Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Will You Walk With Me?

Dear friends,

As you receive this edition of our Memos, Easter is a little over a week away.  What might we do with these days leading up to the Resurrection of our Lord?  How can we prepare our hearts and minds to engage in the dramatic narrative that takes us through Holy Week? 

In his book, Leap Over a Wall, Eugene Peterson provides some food for thought:

Jesus knew he was dying long before he actually died.  He deliberately set out for Jerusalem, knowing that death by crucifixion was being prepared for him…a slow death, full of pain.  All the while he was doing that he exhibited in word and presence a wonderful vitality, beauty, and faith. 

There were celebrations with hosannas, conversations full of hope and promise, painful confrontations, tender acts of sacrificial love.  The imminence of death didn’t cancel out the revelation of God in Jesus, but rather gave it added poignancy and power.  And resurrection confirmed it.

The recurring challenge for each of us this time of year is one of perspective. 

  • How deep am I willing to go to immerse myself in this tragic, yet glorious story of death and resurrection? 

  • Will I be a casual observer like so many in our culture?

  • Or, will I elect to be an active participant in the events of Holy Week and Easter? 

  • To put it even more directly, will I let Jesus touch my heart once again?

Whatever mode of engagement you choose, I urge you to be intentional in your spiritual reflections these days leading up to Easter.   Join us in worship, join us in prayer, and join us in the celebration of our risen Lord!

Walking this journey of faith with you,
Pastor Mark Hagen

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Hospitality in Introductions

The other day I drove past a bulky SUV with a prominent bumper-sticker that said “Pro God. Pro Life. Pro Gun.” That is quite an eye-catching introduction. Now that you know where this person stands on three big topics, I imagine you could fill in the gaps on their other interests and opinions. You probably already know if you would get along with the owner of this hulking vehicle.

By the mere fact that you’re reading this blog, I can probably guess where you stand on the first of those three statements. The other two are a different story. You may agree with all three, or disagree, or allow room for a little more nuance. But if you had the choice, would you introduce yourself with these exact three phrases? The whole thing rings with so much dissonance and overtone that there is no doubt in my mind the driver hopes to not only make themself known but also unsettle a few folks in the process. These are not benign interests but bold proclamations. I, for one, cannot imagine shaking someone’s hand and saying “Hi, I’m Chad. I love Jesus, and here’s what I think about gun control.”

Introductions are vital to hospitality. They can either be an invitation to relationship or a gate to divide. We can screen someone to see if they are someone we agree with, or we can meet one another with genuine curiosity in each other’s lives. I would like to think that when first-time guests come through the doors of St. Mark, they feel that open welcome which won’t turn them away because of their beliefs or their history or the way they look. Bumper-sticker introductions, on the other hand, might as well be locks on the doors.

These days, it can be hard to find common ground with those who hold differing political convictions. And yet, I see so many do that very thing every Sunday. There is more to your identity than the stances you take on the current political climate. That is especially true for us Christians who are to hold Christ above all other things in every aspect of life.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul talks about dealing with a hot-button issue of the day, specifically eating meat from the pagan temples. It’s a complicated situation, and he basically says that no matter what side you stand on to consider how your actions affect others. If our convictions in worldly things harm and divide, he says we are essentially harming Christ himself.

You may have convictions that are deeply rooted in your faith. And I am sure you have opinions about worldly affairs as well. We do not always need to agree in order to have authentic relationships. In all these things, Christ is best served when are slow to voice our views and quick to listen with care to those who think differently than us. As Paul writes in another letter, this time to the Philippians, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Pastor Chad McKenna

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Pastor Mark's Sabbatical

Dear friends,

In less than four months, I will embark on a much-anticipated sabbatical.  While I provided the following information in our recent Annual Report, I want to include it here so that everyone has an opportunity to be informed.  I would be delighted to discuss this sabbatical plan in further detail, should you wish to know more.  I am deeply grateful for this purposeful time to step back from the daily demands of ministry in order to reflect and write.

2019 Sabbatical Plan

Theme:  The theme of this sabbatical is one of spiritual discernment: both vocational and personal.  I intend for this sabbatical to allow me to further discern God’s leading and direction in my calling as senior pastor and in my calling as a supportive spouse to Naomi.  A major activity will include the writing of a personal reflection on loving and serving Naomi on her prolonged journey of Alzheimer’s Disease, while at the same time loving and serving the St. Mark community on our exciting journey of renewal and growth.  Specifically, I will reflect on the unique roles that our Christian faith and eschatology play in shaping our personal and communal hopes/expectations.

Rationale:  I have given this sabbatical much thought and prayer.  As a pastor and a husband, I strive to find and maintain a healthy balance of these two enormous responsibilities.  This time away from the rigors of daily pastoral ministry will provide the space and time to engage the Spirit in further discernment of our past, present, and future together.  I also plan to read a limited number of books, but to do so with a light hand so as not to overshadow the other goals of my sabbatical, which include time away from the perpetual demands of ministry for the sake of renewal. 

Plan:  Spiritual discernment will be the underlying activity that provides the crucial rhythm of balance in my work and my rest, my thoughts and my prayers, my time alone and my time with others.  I will provide for this discernment process by setting aside twelve weeks from my pastoral duties.  I will begin by traveling west to Holden Village, a renowned Christian retreat center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state.  I will also stop in Seattle to visit our oldest son, Brett, as well as numerous pastoral colleagues and friends in the Puget Sound area.   I also plan to set aside time for motorcycling and camping to refresh my inner child.  The final portion of my sabbatical will be spent in southwest Colorado.  Throughout this time, I look forward to exploring new opportunities for worship, prayer, and faith conversations.  Each of these endeavors will provide a distinctive setting to read, write my reflections, and to engage in the discernment process with trusted family, friends, and colleagues.  

Benefit:  I pray that the writing of my personal and theological reflections would provide confidence and hope to others in some vital way, especially to those who share in the difficult journey of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s Disease.  This sabbatical will provide an extended opportunity to discern afresh God’s grace-filled presence and leading in the personal and vocational dimensions of my life…providing renewal for the significant work of our shared ministry ahead.  I also look forward to exploring new opportunities for worship and prayer, conversation, recreation and well as coveted time among dear family and friends.

Timeline:  St. Mark provides twelve weeks for pastoral sabbaticals.  The schedule for my sabbatical is July through September, 2019.

Walking this journey of faith with you,
Pastor Mark

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Five Gifts of Discipleship

Dear St. Mark friends,

Winter isn’t the only season of length this time of year.  For the past seven weeks, we’ve immersed ourselves in the full season of Epiphany.  Naturally, this leads to a later date for Easter, as well.  But now, we move into the season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday on March 6, with two services at noon and at 6:45 P.M.

This year, our Wednesday evening Lenten services will center on, “Five Gifts of Discipleship.”  Our scripture readings will come from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  I encourage you to read Philippians in advance as you prepare to join us for Wednesday evening worship this Lenten season.  Here is our mid-week schedule:

March 13         Live among God’s faithful people
                        Philippians 1:3-11
                        Pastor Mark

March 20         Hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper
                        Philippians 3:7-11
                        Pastor Chad

March 27         Proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed
                        Philippians 1:12-20
                        Pastor Chad

April 3              Serve all people, following the example of Jesus    
                        Philippians 2:5-11
                        Pastor Mark

April 10            Strive for justice and peace in all the earth
                        Philippians 4:8-9
                        Pastor Mark

Please join us this Lenten season as we reflect upon these valuable gifts of discipleship.

Walking this journey of faith with you,

Pastor Mark

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Prayer is a Doorway

When was the last time you prayed? Maybe it was right after you woke up this morning. If you were in church on Sunday, you probably recited the Lord’s Prayer or stood in silence as a whole list of prayers were spoken. Or perhaps it has been years since you last did anything you felt could be considered prayer, forcing a few words in the midst of a crisis that ended in tragedy. It is considered one of the most essential parts to a life of faith, but for many prayer is a practice few are confident in keeping. 

Rarer still are folks like me who consider it work to string a few holy words together before a meeting or a meal. And while I am happy to pray when invited, I revel in the opportunity to make room for others to pray as well. We are a sainthood of all believers, after all, and praying out loud should be something all Christians can feel welcome to do.

Most of us, though, consider this conversation with God a private matter. That may be why so many of us would rather let someone else lead a dinner-time invocation. These are holy moments, where we try to articulate what it is we want, what we are grateful for, and who we are concerned about. And, in these moments we hope with all hope that this is not a one-way conversation of thoughts drifting and evaporating into the air above us. When prayer becomes less like a wish list and more like an interaction between loved ones, those hopeful moments have a better chance of remaining tangible.

Anyone who has a sliver of faith has most likely had moments like these, where the barrier between heaven and earth is thin. For some, it can be an everyday occurrence, and for others, it may happen once or twice ever. We may feel the need to speak with Shakespearean eloquence, laid-back language, or perhaps no words at all. Whatever the case may be, my sincere hope is that you find comfort in the kind of prayer that connects you to God and the world around you, that influences the nature of your being far more than you could ever desire to influence God.

Last week, the poet Mary Oliver died after a long life filled with wonder and words. She was best known for her love of creation and the meaning it imbued into her life. Many times she would reveal the current of her faith, her words like leaves on the river. As you consider the words or silence you use in those holy and hopeful times of your days, take in this poem she wrote, simply titled “Praying.”

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Pastor Chad

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Meet Julie Eshleman, Director of Christian Education

On January 2nd, I joined the St. Mark staff as the Director of Christian Education. I am so excited to be here, taking on this new role in the life of the church.

I grew up here in Rockford, and returned after graduating from Valparaiso University. My husband Dan - another Valpo alum - and I were married at Tabor Lutheran, my childhood church, and we both served on the congregational council there for a few years in the mid-2000s. We came to St. Mark in October of 2009, because we were looking for a congregation with other young families, a strong children’s ministry, and a music program I could participate in. We found all of those things here, and soon convinced my mom, Vickie Pfeilschifter, to join us as well. Both Ben and Oliver were baptized here.

Over the past nine years, I’ve sung in the choir, taught Sunday School, rung handbells, played the oboe, and chaired the Call Committee as we searched for a new Associate Pastor in 2015. I’ve worked and worshiped with so many of you, and have felt welcome since the very beginning.

As Director of Christian Education, my primary focus will be on teaching the children of St. Mark about God’s love for them. We’ll study scripture, hear stories of God’s work in history and in the world today, worship and sing together, and act as God’s hands in the world through service to our community. The excellent team of Sunday School teachers are dedicated to this task and to the children, and I am so grateful to them.

Through programs like VBS, I’ll help bring the Good News of the Gospel to children who do not belong to a church community. For some of them, this will be their first experience with Christ’s life and love in the world, and I take that responsibility very seriously. I will work to ensure that our programs are accessible and welcoming to all, and meet everyone where they are, to the best of my ability.

I will be supporting the continued learning of the adults of St. Mark as well, though less directly. Small Group Bible Studies are a place for adults to read, discuss, and learn together, and can be organized around a particular text or topic. Advent and Lenten devotional booklets are a way for adults to bring focused study into their home lives during the Church’s seasons of preparation. I hope that those who use these resources find them helpful to their spiritual growth.

Thank you so much for welcoming and encouraging me. I am so grateful for this congregation, and for the opportunity to share in the work of teaching God’s Word to the world.

Feel free to contact me at or 815-398-3557 ext. 21.

Julie Eschleman

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the difference between anticipation and celebration. We as a society are particularly bad at being patient. Black Friday, which is in many ways a celebration of impatience, starts on Thanksgiving Thursday. Gender reveal parties for an unborn child can have more theatrics than any birthday party I have ever been to. Did you know you can order a book on Amazon, and instead of waiting two long days for the post office to deliver it, you can immediately read the first chapter in digital form? Waiting is for suckers.

Nobody likes to wait around. It’s uncomfortable. There are a lot of uneasy emotions tied up in a long delay. Even if what you are expecting is a sure thing, that little voice of doubt might creep into your thoughts. Or maybe you are in immense pain and quite literally have to watch the clock until the nurse comes with your next round medication. It can be so easy to fast forward to the good part where pain and doubt and despair are a distant memory.

For what other reason do so many people emblazon their homes with light in the darkest month of the year as we await the coming of Christmas? We don’t like to think about how cold it is, or how little sun there is. Anticipation, then, is all but replaced with a months-long celebration, not meant to dispel the darkness but to ignore it even exists.

While I’m not about to grinch away your Christmas lights, I do think we Christians need to pay attention to those negative feelings we can be so good at covering up. That, really, is what the season of Advent is all about. It’s an entire month designed, not simply to celebrate that Jesus is coming soon, but to name exactly why we need God here in the first place. We are broken, grief lingers, and we yearn for a light to shine in the darkness. In our worship, we cry out for Jesus to come quickly to save us as we hear Mary sing about God lifting up the lowly.

Because the truth is, no matter how much we as a society try to avoid discomfort, it doesn’t go away. Why else does Christmas, a holiday about the one who comes to save us from all our despair, bring so much stress over money and time, and feelings that whatever you do, it won’t be enough? Why does it make some of us so sad?

If you are feeling the holiday pressure, or even if you are not, save the celebration for another day. Remember that you are not responsible for the birth of Jesus. Whatever grief or pressure you feel now can only be lifted by the one who is coming soon to save us. But, as composer Paul Manz once wrote: “E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more; they need no light nor lamp nor sun, For Christ will be their all.”

Pastor Chad McKenna

Will You Walk With Me?

Dear friends, As you receive this edition of our Memos, Easter is a little over a week away.   What might we do with these days leadin...