Jesus and the Stewardship of Self

Cross and Starfish

It’s tough to be good stewards of our time, our relationships, and our finite resources. I’ve been reflecting on this topic a lot lately, especially in light of the wonderful Rostered Leaders Wellness Retreat our Lower Susquehanna Synod hosted with support from Portico Benefits (our insurer), Thrivent Financial, and Lutheran World Relief.

We spent a wonderful two days at the Hershey Hotel with wonderful food, great collegiality, worship, Bible study, and time for yoga, meditation, and financial stewardship workshops. We were also treated to chair massages and a prayer labyrinth. Just having time to see colleagues from all parts of our synod and to treat ourselves to a lovely setting that most of us would never consider going otherwise was a lavish gift.

Even better, our keynote presenter, Dr. Mike Brown, explained healthy living through a heart healthy diet and exercise. His presentation was fun, engaging, and humorous. My husband and I have  been comparing labels ever since and are committed to being attentive to “what goes in our mouth and what we do with our feet.”

Here’s a link to the reflection I wrote this week on the Narrative Lectionary reading for February 8, 2014, posted on the Stewardship of Life Institute website. Seems our Lord Jesus Christ knew a lot about health and wellness and provides a wonderful model for stewardship of self. Thank you, Jesus!

Secret Church Shopper Sunday: Epic Fail Edition


I’m convinced that all churches need “secret shoppers.” Here’s why. Almost every church I work with describes itself as friendly and like “one big family.” It’s easy to feel that way when you’re part of the regular life of the community, but it can be a different story when visitors come ‘a calling.

As a vocational church worker, I hear the laments of congregational leaders and pastors who see dwindling numbers and shrinking offerings. It’s easy to blame such decline on changing culture, on competing congregations with better programs, contemporary worship, modern facilities, and any number of other rationalizations and excuses, but human nature is pretty consistent. Our base needs are the same. We want relationship, we want meaning, we want to be a part of something that makes life better, and like the old Cheers television theme song said, people want to go where they know your name.

Today was one of those rare days when I wasn’t leading worship and/or preaching, so I decided to be a “secret church shopper” and visit a congregation where I could be “incognito.” Unfortunately, what I experienced is pretty typical of declining, dispirited mainline churches. Even sadder: it simply doesn’t have to be this way because we have the best message in the entire cosmos!

Problem:  The first hitch was finding the time of worship and address of the church to plug into my GPS. The congregation that I chose is a small one(mainly because I have a real heart and deep love for small churches). It did not have a website or Facebook page. My iPhone (thank you Siri) found the phone number, and thankfully the worship time was included on the pleasant recorded message.

Solution: Any congregation can have a web presence these days. A Facebook page or group is free, and a simple website can be easily designed and hosted thanks to tools like Weebly, Wix, and WordPress. People rarely use phone books, so save the money you used to spend on a YellowPages ad and get your congregation on the web. Do you want to be found? Do you want to share the gospel with people? Make it happen. No excuses.

Problem: The next problem was simply getting into the worship space. The congregation worships in a beautiful old building–without parking, at least none that I could see. I parked on the street. No problem there. I’m a big girl. There were quite a few options for doors, and I inevitably chose the wrong one. Once I got into the worship space I didn’t see the proverbial greeters proffering bulletins. There were only a few people in the place, and worship was supposed to start in about five minutes. I had to ASK if there were bulletins. Once I asked, I was quickly redirected to the correct entrance where the bulletins were laying on a table. The woman I asked was nice enough, but she didn’t offer to engage me further in conversation.

Solution: If you want to encourage new folks to come in, make it clear where to go. Make sure you have someone to say hello and provide a bulletin or handout if you have them. Make sure the restrooms are clearly marked. Make it easy for guests to become oriented. Smile. Say hello. Act interested that someone new has darkened your door.

Problem: A first time visitor may be leery about where to sit. What if you sit in someone’s personal pew, and they come and shoot you a dirty look or worse ?

Solution: Show hospitality and make sure guests are comfortable. If someone sits in your personal pew–get over it. It won’t kill you to have a different view of worship. I’m bold. I asked if I would be taking someone’s pew before I sat down.

Problem: When there’s less than 30 people in worship on an average Sunday a visitor sticks out like a sore thumb.

Solution: Welcome guests. Say hello. Introduce yourself. If you’re sitting nearby and they look lost in the liturgy, try to help. I had to initiate almost every conversation. You usually get only one or two shots with guests. Make connections. If your community is friendly then show it. Do unto others as you’d like to have someone do unto you. This isn’t rocket science. It’s God’s house, and God wants us to love our neighbors–even if it stretches us outside of our comfort zone.

Problem: After worship, NEVER let a guest stand around looking awkward. Today, I walked out without anyone providing an invitation to return. Not even the pastor asked my name or invited me to come back again.

Solution: Invite them to your next fellowship opportunity.Give them a copy of your newsletter. Invite them back to worship next week. A guest should never walk out of the door without a reason to come back. If you can get their name and address, write them a personal note. (Note: I did put a check in the offering plate, so I’ll be curious to see if someone snags my name and address from that and writes a note.)

I don’t want to be totally down on this congregation. The facility was clean, although a bit worn. In its heyday it must have been quite stunning.  The organist was better than good, albeit a bit loud for the almost empty nave. The pastor’s sermon had some solid points, was pretty easy to follow, and offered a solid challenge to listeners. The hymnody was varied, but there wasn’t much singing going on. They did have communion, and the usher did a nice job of providing me with instructions. The baptismal font, a classic old style, had been retrofitted with a fountain. I love the sound of running water in a font! It always makes me sad to see an empty baptismal font.

Secret Church Shopper Overall Score: One  star out of five.

Even for the seasoned-churchgoer and loyal Lutheran, this congregation exuded little hope and energy. Had anyone invited me to return again, I would have been willing to give the congregation another shot. After all grace abounds, right? Everybody deserves a second chance, and I need Jesus in word and sacrament on a regular basis.

Sadly, I had a better, more meaningful interaction with a lady on the street while I was trying to figure out how to enter the church building. She asked me if I could spare 50 cents. She was gracious, she looked me in the eye with kindness, and in her I saw the face of Christ. True, worship is about God and not about what we can get out of it, but if a visitor has no clue why our gathering as the Body of Christ is any better or different than what can be gotten at the local pub or  Lions Club, then we aren’t doing our job as disciples.

It’s all about relationships, folks. If you want your worshiping community to thrive, it has to be about more than a one hour transaction on Sunday morning and keeping the doors open. It’s about the good news. It’s about God’s love for a broken and hurting world. It’s about radical hospitality, prodigal love, and selfless service. It’s about a different way of living and being in this world.

Here are three words times three to get you started: Welcome the stranger. Welcome the stranger. Welcome the stranger.

Begin (again)

Dooway, The Druidston Hotel

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.         -T.S. Eliot

And so we begin again. The new year of 2015 is underway. The roads near my house were surprisingly free of traffic. The gym was nearly empty. Our neighborhood is quiet. It is time to make a beginning, to find a new voice and fresh words. For me, however, this new year is not a time for resolutions.

I just finished reading again Parker Palmer’s reflection about the artificial marking of a new year. Click here to be redirected to the onbeing website to read the post. I always appreciate Palmer’s perspectives on living and being and faith, and this entry is no exception. His words remind me of why I resist making New Year’s resolutions. They seem, well, so artificial. We lay our best intentions on the line, a bold hope, seeking some sort of accountability and encouragement in writing and/or speaking the words of them. Yet life, in its relentless passing, has a way of grinding those good intentions down to finest sand. They endure, but all too often the don’t resemble the idea or hope with which we cast them upon the tide of our days and hours.

No, I won’t make resolutions this year, but I do think I’ll join Palmer  in pondering some life-giving questions rather than hammering out pronouncements of change and intended improvement that will likely fade as winter’s chill gives way to spring’s greening.

Palmer offers a lovely poem, “We Look with Uncertainty” by Anne Hillman and a quote by Ranier Maria Rilke as inspiration for this process of questioning. The Rilke quote is from Letters to a Young Poet (one of my favorite books):

“…I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them, and the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then graduatlly, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” (treanslation by M.D. Herter Norton)

So here are the questions I’ll be pondering (do check out Parker Palmer’s, too):

  1. Is what I choose now central to what really matters in life? If not, can I let it go?
  2. How can I be a better steward of all that’s been entrusted to my care?
  3. What is God up to in my life? In the world around me? Am I listening and paying attention?
  4. Am I being vulnerable and taking risks for the sake of the gospel?
  5. How am I giving my call to creative work sufficient power and time?*

How about you? What questions might you ponder this year? How will you begin (again)?

*This question comes from a quote by the poet Mary Oliver that I read a few days ago. This statement has convicted me to do a better job of giving power and time to my creative gifts this year. Here’s the quote:

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time. — Mary Oliver

Photo: Chris Wild, Creative Commons License. Thanks!

Moving Day and a New(ish) Adventure

Paretz Partensky cc

Dear Friends,

It’s been a crazy busy year, and it’s time to simplify. For several years now I’ve tried (with mixed results) to keep two blogs going, to write weekly for the Stewardship of Life Institute, to write periodically for other publications, and to write and edit a hefty portion of the communications for the Lower Susquehanna Synod, ELCA (my call and vocation as a pastor). I also completed the first draft of my first full-length novel in November (thank you NaNoWriMo!). Thankfully, I have an amazing husband and awesome family who support my “word play.”

A lot of my writing is on the topic of stewardship, and trying to keep too many writing projects in the hopper is simply NOT good stewardship of time, energy, and resources. To that end, 2015 is the year of writing more simply. This means that all of my writing will be migrating to my blog effective tomorrow, December 31, 2014.

I hope you’ll follow me there and continue to read about gratitude, thanks-living, stewardship, faith, and writing. The coffee will be brewing several times a week, and fresh prose will await. Let’s live life fully one word at a time in 2015.

Good-bye Adventures in Thanksliving. Hello, One Write Life! Hope to see you there!


Photo: Paretz Partensky, Creative Commons

Warning: Gratitude may be Habit-Forming

Tom Hart, CC

You more likely act yourself into feeling than feel yourself into action. –Jerome Bruner

Scientific research now shows that we are born with great capacity for altruism and thankfulness. Sure, we also have the capacity for selfishness, but watch very young children play. More often than not, you will witness giving, sharing, and compassion. Unfortunately, the myriad messages of our consumer culture conspire to rid us of this basic goodness by creating an insatiable desire for more in each one of us.

Kinder bei McDonald's CC

Immense sums of money are spent on market research, advertising, and wooing of children and teenagers, for where this demographic goes, so goes their parents’ money, time, and attention. Is it any accident that more children recognize Ronald McDonald than Jesus Christ? Christians believe that Jesus offers the ultimate “Happy Meal.” We have, however, neglected to point to this powerful truth and to make it as compelling and welcoming to come to our Lord’s meal as a fast food chain does for us to drive by for a paper sack full of cheap plastic and marginally nutritious food. But happy meals and Holy Eucharist are topics for another day; this post aims to explore the connection between actions and habits.

We are oh so carefully taught to desire what we do not have, to dispose of that which is perfectly good but no longer the newest and best, and to covet the possessions of our neighbors. Our possessions begin to possess us in a mad dash for more cash to buy more stuff and fill the holes in our hearts. We become slaves to our own will (Sound like something from corporate confession in the liturgy?) and cannot free ourselves from the rat race that enslaves us.

Here’s the thing: there is another way. This alternative path is not a new idea; in fact, God has been trying to get folks to understand this for thousands of years. Like anything, however, it has to be carefully taught. We cannot assume that children—and adults—are getting the message by osmosis or by spending one hour a couple of times a month in a worship service.

John Hoey, CC

Put simply, if I want to run a marathon, I can’t just buy the shoes and head for the starting line. It takes baby steps. I must spend months in training, conditioning my body and mind to run the race ahead. A great deal of regular practice and commitment precedes the event. The same can be said for playing an instrument, painting a picture, or building a house. The practice and preparation are foundational to success.

Cultivating gratitude and the will to live thankfully every day comes from doing it, practicing it, and reflecting on it. Thanksliving is a countercultural way of being; it exposes the lies of consumerism, materialism, and quite a few other “-isms” that prevent us from living life fully and joyfully. Thanksliving comes from a deliberate and inextricable combination of doing and being. The more one practices small and simple acts of gratitude, the more one becomes a grateful and joyful person. The more gratitude one practices, the more abundance one sees.

Take this as a warning and a challenge: Gratitude may be habit-forming. Try it. In doing so, you will change your life and this world for the better. Go on—commit to one small act of gratitude each day this week, this month, and then for the rest of this year. I am quite certain you will see a difference…and that difference will be you.

Photo Credits: Tom Hart, Kinder bei McDonalds, and John Hoey, Creative Commons. Thanks!

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Precious in God’s Eyes


The death of the Lord’s faithful
    is a costly loss in his eyes. 
–Psalm 116:15 (Common English Bible)

I attended the funeral of one of our retired pastors this weekend and also learned of the death of a dearly beloved former parishioner. In both cases I was reminded of the briefness of our time here on earth in contrast to the vastness of eternity, along with the impact both of these dear saints had in their respective communities. I did not know the retired pastor; I’m relatively new to this area and to my particular call to serve, but the pastor and family did a wonderful job in word, in song, and in presence of painting a vivid picture of this pastor, father, grandfather, husband, friend, and faithful disciple.

By contrast, I had come to know, to appreciate, and to love Virginia. She was one of those dear saints of God with a twinkle in her eye, a prayer in her heart, and a smile and kind words on her lips. Whenever I visited her in the nursing home, I cam away feeling like I was the one who had been ministered to in the short time of our visit. Oh, and she could tell some powerfully good stories–from her childhood, about our parish, and about her contentment in life and love for her family.


Early on in my ministry in that small central Pennsylvania parish, Virginia took a fall and almost lost her life. Yet this strong woman rallied. She never quiet got back to her pre-fall physical condition, and the anesthesia and severity of the fall fuzzied things ever so slightly for her, but she was not one to complain. Yes, Virginia knew a thing or two about thanksliving, about how to be grateful for life in all circumstances.

“…for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:11b-13 (Common English Bible)

Like Paul wrote to his dear disciples in Philippi, Virginia was strong in her conviction that she would be content with whatever life brought. After it became clear that she would not be able to return home and live independently, she determined to make her room “home in every way.” The staff loved her. She often had half a dozen visitors gathered around her on a Sunday afternoon. And she smiled and made the best of it–even on the rare days when the clouds of physical pain shadowed her face.

One day she told me “I have been trying to remember what my kitchen looks like, and I just can’t any more. I can picture some things, but…” she paused. “I guess it doesn’t matter. This is my home now, and I don’t want my children to feel any guilt about me being here. This is where I need to be.” And how do you answer that as her pastor? There aren’t really any adequate words for that kind of grace-filled living. You just tuck away the lesson and pray you’ll be able to approach life with the same bold resoluteness when it comes your time to “downsize.”


Virginia also knew more than a few things about love. She taught me some wonderful lessons about the power of the human spirit to adapt, to accept, and to thrive. She was way ahead of her time when it came to issues of inclusion and social justice. Her approach to such issues was always wrapped in love and the sure and certain knowledge that her Lord didn’t come to judge the world but to save it (John 3:16-17) and that love covers pretty much everything. Oh, and with her love for flowers and all things living, she took to heart the words that God created everything and proclaimed it “good.”

Now lest you think I’m painting a grief-tinted overly positive picture of this dear saint, let me put your mind to rest. I also spent time with Virginia when she was in deep pain, when she was afraid, and maybe even once or twice a bit miffed and irritated. She was, just like the rest of us, simultaneously saint and sinner, but nonetheless redeemed and being made righteous with every passing day.

And now she, like so many beloved saints before her, has attained the prize, has taken that one step we all have to take alone, and has crossed into eternity and the vast cosmos that cannot begin to contain the love and mercy of God. She’s on that mountain with a feast spread before her in the presence of God. There is no more crying, no more pain, no more sorrow. She has what we who are still here only grasp at and see dimly by our fragile faith.

Her death–passing from this life to eternity–leaves a hole, a rip in the fabric of all whose lives she touched. Her family, friends, and fellow disciples will mourn, and that includes me. Yet, at the same time, I for one will give fervent thanks for her life and for the lessons she taught simply by being Virginia. Thanks be to God for all the strong women and men who are now part of that great cloud of witnesses. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Photos: Internet Book Archive, Creative Commons

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Why Lights, Plumbing, & HVAC are “Sexy”


Once upon a time, when commiserating with a colleague about how much more difficult it is to raise funds to support the operating budget instead of designated projects, he looked at me with that all-wise, uber-experienced senior advancement professional gaze and said, “Lights, plumbing, HVAC, and salaries just aren’t sexy.”

“Well, duh. Now what am I supposed to do with that nugget of knowledge?” I remember thinking. Whatever in the world is one to do when faced with meeting a budget, a mission plan, or fund-raising goal that includes the basics of maintaining a structure and paying people do do certain tasks? Sure, there are plenty of academic articles, how-to guides, and collective wisdom gathered about this topic, but not a one of them changes the bottom line: People want to give to things that make a real difference.

In most folks’ reality, paying to keep the lights on, the toilets flushing, and the heating or air-conditioning pumping is just not connected to alleviating starvation, educating children, or sharing the gospel with a hurting world. Plus, if you’re a donor who is motivated by naming opportunities, having your little brass plaque on the new handicap-accessible restroom door or on the side of the enormous heat pump doesn’t carry the same cachet as adorning the new library door or funding a memorial garden.


Many donors also figure that salaries and benefits are not high priorities. Shouldn’t the regular offering or annual budget be sufficient to cover that? Why do we need to pay so much for those line items anyway? If you think about it, it makes some sense. I want to maximize my hard-earned giving dollars, too. I want them to be used responsibly and ethically and for the good of as many people as possible.

Although I still chafe a bit at connecting the notion of charitable giving with the idea of making it “sexy,” I understand what that fundraising professional was trying to get through my youthful idealistic head. You have to tell the story of why something or someone is worthy of support, and you must make a compelling argument for every last penny. Why does X, Y, or Z really matter?

For me, keeping the lights on, the plumbing in working order, and the staff paid a living wage are “sexy” because without a solid foundation the chances of long-term viability are pretty poor. HVAC may be a bit more negotiable depending on your locale, but the principle is the same. If you take care of the basics, you can do a lot more in the long run with your vision and mission. The unsung heroes and heroines in my mind are the folks who hear the stories, comprehend the need, understand the mission, and give where the need is greatest–even if that means their gift provides insurance for a staff member for one month so that he or she can be productive and effective without worry.

Alex Holyoake, cc

This means the bottom line, folks, is that we have to do an excellent job of making our case and telling our stories. Sloppy work, hastily constructed narratives, and sweeping assumptions won’t cut it. A story must be an irresistible one that draws us in. People want to give and make a difference. People are at the core generous; this I believe. It’s just that there are so many competing messages and claims out there, that we who lead and serve in faith-based and non-profit communities and programs have to find a way to stand out above the din of consumer culture and the busyness of daily life.

Tell your story. Tell it clearly and well. Keep it simple. Make sure you really believe in your cause and in why you’re doing what you are doing. And don’t forget to ask for what you need–even if it’s those precious dollars to fund the basics. Ask with expectation and without apology. If you do this well, and you’re on target, the results may surprise you–“sexy” or better yet, just plain good.

Photo: Julian Povey, donorstibet, and Alex Holyoake, Creative Commons. Thanks!

Giving in Spite of…

Votive Candles

One of the things we so often hear about the church is that people today don’t need it. For a lot of folks what the church seems to offer just isn’t relevant.

Millennials are pretty clear about this. Recently I heard several young adults who fall into this age-descriptive category say things along these lines: “I don’t need the church to be a good person.” “Why should I go hang out in a building and sit, stand, kneel, sit stand, sit, stand” and sing songs that I hate?” “When I went, it seemed like people were just going through the motions.” “I can give and make a difference without doing it through an institution; in fact, I’d rather give directly to a cause.”

For those of us who are engaged in vocational church work, and for Christians who cherish their faith communities and traditional North American way of being Christ’s body, this can be pretty tough to hear. What we value, what we treasure, our traditions and rituals, and our ideas and images of the sacred, just don’t always cut it any more. Our wineskins (to use one of Jesus’ images) are getting pretty old and brittle.

Instead of becoming defensive and trying to shift the blame onto those outside of our circles, why not embrace the reality that a few things may have to give (or perhaps even more than a few!) in order for the body to get moving again? Christ is the same today as yesterday and tomorrow. The old, old ancient story is true. It’s just the packaging and the marketing that are looking raggedy and worn around the edges.

Christ will keep on loving and giving in spite of these facts. Christ will continue to pour himself out in word, in wine and bread, and in the faces of the hungry, the lost, ,and the marginalized. Christ will continue to be present. No matter what we choose to do or not do the gift goes on. This is very good news!

Now about change and relevance; well, we’ll save that for another day. Thanks be to God.

Today…I am Thankful

2014-06-26 20.13.04

“It feels like the world is coming to an end,” my daughter said. “Planes being shot down, going missing, and all the people being killed in Gaza and Israel.”

Yes, it’s easy to look at the madness of humankind and feel like everything is spinning out of control. It’s simpler to play the blame game, pick sides, and declare triumphantly which side is right and which side is wrong. Ignoring the problems is another option that often seems more palatable than emotional and sensory overlaod combined with caring fatigue.

We crave clear delineations and clean lines drawn in the sands of our existence; muddy waters and gray skies are problematic. But life’s not like that. What’s a body to do?

Practice gratitude.

Keep on the sunny side of life. Look at your glass not only as half full but as overflowing with potential and possibility. Find at least one good thing in each day for which to be thankful. Better yet, keep a list and watch it grow.

Here’s my Thursday Thankfulness List:  Today I am thankful for a beautiful, temperate summer day. I am thankful for an amazing group of colleagues with whom to work and serve. I am thankful for my family near and far. I am thankful for the tomatoes and peppers ripening on the vine. I am thankful for the love and company of our pets.

Get the idea? Just start a list and watch it grow. Be thankful in the midst of pain, suffering, and woe. It’s a beautiful act of defiance, and who knows, maybe waves of gratitude can even drown conflict and greed. It’s worth a try, right?

Knock, knock. Who’s There?


Me. Yep. I’m still here. I’m still grateful. And I’m still enjoying a life filled with adventures in thanksliving. Like a lot of you, sometimes life gets in the way of our best intentions. For me this has been a season of pure busy-ness. Everything has been up in the air–from our calls to our home to our family being spread all over the place. We’re gradually getting life sorted out and put back into some semblance of order, a little bit more each day. But even amidst the craziness, it’s been good, and there have been small moments of grace and gratitude to celebrate every day.

Funny thing is that if you’re constantly on the look for moments of thankfulness and always turning toward generosity, the world presents you with some pretty amazing moments of grace and light. Whether it’s coffee with a good friend, shedding a tear with some faithful Christians  as they gather to close their congregation, gathering with a fine group of women colleagues in ministry, or spending a quiet night with the one I love–each day brings something to appreciate, to savor, and to treasure. Even the painful moments have their little bits of light and beauty when glimpsed through the proper lens.

Today I’m catching my breath. I’m celebrating Sabbath. I’m watching, waiting, observing the moments and treasuring each precious one. In a few hours the busy, crazy week’s schedule will resume. But for now…

…for now there is rest. And it is good. Blessings to you this day. May you experience at least one shining moment to savor.

Photo: GHOURI !, Creative Commons