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.

Labyrinths, Lent & Prayer

If I were to say “prayer,” what’s the first image that comes to mind?  A pair of folded hands?  Kneeling by a bedside?  That picture of the white-haired, white-bearded guy sitting at the table with soup and bread and bible with his head resting against his folded hands?  I’d hazard a guess that whatever the image that comes to mind, for most of us it is a static image without movement.  But prayer can be movement.

What if I were to ask what prayer sounds like?  The Lord’s Prayer spoken by a congregation?  A family saying, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest…” before a meal?  Driving to work with an inner-monologue grocery-list of petitions bouncing around in your head?  I’d hazard a guess that whatever the sound that comes to mind, for most of us it is the sound of a human voice (or inner-monologue).  But prayer can be listening.

CLF LabyrinthOne of the ideas that sprouted out of my sabbatical travels and grew into a project which was completed last fall (with the help of the Rap Group and a dozen or so talented painters) was to create a labyrinth on the floor of the ‘DownUnder’ – located in the basement below the sanctuary.  When Pastor Tom and I were talking about the project before it was completed, one of our main concerns was that it would actually ‘get used’ and not just be a decoration.

With this in mind, throughout the season of Lent (that’s the rest of the month of March) on Wednesday afternoons and evenings the labyrinth will be “set-up” for use.  I say, “set-up” even though it’s available for use just about anytime that there isn’t something else going on, but this is a time when it is intentionally set-up with quiet music playing and a request that during this time the area be reserved for quiet prayer.

Don’t worry if you think that using a labyrinth might “stretch” the way that you’re used to praying.  If you’re used to prayer as a “static” thing, then it’s true, it might challenge you a little bit to pray and walk at the same time (although it’s about as difficult as walking and chewing gum at the same time).  If you’re used to prayer as something that’s primarily the human voice talking (whether aloud or as an inner-monologue prayer), then it might stretch how you think about prayer being a time to “listen” for God’s voice as you walk the labyrinth.  But isn’t Lent a perfect time to stretch or challenge how we pray?

Still, I know that many people have questions about labyrinths and/or what they’re supposed to do when they walk a labyrinth.  Here are a few frequently asked questions and answers…

  • Is a labyrinth the same as a maze?  No.  A maze has dead-ends, but a labyrinth has only one path, which you follow all the way in to the center and then all the way out.
  • Aren’t labyrinths just “new age” or pagan?  No.  Labyrinths are extremely old.  They were a standard part of European churches in the Middle Ages.  One of the most famous labyrinths (which is the model for the labyrinth in the ‘DownUnder’ at CLF) is at the Chartres Cathedral in France.
  • What am I supposed to ‘do’ when I walk the labyrinth?  The simple answer is “walk” and “pray.”  The rest is up to you.  Some walk faster, some slower.  Some pray the traditional grocery-list, inner-monologue prayer, some try to quiet their thoughts by praying a simple, repetitive phrase like, “God is love” or focusing on a single image like the cross.  The only other thing you might try to do is to ‘pay attention.’  Listen.  Look.  Relax.  Breathe.  And don’t forget to watch out for other people walking the labyrinth.

If you didn’t already know, you might also be interested to know that Custer Lutheran Fellowship has had an outdoor labyrinth by the outdoor worship area (located to the northwest behind the parsonage) for several years, which was built by the Health Ministry Team.  This labyrinth is open year-round too!

If you have any other questions, I’m happy to visit with you and please know that Lent isn’t the only time that you can use a labyrinth for prayer. You might find that a labyrinth stretches and challenges the way you’re used to praying, but you also might find it feels like a very natural form of prayer for you.  It might not be for everyone, but I encourage you to give it a try this season of Lent as we meditate on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who walks with us in all our prayers.

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.


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.

One more Denver Video

Here is a three minute overview of our seven days at DOOR in Denver.   Thank you to Terri Herman, Jean Witt, and Duane Martinz for serving as adult sponsors and to all of the fun and thoughtfulness that the high schoolers contributed to the experience.  The music in the video is from one of CLF’s favorite bands called Tangled Blue.


Work Day 3 and 4

Wednesday. DOOR.  By Tori and Rachel

Group 9 went to a children’s “Head Start” daycare. It is run by a former Olympian sprinter who also played four years  pro in the NFL for the Eagles and the Buccaneers. We were taken there by Jesus, the Spanish language name “Jesus” aka “J.”  He is going to be a senior in high school and was one of the awesome staff members at DOOR. On the way to the academy Jesus showed us how to figure out which buildings are pot clinics or have pot available. When we got to head start and the kids started showing up we played basketball for a while but the big hit was kickball! We got to see how the run their academy. They serve three meals a day for everyone. After breakfast we all loaded up the bus to go to a golf course about fifteen minutes away. The way there we were amazing and impressed that the kids, the oldest being seven, knew all the words to every single rap gangstaa music we listened to. We were also very sad that they were this young and knowing this music. We got to the golf course for our first tee program! To warm up for this beautiful executive three hole golf course we had very tough moves and stretch very, very well so we would not get injured. We first started off with jumping in circles on one leg. Then we went on to handstands. The most fun was the cartwheels and summersault races. After this we split up into group of boys and girls. The boys stayed where we warmed up and did the driving range. The girls went off with their plastic golf balls and played a few holes. Besides the occasional fights between the young girls and throwing of clubs we had a lot of fun. We went back early because Jordan, one of young boys, had an allergic reaction to the grass and pollen. We got back to the academy and played more…. KICKBALL! We had a feast for lunch of hamburgers, hot dogs, green beans, French fries, fruit, corn, salad. Then we went out to play with the kids on the jumpy castles and the jungle gym. Tori’s new occupation is a pony and a monster… a lava monster! Rachel was a human jumpy castle, and Cody was the horse trainer who led Tori around the playground. We were sad to leave the kid, but we had a great day.

PS: WE DON’T BANG!!!! ( in the gang world you say this to inform the actual members of a gang you mean no harm.) JESUS TAUGHT US.

Thursday at metro care ring by Brennan

My experience for metro care ring was amazing. It is just mind boggling that we fed 101 families, which was almost a new record.  We went through 2 tons of food that day. That organization is amazing because the organization used their brains and figured out that grocery stores throw 1/3 of all the food they have.  They decided they would ask if instead of throwing the food away if they could give it to this organization because most of the food is still good and can go to needy families that need it. It was just an eye opening experience in the fact that organizations exist in the world.