Category Archives: Articles

Article: What I am doing in Illinois

Right now, I am at Leadership Lab. It is a leadership laboratory for Christian students to grow in faith and acquire leadership skills. I’ve been a part of this one week a year “camp” for 34 years or about 70% of my life. 

I personally witness changed lives year after year… including my own. I am fairly sure I wouldn’t be a pastor if my father didn’t make me go to Leadership Lab. Thanks dad!

On Sunday night, one of the directors I work with (and took to Leadership Lab for the first time as a student in 1999) provided us with some statistics to show us the importance and impact of a camp like experience.

One week of Leadership Lab is equivalent to:

  • 28 hours of youth group meetings =  3-6 months of youth group meetings
  • 17 meals with loved ones/mentors/youth leaders/pastors 
  • 22 hours of worship = 5 months of regular worship 

Building relationships and community take time. You need least 8 hours of face time with a person or a group to build community. In church that would mean:

  • 8 weeks of worship
    • 4-8 weeks of youth group meetings 
    • One lock in or mini-retreat
    • Or just Monday and Tuesday of Leadership Lab 

This is an intensive and action packed week… devoted to building up the church and future leaders. 

I wish I could bottle what we do here and bring it home… but alas I cannot do that. I do however thank you for your support as I serve the larger church. 

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Article: Why Churches Die

By Thom Rainer

Whenever I come across an article by Thom Rainer, I take the time to read it. He is one of the best church consultants and church “practitioners” I have come across. I have read many of his books and he is rarely wrong in his assessments.

This past week, I saw an article entitled, Why Churches Dieby Thom Rainer and I of course read it.

Denial is a bad thing and will cause a local church to close its doors. If you didn’t know, the ELCA has been shrinking in membership for a while now. 

I think it is good to know why churches shrink and then close so that we do not fall into the same mentality. 

I am not sounding any alarms or predicting gloom and doom! I just want every church member (where ever you go to church) to know the warning signs and then do the very opposite of what Thom Rainer lists below!

  • Why Churches Die: They refuse to admit they are sick, very sick. I have worked with churches whose attendance has declined by over 80 percent. They have no gospel witness in the community. They have not seen a person come to Christ in two decades. But they say they are fine. They say nothing is wrong.
  • Why Churches Die: They are still waiting on the “magic bullet” pastor. They reason, if only we could find the right pastor, we would be fine. But they bring in pastor after pastor. Each leaves after a short-term stint, frustrated that the congregation was so entrenched in its ways. So the church starts the search again for the magic bullet pastor.
  • Why Churches Die: They fail to accept responsibility. I recently met with the remaining members of a dying church. Their plight was the community’s fault. Those people should be coming to their church. It was the previous five pastors’ fault. Or it was the fault of culture. If everything returned to the Bible belt mentality of decades earlier, we would be fine.
  • Why Churches Die: They are not willing to change…at all. A friend asked me to meet with the remaining members of a dying church. These members were giddy with excitement. They viewed me as the great salvific hope for their congregation. But my blunt assessment was not pleasing to them, especially when I talked about change. Finally, one member asked if they would have to look at the words of a hymn on a screen instead of a hymnal if they made changes. I stood in stunned silence, and soon walked away from the church that would close its doors six months later.
  • Why Churches Die: Their “solutions” are all inwardly focused. They don’t want to talk about reaching the ethnically changing community. They want to know how they can make church more comfortable and palatable for the remnant of members.
  • Why Churches Die: They desire to return to 1985. Or 1972. Or 1965. Or 1959. Those were the good old days. If we could just do church like we did then, everything would be fine.

God bless the Church and God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Article: Independence Day Reflections

Today is July 4thand I started thinking about a monument on the other side of our country: The Statue of Liberty. 

It was a gift from France and the statue arrived by boat in 1885. The only stipulation of this gift was that the United States would build a platform for the statue to be erected upon. Eager to receive such a wonderful gift, fundraising began several years before the statue arrived in New York. 

Jewish American author and poet Emma Lazarus wrote a poem called The New Colossus, which she wrote for a fundraiser auction to raise money for the pedestal upon which the Statue of Liberty now sits. The poem did not receive much recognition and was forgotten about shortly after the auction.

In the early 1900s and after Lazarus’ death, one of her friends began a campaign to memorialize Lazarus and her New Colossus sonnet. The effort was a success, and a plaque with the poem’s text was mounted inside the pedestal of the statue.

The well-known part of this sonnet goes like this…

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

A beacon of welcome for those coming to start a new life.  Lazarus also calls The Statue of Liberty the “Mother of Exiles.” A symbol of new found freedom where one can pursue the words enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that was ratified on this day 243 years ago in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

When I reflect on both Lazarus’ and the Declaration of Independence, I know we still have a ways to go before this is a reality for all. Even though I have the ability to take hold of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” I also know that others within our nation do not for various reasons including racism and economic disparity. 

One could rightfully lament the inequity and partisan divisions in our nation today. I am sure we could make a long list of things that need to be addressed by our legislators right now. As sit in my living room typing this, I have decided that the best way I can celebrate Independence Day is to be thankful for the vision put forth by our “founding fathers” and continue to advocate for those who do not have the same opportunities as I have had here in the United States.

I will be thankful and I will continue to be a voice for the voiceless. 

God, you have given all peoples on common origin.
It is your will that they be gathered together
as one family in yourself.
Fill the hearts of humankind with the fire of your love
and with the desire to ensure justice for all.
By sharing the good things you give us,
may we secure an equality for all
our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
May there be an end to division, strife, and war. 
May there be a dawning of a truly human society
built on love and peace.
We ask this in your name. Amen.

– Author Unknown

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Article: A Message from Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

One month ago the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the church body of which I am a pastor) Elizabeth Eaton wrote a pastoral letter regarding the children at our southern border who are dying. 

When Bishop Eaton pens a letter, I take time to read it for several reasons:

  1. She is my bishop.
  2. She is wise.
  3. She is compassionate.
  4. She believes in the tenderness and mercy of Jesus for the world.

Here is what she shared with the ELCA…

May 28, 2019 

Children coming to our nation for safety and protection are still dying at our southern border while in U.S. detention. 

Carlos, a 16-year-old youth from Guatemala, died May 20 in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Wilmer, a 2-year-old, died May 14, also in the custody of CBP. They were preceded in death by Jackelin, Felipe, Juan and a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador who died in September 2018 but whose death has just been disclosed. One year ago, Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a 20-year-old woman from Guatemala, was shot in the head and killed by a Border Patrol agent while seeking safety in the United States. 

I am deeply dismayed by the deaths of these children, made in the image of God, who came to our southern border as refugees and asylum seekers to ask us for protection. As a nation we denied them that safety, instead placing them in detention facilities, sometimes for months. 

We follow a Lord who instructed, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14). As we continue to serve and love our neighbor, we pray for the well-being of children and families in detention, and we urge the administration to seek alternatives to the detention of children. 

In Christ, 

The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton Presiding Bishop, ELCA 

Article: Christ is Our Home

Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation & Education Centre is located in both Mount Brydges, Ontario, and Regina, Saskatchewan. By the name I am sure you can deduce what they do. They rehabilitate all sorts of wild animals who need medical help… including mallard ducks.

A four years ago, a mallard ducking was brought in that needed care. This duckling undertook the same journey all of their orphaned mallards experience at the center. She was placed in an incubator to be kept warm, and then, after a little over a week, she  moved into an outdoor flight pen along with her fellow ducklings. By mid-summer, she was flying on her own and able to take care of herself, but likely she stuck around until the end of the season before departing with her fellow mallards as they flew south for the winter. All of their duck patients have bands attached to the legs for possible future identification. 

Here is where the story gets interesting…

Recently, “on an early spring morning earlier this year, Salthaven’s founder, Brian Salt, was surprised to discover a mother mallard duck waiting expectantly at the facility’s front door along with her entourage of 11 ducklings. When she didn’t gain access to the clinic, momma duck promptly led her brood straight into an empty flight pen located outside.”

“An inspection of the mother’s leg band not only identified her as the very same duckling that had grown up at Salthaven four summers ago, but also revealed that the pen she selected was the very same one in which she herself had been raised. The family has now been at the center for the last few weeks, during which time the babies have grown considerably and are mingling comfortably with more than 50 other young mallards being raised at Salthaven this summer.”

“This mother duck returned to Salthaven to raise her family in a place that she knew was safe and secure.” 

I can’t help but think of God’s love. Our Heavenly Father invites us to return “home”  and be lost in His love. God wants us to know that we are safe in Christ’s arms. His nailed scarred hands remind us of his care for us. Our home is with Christ and wherever we are loved by other Christians. By that definition, I have several homes! I am rich in love! Are you?

Consider these verses…

The everlasting God is your place of safety, and his arms will hold you up forever. Deuteronomy 33:27 (NCV)

Jesus said,“How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” Matthew 23:37

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Psalm 46:1

Jesus is waiting for all to return home (Luke 15) to find peace of mind and a love that will sustain us throughout our lives and into eternity. The momma duck figured out where home is… why do we find it so hard?

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: The Future

Several weeks ago someone shared a sermon with me from a seminary graduation at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond Virginia. As a matter of fact, it was the last commencement of that school because it was closing due to low enrollment and financial instability. A very familiar scenario in this day and age. 

The school invited the Reverend Elizabeth Mangham Lott of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans to preach. A lot of what she said at that graduation rings true for me and for the Christian Church in 2019.

Here are some excerpts from that sermon that I want to share with you…

If not, let me be the first to welcome you to the life and work of the pastor in 2019. I’d venture to say that those of us in transitional ministry settings (standing between what has been and what will be) have no idea what we’re doing half of the time. In any given week at the historic St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church in New Orleans I am a building manager, an entrepreneur, a social justice warrior, a community organizer, an institutional innovator, a therapist, a development director, a wounded healer, a custodian, a really bad bookkeeper, a nonprofit executive director, a midwife, a hospice chaplain, and a preacher.

I am simultaneously preparing something old for burial while trying to assist in the birth of something new; pastoring in the ways of the 20th century while chasing the Spirit’s guidance for the 21st. I have a lot of moments of thinking maybe, just maybe, my congregation and I are gonna pull this thing off and make a sustainable way forward. 

But between you and me, sometimes all it takes is one of those days when New Orleans gets a hard rain for six hours, the building floods, and I am nearly as confident we’ll put a for sale sign in the yard and watch the whole thing go condo.

Everything is changing in American religious life. It isn’t all changing at the same pace or in the same ways, but the institutions we knew and loved (the very ones that formed and shaped and sent us) are changing forever. And y ds, are called to work and serve and love for this season of transformation.

Dr. Phyllis Rodgerson Pleasants spoke over and over and over and over and overagain of paradigm shifts. We wrote the papers. We studied the tome. We knew conceptually that the paradigm was shifting. Dr. Phyllis Tickle made famous the image of the church’s rummage sale every 500 years, and we preachers have found some comfort in bringing that image out every now and then to remind ourselves and each other that what we are experiencing has happened before and will happen again; church is bigger than our collective memory. Paradigms shift. Rummage sales are necessary… We creatures don’t like change. We don’t enjoy paradigm shifts. And we don’t particularly enjoy rummage sales.

In this rummage sale, we’re releasing that which no longer serves in order to make room for what comes next. That sounds nice and hopeful and promising. But if you’ve been through the process of cleaning out your childhood home and deciding who gets the love letters in a box found in the attic, who gets the beloved Christmas ornaments, what to do with your mother’s 75 church hats, who will deal with your father’s hoarding problem made evident in the garage, and putting your sister-in-law in her place when she tries to put her name on the heirloom armoire, well, that’s decidedly more complicated. The life and work in 2019 is decidedly more complicated than it was 30 years ago.

The dear writer and woman of valor Rachel Held Evans reflected on this impulse we have in our church culture to win at doing church, saying, “I wonder if the role of the clergy in this age is not to dispense information or guard the prestige of their authority, but rather to go first, to volunteer the truth about their sins, their dreams, their failures, and their fears in order to free others to do the same. Such an approach may repel the masses looking for easy answers from flawless leaders, but I think it might make more disciples of Jesus, and I think it might make healthier, happier pastors. There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection. Our path is the muddier one.

These words are true and they are good. We are in the midst of  massive change as it relates to religious practice and attitudes towards faith. I don’t know what is coming next, but I do know that Jesus said not even “the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18) . The church may be different in the years to come but I trust Jesus to lead us into that new reality.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: Law and Gospel

In Martin Luther’s Introduction to Romans, Luther stated that saving faith is, “a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever…Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!”

Luther clearly explains the nature of faith… it spurs us to do good for others (often). To take that a step further the faith God gives us also helps us to be good without even thinking about it. 

The power of the Holy Spirit spurs us into Godly action. The Spirit sways us towards the good. 

Without God… without faith we spin our wheels. (John 15:5)

We as Lutheran’s understand that God relates to humanity in two distinct ways: Law and Gospel. 

Bruce Wandry puts it this way, “In 1525, Martin Luther preached a sermon about two different and distinct sermons.  At the beginning of his sermon, Luther explained how, in the Bible, God preaches only two public sermons—two sermons that all of the people can hear.  According to Luther, God’s first public sermon was on Mt. Sinai, when the people heard God give Moses the Law, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:9).  God’s second public sermon was on the Day of Pentecost, when the people heard the disciples proclaim the Good News of Christ in their native languages.  Although the two sermons have the same divine source, Luther discerned a stark difference in content.”

The Law seems harsh and prickly while the gospel speaks of hope and grace. 

The Law of God tells us what God expects of us. Often the Law is associated with this phrase, “Do this and live.” The opposite is true too, “don’t do this and you will die” as if to imply the verse “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)

The rules that God gives us including the 10 Commandments serve various purposes. This also applies to civil law.

  • Through fear of punishment, the Law (religious and civil) keeps the sinful nature of both Christians and non-Christians under check because there are consequences for breaking the Law. Think: fear.
  • Additionally, The Law serves as a reflection of what perfection looks like. If we followed all the Laws (both civil and religious) this world would be like heaven! The downside of this is that we see how bad we truly are because we can’t possibly be that good without help from above. 
  • However, as a Christian there is one more purpose for the Law. As one who believes in Jesus and has been given the Holy Spirit, the Law serves as a guide. It is no longer threatening because we are forgiven. We are not under the threat of punishment because of Christ. The law is no longer compulsory. In faith, our hearts are drawn to the good because of the Holy Spirit. The Law becomes something we want to do versus something we have to do.

On the other hand, the gospel of Christ tells us that Jesus has taken care of everything including the punishment for sin. We need not fear God or the Law because of Jesus. 

Up to this point you might be thinking, “Yeah ok, I’ve been through confirmation, so what?”

The Law cannot save you!!! Only Christ can do that… but the world forgets that and believes that we can legislate our way to perfection and conformity. It is a big, fat, lie. Even churches try to be “God’s moral policemen” in their church and the world and it doesn’t work. It also makes Christianity look like hypocrites. “Being good” is not the end game. Faith in Christ is. 

By watching the news, I see how our state and federal government attempt to legislate their version of good behavior through various laws. Remember what a smashing success prohibition was? 

Both God and government could continue to add laws until Christ returns and it will not cause people to lead better lives or force people to make choices they don’t want to make.  

Only the transformational power of Jesus’ love can do that. Only the gift of the Holy Spirit given to all believers has the power to change our hearts, our attitudes, our mindsets and our behaviors. 

As you have heard me say, “Being good is overrated.” That isn’t what God wants you to focus on because Jesus knows you can’t do it and God forbid you try to impose that type of conformity on others. It is unhealthy to control the behaviors of others. It is even more unhealthy to think you can actually do it. 

Instead focus on the love Jesus has for you and the world. Live into that love. Share that love in every interaction. Love changes everything. The gospel is about the love Jesus shows humanity. Spend your time there. If you need a law, follow the law of Christ to “Love one another as Christ has loved you.”

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: Betty Rendón

Last week an intern pastor of the ELCA and PhD student from The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

This is from Emaus Lutheran Church’s Facebook page:

Betty Rendón is a part-time intern pastor at Emaus Lutheran Church in Racine, Wisconsin. Last Wednesday morning, Pastor Rendón’s daughter was driving her five-year-old to school from their home in Chicago. She was not two minutes from the house when she was stopped by ICE officers who admitted they were looking specifically for her. 

The officers arrested and handcuffed her, despite her protests that she is legally protected by DACA and should not be a target for ICE. The agents took the wheel of the car and drove them back to the house, where Pastor Rendón’s husband, Carlos, was leaving home for work. The agents shouted at him in English, which he does not speak well, shook him violently, and shoved him towards the car. They ordered him to open the door of the house. Once the door was open, they forced their way in. 

A group of ICE vehicles with numerous officers then converged on the house and poured inside, brandishing their weapons and pointing them at the family. Pastor Rendón was still in her pajamas. They did not allow her to get dressed, but handcuffed her as she was. Her granddaughter screamed and cried while the officers searched until they found their houseguest, a cousin, who had fled into the basement to hide. They handcuffed him as well. Having arrested all of the adults in the home, the officers allowed Pastor Rendón to phone the child’s other grandparents so that they could come collect her.

Their family moved to the U.S. from Colombia after guerrilla soldiers threatened Pastor Rendón(the principal of a school in Columbia at that time) for opposing the guerilla’s attempts to recruit students. The U.S. denied her application for asylum. 

This saddens me. 

Depending upon who you talk to you could get one of two responses:

  1. She broke the law and these are the consequences.
  2. When did a theology student become a threat to national security?

If you believe Intern Pastor Rendón should be deported back to Columbia where her life was once threatened, there is nothing I can write that will convince you otherwise. 

Yet, I am sad because this is not how God wants us to treat one another, including those who are from another country living among us. I fully recognize our immigration laws allow for this kind of treatment of others yet I wonder if it is the right? This action (above) may be legal but is it just? The manner of the reported arrest certainly was without compassion.

I am not an advocate of open borders. Yet as a Christian and a pastor, I will continue to remind anyone who will listen that how we treat people matters to Jesus. 

Life is messy and not always black and white. Living in the grey is difficult because answers aren’t always clear. Life is easier when everything is boiled down to black, white, right and wrong but something gets sacrificed in that way of living: people. 

I do know that when we hold dear to rigid ideas and inflexible ideologies over individuals and their circumstances…people get hurt. History (even recent history in our own country) tells us everything we need to know. 

Compassion matters to God. That doesn’t mean there are not consequences for our actions but the statement still stands regardless of consequences.

I am praying for God’s will to be done in this matter. I am also praying for the undocumented children who have been separated from their families and do not have the ability to advocate for themselves within our complex legal system. 

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Article: The Gift of Grace

Max Lucado understands grace as well as anyone and can explain better than just about everyone.

He tells this story in his book, The Gift For All People.

Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland was packed with kids and parents. Suddenly – all the children rushed to one side. It’s a good thing it was a castle and not a boat, or it would have tipped over. The pristine princess had entered the room. Cinderella. A gorgeous young girl with each hair in place, flawless skin and a beaming smile. She stood waist-deep in a garden of kids, each wanting to touch and be touched.

The other side of the castle was now vacant, except for a boy maybe seven or eight years old. His age was hard to determine because of the disfigurement of his body. Dwarfed in height, face deformed, he stood watching quietly and wistfully, holding the hand of an older brother. Do you know what he wanted? He wanted to be with the children. He longed to be in the middle of the kids reaching for Cinderella, calling her name. But can’t you feel his fear, fear of yet another rejection? Fear of being taunted again, mocked again? Don’t you wish Cinderella would go to him?

She did! She noticed the little boy and immediately began walking in his direction. Politely but firmly inching through the crowd of children, she finally broke free. She walked quickly across the floor, knelt at eye level with the stunned little boy and placed a kiss on his face.

Max concludes, “The story reminds me of another royal figure. The names are different, but isn’t the story almost the same? Rather than a princess of Disney, these essays are about the Prince of Peace. Rather than a boy in a castle, our story is about you and me. In both cases, a gift was given. In both cases, love was shared. In both cases, the lovely one performed a gesture beyond words.”

“But Jesus did more than Cinderella. Oh, so much more. Cinderella gave only a kiss. When she stood to leave, she took her beauty with her. The boy was still deformed. What if Cinderella had done what Jesus did? What if she’d assumed his state? What if she had somehow given him her beauty and taken on his disfigurement?”

“That’s what Jesus did. ‘He took our suffering on him and felt our pain for us … He was wounded for the wrong we did; he was crushed for the evil we did. The punishment, which made us well, was given to him, and we are healed because of his wounds’ (Isaiah 53:4-5).”

The fact is: Jesus did something for us that we did not deserve. We’ve been forgiven, we’ve been claimed and we’ve been given a church family. God is good and so is the grace that Jesus gives.

Let us resolve to treat others as Jesus has treated us… even when it isn’t deserved.

God bless,
Pr. Ben