Building Community Across Generations

Relationships across different generations are important in the church and in our communities. Increasingly, however, it seems like there are fewer opportunities for people of different ages to spend time together. Our communities can become segregated by age when our kids are in school and our elderly are in retirement communities or health care facilities. We may even develop harmful stereotypes about different age groups like teenagers or older adults. We know though that these relationships are meaningful, and I wonder how we can foster connections between people.

In my own life, when I was a young child, I had an adopted grandma at church named Clara. She was a widow in her 70s, but she took the time to get to know me. Clara remembered important things about me like my birthday and would listen to my stories. I would often walk over to Clara’s when I got bored at home or when I thought I needed a cookie.

When my family moved to a different town, Clara let me plant a tree in her backyard. Each time I came back to visit, she would take a picture of me next to the tree to show how much I had grown. The year before her death, Clara came to my wedding at the age of 98. She told me that day that she had been praying for me and was so happy that I had decided to go to seminary. Perhaps you have your own story of intergenerational friendship.

Intergenerational relationships can benefit everyone – children, youth, adults, elders, and whole communities. For example, the Intergenerational Center at Temple University reports that children and youth who were involved in intergenerational settings had improved self-esteem, improved involvement and behavior at school, and a greater understanding of their own history and context. Older adults reported enhanced life satisfaction, decreased isolation, and new skills from their interactions with young people. When generations learn from one another, families are supported and communities can grow stronger and more collaborative.

Churches seem to have a special opportunity to help foster intergenerational relationships in our communities. On a Sunday, you might see a 5 year-old and a 90 year-old sitting in the same pew. In my story, Clara was my friend from church, and she nurtured me in the faith. Every age of life has its own challenges, but every age also has its gifts. God calls us into relationships with people of all ages so that we might support and learn from one another. As Jesus says in John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I believe God calls us to be in community with people of all ages and to love them. We need each other through all of life’s seasons.

Note: This post originally appeared in the Brodhead Free Press and the Independent Register as part of their weekly “Pastor’s Corner” column.

Remember that We are Dust

Wednesday, February 18th is Ash Wednesday for many Christians around the world, so you may see people walking around with black crosses drawn on their foreheads. It’s a day when we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

In one of the great ironies of our church year, we always read from Matthew 6 on Ash Wednesday where Jesus admonishes us: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Maybe it seems a bit hypocritical that we piously and somberly wear black crosses on our forehead as a public sign on the same day Jesus tells us not be show offs about our faith.

This kind of thing used to bother me, but now it feels like another one of those holy paradoxes of the Christian life. One of the most common criticisms of Christianity is that we are a bunch of hypocrites, that we may act “holier than thou” but underneath we are just like everyone else. As evidence, people will point to the countless examples of Christians who have sinned publicly or harmed others.

Ash Wednesday is all about confessing our sin, brokenness, and limitations, so it is as good a day as any to tell the truth about ourselves. The truth is all Christians will act like hypocrites from time to time. Any sin you find in the world you will find in the history of the church at some point. This is why we seek forgiveness over and over. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” as Romans 3:23 says. Or as a popular saying describes it, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Every one of us must rely on God’s grace.

The remarkable thing that Christians confess is not that we live our lives more perfectly than anyone else, but that God’s grace and goodness works in our lives and world despite our sin. The remarkable thing is that God chooses to work through imperfect people like us. If we are living as a holy people, it is not because we have earned it through squeaky-clean behavior and perfect attendance. We are a holy people because the holy God loves us. It’s all grace.

Perhaps this is why we need a day like Ash Wednesday. The invitation for us on this day is not to show off our piety, but to confess our sin and limitations. We remember that our whole life is a gift from God, that God formed us from dust and breathed life into us. We remember that God’s holiness comes to us even through sinful and imperfect people. People may let us down, but God will not abandon us.

Note: This post originally appeared in the Brodhead Free Press and the Independent Register as part of their weekly “Pastor’s Corner” column.

Prayer and Community

In my experience, there’s more interest and curiosity about prayer than there are about other aspects of the life of faith. Compared to mysterious rituals or seemingly dusty dogmas, maybe it’s that prayer feels more accessible or personal. Maybe it’s that we all have moments where we just want to cry out at someone or say thank you to something bigger than ourselves.

Furthermore, prayer is an act that’s clearly not unique to the Christian faith. People of different religions from all over the world share this behavior of prayer, even if we direct our prayers to different deities. Even if we have other differences of understanding, Jews, Muslims, and Christians all pray to the God of Abraham. And for the people in our culture who identify as spiritual-but-not-religious, prayer may have special appeal.

I was thinking about this diversity and commonality that we find in the practice of prayer after a recent encounter I had with a stranger. I was wearing my clergy collar, which I think sparked our brief conversation. A man whom I hadn’t met before came up to me to say, “You know you don’t have to go to church in order to pray.” I think he expected me to disagree with him, and I was saddened that this individual expected me to be judgmental about his faith life. When it comes to prayer, who am I to judge? I have my own questions and ongoing conversation with God. Later I wondered more about this person’s story, but our meeting was brief.

This encounter got me reflecting again on how, where, and why we pray. On the one hand, it’s pretty clear that this man was right. You don’t have to go to church to pray. People (and not just Christians) pray in all different kinds of places. From a Christian perspective, the Bible seems to invite us to pray in any time, place, or situation. For example, in Psalm 139, the psalmist wonders where he can flee from God’s presence. He concludes that wherever he goes God is with him. The psalmist writes, “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely” (Psalm 139:4).

On the other hand, my experience of prayer in community is different from the man I met. I have found a lot of power in corporate times of prayer. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer during a church service, for example, I think of how that prayer unites me with Christians all over the world and throughout the centuries. I join others in saying “Our Father” and not just “My Father.” It’s also meant a lot to be a part of a community that supports one another through intercessory prayer – that is, praying on one another’s behalf. When a loved one is sick or you find yourself in crisis, it can be a powerful experience to hear your name prayed out loud in a community. Likewise, you can be drawn out of yourself as you pray for the concerns of another person. In my life, I’ve need both times of private prayer and times of communal prayer. The two aren’t opposed to one another, but feed off each other.

I know that my experience is not everyone’s experience, but I do think prayer is an important point of dialogue in a diverse world. We will have many differences of experience and perspective, but we can learn a lot about each other’s stories by the way we pray.

Note: This post originally appeared in the Brodhead Free Press and the Independent Register as part of their weekly “Pastor’s Corner” column.

Holiness in Extending Welcome

Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” I’ve been thinking about this verse, because I have so appreciated the warm welcomes and hospitality I’ve received as a newcomer to this area. I am the new pastor at Orfordville Lutheran Church and the newest addition to “The Pastor’s Corner.” Since moving here, people have invited us into their homes, fed us, shown us around, and shared their stories. As a stranger to these parts, I am so thankful for this kindness.

Now, to be clear, I am not confusing myself for an angel (by no means!) as in this verse from Hebrews, but I do believe something holy is at work when we extend welcome to people we do not know and to those who are different from ourselves. Something holy happens when strangers are transformed into friends.

Instead, we are often taught to fear the stranger and those who are different from ourselves. We begin dividing the world into us and them, theirs and ours, insider and outsider. We can fall into the trap of surrounding ourselves only with people who look like us, think like us, and share the same experiences as us. For example, according to a 2013 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, 75% of white Americans do not have any close friends who are people of color. Divided by race or economic class or life experience, we remain strangers. Also, in our politically divided country and state, we seem to have ceased listening to one another across party lines. If we choose, we can surround ourselves only with those people and media outlets that share our political views. Instead of listening to the story and experience of a stranger, we stick to our own.

The biblical value of hospitality stands in stark contrast to this fear. Throughout the Bible, God calls us to show hospitality beyond our friends, family, and national boundaries. In Deuteronomy 10:19, for example, God commands, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” When we remember those times where we’ve been outsiders ourselves, we may find compassion for those on the edges of our communities. In the New Testament, Jesus says that whenever we welcome the stranger it is as if we are welcoming him (Matthew 25: 31-40).

What do we miss when we neglect to show hospitality to strangers, when we stick only to what’s comfortable? We might miss a holy encounter. God calls us beyond our fears into daring hospitality. In the process, we might entertain angels unknowingly or encounter the presence of Christ in the face of another. As a recent newcomer, I know the power of feeling welcomed, and I feel challenged to extend that welcome to others. I truly look forward to getting to know the people and communities of our new home.

Note: This post originally appeared in the Brodhead Free Press and the Independent Register as part of their weekly “Pastor’s Corner” column.