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The Christ depicted on the wall behind the raised, carved-wood pulpit at Grace Lutheran is Christus Rex: crucified, but clad in priestly robes; glorified, but still hung upon the cross that won his glory. But the Christ on the cross above the altar is very much the Sacrificial Victim -- stripped and wretched as He suffers for the sins of the world. This was the Christ referred to in "Jesus, Refuge of the Weary," which we sang over the blare of the organ as we turned and watched Pastor Wallace Turner process into the church with his cross- and candle-bearers: " Do we pass that cross unheeding/ Breathing no repentant vow/ Though we see Thee wounded, bleeding/ See Thy thorn-encircled brow?"

This was the Christ that Turner faced, his back to the people, as he stood before the altar and led the confession: "Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.... We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment."

The dependence on Christ's mercy was stressed again in the collect before the readings: "You see that of ourselves we are completely powerless. By Your mighty power defend us from all adversities that may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul."

But what followed suggested that even if "we are completely powerless," we are still obliged to respond to Christ. First, in the readings from the Old Testament and the Epistles of Paul -- God's promise to Abraham that "I will make my covenant between me and you and will make you exceedingly numerous," and Paul's emphasis that Abraham's response, his faith in God's promise, "was reckoned to him as righteousness." And Christ Himself demanded a response in the Gospel: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."

Turner called "the children" to the front of the church; besides the servers, about six little ones approached and sat on the steps of the sanctuary. Turner blew a whistle and reminded the children that when a referee blows his whistle after a time-out, "it means, 'Get back in the game! The rest period is over!' Jesus blows the whistle and says, 'Get into the game of life! You've got to forget about your own selves and do something.' I think we as Christians can huddle together and discuss all kinds of things, but we don't get out into life. Serve somebody, help somebody, do something to help your parents."

The Word was preeminent at the service; Grace Lutheran distributes Communion only on the first and third Sundays of the month. For the Gospel, Pastor Turner processed to the center of the church; everyone faced him as he read, flanked by the candle-bearers and facing the cross-bearer. And as he ascended the steps into the pulpit to preach on the Word, the lights gradually dimmed. The rough white plaster walls lost their brightness; the dark wood beams of the ceiling, high overhead, faded into shadow. The stained-glass windows still showed their colorful saints, but they were outshone by the spotlight illuminating Turner. The only other lights were those above the altar -- together with the glow from the candles in the high brass candlesticks, they glinted off the gold of the crucifix.

"It's so easy, sometimes, to retreat and hide behind our own personal responsibilities," said Turner. "To say we've just got so much to do and ignore the needs of the community, the church, and our world.... We say, 'I'm sorry, I just don't have any more time.' The flip side of that is this text" -- the command to take up the cross. "What does it mean to take up the cross? We often see the cross as a trinket.... It's hard for us to really get the concept that it is a 1st-century means of execution. It's a death symbol. Maybe nothing is as corrupted in our vernacular as much as 'to carry the cross' or 'to bear the cross.' 'I just bought a Mercedes, and you know those big payments I have to make? Well, it's just my cross to bear.' Come on. To bear a cross means that you're willing to serve God and others because of your Christian faith, and to put aside selfish concerns in order to get into the mainstream of life.... It may cost us money, it may cost us time, it may cost us our lives. Daniel Berrigan -- he was a controversial priest -- he said that if you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood."

What happens when we die?

"Well," says Turner, "our soul goes into soul-sleep, whether it's in paradise -- which I think it is -- or whether it's, as some say, just in kind of a blissful sleep. I think of Jesus when he said, 'Today, you will be with me in paradise.' I think that the 'real life' part of a person goes to and is with God. Where that is, I don't know."

Grace Lutheran Church

3967 Park Boulevard, Hillcrest




Denomination: Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod

Founded locally: 1912

Senior pastor: Dr. Alan Wyneken

Congregation size: 250--300

Staff size: 20, including staff for attached school

Sunday school enrollment: no Sunday school, but religious education provided by school

Annual budget: $650,000--$700,000, including school budget

Weekly giving: $3000--$4000

Singles program: no

Dress: semiformal

Diversity: mostly Caucasian

Sunday worship: 10 a.m.

Length of reviewed service: 1 hour

Website: gracesandiego.net

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