Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas 2009

We can hardly believe that another year has come and gone here at the Ullestad home. Life just keeps racing past us, and Christmas reminds us to slow down and enjoy the blessings that surround us. Although many details of our daily lives remained the same in 2009, there have been some changes in the last 12 months, especially for the Ullestad children.

Anna (6) is in the first grade at Crossroads Park Elementary School. She is thriving in first grade, and it is very clear that she loves to learn. She has spent many nights reading in bed before she falls asleep, and we often hear her “teaching” to her imaginary classroom. This spring, Anna finished 1st place in the 50 meter dash and 3rd place in the 100 meter dash at the Tom Karpan Relays in WDM. She also placed 2nd place in her school’s 100 meter dash for kindergarteners. She is starting to beg Mom to teach her the basics of volleyball and learned that she really can hit a softball if she practices! Anna attended Twirl Camp this summer through the WDM Parks and Recreation Department and even marched 3 miles in the pouring rain in the WDM Independence Day Parade with her instructor and other camp mates as they did their baton twirling routine. She continues to sing in our church’s Cherub Choir and will soon be starting piano lessons if she twists Mom’s arm enough. As you may notice from the picture, Anna has a couple of “windows” in her smile, something she is very proud of, and she loved that she resembled a Jack-o-Lantern this Halloween!

Isaac (5) attends pre-school at Shepherd’s Flock Early Learning Center in WDM four mornings a week. He, too, loves to learn and is going to be more than ready to start kindergarten in the fall. As always, he still likes Superman, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars; however, he has added a few new infatuations this year. He is currently enthralled with Michael Jackson and can even accurately imitate quite a few of his signature moves, including the moon walk! He is very much into sharks and ocean creatures, a further advancement of his liking of Nemo. He can identify more types of fish than either of his parents! Isaac also sings in the Cherub Choir at church and has some pretty fancy moves on his toy electric guitar. He continues to love playing baseball, basketball and football, something he and Dad often can be found doing outside. Our favorite “Isaacism” of the year came when he and Anna were playing a game of carpet ball at church. Anna accused him of cheating, and he responded, “It’s not cheating, Anna. It’s called domination!”.

Evan (2) has had quite a year of changes, too. After a 3 day hospital stay last winter, we realized how fragile little lives can be. His bout with a bad stomach virus didn’t keep him down very long, though. Evan no longer is our baby, both in features and in personality. He still loves to make his sister and brother laugh and is quite silly most of the time. He really is a loving child and will never shy away from a hug request! He has become quite the talker and will often know when the appropriate time for conversation occurs. Evan is the one at the dinner table that always reminds us to talk about our best and worst parts of the day, although his may reflect an event that happened weeks ago! We are happy to announce that Evan is completely toilet-trained, a big accomplishment not only for him, but also for us as parents as, after 6 1/2 years of keeping the diaper businesses flourishing, we will not be needing their products any more! Evan still loves Elmo, but when Mom asked him what he wants to be when he grows up, he responded, “A dinosaur!”.

Erik has had a year filled with several trips for his ministry at Windsor Heights Lutheran. This past summer, he led a 12-day-long trip to Jackson, MS, and New Orleans with close to 25 other youth and adults. Like them, he came back inspired by what he encountered and learned on the journey and continues to encourage the youth to take that knowledge and inspiration further here in the Des Moines metro area. He has also led or chaperoned retreats for junior high and high school students at various places in Iowa and Minnesota. Erik continues to write for Augsburg Fortress Publishing and is thankful for this creative outlet. He is thankful that these jobs allow flexibility for those special moments in life. Earlier this fall, Erik was honored with an award from Thrivent Financial for his excellence in youth ministry and service. Along with this award came his appointment as the Youth Director on the Southwest Polk County Chapter Thrivent Board. He is excited by the possibilities that lie ahead with this volunteer position!

Allison continues her work as the Youth Recreation Coordinator for the West Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department. She feels blessed to have a job that lets her creative juices flow and affords her some flexibility in making sure that she's still available for the important moments in the children’s lives. She is finding that marketing, specifically using digital media, is becoming a niche for her at work and is challenged by finding the newest ways to get information out to the general public. Allison has been leading worship at Windsor Heights Lutheran on a more consistent basis and joined the church’s worship committee this past winter. Although many challenges still arise with this membership, she has realized how important faith can be in the midst of trials. When time allows, Allison still enjoys painting folk art, sewing little crafts, and plays volleyball one night a week. She has become of bit of a collector of antiques, specifically Currier and Ives dishware and crockery. When she get a quick moment, Allison often peruses the aisles of the local flea market to find little hidden treasures!

On the home front, Erik and Allison spent many hours and used lots of elbow grease to re-landscape the back yard this summer. Both they and the kids are quite pleased with the results. When they aren’t mowing or raking leaves, they enjoy as much time as possible playing outside with the kids or relaxing with the neighbors on their back porch. The children’s babysitter remains a big part of their lives, and they have become quite attached to her.

We found it necessary to purchase a new van this spring, as the old “Silver Bullet” started to demonstrate her age. We really are enjoying the many features that our new van has but still have not come up with a name for it yet!

Our church has called a new lead pastor who started this month. Everyone, including Erik, is thrilled with this development and can’t wait to start a new chapter in the church’s history.

Know that in the Christmas season and throughout the year, you are always in our thoughts and prayers. Although we often fail miserably at expressing how important you are to us, we are so blessed to be a part of your lives and to have you in ours. If you ever are in the Des Moines metro area, feel free to stop by. We’d love to have you! We can’t promise that you will leave feeling refreshed or relaxed, but we will help you to all the more appreciate those quieter moments in life!

May the spirit of Christmas bring you peace,

The gladness of Christmas give you hope,

The warmth of Christmas grant you love.

Erik, Allison, Anna, Isaac and Evan Ullestad

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Pastoral Letter

Much has been made of the Northeastern Iowa Synod Council’s expression of disapproval toward the votes on ministry policies from the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. (For more details on these resolutions and 60+ reader comments, check out Pretty Good Lutherans.)

I have followed the reaction to the synod council’s vote with more than a passing interest, as my dad is the bishop in that synod. One of the most curious responses has been from folks wondering “why is the bishop silent?" For many, the underlying implication is “if the bishop made this decision, why isn’t he explaining it to congregations?" I suppose it’s a reasonable question for people who are unaware of the role of bishop. The reality is this -- ELCA bishops cannot make unilateral declarations of synod-wide ministry policies or roster status. They work within the framework of decision-making bodies (typically committees and councils that are 60% lay and 40% clerty) to uphold good order within the roster of pastors and other leaders.

In the same way that the sexuality votes at CWA were more about scripture than sexuality, the months afterward have mostly been about teaching people the intricacies of how our church functions. Bishop Ullestad attempts to clarify some of these things in a “pastoral letter” that he sent to the congregations in NE Iowa. The full text is below. Comments and reflections are invited.

December 4, 2009

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Grace to you and peace in this season of Advent anticipation and hope.

At its November 14, 2009 meeting, the synod council passed two resolutions in response to the actions of the churchwide assembly votes on ministry policies and the social statement on Human Sexuality. These resolutions were passed after thoughtful conversation by a majority vote. The resolution addressing the "bound conscience" clause of the churchwide resolutions was adopted by a vote of 10 in favor, 5 opposed and 1 abstention. The memorial requesting that the ELCA church council repudiate and rescind the actions of the churchwide assembly passed by a vote of 8 in favor, 6 who were opposed and 2 abstentions. Both resolutions have been sent to all rostered persons in our synod.

We have received several responses to the actions of the synod council. There are those who are grateful for the resolutions and others that are experiencing deep pain due to the votes. Some are asking questions about the authority of the synod council to pass such resolutions while many are asking about the implications for local congregations in the call process, the candidacy committee and the decisions that are made by the bishop. The resolutions test the implications of the churchwide decisions for our synod. I have been asked by those who oppose the decisions and by those who support the decisions to "make a ruling" in this regard. I have chosen not to do so for the following reasons.

We are Lutherans. We believe that the Christian faith and the implications of the Gospel have not simply been given to the church through an unbroken chain charted back to St. Peter. We believe that the Gospel and its implications for our daily lives have been given to all who confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Consequently, it is the calling of the people of God and not the bishop or Conference of Bishops to determine the ethics of the church. That is why we engage the whole church in the development of social statements and have votes by those who have been elected by the people, the laity and pastors of the churchwide assembly and synod council, in order to determine the policies of the church. An individual bishop, The Conference of Bishops, any unit of the churchwide office and the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA have no legislative authority in this regard. It is the vote of the people that makes this determination.

The people of God, assembled in Minneapolis, determined that local congregations would decide whether or not they wished to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable couples who are in life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships. The church, gathered at the churchwide assembly, also decided to allow for "structured flexibility" in determining whether or not persons in such relationships could be approved for ordination and serve as pastors. The language of the resolutions makes provision for the "bound conscience" of "any congregation, candidacy committee, synod or bishop.”

In the same way that some synods and congregations have voted in the past to be "Reconciling in Christ" synods or congregations, our synod council has voted to continue the traditional standards for ordination and the calling of a pastor. This resolution will be brought to the 2010 Synod Assembly for consideration.

Our synod will now be engaged in conversations about what this means for our life together. What is meant by the churchwide assembly’s action that allows for the bound conscience of a candidacy committee and a synod? Is the action of the synod council and potential action of the synod assembly, a higher authority than the local congregation's authority to call any pastor that it chooses who is on the roster of the ELCA? Is a decision of the synod council or synod assembly a higher authority than the bound conscience of any individual that is serving on the candidacy committee? Standards of discipline for rostered persons are churchwide policies and not synodical. Does the action of the synod council add to, change or challenge those policies, or is it subservient to them?

The resolution passed by the synod council "encourages" the synod bishop to maintain the traditional standards for the roster. If a congregation chooses to call a pastor in a "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same gender relationship", does the bishop have the authority to refuse to sign such a call? If a bishop's signature on a letter of call simply "attests" to an ELCA congregation calling an ELCA pastor and does not indicate an approval or appointment by the bishop, on what basis would a bishop not sign a call? If a bishop’s “bound conscience” would be the basis for such a decision, is that a greater power than a congregation’s call?

My concern continues to be the theology of the church in the midst of this very important conversation. I have asked that we consider a Lutheran understanding of scripture, the manner in which we embrace dialectical tension in our theology and the importance for any consideration to be grounded in scripture and the theology of the church.

I believe that pastors, whether serving in the office of bishop or in congregations, are the "spiritual parents" for the community of faith. As that parent for our synod, it is important for me to allow the family to be engaged in this conversation within certain parameters. I will not solve this problem for our synod or church. I will help to maintain the boundaries of the conversation, reminding us of our theology, the implications for the eighth commandment, and the powerful witness of our oneness in Christ in the midst of difficult and challenging times.

Families have been destroyed because they could not find a way to have a conversation on the topic of homosexuality. This is our opportunity to provide a witness to them about how we can remain one in Christ, share our deep faith convictions and remain together for the sake of Christ's mission in the world.

It is my fervent prayer that we will continue to trust the people of God with making decisions about the ministry of their congregations and our church. We remember together that there is nothing that will separate us from the love of God, that our unity in Christ is greater than any disagreement and that none of us will do anything to injure or weaken the remarkable mission of our church. I have no question, that the depth and breadth of that mission is unmatched. I will be working to continue to strengthen our church even further.

Thank you for joining me in that calling.

Your Partner in Mission,

The Rev. Dr. Steven L. Ullestad