Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Joseph Ratzinger, before he was Pope Benedict XVI, wrote many learned books on theology and liturgy. But I wasn't surprised that when he began publishing books as pope, they were about Jesus of Nazareth and the joy of knowing Christ.

I spend a lot of time planning liturgy and writing sermons. But when I really sit down to meditate and pray, what repeatedly comes to my mind and heart is a simple thought, "Jesus, I really love Jesus."

We can get really wrapped up in our Holy Week observances. We can get focused on the palms, or the foot-washing, or the stripping of the altars, or the processional cross or the new fire of the Easter Vigil, or the flowers and the Easter hymns.

But at the center of it all is Jesus Christ.

Have I mentioned that I simply love Jesus? And that I am in awe, whenever I ponder it, of Jesus Christ's profound love of the world.

I was talking today with a friend about the definition of perfection. Sometimes we use the word in an oppressive way, tying it to morals and behavior. Perfect is as perfect behaves. 

But Jesus' perfection is of a different sort. Outwardly Jesus was perceived by many as a sinner with loose morals and questionable behavior. He hung out with prostitutes and let women wash his feet with their hair. He failed to pay taxes and let other claim he was the Son of God.

But what he called himself was "The Human One." His perfection, if you can call it that, was in fully giving himself away, being found fully in human form. His divinity is in his self-sacrificial love. Jesus was so much like God that he could only be found in humanity.

I don't know how to say this the right way. It can come across as highly subjective and emotional, and I do not want to imply that the only way to know or love Jesus is through simple emotion.

But I will confess that when I try to write even this simple blog post about Jesus, and think about who Jesus is for me, I start tearing up. It's overwhelming.

So many people I know love Jesus. My Muslim friends love Jesus. My Hindu friends love Jesus. My atheist friends love Jesus. My Buddhist friends love Jesus.

We all get tied up in how we are different, yet if we pause we all realize how united we are in our love of Jesus. And we are united by his love of us. Him, the human one, the one who was human first, and religious as a distant second. 

There's so much more to say about Jesus. There's liturgy to discuss. There are theological conundrums to ponder. Jesus is as much for the mind as he is for the stomach and the heart.

But this week, as much as possible, I pray to stay centered in him. There's just something about Jesus.

Friday, March 22, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About God: A Review

How does he get away with this?

This is the question I ask myself whenever I pick up a Rob Bell book.

Imagine the original book proposal sent to his editor at HarperOne. Did it sound like this?

Dear Mickey,  
I would like to publish another book with you now that I've moved out to L.A. That last one just went viral, didn't it?! Anyway, tell me what you think. Nothing high tech or fancy on this one. All text in the book will be 14 point font san serif, with big margins. Use that pulpy paper I like. Instead of indented paragraphs we'll just drop a line like most blogs I'm reading recently. The full text of the book will be about the same length as a long piece in The New Yorker. 
The book is about God, and it won't have any big words at all, or fancy terminology... until it does, like when I use the German word Grenzbegriff in one chapter, and then the mostly untranslatable Hebrew term kavod in another chapter. But no one will notice, because I will have won them over with my simple and approachable breathless language (you know, like the way I talk in all of those Nooma videos). 
I promise  
to make
of lists 
and format 
some paragraphs 
like this. 
All kinds of people want to talk about God. They really do. This book will sell. It will also make a difference in people's lives. Here's my outline for the book, kind of like the table of contents.
It will be  
and So. 
These are the words that will shape how I talk about God in this book. 
Now that's what I'm talking about. 
What do you think? 
No one can pull this kind of thing off (in the same way that no one could pull off long footnoted book length essays in Harpers until David Foster Wallace did it). But Rob Bell can pull it off, and does. I sat down with his book at about 8:30 p.m. this evening, and didn't put it down until I had read it through, at about 10. It might take you longer or shorter to read it, I'm not sure, but at the end, I know you will say, "Wow, that was really really good, really helpful."

I keep thinking to myself, with a certain kind of jealousy, "Why is it that Rob Bell can present what is essentially solid Lutheran theology mixed with solid liberal Protestantism, and get such huge press for it?" Because he can, and he does, far more than any of us Lutheran or liberal Protestant folk do or can.

But then, in the end, who cares if he does it instead of us. He's doing it, and it's really really good, and you should read it, and then share it with a friend. Preach it, Rob, preach it.

Now that's what I'm talking about.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Praying Holy Week

I don't think I can make a convincing argument for attending Holy Week observances. There is no week more important in my piety, no time of the year that re-orients my life, work, and faith towards Christ than this week, and I wish everyone a blessed Holy Week.

But the proof of the value of these days lies solely in the experience of the services themselves, and the breadth of them. All I can do is invite you to take the time, be present for the Procession of Palms, hear the passion narrative read, wash feet and commune on Thursday, weep at the cross on Friday, keep the vigil with the newly baptized on Saturday, then celebrate the resurrection of Christ come Sunday morning.

As we begin these days, I offer this set of prayers, the intercessions from the fifth-centry Gelasian sacramentary. I am thankful to James K.A. Smith for drawing my attention to this prayer in his wonderful Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies)

A prayer for Holy Week

Let us all say, Lord, hear and have mercy. Father unbegotten, and Son of God Begotten not made, and Holy Spirit of God, the breath of the faithful, we pray, Kyrie eleison.

For the spotless church of the living God, constituted throughout the whole world, we entreat the riches of divine gifts, Kyrie eleison.

For holy priests and ministers of the Mighty God, and all people worshipping the true God, we pray Christ our Lord, Kyrie eleison.

In particular, for all teaching rightly the Word of Truth, the manifold Wisdom of the Word of God, we pray, Kyrie eleison.

For those who keep themselves chaste in mind and body for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, and exert themselves in spiritual labors, we pray for plentifulness of spiritual gifts, Kyrie eleison.

For all religious rulers and their solders, who prize justice and right judgment, we implore the Power of the Lord, Kyrie eleison.

For agreeable weather and opportune rains and caressing vital winds and the prosperity of diverse times rightly ordered, Lord of the world, we pray, Kyrie eleison.

For those who for the first time into the name of 'Christian' are initiated, whom now desire for heavenly grace inflames, we pray for mercy to Almighty God, Kyrie eleison.

For those who are involved in the weakness of the infirmities of humanity, in envy of spiritual wickedness or various errors of the world, we implore the mercy of the Redeemer, Kyrie eleison.

For those who are of necessity traveling, or are oppressed by the powers of iniquity, or are vexed by hostile hardships, we pray the Lord the savior, Kyrie eleison.

For those deceived by heresy or superstition, we pray the Lord of Truth, Kyrie eleison.

For doers of good works, and those who assist in the necessary labors of brotherly and sisterly charity, we pray the Lord to have mercy, Kyrie eleison.

For all within this holy House of the Lord, that they may be turned to religious hearers and devout pray-ers, we pray the Lord of Glory, Kyrie eleison.

For the cleansing of our souls and bodies, and forgiveness of sins, we pray the merciful Lord, Kyrie eleison.

For refreshment of faithful souls, particularly of pastors and priests of the Holy Lord, who preside over this catholic church, we pray the Lord the spirit and judge of all flesh, Kyrie eleison.

Mortification of sins of the flesh and quickening of the life of faith, Grant, Lord, grant.

Holy fear and love of truth, Grant, Lord, grant.

A pleasant ordering of life and a creditable end, Grant, Lord, grant.

An angel of peace and holy consolation, Grant, Lord, grant.

Hear, Lord, the voice of your family who cry for preservation. Amen.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Diamonds in Arkansas

I love the Natural State. It's the kind of place you constantly come across obscure little gems--literally. This spring break we committed as a family to discovering new wonders in Arkansas, and we have not been disappointed.

Our first surprise was a quick side trip into Clarksville on our way to Little Rock. Clarksville is one of those towns--when you first get off the interstate and drive through town, you think you have discovered Radiator Springs. But we ended up at an incredibly entrepreneurial radio station and coffee house for lunch. The local junior high English teacher opened it just sixty days ago.


Enter the coffee shop, and the radio show host is in her studio to your left--available to chat while she spins tunes, broadcasting commentary live in-between songs. It's a big open warehouse space, decorated with classic album covers. There's a side entertainment room for bands. The coffee is great, lunch was solid (especially the soup) and hipster baristas from area colleges staff the joint.

If you are doing the drive from NWA to Little Rock, skip Starbucks and stop here.

After lunch, we made our way to Little Rock. Stopped in at the state capitol. Since our first grader has been studying Arkansas politics, this was an appropriate destination. The house and senate were both in session. While we were there they upgraded the wearing of body armor while committing a felony to itself being a felony. This is really the type of legislation it had never even occurred to me existed.

Let it just be noted that many men who work there have really great hair and wear some pretty snappy suits. And everyone was really nice even when our clan was noisy.

Next stop was the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. Our children were captivated by the civil rights interpretive center, especially video footage of the desegregation efforts and the nine students who persevered in their attendance. It's a powerful monument to how far we have come, and an equal reminder of how far yet we have to go to overcome racial inequality in our nation.

Next we checked in to our hotel downtown and took a walk along the river. We didn't go to Heifer or the Clinton Library this visit, although these are two of my favorite spots in Little Rock. Instead, we ate at our favorite seafood joint (which currently has this banner hanging out front), and played on the great park equipment along the river (if you have small children, definitely walk the river here--there's the built in tunnel playground, an awesome elevated bridge, and a submarine to tour). We ran into a classmate from preschool, which means we are batting a thousand. It never fails, when we road trip from Northwest Arkansas anywhere nearby, we run into classmates from preschool. I think I might label it the "Preschool Event Horizon."

The next day we headed for Crater of Diamonds State Park. This is the only diamond-producing site in the world open to the public, and the eighth largest diamond preserve in the world. So far 198 diamonds have been found on the site this year. They average 2-4 per day. We brought a change of clothes because we knew we would get muddy, and some basic digging and sifting equipment. Hundreds of people were out there digging with us.

From a distance, it looks like a 30-acre recently plowed field. And it is. But since it is also an old volcano crater, the dirt isn't quite like the dirt I grew up digging in Iowa. For one, it's purple, because the dirt has silica mixed in. Second, as you walk the field, it is possible to come across diamonds on the surface, or dig and sift for them. Some are very large.

We did not find any diamonds, but we did have fun digging, and we brought some rocks home with us. It's quite a drive getting out to the site, but well worth it, because a) Arkansas is beautiful, and b) Arkansas is beautiful. This is logging country, so you also get to see that industry at work, and smell it.

After Crater of Diamonds, we drove south to Hope, Arkansas. Along the way, we discovered Historic Washington State Park. We didn't know it, but it is an entire 19th century village they are restoring to its original state. But we were on our way to another destination, so didn't stop.

Instead, we visited the birth place of William Jefferson Blythe III (otherwise known as Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States). He was born three months after his father died in a car accident. He received the last name Clinton as a teenager when his mother re-married. In any event, he lived in this house in Hope, Arkansas, for the first four years of his life, then another house in Hope for three years, before moving to Hot Springs for his teen years.

Hope also happens to be the birthplace of Mike Huckabee. For a town of its size it has produced some rather outsized political creatures.

We came to Hope late in the day, but the young park ranger was more than kind, and gave us a short private tour of the house. They've restored the interior almost exactly, as it would have been while Bill lived there from age birth-4. It's rather poignant, actually. He lived with his mother and grandparents.

These are not destinations on the way to or from anywhere. Located just south of the Ouachita Mountain Range and above the opening flats of southern Arkansas, they are their own kind of place, with a rolling beauty. But they give indication of what is great about Arkansas precisely in their remoteness and quiet gravity.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Our bodies make our prayers

Worship is a contact sport

Imagine signing your child up for youth soccer. A pre-requisite for participation is a five session class with the coordinator of youth soccer. In these classes, your child sits in rows at tables, and listens to lectures and presentations about soccer. Before being allowed to play, they do an exercise exploring the philosophical nature of balls. They get asked repeatedly why they really want to play soccer, and whether they fully understand the importance of soccer. Finally, after a presentation on the history of the development of soccer as a sport, and a short quiz, they are allowed to attend their first actual practice session.

Alternatively, imagine a group of people all who believe soccer is very important, it's healthy and fun, and they claim to center their lives around it. But they never actually play it.

This wouldn't happen, would it? Everyone understands that you learn a sport by playing a sport. It's obvious that if you really love something and it is central to your life, then you would practice it, play it. Although you might take short breaks during the game, or during practice, for the coach to review strategy... might even need certain seasons for recovery or healing, the majority of the time spent learning soccer is spent... playing soccer. Foot to ball contact, that's the key.

My argument is simple: worship and prayer ought to be considered contact sports, physical embodied activities, and the way we learn and engage them should correspond. At each stage of the journey of faith (or stage of development, say, in childhood) the appropriate way to learn about worship and sacraments is through engagement with embodied practices.

If you are a parent wondering how best to raise your child in the Christian faith, or if you have been questioning whether participation in Christian worship and community is integral to the life of faith, I invite you to read on.

Consider how you go to sleep
"Maurice Merleau-Ponty points to an intriguing analogy: sleep. I cannot 'choose' to fall asleep. The best I can do is choose to put myself in a posture and rhythm that welcomes sleep. 'I lie down in bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up; I close my eyes and breathe slowly, putting my plans out of my mind. But the power of my will or consciousness stops there' (PP 189). I want to go to sleep, and I've chosen to climb into bed--but in another sense sleep is not something under my control or at my beckoned call. 'I call up the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of sleep... There is a moment when sleep 'comes,' settling on this imitation of itself which I have been offering to it, and I succeed in becoming what I was trying to be' (PP 189-190, emphasis added). Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception--a king of active welcome. What if being filled with the Spirit had the same dynamic? What if Christian practices are what Craig Dykstra calls 'habitations of the Spirit' precisely because they posture us to be filled and sanctified? What if we need to first adopt a bodily posture in order to become what we are trying to be?" (Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies))
Try to replace "sleep" in the above paragraph with "faith." In order to grow in faith, have faith, make room for the Holy Spirit to create and in-spire faith, there are better or worse ways to assume a "posture of reception" where we "succeed in becoming what we were trying to be." 

At least one reason to gather for Christian worship even when it doesn't feel necessary or desirable is precisely because it is one place, one way, for us to take on a faith posture where faith can be received as a gift. Being physically present in the body in corporate worship is a bodily posture of reception. Like any bodily practice, it will be tiring, awkward, painful, thrilling, distracting, and more, depending on the moment. But that is just what it means to live faith in a body. 

And in fact there is no way for us to have faith apart from the body. Our bodies are the frame through which we see and experience the world and God.

This is one reason I love the Rotation Sunday School model our Sunday school director has implemented at Good Shepherd. Leslie knows that children learn best not just through exposure to information, but rather by experiencing the biblical stories in tangible ways--through games, crafts, cooking, story, and art. We are shaped by these actions and activities in ways that then embed the Christian story not only in our minds and hearts but in our bodies. Our Sunday schoolers know the biblical story through their tastebuds and muscles as much as their minds and eyes. 

This is the best and most important reason why I encourage families to participate in weekly Sunday school in addition to weekly worship. There is simply no other way to embed faith in ways that ensure that our bodies make our prayers than by assuming this weekly posture.

Faith is a posture

I wish more of us knew this: Faith is as much a posture or way of being in and perceiving the world as it is a commitment to certain doctrines or beliefs. Unfortunately, much of the educational culture of the church has failed to recognize this. So "old school" Sunday school and confirmation emphasized "stuff you should know" rather than open up the perceptions of the baptized so they imagine the world differently. Even much of Christian worship tends to focus on the "noetic"--what we need to know or believe--rather than actively assuming postures that train the body in faith.

So much of Christian education--such as pre-communion classes or traditional seminary education--has been focused on the intellect and what we are supposed to know, rather than on our bodies comportment or orientation to the world and how our being bodied and storied people is to be shaped that we might live in the world as people of embodied faith.

This is why, for example, I am committed to an open table for communion, and offer communion even for infants and children. I simply don't think children can learn what communion is apart from participating in it. In fact by being excluded from communion, children do learn something, but it is not what we want them to learn. They learn they are excluded, that this meal the pastor just proclaimed in the sermon, presided over at the table, is for lots of other people but not for them. 

The liturgy is its own best catechesis, worship teaches all by itself, and children learn weekly what communion is by their presence in worship and their reception of Christ's body and blood at the table. We can't introduce children to Christ cognitively first, while excluding them from Christ bodily at the table. It splits what can't be and shouldn't be divided.

We're still stuck with the mindset that somehow the right set of classes, or the proper ideas delivered in the right way, will prepare us to receive something that is embodied. We think the intellect takes primacy over the senses. Almost all of contemporary theology, philosophy, psychology, phenomenology, and neurosciences, however, is drawing the opposite conclusion. They are now calling upon the intellect to establish not its superiority or primacy, but its own inferiority and secondarity to embodied faith.

Even our practices of worship have not been reformed sufficiently by this insight. In some ways, various ancient forms of Christian worship are actually more bodily than the forms of worship that have developed since the Enlightenment. Think of the mystery of incense, the drama of processionals, the ringing of bells and elevation of the host at communion, kneeling and standing and prostrating, the iconography of the east, and more. Or in the modern era, many churches have rediscovered this in new ways. Consider the raised hands and dancing of pentecostal worship.

How do we teach the body? 

1) Next week is a holiday that teaches the body. Holy Week is intense. It invites Christians accustomed to at most weekly worship to return to church day after day Thursday through Sunday in commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection. The liturgy, the worship, is designed to embody in Christian community the very bodily events of Jesus' final days--washing the disciples' feet, the last supper, his crucifixion and burial, the empty tomb and resurrection appearances. A lecture or book about Easter cannot replace Holy Week worship that embodies it. 

2) But even weekly worship and observance of high holy days will not, all by themselves, develop the kind of posture we need to make space for the Holy Spirit to prepare us for the gift of faith. The body needs daily practices also. No one has made this argument better than my friend Dr. Rich Melheim. His encouragement for families to engage in a Faith 5 is essential for our recovery of the practice of teaching the body and assuming postures of faith. He offers a series of videos on the Faith 5 (Share, Read, Talk, Pray, Bless) here: http://www.faithink.com/inkubators/f5.asp His forthcoming book is going to be essential reading for families wishing to incorporate embodied faith practices into their family life, and just so holding their family as a body together in faith: http://faith5.org

3) I'm intrigued by the early reports of the actions of Pope Francis. Clearly he knows that faith is embodied. He carefully selected different clothes to wear to represent his papacy, and his daily actions have sent indication (with as of yet few words) of how he will lead the Roman Catholic church. Ride the bus rather than the limo. Pay for your own hotel. Wave in an endearing way at the gathered throng. Clearly he knows worship is a contact sport. He learned from one of the great saints on this point, Saint Francis himself, who illustrated so thoroughly how faith is embodied or it is nothing.

4) One of my favorite communities and resources for exploring how these kinds of insights work at all levels for faith formation is this journal and web site: http://www.lifelongfaith.com

5) Finally, worship and prayer are not the only Christian faith postures. Other postures include love of neighbor, especially commitment to justice and care of the poor. In this case, the same insights apply. To feed the hungry, we have to place our bodies in places where we have opportunity to feed hungry people. We need to give our money to the ministries we wish to support (remembering Jesus said that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also, and not the other way around (Matthew 6:21)).

A couple of additional quotes from James K.A. Smith's very fine book, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works:

"I understand in ways I don't know, and it is my body that understands. If we're going to make sense of that, what we need is 'a new meaning of the word 'meaning''. And if we are going to appreciate faith as a kind of "know-how" that generates action oriented to the kingdom, we will need to grapple with Merleau-Ponty's account of the materiality of habit formation" (Imaging the Kingdom, 58).

"Perception [the bodies corollary to intellectual understanding] is a fundamentally different (and primary) way of intending the world, of meaning the world with the body. Perception does not just provide the raw materials to be processed by intellection... it's not a matter of valorizing perception over reflection but of reconceiving the nature and task of reflection. What Merleau-Ponty offers, then, is a new account of what we're doing when we 'know' the world objectively in a reflective mode" (Imaging the Kingdom, 72).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The People Formerly Known as the Audience

What exactly are we doing when we watch something? In these moments, we are the audience, or spectators. Typically this is understood as a passive activity--in fact in many types of analysis, simply being part of the crowd, watching something (a show, a game, a concert) is denigrated as a less productive form of activity than, say, those who are doing the cultural production everyone else is attending.

More recent analysis of cultural production and participation, however, tells a more complex story. Participating in the media we view does not require blogging it, creating art in response, etc. Participation can also include evaluation, appraisal, critique, and recirculation of material. In fact, perhaps to a certain degree, it is necessary that most of us perform our role as audience or spectator in this more "passive" manner because if we were all performers, all producers, there would be no one listening, no one watching, and the noise would be cacophonous.

John Zizioulas, in his remarkable work contemporizing eastern orthodox theology, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church offers an intriguing theology of the "Amen" of the laity in corporate worship.  He says the indispensable role in the liturgy of the people of God is to "say the Amen" as a response to the grace they have received. In the liturgical call and response of worship, the priest or bishop proclaims the word of God and the congregation responds with the "Amen." In Zizioulas's view, this is not seen as denigrating the people of God in any way, as if saying this Amen were somehow lower or more passive than the leader roles. It is simply the important role they play.

I was thinking about this today while reading Henry Jenkin's book Spreadable Media, where he talks about what "audienceship" means in the modern social media era. He writes,

"Some of these processes marked as 'less active' involve substantial labor that potentially provides value according to both commercial and noncommercial logic. Even though we are excited about lowering the barriers of entry to cultural production, we should not assume that audience activities involving greater media production skills are necessarily more valuable and meaningful to other audience members or to cultural producers than are acts of debate or collective interpretation--or that media properties which drive more technical forms of audience creation and participation are somehow more engaging than content that generates discussion and sharing is" (154). 

Placing these two inquiries next to each other--Jenkin's work on participatory culture and Zizioulas's work on ecclesiology and personhood--does not imply that worship is best when it is hierarchical, with clergy leading and the people passively attending it, or that other kinds of culture are best if they also perpetuate this form. But it does offer a more complex analysis of what is happening when we watch something. Perhaps it isn't as necessary as we think to get everybody "doing" something in worship. In many ways they already are. And those who take a more passive mode in worship may actually be cultural producers of more media in other contexts, but faithfully saying the "Amen" in our context.

For Christian life, all this invites us to ask what the people formerly known as the congregation might be in this new media era. Some of those gathered for worship in our communities likely will, and should be invited to, make use of their greater media production skills to tweet, instagram, blog, journal, and spread the content of corporate worship. However, the majority of us will be, rightly, engaged in collective interpretation, which looks a lot like saying the "Amen." Perhaps participatory culture includes really simple but deep activities like assent, disagreement, increased perplexity, clarified thought, appraisal, critique, and more.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Introducing Easter Vigil

Keeping Vigil on Saturday of Easter eve is a new practice for our congregation, even if it is an ancient pattern for the Christian church (ours will be Saturday March 30th at 6:30 p.m. at Good Shepherd, Fayetteville, AR). 

Christians have for centuries kept vigil in darkness as night falls, lighting the new fire outside the church building, lighting the Christ candle from that fire, then carrying it inside, calling out in processional, "The light of Christ. Thanks be to God."

But who is the Vigil for? 

Like any service of Christian worship, it is for anyone. All are welcome. It may be a new experience for many going to church on Saturday night, but I encourage you to try it. The service is so very different from what you you have experienced Sunday mornings, or at prayer-services mid-week. It is the kind of service that is better seen than told about, experienced first-hand rather than heard about second-hand, so do consider yourself invited (and for the curious among us, the Wikipedia entry on Easter Vigil is quite good, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Vigil).

The Vigil is also especially for the candidates/catechumens. It is the service at which candidates for baptism are immersed in the baptismal waters and welcomed into the life of Christ. It is the service at which those returning to Christian community, or moving from other places, affirm their baptism in Christ.

The Vigil is full of readings from Scripture. Prepare your hearts and minds to hear the slow unfolding of God's gracious activity in the world and among us. Twelve readings are appointed, not all of which are read each year, but as a whole they lift up the greatest moments of the history of God's salvific work--creation, flood, testing of Abraham, deliverance at the Red Sea, the gift of wisdom, the valley of dry bones, the deliverance of Jonah, the deliverance from the fiery furnace, and more. 

But why add an Easter Vigil? 

Some churches call Holy Week the "liturgy of the three days." In a way, there are not three or four services that make up holy week, but one long service divided up into multiple parts. On Maundy Thursday, the church remembers Christ's last supper in the upper room with his disciples, and his servant-act of washing their feet. On Good Friday, the church commemorates his death on the cross. On Saturday, the church keeps vigil, mourning with the disciples, buried in the death of Christ, but anticipating the Easter morn. So it keeps vigil, re-tells the story of God's might deeds among Israel and in creation. It sits with the new in faith, and watches in anticipation for the light of Christ. The Easter Vigil is in this way both very solemn, and profoundly joyous.

Following the reading of Scripture, those who have been preparing for baptism come to the waters and new life in Christ. In our congregation, we have two adults and almost a dozen children who will be baptized this evening. Even if you don't like fire or the bible, you have to like babies, right? In which case you don't want to miss the Easter Vigil, because there will be plenty of cute babies and children being baptized. But this is more than cute, this is about new life, and new life in Christ, as we welcome these new Christians in our community. At the same time, we welcome the many adults affirming their baptism as part of our period of adult inquiry.

Where did you get this idea? 

Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington has been our primary mentor for implementing the catechumenate and the Easter Vigil. Their pastor, Paul Hoffman, has written a wonderful little book I recommend, Faith Forming Faith: Bringing New Christians to Baptism and Beyond
, which tells the story of developing The Way in their congregation. In addition, our denomination is increasingly encouraging this pattern for Christian faith formation in congregations around the country, and even hosts training and publishes resources to learn more.

I can hardly describe how excited I am to be hosting this service at GSLC this year. It is an honor and a joy and a privilege to gather with others as we anticipate and celebrate again the rising of the Sun, the one raised by his Father in victory over death. We will at that point no longer be able to contain our Alleluias!

You can attend seminars, including an upcoming training at Christ the King in Houston, Texas :

Read more about Phinney Ridge and the Easter Vigil here:

Learn more about the ELCA resources and approach here:

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Post Punk

Steampunk Theology has been live and kicking it for almost a year now. The Magus, the Alpinist and the Ecclesiast post infrequently but regularly, offering up steampunk musings with a theological bent. But you might still wonder, what is steampunk? So, for the under-initiated, here's a basic definition:
Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. Therefore, steampunk works are often set in an alternate history of the 19th century's British Victorian era orAmerican "Wild West", in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has regained mainstream use, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power. Steampunk perhaps most recognizably features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era's perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art.
Just the other day I discovered a living analogy for steampunk that might interest you. I'm calling it "postpunk." Some genre writers have already been imagining alternatives to steampunk--like clockpunk or cyberpunk. In this case, the punk is literal. I found this par avion letter in my drawer while pulling together tax paperwork, so took a couple of digital photos of it to post. I think it is postpunk because it's almost like an alternative future, but one that used to be. I bought this when an international letter cost .50 cents to send (pretty close to what a domestic letter costs today), and in an era when people sent paper letters. But in this case the letter itself is also airpunk, remembering an era when innovators imagined air travel and mail delivered by air freight and balloons. All steampunk theology does is interpret these kinds of approaches to steam and punk but in theological perspective. What if theology had moved forward from an alternative history? What if the science theology took to be rigorous was of a different sort? 
Discover the alternative universe at: http://steampunktheology.blogspot.com

Tina Fey’s Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat*

Love this idea: Wish I and more church leaders would adopt it as a fundamental principle for Christian ministry.
"The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” “No, that’s not in the budget.” “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live?

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.

The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers.

In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag. It’s usually the same person around the office who says things like “There’s no calories in it if you eat it standing up!” and “I felt menaced when Terry raised her voice.”

MAKE STATEMENTS also applies to us women: Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?” Make statements, with your actions and your voice.

Instead of saying “Where are we?” make a statement like “Here we are in Spain, Dracula.” Okay, “Here we are in Spain, Dracula” may seem like a terrible start to a scene, but this leads us to the best rule:

THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.

*Improv will not reduce belly fat"

-From Bossypants

Friday, March 08, 2013

2020: The Year the ELCA Has a Baby

I know, I know. At least some nay-sayers are going to argue that we're in a post-denominational era, so why start new denominations.

Others are going to assume any proposal to start something new implies something negative about the current denomination, though this is not my point.

Nevertheless, here we go. 

A vision for 2020 for the ELCA 

By 2020 the ELCA intentionally gives birth to a new denomination. Instead of exhausting ourselves trying to "redevelop" the ELCA, let's pour resources into starting a new denomination, one that has as its DNA theological depth and multiplication of ministries, and a heart for reaching people groups at considerable cultural distance from the cultures we currently reach. Instead of putting the bandage of "missional" on the ELCA, start a denomination that has missional built in as the engine that drives it. 

Let's start a new denomination not out of strife or conflict but as an asset, intentionally, for the sake of the gospel and the growth of the kingdom.

Some talking points

1. This is a tried and true model in the business world. Larger corporations often launch subsidiary companies. These subsidiaries are given more latitude than the parent company. They can experiment, fail, develop, adapt, in ways the larger company cannot. But they represent space the larger company believes necessary to reach new markets, create new products, etc. One model of this already on-going in the ELCA is Augsburg Fortress and its subsidiary publishing house, Sparkhouse. Sometimes disruptive change can be handled through the creation of a new institution or structure rather than the dismantling and reassembling of an old one.

2. It doesn't have to be a denomination. I'm just using that as a catch-phrase for any kind of missional structure or network that can be highly adaptive, and structured in a fashion more conducive to reaching new populations and people with the gospel. 

3. This does not mean the ELCA itself can't continue adapting, reforming, redeveloping. The best part about having a baby is you get to nurture the baby and watch it grow, while continuing your own journey as an adult, growing and changing alongside it.

4. This models at the institutional level what we are calling ourselves to do at the congregational level. It builds into our very DNA the point that we are not just a church that gives birth to new churches, but a multiplying network that multiplies not just churches but even networks themselves.

5. Yes, the world is flat. Yes, hierarchies and structures have changed considerably. Nevertheless, even highly effective missional movements that grow and develop churches around the country eventually have to develop structures that, surprise surprise, look a lot like variations on a theme--denominations. 

6. You say you don't want more denominations, you just want to get out there and be in mission. I get it. However, you want a network of support. You want to have peers to consult, resources to draw on, a crowd to source. How are you going to do this? How will that work? A structure birthed out of the ELCA encompassing the missional tribe in the ELCA (specifics to be designed by that tribe) can do this in a way currently not available in our present model. 

7. Some of you still think I'm faulting the institution somehow, don't you? But I'm not. Instead, I'm proposing that multiplication and mission needs to be modeled at all levels. Each of us individually is called to be in mission and live out our baptismal calling. Individual congregations are called to multiple at their level, as are small groups and many other kinds of ministries. All this proposal does is add another multiplying level. Networks themselves can multiply. The ELCA is a network--and it can give birth to new networks/denominations.

8. Some of you still think I'm failing to be truly post-denominational in this proposal, but honestly, think about the modern world. Post-denominational does not mean the end of denominations. It means the advent of increasingly fluid networks, and the proliferation of networks. Proliferating networks that rely on and mutually reinforce each other are a good thing.

9. I remember Bishop Mark Hanson sharing at our synod assembly two years ago that bishops are "pontiffs"--bridge builders. At least I think he said this. Please correct me if I'm wrong. In any event, I happen to think this is something the ELCA is particularly good at, building bridges between communities and to new ones. I have been convicted by Alan Hirsch's discussions of cultural distance to realize that the ELCA is continually and mostly trying to reach the 40% of the U.S. population most other churches are also trying to reach--and we will in all likelihood continue to be like this. If we really want to reach groups at three or four on the cultural distance scale away from ourselves, I think the only way to do it is for us to give birth to a new (or even more than one new) network, ones that are free to get out into those cultural contexts in ways we can't.

That is all. Fire away. Shoot the idea down if you'd like. But please consider the possibilities. Imagine with me. I'd appreciate it.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

How To Use Digital Media for Faith Formation

"It is the author's job to try to dislocate older media into postures that permit attention to the new. To this end, the artist must ever play and experiment with new means of arranging experience, even though the majority of their audience may prefer to remain fixed in their old perceptual attitudes." (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man)

All writing (all media, for that matter) has the potential to be not simply informational but formational. What I mean by this is that many people make use of the resources we author as part of their faith development, not just as publicity on how to attend events where real formation happens.

For example, with our church e-newsletter, we see much higher click through rates on material that is fresh, formative, and opens space for readers to learn, grow, and explore. The best content generates comments on blogs, re-posts in their networks, and conversation around coffee Sunday morning or supper Wednesday night. 

Three things contribute to high levels of engagement, all of which correspond nicely to Aristotle's three elements of rhetoric--ethos, logos, pathos--so I will use these as the frame. 


I think pathos in modern publishing jargon is "copy." So much media comes at us every single day, we need writers to attend to that first sentence, the title, and draw us in with an appeal to our emotions. We need what is published to capture our eye.

Good titles matter, attractive content matters, layout matters, design matters. Anything published that does not attend to copy simply doesn't get read.

Copyblogger is the best resource I know to learn how to write great copy. I suggest everyone take time to read their tutorials:


The art and science of direct-response copywriting involves strategically delivering words (whether written or spoken) that get people to take some form of action.

For another great resource on the creation of designs that capture the attention, see: Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery (2nd Edition) (Voices That Matter)


This is the actual content, the deliverable. We want to capture the attention of our audience for a reason---we believe in the content. What we write needs to make a difference in people's lives. It needs to inform, persuade, inspire, convict. 

Increasingly, those of us publishing in digital media are realizing it also needs to cultivate community, engage conversation, and "spread" (check out Henry Jenkins new book, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (Postmillennial Pop)

A sign that the content matters to people is their sharing of it. When media spreads, it matters. It matters even more if the content then changes other aspects of the life of those who read it. This is formation. For one spectacular resource observing how faith formation is happening on-line all over the place:



Ethos is the appeal to the authority or honesty of the speaker/author. I may have caught your attention, my content might be engaging, but do you trust me? Why should you listen to me? This last point may be the most elusive aspect of using digital media for faith formation. Those of us who publish and write in this digitally mediated contexts have to earn the trust and interest of our readers, and it is not always clear how to do that.

A good friend, Drew Curtis, who started the web site fark.com and has figured out far more about creating community in digital environments than I will ever know, wrote recently, 
"I've never been any good at making Farkers do anything either [he had just finished reading my dissertation, where I mentioned that in running the ELCA Clergy Facebook group, although I could get the group to discuss almost anything, I struggled to get them to collectively "do" something together], however I've gotten really good at putting things in front of them that I know they'll want to react to.  It's a subtle distinction.  The lever you use is context - tell them why they should care.  If you can't figure out why or they just plain don't agree, they won't move.  And that's fine.  Sometimes though the right contextual twist makes all the difference between ignored and viral."
Which brings us full circle. Speakers and authors are trusted at least in part because they know their audience well, and read the context. To gain the trust of readers, know your readers. Listen to them. Then put things in front of them that you know they'll react to. Then get out of the way.