Friday, December 31, 2010

The shape of the first few weeks

Pastor's typically don't have typical work schedules. I'm still praying over how mine will shape out, because I know how I make use of my time as a pastor will be incredibly influential on the direction of our congregation and ELCA ministry in Fayetteville, Arkansas. As we come to the end of 2010, instead of posting a set of new year's resolutions, I'm simply going to do a sort of examen, drawing to prayerful attention how I am spending the days given to me by our Lord.

I have been at Good Shepherd a half week already, and was blessed with the opportunity for many initial conversations with staff and parishioners who stopped in the office to say hi, bring donuts, and juggle with me, among other pleasantries. Went to a men's basketball game at the university. I unpacked about 20 boxes, plenty still to go, and started settling into and decorating the office. There were also the typical rehearsals for Sunday worship and bulletin preparation. Today, Friday, I'm hiding out at a coffee shop during nap time working on the Book of Faith study for Augsburg Fortress for Advent 2011, and obviously also blogging.

Analyze next week's schedule with me. How does it signify mission priorities? What's missing that should be there? What's surprising, positive, odd?

The plan currently is to be in the office Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to noon unless otherwise noted. Some afternoons next week will also be devoted to unpacking the rest of the boxes.

Sunday- Worship leadership and preaching at 8 a.m. 10 a.m., and 11:15 a.m. 

Monday- 9-11 a.m. nursing home visits
7 p.m. Desert and coffee at a member home with small group of families
Tuesday- 9-noon First staff meeting, including worship and visioning and meet and greet
               2-4  p.m. nursing home visits
Wednesday- 11 a.m. meeting with senior pastor of Episcopal church in Fayetteville
                     noon Fayetteville ministerial association meeting
6 p.m. Pre-baptismal class
Thursday- 9-noon Northwest Arkansas pastors meeting at Peace in Rogers; mission conversation coordinated by the synod office
Friday- Sabbath and family day
Saturday- 9-noon coffee conversation concerning mission development of campus ministry at UArk; invitees include parishioners, faculty, university students, and high schoolers anticipating attending UArk, plus a mission developer with the ELCA considering a call to this synod

Although this first week doesn't include it, subsequent weeks will always include a Tuesday evening and Wednesday noon bible study led by the pastor, as well as LOGOS, supper, and choirs on Wednesday evenings. I have invited the congregation to start forming small group events so I can visit with them at their home, work, or favorite "Third Places." By and large, when I'm not at these events, or in the office, I'm spending time with the family, and weaving in time for sermon preparation, various forms of communication, theological study, and freelance writing projects. I rarely set aside large blocks of time for sermon preparation. Instead, I weave that into my daily routine, including meditation while running, evenings spent reading the text and doing translation work, etc. And of course, an unknown for any given week would be special concerns that may come up for parishioners or the congregation.

Also, already on the agenda for the second week are preparations for a baptism, service of installation, an acolyte training, coffee with the mayor of Fayetteville, coaching conversation with a pastor from Coachnet, and plenty of walking the neighborhood around the church and our house meeting the neighbors.

Prayer is woven in throughout the day, typically in the morning and evening and at meals. I love this work, and wouldn't trade it for anything.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Prayer for January 2nd, 2011

Everlasting, gracious heavenly Father, you have given to your church the holy ministry of Word and Sacrament: Grant that the pastors of your church, following the example of Wilhelm Löhe, may fearlessly proclaim your word against every error, false doctrine, and abuse; and may so minister your divine mysteries in all their purity and fullness, that your people may be strengthened to serve those in need wherever they may be, for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

(from Pfatteicher's New Book of Festivals and Commemorations, adapted from a prayer of Löhe's)

Sunday is my first Sunday preaching and leading worship at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas. This seems an appropriate prayer to pray.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Let's concede, for the sake of argument, that there is something called a "war on Christmas." The media, popular culture, liberals, atheists, religious apathy, whoever or whatever you want to blame, is responsible for dampening true and authentic celebration of the Nativity of Christ. There's a big and powerful Grinch out there somewhere stealing all the stockings and leaving even less than a satisfying crumb for true Christians to nibble at come Christian morning.

If this is really happening, a good question arises: how should Christians respond?

One option is to simply go with the flow, celebrate the holidays with the rest of the culture, and re-christen the season christmakwanzakah. Put on a generalized religious face and celebrate the true meaning of the season in our private hearts and homes and perhaps churches (although the last one seems increasingly optional).

A second option is to be offended, go to war, defend the season, complain about all the secularizations, the consumerist mis-appropriation of the season for economic gain, put up signs that say "Put the Christ back in Christmas," etc.

These seem to be the two most popular options. The first is the result, probably, of lukewarmness, apathy, and a kind of laissez faire cultural accomodationism. The second arises out of defensiveness, concern that the reason for the season will be lost if we don't collectively raise up arms. It is also probably energized by the sense that somehow Christianity is losing its place as THE cultural religion in America. Perhaps we are entering a post-Christendom era. Oh my.

However, my thesis, once I've conceded that a war on Christmas is happening (and I concede it only for the sake of argument--I don't actually think such a war exists, or if it does, that it is of the order of magnitude most of us fear--or perhaps what I mean to say is that what some perceive as a war on Christmas is actually the general response the world has always and ever had to the Nativity of Christ) is that the Christian response to such a situation should be dramatically different than either of these two options. The Christian option should be something like the following:

1) Sing anyway. In this sense Dr. Seuss's Whoville residents get it just right. If you wake up and the presents, tree, stockings, and feast are all stolen, sing anyway. Whoville doesn't get all up in arms, chase after the Grinch, and berate him. They just sing anyway. The first Christmas wasn't much to sing about, or the second, or the third. Holy innocents were slaughtered, Jesus and Mary and Joseph had to flee as refugees to Egypt. The birth took place in a manger. Etc. If there is a war on Christmas, sing anyway.

2) Don't get defensive, be a missionary. Pete Ward in Participation and Mediation: A Practical Theology for the Liquid Church, offers a thesis statement for the context of all his theological work. He says, "Looking back it was clear to me that my work with young people grew out of a theological conviction.The conviction was based on a belief that God cared passionately for those who didn't come to church." Translating this sentence for this blog post, I could say, "It has become clear to me that my celebration of Christmas grows out of a theological conviction. The conviction is based on the belief that God cares passionately for those who don't celebrate Christmas or miss its point entirely."

Furthermore, I just don't think that individuals, or the principalities and powers, will come to a better understanding of Christmas if Christians just starts shouting "Christmas" in a louder voice. Protests and signs defending the season aren't going to cut it. If Christians want to live Christmas and witness to the Nativity of Christ and the Incarnation of the Logos in our increasingly secular and inter-religious world, I happen to think they simply need to be more incarnational, and more logocentric themselves. Read the word together. Invite others. Live in the spirit. Be joyous. Do ministry with refugees. Protect holy innocents. Work for justice. Know their theology enough to know what it means to be incarnational, and know the scriptures well enough to know what the incarnation of the logos signifies.

Instead of defending the holiday, as if Christmas needed a defense strategy, remember that Christ came into the world precisely for, and on behalf of, those who had not yet known God as clearly as they could. Christ came into the world, born of the virgin Mary, because God cares passionately for the whole world, and perhaps especially those who aren't in church on Christmas Eve.

Myth Became Fact, C.S. Lewis, from "Is Theology Poetry?"

"The essential meaning of all things came down from the 'heaven' of myth to the 'earth' of history. In so doing, it partly emptied itself of its glory, as Christ emptied Himself of His glory to be Man.... That is why the New Testament is... less poetical than the Old. Have you not often felt in church, if the first lesson is some great passage, that the second lesson is somehow small by comparison--almost, if one might say so, humdrum? So it is and so it must be. That is the humiliation of myth into fact, of God into Man; what is everywhere and always, imageless and ineffable, only to be glimpsed in dream and symbol and the acted poetry of ritual becomes small, solid--no bigger than a man who can lie asleep in a rowing boat on the Lake of Galilee."

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Alert: Important Advent quote

James Alison says, “When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it’s supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It’s a long term education in becoming un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn’t abstract from our present or our surroundings or our neighbour, but which increases our attention, our presence and our appreciation for what is around us. The build up to a sacrifice is exciting, the dwelling in gratitude that the sacrifice has already happened, and that we’ve been forgiven for and through it is, in terms of excitement, a long-drawn-out let-down” (

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Art of Curating Worship

2010 has been a Sparkhouse year. Sparkhouse is an imprint of Augsburg Fortress, and this past year they have published some stellar resources, including my personal favorite, re:form, a confirmation curriculum (they also published a great VBS we used this summer, re:new, and a book on Church in the Inventive Age by Doug Pagitt). I actually think the re:form confirmation curriculum is the best confirmation curriculum I've seen, ever!

When I learned they were also working on a new resource for worship planning (Clayfire), I was thrilled, and immediately ordered the book that I think is launching the series, Mark Pierson's The Art of Curating Worship.

All of this is by way of saying that I was predisposed to be sympathetic to the book, and open to the ideas in it. I'm  honestly a fan of resources published by Augsburg Fortress, and a supporter of the innovative directions Sparkhouse is taking as a publishing arm of our church.

So then I actually started reading the book. Here's where I started hitting some major speed-bumps. I am still excited about Pierson's re-thinking worship leadership as worship curation, because it bring greater focus to the environment and space in which worship takes place than other traditional titles such as cantor, preacher, presider, or worship leader. Cantors focus more on the music, preachers on the word, presiders on space but focused on the meal, and worship leaders also typically focus on the content of prayers and music.

The term curator is preferable for a variety of reasons, itemized well in Pierson's book, but I especially like the term because it draws attention to the overall environment, and also has analogies with how curation is done in museums, etc, where the goal is to bring to life that which has gone before.

All of this being said, I realized that as soon as I read two things in the book that really caused me to struggle, I wouldn't be able to read the book with an open heart and mind. Pierson shares in the second chapter of his book that one worship event he curated included communion, but he chose to use water instead of wine for the communion. Is it too finicky of me, or too legalistic, to argue that you simply don't do this, period, anywhere. Communion is bread and wine. To depart from bread and wine is simply not acceptable.

This pointed me back to something he had said earlier that I initially thought was a bit of hyperbole, but now I think it wasn't. Page 25, he says, "Anything goes." Of course, he precedes this by arguing that once we get our definition of church and worship clear, then how we actually design worship, embedded in those answers, can be "anything goes," but it is simply not clear to me how that works.

Here's my concern. T'his book is the first book on worship from a new publishing arm of the Lutheran church, and one of the first if only comments in the book on the sacraments suggests that wine may be replaced with water in the meal.

Now I know that Pierson is a Baptist from New Zealand. We probably have very different approaches to the meal. I also see from what he is up to that he is very creative and experimental in his worship leadership. He creates events, art installations, etc. They seem amazing, and I'd like to see such a worship event in action.

That being said, I just don't see how the book will ultimately be helpful for our worship leaders. This is more than simply thinking outside the box. It's like having left the room and apartment building altogether.

I'm going to continue reading the book, and will post a second reflection upon finishing it, but it does occur to me that we need someone to write a book on worship curation who also reads and adheres to the Lutheran confessions and the Use of the Means of Grace document, among other guiding texts of our tradition.

Realizing at the end of this blog that this is my second post of the week that might be construed as grumpy. I don't intend it as such. They say all press is good press, so I hope you'll go out and buy the book and read it. Even if I strongly disagree with parts of it, and disagree even more strongly with the decision that Sparkhouse should be the one to publish it, I do intend to always be in dialogue perhaps especially with those with whom I disagree. The true way to stay immature is to live in an echo-chamber of your own creation.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Visiting the "Big" Church

During Advent, I am visiting churches in Northwest Arkansas prior to beginning my call at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville. Today I visited the "big" church in the area, Fellowship Church, which has as its vision "to change the heart and soul of Northwest Arkansas and the world." It's a large campus church on the outskirts of Rogers, near the interstate, and includes a main building for worship, outbuildings for various children and student ministries, and I believe even houses a training school for missionaries and apartments or condos for students in residence there.

I don't know the precise size of the church, as in how many attend worship there each week, but I do already know it has a big footprint in NWA. One of the more recent times we were down here closing on our house, I was in an Eddie Bauer getting jeans, and ended up talking with one of the clerks who attends Fellowship. The young man was passionate about his faith, loved his church and its small group ministries, and I came away impressed by that conversation and wanted to visit.

Many people I have met here are aware of Fellowship because of its large size and impact on the community. Fellowship does a lot of social service and care in NWA, and they also are very energetic about global missions. In fact, when we entered the gathering hall of the church today, one of the first kiosks featured missions books for sale, and an invitation to attend a missions training school in the area called Perspectives. It's a training ministry of the U.S. Center for World Mission, and the national offices are in Fayetteville. They have a special course for clergy that seemed particularly interesting.

As you enter the gathering area, it's milling with activity. The longest lines were for the coffee bar, of course, but there were staffed kiosks for a wide range of ministries, for women, Boy Scouts, a central information kiosk, and a special kiosk to help families get their children routed to the nursery or classroom.

These are the kinds of things that impress me about evangelical and large churches. They know how to organize, and they give a huge amount of energy to interpreting their ministries to their members and involving them. The mission statement of Fellowship is, "To produce and release spiritual leaders who know and express the authentic Christ to Northwest  Arkansas and the world." They definitely seem to be taking a fair stab at doing just that. In ten minutes I had met at least four people who were genuinely interested in us and inquisitive, and helped show us around.

Up until this point in the visit, attending Fellowship hadn't seemed that overwhelming or strange. It was a  bit odd to have so many people trained to greet us, given that in most smaller and Lutheran congregations that I visit, almost no one tries to greet you at all, but again, this is something I appreciate about these churches. They don't take anything for granted, nothing is assumed, and they train their people to be helpful and provide information and direction.

We went to the children's kiosk to find the nursery. We found out they don't have a traditional nursery, but instead start tracking children into age specific groups at age 1. For today, they agreed to let our kids go together because we were visitors, so they sent us to a separate building to check them in. At that building, they entered my name, the names of our children, and their ages, into their computer system. This computer system printed name tags for them both, then a sticker for me that included an assigned number (that would flash on the screens in the main worship space if we needed to come back for an emergency) plus a bar code that I would need to bring back with me to print "receipts" for the kids to pick them up.

Again, this was a huge surprise given what I'm used to, but it also showed they take security and safety of children seriously.

Now, back to the worship center. We had already sung a few songs in the darkened worship space, all unfamiliar to me (with the exception of "Here I am to Worship"), and when I got back, they were doing another Christmas-y song led by an excellent musical ensemble. If you're curious what they sound like, they provide audio here. Pretty laid back, easy listening music. Meditative rather than raucous.

Then, for today, they had a visiting preacher, the president of Dallas Theological Seminary. I'm not totally clued in to things in the evangelical world, but I think Dallas is one of the biggest evangelical seminaries (connected to Chuck Swindoll somehow?), very influential, and popularized dispensational theology, among other things.

He was a fine speaker, but this was where I realized I simply couldn't be an expository preacher in his tradition. He had something like "four truths" to bring out of the text, from John 14. Although he made an attempt at talking about Advent at the beginning of the sermon, pretty soon he was into his four points, things you need to know to get to heaven, essentially. Each point was kind of doctrine-y and John Piper-esque, then peppered with an anecdote, before moving on to the next point.

Why do people like this kind of preaching? I just don't get it. I kept sitting there thinking, "I'd love to have a preach off with this guy." Can we do that? Have a preach off? Seriously, like put me in a big room with one of these preachers and see how we compare! :)

The disconcerting part was when he tried to prove to us, using a chart on the big screen (everything is more true if you use a chart), that John 14"1-3 matches almost verbatim the language of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. In other words, he was trying to prove to us that John 14 is actually about the Rapture. Yes, you heard me correctly. In case you are curious, look up these two chapters and read them. Go ahead and set them side by side. See what I mean? Just for kicks, I googled this topic, and found that there are a good number of pre-tribulationist and Tim LaHaye style web pages making this comparison, so apparently it is a widespread interpretive move. Just not one I share.

This was the exact point where I jumped ship, and posted on Facebook, "I am so NOT a megachurch evangelical." It's not because I think Fellowship and its ministry are unchristian, or that they're doing a horrible job of ministry. I want to honor them in their walk with Christ, and respect the diversity of the Christian tradition represented by our diversity. But wow. I just can't do expository lists like that, and I don't think the whole bible is finally about the rapture.

Once the sermon was done the service was done. A guitarist came out and sang a twangy hymn, also nice and meditative. But this is where I really felt a lack, and wished I was back at a liturgical service of worship. Where was communion? I'm a weekly communion nerd. I need to receive Christ in his body and blood every week together with others. There was no liturgy, no Lord's Prayer, no creed. Even though I sometimes tire of the liturgy and think it becomes somewhat rote, today reminded me why I love the liturgy, and why it has power. I felt like I attended a concert and lecture today rather than worship, and that says something less about who Fellowship is, and more about how I am shaped and formed as a Lutheran Christian.

We went out and got the kids using the bar code, then drove our cars on the long drive through the church campus back to the highway. I felt a few of those twinges of jealousy I feel when I see a church obviously engaged in such a large enterprise. Since then, I've been trying to think about how to reflect on my experience of being there in a way that is non-judgmental but also honest. This blog has been the best I can do. Forgive me, and I covet other reflections.