“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” (John 14.1)
I am so pleased and happy to be one of your pastors at First Lutheran Church. It is wonderful to be a part of a church community that is open to thinking ahead, sickness aware of changing times and how that may change how we “do” church.
This of course is not easy; change never is. Our family is familiar with change. We moved to Palo Alto five months ago. We are getting used to new schools, new friends, new opportunities, not to mention new houses. (We moved to Palo Alto five months ago and are already living in our second house thanks to sewer problems!) In February, we will move again to the church parsonage. It is all good; we are so blessed.
Change can be both exciting and anxiety producing. As a congregation, we are all continuing to feel one another out, sharing our opinions, experiences, passions and feelings about God and First Lutheran. Sure, we are bumping heads every once in awhile, but we are listening to one another and, hopefully, appreciating our different experiences and views.
This is so great. We are looking carefully at our church website and seeing how it might better speak to those looking for a place to worship and build community. We are looking at our services and using our gifts and the needs around us to provide an inclusive and meaningful worship. There is a lot of intentional planning and discussion around how to “be” church for the community around us. There is a lot up in the air that we may be nervous about including the budget, finding a youth director, a permanent choir director, making sense of Bernt and me and how we are leading the church, just to name a few.
This coming month will be busy, with Advent, Santa Lucia, choir concerts, pageants, and special music in church. And this is just at church! In our lives at home, there is a lot going on. We have holiday parties, meals to plan and prepare, cookies to bake, shopping for gifts, visiting with family, cleaning the house. All these things to do, to make it all as perfect as we can. We want everything to work out, look good, come together.
There is so much to do this month of December. How, in all this chaos, do we focus and work on not burning out? Are we going to enjoy all the work we put in to making our celebration of Christmas special and meaningful? Or are we going to be disappointed and exhausted?
I hope this Advent season we can all challenge ourselves and each other to slow down, and not let all the hustle and bustle take all the joy and meaning out of Advent. What can we do to lighten the load, despite all the real pressures around us? Can we slow down, and put more focus on God and what it really means to prepare for Christmas?
For us Christians, it is not really all about the presents, Santa, and parties. No. For us it is about waiting and celebrating the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ, who teaches and models for us how loved we are and how we are to love one another. The Christmas message is much more simple than the secular message we are bombarded with on a daily basis this month. As we enter this busy and festive month of December, may we all relax, all slow down, and really think about all that we are doing and why we are doing it. Peace and Joy!
John Eliot Gardiner has written a big book on J.S. Bach which focuses on the choral music, especially music Bach composed for use in Lutheran worship. I read it this past Summer and I’ve been meaning to jot down a few thoughts before dog-ears straighten themselves out and memory fades (which happens rather quickly for me these days – I blame it on the kids). It’s a delightful book. The way to read it is with the recordings at hand. I used one of those $10/month music services. I would look up a recording on my smartphone for the particular work being discussed (sometimes Gardiner’s own recording) and listen while reading Gardiner’s passionate commentary. You can also easily find translations of the texts online.
I was unfamiliar with most of this music. I know there are some great Bach enthusiasts and experts around First Lutheran Church. It’s been fun asking what people think of Gardiner. My sense is that he makes
Bach’s music sound edgy. Edgy church music: is that a contradiction in terms? It seems like what many of us like about church music is that it’s so conventional. We want the reverent, spiritual sounding music that goes well with candles, or the warm gospel hymns we grew up with, or the top 40 hits from Christian radio – “religious” style music, whatever that may be for us. If the music is unconventional, strange or even disturbing, it’s probably best kept for the concert hall for people who are in to that sort of thing.
It seems like Gardiner is always saying about Bach’s music, “the congregation would have never heard anything like this.” For one thing, Bach could surprise people with the character of the music he would introduce at some event. He would compose serious, somber music for performance at the local coffeehouse, and then surprise people with more lively, secular style music in church. (pg.254) But he seems to have been especially “edgy” in making bold efforts to compose music that would fit the biblical message. So maybe say he had a prophetic edge?
Gardiner suggests that some of Bach’s most exciting innovations in music came about by way of Bach pursuing the best possible musical fit with whatever scripture passage he was working with.
I think of those Sundays when we hear scripture texts about temples crashing, the moon turned to blood and the coming of the Son of Man. What to sing? In our hymnal’s index there’s plenty of suggested hymns for themes like “grace” and “hope but, alas, no entries for “apocalyptic devastation.” The Cantata BWV 20, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort musically conveys the quaking of a terrified heart, the chattering of teeth and “bubbling stream .. denied to the rich man” through two voices in descending “anguished chromaticism.”(pg317) The result, says Gardiner, is music of a daring intensity that anticipates Beethoven. (pg314)
A happier text is Psalm 149-150: “Sing to the Lord a new song … let them praise his name with dances, with drums and harps let them play to him … everything that has breath praise the Lord!” A motet based on these texts – BWV225, Singet dem Herrn – is apparently what piqued Mozart’s interest in studying Bach (pg472). It’s technically demanding music for two choirs. Voices are used to convey the presence of harps and drums and even other instruments. It’s exciting to listen to: says Gardiner: “some of the most exhilarating dance-impregnated vocal music Bach ever wrote.”(pg472) Gardiner often mentions Bach’s use of dance music to convey the joy of the gospel. He thinks this may be related to Bach’s family life, where singing and drinking together would lead to dance at the end of the evening. Gardiner doubts that the Lutheran clergy of Bach’s day would have found such “bursts of festive creativity” acceptable in church. (pg475) But give us a chance – we clergy eventually come around! What is the music like that makes us want to move in our pew? Enthusiastic singing? Syncopated rhythms? Latin? Swing?
A couple more thoughts in a Lutheran vein… There’s not much in this story about the influence of what I take to be Martin Luther’s own emphasis on congregational participation in the music. Indeed, congregational participation in worship itself doesn’t seem to have been emphasized in Bach’s day. In part, church was a place you were expected to be and be seen. There’s a funny section describing how, at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, there may have been paper airplanes thrown about and dogs running loose in the sanctuary while Bach was introducing some astonishing masterpiece.
Also, the chapter “Collusion or Collision” is about how sometimes Bach’s music went along with the biblical text, but sometimes “collided” or went against the text in interesting ways. Gardiner pauses at a couple of places in the book to reflect on how Bach wasn’t just delivering doctrine, but the more universal, transforming and truth-telling experience that music can impart. My thought is that our “chief” doctrine – God’s grace in Christ – bridges the divide, a doctrine that’s like music in our ears. I think of the sing-song voice of some preachers in the African American tradition. When we’ve really heard the about God’s grace in its doctrinal truth, the Holy Spirit fills our hearts with love and makes us want to sing and dance. More about that another time ….
“Can I help you find something,” asked the woman behind the front desk at the Cantor Arts Center.
“Yes, I’d like to find the devil – Lucifer.”
That was fun to say.
Actually, I was curious about this new exhibit on “Satan, Sin and the Underworld” in part because one of our children really likes spooky Halloween images, and I wanted to check it out for him. Non-flash photography is allowed, so I took lots of pictures.
Of course, the exhibit also had much to do with Christianity. On one wall you read something like: “Christianity teaches that all people will be raised at the final judgment and either spend eternity with God in heaven or in punishment in hell.”
Hmm … is that what all Christians really believe? That heaven is some place “up there” with a corresponnding hell “down below?” Isn’t Matthew 25, about reward and punishment for sheep and goats, really just hyperbole, meant to get us to take seriously God’s call to compassion? Who among us is not a sinner – a goat? The grace of God has us expecting wonderful turns of events beyond what we can imagine, even the worst hells of violence and disaster overcome.
The images that caught my eye were those of the Last Judgment. They show lots of bodies in a perspective we don’t usually see: vertical. The earth beneath our feet and the firmament overhead seem less solid or certain. Everything’s open and people are either tumbling down or being raised up.
People talk of how our world seems flat. Everybody’s going about their business on the same level and not much seems to change. Something happens – a traffic jam – and everybody waits for it to clear up, and you continue on your way. “We’ve been through this before, we’ll get through it again.”
We live in a flat world – or haven’t we figured out that it’s round? The wide world webbed together. We’ve all got our place but we’re connected in. No real need to leave. Send an email or a drone.
Mary sang (in Luke 1), “God has cast the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” The first Christmas was still ahead; and I suppose all those who have pregnant know how it can ‘turn your world upside down.’ But maybe we Christians get a little tired out, jaded, cynical. We start to see the world the way everyone else seems to look at it. Do we, like Mary, expect God in Jesus to do powerful things?
We may not always realize it, advice but what we call in the church “fellowship time” or “coffee hour” is a key part of our Sunday morning experience together. Or maybe the times we do realize it’s importance it feels more like “party time!’ and we leave church with a high from all the good company and wonder “did that much fun really just happen?’
As a congregation, coffee hour is anything we make it and that ofcourse changes week to week. Will this be a week where we scramble for a box of cookies and some paper cups? Great! People will love it. Will this be a week where we have a beautiful spread including fancy linens and fancy cheeses? Delicious!
What a gift from our volunteers. Maybe I can help a little. But believe it or not, the details of the table settings are less important to what makes coffee hour “coffee hour” than the social interactions around the table and church grounds.
‘Whether you are an adult needing a cup of coffee or breakfast, or a visitor feeling akward and lonely, or a child eager to see what delicious treats are on the table, fellowship time has become an important ritual for many of us on Sunday mornings. It offers us the chance to catch up with one another, get to know each other, welcome one another, and care for one another. We build courage to talk with those we don’t know and share our thoughts and experiences with them. At what point in our week do we get to do that? We are often so busy in our own lives and doing church business.
I have been so pleased and impressed with FLC and the many coffee hours and occasions we have shared together around food and conversation. Our experience together in worship and socially are so important to nurturing and sharing our experience of God with others around us. I thank you all for all you do and encourage everyone to participate in their fullest capacity!
Sometimes we refer to new people as “visitors,” “guests” or “prospective members.” But even after a visitor becomes a member, they struggle to find their place. We sometimes forget that they are still new. The word guest can mean someone honored, but also transient and not as privileged or important as established members. Also, not everyone who comes through our doors is a prospective member – they may never “join” and yet their presence to us is vital. Dr. Jessica Duckworth has provided an interesting discussion of these terms in her inspiring book “Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers can Save the Church.” I follow her in finding “newcomers” a helpful word for the wide variety of people who may be new to church.
We pastors have recently been hosting gatherings for newcomers and sponsors. Here are a few thoughts on welcoming newcomers (much of this applies to children, too – who are technically “new” just because they are young!):
The presence of newcomers brings spiritual vitality to the church. I think of the ways Jesus promises to be present with us AS the stranger and outcast (such as in Matthew 25). It’s not just that newcomers come to FLC to meet Christ. Their presence means we who already belong to FLC can meet Christ is surprising new ways! At the newcomer gatherings we share conversation over faith questions, such as “who is Jesus to you?” I think of how the deep faith, insights, questions and needs of newcomers shaped the basic programs of churches we (your pastors) served in the past. Churches often ask “what existing church committee or ministry can we plug you into?” but we also do well to ask “what new ministry does your presence here call for?” As I think Duckworth points out somewhere, it’s not just the newcomers who need to integrate into the congregation; the congregation integrates to the newcomers.
Welcome isn’t just the job of a few, but of the whole congregation. We want as many people as possible to experience the spiritual vitality that new people bring. I am impressed at how many FLC people will approach newcomers during fellowship time or even invite passerby on the streets to church! One other way the congregation can welcome newcomers is to have one person who is a FLC member serve as a faith companion / sponsor for each person who begins to visit. When you are asked to do this, it can mean sending a personal note, showing up at newcomer gatherings, and standing with them as they are baptized / affirm their baptism.
These days, we may be welcoming more people who didn’t grow up in church. It’s one thing if a life-long Lutheran just wants to transfer their membership into a new congregation. Maybe the pastor can just introduce a few people and hand over a copy of the Constitution and Bylaws. But many people in California aren’t from Christian backgrounds, and even if they grew up in a Lutheran church, they aren’t certain how to live the faith in such complicated times. Not that any of us ARE certain! Sharing faith stories, asking hard questions, learning basic spiritual practices and teachings, reading the bible and praying for one another can all be helpful in the process of welcoming one another. One of my mentors used the word “catechumenate” for this process, borrowed from the first centuries before Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire. He would say, if the Holy Spirit is bringing people together into faith it’s worth taking some time to notice, listen and explore what God is doing.
There’s much to figure out on how to welcome new people at FLC. Hopefully what I’ve said gives some idea of our approach to this ministry.
When you ask, “are you getting situated?” I usually answer “yes, at least we’re starting to, but it takes awhile.”
At worship, “getting sit-uated” can mean just figuring out where to sit! There are seats to the side, behind and in front of the altar. Where should a pastor position his or herself? It’s a question that gets at our priorities in ministry : that we want, first, to be able to see as many of your faces as possible when we greet you with words of grace and peace. What a blessing, as we live so much with email, phone calls and onscreen images – that the people of God get an hour of seeing so many brothers and sisters face to face!
Besides being messengers, we are here as fellow listeners. One reason we’ve been drawn to the side seats is for that sense of being “under the Word.” We can look up to the lector’s face when she reads scripture and maybe better hear its promises and challenges as meant also for us pastors. Going along with this, where in many places with two pastors, both are vested and one preaches while the other presides, for now, we’re dividing things out differently. One presides, the other sits in the pew. That way, we get to experience worship from a different perspective and connect with you as we sing hymns and pray side by side.
These are important priority for us now: connecting with you, getting situated and learning about life in Palo Alto, listening to God in this new place and praying for the wisdom we’ll need to provide leadership as we move forward in response to God’s call.
You may wonder “what changes can we expect now that you’re here?” To begin with, we’ll be helping to manage big changes that are already underway! Besides getting used to us and our ways (why is the pastor sitting in the pew!?) you’ve had to say goodbye to Pr. Marv, Erin and Kathy! We are looking for a new youth minister and arranging for an interim choir director to take us into the coming church year (you should hear more soon about this …). An interim period (as with Pr. Marv) gives us time to consider and appreciate the wonderful music and worship at FLC, and also have some (continued) conversation about future direction with these ministries. Thank you to so many who have helped us figure out worship for these summer months! A particular challenge has been figuring out worship that’s appropriate with participants from both 8:30 and 10:30 services, when we have so little experience with either!
We are indeed very appreciative of all the ways you welcome us: a beautiful place to live, a reminder of your name, chocolate pie, an inventory of sacristy drawers, and your general patience. We are very happy we’re here.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all! We write having just stumbled into town, with enough of our stuff unpacked to at least eat, sleep and dress (but as of today my worship-wear is still in one of many unmarked boxes …). You are providing us with a lovely rental home on Walter Hays Drive. We’ve had very pleasant walks around the shady sidewalks and flowers of our neighborhood – to the Arts Center, the Children’s Library and to multiple playgrounds. Coming from the San Fernando Valley, we’re not used to having so much so close together! We’ve also been to church. Thank you for the care package and gift certificates! Susan gave us a tour of the building and Allen has arranged for us to have email. We’re figuring out office space, more on that soon … Thank you to Kimberly and Matt for providing us with a wonderful meal, including insanely good chocolate pie.
There is much we’re learning and figuring out: Summer worship plans, our own schedules, office space, who’s who, and getting up to speed on the latest at First Lutheran. Thank you for your patience with us! – Pastor Bernt
It is so wonderful to finally be here! The past few months have been quite a journey for all of us. Both First Lutheran and the Hillesland/Marshall family have all been discerning, planning, and preparing in order to make this opportunity to be and work together happen. And here we are! As Bernt has stressed we have all felt so welcome during this transition. All of your kind and supportive gestures have made all the difference in helping us feel welcome and more at home in Palo Alto and the church. We thank you.
On our first day in the office Susan Scott gave us a thorough tour of the church, giving us a sense of not only where things are, but demonstrating the many gifts, talents, values, and the history of First Lutheran. It left me feeling even more excited at the opportunity to be a part of First Lutheran. I am looking forward to getting to know you all as individuals and as a community.
As we move further into summer we look forward to enjoying Picnics in the Park and fellowship with you all. Please feel free to share with us not only your welcomes, but also your questions and concerns. I know many of you are wondering how we are going to share a call, what our office hours will be, how we teach, preach and what we will change, etc.. I hope and pray that the coming weeks will bring us all the answers, reassurances, and comforts we seek.
May God continue to bless and keep us all!