Category Archives: Articles

Article: Identity

There’s been a lot of talk about “identity” in culture. Whether that is found in “identity politics” or the seemingly never resolved church discussion about “sexual identity.” We are so consumed with identity that we are very vocal about who we are and who we are not! It is a sad state of affairs when a Christian sees or experiences hate being spewed by another Christian and must inform their friends and acquaintances, “Oh, I am not that kind of Christian.” A friend of my wife recently made a statement like that to her, forgetting that Rachel is married to a pastor.

What do we do when we see or meet other people- if we are not careful? We make snap judgments about them based what is important to them… you know, their identity. It is easy to label someone based on very little. “Oh, they are (fill in the blank).” Instead, we should take the time to get to know a person as an individual.

It totally bums me out that Christians have to differentiate themselves from other Christians who claim the same faith in the embodiment of God’s unconditional and sacrificial love (Jesus) yet most of their personal theology is all about who God is against while subtly reinforcing the notion that they are good in God’s eyes. Life was simpler when we (Lutherans) would distinguish ourselves by saying, “Well, were definitely not Methodists or Roman Catholic, we are somewhere between those two.”

This is not contained to just in religious matters. In the highly partisan environment of politics we are in right now, I have heard people say to me, “I am not sure I can be friends with a person who supports ‘that’.”

I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. I would not be surprised if the topic of identity is upsetting at this point.  I can hear people saying, “Can’t we stop talking about this?” “Aren’t we making it worse, by talking about this stuff so much.” No, we aren’t making worse by talking about such things. We make it worse when we fight, shout and demonize others. Besides, when has ignoring an issue ever made it better?

I think it is easy to be nostalgic, if not naïve, to say things like, “This wasn’t an issue 50 years ago.” Actually, it was an issue, we just didn’t talk about it and used social pressure root out those who wanted to talk about these things. Just because we didn’t talk about things doesn’t mean there was unity. No, it meant we kept things to ourselves in fear of being ridiculed or ostracized. A lack of constructive dialogue on difficult subjects does not equate to harmony.

For those who long for the “good old days,” it may have been good for you but certainly not everyone.

Is there a way forward? Absolutely. The last two weeks, I have talked about how to change the way we think (developing a Christian mindset) about things based on Paul’s writings found in Romans 12. Essentially, one of the ways to change the way we think is to change what we are putting into our brains (social media, news, etc.)

Here are those two messages (if you are interested):

As hard as change can be, I have good news. Seriously. What I am about to share with you will change the way you think about others, even though these words were written 2000 years ago. It has everything to do with identity.

You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Galatians 3:26-27

 If you are a Christian (I am assuming you are), you only have ONE identity that matters: You are a child of God. More importantly, when we look at other Christians, we should see only ONE thing—a sister or brother in Christ. No more worrying about other people’s identity or what they stand for or against. St. Paul tells us we have ONE identity as Christians—we are children of God, period, the end.

We don’t have to spend needless hours getting worked up about other Christians identities and they don’t need to get all worked up about us. We just don’t. We still need to be concerned over hateful, divisive language and actions. We should always act to end such behavior within the church and in the world.

Paul in his letter to the church in Ephesus says this about being a child of God (and being in the family of God).

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 4:32-5:2

 Instead of getting worked up, we are encouraged to be sympathetic, empathetic and let things go, i.e., forgive. If we engage in living a life of love the way Christ did, we don’t have time for hate. As a matter of fact, hating is so contrary to the message of Jesus that I can’t imagine a Christian hating groups of people or individuals based on identity differences of any kind, let alone within the Christian community. That in itself is contradictory since we are instructed only to see each other as children of God.

Hate is destructive. Hate breaks community. Hate only attracts hate or its offspring of: fear, suffering and violence. Instead, we commit ourselves to love and only seeing others as children of God. To put another way, we are all in the same family and we should attempt to get along. If you have ever been to an awkward Thanksgiving dinner because of who was invited, you understand the encouragement and necessity for everyone to get along and love each other.

And yes, “it takes two to tango.” This is not just an encouragement for those who already love to be kind those who hate. This exhortation is for those who hate (for any reason) to change. Otherwise the church ends up being like a dysfunctional family that allows the angry hateful person to dominate while the loving person makes excuses for poor behavior.

Paul is so convinced that our only identity as Christians is that of children of God, he doubles down.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:28

 Whoa. Paul dismantles all the major “identities” of his time. Characteristics that people used to oppress, discriminate and treat poorly. It is clear (by Paul’s words) that within the church, differences in gender (in its various physical and relational complexities) are nonexistent as well as social structure and ethnicity. The only thing God sees when he looks at us is that we are His beloved children. God asks us to do the same when we look at each other.

Of course, this is pointing to a larger reality of God’s Kingdom. Any dichotomy we can imagine that separates people within the church—doesn’t change God’s view of us and how we should view others. Whether it be: Married, single or divorced, white or black, republican or democrat, brown eyes or blue eyes, Lutheran or Presbyterian! These things (or anything) doesn’t matter to God and they shouldn’t matter to us either.

Instead let us love each as brothers and sister. And if we pursue this… “we shall overcome, someday.”

From one child of God to another—I love you.














A Tale of Two Churches

Maybe that title is a little misleading. This isn’t a story or a tale. If I had named this article, “An Observation of Two Churches” most of you wouldn’t take the time to read it. (Just kidding, I hope.) I am being transparent up front about this… so if you want to stop reading, this is your exit ramp!

It appears more and more there are two distinct types of Christian churches in our nation.

One type of church is primarily focused historic doctrinal purity and making sure their church members adhere to the proper way of believing and acting. If they don’t, they are asked to leave. And many people are never welcomed at all. Believing in Jesus Christ “the right way” is the most important thing. This works well for many members of these churches because they fit in and agree with the rigid theological structure that is expected of every member. A person who does not conform to this type of orthodoxy is not welcome. There is no room for discussion because everything is crystal clear, black and white. Most churches that operate this way have a clear sense of who is going to heaven and who is going to hell in the afterlife.

“Righteousness” (in this case) is obedience to the doctrine and behavior. This type of obedience “pleases God”. Living up to God’s standards is very important to members of this church and often, they are quick to point out those who do not, especially members of the other type of church.

The other type of church is focused on the relational aspect of God, specifically in the person of Jesus Christ. That isn’t to say doctrine isn’t important to these people. This church views the love of God as more important than “getting it right 100% of the time.” Members of this type of church see that humanity is so flawed (sinful) that living up to God’s standards is impossible. Instead, they rely on God’s loving forgiveness given at the cross of Christ for all things. That doesn’t mean they have given into sin and do whatever they want, far from it. These people will tell you that they live from God’s abundant grace and that is what motivates them to reflect the love of God to others. Since religious conformity is not their top priority, this type of church tends to judge other people a lot less than the first church described above. They see that sin permeates everything and drawing lines in the sand doesn’t really fix anything because there is sin on both sides.

“Righteousness” (in this case) is a relationship with God and one another. Loving God and loving their neighbor is very important to members of this church and often welcome those who don’t fit in at the other type of church.

It is clear (from experience) that the first type of church (described above) sees the other church as “soft on sin” and unbiblical. It is also clear that the second church (described above) sees the other church as rigid and unwelcoming of anyone who may be different theologically speaking.

Both churches have a developed theology—even if the theologically rigid church accuses the other church of “anything goes.” Both churches are trying to mirror what they think God has conveyed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Both churches read the same Bible, confess the same creeds and even pray the same prayer (The Lord’s Prayer). Needless to say, each type of church sees themselves faithful to the scriptures and a true representation of what God calls the Church to be.

Is there any way to reconcile these two views of the church? I don’t think so. There is a reason why there are so many denominations and non-denominational churches. No one can agree on everything.

Even with this division we should be clear about a couple of things. Churches and individual Christians that tell people that God hates them for any reason is both a lie and it is contrary to the good news that Jesus brings.

Wait a minute—what about Psalm 5:5-6? The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful people the Lord abhors. As far as I can tell, that is all of humanity. It is disingenuous for a Christian to say, “God hates sinners but loves the righteous.” The primary mission of Jesus Christ was to save us from our sin and the separation from God caused by our sin. All of Christianity believes this. We can’t start cherry picking sins (and sinners) we don’t like just because we don’t sin like that or understand why “they” do those things. Besides, what is sin to me might not be a sin to someone else (ask me about that some time, it is Biblical).

Remember what Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17

Jesus engages with people who are far from God or have been told they are not acceptable.

Many people who hold to a more rigid historic doctrinal purity think, “If ‘they’ don’t ‘change’ after believing in Jesus they really don’t believe and therefore shouldn’t be a part of the church.”

Here is what I know about that… I am still a sinner. Even being a pastor for over nineteen years, I still sin. I don’t think I am qualified to tell people that Jesus doesn’t love them. If Jesus doesn’t love them, then certainly Jesus doesn’t love me either.

I have yet to meet someone who is perfect. Life is messy because we are messed up. Martin Luther reminds us (Lutherans) that “Baptism never becomes useless, unless you despair and refuse to return to its salvation.” (Luther’s Works Volume 36 p.69) Baptism isn’t just a one-time thing as many believe. It is the source of forgiveness in our lives. A place to be washed clean again and again because we get messy (sin).

Luther isn’t suggesting a re-baptism. He is saying we need to return to our baptism in confession and repentance. Remember water doesn’t save, but Jesus attached to the water does. Only faith in Jesus saves, water is just the vehicle for Christ’s presence.

Hating sinners doesn’t work. Churches that label people as sinners and hates them (or excludes them) doesn’t exemplify the work of Jesus. It is also hypocritical because we are all sinners. As a matter of fact, we tend sin the same way over and over again and I am not sure Jesus loves us any less because of that habitual sin.

The response to this line of reasoning is this, “Where does it end? There are no boundaries!” Of course, there are boundaries. It is our responsibility to protect those who are being hurt by another in various ways (physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically). This is not arbitrary or a perception of what I think “being hurt” means. We are to love those who have no power to change their situation and we are to love those who have power over others too.  But we include a firm “Stop hurting others” with that love.

This goes back to the idea of agape or sacrificial/unconditional love. The kind of love Jesus showed to all people. Jesus’ death on the cross extended forgiveness to sinners of every age… even sinners who still sin, like me.

The church is imperfect because humans are involved. Nobody has it all figured out or gets it all right. Even with that said, I see my calling as pastor to love and forgive in order to draw people close to Jesus. I know God has changed me over the years, but I am far from being in “final form.” How can we expect people to change, when we can’t even change ourselves? That won’t happen until we see Jesus face-to-face. Until then, I will keep on loving, forgiving and welcoming.

I can’t help but think of this story of Jesus…

36 Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, 38 and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. 

 39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” 

 40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” 

 “Tell me, teacher,” he said.

 41 “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 

 43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

 “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. 

 44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” 

 48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 

49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 

50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50)

 Our faith in Jesus has saved us. Not our behavior and certainly not for having the ability to identify sinners and exclude them.

If you are still reading this… know that you are loved and always welcome wherever I am.

God bless you all,
Pr. Ben





Article: Spiritual Growth According to Peter

…make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive… 2 Peter 1:5-8

Shortly before his death at the hands of the Roman government, Simon Peter wrote two letters to the churches of Asia Minor (See- 1Peter 1:1).  It is clear that Peter was Jesus’ right-hand man. In this short passage we see Peter’s encouragement to add specific qualities and characteristics to our faith so that we might be the fully prepared for life itself.

It seems like Peter is asking to build upon our faith one block at a time and it begins with knowledge. Faith doesn’t require knowledge but having information or facts about God can help each of us to understand the nature of God and the world around us. The more I learn about God the easier I find it to trust Him and God’s will for my life. However, many people confuse having knowledge of God with faith. Trust is not knowledge.

Being a person of faith, it is clear that some things are better for me than other things. The ability to say “no” to some things is not easy, but it is a sign of maturity. It is not difficult to avoid things that cause pain but I don’t think that is what Peter had in mind. As it is, don’t we pray “And lead us not into temptation” on a regular basis? That is because there may be things that give short term satisfaction but hurt us in the long haul. Temptations are like a wolf in sheep’s clothing… we will eventually be bitten. More than that, we are examples to others. Someone is always watching us.

String enough “no’s” together and you develop perseverance. This is the ability to stand by your beliefs. This is integrity. The more we are able to walk away from temptation, the easier it becomes. Endurance and perseverance leads to constancy. When you are known as being steadfast, others will come to you for help and advice.

Who doesn’t want to reflect the nature and will of God? I know I do. As I said last Sunday, when Jesus returns one day, I want Him to be able to recognize qualities of the Kingdom of God within me. Clearly, no one ever quit being a Christian because it was too easy. This is challenging stuff! I sincerely strive to reflect the love and grace of God in everything I do. The path to that goal is through knowledge, self-control and perseverance. There is no short cuts to achieve this goal! Thankfully God gives us all the time and forgiveness we need.

Mutual Affection
Godliness should lead to mutual affection. That is nice way of saying, people like you and you like people. The Greek word is Philadelphia or better known as “brotherly love.” It is the first step toward a larger love. We begin with training wheels. In a lot of ways, this is a stepping stone to something better but definitely more difficult. We begin with liking and being liked by people who are comparable to siblings… like fellow Christians.

It shouldn’t be a surprise we end here. Why? Because love is where we begin. We wouldn’t even be having this discussion if God didn’t love us first. But this is more than brotherly love. This is agape love, unconditional love. You know, the kind of love God has for sinners (like us). Love that is not reciprocated. This kind of love is sometimes translated as “charity.” Why charity? Charity is a gift that often goes unnoticed or received without gratitude. This is the highest of all types of love because it requires nothing in return. Because of that, it is the hardest to give. Maybe that is why it is the last on the list, because it is the hardest to achieve for most people.

These verses remind us the importance of spiritual growth (one of our core values). We don’t have to grow spiritually, but I hope we do. Yes, we will still make mistakes and sometimes become stagnant in our faith but God’s unconditional love will never leave us. Jesus is the proof of that.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: From Bishop Holmerud

If you are not signed up for the Sierra Pacific Synod e-newsletter, here is what Bishop Mark Holmerud wrote about “hate” and the events of this past week. I hope you find it helpful as we discern who we are and what our response should be to those who hate.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

“Could it be, could it be, that we are called — for such a time as this?” a song by Jonathan Rundman

Hate. Hate speech. Hate rhetoric. Hate crimes. Hate groups.  Hate is the common thread and the impetus behind the 917 Hate Groups that have been identified as operating in the United States. The “Hate Map” of the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that there are 79 such groups in California and 4 in Nevada. These groups advocate hate in all forms — racism, neo-Nazism, white nationalism, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiments, xenophobia and anti-immigrant beliefs, misogyny, and violence towards the GLBTQ community.

I’m sure the list of those whom these groups identify as objects of hate is more extensive than we want to believe, and more present in this part of our country than we may be aware. At least that’s been true for me. I had no idea there are over 83 hate groups operating in our backyard – in the territory of our Sierra Pacific Synod. I imagined the “stronghold” of these groups was in the southern part of our country, in places where violence has been erupting for years, where the lynching of black people was once common, and where people needed to press for their right to ride on public transportation and sit at lunch counters. Not true. It’s here. It’s now. I have recently been made aware that there are planned demonstrations in the coming months by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups here in northern California. Perhaps there are planned demonstrations in northern Nevada as well.

The events in Charlottesville a few days ago and many other recent acts of hatred and violence are a clarion call for us to pray, to be aware, to be vigilant, and to speak out where such hate emerges from the shadowy depths where its adherents are emboldened to act out of fear and hate. Could it be that we are called for such a time as this to be voices of the light and peace of the Gospel to be proclaimed with even more ardor and purpose? To make clear, as Presiding Bishop Eaton has called us to do, that “White supremacy has no place in the kingdom of God, only the love and healing of the reign of the Prince of Peace.”

If you are feeling called to speak out, The Southern Poverty Law Center has provided a helpful guide called “Ten Ways to Fight Hate” to move us from the uncertainty of knowing how to respond to hate and violence to taking small steps toward speaking out, organizing, standing with those who also wish to decry hate speech and hate groups in our communities.  I invite you to contact your local ecumenical and interfaith groups, civic and governmental leaders and community organizers who are seeking to address the presence of these 83 groups in our area, and the 917 that exist in this country. I am and will be committed to providing support and resources in as many ways as possible to speak of Christ’s love in the face of this monstrous evil. I encourage you to follow the links below to learn how you can be involved in this Gospel call to action.  I believe this is a time in which we have been called to speak and act.  May God be with us as we step forward in faith.

Ten Ways To Fight Hate – From the Southern Poverty Law Center website

  1. Act
  2. Join Forces
  3. Support the Victims
  4. Speak Up
  5. Educate Yourself
  6. Create An Alternative
  7. Pressure Leaders
  8. Stay Engaged
  9. Teach Acceptance
  10. Dig Deeper

Bp. Mark

Article: Book Recommendation

I read quite a few books over the course of a year. Most of them, I listen to. I try to be productive in the car. On average, I go through (read/listen) about 84 books a year or 7 books a month. I don’t actually count or keep a list but this is fairly accurate statistic based on my monthly consumption of books. Some of it is pleasurable reading, some of it is church related.

If you have noticed (maybe you haven’t), I don’t recommend many books. I do give recommendations on a one on one basis (I did last week) but I don’t often give blanket endorsements. As I think about it, the last time I publicly said, “everyone should read this book” was The Shack by William P. Young released in 2007. I didn’t read and recommend it until 2008. That was 9 years ago.

I understand you haven’t been holding your breath for this but I just read a book that fellow Bethel member, Randy Shattuck recommended to me. The book is titled, The Myth of Equality by Ken Wytsma. The subtitle is, “Uncovering the roots of Injustice and Privilege.”

Who is Ken Wytsma? This is what is said about him on his website: Ken Wytsma is the founder of The Justice Conference, the global pastor of Antioch Church, and the president of Kilns College in Bend, Oregon. He is the author of Pursuing Justice, The Grand Paradox, and recently released, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege.

Ken is a white “evangelical” pastor and author.  Yet he writes with  an unbiased clarity and precision. He looks at inequality and injustice through both the lens of American history and from a Biblical perspective. He concludes the book by discussing practical ways Christians can address the issues raised in the book.

I highly commend this book to you. Read it with an open mind and resist being defensive (if you are white).

If enough people read it at Bethel, I would love to have a discussion about it.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

You can order this book here (hardcover, Kindle or audiobook):



Article: I Don’t Want to be a Pharisee

I don’t want to be a Pharisee. You know, the religious authorities and teachers of the Law of Moses that Jesus tangled with during his earthly ministry. I know that may sound like a silly thing to say but the day I entered the seminary to become a pastor, I began my training as a religious authority… also known as a Pharisee. Of course, I am not Jewish, but I don’t want to be a Christian Pharisee either.

When we think about Jesus’ earthly ministry, it seems like the only people he had problems with were those who were in charge. Back then the Pharisees and the Chief Priests pretty much ruled the roost in Israel. They called the shots. You might be asking yourself, “What about the Romans who were occupying the land? Weren’t they in charge?” They were, but the day-to-day activities of the average person living in Israel were governed by the Pharisees. People tried to avoid the Roman soldiers at all costs.

If we are to believe the gospels, which I do, most of the religious leaders of that day cared more about themselves than they did about the people under their charge. They were supposedly the most learned and the most religious, yet Jesus pointed out time and time again that their actions were contrary to the will of God. In other words, they were hypocrites.

In one poignant moment, Jesus said this, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Matthew 23:23

Jesus called them out for doing things for appearances only and missing the things that God cared about most: justice, mercy and faithfulness. Wow. I don’t want to be the one who does things for appearances or just to be liked. I don’t want to appear religious (I’ve already blown that) and neglect the things that really matter to God.

I have said this hundreds of times, but it is still true in regard to mercy, “I would rather have Jesus tell me on judgment day that I was too easy on people than have him say- why were you so hard on people and kept them from truly knowing me.” Jesus showed mercy to all who were not sure that God cared about them because of their decisions or status in life.

I still want to grow in my faith. I do not believe I will ever arrive at the destination of “enough faith.” I want to surround myself with people who also want to grow in their faith and I continue to be open to God’s guiding hand in my life.

Jesus uses the word “justice” too. There is more than one word in the original Greek that translates as “justice” in English. This word (krisis) actually means the ability to discern right from wrong so as to judge a case or a matter. Jesus is saying the religious authorities (Pharisees) lack the discernment between right and wrong.

For example, in Mark 7:10-13 Jesus says, “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ n and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’  But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother.  Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” 

That is fairly direct. Don’t miss the last line. This isn’t only about caring for parents; this is one example among many. In this case, money took precedent over people. They didn’t have the ability to see what God values most: people. Not money, not prestige or respect, not even power.

Our God cares about people. God sent Himself in the person of Jesus to draw people close to Him. Jesus took time to correct the misperceptions about the nature of God because the people representing Him (the Pharisees and the Chief Priests) cared more about themselves than they did about the people under their charge. But it wasn’t just a few people. It was the entire nation of Israel.

Jesus called them out for being unjust, unmerciful and unfaithful. Jesus showed us who matters in the Kingdom of God: tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. Jesus reminded us that neglecting others who struggle (including parents) isn’t God’s way of doing things.

Like I said, I don’t want to be a Pharisee. I want to follow Jesus and His teachings until I can sit at his feet and see him face to face.

Yes, I know. The things Jesus said eventually got him killed… and most of his disciples too. I guess that is a risk I am willing to take.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: Where is Pr. Ben?

Most of you know where I am this week. I am at a summer camp called “Leadership Lab.” I am one of the directors of this 55-year-old camp. For the past 32 summers, I have returned to this place to serve. But it isn’t a place. Yes, we do rent Augustana College in Rock Island, IL for a week, but the location isn’t the important part. It is the people.

Leadership Lab could be held pretty much anywhere and over the years it has been at Illinois State University in Bloomington, IL and Western Illinois University in Macomb, IL. The location is but a minor detail.

Leadership Lab as in “laboratory” is a place for Lutheran youth to learn about Christian leadership, their faith and themselves in a week long experiential camp. But it is way more than that. It is a clear expression of the Church of Jesus Christ. For one week, this group of people, who gather from as far away as Cupertino, California (me), become a congregation of people who love, support, learn, laugh and even cry together. It is safe place to “let down” and be yourself. It is truly a judgment free zone. I have formed life-long friendships with people who have attended Leadership Lab. It is more than a friendship. We are brothers and sisters in Christ.

I can’t help but think of the phrase, “blood is thicker than water” which means your family will be there for you when no one else will. That may not always be true of all families, but it is always true for the family of God. The head of our household went to great lengths to protect and watch over us. Jesus gave his life so that we might be protected from losing our lives one day.

I am privileged to be a part of something that is literally life-changing. I get to see young people grow in their faith and not only learn about God, but to experience His gentle touch in their lives (in front of my very eyes). It is humbling to know that I help facilitate that experience.

This year, one our worship leaders went through Leadership Lab as a student. He is a young guy and he remembered coming to Leadership Lab his first year and saying to himself, “One day, I want to lead worship here.” And he now does. Wow. I have seen youth volunteer to sing, share poems, care for one another and experience the freedom of being in a safe place away from all the worries of life.

Since this is a program that progresses through 7 levels, youth can come back every year and experience something new throughout their high school and early college years. Many of our staff went to Leadership Lab as students, including myself. I wouldn’t be a pastor today without this program.

If you would like to watch our worship on Saturday morning (which is contemporary and geared to the youth) we stream our worship on Facebook. It will be online at 8:45am Saturday morning on this  Facebook page:

You first have to “like” the page and then you can watch us live. Be forewarned, I will preaching on Saturday at Leadership Lab so you will have to see my face also.

Bethel, thank you for supporting me in this ministry. I appreciate it more than you can imagine. I also thank my beautiful and supportive wife Rachel (aka Mrs. Pr. Ben) for putting up with my week-long absence too. She understands that this is an important part of my life.

Yet, when it is over on Saturday afternoon, I can’t wait to get home to see Rachel and be with my church family at the beginning of the week.

God bless you all,
Pr. Ben


I ran across another great article this week that I wanted to share with you. I found it both helpful and enlightening! Enjoy!

Even when you’re not on vacation!
By Pastor Kathy Hawks of Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington

Summer — such a delicious time of year!  Even if the pace doesn’t slow as much as we’d like, the focus shifts and the weather (usually) is glorious!

In keeping with our Spiritual Life Hack explorations and focus on how faith practices can transform our spirits and our lives, here are some ways to relax and deepen your enjoyment of the season — whether you’re traveling or at home, on vacay or cleaning out the garage.  I’ve put them in order of least to most challenging (at least for me!):

  1. Music.

What music relaxes you in a way that connects you to your deeper self and God? Gospel? Hymns? Classical? U2? Folk? Whatever it is, keep it on hand. In fact, why not make yourself a playlist you can play on your phone, in the car, or while you’re walking?

  1. Breathe.

Notice your breath, filling and leaving your body.  Draw it in for 5 counts, hold for 3, and release it for 5 counts.  Repeat 5 times.  Do it upon waking, before sleeping, when you realize you’re stressed, when your brain is racing and you want to be more present.

  1. Practice feeling gratitude.

We can all make lists of why we SHOULD be grateful. But taking 60 seconds to actually experience the goodness of all God has given — that’s a different and very anxiety-reducing practice.  Try it upon waking, upon going to bed, when you sit down to eat, when you exercise, when you do something you love to do or are with people who make you smile or listen deeply.  Gratitude opens us to God. What if this became your default attitude?

  1. Be still.

Notice your breathing, in and out, in and out. Use your senses: what are 5 things you see?  4 things you hear?  3 things you touch?  2 things you smell? 1 thing you taste? Close your eyes, allow silence to fill you. Savor it. You may sense God’s presence.

  1. Choose a summer Bible verse mantra.

Is there a Bible verse that puts things in perspective for you and helps you let go?  “The Lord is my shepherd…who leadeth me beside still waters…”. “Be still and know that I am God.”  “Lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.”  “Peace I give to you…not as the world gives.”   And there are MANY, MANY more! Pastor Gretchen and I would be delighted to help you find one to put on your screensaver, or dashboard, or bathroom mirror, or wherever.  Or make it a habit to internally say it whenever you do certain daily things, so it becomes a habit.

  1. Pray throughout the day.

John Somm just shared a great three-word all-purpose prayer with me:  “God, guide me.” It can be that simple. Or you may find power and clarity in praying about something specific in the moment.

  1. Be present in the moment.

Notice God In the moment.  So many ways God shows up: little children (for “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”), in nature, in kind and loving interactions- however small, in “the least of these”, in conflicts resolved and relationships reconciled, and on and on.

  1. Give in to a generous impulse.

Bring some luscious strawberries to the neighbor you don’t really know.  Write that check to aid famine victims. Do the thing at church or another volunteer organization you keep meaning to do. Doing any such things even just once is golden.

  1. Unplug and unscreen.

Yes, you can! Start small, like an hour before bed. Many of us remember when we actually lived our whole lives this way!!  You might feel lonely and at loose ends, or you might find yourself better able to do # 10-3.  Either way, your spirit will be nourished, and the likelihood of connecting with God and others goes up exponentially.

  1. Observe Sabbath.

Not every Sunday, but you owe it to yourself to do it at least once.  I have done it a few times and it is AWESOME! Make meals ahead. Do only things that nurture your spirit. (You know what they are; other things just get in the way. But God commands this!   Nap.   Stare at the night sky.  Take a walk.  Write a letter or call a friend, just ‘cause.  Leave those screens alone!  It’s amazing what power there is in knowing that sabbath is a “thing” people have done for millennia, and it has rejuvenated and blessed them.

Article: 50 Things You May Not Know About The Reformation

I ran across this article in our ELCA publication “Living Lutheran” written by Rod Boriack.
Boriack is a writer and editor living in Des Plaines, Ill.

I learned a little bit, maybe you will too!

The word “Protestant” was first used formally around 1529. “Protestant” originates from the Latin word protestari, meaning “declare publicly, testify, protest.”

The name “Lutheran” originated as a derogatory term used against Martin Luther by German scholastic theologian Johann Maier von Eck during the Leipzig Debate in 1519.

While reformers rejected marriage as a sacrament of the church, they expanded the role of the church in marriage. Couples took an oath before God and the ceremony was moved from outside the church on the doorstep—a medieval practice—to inside the sanctuary in front of the altar.

The Reformation created a demand for all kinds of religious writings. Readership was so great that the number of books printed in Germany increased from about 150 in 1518 to nearly 1,000 six years later.

By the time Luther died, 30 editions of the Small Catechism had been published. By the end of the 16th century, there were an additional 125 editions in circulation and approximately 100,000 copies in print.

An estimated 6,001,500,000 Bibles have been printed since the first one came off the press in the Middle Ages. The first Bible published in North America was printed in 1663.

The Luther rose (or Luther seal) was created at the request of printers to have a personal symbol representing the reformer’s faith that could serve as a mark indicating something was an authorized publication of Luther’s. It became widely recognized as the symbol for Lutheranism, and still is today.

With the invention of the printing press and the introduction of pamphlets and booklets to the public, women in the 16th century found increasing access to information they had been previously restricted from reading, studying, discussing or even listening to in public settings.

The Reformation paved the way for what we still   refer to as a “Protestant work ethic.” Luther’s teachings about the “priesthood of all believers” helped dissolve the wall between “temporal” and “spiritual” realms. In doing so, everyday work and labor was affirmed and seen as pleasing to God; it was no longer considered an inferior life to that of a monastic life or the priesthood.

Education was set on a far-reaching course of reforming thanks in part to Luther’s advocacy and ideas that a proper, well-organized and broad education for all children—not just those of the wealthy elite—would benefit the state as well as the church.

The legacy of Luther’s ideas about education can be seen today in the Lutheran church’s concern for Christian education, early childhood education and schools, colleges and universities, lay schools for ministry and seminaries.

An emphasis on the involvement of laypeople during worship revolutionized the way space inside the parish church was used during the Reformation. Many of the physical barriers between priest and congregation were removed. Consequently, the interiors of local churches took on the appearance that many still have today.

Whether or not to use pipe organs and other musical instruments during worship became a hotly debated issue for many churches involved in the Reformation movement. Some went as far as banning the use of organs and instruments.

Prior to the Reformation, congregational singing—and even talking—during church services wasn’t standard practice in Germany.

Luther composed more than 40 hymns in his lifetime, and in 1529 wrote and composed the tune for what became known as “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation”—today called “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Luther desired hymns to be modest and text-driven—derived from Scripture, expressing Christian values, illuminating faith and the gospel message and lending themselves to congregational singing.

The area of Germany where Luther’s story unfolded is now referred to as “LutherCountry.” This region of Reformation sites and history was part of East Germany for 40 years until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

The Peace of Augsburg was signed in 1555, despite its dissenters and many loopholes. This settlement represented a victory for state princes and granted recognition to both Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism in Germany, allowing each ruler to decide the religion to be practiced within his state, and permitting residents to migrate to a territory where their denomination was recognized.

The first European colonists who came to North America were attempting to escape post-Reformation conflicts and persecution. They were 98 percent Protestant and a diverse mix of denominations, but their newfound freedom wasn’t without intense conflict and intolerance between denominations and religions.

In the late 1800s, some North American religious leaders voiced concern over what they feared was hero-worship of Reformation leaders. They encouraged refocusing on theological issues and teachings, the accomplishments and failings of reformers like Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, and contributions of reformers prior to the 16th century.

While the Reformation gave birth to Protestantism, today only two of the 10 countries with the largest Protestant populations are European.

Today the United States has more Protestants than any other country, about 160 million. Nigeria is second, with nearly 60 million Protestants. China has the third-largest Protestant population, approximately 58 million.

About half of all Christians worldwide today are Catholic (50 percent), while more than one-third are Protestant (37 percent).

Recent research and surveys reveal that about one-third of mainstream Protestants believe eternal life depends on our actions and living a good life, despite the biblical understanding and teachings of the reformers that salvation is a gift from God received through faith in Christ, through no effort of our own.

Reformation Day is a national holiday in Chile, and is officially called Día Nacional de las Iglesias Evangélicas y Protestantes—National Day of the Evangelical and Protestant Churches.

If Luther could have had his way, he would have probably deleted the books of Esther, Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the Bible. They were among his least favorite books of the Bible.

There were reformers well before Luther and what became known as the Reformation, but Luther and other reformers of his time became the first to skillfully use the power of the printing press to give their ideas a wide audience.

During the religious wars that followed the Reformation, even family members were often pitted against one another. Both Catholics and Protestants were often convinced that the other was doing “the devil’s work.”

The Counter-Reformation—or Catholic Reformation—initiated vigorous efforts to condemn the teachings and influence of Protestant reformers, restore obedience and loyalty, reconvert the converted and establish new missions and influence globally in regions including Africa, Asia and South America.

The Catholic Society of Jesus, whose members are called Jesuits, was founded in 1534 and participated in the Counter-Reformation to stop Protestantism from spreading. Today they represent the largest single religious order of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church.

The Council of Trent (1562) decreed that all bishops must “banish from churches all those kinds of music in which, whether by organ or in the singing, there is mixed up anything lascivious or impure, as also all secular actions; vain and therefore profane conversations, all walking about, noise, and clamor, that so the House of God may be seen to be, and may be called, truly, a house of prayer.”

On April 18, 1994, the Church Council of the ELCA officially repudiated and apologized for Luther’s words and teachings that have been appropriated by anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred and violence toward Judaism or toward the Jewish people. The ELCA also pledged to oppose such bigotry within the church and in society and to pray for the increasing cooperation and understanding between Lutheran Christians and the Jewish community.

The idea put forth during the Reformation that God sees all believers as spiritually equal had profound repercussions in the church—especially when the idea was applied to women.

Luther’s exhortation to read and interpret the Bible on one’s own and the impact of the printing press opened new doors for lay people that changed the church’s approach to faith formation and Christian education forever.

One of the far-reaching impacts of the Reformation was the promotion of applying the word of God to every area and endeavor of life, in the church and in society.

The early movement of Lutheranism quickly gained followers in the German states, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Scotland and portions of France.

While we associate the Reformation with Germany, broader reformation movements spread across Northern and Western Europe, including also England and Switzerland.

England went through its own religious and political reformation in the late 1500s through early 1600s. It was influenced by Luther and other reformers, but it was more deeply intertwined with the power, personal beliefs and political motives of England’s kings, queens and political leaders of the time.

In the 17th century, Lutherans from Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark began to migrate to the United States, bringing their language, culture and Lutheran faith with them.

The first Lutheran worship service in North America is believed to have taken place in what is now Manitoba, Canada, on Jan. 23, 1620.

Ceremony in Chile’s Palace of the Moneda for the National Day of the Evangelical and Protestant Churches in 2014.

Today, more than 200 denominations and churches in North America have histories connected to the Reformation.

Worldwide, the number of Christians has more than tripled in the last 100 years. But the world’s overall population also has risen rapidly, so Christians make up about the same portion of the world’s population today (32 percent) as they did a century ago (35 percent).

An abundance of festivals, exhibits, concerts and tours are taking place across Germany throughout 2017 in recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Christian education was a passion of Luther’s. He encouraged a partnership between the home and the church in which parents would take the lead and the church would assist.

The reformers taught God’s dominion over the world, creation and all things and helped revive an interest in the world that was increasingly receptive to an encouraging of exploration, study and rediscovery of nature and the universe—without losing sight of faith and spirituality.

Stirring changes and new thinking about the church, religion, politics, law, economics, education and society, the Reformation influenced the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern period and Age of Discovery.

Luther didn’t lay personal, unique claim to his beliefs and teachings. He declared in a sermon, “It is not my doctrine, not my creation, but God’s gift … . Dear Lord God, it was not spun out of my head, nor grown in my garden. Nor did it flow out of my spring, nor was it born of me. It is God’s gift, not a human discovery.”

Researchers and archaeologists have recently corroborated the assertion that Luther was a well-educated thinker and prolific writer, producing an average of 1,800 pages a year.

Recently discovered archive documents have revealed that an arranged marriage of Luther by his father may have been imminent for the young man and most likely played a major role in his leaving his study of law and joining the order of the Augustinian Hermits at the monastery in Erfurt.

During and after the Reformation, there was a sharp decline in the commissioning of large-scale works of biblical art by Protestant churches.

Article: Sabbath Rest

Today (Thursday) is the last “kind of” day of vacation before flying home Friday. I say “kind of” because I am working on a number of things today including a sermon for Sunday. “Winging it” is not in my vocabulary when it comes to Sunday morning although it may seem like it at times!

Yet, as I sit here in front of my computer these words come to mind, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Exodus 20:8 Sabbath rest is more difficult for me than others… as you know I work weekends. I have to find other ways to find rest. One of those ways is to go to Northern Wisconsin specifically the Northern Highland State Forest in Vilas County. My family started vacationing (fishing) there in the 1920’s. I have a postcard from 1927 from a family member who was talking about the fishing while on vacation.

In the movie “Field of Dreams”, Terrence Mann says this to Ray Kinsella the farmer who built a baseball field in the middle of his corn field, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball…”  I feel that way about being among the trees and lakes of Northern Wisconsin, it has been my one constant in a life of change. Whether living in Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada or California, returning to the timeless woods and lakes of my youth is Sabbath rest for me.

I totally understand that this is a privilege and a gift. Many people around the world never travel much beyond where they were born because of economic circumstances.

Many of you have a special place that you have visited many times or you treasure the memory of a beautifully unique location that you traveled to in the past. If you have a place like that, it evokes strong memories. It does for me. I reflected on the 4 generations of family members that have traveled to the north woods of Wisconsin with me over the years, some are still alive, some are not. Being in the woods also brings great peace and serenity as well. There is an audible exhale of breath when I arrive.  And yes, there is (at times) a happiness that brings a tear to my eye.

I thank God for Sabbath rest. I thank God for a place to find peace and rest. I thank God that Rachel likes nature too!

Every time, I walk into our cabin I take off my shoes. I can’t help but think of God’s words to Moses as approached the burning bush, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 3:5  Although it may not be special to everyone, it is holy ground for me.

With all of that said, my mind has stopped looking north and is now looking west back to California. I am ready to come home and see my Bethel family on Sunday. Vacation Bible School begins on Monday and I can’t wait! There is joy to be found at church and at home! (Our dogs miss us too.)  A joy that I can’t find anywhere else in the world.

Verse three of our state song speaks to how I feel about coming home tomorrow with one addition…

I love your old gray Missions – love your vineyards stretching far.
I love you, California, with your Golden Gate ajar.
I love your purple sun- sets, love your skies of azure blue.
I love you, California; I just can’t help loving you.

And I would I add, I especially love the people of California (at Bethel).

God bless,
Pr. Ben