafaring phrases. All of these phrases could be used to describe our life together in church.
As I was being called to Salem, I was intrigued by something Pastor Peter Soli shared in the Salem Outreach
newsletter back in December of 2015, “It can feel like the church is a boat on the sea but the boat is in the
middle of a dense fog. Because of the fog, we simply cannot see the shore. These times require us to navigate
using a compass. First we find true North.” How right he is to see the importance of successful navigation!
Especially finding our way through the fog in these times of troubled waters!
I have the one-hundred- year-old toy ship in my office made by my great-grandfather; and I shared how it
symbolically holds my heritage. I wrote an application paper for entrance into seminary telling about how this
ship has, “sailed through calm and rough waters. It is filled with the memories of the important people in my
life. It is fragile but still holding together except that I lost its rudder. The rudder broke and I didn’t realize it was
such an integral part of the ship…I have come to understand that rudder is Jesus.” I have copies of my entrance
paper in my office next to my ship that I would love to share with you if you desire. Perhaps we could have a
bible study in the future to have conversations about the ship stories of scripture.
I recently took off the shelf an important book that looks at the disturbing question of “Why Nobody Wants To
Go To Church Anymore.” In the book authors, Thom & Joani Schultz, founder and CEO of Group Publishing
write, “Our Church has become something that’s easy to ignore. It’s become something that fewer and fewer
people want to be a part of. We can’t help but wonder what needs to be done to keep this ship from sinking or
drifting into obscurity.”
One of the first ship stories in the bible is the story of Noah’s Ark (Genesis 7:15-19). Actually it wasn’t Noah’s
Ark it was God’s. Noah was just asked to build it and he had the faith and integrity needed for the task. Then
the floods came and Noah commanded all to come, two by two and “get on board!” There may be some parts
of this story that troubles you and that might be a healthy conversation for us to have.
“Jesus calls us; o’er the tumult of our life’s wild restless sea, day by day his clear voice sounding, saying ‘Christian,
follow me’” (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnal #696).
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a
future with hope” (Jeremiah 28:11).
I was ordained in 2001 and served my first call at Hope Lutheran Church in Annandale, Virginia for three years. I
served New Jerusalem Lutheran Church in Lovettsville, Virginia for twelve years, having spent the last year
celebrating the congregations 250 th Anniversary. In December of 2015, I shared at the Annual Congregational
meeting, that I was filling out my mobility papers making myself available for a possible new call, not knowing
what that might mean. This after a joyous anniversary celebration and a ministry that was at times challenging
but exciting, it was time for all of us to discern what the future might hold. For me personally it became a time
to reflect on what the second half of my pastoral ministry might be.
Now it’s becoming a bit clearer as I settle into my new office and our new home, what God might have in store
for us. Change can be strenuous and stressful while also filled with joy and blessing! That’s what God had in
store for Jeremiah and the people of Israel. For Nancy and I it has been all of that! After initial conversations
with Bishop Steven Ullestad and Assistant to the Bishop Stephen Brackett; meeting the Staff and Call Committee
of Salem, attending my first Council Meeting, being greeted by many helpful and giving members and now the
youth soon to be confirmed (yes I have my second Confirmation in just a couple of hours) this has been such an
affirmation of our move to a new call. We could not have orchestrated a better opportunity had we tried. So
God has plans for a future filled with hopeful possibilities!
On May 15, 2015 I will be installed as your lead pastor and God willing, will serve the second half of my ministry
at Salem. The Rev. Stephen Bracket will be here to preach and I will promise to be an example of faith active in
love, fostering peace, harmony, and mutual understanding in this congregation. Nancy and I have witnessed
that Spirit already active in those we have met, helped us find a house, offered hospitality and a warm welcome.
So thank you for all you have already done in preparation for the work we are about to begin.
I will promise to preach and teach in accordance with the holy scriptures and with the confessions of the
Lutheran church and carry out this ministry in harmony with the constitutions of the Evangelical Lutheran
Church in America. I will commit to being diligent in the study of the holy scriptures and in the use of the means
of grace. I will love, serve, and pray for you, God’s people, nourished with the word and sacraments, leading by
example, with faithful service and holy living. Centered in these commitments and acts of daily discipleship God
promises a future filled with hope.
Allow me to share a bit about my family. We came to Lake Mills with our twelve-year- old black lab, Gracie.
Nancy and I have been married for thirty-two years and have known each other for over forty. I moved across
the street from her family when I was sixteen years old and our families became very close. We have two
children Eric who is married to Andrea. They live in South Minneapolis and recently brought our first grandchild,
Odin Joel into the family. Our second son Daniel stayed in Virginia, closer to his girlfriend Angie and her family,
Angie is graduating from AMU and continuing her master’s degree while Daniel words for the Metro DC Airport
Authority and is pursuing a degree in emergency management.
I have four siblings and Nancy has five and I imagine you may have the opportunity to meet some them as they
come to visit or hear their stories in the years to come. Nancy and I also look forward to hearing your stories as
we share the ministry of Salem and discover what God is calling us to do as we give witness to his life giving
Spirit and saving grace. God has plans for us and may we together discover what they are and share them!
A Place Called Reconciliation[i]
By Rev. Peter Soli
Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed. Psalm 85:10
As I read and watch the news from Baltimore and Ferguson, as the trials of the Boston marathon bombing and the Aurora Colorado movie theater shooting remind us of tragic, senseless killings, and even as Salem members look back at the damage done by past congregational conflict; I am reminded of our never ending need for reconciliation. The apostle Paul talks about how Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation. Indeed this is a tall order but it is an order that brings with it great reward.
Jesus said that “the truth will set you free.” Salem Lutheran, the people of Aurora and Boston, and those in Ferguson and Baltimore are focused on unearthing the truth. Around all of these conflicts people choose sides and there are characters who in their eagerness for the truth brandish a bright light, aiming it into the shadows and pointing it at possible myths. But notice that characters on both sides of the issues arm themselves with what they see. Each point of view will claim that truth is on their side. We only need to tune into the news to watch particular versions of the truth paraded before others like winning arguments before a judge.
Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan to a lawyer who had challenged him. At the end of the story he admonished the lawyer (and by extension all of his followers) to show mercy. Our Bible is filled with stories of forgiveness and mercy. In our society, and particularly in our churches, there are characters who, in their eagerness for mercy put forth a call for acceptance, compassion, and understanding. They tenderly remind us of our imperfections and weaknesses and in the face of what some claim as truth, implore the judge to act with leniency.
Jesus made enemies when he decried the injustices of his day. I have seen in churches where I have served those who insist upon justice. These people in their desire for justice make a pageant of penalties and policies designed to repair the damage done by the greed, wrongdoing, and inequality. Those seeking justice demand accountability and action and refuse to let things rest until satisfied.
Jesus also said, “Peace be with you.” It only makes sense that in churches where I have served, there are characters who are eager for peace. They seek to hold the community together with the glue of safety, respect, and well-being. These proponents of peace set the stage for reconciliation and when reconciliation has been achieved they host the party. However, those who most value truth, mercy, and justice are uneasy with the peacemakers unless each is truly heard and valued.
Psalm 85 provides a guiding vision for our life together in community, be it our church community or the community of citizens. The verse is about reconciliation and the folly of our fighting. Neither mercy, truth, justice, nor peace can stand alone, each needs the others. How easy it is for us to lose sight of the fact that we need each other…especially at times of conflict and disagreement.
Truth needs mercy to contend with the fact that each of us is weak, imperfect, and in need of support. Mercy needs truth in order to slow down and remember the truth sets us free. Justice is needed in order that we have accountability and action but it is of little value without compassion and peace. Reconciliation comes when, as the psalmist declares: “Mercy and truth have met together; Justice and peace have kissed.” This is where community grows and is nourished.
It is my hope and prayer that we might keep meeting and talking, keep making room for those calling for getting the truth out, those calling for mercy, and those demanding justice. Peace is needed at the beginning and is the prize when all can met together.
[i] I wish to credit author and peacemaker John Paul Lederach who writes about Psalm 85 and these four characters in his book “The Journey Toward Reconciliation.”
The past several weeks I have suffered from a respiratory illness and am grateful that this is my first major respiratory illness in a little over a year. To some that gratitude might seem strange but let me explain. Twenty years ago I dreaded the warm weather because of seasonal allergies and I dreaded winter because it seemed every other month I had a major respiratory illness.
Eventually I was connected with an allergist who was able to provide medications and shots to relieve my allergies. Working with another physician we found treating me with an asthma medication reduced the number of colds I had during the winter. I felt like I got my life back!
I share this because that is how healing works in our lives. Being healed is getting our life back. During this Lenten season we are looking at the many areas of our life in which we yearn for healing. We live in a sin filled and broken world. A world where: guilt, disease, addictions, and broken relationships seem to chisel away at our lives. We are left wondering if we will ever be whole again. In faith we turn to God in prayer seeking healing in our lives and the lives of those we love.
Sometimes the healing takes time. Sometimes the healing is not what we expect. Other times we are overwhelmed by the healing power of God. In the scriptures we read of Jesus’ healing of those longing to be made whole. The lepers who get their life back; being allowed contact with loved ones. The blind give sight, the crippled given function to limbs, and the sick healed. Each person who has experience healing in their lives has been given back their life.
Throughout this Lenten season we will come together as a congregation on Wednesday’s seeking God’s healing presence through prayer. May God’s healing presence be known in your life today.
Recently I read a short book on the trinity that made me rethink the meaning and importance of the trinity. The Threefold Art of Experiencing God, by Christian Swartz challenged me to understand the trinity as an expression of how we experience God. We experience God in a threefold manner and therefore we use the doctrine of the trinity to talk about our experience. Let me explain.
God has reveals himself as creator. God’s fingerprints are all over creation. One does not have to be a Christian to encounter this kind of revelation. However, on the basis of this revelation alone, nobody will come to the realization that the Creator is the Father of Jesus Christ.
The Son, who is Jesus and who brings the revelation of salvation, has a different character. It is in Jesus that we definitely see God for who he really is. We see God seeking to forgive and reconcile the world to him. It is in our relationship to Jesus that we receive salvation and eternal life.
Swartz refers to the Spirit’s as God’s “personal revelation”. This is the experience of what God objectively has done for us in Christ becoming a subjective reality. Through the Holy Spirit, the “Christ for us” becomes the “Christ in us.” Without a personal appropriation or revelation by the Spirit, there is no full revelation of God.
These three experiences of God make up the totality of God. The fullness of God is revealed to us in God’s actions. And, Swartz states, the trinity explains in part the differences between us.
The most telling example of this is that we base our knowledge on our experience of God. The revelation of God in creation is the source of science and scientific understanding. The revelation of God in Jesus is the authority and witness of the scripture. The revelation of God in the sphere of the Spirit is the knowledge we have in personal experience. Taken together, all three of these sources of knowledge move us towards a greater understanding of the mystery of God. God’s hand is in all three.
Unfortunately, often we loose sight of this triune nature of God. We might find ourselves as liberals – rooted in the experience of the God of creation. Liberals are strong on social involvement and science but find themselves at odds with evangelicals and charismatics. If we experience God only as creator we run the danger of syncretism which means a mixture of religions.
On the other hand we might find ourselves as evangelicals, rooted in the saving acts of Jesus. Evangelicals are strong on the Bible and doctrine but are at odds with the charismatics and liberals. If we are limited to experiencing God only as Jesus the savior we run the danger of becoming dogmatic or rigid in our understanding of God. For example, the Pietistic movement, while it originated as a reaction against the established practices of the orthodox church, gradually became “orthodox” themselves.
Finally, if we might experience God primarily as Spirit and in a personal way, we are charismatics. Charismatics are strong on spirituality and personal experience but find themselves at odds with the liberals and the evangelicals. If we are limited to experiencing God only as Spirit, we run the danger of spiritualism when spiritual experiences become more important than the standards of scripture.
If we find ourselves experiencing only one part of God to the exclusion or diminution of the other parts, we are in error and in conflict with what the Christian church has long held as the truth of God. God, in his fullness, is three experiences: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Because we are individuals we experience God in individual ways. It will help us to remember that our friends and neighbors have experienced God that may be different than our own. Rather than trying to correct them, it may be better to realize our own limitation. We may have something less than a complete understanding of God. This diversity is inherent in the way God chooses to work in his kingdom.
We do our best when we avoid trying to manipulate other to believe exactly as we believe. We grow when we try to learn from those people with whom we disagree. We learn when we welcome conflict, dialog, and the opportunity to wrestle with differing experiences. So let us this Sunday come together to worship God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Pr. Peter Soli
Many of you will be reading this on Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the beginning of Lent. The Lenten season is the beginning of a forty day countdown to Easter. (Sundays are not included in the 40 days.) These forty days recall the forty days Jesus was in the wilderness, not eating and being tempted by Satan. They also recall the forty years during which the people of God wandered in the wilderness before they crossed the river Jordon into the Promised Land. Lent, with its resonance with these other events is a time when believers prepare and chasten themselves for redemption through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial.
In the Old Testament, the rescue of God’s people culminates in the book of Joshua chapter 4 when the Israelites reached the river Jordan. The Jordan was the final barrier between them and the Promised Land. Their forty year journey started when Moses parted the Red Sea and now, again, God’s leader, Joshua, halts the flow of water in the Jordan and all cross to begin life in a new land.
To remember this event and that God is the one who is our refuge, rescue, and hope, Joshua had twelve stones set in the river at the place where they crossed. Without the stones, there would be a danger that generations to follow might forget God’s mighty act. Perhaps even more dangerous, that they would forget God. Therefore, Joshua made sacred the stones from the river Jordan.
Our forty day Lenten journey is a reminder of the wilderness wanderings of God’s chosen and the rescue and redemption that is at the end. The stones remind us that God sent his son Jesus to rescue and redeem us. Jesus has removed the final barrier between us and the Promised Land. The stones remind us that God in Christ Jesus rescues us from our sin and promises eternal life. And as God in Christ Jesus makes a new covenant, we are reminded that God delivers on his promises.
I would hope that each of us will consider this time during Lent a time to remember, a time to turn to the ritual which our various churches provide, and open ourselves to God’s redeeming love and mercy.
For me I plan to regularly pray the serenity prayer. When I was serving as a chaplain at the chemical dependency treatment center in Fergus Falls, we would recite the words of the Serenity Prayer after each group meeting. It was the prayer that everyone in recovery knew by heart.
“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can, and
Wisdom to know the difference.”
It is difficult for all of us to be wise enough to recognize that there many things which we have no power over. In fact, many of the things we think are within our control are really not. The prayer is a reminded for me to slow me down. It causes me to reflect on the situation at hand.
This prayer will be part of my Lenten journey. I encourage readers to consider regular volunteering during Lent; reading scripture, praying more often, giving a special offering to the work of the church, or another positive activity. Change the things you can change. May God give us all wisdom through this season of ritual and remembering.
Pr. Peter Soli
Pr. Joel Guttormson
|Salem Lutheran Church||