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 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 the 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

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Pastor Mark's Upcoming Sabbatical

Dear St. Mark friends,

Beginning July 1, I will embark on a much-anticipated sabbatical.  While I provided the following information to you last February, and I want to include it here again for your convenience.  I am deeply grateful for this purposeful time to step back from the daily demands of ministry in order to reflect and write on God’s sustaining grace.

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 and 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.  The weeks following that will be spent in the Midwest, taking advantage of the many locations geared toward beauty and inspiration.  The final portion of my sabbatical will be spent in southwest Colorado...not on my motorcycle, but in my Mazda MX-5 Miata.  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.  My sabbatical begins on July 1, and I plan to be back in the church office on September 25.  Since I will be unavailable during this time, please contact Pastor Chad and the church office for any pastoral needs.

Grateful for your sustaining love & support,

Pastor Mark

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Life in the Resurrection

The following is adapted from Pastor Chad's sermon on April 28th, 2019. You can view the original sermon in its entirety on our YouTube channel.

Today, the worldwide church celebrates the Ascension of Christ, when he took to the skies for good and left all the disciples scratching their heads. The celebration of Easter Sunday is a memory now, and it has me wondering again how the resurrection of Jesus can continue to be a source of comfort for us who have never seen Christ standing in our midst.

I recently heard a story about two people who know too much about hope in the resurrection. Pastors Karla and Peter Coen-Tuff of Grand Forks, North Dakota, have devoted their whole lives to sharing God’s love together as parents and co-workers in the church. Last summer after their adult daughter, Rachel, had returned from taking a group of high schoolers to the ELCA’s Youth Gathering in Detroit, the family was all together for vacation. It was there that Rachel collapsed and died almost instantly from a pulmonary embolism. She had shown no signs of illness before this. Her death came out of absolutely nowhere. She was only 29 years old.

In April, the two of them talked about this devastating loss with the Grand Forks Herald. The whole article is worth a read, but here are two pieces of wisdom from them. Karen writes, “Grief brings every conceivable emotion and a hundred questions. We felt frustrated because there's no fixing this. But we also trust that God can handle our anger and our frustration, that God is greater than any emotion or question.”

Her husband, Peter, added this: “Faith is not about having all the answers. Faith really helps us acknowledge our grief, continue on in life and continue to struggle with all the questions and the heartache that goes with it."

By losing a child, these two now have a wisdom that no one should bear. And yet they model so well what it means to have abundant and full life in the resurrection. For them, faith isn’t about blind optimism or trust that nothing can ever go wrong. Rather, their faith acknowledges that God is with us every step of our lives, comforting us in our pain and reassuring us through our doubts.

Faith in Jesus doesn’t deny that death is hard. Rather, it proclaims that death has no power over us. This kind of hope can prepare us so that when the inevitable day comes, we can die well, ever trusting in the one who conquered death so that we can live fully in God’s love now, and after the resurrection.

Our whole lives are spent in this world that’s nestled between Jesus’ resurrection and our own. Though we have not seen resurrection with our own eyes, we are Easter People. Easter is not simply a day or a season, but the reality of every breath we take. Faith in such a thing is not easy. Some days it can be like wind in our sails, and on others it can feel like a mere life preserver keeping us afloat above the waters of turmoil. That is precisely why we proclaim that Christ has risen, even when we cannot muster the celebratory energy of an Easter Sunday morning. We proclaim this faith to give ourselves hope. This kind of hope can sustain us in dark times, and in all others it propels us to boldly live in Christ’s love and compassion for the world. Christ rose so that we may have life, and have it abundantly, confident that death will never have any power over us. 

  Pastor Chad McKenna

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Welcome, Wendy Iversen and Karen Osolin, as New Office Staff!

Dear friends,

As you know, we are blessed with a multitude of talented church staff members.  In the past year, we have seen the departure of three of these staff members: Karen Kammer, Dave Blunt and Marsha Scott.  Julie Eshleman began her work as Director of Christian Education on January 2 and is off to a fantastic start.  Karen Osolin has worked alongside Dave Blunt many months now as the search continued for a replacement of the Finance Manager.  They’ve done a marvelous job of keeping the finance responsibilities running smoothly.

Wendy Iversen
Today, I am excited to announce the hiring of Wendy Iversen as our new Finance Manager.  Wendy is a member of the Rockford community and is actively involved in her own church.  She comes with a Bachelor of Science in Accountancy from NIU and has passed the Certified Public Accountant Exam.  Wendy will be in the office Monday through Thursday mornings.  Dave Blunt will provide orientation to Wendy as she begins her work with us.  This transition means Dave Blunt will soon be fully retired!  I encourage you to greet Wendy when you stop by the office.

Karen Osolin
Meanwhile, Karen Osolin has graciously agreed to accept the position of Office Receptionist, previously served by Marsha Scott.  Karen is perfectly suited to this position, and we are delighted to see Karen shift office spaces as she continues to eagerly serve St. Mark.

As you can imagine, these have not been easy positions to fill.  They require highly qualified individuals, eager to serve the church and to be committed to our greater mission.  God has been incredibly faithful to us in providing a continuity of dedicated, hard-working staff members!

Walking this journey of faith with you,

Pastor Mark

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Welcome, Carson!

Summer is fast approaching! Just as soon as you get used to warm afternoons and comfortably cool nights, the heat will hit so hard that you will want to go jump in the nearest pool. Summers here at St. Mark can seem pretty quiet, but they are not without excitement. Every year, Vacation Bible School is an incredible achievement for staff and volunteers alike. Teenage students often take trips to places as near as the Dairy Depot in Loves Park and as far as Houston, Texas. And whenever summer fun is afoot, you can bet the Summer Intern is responsible.

This year, we are thrilled to have Carson Davenport join the staff for ten short weeks as our Summer Intern. Carson is finishing up his sophomore year at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where he is a history major and a member of the soccer team. He enjoys coaching kids’ soccer and has spent the last two summers working in the Rockford Park District’s summer program. He grew up here at St. Mark and was active both in the youth ministry and as a VBS volunteer. It is a good thing he enjoys hiking and kayaking because he will be leading the high school youth on their trip to Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands in June. Carson will begin his tenure in late May, and you will have a chance to formally welcome him on Sunday, June 2nd.

The Summer Intern program has been a fixture at St. Mark for over 20 years. This paid position is designed to strengthen our youth and children’s ministries while teaching valuable skills to young leaders of the church. It is funded entirely by the St. Mark Endowment. Any church member enrolled in college during the preceding school year is eligible for the internship. Please see Pastor Chad for more details.

Pastor Chad McKenna

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 Chr...