Thursday, February 13, 2020

ELCA World Hunger's Forty Days of Giving

Dear friends,
The season of Lent is soon upon us, beginning with Ash Wednesday services at Noon and at 6:45 P.M. on February 26.  This year, we are joining our brothers and sisters in the ELCA by participating in a Church-wide program called, ELCA World Hunger’s 40 Days of Giving.  Here’s a brief description: 
“Lent is a time of reflection and repentance, of sacrifice and self-examination. But Lent is also a season of hope — hope in the work God is doing in the world, even in the most challenging times. Safety and stability for refugees and migrants. The renewal of the earth. Sufficient livelihood for all. These are just a few of the things of which we dream, fueled by the Holy Spirit.
“This Lent, ELCA World Hunger is extending a special invitation to congregations: Lift up the life-changing work of ELCA World Hunger through new levels of giving – spiritually, intellectually and financially – through ELCA World Hunger’s 40 Days of Giving. Congregations will join together to raise $2 million to benefit the ministries of ELCA World Hunger. You’re invited to join together with fellow supporters to study, pray and give. Accompany us as we journey with our neighbors in hope for a just world where all are fed.”
During the Lenten season, we are asking each St. Mark household to consider giving $2.00 per day over 40 days (totaling $80) toward this effort.  You will be able to give via Pushpay on your St. Mark App, as well as by check to St. Mark, designated, “ELCA 40 Days of Giving.”  Please look for more detailed information as we approach Lent on March 1. That Sunday, former St. Mark member and now ELCA Director of Communications & Marketing, Laury Rinker, will be at all three worship services to help introduce this program.

During the Lenten Wednesday evening worship services, Pastor Chad and I will share various meditations from this program, including:

            March 4 – Safety and Stability, Pr. Mark
            March 11 – Livelihoods, Pr. Chad
            March 18 – Justice for All, Pr. Mark
            March 25 – Leadership, Pr. Chad
            April 1 – Renewal of Earth, Pr. Mark

We’re excited for this opportunity to share in the larger ministry efforts of the ELCA this Lent!

Walking this journey of faith with you,
Pastor Mark Hagen

Thursday, February 6, 2020

2019 In Review

        In following with the previous post, this week Pastor Chad shares with us his annual report for 2019. 

I entered this new decade full of gratitude for the past and excitement for the future. This past year has been the busiest yet for me, and I have grown leaps and bounds because of it.

Pastor Mark’s sabbatical meant more responsibility on my end. While most of you were aware of this on Sunday mornings, with the increased duty in preaching and worship leadership. During the rest of the week, I continued to do my work while also holding down the fort for three months. In that time, we wrapped up major projects outside, including the parking lot and the updated entrance, and the council made the decision to replace a major HVAC unit for the sanctuary. Jill Davenport and I worked with PushPay in developing our new St. Mark app. The Kitchen Committee began to dream up the remodel project that is currently under construction, and we updated some technology needs in the basement. Because I am an associate pastor, these aren’t typically the kind of projects I am involved in, much less in charge of. I learned a lot, and I am so grateful to everyone who supported me in every way during the summer months.

Speaking of the Kitchen Committee, I would like to thank our chair, David Collier, and the rest of the team for all their hard work and ideas in realizing this much needed improvement to our community. Keith Iverson, Les Horowitz, Colene Vivian, Tim Vivian, Pat Schmoldt, Jill Davenport, and Melinda Alekna were all vital in this work, and their expertise and knowledge of St. Mark’s ministries have ensured that this new space will fit all our needs for years to come.

I was also grateful to have Carson Davenport be our intern this past summer. He was a terrific leader in VBS, a wonderful presence on the summer trip, and a great help in many areas of our ministry together. He led a host of events for our students during his time with us. I was amazed at the lemonade stand fundraiser he led, which involved many of our high schoolers and generated over twice our goal for childhood cancer research. Thanks to Melinda Alekna and Julie Eshleman for their close involvement in Carson’s learning.

Confirmation continues to be a source of joy in my ministry. At the end of the 2018-2019 school year, we learned about the Small Catechism. The year ended on a downer, as our Spring Retreat on April 27th was cancelled due to a snow emergency. We kicked off this school year well, though. Almost all of our 17 students were able to attend the fall retreat at the Lutheran Outdoor Ministry Center in Oregon, IL. I spent the past two years adjusting the curriculum schedule, which means this school year we are able to study the Bible from start to finish. Seven high school freshmen affirmed their faith on Reformation Sunday. I am so grateful for all these students, their parents, and our small group leaders: Sheryl Crowell, Amy Gehrke, Christy Malenchik, Justin Egler, and Grant Egler.

Allow me to mention other ministries which continued through this past year. The Men’s Bible study studied Isaiah, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Matthew in 2019. Theology Pub met at Carlyle Brewing monthly. St. Mark 20:30 met for cookouts, a book study, and other events. This group also branched out a bit to include some family service events in January and May. After the Ambassador Committee dissolved, we created the New Members Ministry Team to more directly connect with our potential members. Lastly, I took over direction of the Good News Bearers, which gave four performances this past year.

I was honored to preside over two baptisms, two weddings, and two funerals. It was a joy to teach special classes for Sunday School and our new members. In the community, I was able to open a city council meeting with prayer, dedicate a home for Habitat for Humanity, and lead Rockford Area Lutheran Ministries as its cabinet president.

These are all simply highlights of my year with you. All the in-between moments, the conversations and joys and sorrows we shared are what truly remind me how blessed I am to be your pastor. Life has its ups and downs, but we have one another and our faith in a loving God to be with us every step of the way.

  Pastor Chad McKenna

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Looking Back

Dear St. Mark friends,

2019 is a year I will never forget.  On January 13 of last year, my second granddaughter, Madlyn Olivia Hagen, was born to David and Maureen Hagen.  It is a great privilege to visit them often, since they literally live just across the street from me.  I also embarked on a twelve-week sabbatical, including July retreat time at Holden Village in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, where I began the writing of my forthcoming book, Tears & Triumph: A Journey Toward Resurrection. 

That sabbatical time was cut short in early September when I received news in Colorado of Naomi’s sudden downturn.  I rushed home the next day and spent three days at her bedside, along with my two sons, until she passed away in the early morning hours of Sunday, September 8.  Her September 20th memorial service at St. Mark was overwhelming...such outpouring of love and support to my family and me! 

My October 6 sermon was the most difficult, yet passionate, sermon I have ever preached.  Fresh from the events of the past several weeks, I struggled with my emotions that Sunday to describe my fractured sabbatical journey and the painful lessons of losing a spouse to the horrors of Alzheimer’s Disease.  Returning to work in late September proved to be cathartic, allowing me to gracefully re-emerge into the life of the congregation and its mission.

I was pleased to participate with the Council and Pastor Chad in making plans for the renovation of our main kitchen and the updating of our sanctuary video projector and video camera that records our weekly Sunday sermons for availability on our church web page.  Both of these large projects were begun in early January of 2020.  In addition, 2019 included the implementation of our new Instant Church Directory phone app, as well as our new St. Mark phone app, sponsored by Pushpay.  My special thanks to Pastor Chad McKenna and Jill Davenport for their major roles of implementing these two key technologies for our church.

We welcomed four new staff members in 2019: Julie Eshleman, Karen Osolin, Wendy Iversen, Chris Semmelroth, as well as Anya Hanson in the nursery on Sunday mornings.  I am grateful to all of our excellent staff members for their incredible service to St. Mark.  I am also indebted to our Congregation Council and to our many fine committees for the exemplary work they do on behalf of the church.  Finally, I thank each of our members for their prayerful support of St. Mark’s mission.  Together, we truly delight in “Growing in Faith...Sharing God’s Grace!”

Walking this journey of faith with you,
Pastor Mark Hagen

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Breaking News as We Begin 2020!

This month brings exciting changes at St. Mark.  Specifically, we are beginning extensive renovations to our main kitchen and to our sanctuary video technologies.  But first, some background on the inspiration and funding of these two major renovations.

One year ago, Larry Carlson presented St. Mark with a monetary gift from the Charitable Remainder Trusts of his late parents, Dave and Jane Carlson.  Thanks to their remarkable generosity, the Council has approved plans for the complete renovation of our kitchen and the replacement of our aging sanctuary video camera and projector.  Both projects began this week, the most visible being the gutting of our kitchen.

The current sanctuary video camera is a lower-resolution version that has allowed us to record Sunday sermons for use on our church web site for several years.  These recorded weekly sermons are an important tool in assisting potential guests to evaluate our worship experience while visiting our church web page.  They also offer our members the opportunity to watch sermons if absent from worship.  Such video recordings are perhaps the best tool we can offer “church shoppers” as they consider visiting St. Mark for the first time.  Thus, we are replacing our aging 720p video camera with an incredible 4K video camera, purchased with memorial gifts given in memory of Naomi Hagen. 

In addition, we are replacing our aging video projector with a new laser projector, which will offer much greater resolution and over 2 ½ time brighter light output.  Laser technology offers much greater reliability and lifespan, as well.  Several other pieces of equipment were purchased in order to operate these devices and provide upgraded recordings and projections for Sunday worship.  These items were all purchased with funds from the Carlson bequest and should be installed by the end of January.

The kitchen remodel will be done a few weeks later. Our committee has been working on this project since last May, and we cannot wait to see everything come together. Anyone who has used the aging equipment and space will be happy to know that virtually everything will be new. We will have commercial-grade appliances, including a warming cabinet to improve hot catered meals. A professional triple-basin sink will make it easier and sanitary to wash our new pots and pans. Under-counter dishwashers will enable us to quickly clean silverware and cups after luncheons. Best of all, the cabinets, countertops, and flooring will match the look of Common Grounds Café for a warm and welcoming space.

All of these improvements will enable us to better serve one another and our community, and we are so grateful for the generosity and dedication of everyone who has worked on these projects. The new year is off to a great start!

Walking this journey of faith with you,
Pastors Mark and Chad

Friday, December 6, 2019

Do Not Be Afraid

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. In fact, let’s talk about all five of them. If you’ve worshiped at St. Mark during Advent or Christmas the past few years, you have seen them, wondered about them, or perhaps even muttered about them to the person sitting next to you. I’m talking, of course, about our angels- those glowing blue and white forms standing among the organ pipes.

Two years ago we had a local artist and theatre set designer make them for us. The ones we had for ages were falling apart and difficult to repair. Our artist worked closely with a few of us, and we all knew we had stumbled upon a rare opportunity to do something bold and wildly out of step with tradition. We asked ourselves what it would look like if a choir of angels, bursting with light, broke through into our familiar place of worship. Instead of halos and trumpets, there would be abstract shape and light. We replaced something comforting with something jarring.

Blue angels in the St. Mark sanctuary

I’ll be frank. Many of you did not like them. I have heard so many interpretations of what exactly is going on up there with those plastic forms and that eerie blue light. Some have wondered where the angels’ heads have gone. If the color of Advent was red, I expect even more of you would have called them lobster claws. I lost count a while back on how many complaints and questions I have heard. In many of my conversations, I have sounded a bit like the angels in the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus, looking folks in the eyes and saying, “Do not be afraid!”

You might think I would be upset by the reaction, but that’s the opposite of how I feel. These angels have stirred something in many of us. Their unsettling look has caused us to think more deeply about what this season of Advent is all about. Despite the prevailing depiction of angels in our culture, in the Bible they are anything but comforting. Nobody in all of scripture ever looked at an angel and said, “Oh, that’s lovely. How nice.” They do not have halos, and when the angels blow trumpets in the Revelation to John, there are horrifying results. Angels in the Old Testament can have four faces, or a body covered in eyes, or they might look like an animal-human hybrid. Ezekiel even sees a giant eye-covered wheel in the sky! Their look is never described in the birth narrative of Jesus, but because they have to say those words, “Do not be afraid,” they were probably not very pleasant.

The season of Advent is very similar. Though it has become an extended Christmas season where the radios play cheerful music and color lights up the neighborhood, the readings in our worship can be dire. There is talk of coming judgement from both Jesus and John the Baptist. The increasing light of the Advent wreath fights a losing battle with the decreasing daylight outside. Advent worship can be haunting and mysterious. We know where it leads. We know who will meet us on December 25th. But like many times in our lives, waiting for joy in the midst of darkness can be quite uncomfortable.

Unless you hide in a cave for all of December, it is impossible to completely surround yourself with the sense of Advent which we experience in our worship together. Even then, our own decorations and festivities soften the sharp reality of Advent. It is a complicated church season which is easy to overlook. And so, if these angel figures have given you any sort of pause, or if you have talked about them with others, then in my opinion they have done their job beautifully. They are with us one more season. May they help you consider the hope and mystery of Advent at least once more.

Pastor Chad McKenna

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Only Now . . .

Dear friends,

Almost every day, someone asks me, “How are you doing?”  It’s a simple enough question, yet a simple answer seems to elude me.  How am I doing...really?  Most days, I answer, “I’m doing well, thank you.”  It’s a sincere answer, but an incomplete answer.  I’m doing well, but there’s the constant awareness that life is quite different now...that my former responsibilities and commitments as a husband have ended.  Thus, there is a certain weight of finality to which I’m still adjusting. 

This time of personal transition includes my return to the ebb and flow of pastoral ministry, the continuation of my book-writing, “Tears & Triumph: A Journey Toward Resurrection,” my involvement in the November 3 worship at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in celebration of their 40th anniversary, and the counting of Naomi among the recently-departed Saints for whom candles were lit on All Saints Sunday.

This coming Thanksgiving marks the two-year anniversary of Naomi’s moving out of our house and becoming a full-time resident at Anam Glen in Rockford.  This was the most devastating transition of my life, learning to accept the unwelcome solitude of an empty house.  But I survived the crushing loneliness that followed...and I grew in my trust of Jesus to walk beside me during those excruciating months of transition. 

Only now, in retrospect, am I able to comprehend the broad landscape of my caregiving role the past ten years.  Only now, am I beginning to embrace the promised peace of God that passes all understanding.  Only now, am I gradually becoming aware of the new beginnings God provides as I trust in the Holy Spirit to strengthen and guide me.

How am I doing?  Thanks to God’s love in Jesus and to God’s love through you, I’m doing very well...really!

Walking this journey of faith with you,

Pastor Mark

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Words Can Always Heal You

Words are all around us. We read what is written by friends and journalists online. We hear important information spoken everywhere from the doctor’s office to the dinner table. Most of the words around us have little affect on your life, but every now and then someone says something that can grab your focus and make you see the world in a different way.

Language has a powerful way of transforming the way we think. If given the chance, words can also change our lives. That old adage about sticks and stones and broken bones is a myth. Words can hurt, even if you try to defend yourself with a clever schoolyard rhyme. When set in the right cast, bones can heal in a matter of weeks. But the mental scarring of verbal assault can take a lifetime to smooth away. 

On the other hand, words of hope and encouragement can heal in ways unimaginable. A child’s self doubt can be soothed when a parent reminds her that she will always be loved. Years ago, I read a report that folks who took time to write down three sentences of gratitude a day were less likely to develop heart disease than those who didn’t take up that practice. On a less scientific scale, I have found in my own life that when I speak positively about myself and others, I notice more of what God is up to in our world.

I don’t mean to suggest that one should distort reality by magnifying the good and ignoring the negatives of life. We should always be honest and truthful. And yet, I have found that the honest truth we speak about the least is the very goodness which is found inside you and all people. We Christians have spent far too much of our history focused on things like Original Sin and our own flaws. That sort of talk can really do a number on a person’s self worth. This is especially true for those who have been marginalized by a church that has used language to diminish folks based on their skin color or gender or sexuality. When language is used to demean, it takes language to lift God's people back up.

In my sermon last Sunday, I challenged folks to give what I called a holy proclamation every day this week. This was in part based on our Gospel reading from the first part of Luke 10, where 70 disciples go into homes announcing Peace and proclaiming that God’s reign is near. The specific phrases you use to speak about God’s peace and love may be a little different than those in Luke's gospel. You may say “God is with you,” or “God loves you no matter what.” You can be like the disciples and simply say “Peace be with you.” Or, for that person in your life filled with guilt, you could remind them that because of Jesus, there is grace enough for them. You get the idea.

Like I did on Sunday, I would like to encourage you to use this language of grace and hope in your own life. Proclaim God’s love, to your family, to yourself, and to anyone who needs to be healed by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Say them into the mirror if you have to. The reign of God is near, and in it there is no guilt or shame, but only forgiveness and mercy for everyone.

I look forward to hearing from you how such talk has changed your outlook on life.

Pastor Chad McKenna

ELCA World Hunger's Forty Days of Giving

Dear friends, The season of Lent is soon upon us, beginning with Ash Wednesday services at Noon and at 6:45 P.M. on February 26.   This ...