A centennial celebration is a significant day…a milestone in the life of a congregation. And on this important day, to mark this milestone, I have written a letter, which I would like to share with you.
The letter is addressed to my successor, the senior pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Owatonna, Minnesota for the celebration of the congregation’s 200th anniversary, Sunday, April 30, the year of our Lord, 2119, here at the Four Seasons Centre. (We already booked the room.) Here it is:
Dear Pastor fill-in-the-blank,
I hope this letter finds you well, and that God is continuing to bless you, and the good people of Trinity.
As I write this letter, 100 years in your past, we are gathered to celebrate Trinity’s centennial. As a matter of fact, right now, I am literally standing in the pulpit at the festival worship service. No really, I am. Here, I’ll prove it to you. (everybody smile!). . I’m attaching this photo:
I’m writing to you today because I really wish that Pastor A. Elmer Moe, Trinity’s first pastor in 1919, had written me a letter 100 years ago.
I want to know what he, and the rest of Trinity’s leadership was thinking when the congregation was formed. In 1919, when that group of feisty women gathered to talk about their children learning the faith in their native language, English, what were those women thinking? Did they ever anticipate that 100 years later, we would be gathered here, because of them?
When they went to their churches and asked if there could be a worship service in English, or confirmation taught in English, and were told “no” (because of course as we all know, God only spoke Norwegian) what went through these women’s minds?
When Pastor Elmer Moe moved his family here from the town of Lyle, to become pastor for this little group of renegades, what was he thinking?
When they went out on a limb, and bought the old Universalist church building on the corner of Main and Elm, for the astronomical price, of $17,500, what were they thinking?
Of course, we’ll never know. There are records of actions. There are documents and the count of votes. But there are no records of their hopes and dreams. Pastor Moe did not write me, his successor, a letter, outlining how he hoped that Trinity would grow as a congregation.
Of course, it was a completely different world in 1919. As I prepared for this Trinity100 celebration, I did some research:
- In 1919, the average life expectancy was 55 years. In 2019, we live on average until age 79
- In 1919, only 14% of homes had a bathtub
- In 1919, the average US wage was $.22 an hour
- The American flag had only 45 stars in 1919
- The population of Owatonna, in 1919 was 7,200. As a point of comparison, the population of Las Vegas, Nevada was 2,700. Which means, Owatonna was the big city and Vegas was the hick town
Things have changed a lot in 100 years. A lot. And the pace of change seems to be increasing, every single day.
So pastor, I’m curious:
- What is Owatonna like in 2119?
- What is the population?
- What do you do for fun?
- What does Trinity’s building look like?
- Are the people of Trinity still generous?
- Are they still faithful?
- Is Matt Kottke still running the jewelry store?
These are things that I wonder.
There are some things I’ve learned that I think might be helpful for you. Call this my advice from me to you…from your past, to our future.
First this: In my office…now your office…it gets pretty cold in the winter. If you whack on the thermostat a couple times before turning it up, it seems to work a little better. Just a tip. You’re welcome.
Second: As you, pastor, prepare for Trinity’s bicentennial celebration, remember to honor your past, but to live into your future
You can look back on what the church has done in the past; but remember that while the past is always a good place to visit, it is never a good place to live. There is a difference between memory, and nostalgia. Memory is great. That’s why we’re here today. We celebrate our history and God’s work within it. But nostalgia… nostalgia kills the church. It does. We cannot live into the future if we spend our time and energy longing for the past.
God’s mission is never behind us; it is always in front of us. Look ahead…trust in God who promises to be with you…make your plans…and leap. It is what Trinity has been doing for 100 years.
Third: Keep building the faith of the young. Passing along the faith from generation to generation is about building the present and the future. Trinity has always been a church that has cared for our young people. Remember that in 1919, when we were formed by the Holy Spirit working through that group of women, their goal was to make sure their kids could practice their faith in English. This church was formed because of children, and youth.
Trinity is a stronger church when the faith of our young people is strong. And the future of Christ’s church in this place is secure, if we continue to form faith in people of all ages. Pastor…never stop investing in ministry that forms faith, especially in the young.
Fourth: Listen for God’s voice in the midst of the noise. I don’t know what life is like for you right now, pastor. But here, in 2019, we live in a distracting age. We are surrounded by noise and interruptions, and it is easy to lose track of God’s voice.
In our Gospel text today from John, the Jewish people surround Jesus and they say: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe…”
Jesus goes on to compare us to sheep. He says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Pastor, I don’t know if the job of “shepherd” still exists in 2119, but I spoke once with a sheep farmer in North Dakota. And I asked him about this image that Jesus used, and he laughed and said to me, “yeah, sheep are pretty dumb. They are easily distracted. And they will learn only one voice…maybe two. So,” he said, “when they hear my voice, it gets their attention, and they follow.” He pointed to me and said, “If you were to stand next me and shout the exact same thing to them, it’s like they don’t even hear you because they don’t know your voice.”
Pastor, our hope is that God’s voice is so loud, and so clear, that you cannot help but follow. We have tried to listen. Usually we have heard God’s voice; sometimes we may have missed it. But always we have believed that God speaks to God’s people because of great love. God loves our people deeply and unconditionally. Our prayer is that you and your congregation are equally confident in God’s love; and that God’s voice is crystal clear to you, and that you follow your Good Shepherd.
So pastor, to review, these are my words of advice for you:
- Tap your thermostat
- Look back, but live forward
- Form faith in the young as well as the…less young
- Listen for God’s voice; oh…and
One last thing.
Pastor, please know that you are in our prayers today. Today is April 28th, 2019. You won’t even be born for probably 4, 5, 6 or even 7 decades from the time I write this. But we have faith that right now, God knows who you are. And God knows and has plans and purpose for you, as Jesus does for all his sheep.
And so, we trust God, and we pray for you, and we pray for the people of Trinity in 2119.
Because even though Pastor A. Elmer Moe may not have written me a letter, I know that he, and the people who formed this congregation were thinking and dreaming about the future. They saw a new vision. They tapped into God’s imagination, and they believed God had a mission that they could fulfill. They were looking ahead. They were praying for the future. They were praying for us.
And so today, we do the same. We pray for you and your people. We entrust you, and this church, and our future, fully to God.
Life is good here in 2019, pastor, and we are blessed. Trinity is a good church; a strong church. It is faithful and generous; it serves, and it is growing. And we know that God imagines something new for us. And we’re curious about what that future holds.
But trusting in God and following the Shepherd’s voice, we know that Trinity’s best days are yet to come.
Thanks be to God!