Wednesday, July 31, 2013

If you are longing for Jesus, you might just meet him in church... of all places

You learn a lot from your interns. Sometimes you learn that, if you are longing for Jesus, it's really the case that you can meet him in church, of all places!

Thanks, Chad Gurley, for this, reprinted with permission from the Final Evaluation he will submit to Vanderbilt Divinity School in partial fulfillment of his Master's of Divinity degree:
"Theologically speaking, on my internship I found a renewed connection to Christ and the love and grace I believe Christ freely gives.  
 The ritual and liturgy of the Lutheran tradition served to deepen my faith, and this both surprised and pleased me greatly.  
 I cannot adequately put into words how this summer rejuvenated my relationship with Christ; however, it did, and I now leave this internship with a real sense of better understanding as to why I want to serve and give back to humanity in whatever capacity God intends for me.  
 The cumulative effect of my Divinity education along with this internship has focused me and helped provide much needed clarity, in addition to providing me a real sense of joy I have been missing for a long time.

Lastly, I am excited to report that I have rediscovered the value of church and congregational ministry, something of which I was becoming skeptical.

Living in a country full of service organizations, non-profits, and charities, it has become easy for me to dismiss the work of churches. It would seem that secularly there is a great deal of ministry being done in helping humanity, thus the need for churches would diminish.  
 However, over the course of this internship, I have learned just how important congregational ministry is for our society.  
 First, churches allow for members of society, those in service oriented vocations and otherwise, to be rejuvenated and refocused weekly. Truly, spiritual nourishment is necessary if we are to go out into the world to do what God has called us to do, to love as God intends us to love. If breakfast is the most important meal of the day for our physical bodies, then communing with the earthly body of Christ is the most important sustenance for our spiritual bodies.  
Secondly, churches allow for its members to cross-pollinate resources to better serve the wider society at large. Non-profits and service organizations can easily become insular and unaware of the resources available to them by other organizations not in their fields of expertise.  
Churches provide opportunities for the body of Christ to connect to one another, for ligaments to be formed between the limbs, so as to enable fluid motion of care and support to a world in need of love and healing."

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Why empty-nesters are leaving the church

I know, I know. Everyone wants to talk about why millenials are leaving the church. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The church needs the millenials, just like it needs every demographic group that lives and breathes and walks the earth.

Straight talk about why millenials are leaving the church is indispensable.

But the virality of posts about young adults leaving the church leaves me wondering: 

What is so attractive about the millenial conversation? Not that it's a contest (again, all generations matter to the church and to God), but can you imagine a post on why the elderly are leaving the church gaining the same kind of viral energy that Rachel Held Evans recent excellent post did via CNN?

Poked and Prodded

If I were a millennial, I would be tired of all the poking and prodding. I'm Gen X. We're comfortable with the low level fuzzy interest the Zeitgeist sends our way. We don't need the anxiety or fascination. 

Watching our cultural conversations about the millenials, and our zealous information gathering about them, I wonder, "Do they tire of all the attention?" Between Pew, and Barna, and PRRI, almost everyone seems to be studying them. 

If nothing else, our manic attention to millenials and the church illustrates Thomas Bergler's point in The Juvenilization of American Christianitythat the church's focus on youth culture (which began approximately in the 1930s) has both vitalized and juvenilized the church at the same time. We learn from the group we study; we also tend to become myopically focused on meeting their needs. 

The empty-nester phenomenon

Which leaves me wondering, has anyone noticed how many empty-nesters are leaving the church, never to return? Are there studies on this? A quick google search turned up very little. Certainly nothing as viral as the multitude of posts on millenials leaving the church.

I did find this one post from James K. Honig. CNN, Huffington Post and Patheos have yet to pick it up. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But I happen to know a few empty-nesters, even more than a few. And I find they often leave the church for many of the reasons millenials leave the church. In fact, although empty-nesting is a different life transition than the 20s, the way these two demographics respond spiritually to their life transitions is remarkably similar.

Riffing on Rachel Held Evans a bit, they do want an end to the culture wars. They want a truce between science and faith. They want to ask questions that don't have predetermined answers.

They are tired of church that ties itself too closely to one political party or another. They want their LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in church.

They want the church to be holy, and make a difference, serving the poor and oppressed, working for reconciliation, committed to creation care.

In addition, they often leave the church for reasons similar to, but also different from, millenials. Like millenials, they are going through a significant life transition. Their kids have left home, and their connection to church had been, for quite a while, tied to their children's participation. 

Like youth who leave the home and engage faith for the first time as independent adults, empty-nesters step out into new territory, discovering what church is for them when they aren't a driver for lock-ins, chaperone for mission trips, and enforcer of the household rule, In our house, we go to church on Sundays.

With the kids away from home, they try involvement in church for their own reasons. They are elected to church council, or volunteer to coordinate a neighborhood feeding program. 

Often older adults drift away, but not immediately after their children leave home. There is this interim period. Then something happens; they start traveling to college and university events or begin care-giving for older parents; they become disillusioned with church; they get tired, etc. -- and then they're gone. What begins as frequent absence slowly becomes a permanent one.

I have never seen this phenomenon analyzed anywhere in writing. Certainly I have never seen it go viral on an internet meme.

Rachel Held Evans gets this in her post, even if her post is still given a title more likely to ensure its virality. She writes:
You can’t hand us [millenials/empty-nesters] a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there. 
Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus. 
Now these trends are obviously true not only for millennials but also for many folks from other generations. Whenever I write about this topic, I hear from forty-somethings and grandmothers, Generation Xers and retirees, who send me messages in all caps that read “ME TOO!” So I don’t want to portray the divide as wider than it is.
Great point, Rachel. Absolutely. But the divide is wider than it should be (not that Rachel is causing it), and all the anxious attention we give to millenials sometimes increases the divide.

It might make us feel better to know that some millenials are finding comfort in the traditions of mainline Protestantism or more traditional faiths. Overall, however, the generations are much more fluid than this. There simply is no single fix. As many empty-nesters come back to church for contemporary forms of worship as for traditional ones. This is true also of millenials.

What empty-nesters need from the church is precisely what millenials need from the church. It is the only thing every generation needs, the only thing anyone distant from the church needs. It is the only silver bullet.

They need us to listen. 

Clearly, we are listening to the millenials.  Not that there's anything wrong with that. But we can't listen to the millenials for the wrong reasons, and we can't allow our juvenilizing tendencies to blind us to the times when we listen to one generation at the expense of many others.

And deep down, we all do really long for Jesus.

And deep down, all of us who are in our 40s kind of wish we were in our late 20s again.

p.s. Blogging is great because you can edit on the fly. Some notes from conversations happening around this post right now:

1) The title of this post (and maybe Rachel's?) could be, "Why empty-nesters are joining the church." This is because, as some readers point out, we focus a lot of energy worrying about who is leaving, and not as much time celebrating who is joining.

2) I have the sneaking suspicion that the people who say they are leaving the church because they don't find Jesus there may have a hyper-spiritualized understanding of who Jesus actually is.

3) The transitions that happen during the empty-nest stage are even more momentous than I've mentioned above. Often, there are issues like divorce, bankruptcy, job loss, decreased quality of life, less energy.

4) I remember at some point in college I made the transition from being externally motivated to study (to make grades, etc.) to being internally motivated (spending time in the library reading books discovered in the footnotes of other books simply because I was interested). Church is similar. Internal motivations can keep us strongly connected even when external circumstances sometimes push us away.

5) More than one person has recommended Richard Rohr's Falling Upward (link below) as one resource for this stage of life and spiritual journey. I've also blogged about it recently:

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Did liberal Christianity win by losing?

So the New York Times recently published a provocative little piece: A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered.

If you care about religion in America, even a little bit, the article is worth your time.

In it, the author notes:

"In “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History
,” published in April by Princeton University Press, Mr. Hollinger argues that the mainline won a broader cultural victory that historians have underestimated. Liberals, he maintains, may have lost Protestantism, but they won the country, establishing ecumenicalism, cosmopolitanism and tolerance as the dominant American creed."

However, it's not clear to me, given the possibility that this is true (and I think it is at least mostly true), what if anything we are to do or think about it? How can you have a moment that isn't your moment? What if you find the notion of seeking your "moment" dubious?

The article concludes:

Some scholars with roots in more traditional churches caution against overstating the importance of liberal religion. The recent work on the subject is “a nice rebalancing of the historiographical ledgers,” said Mark Noll, a historian of religion at Notre Dame and a prominent evangelical intellectual. But for a tradition to have any continuing influence, he added, it needs committed bodies in the pews. 
That point is seconded by Ms. Coffman, who worked as an editor at Christianity Today before entering academia. She currently teaches at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution where pastors in training, she said, are less likely to be savoring their broad cultural victories than debating which elements of evangelical worship they should adopt to attract a viable congregation.

At the very least, it leaves me pondering: Instead of investing our energy in triumphalist patterns of church that can attract large numbers, what would it look like for us to consider ourselves salt and yeast, leavening the next era of Christianity in ways similar to the ways our predecessors leavened our era?

Even more intriguing, is it possible to do both? Can we attract viable congregations AND influence the culture?

And what is a liberal Protestant, anyway?

Good friends listen to you enough to be able to tell you when you aren't even aware how some of your previous reflection connects with something new. A good friend recently pointed out to me that this phenomenon, of liberal Christianities influence on culture, is an example of missional networks spreading by losing control. I think he's correct, so I re-post the video of that here.

Clint Schnekloth @ Three Leadership Tables workshop from ELCA Churchwide Organization on Vimeo.


There's been a flurry of books on the topic of late, including...

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Which Bible Should I Get? A Jocose Set of Vlogs

Getting the Right Bible for the Great Conversation at St. Olaf College 2013-15 from Gregory Walter on Vimeo.

Which Bible Should I Get? from Clint Schnekloth on Vimeo.

Response to Which Bible Should I Get? from Jacob Erickson on Vimeo.

Record your own, tweet it (tagging @Schnekloth), and perhaps I'll edit this post to include yours as well.

This response from Greg was posted the next day:

OOO Bible from Gregory Walter on Vimeo.

Then I added this one, which responds, but I don't think tops OOO and the Vulgate:

Where to read the bible from Clint Schnekloth on Vimeo.

Unicorns will always win:

Bible Texts and Mediums from Jacob Erickson on Vimeo.

On Religion: To Its Cultured Inquirers

A review of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.Christian Wiman was recently appointed as the Senior Lecturer in Religion and Literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

Some books are so incredibly good that they simply elude review. This is such a book. Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, is so ripe with meaning, so full of insight, that it is impossible to summarize or adequately comment.

It's the kind of book that, on every page, you simply write down the name(s) of the people you want to buy a copy for.

Lots of books offer great theological reflections, but often the prose is wooden. Other books, though beautiful essayistically, lack the rigor of a work of theology.

Wiman somehow manages to accomplish both, consistently, repeatedly. This is prose as poetry, and it is theology as essay and confession.

Wiman suffers from an incurable cancer. This becomes a topic at times in the book, but ultimately, the book is not just a living with cancer book--as helpful as those are--but something that encompasses his suffering and then transcends it, even as it descends into and is swallowed by it.

The only thing I can compare it to in terms of quality and concision is Schleiermacher's On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.

Wiman's book is not written with quite the same intent. But it can function in a similar way. It is now the book I will repeatedly give away as a gift, or suggest to friends, who are considering faith, considering God, struggling with suffering, seeking to make meaning out of the intimations of faith that keep creeping into their lives in spite of their doubts.

I offer a few quotes, as teasers. But I can't say it enough, or more clearly than this, "You need to read this book. You want to read this book. It will be your companion and friend."

"Christ comes alive in the communion between people. When we are alone, even joy is, in a way, sorrow's flower: lovely, necessary, sustaining, but blooming in loneliness, rooted in grief. I'm not sure you can have communion with other people without these moments in which sorrow has opened in you, and for you; and I am pretty certain that without shared social devotion one's solitary experiences of God wither into a form of withholding, spiritual stinginess, the light of Christ growing ever fainter in the glooms of the self."

"Sorrow is so woven through us, so much a part of our souls, or at least any understanding of our souls that we are able to attain, that every experience is dyed with its color. This is why, even in moment of joy, part of that joy is the seams of ore that are our sorrow. They burn darkly and beautifully in the midst of joy, and they make joy the complete experience that it is. But they still burn."

"One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which means that his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs, or what humans perceive to be their needs. A deeper truth, though, one that Scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present. If every Bible is lost, if every church crumbles to dust, if the last believer in the last prayer opens her eyes and lets it all finally go, Christ will appear on this earth as calmly and casually as he appeared to the disciples walking to Emmaus after his death, who did not recognize this man tho whom they had pledged their very lives; this man whom they had seen beaten, crucified, abandoned by God; this man who, after walking the dusty road with them, after sharing an ordinary meal and discussing the Scriptures, had to vanish once more in order to make them see."

"The temptation is to make an idol of our own experience, to assume our pain is more singular than it is. Even here, in some of the entries above, I see that I have fallen prey to it. In truth, experience means nothing if it does not mean beyond itself: we mean nothing unless and until our hard-won meanings are internalized and catalyzed within the lives of others. There is something I am meant to see, something for which my own situation and suffering are the lens, but the cost of such seeing--I am just beginning to realize--may very well be any final clarity or perspective on my own life, my own faith. That would not be a bad fate, to burn up like the booster engine that falls away from the throttling rocket, lighting a little dark as I go."

No list of quotes would be enough. I want to quote the whole book. I want to read it aloud to you, or have someone read it to me. It's that good.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Killing Pious Platitudes: Giving for all the wrong reason

Perhaps we are encouraging giving for all the wrong reasons. 

A few theses on giving up pious stewardship platitudes:

1) We don't give in response to how much God has first given us. Although this tends to be a dominant motif in stewardship preaching and theology, it is simply too religious. But also, if you pay attention to sociology and philosophical reflection on gift economy, you will see that such a gift, properly understood, is no gift at all. This is more like a gift exchange, and may in fact be commodifying giving.

2) Everything we have comes from God, but it isn't clear that means our response is to give some of it back. In fact, it is unclear how you can give back to God when if it all came from God in the first place. With gifts, it is customary to keep the gift given, and say thank you. Right? It's even offensive to the giver if you give a portion of it back, because it feels like either a rejection of the gift, or a conversion of it into some kind of transaction.

3) All "responses" to gifts from God other than thanksgiving are at risk of undermining the nature of the gift qua gift.

4) All of this being the case, we need a different way to talk about giving in the church. Since God does not need our gifts, and perhaps it is impossible to give a gift to God even if we would like to give a gift to God, our best move is...

5) Give because the neighbor needs it. Give because the mission needs it. This way of thinking frees the church up to speak about gifts in the most sensible way possible. Please give to this mission because the mission needs your gift. Please give to your neighbor, because your neighbor is in need.

In a recent post reviewing Craig Satterlee's book on preaching and stewardship, I summarized his "why" of giving in this way:

So, why give money to the church? Satterlee suggests we do so a) as an act of worship, b) as a way of participating in God's reign, c) as an act of resistance, d) as a way of bearing witness, and e) to grow in grace. Perhaps also we give in order to receive.

Reflecting further on this list, it felt unsettling to leave it there, not because any of these reasons for giving are necessarily wrong, but because so many of them are potentially pious and perhaps overly complex. They don't call the thing what it is. Though you can add layers to a gift, and claim it is an act of worship, participating in God's reign, an act of resistance, bearing witness, or growing in grace, it's also true that you can and should give without claiming any of those additional layers, and you can and should give simply because your neighbor needs it.

Feed the hungry, because they are hungry.
Donate to your church, because the staff need to be paid.
Fund a new mission start, because the mission start needs funding to get started.
Give to your alma mater, because it costs money to run a college.
Give to the guy who asks for money at the gas station, because he needs it, and he asked.

If we add any other layers to this basic definition, "Give because your neighbor needs it," we get into all kinds of analysis that take the phenomenology of the gift beyond what is warranted, perhaps even beyond what is comprehensible.


Thanks to my good friend Dr. Gregory Walter of St. Olaf College, who inspired these reflections. We've had many conversations on gift economies as he prepared to publish his book, Being Promised.

p.s. I have the intuition, though this will need to be for a subsequent post, that these reflections on giving to the neighbor have analogy with our doctrines of atonement. Many such doctrines think Jesus was "giving" something to God through is death, whereas I would content that Jesus himself in his death was giving "to the neighbor in need"--us.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Kickstart ELCA Radio: Let's have a race!

The ELCA used to have Lutheran Vespers. Then it became Grace Matters. Then the funding was pulled. After we licked our wounds and looked around, we realized a) there's no longer an "ELCA" radio presence, and b) it has become really inexpensive, easy, and accessible to do high quality radio. Our ability to do high quality Lutheran radio has now scaled to match our available funds.

So why hasn't anyone started doing it? Or if they have, why aren't "ELCA" radio programs widely known among us?

I say, let's have a race. Let's see how many of us can launch ELCA-related radio programs in the next year. Figure out how to produce them as well as you can, because quality matters. Try to build a big audience. Get buzz. Get traction. Challenge and inspire. Then let's create a map, and put dots on the map with links to everyone broadcasting around North America.

Here's a recipe for success (but certainly not the only way to get it done):

1) Use a local university radio station as the place to record--or any radio station that will let you, actually: I even understand that Higgins Road has such a studio, so if you live in Chicagoland, see if you can get in to use their space!

Offer $75-100 per session to have them open up and push play.

2) Get a student at the university to intern as the editor and edit the final product.

3) Post. This part is the easiest, there are all kinds of ways to podcast, broadcast. One resource that pushes your podcast out to the main venues (iTunes, etc.) is

The biggest issue with producing high quality recording is the background noise. Getting into a radio studio addresses that issue. There are ways to interview people using Voice Memo on iPhone (they can hold it up to their mouth and record while simultaneously talking to you live over a landline), then have them send that file to you for editing.

Almost everyone already owns equipment that records at a high enough level of quality. Your iPhone. Your camera. Your laptop and some headphones. So, there are grassroots ways to get started ASAP.

4) You probably need a person to lead all this. Maybe you plan to do it yourself. Either way, above the $75-100 per studio use, you might need a budget to compensate them, depending on whether they are willing to do it for free or for a fee.

To crowd-source the funding of a radio program, try

To listen around the country and world to radio broadcasts, and see what is already out there, check out:

Share more great radio programs, links to broadcasting and recording resources, recommendations on equipment, and other ideas, in the comments below.

Ready. Set. Go.

The Social Media Gospel: Meredith Gould Blog Tour @meredithgould

I recently had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Meredith Gould and ask her a few questions about her new book, The Social Media Gospel: Sharing the Good News in New Ways

This brief and compelling book packs a punch, combining immense insight into the phenomenon of social media with practical wisdom on the how of communicating gospel in social media contexts. It has become my go-to book to share with anyone interested in a combination of the why and how of social media ministry.

Here's what she had to say:

What's the most interesting early response you've had to your book?

At least two people, experienced users of social media, have publicly shared their surprise (and delight) at learning new ways of thinking about social media that will change their use of it.  My favorite was this tweet, “Holy cow! I really thought I knew everything there was to know on the topic…and I was wrong!”

I loved seeing this and at least one other similar comment but not only because I’m a triumphalist smarty-pants. I’m also an educator and former academician, so I rejoice whenever I’m able to help people expand and deepen their thinking.

Most surprising – as in unexpected –has been the personal warmth people have expressed for me.  Knowing that I’d be breathing into a little brown paper bag to cope with this appreciation, a few clergy friends have ministered to me via the back channel.

What drives your passion for this topic?

Here’s the trajectory:
  • My passion for social media is driven by my call to the ministry of communications.
  • My passion for communications ministry is driven by my call to preach and teach the Gospel.
  • My passion for preaching and teaching the Gospel is driven by the imperative of tikkun olam (repairing the world), a legacy of my Jewish upbringing. 
As a semi-side note, I didn’t connect these dots until a colleague on the pastoral staff I was on said, “Don’t you get it? Communications is your ministry, write about that.”

The Social Media Gospel, which focuses on social media, is in fact a logical sequel to my first book about this ministry, The Word Made Fresh: Communicating Church and Faith Today. I’m hoping people find their way to that earlier book. 

Having written your book, what's the next step? I think we have been in social media 1.0 for a while now, and I think we are on the verge of 2.0. What's that look like?

We’ve been in social media 1.0 for a while and it may seem we’ve been stuck here too long. But that feeling of stagnation tends to be among those of us who have been at this for a while.  The vast majority of church folk are just now discovering social media. We need to teach, train, and support them.

From my experience in the world of healthcare (Note: I’m a charter member of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media advisory board and helped develop the Social Residency curriculum), I can say that social 2.0 looks like pushing beyond “how to” and into “why to” – strategy. 

And as I’m responding to this answer, I’m realizing my emphasis on strategy in The Social Media Gospel is a result of being in 2.0-ville with healthcare communications colleagues. My vehement emphasis on strategy can also be traced to the decades I spent in secular marketing communications. Have a good laugh: I worked on a pesticide account for two years.

In the secular world of business and industry, social media 2.0 includes a greater focus on ROI (return on investment) and measurement. I touch on the difficulty of doing this in The Social Media Gospel (p. 100).  I devote an entire chapter in The Word Made Fresh to explaining the near-impossibility of measuring effectiveness in the world of church communications.

Meanwhile, all this (i.e., becoming more sophisticated about social media use) is happening as we’ve entered Web 3.0 (i.e., portable personalized content and search functions).  As a sociologist, I’m delighted by the conceptual intricacy.  As a minister doing in-the-trenches work with churches and judicatories, I’m often in danger of tumbling  into a pit of despair.  To ameliorate that, I check-in with my social media tribe and prayerfully focus on everything that pops up in the “Fun” column I’ve created on Tweetdeck. 

For more information on Meredith Gould and her work:

Twitter: @meredithgould

She is available for consulting and also for engagements as an interim (2 month) director or manager of communications.  

Thanks, Meredith, for taking the time. May our tribe increase, and may your social media gospel spread!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lutheran Scoffers and Twitter Indulgences

When Pope Francis does things American Protestants like (like washing feet or advocating simplicity), everyone re-posts articles about him, commenting, "I think I love this new pope!"

When Pope Francis announces the granting of plenary indulgences for followers of his tweets, everyone re-posts articles about it, commenting, "Good Lord, those Catholics, they're at it again."

In other words... we like this new pope when he is "like" us, and we revert to our latent anti-Catholic bias when he isn't.

Lutherans are particularly inept at responding to any news about plenary indulgences. Because of Luther and his famous 95 theses, lots of us assume we're experts on indulgences. But our expertise is rather limited. Basically, all Lutherans can say about indulgences is: They're bad!

Back in 1999, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran communions signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Any time there is news about indulgences, Lutherans tend to circle up, and declare, "Wow, I wish those Catholics would read our common agreement on the doctrine of justification. They're drifting again, if they were ever really on the same page with us to begin with..."

But really, if we have a common agreement with the RC on justification, isn't it our duty, first of all, to try and understand how Roman Catholics practice indulgences, and not make assumptions that they are "just like" the indulgences practiced at the time of the Reformation?

So, first, consider this quote:

"What really counts is that the tweets the Pope sends from Brazil or the photos of the Catholic World Youth Day that go up on Pinterest produce authentic spiritual fruit in the hearts of everyone." (Claudio Mario Celli, excerpted from an article in the Guardian).

Plenary indulgences are not the absolution of sin, even though a lot of Lutherans assume they are. It's rather more complicated and interesting than that. They are, in fact, remission of temporal punishment due to sin.

So a Lutheran, if they really wanted to understand what the pope was up to in granting plenary indulgences for specific kinds of actions (like following the popes tweets during the World Youth Festival in Brazil), would need to learn at least the following:

1) The difference between eternal and temporal punishments
2) The relationship in the development of doctrine between severe penance and indulgences
3) The relationship between the Roman Catholic view of purgatory, and whatever position a Protestant is going to take on how God goes about make things right and just after death before the kingdom of God is established.

They might also want to consult the Catholic catechism, which reads in part:

The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the 'old man' and to put on the 'new man'. (On Indulgences)
Why does this matter to me? Since we have been seeking fundamental agreement in our doctrine of justification with Roman Catholics, I believe it behooves us to begin from a posture of understanding rather than judgment. Is there a way for us to see or observe what is admittedly a very different practice than our own faith practice, but try to understand it internally according to its own merits? Are we willing to read Aquinas, and the catechism, and the modern teachings of the pope, in order to actually try and comprehend what they/he mean by granting such indulgences?

Or are we just going to scoff?

And can we try and see how this is actually parallel to our own faith practices in many ways? Aren't most Protestants trying to figure out how social media can be faith forming? Don't we hope that some of our tweets, this blog, our photos on Pinterest, produce spiritual fruits?

Most profoundly: Don't we believe, in some form or another, that what we do now as the communion of saints, is already participation in our life with God, in which case, reading tweets, when they produce spiritual fruits, really does function something like "indulgences."

If we like this pope, aren't we willing, at the very least, to give the benefit of the doubt? Can't we follow the first rule of improv, and begin by agreeing, and see where that takes us?

So, consider one last quote from the catechism. If we as Lutherans really believe in the office of the keys, the power of God's Word, especially that word spoken extra nos, if we believe Christ really entrusted the work of mercy and grace into our hands (the church), can't we begin by listening, and working hard to see clearly where there is common ground?
An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Thus the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Silence Can Mean Many Things: On the Tragedy of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin

If you follow my blog, you know I have lots to say on lots of subjects. When possible, if a spiritual crisis is exhibited in popular media, I try to address it. Not always, because it's not my full-time gig to be a blogger, but I try.

The needless shooting death of the child Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman is an example, but with a difference. As soon as the verdict in the case was announced Saturday night, people in my various networks started saying, "We have to say something. You have to say something." I received individual messages from people asking why I had not blogged yet. Clergy I know stayed up late re-working their sermons to incorporate the news.

In the meantime, I tried to just listen. I read posts from African-American colleagues and friends who were heart-broken and stunned. I read articles the next day from people who were angry and confused. Two quotes stuck with me, and they are the ones I tried to feature in what I re-posted in my own networks. The first is a prayer, posted by a friend and hip-hop artist:

"In the name of the almighty God, may our grievance become hope, may our vengeance turn to justice, and may our tears turn to prayers that this never happens again to anyone's child."-prayer from the widows of Srebrenica (Bosnia) 

I think this prayer says as deeply as I know how what I knew even before the verdict. I imagined my own son, age seventeen, being shot and killed while walking home from the store. I do not want that to to happen to anyone's child, ever. I am angry that it happened, sad that state laws and other social norms allow for such an event to happen. I don't always know how to comment on court verdicts. Anyone not on the jury needs to tread carefully. But regardless of whether or not George Zimmerman is innocent or guilty, I know for sure it is atrocious that Trayvon Martin died at the hands of George Zimmerman. It's horrible. And so we pray for justice and hope in the midst of it.

The other quote was from a very angry blog post at the Esquire blog. It's John Dos Passos, and he wrote:

All right we are two nations.

We are two nations. I am convinced that if Trayvon Martin had shot and killed George Zimmerman, the entire situation would have gone differently, because Trayvon is black. African-Americans, and especially African-American men, are still treated quite differently in our country. As if we are two nations, not one. I've blogged a bit about this in the past, in a review of James Cone's stunning and challenging The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

The racial divide in America is not over. It is just post-racism. It has been sublimated. You're not allowed to talk about it. No one thinks they're racist anymore. And so, in that situation, after results like the jury decision in Florida, voices can be shrill.

As a white man and pastor, it is hard to know what to say. I feel guilt. I feel complicity. I strive to do more. But I don't always know what the best next steps are to try and address the racial divide in America. But with the widows of Srebenica, I really do pray that our grievance become hope, our vengeance turn to justice, and our tears turn to prayers.

In a way, all I can really say is, "Lord have mercy."

But what about the shrill demand I heard from many corners that sermons HAD to name Trayvon Martin on Sunday morning, or the apparent desire people had that I write an immediate response on my blog. That particular idea seems to be new. We want all our commentary immediately. You're a slacker (or immoral, insensitive) if you don't. One person I know and like even went so far as to say that any pastor who didn't name Trayvon Martin in their sermon yesterday should reconsider their vocation.

Really? Really? I'm sorry, that's neither true nor fair.

First, one of my main rules on preaching is you can't announce broad rules about preaching. Preaching is contextual. It is a mix of the preacher, the people, and the word. I can imagine many faithful ways to preach after a major event in the United States, depending on the context.

On the other hand, I have heard enough from my African-American brothers and sisters to know that this is a decision that is deeply troubling, and that as a white man, I might not fully fathom how deeply troubling it is.

So my silence, if I am silent, can appear not as what I think it is--shock, confusion, helplessness, prayerful reflection and listening--but as something else, more sinister in character--complicity, acedia, white privilege.

But I have to admit, mentioning this on my blog at this time can itself be sinister, on another level. I track hits on my blog, so I know how many people are reading it and sharing it. I know this is a hot topic right now in social media. It is "blowing up." So when I post this blog post, I can watch that happen.

Is it good for me to try and ride a wave of social media, when that wave is precipitated by an event that has been a tragedy in which absolutely no one is a winner, and all suffer?

See how deep our sinfulness and depravity can go. Even the desire (the demand) to be righteous in having a voice can, from another perspective, be a kind of idolatry (look at me, the white blogger, posting this!)

I'm reminded of something I read and posted last week:

When preaching prophetically, "preachers stand with their people under God's Word, rather than with God's Word against their people." "Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann observes that the opposite often happens. When most congregations struggle with biblical interpretation, three voices are operative: the voice of the biblical text, the voice of the preacher, and the voice of the congregation. Far too often, Brueggemann says, pastors team up with the texts to 'triangle' against their congregations in preaching, leaving the congregation 'a hostile, resistant outsider.' Brueggemann contends that it is better for the preacher to stand with the congregation against the text, letting God's Word offend them both" (51).

As a blogger, as a human being, I think this is the main thing, the main response I need to have. We're in this together, under God's Word, under the cross. I'm trying to listen, trying to write, trying to be faithful. My silence may mean many things. So may my speech. But I'm praying for justice and hope, and I'm praying that no child is ever killed by a handgun again.  

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Meet the rock stars of progressive Christianity all in one place

This photo includes some of my favorite people in the whole world. Nadia Bolz-Weber on the far left is the closest thing the North American Lutheran world has to a rock star. She has great theological "chops." Sometimes I think of her as the reincarnated Gerhard Forde, just taller and with tattoos.

Will Willimon, next to her, helps preachers out with incredible and thoughtful books. I had the honor of spending a week in Birmingham with Will at a Doctor of Ministry class on the theology of preaching. He also happens to have written the foreword for my book coming out with Fortress Press February of 2014. I also think of Will Willimon as a Gerhard Forde, just a Methodist Gerhard Forde, with no tattoos, and about the same height.

Continuing to the right, although I haven't met Jose Morales, I've heard great things. Jay Bakker I've gotten to know primarily through the Twitter-sphere, and have heard speak at National Youth Gatherings. Rachel Held Evans is another rockstar blogger and social media presence. Phyllis Tickleis the leading systematic theologian on emerging church, and Eric Elnes does the whole Darkwood Brew thing.

I would love to bring any one of these speakers to my church. They would energize, inspire, challenge, form. The fact that Sparkhouse has succeeded in bringing them all together in one place in a video venue for congregations, missional communities, house churches, and more, is simply phenomenal.

Last year our high school group picked up Animate: Faith, the first installment in this video series from Sparkhouse. The design is incredible. It's the perfect cross between media platforms for faith formation. Most of us now are native "watchers." We are ready to receive information, get emotional, and more, from videos with high production values. Rob Bell, an early adopter of video as a resource for faith formation, got this kind of intuitively. Our youth really liked the Nooma videos he put out, at least for a while.

But the Nooma series, though outstanding, has a kind of sad tenor to it. It's the same voice and feel again and again. What's refreshing about the Animate series from Sparkhouse is the diversity of voices and faces. There's still a center. This is progressive Christianity, a kind of mashup of Lutheran and emergent (in this case, more emergent than Lutheran). But it's pitch perfect. Our group can't wait to watch the videos.

I've never been in a high school class setting where discussion was as energized as it was around the topics in the Animate: Faith video series. Sometimes, after discussion, we'd want to go back and watch the video one more time, just to see what we missed, forgot, or misremembered. That's another advantage of a video resource. With a live speaker, you can't go back to see it again. With these videos, you can.

Although the resource is marketed to adults, and can work well with them, we are finding our greatest traction on these videos with high schoolers and their parents. I even think a savvy group of middle school youth would get tons out of them.

We're still somewhat old school in our worship space, so I don't know whether long form videos would fly for Christian worship, but these are also some of the first longer videos I've imagined using in Sunday morning worship. Given the right context, they could be profoundly energizing of conversation, prayer, and deeper reading of Scripture.

Check out a couple of the sample videos embedded below. And here is a link to an overview of the whole program:

Thanks to the whole staff of Sparkhouse and Augsburg Fortress for their work on this incredible resource.

p.s. As a resident of Arkansas, I'm especially pleased that this "Lutheran" resource includes some rather southern accents.