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

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

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,...