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“Last Sunday, we worshipped in an ordinary, Lutheran way,” said pastor Laura Ziehl at the beginning of the service. “This Sunday we are blessed: Teen Rock is here. Today we will know a kind of joy that is completely inappropriate during Lent.” The congregation laughed, and the teens in black T-shirts (with “God Rocks” in white letters across the back) started in singing over their (mostly older) backup band. The sound ranged from peppy pop to bluesy honky-tonk, and joy-making aside, the effect was perhaps not so much inappropriate as disconcerting, given the white-and-wood tastefulness of the church interior. After a moment’s thought, the lyrics came across as appropriate enough.

“There’s a place where religion finally dies,” proclaimed the opening hymn, “Dancing with my Father God in fields of grace.” Such a freewheeling vision of faith was strange to hear of during a service that mentioned Lenten disciplines and fasting, that included confession and the Lord’s Prayer (if not a creed), that finished with the ancient blessing “May the Lord bless you and keep you; may His face shine upon you...” And yet, when Ziehl welcomed a group of new members (including a couple of infants) into the congregation, she never used the word “church” to describe what it was they were joining. Instead, she asked, “Is it your intention to join your voice and your prayers to the worship life of this congregation, to share with us in fellowship, to work with us for peace and justice...to share your faith and the gifts that God has offered you for the sake of this community of believers and for the sake of this world?” (“We will,” they answered.)

And while the old liturgical structure was still in place, it seemed to be just that — a structure, designed to showcase the more personal elements of the service. The making of a prayer quilt for a man with liver cancer. The memorial of those killed last week in Iraq and Afghanistan. The shared meal of Communion. It came across as more a matter of emphasis than anything else, but the effect was noticeable.

At the Offertory, the Teen Rockers fired up “Anywhere with Jesus”: “Anywhere with Jesus, I can safely go/ Anywhere He leads me, in this world below...” That echoed Ziehl’s welcoming remark on this first Sunday of Lent: “We are now in the midst of a 40-day journey together in the wilderness. We will take up what it means to be a people called into a wilderness, and to find God there, waiting.”

The Gospel related three wildly divergent scenes in quick succession. First, the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus at His baptism. Second, that same Spirit driving Him into the wilderness for 40 days, during which He was tempted by Satan. Finally, His arrival in Galilee and His proclamation that “The kingdom of God has come near.”

Ziehl’s opening prayer thanked God for His “accompaniment in our lives in times of wilderness.... In the solitude and silence, may we hear Your voice.” To the children, she said that “the promise is that God will never ever leave us, that He will be with us...in every difficult day, every hopeless moment... Dear God, thank you for Your love in the wilderness.”

But when it came time to preach to the adults, she asked, “Can this be the same Spirit, which descended so gently on Jesus, that hurls Him into the wilderness” — that place of uncertainty and temptation? She stressed that while it was the devil who tempted Jesus, it was not the devil who brought Him to the place where He was tempted. “Temptation doesn’t take us by force — temptation is to be enticed to do something that we want to do. What in your life is tempting you, drawing you away from what you know in your heart is right? Perhaps the greatest temptation that we face is the one that has been with us from the very beginning: the temptation to convince ourselves that we have no need of God. None of us escapes this.”

That, she suggested, was why the Spirit did what It did, what It still does. “God seems to have a desire to place His people in the midst of wilderness. Elijah went into the wilderness, and there, at the mouth of the cave, he met the Lord. Perhaps this is God’s use of wilderness: to allow us the emptiness and the solitude to begin to find Him.”

What happens when we die?

“We find ourselves in the embrace of God,” said Ziehl, “which is where we began our lives and where we live our lives every day. So the other side of the grave is the fulfillment of the grace and mercy we see in our lives already.”

Bethlehem Lutheran Church

925 Balour Drive, Encinitas




Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Founded locally: 1963
Senior pastor: Laura Ziehl
Congregation size: 1000
Staff size: 10
Sunday school enrollment: 65
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: yes
Dress: mostly semiformal
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 8 a.m., 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Website: blcenc.org

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