Monday, September 12, 2011

Installing a Bishop in Tulsa

This past Saturday I drove to Tulsa with Tom, a student at the University of Arkansas who is active in our congregational life, to attend the installation of the new bishop of the Arkansas-Oklahoma synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Tom's role was to serve as a "crucifer" (carrying a lit candle during the procession). His evangelical or non-religious friends were asking him, "Did you get to wear a dress?" To which he could answer, "Yes," because indeed all those in the procession wore robes.

Synods in the ELCA elect a new bishop (or re-elect the current bishop) every six years. Among other things, the bishop is the public sign of unity for churches in our denomination. We are a big synod, encompassing two expansive states and the pan-handle of Texas. So the bishop has a big job in being a sign of unity in a place with such geographical breadth.

The new bishop is Michael Girlinghouse, formerly pastor of University Lutheran Church in Norman, Oklahoma. He's a long bearded man, very kind, with experience in campus and congregational ministry. He seems to have strong theological and liturgical sensibilities. I quite like him, and was glad to be at his installation.

The added bonus for me in attending this installation is that bishops from other synods also often travel to be in attendance, and my former youth pastor, Michael Rhinehart, now bishop of the Gulf Coast Synod (centered in Houston) was in attendance. So we had a chance to connect a bit.

Tom and I stopped at the mall in Tulsa prior to the installation for a spot of lunch. We ate at an Indian restaurant. I was wearing my long linen shirt, a gift from a recent wedding where I was the officiant, and the woman who was running the restaurant, simply loved my shirt. As a result, we got a big plate of extra appetizers. Which goes to show that wearing "non-traditional" clothes in public has a clear pay-off.

We then headed to Fellowship Lutheran in Tulsa for the installation. Nice building and facility. Chatted with clergy in the synod. Our church represented well, with about five members in the choir, a lector, a crucifer, and above six more folks present simply to worship (have I mentioned that Good Shepherd in Fayetteville is a rocking and involved congregation?).

All the pastors processed in. All of them, except for me, brought albs and red stoles to signify their ordinatinon. Without really intending to, I ended up being the odd one out, and so I was forced to think about clothes a bit. I happen to think that if you aren't in a worship leadership role, there's no special reason to dress up. I'd rather look like everyone else. Although in this case wearing a linen shirt was not looking like everyone else. No matter. It's pretty much impossible to look normal anymore, because weird is the new normal.

I had expected a great sermon from the presiding bishop, Mark Hanson, but this time around I was disappointed. He's a great preacher, and I often love his messages, but this sermon rang false. He preached a very legalistic sermon about getting out and fulfilling the Great Commission (Matthew 28), but it wasn't concrete, and he seemed to imply that gathering for worship to install a new bishop wasn't itself part of the Great Commission, an implication I would contest. I happen to think that the office of bishop, rightly understood, is theologically integral to the fulfillment of the Great Commission, not ancillary to it.

So Bishop Hanson missed a golden opportunity to help this group of very active Lutherans understand how the new bishop is a sign of unity and a Spirit-given office for "making disciples" and baptizing.

[disclaimer, edited September 13th, 2011: At least one reader of this blog is concerned that I am publicly criticizing Bishop Hanson in the above. I recognize his concern, so have added this further comment. In my lifetime, three or four of the best sermons I have ever heard have been preached by Bishop Hanson. In fact, and this may sound like hyperbole, there are only two pastors I've ever heard preach who knocked it out of the ballpark sermon after sermon, and they were Andris Sedlins of Peace Lutheran Church of Plymouth, MN, and Bishop Mark Hanson. So awkward direction this last sermon took was all the more surprising to me. I offer critique only in the spirit of improving or ecclesiological claims relative to the mission of the church, not as part of any agenda. I would hope theologians hearing my sermons would offer similar critique.]

Worship like this in Wisconsin would have been an opportunity to try out new and alternative hymns, etc. But that's because Lutheranism is dominant in Wisconsin. Here in Arkansas, worship was an opportunity to be traditionally "Lutheran." Processionals, classic hymns (A Mighty Fortress), communion, etc. Therefore proving once again how contextual worship always is even when it doesn't mean to be.

Then a nice reception, and a drive back across Cherokee Nation to Fayetteville. Great conversation along the way with Tom on life and school. Road trips are grand. One more reason why I thought Bishop Hanson's message rang false, because I actually thought inviting a college youth and driving him to Tulsa for the installation was an example of disciple-making, not a distraction from it.

 Welcome to the office of bishop, Michael. Together, let's make disciples and get out baptizing as a synod!

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