Posted by: Johnold Strey | August 15, 2016

Worship and the Right Brain

The following article was published in the July 2016 (No. 79) edition of Worship the Lord, a bi-monthly newsletter for pastors published by the WELS Commission on Worship. Click the article title for the PDF version.

Worship and the Right Brain

by Johnold Strey

“So, Honey, what did you think about that service?” his wife inquired as the family drove home after Ash Wednesday worship. Their congregation included the imposition of ashes for the first time, and it seemed like a natural topic to bring up on the way home.

“I’m not sold on the ashes yet. I mean, I don’t think there was anything wrong with it, but it just didn’t do much for me. What did you think about it?”

“I loved it! It was so powerful seeing all of God’s people come back to their seats with cross-shaped ashes on their foreheads. And I got a little emotional when the pastor said to me, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ But I thought it was a powerful message of repentance.”

lent-2010-_11Their teenage son chimed in from the back of the car: “I thought it was a little creepy that the pastor was basically telling each one of us that we’re going to die. And did you hear him get choked up when his kids came up?”

“It was a little uncomfortable having him stand so close to me to put the ashes on my head, but I liked it,” their recently confirmed daughter said.

Their fifth grade son finally added his two cents worth: “I liked that I could participate. It was different, but it was kind of interesting.”

The preceding family conversation may be fictitious, but it does reflect some of the different reactions worship leaders will encounter when their congregations enter more deeply into the realm of rite, ritual, ceremony, and symbolism in worship.

Experiences like the imposition of ashes and other worship rituals are often discussed as a dichotomy: Do you like “high church” or “low church”? Do you like artistic expression in worship, or do you prefer the service to be simple and straightforward? To those dichotomies, add discussions about emotions in worship or the concern that some ceremonies might be misunderstood, and you can see how this topic is ripe for debate!

There is another way to consider this topic that will avoid false dichotomies and move the discussion into a more profitable sphere. We best understand and appreciate worship’s ceremonies, symbols, and rituals when we understand them as forms of communication. Different forms of communication interact differently with the two hemispheres of our brain. Understanding how the mind processes information, we see how rituals and symbolism in worship are uniquely designed to communicate to the right hemisphere of the brain, while the words of worship communicate to the left hemisphere.  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | July 3, 2016

Call Decision Announced (2016)

Three weeks ago, I received a divine call from Crown of Life Lutheran Church in Hubertus, Wisconsin, to serve as their first permanent associate pastor. I announced my acceptance of that call this morning (July 3, 2016) verbally in the post-service announcements at my current congregation, St. Mark’s, and by a letter that was read to the members of Crown of Life after their services this morning. Here is the text of that acceptance letter:

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Dear members of Crown of Life Lutheran Church:

Over the past three weeks, the Lord of the Church has given me the privilege to consider two calls to serve in his kingdom—the call I presently hold to serve his people at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Citrus Heights, California, and the call you have extended to me to serve you at Crown of Life. As challenging as the call deliberation process can be at times, it is a blessing to all involved as pastor and congregations carefully evaluate the abilities and resources they have been given by God.

After prayerfully considering your call, my current call, and the abilities God has given me, I am happy to report to you that I am accepting your call to be your new associate pastor at Crown of Life. I am truly humbled and honored that you have called me to serve you. I am encouraged by the ministry with which God has blessed you and the privilege to be able to serve with Pastor Helwig. I look forward to beginning my ministry among you later this year. Please pray for me, my wife Emily, and our four children as we make our transition to Wisconsin after spending the last 15 years in California.

I am sincerely looking forward to serving your congregation, but the acceptance of this call is also a bit melancholy for my family as we say good-bye to a congregation we have come to know and love for the past five years, and as we bid farewell to northern California which has been our home for the last decade and a half. The people of St. Mark’s and the people of my previous congregation, Gloria Dei in Belmont (near San Francisco), are near and dear to us. They have supported me and my family in good times and bad and have exhibited the love of Christ in so many ways. They are also your brothers and sisters in Christ; they share a common confession with you even though we are separated by nearly 2,000 miles. I ask you to especially remember St. Mark’s congregation in your prayers during the period of transition that they will face in the months to come.

God has richly blessed Crown of Life congregation with a beautiful facility, dedicated ministers of the gospel, supportive members, and a ripe mission field. I pray that I may be a blessing to your ministry even as your call has already been a blessing to mine!

Blessings in Christ,

Pastor Johnold J. Strey

I began this blog just before I received my first call to consider while serving at my first congregation, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Belmont, California. Those past blog posts not only record the call letters I sent to the calling congregations, but some of the additional commentary on those posts explained my thoughts and processes going through the deliberation process. As I’ve glanced over those old posts again, it struck me that so much of what I said then applies to this current decision. Rather than rephrasing those thoughts in a new post, I invite you to reread these past posts dealing with the call deliberation process:

I appreciate your prayers for my family, for my current congregation, and for my future congregation during this time of transition for all of us. In the midst of change, we can be thankful and confident that our never-changing Lord and his never-changing gospel will bless and guide us through the inevitable changes and challenges of life and ministry.

Posted by: Johnold Strey | June 19, 2016

Sermon on Genesis 39:6b-12,16-23

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost — June 19, 2016 — Sermon starts at 26:05


 Sermon Text: Genesis 39:6b-12,16-23


Bill came into work and greeted the secretary as usual. It was obvious she wasn’t feeling well emotionally. He sat down and listened to her for a while. When it came time to head to his office and start the day, he ran into John in the hallway, one of the other employees at work who had been a source of grief to the secretary. Bill gently suggested that he take it easy on her today since things weren’t going so well in her life. Fifteen minutes later, the secretary was in Bill’s office, with angry tears and a livid look on her face. “Why would you say that about me?” she demanded from Bill. Apparently John went right to her after Bill talked to him and claimed that Bill had said she was in a cranky mood and that it would be best to avoid her all day. Of course, that’s not what he said, and what he did say was meant to help her, but she wasn’t convinced. And the old saying was proven correct again: No good deed goes unpunished!

Have you been in a situation like that? Your words or actions are twisted into something you didn’t say and didn’t do, or shameful words and actions you didn’t do are unfairly attributed to you. It has probably happened to many of you. And when it does, you can’t help but think to yourself, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

But is it that simple? Is life that fatalistic? Does the good guy and the godly gal end up suffering for doing the right thing? Jesus warned us in today’s Gospel that Christians will experience suffering—he calls it “tak[ing] up [our] cross”—for no other reason than that we are Christians. Is there more to it than that? How does suffering play a part of our lives? Does it accomplish something more than meets the eye? In today’s service, the topic that Jesus introduces in the Gospel is something that we will explore more fully in this sermon as we consider the account from the life of Joseph in the First Lesson from Genesis 39.


 Joseph was one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Jacob was one of the ancestors of Jesus and one of the patriarchs of the ancient nation of Israel. Joseph also happened to be father Jacob’s favorite son of the twelve. And Jacob wasn’t subtle about his favoritism. You can imagine the jealousy and family tension that created. The hatred that Joseph’s brothers had for him became so bad that they faked his death and sold him off into slavery.  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | June 17, 2016

Call Received (Crown of Life; Hubertus, WI)

On Sunday afternoon, June 12, 2016, I received a phone call from Pastor Mike Helwig of Crown of Life Lutheran Church in Hubertus, Wisconsin (a suburb located northwest of Milwaukee), notifying me that Crown of Life had extended a call to me to serve as one of their two pastors, with a particular focus on the congregation’s “inreach” ministry. Crown of Life is a growing congregation in a growing community, and they also operate a preschool and K-8 elementary school.

What follows below is the letter I have sent to Crown of Life congregation acknowledging receipt of their divine call. As I ask for their prayers in this letter, so I ask for my blog readers’ prayers as well during this deliberation process.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Dear members of Crown of Life Lutheran Church:

Greetings to you in the name of our risen and ascended Lord, Jesus Christ.

On Sunday, June 12, the voters of Crown of Life extended a divine call to me to serve as one of your two pastors. I am humbled and honored to have received this call to serve your congregation. Over the next few weeks, I will speak with Pastor Helwig, Principal Troge, and other leaders of Crown of Life to learn more about the ministry you carry out, and to consider where I can best use the abilities God has given me to serve in his kingdom—whether to continue my service here at St. Mark’s, or to begin a new chapter of my ministry among you.

The call deliberation process is a natural time for a pastor to evaluate his ministry. I ask for your prayers as I consider where I may best serve the Lord, and I will keep your congregation in my prayers during this deliberation process. Thank you in advance for your thoughts, prayers, and insights during the weeks ahead.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Blessings in Christ,

Pastor Johnold J. Strey

Posted by: Johnold Strey | June 12, 2016

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost — June 12, 2016 — Sermon starts at 28:45


 Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 6:9-11


FineDiningYou are enjoying a dinner out at your favorite fine-dining, high-class restaurant. It’s Friday night, and everyone is wearing their Sunday best since that’s the required dress code at this establishment. Classical music is playing softly in the background. The tables are draped in white linen tablecloths and are adorned with the soft flickers of light coming from the centerpiece candles. The waiters, clad in their tuxedos, glide among the tables like professional skaters. This is the kind of place you come to for a special birthday or anniversary, and you come expecting a memorable, high-class experience.

Suddenly, a questionable-looking character comes in the front door. She is not dressed very modestly—certainly not befitting the dress code of this restaurant. She is obviously troubled by something. You can feel the stares from all the patrons coming out of the corner of their eyes. The maître d’ walks up to her and begins a polite but tense conversation, trying to figure out why she is there and looking for a subtle way to suggest that she head on her way. But then a regular patron of this fine establishment steps up from his chair, and to amazement of all and the disgust of a few, he invites this woman to sit at his table with his party and offers to listen and help with whatever dilemma she is facing. The restaurant owner stares at this scene from the far corner of the room with daggers coming out of his eyes, and yet he does nothing because he wouldn’t want to make a bigger scene nor offend his high-tipping patron who happens to be one of the area’s finest psychologists. The woman is clearly grateful that someone actually was willing to listen and console and help, while the rest of the room cannot believe the social faux pas that was playing out before their eyes.

If that scene sounds a little unrealistic, I’d like to suggest otherwise. I’d like to suggest that in its big picture this story is not unlike the Gospel account for today’s service from Luke 7:36-50. The characters are a bit different, but the situation isn’t all that different. Our Lord found himself at a dinner hosted by a Pharisee—a loyal, upstanding, righteous Jew who made sure to follow all proper religious and cultural customs of the day. Jesus came as an invited guest—a somewhat unusual scene since there already seemed to be some tension between Jesus and the Pharisees at this point. The woman who walks into the scene is known for her sinful and promiscuous past—and even if she had left it behind, her past reputation followed her in the present. This is not the setting she should find herself in. But the scene gave Jesus’ host reason to question all the buzz and popularity surrounding Jesus: If he really was such a great prophet, why would he associate with someone with such low moral character? But the great prophet and the Son of God was intentionally associating with this woman who not only knew her need for Jesus but was utterly grateful for the grace and forgiveness he personally proclaimed to her.

Who are you in that story? Do you relate to the poor woman who probably struggled with feelings of guilt on the one hand and yet was overwhelmed by Jesus’ message of grace on the other hand? Do you relate to Simon, the Pharisee, because you know how hard it is to avoid being judgmental toward someone else? Who are you in this story? Keep that question in the back of your mind, and keep the Gospel account in the back of your mind, as we take a look at the way the apostle Paul will help us apply that situation to ourselves in one of the other appointed readings for today’s service from 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | June 5, 2016

Sermon on Philippians 1:18-26

Third Sunday after Pentecost — June 5, 2016 — Sermon starts at 27:45


Text: Philippians 1:18b-26


Screenshot 2016-06-05 22.05.25Ed Stetzer is a fairly well-known pastor, author, speaker, and the Executive Director of Lifeway Research. Last week he garnered some attention when he posted the following pithy and thought-provoking message on Twitter: “In 5 days: 700 refugees drowned off Greece, 9,000 babies were aborted in the U.S., 68 were shot in Chicago … and a gorilla dominated the news.

I don’t plan to preach about refugees, abortion, violence, or a gorilla that was shot in the Cincinnati Zoo two Saturdays ago. We’ll let those discussions take place in other venues. But Stetzer’s tweet does make you think: In a world where death is all around us and human life is not valued as it should be, why was one of the top news headlines about the death of a gorilla?

We like to keep thoughts about life and death at a distance. We just celebrated the graduation of the eighth grade students of St. Mark’s school, and we can’t help but think about their bright futures that lie ahead of them. I don’t think I’ve heard a middle school graduation address that got 14-year-olds to think about their own mortality. Even on matters as simple as our food, we keep death at a distance. When’s the last time you slaughtered an animal because you wanted beef or chicken for dinner? No, you drive over to Safeway or Sprouts and there in the meat department are some nicely prepackaged steaks or ground beef or a whole chicken for you to take home and prepare—with no loss of life taking place directly by your hands.

Matters of life and death are a part of life, whether or not we acknowledge it. But we don’t do ourselves any favors by ignoring the topic. In the first chapter of the apostle Paul’s letter to the ten-year-old church he founded in the ancient city of Philippi, he deals directly with a matter of life and death—his own life and death! And the way Paul dealt with this matter will be a source of education and inspiration to us too.


If you are at all familiar with this letter that St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, you know that the major theme throughout this letter is joy. Even though Paul was under house arrest in Rome as he wrote this, he expressed his Christian joy throughout this letter. Just before our selection for today, Paul said that he was joyful because the gospel was continuing to spread even though he was imprisoned. It didn’t even bother him that some were proclaiming the gospel with less-than-honorable motives in mind. He simply found great joy in the fact that the good news about Jesus was getting “air time” in spite of—and even because of—his imprisonment.

That thought led to yet another reason why Paul remained joyful despite his circumstances. “Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | May 23, 2016

Sermon on Romans 5:1-5

Holy Trinity Sunday — May 22, 2016 — Sermon starts at 31:25


  1. Peace before the Father
  2. Access through the Son
  3. Hope from the Spirit

Text: Romans 5:1-5


fireworksAlthough we are just a week away from Memorial Day—the holiday that marks the start of summer in the minds of many people—I’d like you to move your minds ahead to the holiday that occurs in the middle of summer, Independence Day. Imagine that, after the sun has set, you are taking in a spectacular fireworks display, the likes of which you can’t remember seeing before. The family is all together for the Fourth of July, and one of your children or grandchildren are seated on your lap as this master lights display is bursting before your eyes. Do you think that, at that moment, you would begin to explain how fireworks work in a scientific way with proper academic language? Or is that the moment to sit back, enjoy the time with family, ooh and ah at the fireworks as they blossom in the sky, and just soak in the moment?

Last week was Call Day at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary—the day when graduates of our church body’s seminary find out (in a special service with 1,000 other people present!) where they have been assigned to begin their ministry as pastors. A son of St. Mark’s congregation, Gunnar Ledermann, received his divine call at that service to be pastor at a congregation in Rockwall, Texas. Imagine you are there, hearing the voices of a thousand fellow Lutherans sing the hymns with vigor and enthusiasm, feeling the nervous excitement in the room as life is about to change in a big way for those graduates. Do you think that, at the moment the list of assignments is being read, you would turn to the person next to you and ask them to explain the in’s and out’s and policies of the call process to you? Or is that the moment to sit back, absorb the emotions and energy that permeate the rom, and soak in the whole experience?

C38b-smallToday is Trinity Sunday. The Christian Church has been celebrating this particular Sunday, eight weeks after Easter, as Trinity Sunday since 1334 A.D. officially, and unofficially even earlier than that. And there are two ways we could celebrate this day. We could turn worship into an academic experience, and slice and dice our way through the Athanasian Creed and other precise Christian statements of faith about the Trinity. There is no doubt that there are definite times and places for that! But we could also celebrate like an incredible divine fireworks display of the Triune God’s existence and mystery and blessings on us. That’s really what we’re doing in this service today, and that’s the direction our sermon today will take us in. Our meditation on God’s Word today will be more like celebration rather than education. We want to marvel in the mystery of our Triune God, and also bask in the glow of all his blessings to us. To do that, let’s take a closer look at the Second Lesson for this service, from Romans 5:1-5. That’s where the apostle Paul helps us to celebrate this day by focusing on a threefold blessing from our Triune God: peace before the Father, access through the Son, and hope from the Spirit.  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | May 9, 2016

Sermon on Acts 16:6-10

Seventh Sunday of Easter — May 8, 2016 — Sermon starts at 32:40


Text: Acts 16:6-10


She graduated from college magna cum laude in her field of study. Surely the employers would be knocking at her door to ask her to work for them. But as brilliant as she had proven herself to be in her field, her field wasn’t all that promising in the current economy. So what should she do? Go on for a master’s degree? Pursue a career in a different area? Move to another area where her education and skills might be more likely to land her a job?

He thought the promotion was a slam-dunk. He had been with the company for quite some time and it seemed that he was the perfect fit to move up onto this rung of the corporate ladder. But it didn’t turn out that way. That made him wonder. Should he stay put at his job? Should he take an offer with the company’s competitor? Should he go out on his own and start his own business like he had thought about doing for years and years?

What is true in our personal lives is also true in the church’s life. The church faces dilemmas and decisions that don’t necessarily take things in the direction we had hoped for or planned for. Last Thursday, after our Ascension service, our church’s Executive Committee met to place final touches on the budget before it is presented to the Coordinating Council and then ultimately to our voters at the meeting scheduled for the first Sunday in June. And as things tend to go in church finances, the picture seems to be in constant flux from month to month and week to week. What decisions should we make? Should we look at the data and assume offerings will be greater or less? Should we look at school enrollment and assume that tuition will be more or less? And wouldn’t it be nice if God came down and whispered in our chairman’s ear with the right action to take?

Think about the outreach work of the church? Where should St. Mark’s concentrate its efforts? Where should our church body plant the next church in the greater Sacramento area? There are multiple options before us, all with a level of risk but also a level of promise? What decision should we make? And wouldn’t it be nice if God came down and whispered in someone’s ear during a meeting with the right action to take?

Today’s service puts us in mind of the task Jesus left his church after he ascended into heaven. The Gospel for today contains a prayer Jesus offered on Thursday of Holy Week, in which he prayed for the missionary work of his church after he ascended into heaven. And on this Sunday after Jesus’ Ascension, it’s good for us to think about the missionary work that he has left for us to do. We have very clear examples of that kind of missionary work in the other two readings today, especially in the First Lesson from Acts 16. In that reading, the apostle Paul was on his second missionary trip. He had just revisited some of the churches he had already founded on his previous trip, and now it was time for him and his team to move to a new location for mission work. The world was before them! So where should they go? Wouldn’t it make sense to start new work in some of the regions right around them? Well, not so fast!  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | May 5, 2016

Sermon for the Festival of the Ascension of Our Lord (2016)

Ascension Day – Thursday, May 5, 2016 – Sermon starts at 29:00.


  1. …about the Church’s earthly mission
  2. …about the Church’s heavenly future

 Text: Acts 1:1-11 (emphasis on verses 6-11)


Wouldn’t you like to know what the future holds? Wouldn’t life be a little easier if we could get a glimpse into some of the major events and circumstances that will affect your future? Wouldn’t it help the high school teen to know what college she’s going to attend, and what career path lies ahead in her future, and when she will meet Mr. Semi-perfect? Wouldn’t it be helpful for an adult husband to know which job promotional opportunity will be the one he should take, or how many kids God will ultimately bless his wife and him with, or how much of his income he’s going to need to save to help the kids through college and achieve his investment goals? Wouldn’t it be nice for seniors to know exactly how they could most effectively stretch out their retirement dollars and how their health and well-being will be over the years to come? Wouldn’t it be nice to know the future?

Of course, if we knew our full future, we would also know the hardships that will happen and the heartaches that will come our way. So maybe it would be better if we stayed in the dark! Maybe we can just find out about the “good stuff” in our future and let the rest just happen!

In a sense, we do know the future. No, we don’t know the future about everything. But we do know some of the best and most important aspects of our future in the Christian Church. Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, which we celebrate today, teaches us about our future as members of his Church. Our Ascension celebration today will tell us the rest of the story about the Church’s earthly mission, and about the Church’s heavenly future.


Question: How do you make God laugh? Answer: Tell him your plans!

If all good humor has an element of truth, then that little joke is a pithy commentary on the human condition. We think we know what should happen in the future, but more often than not, God has something quite different in mind!  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | April 19, 2016

Sermon on Acts 13:15-16a, 26-33a

Fourth Sunday of Easter — April 17, 2016 — Sermon starts at 26:10



Sermon Text: Acts 13:15-16a, 26-33a


Have you ever had a well-meaning but uninformed person do something that complicated your plans? An incident that comes to mind for me was the 2004 convention of our WELS Arizona-California District. It has been my job at these biannual conventions to arrange worship, and this was the first convention that I had this job, so I really wanted everything to go smoothly. We were celebrating the district’s fiftieth anniversary with a special service held at the convention center. Since the service was not at a church, we had to make arrangements to make the convention hall look like and operate like a church. One of the arrangements we made was to rent a digital organ to provide the main music for the service. The organ was supposed to arrive several hours before the service. We told the company that we needed it there at 3:00 p.m. to make sure it was set up properly and to rehearse with other instrumentalists and with the choir. As it turned out, the company we rented the instrument from called the resort to find out when they could deliver the organ. But when they called, some well-meaning but uninformed employee of the resort said that the service was at 7:00 p.m. so they didn’t have to deliver it during the afternoon since that would be a little early. Needless to say, that threw off our plans quite a bit. Everything was fine in the end, but a 3:00 p.m. planned delivery would have been much more helpful than a late arrival after 5:00 p.m.!

I’m sure many of you have your own versions of that story—a time when some well-meaning but uninformed person did something that altered your plans and caused you a concern that you would have preferred to avoid. If there was anyone who can relate to this situation, that person is Jesus Christ. Jesus could relate to people trying to thwart his plans. In the Gospel for today’s “Good Shepherd Sunday,” (John 10:22-30), his enemies questioned him. Then, in the verses that follow today’s Gospel, those same enemies attempt to kill him because they didn’t like what he had to say about himself as the Son of God. In the First Lesson for today, the apostle Paul speaks about what was unquestionably the main time that Jesus’ enemies tried to thwart his plans. But as Jesus’ enemies tried to stop him, they didn’t thwart his plans. In fact, their attempts to stop Jesus actually fulfilled Jesus’ plan to rescue the world from sin. And in that situation, we learn this lesson: Ignorant sheep can’t stop the Good Shepherd!

Biblical World


Our First Lesson takes place early in the Apostle Paul’s first missionary journey. He was in the city of Antioch, some 300 miles north of Jerusalem. After he and another missionary named Barnabas were commissioned, they traveled north of the Mediterranean Sea, heading west, and eventually reached another city in a different region that was also named Antioch. As Paul often did, they went to the Jewish synagogue service on the Sabbath Day. Our reading says, “After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue rulers sent word to them, saying, ‘Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak.’” It was a common custom in ancient synagogues to invite a qualified guest to deliver the sermon. So after the appointed Scripture selections were read, the synagogue’s leaders invited Paul to be the guest preacher, and he accepted the invitation.  Read More…

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