Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Glasnost... Lutheran Style

In the fall of 1996 I lived at the Lutheran House of Studies in Washington D.C. My course load was light and I didn't have a job, so I had plenty of free time on my hands. Barnes & Noble (which was, if you remember, at that time in its ascendancy, bringing the blessing of big box bookstores to cities across our country) was hosting a book signing, but the guest wasn't just anybody. It was Mikhail Gorbachev!

I went out and immediately purchased the book, then got to the B&N very early the morning of the signing--I think it was like 7 a.m. He was going to sign books for one hour starting at noon. I was approximately 30th in line.

I can't remember what I was reading for that five hour period. I think it might have been Edward Schillebeeckx's Christ. I had been sitting around much of that semester in various bookstores and coffeeshops reading that two volume set, the first volume titled: Jesus.

In any event, I was so hyped up with anticipation I don't think I read that much. Then at noon, the line started moving. Gorbachev very kindly signed my book while I stood at a distance of about twenty feet, the space between us protected by two very sturdy guards. The first guard searched my book and handled it. Then Gorbachev signed it. Then the second guard handed it back to me.

Since that time, I've kept his Memoirs safely in a plastic bag in a cool, dry place. I've actually never read the book, because it was the only copy I could afford at the time. It was signed, and who wants to handle overly much a book signed by an author who lives in Russia and only did one signing of his book in the U.S. for one hour, in Washington D.C. on a short visit?

I'm looking at the book right now. I pulled it out just to verify my post. His signature is inscribed on the title page in a mostly illegible script, black-felt marker. The back of the dust jacket includes Gorbachev and Reagan embracing each other doing a man-hug. You know what I mean... the half-hug with a handshake in-between. I get chills remembering that period in history, the end of the Cold War. It means so much even if we have mostly stopped discussing it.

You have to remember, Gorbachev was the head of state in the U.S.S.R. precisely when I was coming to both historical and global awareness, my high school years. He loomed so large in my imagination. It was almost unbelievable to actually meet him.


So, what does this have to do with anything, you ask? Well, one of my favorite words from Gorbachev, and perhaps one of my favorite words of all time, is Glasnost. You probably know what it means: openness and transparency. For Gorbachev it meant those things in his own political context, especially at the higher levels of government in the U.S.S.R.

But I hold transparency as a very high value, period. I don't always achieve it. But I try. And I tend to think all organizations and all groups benefit when they function with a commitment to Glasnost.

Let me give an example of why. So, I've known a good number of Lutheran pastors who won't ever let on what their own personal political biases are. They believe in order to lead a congregation well, they need to hide their political perspective. Their goal in this is admirable. They want to make space for the diversity of political perspectives present in their congregations, and they fear letting on to their own will exclude some or encourage others.

However, two problems arise from this lack of transparency. First, it gives a congregation the illusion that a pastoral leader could in fact be "apolitical," or even should be "apolitical." As if Christian ministry somehow transcends or stands apart from the life of citizenship and polis. In fact many Christians are under the illusion that the church could or should do this. I happen to think it's impossible. I also think if Christianity really is what it says it is, it has to be political, in addition to being theological, and cultural, and religious, and so on...

All of this precisely illustrates the second problem, that inasmuch as we think we can submerge our politics and just do ministry, we have fooled ourselves. It's a modernist heresy, that there is an objective point you could get to and stand above your own biases and operate outside of them. But you can't. And you don't. So even if I try to be as absolutely objective as possible and not take sides in the political realm, especially in my preaching, teaching, etc. (and actually I do try to do this... I never preach intentionally "political" or "partisan" sermons), the fact is that I can't escape being political in various ways, because my worldview shapes what I do, and often shapes it in ways unknown to me.

This is where Glasnost comes in handy. If I am completely transparent with people about my own biases, there is a better chance they will be able to tease out and identify what aspects of my preaching or leadership arise out of my political worldview. If they know me really well, this will help them hear the gospel better, regardless of whether they agree with me or disagree with me. They'll be able to see what parts I'm presenting as gospel that are actually my own bias. Then they have the chance to shape future preaching and teaching by calling me out.

Additionally, I have it as a deep goal as a pastor that people can really be themselves at church, and in order to accomplish this, we need to pursue a pattern of radical inclusion. Inclusion doesn't mean hiding most of who you are and only including in public church situations the parts of you you think will be palatable to others. Real and radical inclusion allows you to be present with the community especially with your radical ideas and strange outliers intact. You get to bring the whole "you" along for the ride.

And so do I.

Because I was a somewhat philosophical "early adopter" of social media, early on I had to decide how transparent I would be in my on-line presence. I decided to be completely transparent (inasmuch as I can--of course we all present ourselves in social media, so I would be fooling myself to think that I'm actually totally transparent). If you are calling me as a pastor (as my church in Arkansas did 18 months ago), hiring me for a writing project, wondering who I am as a person... well, it's all out there. Or a large percentage of it is.

If you disagree with me, that doesn't mean I want to exclude you. In fact, just the opposite, I'd like to know you in your own peculiarity, and discuss our differences, because I think I will grow from that. Challenge me. Engage me. Just yesterday I, the progressive communitarian (or whatever I am) had an intentional conversation over BBQ with a libertarian member of my congregation about health care reform. Just because I'm transparent with who I am doesn't mean others around me have to be like me. We had an awesome conversation, made all the better by the fact that we let each other be who we are in our difference.

True transparency, true Glasnost, means everyone in the institution gets to be and communicate transparently who they are and what they think, and that very transparency and openness will benefit the organization as a whole.

This is why I love starting groups like the ELCA Clergy Facebook group. By letting all clergy at any level in our denomination communicate directly with one another about anything at all, even communicating information and details that in the past might have been the special privilege of certain church staffers, or internal to certain organizations, I think it strengthens the community as a whole.

Similarly, I'm not a big fan of structures that try to keep everyone "on message." That's the opposite of transparency. Demanding that everyone talk the same about the same things leaves everyone around it wondering what is really going on, what the real deal is.

I tend to think Jesus was very much in favor of Glasnost. He was quite a bit about light shining into dark places (John 1:5). Or I am reminded of Augustine's hard and fast condemnation of any kind of lying at all, even the white lies that hide things (curious? Check out Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity).

And then a final admission. Every once in awhile, even in contexts I have cultivated to be "open," I find myself unwilling or unable to allow everything to be open. I don't always say everything. I've sometimes deleted posts that say more than I want to see said. Glasnost is no easy thing. It takes strength, and moral courage. And it requires us to admit how often we fail, and how much we hide.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Spirituality of New Media: An Excerpt from a Developing Dissertation

At this point in the dissertation, there is considerable temptation to claim that in the final theological analysis, everything that has gone before, even those topics that have appeared completely secular, sociological, ethnographic, cultural, or technological, are in fact, spiritual. No special theological discourse transcending layering over the previous discourses is necessary. In fact such a discourse on the theological or spiritual analysis of media and faith formation as a special case requiring further reflection would itself be problematic, because it reinforces and reifies a dichotomy between the secular and sacred. So the chapter could be very short. Christ works through faith formation technologies. God is in the gears. Social media is spiritual. MMORPGs are a proleptic taste of the New Jerusalem. God as Trinity is into new media and especially likes the catechumenate.
            Of course I jest, and yet such claims have merit. Often we look for the activity of God, the work of the Spirit, the presence of Christ, in all kinds of places separate from the very places we tend to hang out. God cannot be here, with me on the futon typing these words on an old Mac laptop, right? Yet the answer is God is, and can. However, a theological analysis is still necessary because although it is certainly true that God works through means, God seems to have preferred means for working God’s work in the world. It behooves us, given this reality, to try and tease out precisely what aspects of the development of new media are especially fertile for the Spirit, which aspects of new media are in actuality more temptation than opportunity, curse than blessing. Much of the contemporary discourse around technology tends to either demonize or deify it; in this situation, subtle awareness of theological implications is as important as the awareness of media effects we have been trying to cultivate in previous chapters.
            So let us begin raising awareness of theological implications by attending to a rather incredible and famous essay by Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Here we have an excellent test case, because at first look, it seems referencing Benjamin’s work is simply once again attending to secular cultural analysis rather than the theological canon proper. But bear with me. Benjamin begins his essay arguing that the work of art prior to the age of technological reproducibility had an aura because it had a history, and was embedded within a tradition. This “aura” is “a strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of distance, however near it may be.”[1] We are familiar with this aura, it is the awe experienced because of the proximate distance from us of a celebrity, an historic painting, or architectural wonders. Benjamin, however, sees strange things happening to this aura in the era of mechanical reproducibility, arising out of “the desire of the present-day masses to ‘get closer’ to things, and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness by assimilating it as a reproduction.”[2] Already at this point it is clear that careful cultural analysis on Benjamin’s part is bearing theological fruit. Then he continues, “The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose ‘sense for all that is the same in the world’ has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing significance of statistics. The alignment of reality with the masses and of the masses with reality is a process of immeasurable importance for both thinking and perception.”[3]
            Benjamin’s insight here is remarkable. He turns the tables on statistics. Instead of statistics serving as a secular science that can inform ecclesial discourse, Benjamin sees the rise in significance of statistics occuring precisely as the result of an apocalyptic flattening, even dissolving, of reality into the masses and the masses into reality. At the very least this is a theologically anthropological observation. It may even have soteriological implications. Aura is transfigured and displaced in this new era, and just so what is perceived as spiritual and real are perceived differently because of the rise of new (reproducible) media. More precisely, in the case of statistics, which are a perfect example because statistics are so often referenced in ecclesial strategies and planning, statistics become not tools for "reading the audience" but are instead what make reality itself and become the new scripture. Statistics in this picture do not simply give us new insight into reality. Instead, whatever statistics say are the reality to which reality then conforms. So in short order we have already illustrated the degree to which cultural analysis properly considered is itself theological.

[1] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press), 23.
[2] Benjamin, 23.
[3] Benjamin, 23-24.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Recondite provocations

A baker's dozen (in continuing protest of the metric system)

1. You don't get to choose.

2. Now is not now. And the world is everything that is the case.

3. In ten years you will "be" the device that connects to the Internet.

4. No, you will "be" the Internet.

5. This will be a utopian dream and a dystopian nightmare--many will be surprised for whom and by which.

6. In twenty years any churches still remaining will be their own seminaries.

7. Those who disconnect from the digital sensorium will do so for agnostic reasons, but just so this will be the new pietism.

8. In fifty years, none of this will matter because everyone will be trying to figure out how they can move to northern Canada or Siberia.

9. No, that won't happen at all. It's just a tactic to get you to buy iPhones and a Prius.

10. In ten years everything you eat will be made from corn. Except for what is made from soybeans. Except the parts that aren't. And anyway this is already true.

11. Everything old will be new again. But suspended in the middle with a patina of cool.

12. Some day all art will be everybody's, all of us will be authors, and normal will be the new apocalyptic.

13. Somewhere somebody will finally clear up all the confusion between Incarnational Christianity and Gnostic Religiosity. But nobody will be there to hear it.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Paean to Vacation Bible School

I'll do VBS anywhere, anyhow. Just finished up another week of it, this summer hosted at Rolling Hills Baptist just down the street from Good Shepherd. We do an ecumenical VBS here in Fayetteville in cooperation with First Christian and Rolling Hills and Good Shepherd Lutheran. Because that's how we roll.

Water was the theme, all the ways God has saved through water in Scripture and in our lives. Straightforward bible theme that allowed lots of projects that helped the group escape from the summer heat. Outstanding teamwork on the part of the church staff(s) and volunteer leaders.

Speaking of heat, the summer I traveled for VBS's up and down the Rocky Mountain Synod, I put in a week in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The third day of VBS, this preschooler who everyone thought was the cutest child in the world, called out, "It's hotter than a one minute cheese melter out here." It was 110 degrees. I still don't know what a one minute cheese melter is, but I'll remember that sentence forever.

The very next week, after a wonderful week in Las Cruces (White Sands nearby is the most beautiful place I have ever been), we led VBS at a church in downtown El Paso. We started the week with 20 kids. We ended the week with 120 kids. I don't speak Spanish. But I learned how to say stand up, sit down, sing this please, etc. rather quickly. That week we made things up as we go, the inviting nature of the children transforming our VBS daily as we went along.

During seminary, I served as youth director at Peace Lutheran in Plymouth, MN. That summer we did a space-themed VBS. My senior pastor, Andy Sedlins, is a polymath and jack-of-all-trades. The week before VBS, he built an entire replica of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Campers came in through a kind of tunnel--the sanctuary had been emptied of all chairs and darkened, and each day we came out as characters in a space drama.

I was a robot. A wild and crazy robot who played guitar.

Mid-week I led a session building Estes model rockets. Late in the week a professional model helicopter pilot brought in a helicopter and did a demonstration. It was without a doubt the most complex, rich, quirky, and awesome VBS I have ever helped to put together. I think the camp staff that came out to help us with the week thought we were insane.

I've done VBS in Slovakia. I've done VBS in Mexico. I've done VBS in Lodge Grass, Montana, and Lynne, Massachussets. I've done VBS in seven different U.S. States. I've done VBS in the morning. I've done VBS at night. In most cases, my main gig has been to play guitar and teach camp songs.

I totally think VBS is perhaps one of the best summer inventions of all time.

Often folks get into debates about whether or not various VBS "themes" get in the way of making VBS about "Bible" and "Jesus." I typically find these debates misguided. Yes, you can do a VBS that is totally just bible. I've seen it done. You can make it developmentally appropriate. You can keep it focused, no gimmicks.

But VBS is more than just "Bible." It is also "vacation." So I love some of the theme stuff out there put out by the publishing houses, like "African Safari," "Kingdom Rock," "Holy Land Adventure," "re:new," "Promise Island," and so on. Yes, they're gimmicky. Yes, they want to sell you stuff to decorate your church. But short of flying the whole group of campers to a tropical island, setting a theme makes the week feel a little more away and free.

And decorations are fun! Streamers mean a party. And that is what I love about VBS. VBS more than anything else of which I'm aware turns church into a week long party.

More church should be like VBS. Most adults would benefit from a VBS experience for adults.

So I say game-on. And I think my friend Andy still has that robot costume stowed away somewhere in the attic of Peace Lutheran. I'd be happy to make a road trip to go grab it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Lutherans are like bay leaves

They're essential to most great soups, but eaten alone or direct are difficult to swallow and frankly unpalatable. They're easy to forget, not that attractive on the surface, but just taste soups without them and you'll never forget the bay leaf again.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A simple way to pray

I often teach there are four basic types of prayers:
  • adoration 
  • confession
  • thanksgiving
  • supplication
 My favorite way to teach them is to teach them as sentences. Small children can learn them in their simplicity. Adults can use them as a reminder of how straightforward and basic prayer can be. Say to God:
  • You're awesome. 
  • I'm sorry. 
  • Thank you. 
  • Please.
Expand as needed. Keep it short and sweet as you wish.

Blue Like Jazz Screening in Fayetteville, Arkansas


Like many others, when I read Don Miller's Blue Like Jazz several years ago, I was blown away by its engaging and authentic telling of one man's quest to come to grips with his faith. Many of us have been in the same boat as Don, trying to make sense of the faith we had inherited in a world where it seemed increasingly irrelevant. 

Now the story has been made into a movie, and we at Vintage Fellowship are thrilled at the opportunity to host a screening of Blue Like Jazz: the Movie on Thursday, August 30at the Malco Razorback Cinema in Fayetteville. Tickets can now be reserved for $10 each here: http://www.tugg.com/events/1124#.UA1oMjGe7i6.

Blue Like Jazz: the Movie is not your typical Christian film. It is raw and real. It doesn't sugarcoat the struggles many people face, and it doesn't necessarily tie everything up with a neat bow in the end. It is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexuality, drug and alcohol content, and some language.

You can learn more about the film here:

Posted by my friend and colleague in Christian ministry, Robb Ryerse

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Rachel Kurtz is On Fire!

Rachel Kurtz has for her entire career offered listeners outstanding blues-inflected gospel music. I love her stuff, listen to it often, and have even hosted her at East Koshkonong Lutheran Church a few years ago as she led our worship in Wisconsin. I plan to bring her down to Arkansas as soon as possible.

She's the real deal.

She also happens to work creatively with a ton of musicians in the "Lutheran rock musicians" constellation. Many of these musicians appear on her new album.

Her new album is a game-changer. Broken & Lowdown takes things to a whole new level. It's like a category shift, a taking flight. It's incredible.

If you only buy one album in 2012, make this one the one. Seriously. It's like a mashup of Grace Potter, Hugh Laurie, and Pink Martinis. It has the vocal awesomeness of Grace, the tight bluesy crispness of Hugh, and the clever references and humor of Pink Martini. Of course, the album is much more than the sum of these parts, nor is it derivative of these musicians.

It's its own unique thing, and it is a break-out album for Rachel. I'm so proud of her it gives me shivers.

Rachel headlined one evening of the recent ELCA National Youth Gathering. She sang the theme song of the gathering, "Make a Difference." She also offered a concert of songs from her new album Thursday evening of the gathering at the Marriott. To a packed crowd, including our Bishop Mark Hanson and other headlining speakers and musicians.

"Make a Difference" is a solid worship song. But if you have just heard this song during the Wednesday plenary session, it won't give you a complete sense of what the album is like.

Instead, you need to hear "Poison," "Holy Rollers," and "I Saw You" to get a sense of the rootsy gospel blues-iness of this album. Those songs all by themselves would turn in a great Rachel Kurtz album.

But then she breaks out into other forms and genres that lend a breadth and richness to the album. She adapts Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (one quibble--I want to hear Rachel sing that song with Leonard's words, which I find perfectly matched with the song itself), mixes it up with folk-rocker Nate Houge on  "His and Her's" and "You Fooled Me," turns in a great hip-hop indie number with Agape on "Suffering," and offers a theologically rich worship anthem with "We say that God is Love."

This is what Christian rock is supposed to be like. This is what Christian rock can be. And it is by our very own Lutheran gospel-rocker, Rachel Kurtz.


Friday, July 20, 2012

Some notes from the second day of the 2012 ELCA National Youth Gathering #cwts12

1. The 18 year old daughter of missionaries was our best speaker last night. I hope she inspired our young people to consider missions and imagine themselves as missionaries.

2. The convention center is like a big family reunion. WELCA hosts a chocolate spa for adults. Lutheran Men in Mission set up bumper cars for the kids. Lutheran colleges offer a photo booth for groups. It's like every organization in our denominations shows out and plays the role they would play if we were a biological family at a family reunion.

3. Kids know how to pray, and at the Final Fifteen we are praying real and legit stuff each night.

4. Adult sponsors rock. Amazed at all the parents and adults loving on their kids.

5. Shane Claibourne is a Christian rock star, but I think he's also the real deal. I had no idea he sounded like a Baptist preacher from Tennessee. With dreadlocks and a bandana. And a practitioner of radical poverty.

6. Rachel Kurtz's new music is out of this world awesome.

7. Mmmmm, New Orleans food.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Some notes from the first day of the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering #cwts12

1. No one gets enough sleep at the Gathering.  This is a widely known if seldom remarked fact. My council president (and a dad in our congregation) and I are already up at 5 a.m., and we went to bed at 1 a.m. We have the breakfast bar open and ready for the group. I went the extra hipster step and ground home-roasted coffee beans for our "old school" percolator coffee.

2. The Gathering is about being-in-a-city. Bringing 38,000 people to a city draws attention to the city-ness of a city. New Orleans is particularly good at being a city of character.

3. The communal and collective imagination of high schoolers walking the streets is silly, pleasant, and altogether bodacious. What other group of human beings thinks its completely appropriate and possible to high-five all 38,000 of your fellow conference attendees?

3. Unicorns: Nadia Bolz-Weber in her sermon last night compared social justice Lutherans to, among other things, unicorns. Something she had always fantasized about but until she met her (now) husband, never thought existed. I like this. Lutherans are unicorns.

4. Gumbo: The first message was: "You are welcome here!" The group loved this as an updated melting pot metaphor infused with the culinary commitments of The Big Easy.

5. It looks like this: http://www.elca.org/ELCA/Youth-Gathering/Multimedia/Images.aspx

6. Colors: It's like every single group buys a uniform colored t-shirt. If you go to the nose bleeds in the Superdome and look down, the whole floor is a pastiche of these colored t-shirt groups. And what do you call a group of youth at a gathering, anyway? As southerners, we are suggesting that a group of Lutheran youth in uniform is a "mess."

7. That's just a lot of Lutherans!

8. Don't miss doing the Final 15. Make it the final 45 if you can. It takes time to process days likes these, and pray over them.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A better definition of "mystery"

Lutherans love to talk about mystery, paradox, dialectic. Often we don't actually know what we mean when we use these words in sentences. They sound cool, and lend a useful obscurity to our speech.

Gregory A. Walter of St. Olaf College, in a recent collection of essays, Johann Georg Hamann: Religion und Gesellschaft, and inspired by Hamann's concept of "public mystery," offers an alternative definition of mystery to the typical.

Mystery is not elusiveness but capaciousness; it does not hide from view, rather it gives greater depth and more and more harmony to eve things most alien to each other. This amounts to an alternative conception of mystery than that employed in modern theology; no longer does mystery point to limits--in the sense of unbridgeable distance and horizon--of human reasons or the veiled conditions of human speech but articulates a public that enables the diversity of things, ideas, political bodies, histories, and all in all to signify. Hamann challenges theology to discover how these signify the one Christ (306).

Monday, July 16, 2012

It's expensive being poor

Most of us assume we are entitled to the accoutrements of whatever class in society we currently inhabit. I'm solidly (I think) in the middle class, so I begin to assume it is the norm (and my birthright)--a couple with kids in a single-family dwelling, member of a homeowners association, two cars, a job with benefits, opportunity for my wife to stay home full time with the kids, and so on.

I mean, isn't this how everyone lives? Isn't this how everyone should live?

Then, whenever I drive past the houses built by the football and basketball coaches at the University of Arkansas, or stop in to visit someone at federally subsidized housing, I have one of two visceral reactions:

a) Oh wow, I wish I could do something to help these poor people, or 
b) I wish I could buy THAT house. They have it so much better than I do!

Like most people, I probably prefer upward to downward mobility. At the same time, there are parts of the "upper" that appear lonely and troubling to me, and some aspects of the downward that have their strange appeal.

Then I start to think about how stuck we are in our class. If you have wealth, it's awfully hard to divest yourself of it. If you're poor, it's well-nigh impossible to "climb" out of it. Class is incredibly static. It usually takes some kind of massive exterior shock to make a shift between classes.

I think class is like this because it is about more than financial status. Class is about "social capital." Pierre Bourdieu famously defined social capital as "the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition."

Let me make that more concrete. In addition to the actual physical and financial assets I have, my "social capital" extends even more widely. If I lost my house, I have many family and friends who would house us, even for an extended period of time. If I become cash poor, I have access to a fairly substantial line of credit. I can borrow stuff I don't own from my church, my neighbors, and my parishioners. 

If I don't know how to fix something, I know somebody who does.

I think many of us in the middle and upper classes begin to become blind to the extent and importance of this social capital in our lives. We assume those who are poor still have these kinds of social capital at their disposal, and should make use of them.

But the truth is that many people (not all) who are poor, are poor at least in part because they are also poor in social capital. They can't borrow money. They can't go live with their parents. Not only is their social capital in short supply--the network of resources actually at their disposal are themselves expensive. 

Want to borrow money? Then pay this usurious interest rate on a pay day loan. By comparison, do you have $50,000 to put in savings in our bank? Great, we'll pay you interest and give you this free HD television. 

There are perks for being rich. Millionaire movie stars get free swag at the Oscars ($75,000 worth of it in fact). 

There are no perks for being poor. The poor have to bring folders of paperwork (and stand in line for hours) to prove their eligibility to receive $50 towards their electric bill for the month.

And almost all of these differences come down to the sense of entitlement I mentioned early on. I find it so perfectly natural that I dwell in the class I do that I assume, if people just put in a little more effort (get a job, buy a car), they could live like I do. My sense of entitlement is so great it is difficult for me to perceive the very real barriers that exist that keep people in the class they are in.

Even more troubling, we tend to think we "deserve" our class. That's why rich people get free stuff. People and companies actually want to give them stuff for free because their wealth mimetically attracts it. It is in our nature to shower gifts on our gods. 

On the other hand, we assume those who are poor are poor because of what they have done (or not done). If they would just work harder... All kinds of suspicions attend our gifts to the poor. They might not use what we give them for the right purposes. If we give them something, it might increase the possibility of co-dependency.

Is there a fix? In Christian perspective, it is fairly clear what we should be about. Christ has broken down the dividing walls between us (Ephesians 2). There is no longer any rich or poor (Galatians 3:28). Christ brought an end to entitlement. The fix is quite straightforward, if difficult in practice. Christians of different classes need to mix it up. We need to live with each other. We need to extend our social capital beyond traditional networks.

The poor need the rich and the rich need the poor.

And we need to stop judging people by their class. The assumptions we make of those not of our own class are massively problematic. They are an example of bearing false witness against the neighbor. Not all rich people are greedy. Not all poor people are lazy. Not all middle class communities are boring and white bread. 

And finally, Christians are called to have special concern for the poor. I honestly don't know anywhere in all of Scripture where Christ judged someone who was poor and sought his help, and his response was to call them lazy, question their moral integrity, and tell them to get a job. Always and consistently, he helped them. Often not with material assistance, for he himself was not wealthy. 

But what Christ did, and what the early church did, and what the church at its best does yet today--he sat at table, ate with, went into the homes of, everybody, rich or poor. And that itself is not only the beginning, but the all in all, of Christian ministry.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

One of those really great days in the life of a dad (of which there are many)

Fridays are my Saturday and Sabbath. I try to protect the day for family and fun, inasmuch as that is possible. It isn't always. Even today I fielded a couple of last minute messages in preparation for Sunday worship, and made a few pastoral care calls. So I note throughout this day how often we ran into parishioners and people we know, first because I've been experiencing these kind of coincidental, serendipitous meet ups regularly of late, and also to illustrate the extent to which pastoral ministry is a set of relationships with tasks embedded, as compared to many other jobs that are more likely to be a set of tasks with relationships embedded.

Overall, it was one of those amazing dad days, and I record the events here:

After breakfast, oldest son and I built one of those balsam wood rubber band planes and flew it in the front yard. We perfected an out and back boomerang loop over the street and back into the yard.

The kids had wanted to see some of the mini-movies on the starwars.lego.com web site, so we watched a few, while getting ready for swim lessons.

Today was the last day of summer swim lessons, the kids were tested for their skill levels. Afterwards, grabbed lunch at Chipotle. Love their food. Discovered that you can actually stream the music they play at Chipotle. Go here: http://www.chipotle.com/en-us/restaurants/the_chipotle_experience/the_chipotle_experience.aspx# Then, scroll down and find the section on music and click to play. An amazing funk mix. Also ran into Daulton, a high schooler from our congregation headed to New Orleans next week with us for the national youth gathering. He's an amazing kid.

Took board games over to a family we have gotten to know over the past year at Washington Plaza. Chatted with them for a while and made plans to help the kids get to worship, etc.

Dropped off and picked up materials at the library.

Drove up to Rogers to the Natural Building Solutions for some paint for a paint project. En route the kids napped, and this was, as always, one of the best opportunities parents of small children have to talk together as husband and wife uninterrupted--family of five in a mini-van.

On the way back stopped for beverages at Sonic (at 4 p.m. it was 102 degrees according to our van temp gauge), then in to pick up bike lights at the bike shop, plus order some climbing pulleys, carabiners, and rope for a pulley system the kids want to build in their room to transport books between their beds.

Then home, watched a bit of a movie, then went out for a run with the boys in the jogging stroller. The girls followed later for a walk and we met at the school playground for swinging, climbing, and ball. The school has a new track, which we ran a few times. Met a family there whose daughter is a year ahead of our oldest son in school.

Walked home, then recruited our neighbor Stephen to help us transport a swing set kit home from Walmart that we received as a holiday gift for the kids. The kids went along, and ran into a) the family we had just met at the playground (how strange), plus b) a family we have gotten to know quite well this year whose son was in kindergarten with our son. Made plans to attend the Firefly event at the Botanical Gardens together tomorrow night.

Then home, unloaded the play set, then the typical bedtime rituals, including cleaning the play room, and our evening devotions (the typical routine, bed, bath, and beyond--read books, sing Jesus Loves Me, the Nunc Dimittis, pray the Lord's Prayer and the Jesus Prayer). Now I'm watching The Artist while blogging.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

One of those really great days in the life of a pastor (of which there are many)

Arrived slightly late at the new Arsaga's on the bike trail downtown for a 7 a.m. meeting. It's an amazing location for a coffee shop, in Fayetteville’s historic Freight Building located behind the Train Depot on Dickson Street. On the backside of the building in this photo, there's a porch and outdoor seating overlooking one of the main biking trails in town, plus the train tracks. While seated there, had the noisy pleasure of watching six loud diesels pull loads of stone through town, plus the usual spate of bikers and walkers on the trail.

I was at Arsaga's to meet with some friends I have made in Fayetteville, one of whom is now a member of our congregation. We are trying to imagine transformative faith events to host in the downtown community. Our goal is to create a space for questions and challenge, perhaps especially connecting with the more abandoned spaces of the city center. We hope especially to connect with folks who may not, for various reasons, attend traditional church, but who are interested in the kind of transformative experiential encounter we curate. We also hope to make a contribution to the art and culture of the Fayetteville community. It's a grand adventure and experiment. For those interested in accompanying us in this adventure, just send me a note. To get an idea of the kinds of things we are imagining, see either The Art of Curating Worship, or How (Not) to Speak of God.

At 10 a.m. I went a small distance up Dickson to St. Paul's Episcopal for a meeting convened there by the parish associate of First Presbyterian (can you tell what an ecumenical little community we have going?). We were idea sharing to address food insecurity and hunger in Northwest Arkansas. It was an inspiring convo of faith leaders and non-profit representatives (including Jody Dilday, a member of our congregation and executive director of the Single Parent Scholarship Fund in NWA), all doing their best to try and address the (seemingly) intractable issue of ubiquitous hunger in our communities. Although our county is in many ways one of the more prosperous ones in the state, it is also the hungriest.Although many stories are inspiring, including the daily and consistent work of the Salvation Army, Feed Fayetteville, and many others to feed people. 

I was most inspired by the rep from Tri-Cycle Farms. They are an urban farm smack dab in the (geographical) center of Fayetteville (perhaps not in the urban center depending on how you measure these things), and their dream is to re-connect people to the dirt, to growing and eating their own food in season, and everything that comes along with it. They tend to think the main way to address food insecurity is for everyone to grow their own food. It's an inspiring if daunting concept.As I listened to the various representatives talk about their feeding ministries, I was also inspired by First Christian, who has connected with a retirement center who cooks the food, and they then distribute it at a meal location in an apartment complex in town.

All of us realized one of the bigger issues in our town is transportation. Although there are meals available in a variety of locations, not everyone can easily travel to access those meals.Personally, as a pastor, I would like to get us offering at least one meal per week for free in our own neighborhood, using our own kitchen. I think that this would positively connect us to the neighborhood and feed hungry people right in our own school district who may not be able to travel to other locations. Right now it's just a dream, but I'm talking it up.

Came back to the office around noon, talked with our property and grounds chair re: next steps for resurfacing our parking lot; made some phone calls to set up home visits and communion visits; outlined and planned music selections for VBS at the end of the month. Did some calendar work, including fielding a query to schedule a wedding next spring. Firmed up plans for a November road trip to speak and preach at St. Olaf College, then present at workshop at Luther Seminary's Annual Consultation on the Missional Church. Discussed a few topics with fellow clergy in a Facebook group. Wrote the Prayers of the Church. Prepped the "intro to the gospels" lesson for bible study tomorrow, and then had an amazing conversation with the chairperson of our stewardship committee who told me they had successfully recruited fifteen new members (!!!!!!) to flesh out the goal we have of having stewardship be about Ask. Thank. Tell.

I'm humbled and inspired by this kind of servant leadership.
Tonight I'm having coffee with a couple new to our congregation, to get to know them better and talk. Then out for dinner at Firehouse Subs, where kids eat free every Tuesday evening. Have been getting to know the owner of Firehouse over some lunch meetings, really neat guy and fellow Lutheran.
And that's a day in the life of this pastor. Oh, and I wrote this blog post. That is all.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Weakness Authenticates

Here concludes my series of sermons on 2 Corinthians,


This one includes some meditation on Paul's proclamation of himself as witness, in relationship to the Higgs Boson particle, but especially attending to the matter of proclaiming what our hearers can clearly see and hear.

Which is, at least in part, why Christ instituted an actual meal with bread and wine rather than expected a "heightened religious experience."

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Mid-life Lesson #18: Don't publish books before you're 40

Some pseudo-wise person made this memorable assertion, but for the life of me I can't remember where I read it.

Anyway, for better or worse I've been following it. This past decade was a good freelance publishing decade, but mostly work-for-hire pieces for Augsburg Fortress, web sites, and journals. It's a good gig. I plan to keep it up.

However, I will state now, on the even of my 40th birthday, what I hope to look back on at 50 (God-willing) with satisfaction.

I plan to write one book a year for the next ten years.

The Fuller Dmin dissertation is already well on its way, so that's the book for 40.

After that, I am looking at least to do the following:

1. An introduction to the Christian faith
2. A commentary on 2nd Corinthians
3. Something steampunk
4. A novel
5. A Kindle short

That's a good teaser. I have other items on the list, but don't want to get overly specific. Would love to hear from readers a) what books on writing help them write, b) what books they wish would see written.

In the meantime, I offer a link to my favorite book that inspired my present habits:


Mid-life Lesson #19: 40 is the new 30

That is all.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Mid-life Lesson #20: Accepting help is a spiritual gift

Parents help their children out so frequently it is virtually past mentioning, and children so frequently overlook this it would be tragic if it weren't so natural.

So I preface this post by stating the obvious, that my most frequent and continuing helpers, the ones from whom I have received the most gifts, are my parents. So thank you mom and dad.

I can remember precisely when I realized receiving help and gifts was a spiritual gift, and I had it. Traveling on tour with the Luther College band, and then later that summer staying with host families as a VBS day camp counselor, I learned how important it is to let people host you, cook for you, and give you gifts. Accepting these things graciously is itself a gift.

A small water color one mother painted for me when I worked for Rainbow Trail Lutheran Bible Camp and staffed a VBS in Colorado still graces our wall. We hiked out to some foothills, and while I walked the trails with her kids, she set up her easel and painted this:

Asking for and accepting help takes strength and courage. Accepting help blesses by the helper by affording opportunity to be of service. I have found, for the most part, that although I don't "depend" on help more than average, I'm open to receiving help more readily than average, and this because of an insight I learned while on those week long trips...

If we deny someone the opportunity to help us or gift us, we take something away from them. So the life lesson, if you are willing to accept it as a gift, is to be ready, the next time someone offers help, to reframe the scenario. You aren't doing something for you by welcoming a gift. You are doing something for the giver. Receiving gifts is a grace, and it is gracious both to give and receive them. The trick is in remembering that receiving a gift is itself a doubled and extended gift.

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Ethics of Missional Church

Clint Schnekloth

Schnekloth[1] I have two aims in this essay. First, I would like to respond to the self-confidence of the missional movement with a set of questions that raises the level of self-awareness and self-critique.
[2] Second, I would like to bring to awareness in the professional ethicist community that there is a wide-open field of inquiry (missional ethics), with very little systematic work having been done in the field.
[3] In spite of some protestations that "missional" is now mostly a damaged piece of theological jargon weakened by its ubiquity, I tend more to the view that we are just now, in tentative and halting fashion, in the early stages of discerning what "missional" actually means. We have not made the shift to a fully missional era (if we ever will). Right now at best we are simply observing the effects of a shift to a higher commitment to missional thinking in our theological discourse and church practice.
[4] It is still somewhat unclear what piece of real estate the term actually parks itself on. Some consider it to be a blanket term for making disciples and changing lives with the gospel. Others emphasize it as a term describing the sent-ness of the church, or the sent-ness of individual Christians. Others approach it as a fresh, and fruitful, approach to biblical interpretation. (For a great, and perhaps the most comprehensive example of this, see Christopher J.H. Wright's The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative.)
[5] So the term "missional" has been proliferating, and this is not a sign of its stagnation, but rather a sign of its increasing stability and usefulness. (For those new to the conversation, consider viewing this pdf from Christianity Today's leadership journal that categorizes some recent books on missional leadership, missional communities, and missional discipleship:http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/content/pdf/68872.pdf.)
[6] In spite of the missional movement's driven and over-arching emphasis on Christian practice, there seems to be a dearth of literature on the ethics of mission I define ethics as discourse about practices. In this sense, it is bringing to awareness some of the assumptions implicit in the call to "be missional." So, for example, most people might assume ethics is about whether to drink beer or not. But ethics is actually discourse about how you would come to the decision on whether drinking beer is acceptable. Contextual, deontological, teleological ethics, and so on.
[7] The missional movement is nothing if not prescriptive and likes to offer plenty of instructions on how the church must change or die. Anywhere "oughts" are being lofted encouraging communities to change their practices, clearly ethical reflection is busily in play--but a dearth of direct reflection on "missional ethics" would seem to indicate at the very least either a lack of critical reflection bringing the tools of ethical discourse to bear on the missional movement, or at worse perhaps a protected, valorizing status for anything labeled "missional."
[8] In fact, although this is probably over-stating the case, virtually all of the missional authors I’ve read in recent years lack the self-awareness I’m encouraging. They all assume missional is the way to go. No one doubts whether they should "be missional." And most books tend to mention that there are non-missional pastors out there who raise doubts, but those doubts are wrong-headed, etc.
[9] None of which is to say that I am against the missional impulse. Perhaps in this admittedly bloggy essay, I’m just trying to out missionalize the missionals.
[10] I'd be happy to be proved wrong on this point. However, the only resource I have found that is readily accessible on "missional ethics" is a forthcoming collection of essays by Andy Draycott and Jonathan Rowe entitled Living Witness: Explorations in Missional Ethics, collected from a conference on the same topic in 2011. For these authors, missional ethics concerns all the ways in which Christian ethical practice flows out of, supports and advances the wider mission of the church to proclaim the gospel.
[11] That's an interesting thesis but doesn't quite get at the true heart of “missional ethics.” To me, the above definition seems to extract ethics from mission, and then to observe how ethical practice impacts mission from the exterior.
[12] What interests me, and what I hope to alert readers of JLE to, is the need to do reflection on missional ethics all the way down, signaling the ways in which missional is itself an ethic.
[13] Even more pointedly, we need to ask the question, “Is missional ethical?”
[14] The good news for ethicists--here's a wide-open field for intellectual inquiry. Fallow fields await, ready your plows! A few dissertations are probably in order.
[15] The bad news for me--this post is a foray into mostly uncharted territory. I'll probably make major mistakes and overlook crucial categories.
[16] But with that caveat in mind, I offer the following, not quite as a standard set of theses on "missional ethics," but more like a reconnaissance mission. Field notes, if you will. Perhaps the list will encourage you to begin your own list. It's a good summer activity, to examine and review an approach to ecclesial practice and theological inquiry at a meta-ethical level, flagging some of the dangers, celebrating some of the opportunities and, as a happy by-product, adding to your list of summer beach reads.
[17] (1) What if there is no "in" and no "out"? A goodly portion of the missional conversation seems to imply there is an "us" (those being sent) and a “them” (those to whom the sent ones go). One way of defining missional is by an antonym--attractional. In other words, missional is the opposite of attractional church, attractional being again an "us," this time tasked with drawing in the “them” (the called ones). Either way, there is an “in” and an "out". Some missional practitioners nuance this by emphasizing things like centered set thinking, where there is no perimeter or border, but a continuous flowing out from a center, but even in this picture, depending on how willing we are to go down the road of apophatic conceptions of God, it is fairly clear that we are often over-confident on our sense of ourselves as the insiders with a gift to give, and others as the outsiders who greatly need the gift we have to give.
[18] (2) Is missional colonialist? Given the prominence of post-colonial reflection in the academy, I continue to be surprised more of it hasn't been brought to bear on missional thinking. It ought to be. Post-colonial discourse is designed to destabilize Western assumptions and give voice to subaltern and marginalized groups. Given how sensitive missional theology is to marginalized voices, in fact with the goal of reaching subaltern groups and voices, it seems imperative that missional practitioners listen to the warnings post-colonial theory has to offer about the effects those sent in mission will have on those to whom they are sent (or think they are sent). On this point, I think some of our missionaries have done some incredible reflecting, so I refer us to those resources: http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Global-Mission/How-We-Work/Accompaniment-in-Practice.aspx
[19] (3) Whose mission is it? In spite of the fact that theologically the average missional practitioner would emphasize that it is God's mission, and missionaries are "sent" by God, it is incredibly easy to slip over into presuming the church, or the individual Christian, to be the active agent of mission. Inasmuch as missional practitioners perceive themselves as active agents of mission, they are in danger of various abuses, the first and most important one of which is violation of the first commandment.
[20] (4) Which direction is the mission? What if we are the ones in need of a missionary? Most missional discourse presumes to know who is being sent, and who is receiving the sent ones. But what if just the opposite is the case?
[21] (5) Is all our talk of “missional” simply or mostly just old wine in new wine skins? It is fairly clear that much of what purports to be "missional" is actually just a slightly modified version of older practices invoked out of anxieties arising from our experience of life in a numerically declining church. It is not surprising this is the case, first of all, because the anxiety is very real, and appropriate, and second because, as I mentioned early in this essay, we are still in the early stages of the shift to missional thinking, so at this moment we are observing the effects of the shift to missional thinking and practice rather than observing life fully in a missional moment.
[22] All of that being said (I stop at point #5, and allow it to resonate as a concluding field note), much of our missional discourse has yet to embrace thoroughly radical and genuinely strange forms of being sent. Consider the emerging churches’ embrace of Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temporary_Autonomous_Zone). Many curated worship events in this tradition make use of this concept and its underlying philosophical accoutrements. Although not everyone is going to sympathize with a semi-anarchist approach to church such as this, the approach does draw attention to the many ways current institutional structures exhibit problematic ethical constructs "all the way down," as it were. In a context like ours, worship and church events that are inspired by this approach offer a new perspective on old problems.
[23] For another short piece on emerging church and TAZ, seehttp://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/jul/07/religion-christianity-emerging-evangelical. The reviewer writes,
We should look to create "Temporary Autonomous Zones" (TAZ), which contain a glimpse of a transformed world. We need a new sort of church “that abandons careful strategy and instead embarks on a tactical adventure from one eruption of TAZ to another.” Christians should “create festive, hospitable, healing and creative places…which, like the lover in Song of Songs, leave those touched by them aching to know more."
[24] Which sounds great, and I at least for one would like to see more, much more of this. It would be one sign that missional has truly taken root among us.
[25] Until, that is, emerging TAZ's become the new colonialism, at which point we will be back to some of the same questions as above, questions that are generative and faithful precisely in their iterativeness.
Clint Schnekloth is Lead Pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and a doctor of ministry candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. Clint maintains "Lutheran Confessions," the longest running Lutheran blog in North America.
[this essay first appeared in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, http://www.elca.org/jle]

Paul's Collection for the Church in Jerusalem and the Reciprocity of Generosity

Audio for the sermon on 2 Corinthians yesterday is live here. I think this sermon is helpful for considering why and how we give, but also what it means for communities to be generous with each other, churches supporting each other in mission, and the generosity of Christ who gave not only his riches but his own body.