Atlanta Lutheran Church, Ulen, MN

A parishioner told me about this church outside Ulen so my younger son and I went to find it one evening last week.  You can see Atlanta Lutheran from a long way off as its’ steeple rises high above the flat farmland that surrounds it.  It is a gorgeous building and the grounds and building are well kept even though the church sign says the congregation closed in 2001.  Established in 1878, this congregation still gathers for one service a year, usually in August around Ulen’s annual Turkey days.

IMG_3804[1]Sigh, I wish I had a master key that could unlock all these beautiful churches so I could go inside and take some pictures, too.

When it’s hard (a prayer for pastors)

Check out this beautiful, heartfelt prayer for pastors!

Martha Spong

simpsons_church_sign_closed_for_summerLord,
when it’s hard,
when the words do not come easily,
when the pews empty for summer,
when the night was short,
hear our prayer.

Lord,
when it’s sad,
when the hopes we had are dashed,
when the miracle does not occur,
when death comes despite our efforts,
hear our prayer.

Lord,
when it’s frustrating,
when we love process but the church does not,
when we thought it was a call, but no,
when we look for you but cannot see you,
hear our prayer.

Lord,
when it’s late,
when it’s too soon to say so,
when it’s early days but not really,
when it feels entirely futile,
hear our prayer.

Lord,
when it’s painful,
when we realize it’s a mismatch,
when we see there is nothing we can do,
when we wonder why you wanted us here,
especially then,
hear our prayer.

Then, Lord,
remind us
you cried out, “My…

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The Church

I spend a lot of time trying to understand the church.

There are so many things I love about the church.  Here, I will list just a few:

1.  I love the stained glass and the old architecture of churches.  When churches are busy and full of life, that is great, but I’m also partial to when the church is quiet and still and it is a place to pray and think.  This may be why I have always been partial to country churches.

2.  I love the quilting ladies and all they represent.  The fellowship that can be found among a group of women who come together and quilt is a lovely thing.  I like the simplicity of the process of making the Lutheran World Relief quilts – how the women find scraps of clothing that may be otherwise thrown away and they stitch them into pieces of art that are then sent around the world and help people in countless ways.

3.  I love when the congregation sings in harmony on a Sunday morning – or especially how it sounds when a group of pastors sing together.  There is little as lovely as a group of Lutheran pastors singing in four-part harmony.  I cry every time.

4.  I love funerals – and how the body of Christ gathers together to remember the person who has departed and support the people left behind.  I love how Christian people throughout time know that there is real comfort that comes along with the casseroles and plates of sandwiches brought to a grieving family.

5.  I love how the Holy Spirit can still surprise me and show up when I least expect it – on a Sunday morning when I am feeling tired or crabby, and yet something in the music or the scripture will still touch my heart and leave me feeling comforted, better, and whole.

6.  I love how the church has been a home for me as long as I can remember.  Church people have always loved me and embraced me and supported me all through the years of my life.

But there are many things about the church that frustrate me, too.  Here, I will list just a few:

1. I am frustrated that so many have not felt loved or embraced or supported by their churches and thus have given up on the idea that it is a place where worthwhile and wonderful things can happen.

2.  I am frustrated that church is seen as a destination.  At the same time that I love the architecture and the stained glass because of all it represents to me personally and historically, I know that the building isn’t the church, the people are the church.  And too often, we fall so in love with our church buildings and keeping them looking how we think they should look that we forget that we don’t need them. At the end of the day, church buildings are really only so much brick and wood and stone, they are not the living Word.  They will not save us. They cannot comfort or sustain us.  Too many church buildings have become, quite simply, false gods.

3. I am frustrated by apathy, mostly my own apathy.  Long ago, people regularly died for their faith. Now we can hardly get people to make sure their kids come on a confirmation retreat. Jesus and the disciples journeyed long and hard to preach the gospel.  My ministry looks more like this – I moan that church is a whole hour earlier now at my new church than it was at my last church.  When did I become such a spiritual cupcake?  I get frustrated with so much passionless faith I see around me and yet, too often I wonder what exactly has become of mine?  I’m comforted in my knowledge that doubt and faith go hand in hand and I trust that God is just as at work in fertile seasons of belief as well as in all our times of desert and questioning.  However, I can’t get over the unsettling wondering of just what Jesus would think of what we have built the church to be.

No one has said the church is perfect and I have seen incredibly good things happen because of and through the church. However, there are some days I think a lot about  what a church council president said to me long ago.  He said he thought it might be the best thing for the Christian church on earth if all the church buildings burned to the ground.  No longer would we be tied to all our edifices and trinkets.  We’d be forced to go out into the community, meet together in homes, remember that this faith we share is about so much more than a place.  We’d no longer be on the autopilot of “are these the paraments for this church season” and “are the bulletins ready for Sunday yet” and “how much was the offering for Sunday?”  None of those things would matter anymore and we could just get together and pray – in a park, in your back yard, by the lake, anywhere.

I can imagine Jesus entering into that kind of space a lot more easily than I can imagine him feeling comfortable in most any church building I have known.