Lent 2015

Soup supper and evening prayer

Thursdays, February 26 – March 26th – 6pm followed by brief evening prayer at 7pm.  All are welcome!  Each week around 6:40 we’ll be hearing a few words about our mission involvement near and far.  Kids’ activities / crafts provided will help them connect with each area of mission in their own way.

February 26th – hear about our sister parish, Rios de Agua Viva in El Salvador.

March 5th – ReconcilingWorks “advocates for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Lutherans in all aspects of the life of their Church and congregations.”  Hear about additional steps we can take to update our own statement of welcome.

March 12th – Bright Stars of Bethlehem partners to grow hope in Palestine.  Hear from members of FLC involved with this important ministry.

March 19th – Ecumenical Hunger Program assists families and individuals who are face personal and economic hardship.  We’ve been serving meals through EHP in East Palo Alto.  A representative will be here to talk about some of the situations our neighbors face and ways to respond.

March 26th – San Francisco Night Ministry provides “compassionate, non-judgmental pastoral care, care of the soul, counseling, referrals, and crisis intervention to anyone in any kind  of distress, every night of the year between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m.”  On a recent Sunday morning all ages at FLC came together to make bag lunches for this ministry.  We welcome a representative to share more about what they do.

What is Lent?  What’s the theme? On the first Sunday in Lent we hear about the forty days Jesus spent being tested in the wilderness.  Lent itself is a forty day journey that leads us into Holy Week and Easter.

Many think of Lent as a time when we “give something up” – usually, something sweet – and take time to be self-reflective.  But what if during this time we were drawn outside of ourselves and our personal concerns to find new ways to be present to the people around us?  Lent actually originated as a time to accompany those who were new to the church and preparing for baptism.  How do I connect with experience of others?

During Lent we hear a famous sentence from John’s gospel: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Notice it’s not, “God so loved us …” but loved the world.  We know ourselves to be loved only as we also see how we a part of this broken world, yearning for healing.  God’s love draws us out of ourselves to notice the enemy, the stranger, the neighbor.

Each Sunday this Lent we’ll hear passages from scripture around the same theme: God’s love shown in Christ is for the world and draws us into mission.





Conversations to come

Thank you to those who were involved in the conversations about music and worship this December!  It wasn’t always easy.  The second forum in particular was more well attended than I anticipated.  As facilitator I found it challenging to call on people who raised their hands in the right order.  But for me the experience of one voice after another was a little like standing in worship for the prayers of intercession, in that moment when everyone is invited to speak.   Pastor Kate and I appreciated your heartfelt honesty in expression, shown first by the FLY youth who were present to start us off (after it was over, I went to the office, wrote down your names and tried to remember what each of you said.  Hopefully, many of you will also fill out the survey to refresh our memory!)  We also appreciated your willingness to listen, even when words might be difficult to hear.

Pastor Kate had said in her sermon “pray without ceasing, before God, and before our family in faith.”  I think conversation can be a form of prayer, when we’re humble and open.  Worship can happen in the library as well as the sanctuary.  Sometimes, during the prayers of intercession, I’ll want to share some concern about, say, racism, and struggle to find the words, when suddenly someone from across the sanctuary finds them first.  He reads his carefully crafted petition, calling out for God’s justice and that we might recognize the value of all people.  It’s a moment of grace for me.  I saw this happening in the library, too.  One person shares their view and other says “yes!  Well said!”  One of our roles as pastors will be to help listen for these moments when it comes together, in our work of discerning God’s leading.  We are encouraged by what Jesus said: “ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened for you.”

I feel uplifted when I heard your shared passions and concerns.  I won’t say much until the surveys come in, so this will sound pretty vague, but generally it seems clear that most people highly value the music program at FCL – the musicians, choirs, instruments and repertoire – as well as the liturgy.  Many would like to see us build on (not fix) what we’ve been blessed with, seeking ever more variety in musical expression and finding new ways to support and encourage congregational participation in the music and liturgy.  More next month!

Some have said, “why are we talking about this now?  Shouldn’t we be talking about our mission in the community?  The budget?  Changes in volunteer availability?”  In preparation for the search for a new music / choir director this Spring, it did seem important to explore the goal identified during the call process, about the possibility of building on and expanding the variety of music we use in worship.  However, there are more conversations to come!  In this way pastors and congregation get to know one another better, work to identify shared values, and listen for God’s leading.

Reading and discussing “The Freedom of a Christian” this month is one way we’ll explore our shared Lutheran roots, revisit the purpose of worship and talk about how we approach the calling to serve our neighbors.    There will be an annual meeting, when we look at a budget that fits a completed Webster project.  Work is also underway on a revitalized website – the website truly being the “front door” of the church.  Council, IT Committee and others have been asking: what do we say, what images do we use, how do we present ourselves, succinctly and in a compelling way?  There will be opportunities to give ponder and give input.

In gratitude for your support, we look forward to it!

(Re?)discover Martin Luther

“Why are you a Lutheran?” our friend asks, and maybe we reply: “the church I like just happens to be Lutheran,” or, “I grew up Lutheran.”

Or do we have more to say about the Lutheran approach to life and spirituality and the faith that draws us?

Martin Luther is a name that’s easy to find on those lists of the 100 most influential people who ever lived. Maybe we learned about him in Confirmation – but that was some time ago.  What did Martin Luther teach, and does it matter to my personal or our congregational life today?

Pastor Kate and I invite you to read Martin Luther with us.  “The Freedom of a Christian” is a short little treatise that sums up many of Luther’s key ideas, and it’s one of the great spiritual classics of the Christian tradition.

Even the title is provocative: who thinks of Christians as liberated people?  Aren’t they too shackled up with their archaic beliefs and moral constraints?  While I get to read my paper Sunday morning, they have to get up early to sit in pews.  What kind of freedom is that?

We’ll be reading this little book during the month of January 2015.  We think much of what we can learn will be surprising and even helpful as we continue to explore where we’re headed as a congregation (see especially January 25 forum, below).

We’ll be using a recent study version of “Freedom of a Christian” with new translation by Martin Tranvik. Copies will be available at church – we ask small contributions just to cover the cost.

Copies of the book will be made available at church, or order your own online and let us know you’re reading with us.  Conversations will be scheduled during the forum and at other times convenient to those who would like to join in.  Read if you can, but if you don’t get around to it – come to the discussions anyway, we’ll try and sum it up.

January 11, 9:15am – Luther/Tranvik pg.49-65.  How do we understand the Bible and the purpose of worship?  What’s faith and what are its benefits?  What does it mean that Lutherans emphasize the gospel, where other Christians may put more emphasis on God’s demands?

January 18, 9:15a – Luther/Tranvik pg.65-79.  What does Luther mean by freedom, royal and priestly?  Why and how does Christ and his death matter for our lives – and why does Luther say it so differently than many Christians?  How do we approach the world, and what’s the place of spiritual discipline?

January 25, 9:15am – Luther/Tranvik pg.79-96.  One of FLC’s congregational goals is: “we want to increase the service we provide for the local community; while we’ve always been very good at ministering within our own walls, there’s a feeling that there’s an entire community we could be better serving just outside the doors.” (from congregational profile).  Can Luther’s thoughts on life lived in freedom and love for the neighbor help us to explore this idea further?



Christmas at First Lutheran, 2014

Christmas Eve Family Service and Pageant

Wednesday, December 24 at 5pm

The story of Mary, Joseph and the baby told by children and our First Kids Choir.  This service of worship is warm and festive for all ages.

Holy Communion, with Pastor Katherine Marshall presiding.

Christmas Eve Candlelight Service

Wednesday, December 24 – 10pm Concert featuring the First Lutheran Adult Choir

“Pergolesi” Magnificat Francesco Durante (1684-1755)
Lute-Book Lullaby William Ballet (17th c.) arr. Geoffrey Shaw (1879-1943)
Joys Seven English trad., arr. Stephen Cleobury
Birthday Carol (1974) David Willcocks
In nativitatem DNJC canticum Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)

10:30pm Festival Choral Worship

By candlelight we welcome the story of Jesus’ birth read and proclaimed.  Sing beloved Christmas carols and hear more great music from our choir in this traditional service of Holy Communion.  Pastor Bernt Hillesland presiding.

Christmas Day Worship

December 25 at 10:00am

A poem found in the first chapter of John’s gospel moves us into the mystery of Christmas in the light and darkness of our daily lives.  Join us for this simple, joyful and restful service of Holy Communion.

Peace and joy

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!

Thoughts on “Music in the Castle of Heaven.”

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: music in the castle of heaven by John Eliot Gardiner. Knopf: 2013.

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 ….

Visit to “Sympathy for the Devil” exhibit at Cantor Arts Center

skeleton“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.”

tallviewHmm … 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?