Paul Olsen

on the way…not there yet

I heard they welcomed you with those words,
“Welcome to the people’s house.”

But it is not your house;
it is our house.
It is not my house, either;
it is our house.

It is where I live, you live,
in a sense.
But it is not my possession or yours.
It is not a possession.

It belongs to no individual,
it belongs to no individual cause.
No group may claim it,
no party stay for long.

Yet it is open to all people.

At least, it was.

All the people make a home there;
it is all the people’s house.

We had no idea we cared so much about it,
most of us never having seen it,
its rotunda, perhaps,
the rest of its rooms but history to us.

It is the people’s house,
yet we are all guests there,
guests of one another.

And our purpose in being here,
in this house being here at all,
is not to claim some personal space,
some room of our own,
a note on the door telling our siblings to stay out,
this is ours not yours.
Its purpose, our purpose,
is to stand for something much more than ourselves,
our needs, our wants,
our petulant causes.
We are much more than that.

We built this house to serve a nation,
and to build a nation to serve the world.

It was the servants’ entrance you entered.

It was like coming home to see
our guest, our sibling, our neighbor
had forced the doors of our home,
tracked mud on the floor,
broken our grandmother’s china,
put their feet on the furniture,
snuffed out smokes on the table,
taken whatever they wanted without asking,
left the refrigerator door hanging open.

Leaving the rest of us to clean up this mess.

I can hardly bring myself to mention:
driven the children from their beds,
beat them, left them for dead.

You had been here before,
invited over even,
served what we could offer,
tried to make you feel at home
in our home.

We felt what anyone would feel:
disrespect for your house is disrespect for you;
attacking your family is attacking you.

We want to know why.
Really—I want to listen,
I want to understand;
what possible hurt could there be
that could justify for you
inflicting such hurt on others?

I want to listen.
But storming the people’s house
is not a message;
it is an assault.

You cannot believe,
I do not think you can
though I hope somehow to convey it,
our sadness and shame before all the world.

We are aghast;
the world is aghast.
You see it, surely you see it,
don’t you?
The nation, the people, your people
are ashamed.

Our sadness.
You are our sadness.

When I was seventeen,
about to graduate and already heady with freedom,
I came home drunk one night.

I entered my parent’s house,
crawled, to be honest,
up the stairs,
making some monstrous noise
to which I was oblivious in my stupor,
and fell on my bed.
But I was just enough aware
of my mother coming out to see me on the stairs
like a drunk in the gutter,
and my dad finding me
all but unconscious on the bed.

In the morning, when I finally roused myself,
head splitting and hungover,
in more trouble than I knew,
I made myself as presentable as I could,
and walked into the kitchen.

My mother did not turn, did not look up, did not speak.
She finally said, “Your father wants to talk to you.”
Not another word.

My dad ran his business from his home office,
I knew I’d find him there.
“Mom said you wanted to see me.”

“Sit down.”

He did not hurry.
He took his time, finished what he was doing.
Then he turned, looked at me across his desk, and said,
“You know, your mother cried last night.”

No, never, never in my life had I seen my mother cry.
I had been the one to cause it.

Maybe he had a plan,
a withering speech prepared,
a discipline, a punishment,
a lesson to teach.

Maybe he saw my face fall,
regret, remorse,
the humiliation,
the shame.

I had broken the heart of the woman he loved,
and so had broken his heart also.

Maybe he saw my heart break,
and beyond that there was nothing more to do
but wait to see
what the amendment of my life would be.

Maybe he was unbelievably gracious—
that would be like him.

He let me sit there some time in my misery, and then,
“You can go now.”

I have been a fool many times since,
but I have never been such a fool.
I sought thereafter to be the son of their pride not their shame.

Your country cried that night,
it has cried for seven days.

You say you are proud.
But you showed yourselves children
who lack discipline, respect, or kindness,
and you have nothing to be proud of.

Perhaps you are hurting;
hurting others will not heal you.
You have broken our hearts;
but that will not mend yours.

Between my parents and I
there was forgiveness and grace.
But also unspoken was the expectation,
not only theirs but mine,
that there would be
and amendment of life.

I would be held accountable;
I would hold myself accountable.
No excuses.
My freedom was given back to me,
but it came with responsibility,
and service.

If there is one thing we have learned in this pandemic year,
it is that freedom is not a possession but a calling
to serve others.

It turns out to be astonishingly simple:
Just wash your hands,
keep your distance,
wear a mask.
As it happens, loving our neighbor
is the best way to love ourselves;
their safety is our safety.

And that is what freedom is for.
Individual liberty is an oxymoron;
liberty is always shared.
It is how we live together.
Whatever power we have been given,
its only just use is to serve others.
Any freedom I have that does not take your need into account
is but a prison.

We will hold you accountable;
we will hold ourselves accountable.
No excuses;
freedom comes only with responsibility
and calls for amendment of life.

It is the people’s house.
We built this house to serve a nation,
and to build a nation to serve the world.

It is the servants’ entrance you entered.

We, the people, will stand for nothing else.

#          #          #


There is hardly a more soul-stirring word in America, since the Declaration of Independence named “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  It is the bottom-line last word for every argument, or at least the last word for not listening to one.

In these pandemic times liberty, whether religious or personal, has been an argument against public health measures and government orders to control the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Freedom is more than an American concept.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists it first among “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” though its last words remind us that the free have “duties to the community,” and the exercise of rights and freedoms entails securing and respecting the rights and freedoms of others.

Part of the argument in these times has been a defense of religious liberty, claiming the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion as exempting churches (or presumably any other religious organization) from following public health orders commanding the restriction of public gatherings to 10 or 20 or 50 people.

So in these pandemic times, what does freedom mean to a Christian?  Do we have anything to offer in this conversation?  How shall we exercise our freedom?

Three Commandments

Laws and commandments might seem like a strange place to start a discussion of freedom, but let’s take a look at the three commandments Jesus highlights in Matthew 22:34-40.  A religious leader, who happens to be an expert on the law of Moses, tests Jesus with a question:  Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

Love God

Jesus answers, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.

Well, that should settle the freedom to worship question, shouldn’t it?  Worship is one way to love God above everything else.

But in fact, God doesn’t need my worship.  There is nothing I have to offer God that God needs; God needs nothing from me.  God thinks that to worship is something I need.  And yet worship is not about me, it’s about God, and when it becomes about me—about my experience, the feelings it gives me of peace or happiness or joy or serenity, the meaning or learning or teaching I gain; when the focus becomes my actions of praise, lament, prayer, singing, repentance, obedience, acceptance—it ceases to be about God.

It’s easy enough in worship to get caught up in ourselves and what we need.  We say, “We have to meet the needs of our people,” and then worship becomes about meeting my needs.  We ask, “What did I get out of this worship service?”  Instead of, “What am I being sent out of this worship service to do and to be?”

But if God doesn’t need my worship, if worship is more about God’s love directed to humanity than our love directed to God—then how am I to love God?

Love Your Neighbor

Jesus continues with his answer:  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor ….

Love of God, love of neighbor—they cannot be separated.  You cannot love God—you cannot worship—without concern for your neighbor.  If my neighbor is hungry, then I am hungry.  If my neighbor has no income, then I am poor.  If my neighbor hasn’t proper health care, then all is not well.

We have no greater command right now than to love our neighbor, and to make no decision without regard first of all for her safety and wellbeing.  This is what we can do now in these times (it is what we always should have been doing).

The Third Commandment…

…is not a commandment at all, but a presumption.  Jesus says, You shall love your neighbor as [you love] yourself. 

Jesus presumes you love yourself.  In fact, you may not like yourself at all; it can be a hard thing to love oneself, and yet your self—your beloved self, the self God so loves—is always there, inescapable.

And how are you to learn to love yourself?  Love of self, like love of God, is inextricably bound up with the love of your neighbor; you will learn to love yourself by loving your neighbor.  We learn to love, and to be better lovers, in relationship; you cannot work on yourself by yourself, you need community, you need others.  The push and rub and gift and demand and challenge and blessing of relationship to others is where we learn to be ourselves, forgive ourselves, and love ourselves.

James (1:22, 27), that old blues singer to our Christendom (not something Lutherans often quote, and yet), tells us this about worship:

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves….  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to care for orphans and widows in their distress.  In other words, our first concern is the most vulnerable among us.

And, James continues, to keep oneself unstained from the world.  By which he does not mean the practice of some self-centered moralism; or pursuing righteousness as a personal possession—for again, that would be all about oneself, not about God, and no righteousness at all.  Rather what James is calling for is something more like clearheaded thinking in the midst of an anxious and fearful world—to work on oneself by forgetting oneself in the community of others.

Which is to say, love your neighbor as yourself.

And you know that James will go on to say, So faith by itself, if I has no works, is dead….  Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith (2:17, 19 [14-18]).  Loving our neighbor is our highest form of praise, and in that, the God who loves our neighbor as God loves our own selves, will be most highly honored.

Love in a Time of Pandemic

In times of pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear, “Me First” is not only unfaithful, it is a bad strategy and it doesn’t work.  Self-isolating and staying home are necessary ways of loving our neighbor—wearing a mask, for instance, does more to protect you than it does to protect me, unless you also will wear a mask, for my sake. 

Wearing that mask when you are out in public or gathering with others is more than just a momentary responsibility.  If you and I are going to gather at the park or in your backyard or your living room or at a restaurant or bar or coffee shop, or you and I and eight other people are going to meet at church—we don’t just practice good caring protocols for the 15 or 30 minutes we’re together.  The easy transmissibility of this coronavirus has made it abundantly clear that you bring to that meeting every other person you have spent time with in the last couple of weeks.  So loving your neighbor becomes more than just a moment’s social graces; it becomes the way you live your life, when we’re together and when we’re not.  In a word, it becomes your vocation—but more on that later.

Hunkering down, building defenses, buying up groceries before somebody else does, closing ourselves off, or blaming others will not save us.

We are all in this together, we solve this together, we survive this together.  We are only as strong as our weakest link in our health care system, our weakest community, our world’s weakest country, our most vulnerable neighbor.

We are Wuhan, all of us, and Wuhan is us.

If we learn nothing else from these times, it should be that we are all connected, every single human one of us across the globe.  If you are looking for a mask to protect yourself, you look in vain.  A vaccine will be nigh on to worthless unless it is fairly and equally and widely available to all of us.  A pandemic should make clear that life, liberty, and happiness are not private possessions; they are marks of the community—the world-wide community—we build together.  Love of neighbor isn’t just a pleasant sentiment for Sunday morning; it is the practical, even life-saving principle for the entire week.

What then of liberty?

Christians—perhaps especially Lutherans—know that the astonishing grace of God has set us free (Romans 8:1f; Galatians 1:3, 5:1).  But let us remember that this is freedom from sin & death & condemnation, not a personal or private “I can do anything I want and you can’t stop me.’

“Individual liberty” is something of a contradiction in terms for a Christian, because Christian freedom is always the freedom to serve others. As the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, the only thing that counts is faith working through love (5:6);

And, For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another (5:6, 13-15);

And again, after talking about the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—none as personal possessions, but all as characteristics of our relationships with others—Paul says,

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (6:2).

And unable to leave it even at that, concludes, So then, whenever we have the opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (6:10).

Martin Luther, who himself was a pastor during the pandemic of the Black Plague 500 years ago, offered guidance to his people and colleagues that remains both moving and relevant, especially to us now in these days, on how to live and serve in a time of pandemic.  His letter, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” written in 1527 at the height of the Black, or Bubonic, Plague, in response to another pastor’s request for guidance, reflects one of the most important concepts Luther ever taught about the Christian’s life of faith—The Freedom of a Christian.

And of Christian freedom Luther once wrote (in The Freedom of a Christian, 1520),

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
A [person] does not live for himself [or herself] alone in this mortal body to work for it alone, but he [or she] lives also for all [people] on earth; rather, he [or she] lives only for others and not for himself [or herself].

And on the consequent freedom from condemnation of self (whether by God or others or oneself) given us by God’s merciful gift:

Although I am an unworthy and condemned [person], my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true.  Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches?  I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.

Whatever our decisions in this time of pandemic—whether about the life and worship of our faith communities, or about our own lives of faith lived out in the daily relationships of our homes and neighborhoods, communities, states, nations, and world—freedom in Christ compels us they be governed by love for our neighbors, and to make no decision without regard first of all for their safety and well-being, and especially for the safety and well-being of the most vulnerable among us.

What would that kind of economy look like?

The economy has become a subject of concern in these pandemic times as well.  Unemployment is high, and the pain this inflicts on the most vulnerable among us is great indeed.  We must be concerned about the unemployed and often their loss of employer-based health coverage, struggling businesses, the rise of poverty and homelessness, and the accompanying rise of food insecurity and inadequate health care, escalating debt both national and personal—all of which also can put peoples’ lives at risk.

I’m hardly an economist and certainly don’t have the answers.  But as I search for a way forward, here is what is what my faith keeps telling me.

In his treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther, back in 1520, said the goal of health and well-being is that “we may be able to work, to acquire, and lay by funds with which to aid those who are in need, that in this way the strong member may serve the weaker, and we may be children of God, each eating for and working for the other, bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ.”  Perhaps that is an economy not so easy to reconcile with contemporary capitalist ideals, but Luther says, “This is a truly Christian life.”

A community’s economy – be that a local city, state, national, or world community – is, or should be, one of the ways we care for and love our neighbor.  From a Lutheran perspective, we are likely to see economic concerns from our historic sense of the importance of human vocation.

Finding Your Vocation in Life

One’s vocation is the context in which we love and care for our neighbor.  We see all people as both saint & sinner, and all their work as equally holy – whether one is a pastor, pope, bishop, president, plumber, investment advisor, real estate magnate, politician, doctor, lawyer, teacher, homemaker, student, or child – because in each and every case, vocation is directed toward meeting our neighbor’s needs.

Again, this is the freedom of a Christian—set free from sin and condemnation, loved and accepted by God, no longer a slave to our own self-justification or self-enrichment, vocation becomes the way we serve the neighbor.

From the perspective of vocation, then, the question becomes whom are we serving?  Whose needs need most to be met?  Vocation’s concern starts at the bottom of the pyramid of economic privilege, means, or power, not the top, and seeks first the equitable justice of the reign of God for all, an economic leveling that leaves no one out or hidden in its shadows.  As the young economist Mary, mother of our Lord, sang out:

[God] has shown strength with his arm;
      he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
      and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
      and sent the rich away empty.  
(Luke 1:51-53)

On Giving

I’m a terrible packer.
I never know for sure what I should bring,
so I bring everything I can think of
and generally way more than I need.
I come home with clean socks and underwear
in suitcases that scrape by just under the 50-pound limit.

Which is why interim ministry has been good for me.
In the last ten years,
this work has never taken me less than 500 miles from home.
I can squeeze a lot of stuff into Mazda sedan,
but it has its limits.
I’m always missing something:
a big enough pot,
a warmer blanket,
something I should have brought more of,
like socks and underwear.

I live in rented space with borrowed stuff
you found in your closets and garages
and didn’t need anymore
(I depend on the kindness of strangers).
I’ve often made do with the bare minimum.

I’m finding that enough
is just that:  enough.

In fact, when I make the occasional trip back home,
and discover chores undone and repairs needed
and all the demands of homeownership and lots of stuff,
I start looking forward to getting back to a simpler interim lifestyle.
And invariably when an interim ends and I get back home
I start to sort out the things I don’t need from the things I’ve collected
and give it away.

Which means,
I’m very lucky and very rich by the world’s standards
to have enough and more than I need,
to be able to make the choice
of living simply,
of letting go.

Why do all the great religions
and Christianity most especially
laud poverty as a virtue
and letting go of stuff as a spiritual discipline?

They universally think that less is more,
and giving away can’t be overdone.
And Jesus more than anyone
spoke directly to the lucky and the rich
about what a burden they bore
and how much they could do
to relieve the burdens of others.

And what a joy it is to do so.
Just consider this, from Jesus:

Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.
A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over,
will be put into your lap;
for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.  (Luke 6:37-38)

Letting go.
It is an act of trust
that there is, there will be,
enough to share.
that somehow,
there will be more when it is shared.

So I keep unpacking,
letting go a little bit more,
to not be bound by things,
not consumed by being a consumer;
to discover that less is more,
and enough is enough;
to travel lightly through this world,
fifty pounds lighter on the way home;
to understand how lucky I am,
my measure pressed down, shaken together, running over,
and all so I may be generous in return;
to learn that a burden really is a burden,
and a gift given really is a joy.

On Service

After seven days
He was quite tired so God said:
“Let there be a day
Just for picnics, with wine and bread”
He gathered up some people he had made
Created blankets and laid back in the shade

The people sipped their wine
And what with God there, they asked him questions
Like: do you have to eat
Or get your hair cut in heaven?
And if your eye got poked out in this life
Would it be waiting up in heaven with your wife?

God shuffled his feet and glanced around at them;
The people cleared their throats and stared right back at him
                                     (song by Brad Roberts, of the band, Crash Test Dummies)

What if the world was made for the joy of it?

What if, as Robert Farrar Capon said, you find God in heaven,
sitting on the front porch, like a watchful parent,
and you show up after curfew,
knowing you ought to be in big trouble,
prepared to catch hell for it,
and instead your every-loving God says,
“Did you have a good time?”

That seems more like the story of creation in Genesis 1 to me.
It’s clear God is having a good time.
What a marvelous delightful time God is having of it,
creating a world of order and beauty
out of the chaos all around us!
God delights to do this!
Because it is good to do this.

Being the Creator is wonderful fun,
but in the end, you want to share it
with someone who gets it,
who could maybe enjoy it as much as you.

So humanity is God’s crowning touch … yes.
And we are given dominion, power,
and awesome freedom to look around, enjoy,
use whatever we want, whatever we need.

But with power and dominion and freedom comes,
not license,
but responsibility.

hat’s the biblical concept of kings and queens:
they are to be shepherds of the people,
and, as Jesus says, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

So it is really a charge of great responsibility;
though not a weight of responsibility,
a gift of responsibility.

May it be a delight for you
to be a steward of the earth and all its creatures and life forms!

To care for a child is to love that child;
for most of us, it couldn’t be any other way.

To care for the earth is to love the earth.
It is an intimate, loving, mutual, reciprocal relationship:
the earth gives us what we need for food and clothing and shelter.
In return, we give back to the earth,
we care for it,
take only what we need,
restore what we have broken,
we share with each other,
we share with all God’s creatures.

We clean up our mess when we make one
(and that means we have a lot of work to do).

We learn love by showing love to others and to the earth.
We give back,
and become transformed;
we learn kindness, generosity, grace, mercy…
in a word, we learn to become human, truly human.

We serve one another, for the fun of it.

That, I think, is the proper way to think of stewardship:
Stewardship is a delight.
It’s a joy to have the power to care for others,
whether that be the garden of delight
the earth is meant to be,
with all its wondrous plants and animals.
Or whether that be the love and care of children,
family, community, friend or stranger.

We become human
not by taking everything we can,
or using up whatever we can get,
but by learning to care for others.

That’s stewardship—learning to be human,
learning to use our power and freedom
to care for others.

It’s like Jesus said,
and what we have so often said during these past years of pandemic.
When others have claimed a twisted freedom,
insisting you can’t make me do anything,
we have said,
knowing we are loved and forgiven,
cared for by a generous and gracious God,
that we are set free for a purpose:
to love and forgive and care for one another,
to love God and love our neighbor;
to embrace and share the work of God—
to be stewards of the earth,
and of one another.

November 14, 2021
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Boise, ID
2 Corinthians 5:14-20; Mark 12:28-34


Sometimes churches can be invisible.
You get used to them being there,
we’re just a part of the scenery.
People go in and go out,
but if you’re not one of them,
you might hardly notice.

So when our Mission and Life Committee
was studying our neighborhood,
asking our neighbors
what they thought of us
and what they thought we could contribute—
one of my favorite responses
was the person who said that Immanuel
was a thing of beauty in the community.
Just the property—the courtyard, the old Augustana chapel,
the well-maintained grounds and gardens—
provide beauty to the area.

And it’s true;
sometimes I see people wandering by
who come to sit in the courtyard and rest a while,
or get out of the heat
to sit down on the cool stone steps of Augustana.

But you have to come to us to experience that.

And so ever since I have wondered,
what would it take for Immanuel to become
a thing of beauty out there in the community?

To become known as people
who bring beauty to others?

Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Wouldn’t that be an awesome thing to be known for:

To be a thing of beauty in a pandemic world?
To be known as a place of respite
for the weary and impatient?
To be a place to rest safely
when others tell you to move on?
To bring beauty where there is dissention and conflict?
To be tender when others are rough?
To be welcoming when others are polarized?
To be color in an otherwise gray world?

To love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength,
and to love our neighbors as ourselves?

Urged on by the love of Christ
to be a thing of beauty in the world—
what might that look like?


Almost two years ago,
when the pandemic struck
and the realization began to hit us
that we had to close our churches
and shut down our worship services;
and this wasn’t just a momentary thing
that would be over in a week or a month,
maybe not even over in a year—
I distinctly remember sitting in my office,
starring at the wall,
and thinking,
“I should have gotten out while the getting was good.”

I could have left;
I could have found something else to do;
I could have retired;
I could be on a beach right now!

I should have gotten out while the getting was good.

I was serving as interim pastor
at King of Glory Lutheran Church across town,
and we had just gotten into the last stretch of the call process.

They were interviewing candidates
and everything looked good;
we’d wrap this up in a month or two
and I’d go home.

The COVID hit and everything began to bog down.

I was five hundred miles from home,
travel restrictions were starting to be applied;
I wouldn’t get home for another six months,
and it would be almost another year
before we wrapped it all up.

Candidates who were very interested
suddenly didn’t want to travel for interviews.

They had their own mess to deal with in churches back home,
and they couldn’t abandon their congregations now.
Zoom was a tool only a few knew how to use.

We’d never done it this way before;
we’d have to reinvent the whole call process.

We all had to do that, didn’t we?

We had to reinvent our lives.

We had to reinvent church.

I had decades of pastoral experience.

But everything I knew how to do
I had to figure out how to do differently.

We had to experiment with everything.

For months I preached to no one there—
just me and a camera on a tripod and a big empty church,
pretending you were right there listening to every word,
never knowing if you tuned in at all.

I remember a disillusioned pastor friend, saying,
“This isn’t what I signed up for;
this doesn’t feel like being a pastor.”

A lot of pastors felt that way.

They couldn’t visit the sick,
they couldn’t sit down with you over a cup of coffee
and hear how things were going.

They regularly dealt with difficult people
and their disregard for the safety of others,

their impatience, their panic of loneliness and isolation,
and the political football it all turned into.

Over the last two years,
a lot of them did get out of the ministry.
We have a lot of vacant pulpits right now
and a lot of churches looking for a pastor.

And we all began to wonder, when will things get back to normal?

And then we began to realize we’d never get back to normal,
and started to hope for at least a relatively familiar
‘new normal.’

Until we reluctantly came to the realization
that there was no normal anymore,
and we wouldn’t ever get back to it, not really;
we had entered a whole new world,
and our lives—and church as we knew it—
would never be the same again.

Truth is,

we still don’t know what to expect;

we still don’t know where we are going.

So it’s good to know we aren’t the only ones;
this isn’t the first time.

Remember last week,
when we read from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians?

We pretty much skipped over the most difficult lines,
where the apostle Paul says,

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 
For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake,
so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 
So death is at work in us, but life in you. 

That’s not a success story.

The apostle is confessing his failures.

He’s struggling under intense persecution
and he doesn’t know what to do.

Everything he tries goes wrong;
every experiment ends in failure;
nothing works the way he wants it to.

His life is in constant danger.

He doesn’t know what he’s doing,
he’s just trying whatever looks like it might work,
hoping to God the Spirit will lead him somewhere.

He feels like a clay jar – inadequate to the task.

The only way he can describe it, is it feels like death.

The old normal has died;
his life would never be the same again;
it’s like we are always being given up to death.

He makes it sound like we’re lucky, it’s only a pandemic for us.

But he has not lost hope; far from it:
we are not crushed, we are not driven to despair,
we are not forsaken, we are destroyed;
in fact, we feel more alive than ever,
alive with the life of Jesus.

There’s a new creation going on,
God is doing new things,
and it is awesome to be a part of it!

And you know, awesome things have happened.

We have learned to be the church in new ways.

We have learned to worship online.

Some of us hate it, and worship reluctantly if at all.

Some of us love it, and never want to give it up;
some of us want it both ways—
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard,
“When we get back to normal, I hope we still do online services.”

Or, “I’ve been sick, I can’t drive anymore, I can’t get out,
but I’m so glad I can worship with my friends online.”

Or even, “I watch two or three services every Sunday;
oh, but don’t worry, pastor, I listen to you, too.”

We’ve gotten creative and learned some new things.

We Zoom everything now, just like you do.

Recording worship has given us new ways to be creative,
and we’re working on a major project
that will allow us to livestream worship
and improve our online communications.

We’ve learned to put the safety of others first,
and our own satisfaction last.

We have learned that faith isn’t about getting our needs met;
it’s about caring for strangers and meeting the needs of others.

You should know that King of Glory got creative:
They interviewed candidates online,
gave them virtual tours of the church and the city,
and eventually called a wonderful new pastor
who accepted the call without ever setting foot in Boise.

Today we install our Call Committee,
who will do the same thing.

They’ll get creative,
they’ll look for the new thing God is doing among us,
they’ll figure out how we can be a part of it;
and somewhere out there,
there are pastoral candidates looking for a church
that’s ready to embrace a new world
and do a new thing;
a congregation that is not crushed, not in despair,
knows it is not forsaken or destroyed;
a congregation that is more alive than ever.

And some new pastor who is alive with the life of Jesus
and ready to share it
will come here and lead you into God’s new future.

What sustains a pastor like that?

Why would anyone stay in the ministry
and not get out when the getting is good?

Why are you still here,
why did you seek us out,
what is it that drives you
to want to be a part of what God is doing;
and what’s got you thinking that God might be doing it here,
at Immanuel Lutheran Church?

What sustains us,
when we know full well it’s not over yet?

For the love of Christ urges us on,
Saint Paul says,
because we are convinced that one has died for all;
therefore all have died, and he died for all,
so that those who live might live no longer for themselves,
but for him who died and was raised for them.

For the love of Christ urges us on…

so that those who live might live no longer for themselves!

So that we might live for something bigger than ourselves.

Or as Jesus says in our gospel reading,
you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,
and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

There is nothing you can do with your life that is greater than that.

In these pandemic times,
we had an opportunity to get reacquainted
with some of the greatest resources
Lutherans bring to the issues before us.

Maybe you know that Martin Luther
endured a pandemic of his own.

Back in 1527, when the plague was ravaging Europe,
a pastor wrote Martin Luther
asking if it was permissible for a pastor
to flee from the plague.

Would it be okay for a pastor to get out while the getting was good?

And Luther said, Yes!
If you get away and avoid all this death and despair,
go! for heaven’s sake, get out of Doge while you can,
and save your own skin.

But, if on your way out of Dodge,
you happen to come across a neighbor,
a stranger who needs your help,
stop—and take care of your neighbor.

It all boils down to this, Luther said:

“If someone is sufficiently bold and strong in his faith,
 let him stay in God’s name; that is certainly no sin.
 If someone is weak and fearful, let him flee in God’s name
 as long as he does not neglect his duty toward his neighbor
but has made adequate provision for others to provide nursing care.

Or to put it another way:
Love God;
love yourself as God loves you;
love your neighbor whom God loves as yourself—
we can’t get through this alone,
we get through this together.

Let the thing that binds you, directs you and controls you
be the love of God and the love of your neighbor first,
and your own safety—the love of your own life—second.

Let love always be the thing that urges you on.

That’s the freedom of a Christian:

Christians—and especially Lutherans—
have a little different idea of what freedom is all about.

We know that the astonishing grace of God has set us free.

Like St. Paul says,
the love of Christ urges us on,
because we are convinced that one has died for all;
therefore all have died, and he died for all,
so that those who live might live no longer for themselves,
but for him who died and was raised for them.

No longer living for yourself;
living for something bigger than yourself;
boldly alive with the life of Jesus.

The freedom of a Christian is not a private
“I can do anything I want and you can’t stop me.’

This pandemic should make it clear that
life, liberty, and happiness are not private possessions;
they are marks of the community
—the world-wide community—we build together.

Love of neighbor isn’t just a pleasant sentiment for Sunday morning;
it is the practical, even life-saving principle for the entire week.

In fact, “individual liberty”
is something of a contradiction in terms for a Christian,
because Christian freedom is always the freedom to serve others.

As the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Galatians,
the only thing that counts is faith working through love (5:6).

And, he says, for you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,
only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,
but through love become slaves to one another.
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 
(5:6, 13-14)

That would be a whole new world, wouldn’t it?

Imagine living such fearless love!

In the midst of his own chaotic times,
the apostle Paul saw an ever-creative God
doing new things:
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:
everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new!

The old normal has died;
life may never be the same again;
but The New Is already Here!

And it is time to live into something bigger than ourselves.

Is there really any other faithful response
than the response of the scribe in today’s gospel,
who tells Jesus,
You are right, Teacher!
there is nothing more important,
nothing more righteous and true,
nothing bigger to be a part of than this:

To be unafraid to care for strangers,

to let go of seeking the best I can get for myself,
and do what’s best for others;

the joy of meeting needs
rather than the fear
of not getting my own needs met;

to love God,
and to love your neighbor as yourself.



I confessed to you last week
that I never wanted to be a pastor.
I’ve always thought I find something else to do,
some way to get out of it.

Well, about two years ago,
I think I had the perfect excuse.

Everything I knew would have to be reinvented.
And I thought,
now’s the time to get out while the getting is good.

But almost immediately I had a second thought:
Everything I know is out the window,
the church is going to have to reinvent itself;
this could be the thing that finally forces us
to reexamine everything,
reexamine even our faith,
figure out what our purpose is,
figure out what in the world the world needs us to be.

This could be a new creation;
and we just might be right where God wants us.

No way—I’ve waited all my life for this!
The New Is Here!
How could I miss it?

I hope you feel the same way.
I hope you want to be a part of what God is doing,
and I hope you want to be a part of what God is doing among us,
here at Immanuel Lutheran Church.

We’ve had to experiment,
and we don’t always know what we’re doing.

Sometimes, we’re just trying whatever looks like it might work,
hoping to God the Spirit will lead us somewhere.

Sometimes we feel inadequate to the task.

We don’t know where we are going,
we just keep praying,
O God, you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us.

And on this Commitment Sunday,
I hope you will pray for God to guide you
to commit to being a part of something bigger than yourself.

May the love of Christ urge you on.

© Paul R. Olsen


Mark 12:28-34
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  After that no one dared to ask him any question.

2 Corinthians 5:14-20
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ,,, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

All Saints’ Day – November 7, 2021
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Boise, Idaho
2 Corinthians 4:5-15; Mark 12:38-44


In the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, the writer says,
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.

Faith is the boldness
to step across the threshold, face an unknown future.

As one our prayers says,
O God, give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.

And then the writer says, all our ancestors in faith,
all the great saints we honor on this day—
their good deeds and accomplishments
aren’t worth a dime.

It was their simple trust when they didn’t know where to go,
it was by faith our ancestors received approval.

And then the writer lists example after example:
by faith Abel…
by faith Enoch…
by faith Noah…
by faith Abraham and Sarah…
by faith Isaac…
by faith Jacob…
by faith Joseph…
by faith Moses…
—and I could go on, he says.

And we could go on,
and name a few of the saints we have known,
and today we will:
Judy, and Leona,
Sue, Larry,
David, Florence,
Patty, June and Elwyn,
Don, Mary, Kathyn,
Peg and Wally, Todd.

Hold them in your everlasting arms, O God.

Faith, in the end, was all they had.
And faith was enough.
And faith was not enough.
Because even in faith they did not receive what was promised.
Not yet.
The things they hoped for, the things they could not see.
The things we all hope for.
There was more.
By the grace of God,
there was yet the promise of more to come,
more to be.
The promise and the call
to something bigger than ourselves
to believe in.


About forty years ago, I graduated from seminary,
approved and certified for call as a pastor
to some unsuspecting Lutheran congregation.

But I didn’t do it; I didn’t become a pastor.

Instead, for a variety of reasons
ranging from love to bureaucracy,
I dallied for two years,
two enjoyable years,
of being an actor, which surprised everybody,
and being in love, which surprised me,
and earning next to nothing
working in a warehouse.

I was having fun not being a pastor.

But if I didn’t take a call soon,
I knew they’d forget all about me.

So in 1983, I finally accepted a call
to Immanuel Lutheran Church in Harlan, Iowa.

Acting went out the window; so did love.

For my ordination service,
I chose the words of the apostle Paul we read today from 2 Corinthians.

I thought it would be a perfect theme for my life and ministry.

For we do not proclaim ourselves;
we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord
and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.

That, I thought, was my call in a nutshell.

I read those words today and I wonder what I was thinking.

Your slave?

I assure you, I have no interest in being your slave.

Even though Jesus talks about it all the time,
seems to think serving others is the best you could do,
even says he came not to be served but to serve,
even if it costs him his life,
and rather pointedly makes it clear we should do the same.

So,servanthood?  Well, maybe.

Maybe that’s what I was thinking.

I did want my life to serve some purpose
bigger than myself.

I wanted my life to mean something,
and I knew if that was going to happen
it couldn’t be all about me.

I had to serve something bigger than me,
and it doesn’t get much bigger than GOD.

So yes, I can agree with the apostle:
everything is for your sake,
so that grace, as it extends to more and more people,
may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

And really, don’t you want the same thing?

Serving yourself,
being your own god,
isn’t that too small a thing?

Or, as our gospel test for today says,
all those successful people,
walking around in the finest clothes and latest fashions,
greeted with respect in the marketplaces,
getting the best seats
the places of honor at banquets—
you want that, don’t you?

You’d love to be drinking better wine
in a finer house
with the car of your dreams
in the 3-car garage.

You do not want to be anybody’s servant,
let alone a slave, not even for the sake of Jesus.

But you do want your life to mean something, don’t you?

You do want—you need—a purpose bigger than yourself.

You actually need to serve something;
you need a God
bigger than you.

And you know you have gifts,
you know you have something to bring to this world,
you know you there’s a little bit of glory in you,
and, you don’t need your name in lights or anything,
you don’t need be famous, maybe not even rich,
you just want to be appreciated
for who you are and what you can do;
you just want a little love for it all.

And that’s probably all what I wanted, too.

But my Ordinator—
the guy who presided at my ordination as a pastor,
who led the service and preached the sermon,
ignored my choice of St. Paul’s words,
and chose some words of Jesus instead.

I was a little disappointed;
I mean, I had it printed right there on the front of the bulletin
and all the announcements and invitations I sent out to people—
I thought it was pretty obvious.

But what he chose instead was this:

You did not choose me, but I chose you.
And I appointed you to go and bear fruit,
fruit that will last,
so that the Father will give you
whatever you ask in my name.
I am giving you these commands
so that you may love one another.

You did not choose me, but I chose you.

Which is to say, this isn’t about you;
I’ve got this one;
if you amount to anything as a pastor
it will be because I called you.

I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.

In the years ahead,
you’re going to look back and think
it all amounted to some pretty slim pickings,
but there will be some lasting fruit,
and it will all be worthwhile.

The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name—
which is not say everything is going to go your way
and you’re not going to get whatever you want;
oh, Lord, no, that has most definitely not been the case.

But it does mean you are not alone;
you will have what you need;
God goes with you.

Little did I know how much more important
his words of promise would be to me
than my words of high calling.

But I’ll tell you something:  I never wanted to do this.

A week ago I was looking for some new glasses,
and the optician helping me asked me what I did for a living,
and I told her, and she exclaimed, “Oh, that’s wonderful!”

She was a Christian, and she was so glad to meet me,
and she thought what I did was such important work,
and she so respected that.

And she asked me,
“What made you decide you wanted to be a pastor?”

And I said—for some reason I answered honestly,
“I never wanted to be a pastor; still don’t.”

I never wanted to live up to everybody else’s expectations;
I never wanted to try to fit myself
into those narrow, black-and-white,
restrictive, three-sizes-too-small,
pinch your toes and cramp your lifestyle

I always thought I’d find a way out of it.
I’d do it for a while, because I couldn’t think of anything else to do,
but sooner or later I find something else to do.

I think she was bit disappointed;
I think she was hoping for a call story
that was just a little more glorious,
something with angels, or bright lights,
or voices from heaven,
or at least a little more conviction.

I’m still looking for something else to do.

It’s not going well.

I’m still here.

I just can’t get out of it.

And I think that sometimes that’s what a call is;
You did not choose me, I chose you—
get used to it;
you might start to like it,
you might start to realize
you’ve stumbled on to something bigger than yourself.

Maybe you can relate to that; maybe that’s you.

Maybe you never wanted to be here.

Maybe you think you’re not religious,
and you have a hard time believing this stuff,
and you have a hard enough time living up
to your own expectations, let alone anyone else’s,
and you want to have more fun
than you think you can have in church.

Well, I’m with you.

Maybe you’ve been around churches long enough to know
they’re not exactly filled with saints and angels.

There’s a hell of a lot of difficult people around here,
they can fight and argue and gossip
as much as pray and worship and speak kindly,
and it’s sometimes hard to believe
you’re going to have to spend the rest of eternity with them.

It can be a constant struggle getting anything done,
when we do do some good
it’s often as not with some collateral damage,
and we tend to do it as much for what we get out of it
as we do for what somebody else might get out of it.

Spend a few of your years around a church,
and you might look back and think
it all amounted to some pretty slim pickings,
and you wonder if any of the good you tried to do
with amount to some lasting fruit.

Truth be told, if you want to meet some sinners
a church is as good a place as any low-dive bar you can name.

So you want to light some candles to some saints today?

And so we did—about 15 of them;
fifteen of the saints we’ve known and loved;
we miss them and we always will.

We remember them for best they have been,
and we forget the worst we saw in them.

We tell jokes and funny stories about them,
and list the good things they did for us and did for others;
and we bury the hatchet and lose the list
of all the ways they hurt us
or disappointed us
or didn’t live up to our expectations.

We call them saints instead of sinners,
even though we know better.

And we cross our fingers
and pray to God
that one day
others will do the same for us.

Because the truth is,
none of us are very good
at living up to expectations,
our own or yours.

We’ve done our best, maybe,
but we’ve also done our worst,
and it hasn’t always been pretty.

We’ve messed up,
and hurt some people,
and run away from what we’ve done,
and faced up to failure as often as success.

We are not the important ones in fine suits;
if we earned your respect or gained some honor
we also filled some closets with ghosts and secrets.

We are the sinners, not the righteous,
and we’ve left a trail of tears behind us
nobody can find or see,
both theirs and ours.

As St. Paul says,
we have this treasure in clay jars;
we’re just ordinary, everyday vessels,
and you might find it a wonder that God can somehow use us.

But somehow God does:
We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us …

so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So, being a pastor—I’m not sure what I was thinking.

Was I thinking it would be glorious?

Was I expecting the automatic, unearned, but graciously given
respect and admiration that woman gave me,
the way some people will, just because you’re a pastor?

Or was I thinking I was called to be your servant for Jesus’ sake?

Well, either way, it’s been a privilege.

I’m always surprised by the respect I’ve never felt I earned.

But I have never felt like the all-star player of the game.

I mostly have felt like the water boy:
I get to run out on the field once in awhile with my clay jar,
and squirt what little refreshment I can onto your lips
while you play the game.

And then
I have the best seat in the house,
right on the fifty-yard line, where everything happens.

Being a pastor just means I have a front-row seat
on what God is doing in your lives.

I get to see God at work in you,
even when you can’t see it,
even when can’t believe it’s true,
even when it doesn’t fulfill your expectations.

I see God at work in you
even when you’re being difficult (or I am),
whether you’re fighting or arguing or gossiping,
or praying for each other,
worshiping together,
or doing your feeble best to love God and love your neighbors.

It is awesome to be on the sidelines.

So, what do you think, Immanuel Lutheran Church?

What’s your calling?

We’ve asked you to think about that;
to think about the stewardship of your life
and your spiritual growth;
to consider where you are and where you want to be
in your prayer life, your worship life,
your personal encounter with the Word of God,
your service to others,
your giving to the work of God in this place.

We hope you come back next week
with some decisions about that.

And what is our calling, together, as the people of God in this place?

We are focusing on the future,
on the new pastor who will serve you,
on the new thing God is doing among us.

We’ve been through so many changes
in the past couple of years.

Who ever thought we’d all sit together in church
like bank robbers wearing masks?

Who ever thought there would be as many of you
sitting at home, worshiping with us online?

And who knows what the next year will bring?

All we know is there is no going back.

The new is already here,
and we are trying to figure out how to live into it.

But God is still out there,
doing what God does–
bringing light into our darkness,
creating order and beauty out of our chaos and despair.

And God is calling us out.

God is calling us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

The God who at the dawn of creation said,
Let light shine out of darkness,
is an ever-creative God,
always creating something new
out of the chaos of our lives.

Calling us to bear fruit,

promising that even sinners can amount to something.

Calling you to a servanthood you maybe never wanted,
to do your feeble best to love God and love your neighbors.

And if not everything goes your way,
or you don’t get whatever you want,
that does mean you are not alone.

You will have what you need;
God goes with you.

Immanuel, these are words of high calling;
and words of great promise.

Answer that call,
and you might start to realize
you’ve stumbled on to something bigger than yourself.



After remembering, after listing,
all our ancestors in faith,
how they pressed on toward what they could not see,
how they continued to hope
for the promise of more to come,
more to be—

the writer of Hebrews
issues a call to the rest of us,
a call to believe
in something bigger than ourselves,
to be a part of what God is doing in our world,
the new thing God is still creating.

Therefore, the writer says,
since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,
and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the sake of the joy that was set before him
endured the cross, disregarding its shame,
and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

God calling us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

The ever-creative God,
always creating something new
out of the chaos of our times.

When we cannot see, when it’s hard to hope,
God still calling out,
let light shine out of our darkness.

O God, give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.

God is out there, and The New Is Here—
go out and find a way to be a part of it.


Mark 12:38-44
As [Jesus] taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.  A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 
Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

2 Corinthians 4:5-15
For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.  For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.  For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.  So death is at work in us, but life in you. 
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke” —we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.  Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

On Worship

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold
Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind
                 (Betty’s Diner, Carrie Newcomer)

“Church is boring,” a confirmation class sometimes will tell me.
“Yes,” I like to answer, “it’s supposed to be.”

Where else in life do you put the phone on do not disturb,
sit for an hour without a screen or a commercial in front of you,
sing without the radio on,
and accept, even welcome, the challenge
of quieting your heart and your mind,
and just be still?

Now, trust me, nobody hates bad worship like a pastor.
boring is one thing; stinking awful is another.
Unprepared, stumbling, reading scripture like it wasn’t something precious to you,
off-key and unrehearsed—we get it.
And no one is harder on a preacher than a preacher.

some of the most worshipful moments I’ve had
were in a small country church,
simple furnishings and nothing fancy,
without a pianist or a choir,
singing hymns to a pre-recorded sound track,
sometimes only twelve or six or three of us in the room,
stumbling off-key through music they didn’t know,
but every one of them earnest, honest,
participating, involved, absolutely present,
and unmistakably
there to worship.

There are moments as a preacher
when you look out on the congregation
and you see the look on someone’s face
that tells you they are really listening.
It can be unsettling and frightening to realize
someone thinks what you say counts, and is counting on it.

In that little church,
I never doubted that they heard every word,
and it mattered to them
(whether they agreed with me or not, and they didn’t always).

To worship is to say there is something more important in my life than me.
There is a Word worth being quiet enough long enough to hear,
worth the risk of boredom and stumbling preachers.
There is food that cannot possibly be enough,
just a bit of bread and a sip of wine,
perhaps stuck together like two tiny plastic creamers,
yet it carries a promise that can fill you
and carry you through the week.

Lutherans, at least, believe that and wait for it.
Baptism and Holy Communion, from our perspective,
aren’t things Christians do;
those are things God does to us.
God baptizes,
God is present for you in bread and wine.

When you can’t perceive the presence of God anywhere in your life,
including even here at church,
the promise of worship is not that you come to God
but that here God comes to you in ways you can not know,
and in ways you can know;
in things you can touch and feel
when you can’t feel anything like faith within you;
in a word of promise spoken to you by another’s voice,
when you can’t believe
in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, or life everlasting.

Because worship is something God commanded—
not demanded, but commanded,
so that you need have no doubt that here God is for you,
regardless of what you have done,
however unworthy you feel,
however unchristian you have acted,
however filled with doubt or anything like faith you may be,
however empty and poor and worthless you may know yourself to be.

Here somebody will tell you it isn’t so.
Here somebody will tell you that,
despite whatever you think or feel
or are unable to think or feel or believe,
the truth is you are beloved,
you are a gift of God in this world,
you are forgiven,
you are loved and set free to love your neighbor as yourself.
Go in peace; serve the Lord.

On the Word

Ever searched for just the right word?
You know what it is,
it’s on the tip of your tongue,
you’ll think of it in a minute,
but you need it right now.

Because the right word can make all the difference,
it can communicate what you’re trying to say
to all those faces around you with quizzical looks
that can’t figure out what you’re getting at.

Words have that power,
that oh-I-get-it-now way
of creating what you want to communicate,
connecting your thought to another’s understanding.

You are finally known, if you are speaking.
Or if you’re listening,
a new world could open for you,
a relationship could expand,
a connection be created.

Communication can be difficult,
you struggle to be heard,
you can work so hard to be understood.
And it can be so worth it.

For Lutherans, the Word is central.
We talk about the Word of God in different ways.

First of all, the Word of God is a person:
Jesus Christ is God’s greatest communication,
God finally finding the right way to get across to us
the gracious love that forgives us and claims us.

The Word of God is also living and active,
convicting us of our brokenness and sin
while creating the new within us.

And the Word of God is just that—words on a page,
the particular pages of a particular book,
the Bible.

Through the words of scripture, we say,
“God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain
Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.”

In a word, the Word does something to you;
it is not static print on paper;
it is the way the Spirit of God
does to you what it says.

Sometimes a person will come out of worship and tell me,
“You were speaking right to me today; that was exactly what I needed to hear.”
Which is always a mystery to me,
and more often than not,
it happens when I think the sermon actually stunk today.

And maybe it did,
and maybe you walked out of the same service
still arguing inside with whatever was said,
not sure you believe it or want to.
Either way, you know you’re not in control,
and if it means anything or does anything,
it’s the Spirit that does the work.

Odd how that can happen … even in church.

If you can read scripture, or listen to it,
and not find yourself wrestling with it,
you probably didn’t get it.

The Bible can be a hard book to read,
not for the obscure parts you don’t understand,
but for the all too clear parts you do.

But stick with it, and something happens, God happens.

One of the foundational writings of the Lutheran reformation,
the Augsburg Confession,
says that you’ll know the church when you find it
because there the Word of God
is preached and the sacraments rightly administered.
That’s it, that’s the church in a nutshell:
a Word proclaimed with the power to shape you,

Because the Word isn’t something
we do or learn or memorize or follow or apply to our lives
(although it might also be all those things).

The Word is primarily something God does to us.
To read and study and listen to and come to know the scriptures
is to open oneself to an ever-active, God
and whatever God might do to you and for you and in you
an ever-creative God who with a word spoke the world into being,
who has never ceased to be an ever-creative God,
and who is not finished with you yet.


from the Treasure Valley Cluster of Churches
of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

This letter first appeared in two local Boise, Idaho papers, The Idaho Statesman and The Idaho Press on October 1, 2021Though we would wish it otherwise, it remains relevant, and we hope it will continue to be an encouragement for those who care for us, and for us to care for them.

In our daily work as pastors and faith community leaders, we have heard your stories, witnessed your frustration and tears, sat with you in your weariness.  This pandemic wears on us all, but we have seen that you bear a disproportionate burden.

We know that it is not just you; we share the same concern for teachers and many others.  But in these days when hospitals overflow and our health care system is so deeply strained, we want to express our appreciation and support for all of you who care for the health of others than yourselves.

We are moved by your dedication and sacrifice, your willingness to give of yourselves for the sake of others, the love of neighbor that pervades your daily work.  We are grateful that when you are discouraged by our disregard, you still show up to care for us.  We are inspired when we see that your commitment remains even when your zeal is lagging.

We want you to know we pray for you.  And we pledge to pray for you weekly in worship and daily in life.  You are not forgotten behind closed doors and hospital protocols. 

Because we want to protect you who protect us, we encourage our people to care for each other so you don’t have to.  We urge them all to be fully vaccinated as their public responsibility.  We ask them to do the things that should be second nature to us by now—wear a mask in public, practice safe distance, wash hands.

For us as Lutherans, health is not an individual possession but a shared endeavor.  We teach that “the health of the whole community is connected to each other’s health.  My health is related to yours; your health is related to mine. … we cannot be healthy by ourselves.” *

And, “it is a moral responsibility, grounded in loving the neighbor, to help each other attain good health through our ways of living together and through supporting those who provide all forms of health care services and healing.”  We believe that “governments have an obligation to provide or organize many of these services, but all services depend on active collaboration with the entire community.” *

We want to do everything we can to contain the spread of this virus and relieve the strain it has put on our hospitals, our health care systems, your offices and clinics, your co-workers and you, so we are happy to follow the guidance and even the mandates that serve us all and ask us to serve each other.

We want to see the day when all people feel safe to patronize restaurants, entertainment venues and public gatherings.  We are concerned for our schools, for struggling businesses, for those who are unemployed or underemployed due to this virus.  We want to see a flourishing economy and enjoy thriving social and cultural lives again with all our neighbors.

We recognize that protecting ourselves isn’t enough to make this happen; it will happen when we come together to create healthy communities.  None of us are safe until all of us are safe.

We do this not from fear, but because our faith compels us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Freed from self-centeredness, we strive to offer ourselves freely in love for others (Galatians 5:13-14).

In these times when caution and distance have so changed our lives, you are among the few who can and must – sometimes there is no other way to heal – touch us.  Your hands, however swaddled in PPE, your hands care for us.

May you be safe, may you be well, may you find peace in the strife, may you get some rest.

And may you know that there are others who care about you.

Pastor Meggan Manlove, Cluster Dean,
and the Congregation Council of
Trinity Lutheran Church, Nampa

Pastor Paul Olsen
and the Congregation Council of
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Boise

Pastor Mike Sager
and the Congregation Council of
Hope Lutheran Church, Eagle

Pastor Dave Deckard
and the Congregation Council of
Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, Boise

Pastor Connie Winter-Eulberg
and the Congregation Council of
King of Glory Lutheran Church, Boise

Pastor Paul Malek
and the Congregation Council of
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Ontario, OR

Pastor David Ernat
and the Congregation Council of
Redeemer Lutheran Church, Boise

Pastor Caryl Miller,
Grace Lutheran Church, Mountain Home

The Congregation Council of
Faith Lutheran Church, Caldwell

Deacon Diane McGeoch,
Learning Peace: A Camp for Kids, Nampa

Pastor Mia Crosthwaite, Boise

* Summary comments from Dr. Roger A. Willer, Director for Theological Ethics, Office of the Presiding Bishop, ELCA, regarding “Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor (CH:OSE),” a 2003 social statement on health, healing, and health care, © Evangelical Lutheran Church in America –

This letter appeared in the Idaho Statesman and in the Idaho Press on October 1, 2021.

October 29 2021

Eternal Spirit of the living Christ
I know not how to ask or what to say
I only know my need as deep as life,
and only you can teach me how to pray.
Come, pray in me the prayer I need this day…
(ELW #402)

Pray without ceasing, the apostle Paul told the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:17),
or as other translations have it, Pray constantly.

What in the world was he thinking?

That can’t mean walking around with your eyes closed,
bumping into things all the time.
It can’t mean muttering some petition
over and over under your breath.
Prayer can’t be that crazy.

Although there are some excellent spiritual practices that do just that—repeating throughout the day, as often as is possible the same short phrase, a phrase that keeps you centered on the presence of God in your life and in the world around you (like the ancient Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”; or centering prayer, which encourages the use of just one word that clears every distraction and brings your heart and mind back to focus on God).

But what if prayer never ceased for you?

What if prayer wasn’t just asking God for stuff?
What if prayer was the way you kept a relationship alive,
like the way you maintain your best relationships,
making time to talk about important things
or nothing at all in particular?

The way lovers do,
the sometimes quiet, sometime silent communication,
the shared presence of one another,
the comfort of being together?

The words you say, and the words you don’t say?
The way knowing you are there,
or will be, when we both get back home,
makes me less alone,
stronger somehow?

What if prayer was remembering
who you are and whose you are?

What if you got nothing out of prayer,
but you could give to it everything you’ve got,
every weight and every blessing?

What would it mean to live a life of prayer?

What would your like look like if your ‘prayer life’
wasn’t just relegated to a corner of your schedule
(on the days when it gets in there at all)?

What if everything you do was a prayer,
or formed by prayer,
addressed to God, consulted God,
lifted up to God, given to God …
before you ever did it, and while you’re doing it, and after it’s done?

What if every person you met became a prayer you offered?
What if you became the prayer someone else had been asking for?

What if prayer was just
thank you,
over and over again,
come what may,
thanks and thanks and thanks again,
for the good and for the bad,
because God must be in it somewhere,
and what good couldn’t come out of that?

What if prayer was the constant in your life,
in the midst of every inconstant thing?
The normal,
when you’ve lost the old normal,
and don’t yet know what the new normal will be?

What if prayer wasn’t something you did at all,
just the recognition of God praying in you,
the very Spirit of God
bearing witness with our spirit
that we are children of God
(Romans 8:16)?

October 22 2021

Would you give your church away?  I believe I have a taker if you will.  The Immanuel you know and love—what would you take in trade?  Could you part with it?

Because in many ways, you have, haven’t you?  If you were here in 2019, or even if you weren’t, nothing is quite the same anymore.  You worship online, or you worship in person, but either way, it’s different, not quite the same anymore, and church is not likely to ever be quite the same again.

But then, that’s true about just about everything in your life in these pandemic times.  You work at home, you wear a mask; you’re fully vaccinated (I hope) and yet wonder if you should get a booster; you gather, if you gather with others at all, cautiously. 

We live leery, cautious, testing the waters, wondering when it will be safe to go back in.  We grieve the loss of the normal, not quite sure what the new normal will be.  2020 was different, and 2021 different from 2020, and 2022 is unknown territory.

Yet in the midst of all this, dear Immanuel, others have wandered to your doorstep and found you.  Your Mission & Life Committee has found a community around you that is looking—longing—for a church that will be relevant to their needs and hopes.

They’d like a church perhaps like this one … if you are willing to give it away, they’d take you up on it.  They would love to be the new Immanuel.  It could be something you could build together; if you are willing to part with it, you might discover it anew.

When the pandemic chaos of these past couple of years begins to wear on me, I often think of the creation story in Genesis 1:  In the beginning, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters….

It is an ancient picture of chaos—that’s how creation begins.  A formless void—indistinct, uncertain, what-is-this-mess?  Darkness—with lights shining on everything, we forget how terrifying complete darkness is.  The face of the deep—whenever you read of the deep, the sea, the waters in scripture, there is danger: boats were small and flimsy, the sea was wild and unpredictable.

Creation begins with chaos.

I love the idea of God, brooding over this hopeless mess of things, and thinking, “Hmmm.  I could make something out of this!”  And God takes our chaos and begins to form order and beauty.

God creates a thing of beauty, and then calls us to be stewards of it—to enjoy it, first of all, and to love it and care for it, first of all.  And to share it, first of all. 

Imagine God,  brooding over this pandemic chaos, pondering the disruptions in your life and mine, picking up the pieces of our scattered normal, finding a church called Immanuel (which means, of course, ‘God with us’) that will never be the same again, and thinking what many of us find impossible to imagine:  “Hmmm…I could make something out of this!”

And then, creating something new out of us, something we have not yet imagined, something unexpected and maybe a little disturbing, even disruptive, maybe not what we wanted, something we cannot recognize—except as a thing of beauty.

The Mission and Life Committee has completed its work and is ready to report back on what they discovered.  A new Call Committee has been appointed by the Council.  This weekend, all three—Mission & Life, Call Committee, and Council—will spend Saturday morning workshoping together, trying to imagine what God could be doing among us.

No one knows what the new will be, but one thing is for sure:  The New Is Here!

“The New is Here!”

Immanuel’s Fall Emphasis
on Stewardship
and Spiritual Growth

In the midst of his own chaotic times, the apostle Paul saw an ever-creative God doing new things:

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:

everything old has passed away;

see, everything has become new!

(2 Corinthians 5:17)

In these times, believing God is doing a new thing with us, Immanuel is re-imagining its future, calling a new pastor, and calling its members to renew their commitment to their own spiritual growth and to the mission we share as God’s people in this time, in this place.

We invite you to be a part of The New Is Here!

our fall stewardship emphasis: 

a call to prayer, worship, the Word of God, financial giving, and service to others.

The New Is Here! Sunday Series:

Join us for worship, in person or online.

Sunday, November 7—Light Out of Darkness

Sunday, November 14—Love Urges Us On

Inside Immanuel Weekly Series:

October 22—Becoming a New Church

October 29—Prayer: Come Pray in Me

November 5—Word: And God Said

November 12—Worship: Beyond Boring

November 19—Service: For the Fun of It

November 25—Giving: When Less