Neighbors Helping Neighbors Can Receive Thrivent Choice Dollars

We are pleased to announce that the Congregational United Church of Christ Neighbors Helping Neighbors fund has been identified as an organization to receive Thrivent Choice dollars. The Neighbors Helping Neighbors fund is a resource for those experiencing immigration related emergencies, and helps with needs such as rent, food, utilities, and transportation on a short term basis within the Northeast Iowa community. The need is great and constant.

By directing Choice Dollars, eligible Thrivent members can recommend which nonprofit organizations they feel should receive charitable grant funding from Thrivent.

If you have Choice Dollars available to direct, please consider directing to Congregational United Church of Christ, Decorah. All Thrivent dollars received will be directed to the Neighbors Helping Neighbors fund.

To learn more, visit Or call Thrivent at 800-8474836 and say “Thrivent Choice” when prompted.

Emily Neal to Speak at Fellowship Hour, Sunday, March 24, 2019

Emily Neal, Assistant Director of the Center for Sustainable Communities at Luther College, will speak during Fellowship Hour on Sunday, March 24, 2019. She is also a staff instructor in Environmental Studies. Emily will speak about her experiences in Tanzania with the Water to Thrive project.

A passionate science educator, she has over 20 years of experience teaching people of all ages, on how to integrate concepts of wellness, sustainability and stewardship into their lives. Recognizing that human health is interconnected to the health of our planet, Emily oversees a wide array of healthy living and environmental programs at Luther, including the summer Discovery Camp programs and Endeavor Together, Luther’s  pre-orientation program. Additionally, Emily oversees outreach programs to regional schools. She works with teachers on integrating topics of sustainability into the curriculum and increasing STEM education. She supervises a team of FoodCorps/AmeriCorps members serving schools to help districts foster healthy environments for students, staff, and the communities they serve. She has a Masters in Science Education and an undergraduate degree in Exercise Science, both from the University of Iowa.

Sermon for Sunday, March 17, 2019 – “Praying with our Fear”

Second Sunday in Lent
March 17, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa|
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Preaching Psalm: Psalm 27

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
2When evildoers close in against me to devour my flesh,
they, my foes and my enemies, will stumble and fall.
3Though an army encamp against me, my heart will not fear.
Though war rise up against me, my trust will not be shaken.
4One thing I ask of the Lord; one thing I seek;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek God in the temple. 
5For in the day of trouble God will give me shelter,
hide me in the hidden places of the sanctuary, and raise me high upon a rock.
6Even now my head is lifted up above my enemies who surround me.
Therefore I will offer sacrifice in the sanctuary, sacrifices of rejoicing; I will sing and make music to the Lord.
7Hear my voice, O Lord, when I call;
have mercy on me and answer me.
8My heart speaks your message—“Seek my face.”
Your face, O Lord, I will seek. 
9Hide not your face from me, turn not away from your servant in anger.
Cast me not away—you have been my helper; forsake me not, O God of my salvation.
10Though my father and my mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me in.
11Teach me your way, O Lord;
lead me on a level path, because of my oppressors.
12Subject me not to the will of my foes,
for they rise up against me, false witnesses breathing violence.
13This I believe—that I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living!
14Wait for the Lord and be strong.
Take heart and wait for the Lord! 

Beloved of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.

Dear ones, we need help. We need help in dealing with fear. Fear of the other is leading to so much violence in our world as we saw on display this past week in New Zealand. Acts like that also make us more fearful and worried for ourselves, for loved ones and neighbors, for Muslim neighbors, for our own country and our world. What do we do with this fear? What do we do with the fear that is a regular part of any life?

I have one friend from seminary who approaches any fear or challenge by saying, “It’s going to be fine.” I’ll call him Joe. No matter what issues arise, Joe says, “Ahh, no need to worry. It will be fine.”

He is always confident and sometimes correct. There are times I really want to be that unflappable. Yet, I’ve learned that his confidence, while encouraging, isn’t always grounded in reality.

Then there’s another friend who often thinks about the worst-case scenarios and tries to be ready for them. I’ll call him Paul. He is thorough and prepared and really, really extra vigilant. He also seems really anxious and tired a lot of the time.

Our Psalm today shows us a middle way between these two extremes, a way that acknowledges that there are real concerns and yet remains grounded in trust and hope, grounded in God.

Certainly, we each have our own personalities that wire us to respond to challenges and fear differently. I value both Joe and Paul and learn a lot from them. I also don’t know much about how they pray. Maybe their prayers are very different from their public personas.

As I’ve lived with Psalm 27 this week, I’m persuaded that all of us – Joe, Paul, you and I – would be wise to approach our fears and challenges the way the Psalmist does. In the Psalms, God has given us a different way to be with fear, a way that allows us to be a hopeful, peaceful presence in this anxious world.

As the Psalmist starts to pray, he sounds an awful lot like Joe – “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

No worries, it’s all good. I’ve got nothing to fear.

But then the Psalmist answers his own question – of whom shall I be afraid? Well, there are evil-doers, foes, enemies, an army encamped against him, oppressors, and false witnesses breathing violence – to name just a few.

The Psalmist just stuck his head in the sand, pretending to not see the very real issues in his life. He is aware of them. He names and acknowledges them and brings them to God in prayer. Then he grounds himself in something greater than his fears, in God, and that allows him to rejoice and sing despite the threats all around him.

There is so much faithful wisdom here. Sometimes we get the message that Christians are sup- posed to just push down any fear, that fear is a sign we don’t have enough faith. The witness of scripture contradicts that message over and over. People of faith have all sorts of fear. God doesn’t ask us to just pretend it’s all good. Nor does God expect us to muscle through on our own by being extra prepared for every situation or other strategy to combat fear.

Instead, God gives us the Psalms that offer a different way of being with fear.

First, become aware of fear, notice and name what is making you afraid. I suppose that was a pretty simple step when there were “evildoers closing in to devour your flesh” or “armies encamped” in front of you. Some days it is easy for us to identify what is making us anxious. Yet, in our day we also live with a kind of low-grade fear all the time. We’re barraged with so many fear-inducing messages. But, we’re also told to just keep on keeping on, to just keep pushing through which means we’re not even always aware of the fear we’re carrying.

So sometimes we need to pause and get curious about the worries and racing thoughts in our heads. We need to ask, “What’s troubling me, what’s keeping me up at night, what keeps nagging away in the back of my mind?” Any psychologist will tell us that when we get in touch with what’s eating at us, when we name it, then it has less power over us. Then we can see that anxious thoughts aren’t who we truly are, they are just thoughts.

But the Psalmist goes further than that. He also brings his fears to God and remembers that he is grounded in God – God who is greater than his fears.

He says, “For in the day of trouble God will give me shelter, hide me in the hidden places of the sanctuary, and raise me high upon a rock.”

We, too, need to be reminded that our fears don’t define us and don’t have to control us because our true identity is beloved child of God. Our peace comes not because we can manage our thoughts well or keep calm and carry on. Our peace comes because our life is held in God, now and always. No matter what happens to us, we belong to God. No matter where we are, God is present.

God’s presence gives us the hope, the peace, the courage we need. We can ground ourselves in God’s presence at any moment of the day using a simple breath prayer. Let’s try it now for a moment: Close your eyes or lower your gaze to the floor, bring your attention to your breath, and I’ll lead us through a simple prayer.

As you breathe in and out,
imagine that you are breathing in peace and letting go of fear,
breathing in hope and letting go of worry,
breathing in rest and letting go of weariness.
Take a few moments to breathe and pray.
Now return your attention to a few final words.

This grounding in God’s presence helps us to rejoice and sing – another helpful response to fear. It sounds crazy when the Psalmist says he will do that in the face of his enemies. Yet to rejoice and sing is a way to experience some freedom from fear, a way to say, “Fear, you do not control me, I will not be defined by you. I will trust and hope even when things are hard because I know my life is held in God.”

Beloved of God, you belong to God. In Jesus, who stretched out his arms in love on the cross, God has gathered us together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.

Nothing – not sin, not death, not powers nor principalities – nothing can separate us from the love of God.

You can trust and hope.

You can be a calm and hopeful presence in this fearful world because your life is held in God.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

This Week at Good Shepherd, March 18-24, 2019

Tuesday, March 19
4:00 p.m.- Social Justice subcommittee
7:00 p.m.- Congregational Council

Wednesday, March 20
1:00 p.m. – Prayer Shawl Ministry – Connie Buresh hosts
2:00 p.m. – Governance Advance Team
5:30 p.m. – Lenten Worship Service
6:00 p.m. – Simple Soup Supper
7:00 p.m. – Choir rehearsal
8:00 p.m. – Band rehearsal

Thursday, March 21 Newsletter Deadline
10:00 a.m. – Bible Study with Pastor Amy
12:00 p.m. – Centering Prayer
5:00 p.m. – Community Meal at St Benedicts

Sunday, March 24 – Third Sunday in Lent – no radio broadcast during Luther break
8:45 p.m. – Band Warmup
9:30 a.m. – Worship with Holy Communion
10:30 a.m. – Fellowship Hour offered by Sunday School and Youth Forum
Information about Water to Thrive project shared during Fellowship Hour

Sermon for Sunday, March 10, 2019 – “Dwelling in God”

First Sunday in Lent
March 10, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Preaching text: Psalm 91

You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty—

2you will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.”

9Because you have made the Lord your refuge, and the Most High your habitation,

10no evil will befall you, nor shall affliction come near your dwelling.

11For God will give the angels charge over you, to guard you in all your ways.

12Upon their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.

13You will tread upon the lion cub and viper; you will trample down the lion and the serpent.

14I will deliver those who cling to me; I will uphold them, because they know my name.

15They will call me, and I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble; I will rescue and honor them.

16With long life will I satisfy them, and show them my salvation.

Beloved of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.

Our Psalm today asks us to reflect on where we find our home. With the poetic words like “dwell, abide, make our habitation, take refuge,” we are called to find our home in God.

That can sound pretty abstract; besides God is a being, not a place. Yet we do experience a sense of home with other beings, quite often in human relationships. There are some people – when we’re with them, it just feels like home. We can let down and breathe more easily. The masks can come off. There are some people – when we’re with them we feel safer, stronger, more able to face what- ever life throws at us. There are some people who help us know that we belong, no matter what – that we have a place in this world.

I remember when this began to happen for me in the early days of my marriage. My husband Matt and I had just arrived in Tanzania for a preaching fellowship and nothing was working. We got locked into our student housing unit where there was no running water and no way to cook. There were all sorts of communication issues and we felt very unwelcome at the seminary where we’d planned to do our work. We couldn’t easily access food or what we needed for research. After an- other hungry, sleepless night watching giant cockroaches race around the crumbling walls of our house, I thought maybe we should catch the next plane home – if we could get the door unlocked, that is. “I just want to go home,” I kept saying. Matt reached out his hand, looked me straight in the eyes and responded, “We have to be home for each other now.”

That sounded crazy at the time. Yet it has become a guiding image for me in marriage. Our commitment to each other provides some refuge amidst all that life throws at us. It has helped us to face the challenges of that time in Tanzania, a miscarriage, tragic deaths, moves, floods, family mental health issues and the daily grind of life. I am so grateful for this, especially as I’m very aware that isn’t the case in all marriages.

Yet, so many relationships can provide a sense of home for us. A friend who knows so many of your faults and delights in you because of them, a family member who reminds you of the wisdom your family has given you, the church congregation that is a refuge for you through all the trials of life – we can experience safety, peace and belonging in relationship with others.

And those are just glimpses of what it is to find a home in God. In God, the masks can come off for good, for we are fully known and fully loved. We don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love. God knows everything about us and delights in us always. God has claimed us as beloved children, we belong to God. In God, we can breathe easily knowing that God’s breath, the Holy Spirit, breathes in us.

This home in God is secure now and always. All of our human relationships will end – and too quickly. That’s part of what’s so devastating about the death of a loved one – a sense of refuge and belonging dies with them. And, even the most beautiful human relationships are marred by sin and brokenness.

Yet, when we dwell in God, as the Psalm says, no evil will befall us, nor shall affliction come near our dwelling. Many have interpreted this to mean that if we trust in God, then we will be completely safe and free from harm always. Sometimes people even tell us that if we are suffering, we must not have enough faith. That is just not true. The witness of scripture contradicts that claim, again and again. Our lived experience as people of faith contradicts that again and again.

God’s people are not spared from harm. Rather, God is our refuge in the midst of trouble. The promise of this Psalm is not so much that our earthly home will be protected, but that our dwelling in God will not be harmed by evil or affliction because God is faithful. We belong to God always.

God has gone to great lengths to help us know that we have this home – even coming to dwell with us here in Jesus who shared all that we face – temptations, wilderness times, even death. Yet in the resurrection we see that nothing, not even death, can stop God from dwelling with us and calling us home.

This home in God provides comfort and refuge but it isn’t intended to let us escape. We don’t get to just put our feet up on the couch in this home and ignore the rest of the world. Instead, the experience of home that God gives us is intended to send us out into this hurting world that God so loves.

We are sent to be a refuge, amparo in Spanish, for others – sent to join God in the work of assuring that all people have shelter, food, water, safety and belonging.

In this season of Lent, we hear God’s invitation to return home, to find security, not in what is fleeting but in what is eternal—God’s abiding love.

As we make our home in God, may the love of God dwelling in us become a place of security and refuge for all those we encounter.