Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lent 2011

Lent is an important time for renewal as we journey together with Jesus towards Jerusalem, and towards the cross. I invite all the members of our congregation to make a strong commitment to participating in the full worship and community life on offer during the Lenten season, including Sunday worship, Lenten evening prayer and soup suppers, and the special days of Lent and the Three Days, including Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

I hope the model we are offering for Lent this year is sensitive to the needs of the congregation and the overall direction we hope to be on as the people of God. This year I've decided we probably can't go wrong focusing on Luther's Small Catechism. Luther himself said of the catechism, 

"But for myself I say this: I am also a doctor and preacher, yea, as learned and experienced as all those may be who have such presumption and security; yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism, and every morning, and whenever I have time, I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Psalms, etc. And I must still read and study daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and am glad so to remain."

On Ash Wednesday, Bob Mueller and I are teaming up to offer a spoken word/organ meditation on Lent and the 40 days. I have spent the last few weeks drafting the poem, and I hope this experiment combining spoken word and organ will be faithful and transformative for our worship together. Ash Wednesday will be a service of Holy Communion with the Imposition of Ashes. 

Each Wednesday following, our Lenten Holden Evening Prayer service will include a sermon on one portion of the catechism, beginning with the 10 Commandments, then proceeding through the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, Baptism, and Communion. The choir and other ensembles will offer special music that will help us meditate on these portions of the catechism in fresh perspective.

Three teams in our congregation will be inviting us to give to ELCA World Hunger throughout the season. Watch for ELCA World Hunger boxes from the Women of the ELCA, an opportunity to donate through our social ministry team at the soup suppers, and the Sunday school youth taking up a collection during their classroom time each week. I will be finding creative connections between the ministry of ELCA World Hunger and the catechism during my mid-week sermon each week.

I would especially like to invite families, and those of you who have never participated in our mid-week Lenten services, to give it a try. It's a chance to eat a simple soup supper with your church family, and I guarantee you will love Holden Evening Prayer, the special music, and be fed by the sermon. Watch for table tents at the meal each week that will train us in praying the simple table grace that is part of the catechism.

Finally, if you hope to have a meaningful Easter this year, I encourage you to participate in the season of Lent. You will find that the amazing news of the resurrection is even more amazing and life-giving if you have prepared yourself for it over these forty days.

Please consider making use of this Lent to be a pupil of the catechism. Many of us celebrate being distinctively Lutheran while also in healthy ecumenical dialogue with our Christian neighbors, and in mission to the world. I think you will find that the catechism equips us for all of this, and is worthy of our sustained attention during the forty days of Lent.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Getting serious about theology in Fayetteville

Canon, Creed, Confession

This class will begin in the fall of 2011 and will last 14 weeks, location and time yet to be determined based on availability of participants. The class will be team taught by myself and two members of our congregation.

The concept: to explore what it means to have a canon (Scripture), creed, and confessional texts. All Christian communities can benefit from continued conversation about how the Scripture functions as a holy text for the community, how the creeds (especially the Apostles and Nicene) function as a hermeneutical key for reading Scripture, and how, in the case of Lutherans, being confessional contributes further to being authentic in confessing precisely how we read Scripture in relation to the life of church, and life in general.

Our primary texts for the class will be:

Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, by Peter Leithart
Canon and Creed, by Robert Jenson
The Augsburg Confession (and perhaps other Book of Concord texts)
Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue, Walter Kasper
Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders, Francis X. Clooney

The class will meet weekly for 90 minutes. Over the course of the semester, we will read all of the primary texts as the basis for our conversation and learning. For the Comparative Theology component at the end of the class. Gregory Walter, professor of theology from St. Olaf College, MN, will be a guest speaker as the capstone for the course. Finally, although we'll be studying the Lutheran confessional texts, this is a class open to the wider community, for example with our ecumenical partners or even in the community, so we will choose an off-site location to meet, and anyone interested in the development of canon, creed, and confession is invited to participate.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Resources for studying the lectionary

Some in our congregation are interested in a study that focuses on the lectionary text and sermon for the week, so I'm posting some links to on-line resources (free and easy to use).

Here's the ELCA resource:

The Episcopalians also produce a nice resource:

There are also some basic models for bible study you can use for any passage of Scripture without needing to have a special lesson plan written for that week. For example:

Of these, T.R.I.P is the one that Oaks Indian Mission uses for their daily text resource, inspired by the spirituality of the Moravians and Martin Luther's approach to prayer, and mutual invitation is my favorite way to read Scripture as lectio divina.

I hope these pointers are helpful for connecting groups with a simple method for studying Scripture together.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

One thing I love about Lutherans, among many...

Young people are connecting globally through Lutheran World Federation (LWF)
Over 200 young people from 27 groups in different countries have already registered for LWF together -- the earth needs you, an innovative program sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation. Each group will be matched with two groups in other continents for a six-month period of Bible study, environmental projects, and building relationships through the Internet.  Register your group of 2 to 15 members, with a majority in ages 15-30, by April 1, 2011, and receive a handbook and guidelines for the time period of May through October. See 

A resource worth reading

ELCA Disaster Response - Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

New ELCA Proposed Social Statement

The new ELCA Proposed Social Statement on Genetics has been released, and although it will not be as controversial in some ways as the one passed two years ago, I think this one will actually be of greater and more far-reaching consequence moving forward. I'd love to study it with a group, perhaps especially with scientists and those more informed than I am on medical ethics, etc.

Monday, February 21, 2011

On Being Different Together

What's that quote about "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer"? I think Sun-Tzu said it in the art of war, but I'd like to make an argument for a modified version of it as a definition of what church should be like. Something like, "Keep your tribe close, and other tribes even closer." Or something like that.

I know clergy in other denominations, for example, where a majority of their congregation votes all of the same persuasion. I know congregations that expect considerable uniformity of thought and confession. I even used to have breakfast with a pastor who would always ask me how I tolerate being in a church where I know clergy (as well as parishioners) think and confess quite differently from myself. He came out of a "close" communion tradition where all the clergy were trained to think via very similar and tight confessional categories.

However, I think my own practice as a Christian is like this--I have (often) strong sensibilities about what I confess and believe, but I intentionally cultivate relationships in traditions far flung from my own. I like to think I'm both strong and open at the same time. For example, I subscribe to both Sojourners and First Things, The Atlantic and The New Republic, The Lutheran Forum and The Lutheran. That illustrates the practice I'm encouraging in terms of magazine subscriptions, and as a bonus advertises some good magazines.

Similarly, in parish life, my preferred modus operandi is to be very clear about where I come from in terms of my personal faith, politics, etc., but then to create space for people of widely disparate perspectives to also have a place at the table and in the congregation with me. I probably often fail at this, and am blind to the ways my own leanings influence others are keep me closer to my tribe than to those outside my tribe, but if I do this, please tell me. The only way I can avoid is to continually learn and be reminded.

What I think is witnessed in Scripture, perhaps especially in the diversity of the early church leaders, some of whom were missionaries to the Gentiles, while others were missionaries to the Jews in Jerusalem, is a similar kind of practice. We're different, they'd say, but we're different together. Jesus himself spent time with very, very different kinds of people, the kinds of people most people, even extremely "together" people, preferred apartness from. He practice "open table commensality." We ought to do the same.

So, I consider it a mark of a healthy church and a faithful people that it can live together with considerable difference. Fusions of horizon are very difficult, we see this all the time. But if we can't live together there's simply no possibility for the Spirit to do the work of reconciliation.

Fierce humility. Maybe that's the best title for this approach. Strongly convicted in faith, but humble enough to know that all convictions are interim convictions when seen in light of the eschaton. Not hiding behind a mask of supposed impartiality. It is probably the best way to bring races, and classes, and nations, together as the one body in Christ.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Lutheran Roots Rock Renaissance

My musical interests are widely eclectic. However, a majority of the music I own falls into two categories--indie rock and jazz. But within those genres there is great diversity, and I enjoy the full range of that diversity. Perhaps the only style of music I tend not to listen to is what you might classify as "popular." I very seldom listen to Top 40 stuff, and my leanings for radio stations lean towards independent radio and NPR, jazz, blues, and reggae and bluegrass if I can find it.

My preference for music in worship is influenced by these interests. How could it not be? I love worship that works within my preferred idioms. Jazz. Bluegrass. Indie rock. I also happen to love classical music, at least in small doses, so a few worship services a week singing the classic hymns of the church (and especially chant) is both pleasant and meaningful to me. In fact, ours may be one of the few houses around where the two year old asks at bed time, "Can we sing 'Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping," by which she means the chant version of that great hymn from compline in the LBW, which she knows the entirety of by heart.

That being said, it is somewhat rare for me to be able to find worship in an idiom I totally love. Jazz worship is rare. So is bluegrass and blues. And how often have you been to worship that sounds like Animal Collective, Deerhoof, The Shins, Beck, Arcade Fire, The National, Iron and Wine, Joanna Newsome, The Flaming Lips, or Sufjan Stevens, to name just a few indie rock musicians I'd love to hear more inflections of in contemporary worship. Or, for example, my favorite 20th century composer was Olivier Messiaen, and back in the day when he was an organist in Paris you could hear his music in worship, but good luck finding worship in North America where his compositions are featured. Oh, and have I mentioned that there really should be more reggae worship?! I think you see my point.

In fact, much of what I've heard called "contemporary" worship lives within a narrow band of the contemporary musical scene. It's what is played on most Christian radio. I like it, especially stuff from Chris Tomlin, etc. but it is to my musical ears what Top 40 radio is. I'll listen to it, and even lead some of it in worship, but it isn't taking up tons of shelf space in my CD collection.

And, before I continue, one very important caveat. I am reflecting on all of this not to convince readers that there is one best style of music for worship. There isn't, and I prefer that churches embrace widely eclectic styles. My recommendation is that every worshipper, myself included, should go to church hoping that the music is meaningful and inspiring to someone else. If we all went hoping that the songs were what other people like, "worship wars" and the wide variety of ways we fight over worship styles would take on an incredibly different tone. Actually, they'd just disappear, because we'd no longer be protecting our own musical turf but instead advocating for grace space for others and their musical preferences.

Ok, now I can finally get around to the point of this post, which is the miniature renaissance in Lutheran music represented by I probably appreciate the music collected on these recordings because it is intentionally Lutheran. But I also probably like it because it is outside the mainstream. Beyond that, I love it because it is crossover music, seeking to be both contemporary, but also liturgical.

Jonathan Rundman was and continues to be my entry point into the Lutheran roots rock renaissance. He was really at the avant-garde of the movement. One of his early albums he titled "Sound Theology," and it contained 52 songs on two albums, one song for each week of the lectionary calendar. A rock album keyed to the lectionary and the church seasons is a great example of how contemporary music can be Lutheran.

I simply love his music, and think his sensibilities as a musician and Lutheran Christian match my own to such a degree that I feel like he is my own personal liturgist and hymnodist. So when he came out with "Protestant Rock Ethic" a few years ago, I was blown away. I took the album with me to confirmation camp, and sat out every afternoon while the kids were swimming and learned the eight songs on that album that he calls the Heartland Liturgy. Each song is one of the primary songs of the ordo--Kyrie, Hymn of Praise, chant setting of the Psalms, Alleluia, The Great Thanksgiving, Holy Holy Holy, Lamb of God, and Canticle for Departure. By the end of the week, I was ready to lead the camp in a Eucharist using the material. Although I don't know if many camps do it, the music is quite suitable for a camp communion liturgy, and would likely be one of the few times a camp setting of worship could be truly liturgical in the traditional sense of that term.

I have now been leading worship using his Heartland Liturgy for years. We used it most Wednesday nights for worship, and it became ingrained in our hearts. Children and families sang it especially robustly, but it catches almost everyone and gathers them up into praise. Over the years, we've invited Jonathan and other musicians like Rachel Kurtz to visit, to strengthen us in learning this Lutheran roots rock tradition.

More recently, I received a CD in the mail from Nate Houge called Becoming Liturgy He has some spot on definitions of liturgy and worship in the CD case worth reading, and he provides a songbook and bulletin inserts free through a creative commons license on his web site. Nate's music satisfies virtually all of my sensibilities--it's rootsie, rockin', and strange (he even sent me a great bumper sticker that reads, "Keep Church Weird" that now adorns my laptop and car).

So, for the time-being, I invite readers to listen to the tons of music these musicians provide on-line for free. Lutheran Songs Today has an especially extensive collection, there's no better place to start your journey of discovery. Even better, go out and buy their music. All these folks make a living playing music, so don't buy just one album and copy it for all your friends. Do them the respect of spending money on their music! I'd love to know if you did, so let me know.

Finally, as part of Lutheran Songs Today, Luther Seminary hosted a conversation on what makes a song Lutheran. Here's a summary report of that conversation:

What does it mean to sing in a Lutheran key? What is a Lutheran song?
1) A Lutheran song is not restricted to Lutherans alone. What we are defining in a Lutheran song is not exclusively Lutheran, but what ischaracteristically Lutheran. Many of the features we identify in Lutheran songs are also common to other traditions and expressions of singing. Avoiding a vague blurring of Lutheran identity to reach some truncated bottom common denominator, we instead claim that a clear embracing of Lutheran identity is the best way to practice the hospitality of Christ in a pluralistic world.
2) A Lutheran song confesses the faith. A Lutheran song announces the Gospel, through paraphrasing of scripture, interpretation of scripture, a sung sermon, a midrash, or a life story.
3) A Lutheran song is singable. A Lutheran song can be sung not just by the extremely talented, but by the many. Whether the focus in a song is on the strong beat or the offbeat, whether the song moves with a Gregorian or Salsa beat, the goal is to fully engage the singers.
4) A Lutheran song springs from a Lutheran way of speaking the faith. Lutheran don’t claim to have some truth which others do not have. Lutherans point to thetruth, Lutherans relate with the truth, with Christ. A Lutheran way of speaking/singing the faith acknowledges our lack of answers, our weakness and doubts, and includes laments and a cry for justice (i.e. – the theology of the cross). A Lutheran way of speaking/singing the faith finds joy and new life in trust, not certitude; in faith, not sight; in the truth living among us, but not the possessing of that truth.
5) A Lutheran song comes through many cultures but is not contained solely by any of them.
A Lutheran song can come to form through many music cultures – through the styles of classical, country, jazz, blues, hip-hop, pop, folk, ska, Gospel, Taizé, rock, spirituals, etc. A Lutheran song can come to form through many ethnic cultures - Latin, African, Norwegian, Detroit Motown, etc.
6) A Lutheran song is a living event, guided by the Holy Spirit. (This last point came from informal discussions after the panel ended.) A Lutheran song is a living event, best led by a strong song leader. The best written song can be rendered lifeless and without spirit if it is simply played and people are not invited and led. A strong song leader, vocal or instrumental or simply with personality, welcomes people into the song and into the presence of the living Spirit.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Martin Luther, renewer of the church, died 1546

On this day in 1546, Martin Luther died at the age of sixty-two. For a time, he was an Augustinian monk, but it is his work as a biblical scholar, translator of the bible, public confessor of the faith, reformer of the liturgy, theologian, educator, and father of German vernacular literature that holds him in our remembrance. In Luther's own judgment, the greatest of all of his works was his catechism, written to instruct people in the basics of the faith. And it was his baptism that sustained him in his trials as a reformer.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Preparing for Lent Part Two

Lenten Lectionary

The lectionary for Lent encourages and trains readers in self-suspicion. This begins on Ash Wednesday. While the congregation gathers and wears their ashes on their foreheads in a visible symbol of piety, they hear Joel declare, “Rend your hearts and not your clothing (2:13). The preacher, who may later in the service pray long prayers, reads Jesus’ words, “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (6:5). And again, a bit later, the congregation with oil and ash on their heads, will hear “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting” (6:16). Hypocrisy indeed!
However, do not let the lessons disuade from the practices. Let the tensions stand. The tensions preach, for they cut to the heart if we listen with the heart. These tensions run throughout the Lenten season, and they are worth noting, even drawing out as a theme. The devil is the first instigator, tempting Jesus in the wilderness by quoting the very Word of God (4:5). Nicodemus, seemingly so faithful and curious, is not brave enough, let alone faithful enough, to travel by day, and instead visits Jesus at night. Self-protection? Symbolism? In any event, worship leaders and preachers beware, and attend to Jesus’ question, “Are you a teacher of [the church], and you do not understand these things?” (3:10).
As the gospel lessons for Lent continue, it is the gospel of John that takes center stage, and the self-suspicion continues. However, there is a new literary strategy at work. Repeatedly, characters in the readings fail to understand something. The Samaritan woman does not understand, at least at first, Jesus’ meaning concerning living water. Next, a blind man sees (literally and figuratively), while the Pharisees, so convinced of their ability to see, are found uttering (ironically), “Surely we are not blind, are we (9:40). Finally, even Jesus’ closest friends, Mary and Martha, in their brush with the death of their brother Lazarus, are catechized in true faithfulness. As we read through each of these misunderstandings and further developments, something becomes clear. Our own vision is clarified. We see with new eyes. John’s gospel teaches the reader by learning from the mistakes of others.
These texts so clearly focus on self-suspicion and “seeing” that it is almost imperative that worship leaders find ways to show forth the gospel lessons in their worship space. Consider lifting out and rephrasing key questions in the gospels, then printing them on posters or banners to place throughout the church building. “We are not blind, are we?” “Where can I find this living water?” “Why, Jesus, did you let my loved one die?” “Are you really the Son of God?”
Each of these stories can also be readily portrayed in art, glass, mosaic, or 3-D. Consider soliciting the artistic talents of the members of the congregation, and create a “Stations of Lent.” The series would be: temptation of Jesus, Nicodemus at night, Samaritan woman at the well, blind man receives sight and puzzles Pharisees, and Lazarus being raised from the dead.

Lent Midweek

Some congregations are so busy with programs, small groups, choir rehearsals, meetings, and events that Lenten Mid-week services simply add to the mix and crowd it. In these congregations, the discipline of mid-week Lenten devotional services may be an invitation to simplify. Martha Grace Reese, in her resource Unbinding the Gospel, an evangelism and prayer resource designed to be used over a 40-day period like Lent, suggests that churches cancel all other events while studying the book, in order to fast, pray, and simplify. Congregations don’t necessarily need to study such a book during Lent, but they may do well to simplify during this season in order to make space for the “disciplines” of Lent.
Other congregations, however, are so weak in their small group ministries, so enervated in general, that Lenten Mid-week services may be exactly the discipline needed to spark renewed passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the patterns of church life that can sustain and flame that passion. In congregations like this, make use of Lenten mid-week services not to simplify but instead to offer opportunities for deepening and development. Prepare meals together with a prayer service built into the meal. Review the abundant resources that are available to renew Lent as a season of baptismal spirituality. The mid-week service can provide context and pattern for small group meetings, communal meals, and an emphasis on spiritual journey, fasting, prayer, etc.
Many congregations find this a fruitful time to offer a devotional series. Since this Lent includes many of the great psalms of the church, consider doing a devotional series on Psalm 32, 121, 95, 23, and 130, or a series on Luther's Small Catechism.

Reward for anyone who can identify the source of this quote:

"We teach that rewards have been offered and promised to the works of the faithful. We teach that good works are meritorious—not for the forgiveness of sins, grace, or justification (for we obtain these only by faith) but for other physical and spiritual rewards in this life and in that which is to come, as Paul says (1 Cor 3:8), "Each shall receive his wages according to his labor." Therefore there will be different rewards for different labors."

And this one:

"In this sense we concede that Christians have merit and a reward with God, but not in order to make them children of God and heirs of eternal life. Rather it is intended to console believers who al­ ready have this, to let them know that He will not leave unrewarded what they suffer here for Christ's sake, but that if they suffer much and labor much, He will adorn them specially on the Last Day, more and more gloriously than the others, as special stars that are greater than others... a recompense of greater glory for greater suffering"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Faith and Worker Justice Bibliography

Since the state I just moved from (Wisconsin) is having significant struggles on the collective bargaining front, and since the state I just moved to is a "Right to Work" state, a concept I'm still getting my head around, -and- since I've been in the mood to write bibliographies, here's another one, this one on faith and the social gospel and worker justice. All of these are great resources on organizing and how to think of the dignity of work from a Christian perspective.

A Worker Justice Reader: Essential Writings on Religion and Labor Recently published by Interfaith Worker Justice, a great organization working in communities around the country.

Blue Collar Jesus: How Christianity Supports Workers' Rights- Written by a good friend and colleague in the pastor-theologian program of CTI.

Blue Collar Resistance and the Politics of Jesus: Doing Ministry with Working Class Whites I simply adore the writings of Tex Sample, and this is one of his best!

Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church Indeed!

Organizing for Social Change 4th Edition Written by the executive director of IWJ.

Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing What grass roots organizing looks like at the congregational level.

And of course, if you go in for such things as reading social statements published by denominations (I do), then here's the link to the ELCA social statement on economic life:

Lutherans rock!

Hey Clint,

Something amazing is happening next Friday at Luther Seminary.
It is, literally speaking, the greatest gathering of contemporary Lutheran songwriters in history!

It's a Lutheran Songs Today concert: (scroll down a bit for concert details, and collage of artist photos)
Check out that lineup! On the same stage!!
and MORE!

Not even the ELCA Youth Gathering has been able to assemble such a diverse and influential group of Lutheran performers!

We're all pretty excited about it, and we're trying to generate a little buzz out on the internet. Might you consider mentioning this event on your Lutheran Confessions blog?

Do you know other well-trafficked Lutheran blogs who I should notify?

Thanks for your help and advice!

Jonathan Rundman

Preparing for Lent

Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Before we seek to score points against the genetic fallacies and ad hominem arguments of modern atheists, before we ‘turn suspicion against the suspicious,’ perhaps we ought to adopt self-suspicion ‘as the hermeneutics of Lent.’ We ought to consider the possibility that in our own religion, ‘what presents itself as an altruistic virtue may be, in terms of motive and function, only an egoistic vice dressed up in its Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes’[1]
In the summer of 2009, Rob Bell hosted Poets, Prophets, Preachers, a conference on reclaiming the art of the sermon. One presenter at the event, Peter Rollins, convenes an “iconic” collective that offers experiments in transformance art, sometimes also called theodramatic events. Ikon defies easy or simple definition. However, it is fair to say that what they are up to, at least in part, is to offer a radical, postmodern form of worship for those on the margins of faith and the church. To learn more about Ikon, visit or :
For our purposes, we consider one exercise Ikon engages in that can inform our Lenten worship preparations. They call it “Atheism for Lent.” Each year, they read a book influenced by, or about, the prominent hermeneuts of suspicion: Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. This practice, though radical, resonates with Cornelius Plantinga’s idea in A Breviary of Sin, quoted above, and may be a fruitful approach to Lent in 2011.
Why? Because our own religion can easily become an egoistic vice dressed up in Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes, and our own people, and especially our neighbors, know this. Pastors and church leaders are not unfamiliar with the critique of the church, that it is full of hypocrites who act one way on Sunday, and another way the rest of the week. And truthfully, even the leaders of the churches, maybe especially the leaders of the churches, are guilty of this. So Lent, the season of repentance, begins with a reminder of our profound sin and mortality (Ash Wednesday), and walks us all the way to a cross which, if we are honest, we recognize as the place where we crucified the son of God. It is not at all out of place, during this time, to listen to those suspicious of religion, and suspicious of the church, precisely in order to encourage and develop our own self-suspicion.
There are other ways to exercise self-suspicion during Lent. One is to recommit to the practice of confession. Encourage regular corporate confession in the congregation, but also exercise the rite of individual confession and absolution. Begin with yourself and the leadership. Do not encourage the members of the congregation to schedule a time for individual confession and absolution if you have not first confessed yourself. Remember also to take small steps in this, because individual confession and absolution is a rite that has fallen into disuse in most of our churches, and so can be intimidating in even small doses. Teach it and discuss it in small groups and with key leaders. Ask a neighboring pastor to hear your confession if you are the sole pastor in a congregation. Find a monastic community or religious order that practices individual confession and find out whether opportunity is available to learn about and make use of the confessional. Seek out a neighboring pastor also if you feel uncomfortable confessing to your own pastor. And remember that all the baptized are welcome to hear confession, and speak the words of absolution.

Ash Wednesday

Each of the sections in Evangelical Lutheran Worship begins with an introduction and then what is termed “Pattern for Worship.” It is worthwhile to review these “patterns” at the beginning of a new church season in order to step back and examine the overall shape of the rite. This is especially useful when planning worship for Lent and the Three Days, because “on several key days at the center of the church year… worship takes a particular shape” (ELW, 247).
Ash Wednesday is an especially solemn day, and focuses on repentance. This much is generally known. But the overall shape of the service for Ash Wednesday is penitential, not just the individual elements of it. The assembly is called to gather in silence. This is often difficult to accomplish in reality, and may require special planning. Signs can help, or special instructions to the greeters, but lighting and environment also play a role. It may even help to announce the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday that when people arrive, they remember the solemn and penitential nature of the service, and prepare themselves for silence, shut off their phones, pray as they drive or ride bus or walk to service, and in every way enter into the season with solemnity.
The service then continues with a reading (or better, a chanted version of) Psalm 51. Consider inviting a solo voice to sing some verses, and a small ensemble to sing antiphonally with the single voice. This can accentuate the psalm as a prayer on the lips of David and of the gathered community.
The lessons and sermon are followed by a special invitation to Lent and an opportunity for Confession of Sin. Prepare a way for the congregation to make confession not only with their mouths but also with their bodies. Provide kneelers if this is possible. If not, suggest a prayer posture. In some settings, this might be as simple as inviting worshippers to open their hands and turn them slightly upwards as they pray, in this way showing their empty hands desirous of mercy.
Following the confession, the congregation moves, kneels, hears that they are dust and receives ashes on their forehead, and then continues appeals to God for mercy and forgiveness. Some worship leaders may find this pattern problematic, because it does not offer an absolution. The absolution is delayed until the end of the Lenten season. Consider proclaiming an absolution prior to communion in the liturgy, if this is important in your context. However, consider also wrestling with the idea of a delayed absolution as the congregation confesses, and then goes on a journey, a fast, hungry for a liberating word they know is on the way—hungry with and for Jesus for 40 days.

[1] Cornelius Plantinga, A Breviary of Sin: Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, page 111, referencing Westphal, “Taking Suspicion Seriously,” pp. 34, 37.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A helpful book review in...

Journal of Comparative Theology The New Comparative Theology Book Review

Mission developer bibliography

A significant contributor to my re-thinking of church and the way it can be organized has come through what I read. 45%, to be precise, based on statistical analysis. The other 55% comes from a mixture of personal experience, commitment to reaching those disconnected from traditional forms of church, and highly caffeinated coffee.

The reason books are so important, in my estimation, has to do with their ability to radically expand our horizons and help us think outside the box. Left to our own devices, we all can be somewhat parochial. Books, especially books written by people far afield of our own perspective, can quickly disabuse us of our sense that the church is only and always as we currently experience it. Church is much more wild and wooly than that.

So here is a somewhat random and disorganized list of the books that have influenced my own thinking the most re: mission development. Often the titles will tell you what you need to know, and the links, all to Amazon, can lead you to summaries and reader comments. I've written a few reviews on Amazon of some of these volumes:

Evangelizing Church This is the definitive Lutheran volume.

The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church This is one of those books that will blow your mind. I needed to read it three times to really let it sink in, and it still hasn't.

Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism, 2nd Edition One of the most winning writers I've ever encountered.

Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens This guy is brave and amazing.

Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time A great model for thinking small through multiplication, and going deep in discipleship.

The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative This is the big picture bible resource for thinking about God and mission.

Makers This one is a sci-fi novel, just a disclaimer.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Some notes from a pastor trying to imagine mission development

As I have been initiating a conversation in our congregation about what it looks like to do mission development in our context (perhaps especially focused on reaching the university community, and shifting to a multi-site model for ministry), I've been learning a lot by being in conversation and reading. Here are a few notes of grace I keep returning to that I think can help guide such conversations.

1) It's about God, and God's call. If we can keep that mantra central, "What is God calling us to do and be?" it will frame the conversation in a faithful way. It might also be good to remember where we have been and where God has been active in that, in order to see how God might be calling us in the future. God's shaping influence on a congregation in the past can help chart a path into God's future.

2) Think in terms of both/and and asset categories. What are our assets, and how can we creatively bring our assets together in fruitful ways to build up God's kingdom and do mission? And I tend to think developing a campus ministry (as well as other kinds of mission development) do not need to succumb to zero-sum thinking. It's adding, not changing. 

I've learned a ton about asset-based planning from Luther Snow and his model for asset-mapping:

3) It's a grand experiment. Mission development is new and innovative for all of us (with the possible exception of the radical innovators in our midst), so let's give each other grace to explore and grow and learn while we talk about it. We're talking about doing church differently (at least for Lutherans) than it has often been done, so we need to give everyone time to learn and become part of the conversation, and we/I need to remember that we don't have all the answers, we're figuring it out together. It's also helpful to be reminded sometimes that innovation diffuses in a relatively similar manner in almost all communities, described well by Everett Rogers in Diffusions of Innovation.

And then kind of a fourth, I always like the idea of problem solving and brainstorming. Get lots of creative (even wacky and crazy) ideas out on the table first, and think of all the fun things that are possible. Then only later filter. So for example, if I'm brainstorming about Lutheran campus ministry,  and I learn we can't call a mission developer this year (or even that the congregation and I, in this conversation, discern a different missional focus), then ask, "What can we do in the next year that builds our chances of getting grants next year, is innovative, and reaches university folk with the good news Lutherans have to offer, or moves us forward in mission development in ways that participate in God's mission in the world?" 

Finally, a mission-developer with whom I consult said, "If you do hit setbacks, they are sometimes (probably often) God moments." What can we learn from the times God slows us down and leads in ways we didn't expect? That's an important and faithful question and concept to keep in the mix. I've learned by moving here, and having a new baby arrive in our lives soon after starting work in the church, that this is a caring congregation that loves its pastor, and that when you have a new baby, you automatically are thinking about new life and possibilities. It's inspiring. We love this place and are blessed to be here!

Here are some further reflections from the mission developer I found particularly helpful:

It costs you nothing to be fascinated with a conversation and willing to explore what things would look like . . . .
[mission development] timetables are always all over the map . . . and the miracle is finding a way to bring anything to a ripe place at a time when action can be clearly taken.   It can and will happen, but brokering mission as a senior pastor means sometimes you are thinking ahead and exploring things you might not stir into your own setting for months . . .. . you and your congregation are always in charge of your timing, but knowing what partnership opportunities are opening up and stirring that into the leadership conversations at a time when it can be constructively engaged is a matter of patience, rapport, courage and timing. 
but I am always willing to try to imagine any possibilities with people that they are willing to field,  and sometimes the best commitment is to agree to look for an opportunity to field and idea with some leadership or planning group when possible, without forcing it prematurely.  After all, our congregations need to know that we love them more than our "plans" if our plans are to have any traction.
"What if" . . . . .if you can get leadership to ask that question a bunch, then you can get a climate of exploration going.

Gain all you can save all you can give all you can

Global Ministries - John Wesley, Sermon 50, The Use of Money

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Second Life for the Church

Estes, Douglas. SimChurch: Being the Church in theVirtual World. Zondervan, 2009, 256 pages.

Of all the books I have read in preparation for a class next month on Church in the Age of Facebook, this is the one I was most pre-disposed to disagree with and perhaps even dislike. Although I am a strong proponent of the use of new media for communication, I have generally had a bias against the idea that online communities could authentically host “church.” I think my doubts about “SimChurch” are probably especially related to the high view of the sacraments I hold as a Lutheran Christian, but I also think I simply don’t understand—and have not participated in—simulated worlds enough to have a warm or favorable sense of them.
I find myself surprised, and in awe, because not only has Douglas Estes won me over, at least to the point of recognizing that the church needs to offer some kind of virtual church in the present era, but he has actually won me over so completely that I am already trying to envision how our church might better do mission starts in the virtual world, and how my denomination, the ELCA, can direct mission developer energy in that direction. In the same way that J.W.C. Dietrichson followed the Norwegian settlers to the new world in order to organize them into churches, it is incumbent upon us as Lutherans to figure out how to be with people on this new, growing frontier.
Which is not to say that I agree with Estes on all points. I still think offering the sacraments in a virtual context, no matter how you slice it, is questionable. But it is part of the strength of Estes’s book that instead of investing too much time into the “whether” of the sacraments online, Estes devotes attention to best practices given that churches online will need to do something. His outline of four different ways to do communion (Symbolic virtual communion, avatar-mediated virtual communion, extensional virtual communion, or outsourced virtual communion) offers an analysis of the range of options. Furthermore, his sense that “virtual sacraments [may] reinvigorate the use of sacraments in real world churches” is undoubtedly correct, because everything about the virtual world and the avatar experience can, experienced properly, reinvigorate real world practice.
I think I also have been won over by Estes because he has done his homework, and actually is able to engage both biblical theology and ecclesiology in order to make his argument. Often, in order to discuss, for example, what church actually is, he takes us back to the letters of Paul, in order to get clear on what Paul actually meant by ecclesia. “It is fair to say that Paul believes himself to be part of these local churches, even though he may not be geographically close… Paul does not appear to view geography or space as a factor that can limit his participation in the church.”[1] Similarly, he is conversant with some of the classic literature in ecclesiology, and points out that “’our concept of the Church is basically influenced by the form of the Church at any given time.’ It will be tempting for many moderns (and those foreign to the culture of the virtual world) to reject the authenticity of virtual churches simply because they are not forms of church that they are accustomed to.”[2]
Furthermore, it is the overall awareness raising he accomplishes in the book that blows me away. “The Christian church is engaging far less than 1 percent of the seventy million people who are active in the virtual world. This means the virtual world is by far the largest unreached people group on planet Earth. Simon Jenkins, one of the founders of Church of Fools, remarks that ‘it’s like someone has created a new town and no one has thought to build a church there. It’s almost scandalous.”[3] “One thing virtual churches could use is good, healthy, constructive dialog with real-world churches—and not being looked down upon the way just about every new group of churches has been looked down upon throughout church history by more traditional forms of church.”[4]
Estes has also done his homework experientially. He’s been to the churches in the virtual world and attended their worship and participated in community. Some of the ones I found most intriguing I provide links for here: This is the virtual world he refers to most often, and on Second Life, he is especially favorable towards the model of church on offer by the Anglican Cathedral on Second Life, which has a blog: This is the continuing iteration of what started as the Church of Fools, a mission experiment by the Methodist Church. An Internet based church with real world and virtual world manifestations

            Estes considers each of these, in some form or another, to be a real, and surprisingly a “local” church, inasmuch as local is defined not by geography, but by the fact that they are a group belong together and presided over by Christ.
            Midway through the book, Estes admits, “If we want to reach people in the virtual world, we have to reach avatars, even though the whole avatar thing gives a lot of church people the willies.”[5] That is very true, and even understated. I think a main reason why my own denomination has virtually no virtual presence is that either we just don’t get it, we don’t think it matters, or we have some kind of cultural aversion to it. Maybe tons of Lutherans are on Second Life and they just aren’t talking about it, but it seems to me it is simply a cultural context distant from most of our leaders, and possibly members. So being present there is truly a mission issue for us of major proportions. It means crossing a cultural frontier, learning a new language, in fact learning a new way of being and being present—as an avatar. And as Estes explains in an excursus on pages 94-95 of the book, we cannot go there in order to just invite online avatars to attend our real churches. We need to be church there, for them, where they are.
            Hear this call to action: “The church is poised to fail big-time—to drop a ball of monumental proportions. Here’s how it will play out. As tens of millions of people flock to virtual worlds, traditional Christians who fear change in the church at large will see alarmist headlines about the virtual world and will dismiss the virtual world as one big sinful fantasy, as being not real. They will turn the virtual world over to its own devices, and tens of millions of people—with no true ethical compass—will embrace greater free agency and then write their own rules on what is right and wrong… the solution that many church leaders may propose is either to warn their followers away from the virtual world or to speak ex cathedra from their real-world churches. As history demonstrates, neither of these will work. The solution is quite simple. If we want to reach a world for Christ, to turn it away from sin and selfishness back to real freedom and true peace found only in God, we’ll make it happen only by planting churches in that world, to reach and sanctify its people (1 Peter 2:9).”[6]
            Estes offers a comparable challenge for leaders of virtual churches. “How will they do ministries that appear to be impossible (or at a sever disadvantage) in the virtual world—ministries such as social, helps, or mission ministries?”[7] Estes hints that these churches may already be accomplish some of these ministries simply by being virtual churches. Many virtual churches are attended by marginalized groups—people with phobias, autism, Tourets, or other special needs that makes it difficult for them to attend real world church. However, since virtual church is a gated community at least in the sense that only those with the technology and know-how to set up an avatar and be there can attend, virtual churches will have to give more than average kinds of energy to trying to be the hands and feet of Christ not just online but in the real world.
            I hope this gives readers a sense of why this book is so important, so powerful, and so timely. It’s definitely the most transformative book I’ve read in the past few years, and I am incredibly surprised to admit that.

[1] 46.
[2] 35, quoting Han Küng’s The Church.
[3] 29.
[4] 40.
[5] 79.
[6] 164.
[7] 202.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Mysticism of Preaching

The mystics of the world often share much in common--they are in some ways the true meeting grounds for the world faiths. I admire their exploration of the mystical landscape, but have typically not thought of myself as mystic. Hymn verses like "mystic sweet communion" are fun to sing, but not existentially relevant.

However, today I was reminded, as I return to the task of sermon preparation after a two week break for paternity leave, that much of my sermon preparations are of the mystical sort. Without going into the neuroscience or phenomenology of mysticism too deeply, I'm just going to note a few ways that preparing to preach feels like my closest approximation of the mystical and the numinous.

1) The Wow Factor: At least a couple of times per week, as I am sitting with and studying Scripture in preparation to preach on it, I just stop, think about it, and exclaim, "Wow. Wow. Wow." The Word is not amazing in its depth and clarity, simplicity and complexity, wonder and mundanity, that all I can say is, "Wow." Often when I'm driving or walking to church Sunday morning, the sermon pregnant in my thoughts and hearts, I think to myself, "I wish everyone who hears this sermon can feel and think what I'm feeling and thinking right now, which is much less about individual points or content of what I will preach, but the sheer awesomeness of the text, and God in the text."

2) The Where-did-it-come-from Factor: It never happens that I don't have a sermon. Often times I have two, three, or even four sermons, that could be preached on a given text. If you take into account all three (four) of the lectionary texts, if I spend time studying them, there could be even more sermons ready at hand. Do I do this? No way. I just till and water the field, but it is God who gives the growth.

3) The Where-is-this-coming-from Factor: This is similar to but different from point 2. This is the time when parts of the sermon simply come to me while I'm preaching the sermon, not prior to. Often some of the best parts of a sermon come right in the moment, and I have no idea where they came from. Certainly, I did my best studying and reading and praying all week, but in the moment, it's like wave-upon-wave of gift.

4) The Wonder Factor: I might also call this the body factor, because it has to do with the overall feeling preparing to preach can have. This doesn't happen every week, but often it is just this warm feeling that hits me in the lower part of my brain, relaxes my shoulder, deepens and quickens my breath. It is the closest I have ever come to what some describe as that "God picked me up and hugged me" feeling they have had that is their own personal mystical experience.

5) The Wacky Factor: I'm most likely to have these discoveries and feeling if I attend to what is most strange, weird, or wacky in the text. I also think that when you seek the mystical you won't find it, but when you are busily engaged in other things, it will sneak up on you. God is like that.

On a final note, for the best treatment of a mystical experience in a novel that I have ever read, consider David Rhode's spectacular novel Driftless, set in the driftless zone of southwest Wisconsin. You won't be disappointed.