Monday, May 17, 2010

Jesus Is My Life’s Gardener

By Luann Albanese

I used to feel intimidated about tending to plants and flowers, but a friend of mine gave me all sorts of information and websites to read on plants and flowers.

Last year I planted several perennials and was unsure of what would become of them after I cut them back and pruned them.  Well, to my surprise, they came back bigger and more beautiful than the year before. Watching them slowly peeking through the soil these past couple of month has been a joy for me.  I will love and nurture them with water and fresh soil, removing weeds to give them room to breathe and grow.  This made me think of us humans and Jesus being our gardener. When we are feeling lost, sad or dead inside, Jesus comes to us, as imperfect as we are, and nurtures us with his Love and Grace and we are alive again through Him.Tags:

Friday, May 14, 2010

Report from the 23rd Annual Assembly of the New Jersey Synod (ELCA) May 7-8, 2010

By John Page

Zion, Rahway sent three voting members to the Synod Assembly this year: Pr. Whitlock, Anita Waldron, and John Page.  The Assembly met at the Brunswick Hilton in East Brunswick, with business sessions from 9:30am to 9:30pm on Friday (May 7) and from 8:15am to noon on Saturday (May 8).

Meetings of the Assembly typically include worship and music; presentation of reports; debates over resolutions brought by individuals and congregations of this synod; greetings, and sometimes requests for action, from Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson or his personal representative; elections to various offices in the Church; topical hearings on current events or initiatives of the Church; sharing a common meal together with a special guest speaker; and by God’s grace, a celebratory reception of new congregations to this synod.  In what follows, I’ll only touch on a few of the many events and reports that made an impression on me, but the full collection of reports delivered to the Assembly may be viewed/downloaded at the Synod website.

This year, the two-man band Dakota Road – the people who brought us the Kyrie we’ve been singing during Lent and Easter – led us in song throughout the Assembly.  As we know from their Kyrie in ELW setting 8 of Holy Communion, their music is contemporary and accessible to singers of any skill or experience.  Their lyrics are firmly rooted in the Lutheran understanding of God’s love and grace, and in the ELCA’s particular understanding of the consequences of God’s love and grace – our call to be faithful stewards of all that God has entrusted to our care, and to be reconciled with one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, loving and serving all of our neighbors in their needs with the same self-sacrificing love that Christ modeled for us. 

Bishop Riley’s report focused on the topic of the “identity” of our Church in the midst of change and uncertainty.  He referenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem Who Am I?, written in the midst of the martyr’s own struggle with identity under adverse and deadly circumstances.  Just as Bonhoeffer concluded, so too Bishop Riley called us to acknowledge that our identity is always rooted in God’s claim upon our lives.  God’s claim establishes who we are, and we share a common identity with all whom God has called by name in every generation and in every place.  We articulate our identity by confessing our faith in the Triune God, in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and in the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe; by affirming that we receive the Word of God in the person of Jesus Christ (the Word incarnate), in the proclamation of God’s message as both Law and Gospel, and in the written witness of that message in the inspired Scriptures, which provide the authoritative source and norm for this Church’s proclamation, faith, and common life.  We profess the faith of the ancient church, recorded in the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, and we embody our faith when we gather around Word and Sacrament for worship and nurture, to be empowered, equipped, and sent for service to this broken world. 

Knowing our identity has practical consequences.  We are uniquely gifted for ecumenical fellowship with diverse Christian traditions, embracing in fellowship and full communion sisters and brothers from the Anglican, Reformed, Methodist, and Moravian traditions, and earnestly pursuing dialogue and deeper understanding with Christians in the Roman and Orthodox traditions.  We are committed to ministry with children and youth; to public witness as a worshipping community and as advocates for justice and peace; to theological reflection, discernment, and education; and to the Christian vocations of every baptized member of the body of Christ. 

As a Synod, we continue to support mission initiatives throughout our state: Pilgrim Journey in Elizabeth (Portuguese/English-speaking outreach); Santa Isabel in Elizabeth (Spanish-speaking outreach); Nava Jeevan in Kendall Park (Tamil/English outreach); Waterfront in Jersey City (outreach to young adults in an emerging church form); God With Us in Jackson Township (a new start); a Cranford-based outreach to differently-abled persons and their families; Spanish-speaking outreach by St. John in Passaic; Asian Indian outreach in partnership with St. Paul in Jersey City; and the ongoing strategic mission to the city of Camden in partnership with Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey, the Camden congregations of Grace, Christus, and Bridge of Peach, New Visions community services, and key suburban congregations in Camden and Burlington counties.

In the midst of change and uncertainty – when some are wracked by anxiety and lash out in frustration – when our detractors presume to define our identity with disparagement and contempt – when some seek to rend this church in pious outrage – we are called to remember who we are in Christ Jesus.  St. Paul reminds us that even when the whole creation groans in labor pains, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us “with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26)  “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28)  We know that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:39)  We know who we are because of God’s love; and in our faith, proclamation, and deeds, we embody the good news of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.

The Rev. Wyvetta Bullock, the ELCA’s Executive for Administration, brought us greetings from Presiding Bishop Hanson and introduced us to the ELCA’s Living Into the Future Together (LIFT) initiative.  This initiative invites all of us to intentionally think about the ELCA’s call to mission in light of our identity and the changes we see happening in our mission environment – our local communities, states, nation, and world.  The Presiding Bishop, the Church Council, and the Conference of Bishops collaborated to appoint a task force to work on developing and recommending options for the future of our Church.  The LIFT Task Force will engage congregations, synod meetings, and other gatherings of the church in conversations, and will invite us all individually to participate using 21st Century social networking tools as well (Facebook, Twitter, websites, and email).  Two specific questions will guide the conversations: What is God calling this church to be and to do in the future? What changes are in order to help us respond most faithfully?  More information is available at the LIFT website.

This year’s Assembly offered five different topical hearings: Namibia and New Jersey Lutherans Walking Together; Book of Faith Initiative; American Images of Muslims; Children of Bosnia; and Poverty in New Jersey, State Government, the Church’s Voice.  I attended the hearing Book of Faith Initiative, hosted by the Rev. Paul Lutz of Prince of Peace Church in Princeton Junction and our synod’s Book of Faith Advocate.  We participated in an exercise demonstrating a “no preparation necessary” method of reading, digesting, interpreting, and discussing passages from Scripture.  This is but one of many different ways groups of people might approach Scripture which does not require that the participants have any particular background or expertise in biblical studies (notwithstanding the expression no preparation necessary, the facilitator of the group study is prepared to facilitate conversation, but need not teach, per se).  The whole idea of the Book of Faith initiative is to help ALL people in the church become more fluent in the first language of faith, the witness of Scripture.  Beginning with Martin Luther himself, Lutherans have always maintained that we meet Christ in the witness of Scripture; dwelling in the Word of God means dwelling in the presence of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, as we receive the written Word of witness.  Here at Zion, we participate in this initiative through weekly Bible study and by our congregation’s enrollment in the Book of Faith Forum online.   

Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey may be one of the best kept secrets of our church’s mission and ministry in this state, but the work we do for our neighbors in need through this inter-Lutheran agency has extraordinary and far-reaching consequences for peoples’ lives.  In 2009, LSMNJ served nearly 5,000 people through a diversified social ministry program, including community outreach, adoptions, immigration and refugee programs, homeless shelters, residential services, special needs housing, affordable family housing, senior housing, senior health care, and a continuing care retirement community.  As part of the LSMNJ report to the Assembly, we watched the short video Heroes of Hope, a compelling and inspiring documentary of an amazing accomplishment and ongoing services to the people of Camden.  Additional information and videos can be found at the LSMNJ website.

Cross Roads Camp & Retreat Center reported that their new adult retreat center, The Christ Center, will open this summer and already has booked guests.  This new facility is specifically designed for adults who prefer more comfortable and private accommodations, and features 16 private bedrooms with baths (accommodating up to 30 people at a time), three spacious meeting rooms, three outdoor decks, and a common kitchen.  Located in Lebanon Township, NJ (about an hour’s drive from Rahway), Cross Roads is a welcoming, ecumenical retreat center and camp of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark and the NJ Synod of the ELCA.  We are invited to visit the facilities and participate in their annual Volunteer Day on May 22 from 10am to 4pm (lunch provided).

For three consecutive years, the New Jersey Synod has welcomed a new member congregation.  This year, Elect Saints Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hamilton joined our family.  This congregation began as a Pentecostal church in Trenton under the leadership of Pr. Agnes Gbardoe, with a mission to serve Liberian and other West African immigrants.  In 2001, the congregation established a mission in a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana with a current membership of over 150 persons.  In 2005, they established a second mission congregation in Liberia, and in 2006 they founded the Martha C. Johnson Little Saints Orphanage, also in Liberia.  Pr. Gbardoe approached the New Jersey Synod expressing interest in joining the ELCA, and in 2007, Elect Saints became a synodically approved worshipping community of our synod.  Their congregation has about 125 members worshipping in their current home in Hamilton, but through their mission work, they count over 2,000 baptized members globally.  After years of study, reorganization, and preparations, Elect Saints Evangelical Lutheran Church was welcomed as a full member of the New Jersey Synod on Saturday, May 8.  Their reception was accompanied by enthusiastic singing and sustained applause!  Their proven record of committed mission work and outreach is an inspiration to all of us.