Mission trips and the Body of Christ

Earlier this month I returned from an eight day mission trip to Washington D.C. after serving in the city with eighteen high school students and three other adults from Custer Lutheran Fellowship.  We prepared meals that were distributed to homeless shelters, packed canned goods in a massive grocery distribution warehouse, visited with people who were living in the local parks, had a conversation with one of our South Dakota senators about U.S. food programs, and saw many monuments.  But why did we go?

                Did we go because it was good for the high schoolers to learn to raise money by the sweat of their own brows with their firewood sale?  Partly.  Did we travel so far from home to get us out of our comfort zones so that we might see the world from a different angle?  Yes, I suppose.  Did we go to learn about Christian service and to learn that our attitudes toward poverty and toward voting matter?  Of course.   But what is the primary purpose for these trips?

                In recent years, service learning and mission trips have become very popular in congregations throughout the United States.  Custer Lutheran Fellowship is one of these congregations, routinely packing our bags to serve people in other places.  Whether we are going to Pine Ridge and to St. Dysmas at the penitentiary in Sioux Falls or making trips to Washington state, Denver, New Orleans, and Washington D.C., we have covered some serious miles.  Some have gone to Nicaraqua, Colombia, and Guatamala to serve, witness, and learn.  But why?

                A single line in our weekly worship bulletin provides a clue.  Each week, we list the names of the staff of CLF.  Pastor Kent and I are named as the pastors, Donna McConnell as the office administrator, Sara Janson as the office assistant and so on.  For years, however, this listing has included seven words that help define who we are as a congregation.  Ministers: All members of Custer Lutheran Fellowship.

                Of course different people have different reasons for traveling to do ministry.  But I think these congregational travels train us to be a ministering community in the same way that gathering for family reunions helps us to be better families or going away to basketball camp helps a basketball team play better together when they get back home.

                These travels are rarely ends in themselves, but instead help to equip us to serve better as the body of Christ when we return home.  In the same way that I am a more connected family member when I visit with my cousin at the intense 4th of July reunion, I learn to minister better when I chop fifty pound of onions standing next to two high school ministers of CLF at the D.C. Central Kitchen. (Yes, we did cry like babies.)  Yet, going to the family reunion can’t replace the routines of sitting down to supper as a family, or cleaning the house, or saying bedtime prayers.

                Now that this particular service trip is done, we return to the life-sustaining routines of Sunday worship, faith, prayer, service, forgiveness, love, witness — of being the Body of Christ where we live.  The Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described congregations as, “Jesus Christ existing as the church community.”  Christ himself exists and is present for the world as we gather to be this wonderful thing called a ministering community.  May our life of faith away from home strengthen our life of faith at home.

Speaking of the weather

It is the time of year that we in the northern climes talk about the weather.

“How much snow did you get west of town?”

“Six inches.”

“Hmm, only got two in town and none at that church.”

“Really, they got nine inches up on the Limestone.  Probably won’t melt under those trees until May.


             Not exactly the deepest (pun absolutely intended) conversations, but I will admit that I really like talking about winter weather.  A simple comment about an upcoming snowstorm will get people remembering notable storms of the past.  Just recently Pastor Kent told me about the Concordia College Choir being snowed in at a chain motel for several days during a blizzard while on tour.  No power, no heat, no food.  Just as they were debating cannibalism, the ingenious tenor section upended a vending machine to shake the candy out.  Great story.

Or a cold snap will bring out the memories of old cars with heaters that blew only cool air or of throwing a pan of boiling water outside and watching it all evaporate before it hit the ground.  Mention the thermometer, snow-packed roads, or the value of Carhart overalls and the conversation will go on for hours – at least in the rural, male, Lutheran circles that I often travel in.

I think if God would’ve chosen for the messiah to be born a little farther north that Jesus would’ve told parables about lake ice and wind chill to go along with the sowing, harvesting, and fishing themes that he used so often.   Jesus painted lofty theological images with his words, but he also spent plenty of time discussing wind, water, and rain – the weather.

Jesus knew what people really talked about — the beauty of mild weather, the fear and anxiety that damage from violent storms can bring, the ability to raise a crop from the right weather at the right time.  Snow and rain gives us a way to talk about things we like and things that make us a little worried.  Weather conversation helps us sort out memories and pass on stories that help us to be better friends and to pass on history.  We have parables around us all of the time.

No wonder we will soon be hearing the story of a cross-country winter trip on the back of a donkey.  The traffic was terrible, and there was no room at the hotel.  And you know what happened?  God showed up.  Now, that’s a good weather story.

Falling out of Summer in Youth Ministry

Our high school youth group is transitioning from a wonderful summer with trips to the ELCA National Youth Gathering in New Orleans and a service project with Extreme Community Makeover in Denver.  The adults and high schoolers are now transitioning from the big trips of summer to the more routine tasks of fall.  I was impressed that our group of high schoolers put into place some very solid disciplines to help them bring home the things they learned in New Orleans.  One of their ideas was to meet a couple of Wednesdays each month for breakfast and a devotion before school.  I’m looking forward to our first  WMBC (Wednesday Morning Breakfast Club) this week. But a part of me is still lingering on the fun of the summer, so I pulled together a short video of the to trip to Denver and New Orleans.

The music in the video is from Rachel Kurtz and Dave Scherer (AGAPE)  who created a song based on the theme “Citizens with the Saints.”  Here is the link for the video.

Planted by streams

Young trees seem to grow in one of two ways in the Black hills.  The first way is for a single wedge-shaped wing of a pine cone to catch the wind, blow into a crack high on a granite face, land in two teaspoons of dust and grit, and begin growing straight out of the rock.  If you’ve looked at Paul Horsted’s photos you’ll see that some of these tough “rock” trees are well over one hundred years old. 

The other way to plant a tree around here is to lovingly dig a very large hole, fill it with decent top soil, water it generously, wrap the healthy young trunk to keep the rabbits away from the bark, fence it at least six feet high to keep the deer from eating the leaves, water it some more, pray that the hail or wind don’t snap it in two, and then enjoy its blossoms in the spring.

Some have compared planting pine trees verses decorative trees to planting dandelions verses orchids.  If you’ve ever had a lawn you have noticed that it is quite easy to grow a healthy crop of dandelions.  Orchids on the other hand are so fragile that they require precise temperature, sunlight, humidity, fertilizer, and much tender loving care.  However, those who have happened upon a wild, lady slipper orchid in a remote, Black Hills creek bed will be startled by its beauty.  Sometimes it is well worth the work to create an environment where even an orchid can bloom.

                The book of Psalms begins with the image of the people of God being like a tree planted by a stream of water.   I like to think that the stream sometimes is natural, like rainwater that is funneled into a tiny crack, allowing a tree to grow in a seemingly impossible place.  Other times that stream is created by intensive human work in order that the tree can be grown where we need a tree to be.   There is a place for both dandelion trees and orchid trees in the kingdom of God.

Speaking of trees, we’ve begun our most recent landscaping project at the church.  The front lawn has been torn up and hopefully in the next few days we will have three new trees planted.  We will plant them with love looking forward to beautiful blossoms and a reminder that it is worth the work to create environments where God’s creation can thrive.

Easter Birthdays

My daughter will celebrate her birthday on Easter Sunday this year.  In her ten years of life this is the second time that her birthday has fallen on this most important Christian holiday.  She turned five the last time it happened, and it was the same week that her grandfather had emergency coronary bypass surgery.  That was one memorable birthday party as we gathered for cake and presents in the nearly empty Easter Sunday cafeteria at Sanford Medical Center.  The handful of nurses and other families of patients smiled at a little girl riding her brand new pink scooter around the salad bar.  When Olivia and her similarly young cousins made their way into the lobby for an improvised Easter egg hunt, we were shushed repeatedly by the volunteer at the welcome counter.   Thankfully, Grandpa recovered well and the deep fear of that Maundy Thursday heart attack was replaced by an Easter Sunday party.






The great drama that we reenact each year beginning with Ash Wednesday and leading up to crescendo of holy week gives us a chance to relive and remember the salvation story of Christ being led to a tomb and the great, mysterious party that follows.

I certainly hope that we don’t have a family medical emergency this year surrounding Olivia’s birthday.  I’d just as soon eat our Easter ham with family and friends and enjoy a little birthday party in the quiet of our own home this time.   However, even that birthday in the shadow of the intensive care until five years ago was still a wonderful party.  Because Jesus lives, all our personal Maundy Thursdays lead to a party in the end.


Recently I’ve been reading a book by Daniel Pink entitled, Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us.  In the book, Pink tackles the somewhat controversial topic of why the reward and punishment approach to motivation doesn’t really work all that well.   Conventional wisdom says that we work harder when “carrots” are placed before us.  The carrot may be more money, recognition, or a new video game.  A “stick” often accompanies this approach where punishments are given for not working hard enough – the loss of vacation time or loss of the video game.

What Pink argues is that, though the carrots and sticks work sometimes, the most vital motivation comes from inside a person, not from external rewards and punishments.  The joy of doing a task well is its own reward.  Of course he has many examples that make his point, but the basic logic doesn’t need much applifying.  We work hardest at tasks we find interesting,  engaging, and worthwhile.  How else does one explain the thousands of volunteer hours given to building Wikipedia or the intense concentration of a child lost in play?  

Though I’m pretty sure that Mr. Pink didn’t have Christian congregations in mind when he put his thoughts on paper, he does a pretty good job of describing what I think makes congregations like Custer Lutheran Fellowship work.  Congregations with many people deeply engaged in tasks that they like to do, are good at doing, and make a difference being done are congregation that have are humming along well.

As we enter 2012 I’m excited about what is to come with the well-motivated group of Christian disciples called Custer Lutheran Fellowship.  In January the church council will be meeting in a retreat to begin the process of developing a new mission and vision statement for the congregation.  This will be a significant process and will involve the entire congregation as we lay out who we hope to be in the next decade.  I like to think that the work of the last mission and vision statement created nine years ago helped lead to the building of a new sanctuary, the calling of a second pastor, and the engagement of an entire new crop of motivated disciples. 

Thanks to the deep generosity of the congregation’s stewards and from the estimates generated on Consecration Sunday, we are planning on a 16 percent increase in financial giving in 2012.  This opens new opportunities for mission for us as a congregation as we look to the local community and beyond.

Christian leaders have reminded us that “It is a good time to be the church.” I think it is a good time to be the church because God always has work for us to do.  We do this work not because we are going to get rich doing it or because we will be struck by lightening if we don’t, but because Jesus’ work is good work.  Thanks be to God.

And two shall become one (vertebra, I mean)

Most weeks will find Pastor Kent or I visiting patients in one or more of the area hospitals.  When Pastor Kent had his knee surgery last winter I told him that it is good for a pastor be a hospital patient every now and then so that we get a taste of the anxiety, hope, and fear that surround such stays.

I guess I’ll have to take my own advice in a couple of weeks.  For twenty years I’ve been one of those people who complain to their spouses about having a sore back.  When the ache turns into significant pain even a man of stubborn Norwegian/German stock asks his doctor for help.  Several xrays, one MRI, and  a couple of specialists later I learned that many years ago I broke my back without knowing it.  However, the good news is that it can be fixed.  So on October 3 I’ll be having what my surgeon calls an “aggressive surgery” to fuse the troublesome bone to its neighbor.  When the procedures are all done I’ll have a piece of donated cadaver bone, several screws, and a rod in my back.  If all goes well I’ll be back to work in about four weeks and fully healed in six to nine months.

I ask for your prayers for my family and I as we go through this time of surgery and recovery.  The staff at church and leadership of the congregation has been very helpful as I’ve been making plans to be gone for a few weeks.  Thank you to you all.