A New Home for Christmas
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I'm very pleased to announce a new partnership that we've been seeking for over a year. Eliot Community Human Services will be setting up a group home for six teenage girls in the church house during the Christmas break. The program and the girls will have a wonderful new home next to a caring congregation. We've made a five year commitment that could be extended.
A little history is in order. The former parsonage/church house has been a group home, mostly for refugees. From 2001-2005 it was a home for 8 of the "lost boys" from war-torn Sudan. For about three years it was a group home for girls also run by Lutheran Social Services. After the previous group home for refugee children from Central and South America closed we found no agencies with such programs to move in and continue this good work of resettlement. Nearby Mclean Hospital expressed an interest in a group treatment center for police officers but their timeline to move in got to be too long. We shifted our focus to affordable housing and pursued extensive renovations to meet regulations, which took until last spring. But then when it came time to find a suitable family through local agencies we realized this rather large house was still better suited for use as a group home. We began conversations with Eliot this summer and were fortunate that the church house could be put to good use by providing one of our church families with a space to live as their home was renovated this fall.
Eliot is a private non-profit human service agency providing a full range of supports and treatment options to some of the most vulnerable people in the state. In many ways its mission is similar to Ascentria Care Alliance, formerly Lutheran Social Services. Their clients range in age from children to the elderly and they also work with those struggling with substance abuse, developmental disabilities and homelessness.
The program is funded by the Department of Children and Family services. Eliot has ten such group homes in their system. The home at St. Paul will have a mission with the acronym STAR which stands for stabilization, treatment and reunification; a rather clinical way of saying these girls will come in to get the help they need with the goal of reuniting with their families. The house will have a large staff on duty 24/7 and directed by Janet Mendez. It will be a caring and loving place under some challenging circumstances in these girls lives.
Some other group homes are located near churches and in the new year we will meet with the staff to explore how we can help with appropriate educational and spiritual support. The financial arrangements are about the same as they have been, putting the house to good use at a little below market rate. I am grateful for all the staff and members of St. Paul who have worked and prayed to find a good use for the church house and for this day when we can officially share the good news.
Faithfully yours, Ross
A Mosque, Muslims and an Imam in America
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Last Tuesday night I went to the Mosque in Roxbury with our new foster son, a devout Muslim from Somalia. He came to church (St. Paul) for the first time in his life a couple of weeks ago both out of curiosity about his new family and from studying Christianity in his world history class at high school. His interest in my faith and practice renewed mine in his. At his suggestion, I called and made an appointment to visit the new Imam, Shaykh Yasir Fahmy. Shaykh or Sheikh is and honorific title for a prominent cleric. He has office hours Tuesday night and Friday afternoon. Even with ten minute slots, there is a long line. We were advised to come Tuesday since 1,400 worshippers are there on Fridays at 1 p.m.
The Mosque is really the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center located on Malcolm X Boulevard across from the Roxbury Crossing T. With no traffic it only takes about 20 minutes to get there from my home. Open in 2009, the center is a beautiful, complex facility with a central worship space surrounded by a restaurant, store (books, clothing, etc.), multiple meeting spaces and classrooms, and a parking lot.
While waiting for our appointment, we were welcomed at the door and were free to wander around. It felt like a very relaxed place where people were at home. People smiled and said hello to us. The security guard left his post and gave us a tour during which he and my foster son discovered that they were both from Somalia, leading to a flourish of laughter and words in their native tongue. We removed our shoes and walked into the prayer area on new luxurious white wool carpeting. Front and center is the Mihrab (pictured above), an indentation in the wall which marks the direction of Mecca so that all Muslims pray, facing the same point on earth. We wandered downstairs to a room lined with sinks and stations designed for washing feet. An elder happened to be there, and, noticing how little I knew, gently offered to show me how the entire ritual was done. It was an unexpected gift to observe up close and understand this practice as devotion/obedience to God and preparation for prayer.
Finally we were called into the senior Imam’s study and I was determined not to take too much of his time, given my/the imagined needs of his immigrant community. Born and raised in New Jersey, he had only been there two months. I told him I went to seminary at Princeton and he said a Lutheran Pastor there was a good friend. I told him my purpose was to see where my new foster son worshipped and a desire to support him in his faith. He invited us back in a few weeks for a longer visit. (More on that later.)
I am aware that this Mosque and others around Boston have been controversial, especially since 9-11. While a quarter of the world’s nationalities can be found at this one, their annual report states this mission: “To teach and live Islam in America.” Moreover, their vision: “To build a community of leaders rooted in the Islamic tradition, committed to American ideals and empowered to serve the common good.” Sometimes there is nothing like showing up and being present. Most of us cannot even imagine what it’s like to be a Muslim in America. I’ve never seen a church’s vision or mission statement include the word America, even though I am a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I often forget where I am. There in the Mosque, I caught a glimpse of a diverse community that named something I often take for granted: America. As I looked at the cover of their report, I also noticed something familiar. The Center seeks to gather into community, grow spiritually, and give back to the world. Indeed, I entered another world that evening with much yet to learn, but there was a sense, and the hope, that we have much in common.
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Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. -1Peter 2:5
"The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord's face shine upon you… and give you peace." - Numbers 6:22-27
This Saturday at 4 p.m. our church will host two ordinations. Bishop Jim Hazelwood will preside. Eric Worringer and Robin Lutjohann have been called to local congregations necessitating a glorious afternoon of celebration and fellowship. It will be a rare moment for us to gather with the wider church.
In a service of ordination something holy happens. This is true of all kinds of services in the church: people come out baptized, communed, confirmed, married, ordained, and in the end buried. In all of them God is worshipped and counted on to bless us and guide us into a holy purpose which really amounts to the way we live and die.
Because all of its baptized members share in Jesus' ministry of love and service, the church equips and supports us for our ministries in the world. You could say that the baptism of children is really the ordination of little priests. Saint Paul wrote about what has come to be known as "the priesthood of all believers." Protestants picked up on Paul's words to speak of the direct access all Christians have to God and not just through the ministry of an ordained priest. Luther wrote that the vocations of parenting or shoemaking were as holy and as high as that of the parish priest. When I lived in the more conservative evangelical world during college, everyone had their ministries in daily life. I often wish that more of us in the Lutheran church had a deeper sense of God's calling in our daily lives as God's people.
Ordination mainly has to do with the particular ministry of word and sacrament. In the service of Ordination, the church entrusts this work to those who have accepted the church’s call and sends them into this ministry. In the Lutheran context, no one is ordained unless he or she is called to a local setting in which to do this ministry.
A fellow pastor, upon leaving his last church after a good, long stay, told his congregation that he was sent to them to bless them. He had done that well in his ministry of word and sacrament, his leadership and care for the congregation and surrounding community.
We all are here to bless and be a blessing. The formal and informal acts of blessing seem less common now. A colleague recently told me of a friend's mother who blessed all nine children every morning as they left for school. Her friend was the youngest and always last in line. Impatient, she'd try to escape, but she got a blessing whether she wanted it or not. Her mother died when she was sixteen. She's sixty now. She's almost forgotten her mother's face, but not the weight of her hand, the feel of her blessing. After all these years it brings her peace.
At his baptism, the Spirit rested on Jesus like a hand rests on your head. God blessed Jesus, saying, "You are my beloved." Jesus soaked in that like the river in which was baptized. All his life he drew on it like air for breath. Blessed like that, he could embrace a challenging life with joy and a death with hope. The power of that blessing raised him from the dead.
Not everyone gets to hear that they're worth everything to God. But that is what we pastors get to say and do so that all of us can say and do it.
God bless you, Ross
Check in/Check up
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The leader of a church consulting firm once told me that they bring in an outside consultant from time to time to consult with them about their consulting. That might sound like a cat chasing its tail, but it was really something wise. Churches, non-profits, corporations, almost any group--including a family--can benefit from some careful listening and a fresh perspective, often from the outside looking in. Communities and companies get into patterns of living and functioning that need a good looking over from time to time. That's exactly what we are getting this weekend Oct. 3-5 with a visitation from the Rev. Renee LiaBraaten. She was just named Associate to the Bishop for Generosity in New England and we are the first congregation she is working with in this new role (see notice and profile below). We engaged her services over the summer before she got this new title to help us explore a possible capital campaign. But there is more going on here than that.
We worked with Pastor Renee ten years ago. She got to know us well and offered expert guidance as we undertook a major expansion of our facilities. But that was a long time ago and things have changed. I'm so glad she is able to check in with us and get to know us again. What better way than to ask powerful questions (see below) in discussions with 30-40 individual households and gather into a couple of focus groups this Sunday. It's not just about debt, or parking, our organ, or the fellowship hall. It's also about our life together, our ministry and mission as a congregation, our present and our future. I'm convinced that God will make good use of her visit and we will be all the stronger for it. She will share a report on the health of St. Paul and the feasibility of a campaign in writing and in person on Sunday Oct. 18.
Thanks to all of you who signed up for confidential interviews. Just follow the signs up to the church offices to the waiting area outside the upper lounge and Renee will come find you. There are ten spots left and going fast! For those who can't fit that in their schedule or would prefer a group setting, you're invited to join in this Sunday at 9:30 or 11:45 a.m. here at church. There are links for sign ups (required for interviews) below, but you could just show up for a group.
I'm convinced, along with the church council and vision team, that this is a good time to take stock and try to address some financial and facility needs. Even more I feel blessed to have someone as wise and trusted as Pastor Renee visit us and see how we are doing.
What's in Your Bag?
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What's in a bag is a mystery to everyone but the owner. Bags carry stuff but they also conceal some of our most personal items. They are carefully checked at airports. A clock was mistaken for a "device" in a schoolboy's bag (more like a briefcase) in Irving, Tex. and he got arrested. I have sympathy for all involved. It's a professional hazard.
What's in any given bag often tells stories of who a person is and where he or she is going. I see a lot of backpacks these days, sometimes half the size of the wearer. We bless the backpacks of our children in church as a new school year starts.
A new program year begins this Sunday with 830 and 1030 worship and education in between. It's a week later than most churches' so-called Rally Day. Many churches call this day Welcome Sunday both to welcome potential newcomers, but mostly to welcome members back after the summer. I love the fact that almost all of you have been here most of the summer and I'm proud that I don't have to welcome you back! I am a bit sad to see us divide up into different hours, but it's the right thing to do.
In the picture above you see a child's backpack but the contents laid out on a dirty blanket tell you that this boy is probably not carrying it to school as he once did. Inside there is: 1 pair of pants, 1 shirt, a syringe for emergencies, marshmallows and sweet cream, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste and bandages. Little Omran is a six year old boy from Damascus, Syria and he is "on his way to Germany with his extended family of five to live with relatives. Because his parents knew they would travel through forests to avoid detection, they made sure to pack bandages for scrapes and cuts." To see what is in other bags you must see the story "WHAT’S IN MY BAG? What refugees bring when they run for their lives." Our new vicar Alissa shared it with me as unforgettable to her as we discussed the greatest migration of refugees since World War Two.
As we begin a new year in relative peace and prosperity, I wanted you to see these pictures and do two things in response to them.
First, given the astonishing numbers of refugees fleeing Africa, the Middle East, Central and South America, the United States officially makes room for about 75,000 or so. Germany (smaller than California) says it will be able to take 500,000 refugees a year for a few years. I checked all those zeroes carefully. Sign a petition on line from the White House to resettle at least 65,000 Syrians by 2016. It takes less than a minute and you might be able to make a difference. About 20,000 more signatures are needed by September 30 and don't forget to verify from an email that comes from the White House (which is nice!). Here is the link to the petition.
Second, consider taking in a refugee or refugees if the opportunity should arise. Discuss this possibility with your family and friends. We've done this before as a church community and we could do it again. Imagine what it would be like, how it would change your life and perspective. That's a start. You'd get lots of help and support, I'm sure. Not everyone can do such a thing but I'll bet if your next door neighbor took someone in you'd help in any way you could. That would be great too.