Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Colbert Report vs. #ELCA Presiding Bishop

Obama, Syria, Lutherans, and Refugees

I think Obama's decision to seek approval of congress for a strike in Syria is a good move in a complex situation. It's constitutional and ethical. It puts the decision to go to war in the hands of the people, but calls for a decision. 

You can read more by reading this short piece, 9 questions about Syria you were afraid to ask.

In the meantime, I'm reminded that our nation says at one of its main points of entry

"Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Do we believe this anymore, or not? Why don't we follow our own deepest value? Why do we only admit about 90,000 refugees per year, including last year only 12,000 from a country (Iraq) where we created millions of refugees?

If we care about national security, and if we are in solidary with those seeking asylum, we should be admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees to the United States each year, building an infrastructure and resources to make this a reality, expanding our services for refugees in refugee camps abroad, and encouraging our partner countries to increase their admission of refugees also. 

It would be the right thing to do, and the most peaceful and faithful. It would build good will, and in all likelihood reduce factionalism and resentment against the U.S. and the West.

To learn more about helping with refugee resettlement, and to participate in advocacy, visit


I would like to be a pacifist, but I'm not. I am a Christian who believes in "just war." Politically I am probably a dove of the John Kerry variety.

Our intervention won't stop the civil war, but we can change the course of things to a degree. A congressional debate and focused conversation in the United States can help us as a nation to be more clear on our practices of intervention around the world. Often our intervention does not follow just war criteria. Given that by our size and military might we have been thrust into the role of having to make decisions about intervention both as a matter of national security and international justice, we need to be more intentional in taking responsibility as a citizenry for our actions and preparations both at home and abroad.

And the fact remains there are now 2 million refugees in Syria alone, and half of them are children. The UNCHR estimates there are 16 million refugees worldwide, and an additional 12 million displaced persons (internally). 

We have a responsibility to do something about this if we can. As intractable as the situation is, refusing to get involved is not an option. In fact not doing anything would itself be immoral.

A good friend and fellow pastor, David Housholder, recently posted ten reasons not to get involved. Looking through his list, I think I disagree with him on every single point. 

I've learned the most from resources like Stratfor that try to take a big picture, non-biased perspective.

There's one point on which David Housholder and I agree. We both agree that we need a public discussion of the topic of whether and how to go to war as a nation, and we need a discerning public, and a praying church, to not ignore a situation of such global and national import. Christians often like to give pat answers. It takes courage, intelligence, and pluck to live like a Niebuhr and actually weigh in, as best we can, on the side of justice as we understand it.

So here is to opening space for civil discussion. For more on just war, see To read more from the ELCA on peace, see our social statement, For Peace in God's World.

Have you read really great analysis, or written helpful prayers? Share them below. And thanks for reading.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Get Thee a Mentor: Theoria, Praxis, and Poeisis

A few years ago Leader Breakthru founder Terry Walling taught me a crucial life lesson. Surround yourself with mentors, ideally a constellation of mentors. 

Identify mentors who are ahead of you, where you aspirationally want to go. Identify mentors who are alongside of you, your peers who are on the journey with you. Finally, mentor people, those who you are equipping to go where you have already been.

Today I called a mentor of the first type. Sometimes in your life/vocation, you feel like you are at a cross-roads, and you need to focus. You're spinning. Outside voices push you in certain directions, internal voices call in another. The result is an unfocused spiral.

This month has been, in some ways, such a month. 

When you talk to your mentor, you expect them to break you out of such circular thinking. How most mentors do this is often surprising. The best come out of left field.

To wit, my mentor said today (I paraphrase), "So Aristotle had these three classic ways of being in the world. Theoria, praxis, and poiesis. Which is your mode?" 

My response: "Well, I've never really known, I tend to think I operate in all three kind of equally."

The mentor: "Well of course, we all do all three, that's how we survive and thrive in life. But what is your dominant mode?"

Me: "Hmm.... well, I guess if I had to say, I'd say praxis."

Mentor: "No, I don't think so. I've watched you for a while. You're comfortable with theory, and you are practicing stuff all the time, but your mode is poiesis. You create stuff, and re-organize existing things into new things. That's your mode."


So, back up. What are theoria, praxis, and poiesis? 
Theoria, praxis and poiesis are the three Aristotelian "activities" of humanity: theoria - the contemplative, analytical mode; praxis - the mode of action; and poiesis - the conjury, the making, or (after Heidegger) the 'bringing-forth'.
Theoria types are philosophers, theologians, monastics. They hunker down and think deeply. Without them, we would be busy but lost.

Praxis types take engines apart and put them back together. They put a new roof on your house. Without them we might be found but stuck.

Poiesis, well, that's the one everyone (including prominent philosophers) struggles the most to define. But conjuring, making, bringing-forth, those are pretty solid definitions.

Creativity. Magic. Muse.

Of course, theoria and praxis are not divorced from poiesis. Creativity relies on much theory, and it takes a practical, technical kind of knowledge to implement what is brought forth in poiesis. But poiesis is in the middle position, more difficult to put a finger on.

Poiesis reconciles thought with matter and time (or at least that is what Wikipedia says). 

For me, in my vocational discernment, this was an immensely helpful way to frame the question. Although I am comfortable in, and regularly engaged with, the life of the mind--and although I am on a daily basis putting my hands to the plough in specific congregational and ecclesial practices--the truth is that I am especially focused on the bringing-forth.

I am an ecclesial poet. Or something weird like that.

Other people, some of them my best friends, simply live for theoria, or praxis. These are not better or worse modes. They are essential and inter-related modes, all of them needing the other to help the world turn round.

The problem and joy of poiesis is that there is not a clear way to get from point A to point B. Since it is the birth of something new, the creation of that which hasn't been or the mixing together of old to create something new, there's a sense in which you can only know what it is you have created a long time after you have created it.

In some sense, with poiesis, you have to retrofit the story of the initial creative impulse that simply emerged.

I tend to think real creativity arises out of rest, out of calm. Frantic busy-ness trying to get it done, even too much study, won't get you there. So this focus, noting that poiesis is my mode, reminds me that I have to stay still, rest, be here. And that's where poiesis happens.

Terry Walling also taught all his students to write a life mission statement. The life statement I brainstormed violates all kinds of grammatical rules and doesn't quite match what we produced in that class a few years ago, but it helps me know what I'm up to for the foreseeable future. So here it is, for what it is worth:
Commit to stability in a context of plasticity and elasticity for non-domesticated meta-poetic liminal ecclesiality for the healing and freeing of the world.
It may make little sense to other people, but it makes tons of sense to me.

I realize now re-reading this how idiosyncratic and personal this post is. But maybe it leaves readers who have made it this far with three actions they could consider:

1) Create a constellation of mentors... who is ahead of you, alongside of you, and "behind" you... write the names down, be intentional, get the people in place who you need and will benefit from you.

2) Which mode is your primary mode? Praxis? Theoria? Poiesis? Are you sure?

3) What is your life mission statement? If you've never tried, write one down. It will be hard, you'll struggle. But it will be worth your time.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Liturgical Asceticism

This book is beautiful. The Catholic University Press of America produces really fine volumes. The heft of the book is perfect, and I've rarely read a book with such fine, crisp script. Books have production values, and this volume is gorgeous.

Happily, the actual content of the book matches its beauty. David Fagerberg is a fine and gifted writer. His prose pops.

Here is what Fagerberg hopes to accomplish. Alexander Schmemann of the Orthodox tradition, and Aidan Kavanagh of the Roman Catholic tradition, single-handedly re-energized liturgical theology in the 20th century. Fagerberg belongs to the Schmemann-Kavanagh school, and wants to add something essential to it.

He believes that liturgical theology rightly understood is actually a three-legged stool, the third leg of which is asceticism. The three things, theology, liturgy, asceticism, perform a perichoretic dance among themselves, and none can be understood individually without the other.

The assembly in worship is a theologian.

A theologian is one who prays.

The ascetic theologically makes liturgy life.

The book is replete with bon mots. Perhaps my favorite:

"Liturgy is doing the world the way it was meant to be done."

Fagerberg's core thesis is rich, if a bit burdened by academic language:

"Liturgy is the Trinity's perichoresis kinetically extended to invite our synergistic ascent into deification."

That's just about right, and it takes him the book to work that thesis out. Although the book, unlike many other works of liturgical theology, is not a theological study of "the liturgy," as in a specific liturgy like the Tridentine Mass or Chrysostom's liturgy, instead since liturgy is life, and the ascetic makes all of life liturgy, it is a study of asceticism that enriches the reader's spirituality and understanding of the relationship between body and spirit, liturgy and life, asceticism and grace.

You will want to read this book twice, it is so good.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Wearing a collar is my super power

I'm a cleric who is conflicted about the collar. Like Spiderman, many of my colleagues, and the Watchmen, I agonize over whether and when to wear it.

I wear the collar sometimes, but not all the time. Of late, I more frequently wear the Anglican (sometimes called the "dog collar") than the Roman (the "tab" collar).

It's almost always on for Sunday worship, often for formal events where I have to "represent," and typically for funerals and weddings.

I am more often not wearing a collar than wearing it. If I'm not in a collar, my preferred dress is casual. Lots of people would probably say I'm a pastor that doesn't look like a pastor.

Every once in a while I find myself wearing it in incongruous places. Earlier this summer, I had to wear it to the swimming pool to watch swim lessons. It is these moments, when the collar travels where it typically does not appear, that I learn quite a bit about my profession.

Costumes matter.

In some ways, the clerical collar is like The Watchmen. Clergy have no special powers, but with the collar on, everyone treats us like we do.

In fact, the best way to disprove the thesis--common in some circles--that clergy have lost their position of prominence and authority in our culture is simple. Invite anyone who thinks this way to wear a collar in public space for a whole day.

Here's how today went, for example. In the morning, I was the guest preacher at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Plano, TX. The entire congregation treated me respectfully. I was wearing a collar, after all. They even smiled at me and told me how great the sermon was... and tapped me an advance cup of coffee before it had completed brewing.

Getting people to be nice to you and compliment you is a super power, absolutely. And whenever the hostess in a kitchen will interrupt the brew process for a cup of joe, you know you have super powers. But it gets better.

I left the collar on when we stopped in Irvine for lunch. When you wear a collar, people go out of their way to be kind to you. Almost too kind.

One diner, seated near us and writing in his notebook, asked, What kind of priest are you?

He had been attending an Anglican parish in Colorado, was recently moved to Irvine, and was looking for a church. I suggested the church my hosts attend just outside Irvine, and also hauled out my iPhone to show him the ELCA search engine for finding ELCA congregations around his zip code.

He was suitably impressed. A super hero with a super iPhone.

After lunch, my host dropped me off at the airport. After getting directions to the check-in area--it is true that some other public professionals approach clergy as if they are slightly addled and clueless human beings--the security checkpoint lady says, "Are you... a Father?" I told her I was a pastor. As she handed back my driver's license, she said, "Pastor Clint, have a great trip."

I removed all my metallic objects and placed my various tech devices in a plastic bin, then headed for the scanning system. After she scanned me in that fancy 3-dimensional scanner where they can see you as if you aren't wearing any clothes, she said, "See, now I'm following you."

My response: "That was the most effective discipleship conversation ever!"

We both laughed. A lot. We were best buds. Superheroes are funny!

Finally, when you are a superhero in costume, everyone wants to know what you are reading. On this flight, I happened to be reading On Liturgical Asceticism. This is not a kind of clerical posturing. I would be as likely to be reading this while wearing a t-shirt of Darth Vader that says, "Who's your daddy?" Really, just ask anyone.

The difference, here, is that if you wear a t-shirt with Darth Vader on it, no one will venture to talk to you about your book with the title, On Liturgical Asceticism. Really, I know. From long experience. Because most of the time I don't fly with my super power visible, and I often read theology. Apparently lay people reading theology are invisible.

This time, however, I was wearing my super power, so my last conversation, before deplaning, was about "literal ascensionism." See, a lot of people don't use the words liturgical or ascetical in polite conversation. They're impolite, not appropriate for mixed company.

What ensued was a conversation where I tried to explain (rather unsuccessfully, I might add) what liturgical asceticism is, and he responded with, "I thought only Jesus ascended. How can we all literally ascend?"

We parted ways with me telling the story of stylites who spent their whole lives living on the top of poles. It was awesome. He kept nodding and glancing away and then started running.

Clergy have not lost power or influence in our society, as far as I can tell. Whenever you wear your super power, it's almost guaranteed, people all around you will call you Father (sometimes even if you're a woman!), ask questions out of curiosity, become unequivocally kind, and stop swearing.

If you can stop a room full of people from swearing while watching an SEC football game, you know you have super powers.

In many instances, they will then turn to you, and say, "Father, I've always wanted to talk to a priest about..." 

And that's when the real super power of a cleric is fully exercised. Because that's when we listen. Our real super power, when inspired by the Spirit to do so.

That collar is a public sign that we will faithfully attend to whatever matters to you. And miracle of miracles, in spite of all debate to the contrary, a lot of people still know this.

Friday, August 23, 2013

World's Best Text Study Resources

Inspired by Christian Piatt's of Christian Blogs You Should Be Reading, I'm inviting readers of Lutheran Confessions to nominate their favorite Text Study Resources.

You want to dig deeper into Scripture. You're preparing a sermon. You're leading a bible study. These web pages will help. There are some great finds out there. Interlinear bibles, hyper-text bibles, language helps, 3-D maps, commentaries, and more. Link to them on this list, nominate somebody's blog, and vote for your favorites.

Next week I'll post the top twenty resources.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Why are we so anxious?

Anxiety-driven "missional" approaches to Christian ministry may be the new colonialism. 

At least in the old colonialism, colonialists had the hubris and chutzpah to do mission driven by confidence in the gospel (as they understood it).

Colonialism was often wrong, frequently violent, and presents a massive problem for Christian mission in a post-colonial world; nevertheless, at least it knew what it was, and was comfortable in its xenophobic skin.

Today, the church is not powerful (well, except when it is). Instead, it is desperate. It perceives decline, a loss of influence, a flattening of growth, and out of those perceptions, latches on to ecclesial fads.

In its most crass forms, church members say, "We need to reach out to people who aren't in church because if we don't, we won't be able to pay the bills next year."

In its more subtle forms, leaders say, "We are losing a generation, and its a generation that is pretty and young and beautiful. We have to find a way to reach them, even if it means changing everything and jettisoning the things we most value."

Either way, mission driven thus is no mission at all, and no matter how busy we get being missional, no matter how pretty our theology and structured our missional designs, it will still be a mission driven by the opposite of the peace Christ gives.

A colleague recently posted this quote from Chris Huebner's examination of the theology of John Howard Yoder:

"Like Barth, Yoder refused to let the doubters set the agenda for Christian theology. Second, Yoder consistently rejected the kind of instrumentalist thinking that such an apologetic approach exemplifies as contributing to just the kind of violent operation of power to which the church is called to witness an alternative. He did not seek a new nonviolent way of transforming society or securing the future. Rather, he claimed that the peace of Christ involves a rejection of the possessive logic of security and social control."
Shifting from an attractional to a missional model for the life of the church, in order to be faithful, needs to abide in Christ's peace. It necessarily needs to be about self-differentiated, non-anxious presence in the world.

In other words, if it leads, it leads with repentance. It is sent as the community that has given up possessiveness and finds its safety in the God who is sending it.

I should add, this is not the same as apathy. Non-anxious presence is not at all the same thing as acedia. When mission is energized by peace-making and self-differentiated leadership, it is a living and active and vibrant thing.

This weekend I'm giving a series of lectures in the Northern Texas/Northern Louisiana Mission Area (a synod of the ELCA). The title: Releasing Missional Networks.

All three words in the title matter, but it occurred to me, reading this quote from Huebner today, that the  word "releasing" is the one most at risk of misunderstanding. The irony is that we might "grasp" releasing by holding onto it more tightly. 

Letting go can be a new form of control, if driven by anxiety or desperation. As in, "We have to release these missional networks, or we won't reach all these communities we want to reach!!!"

All of which brings to mind Dwight Friesen's fantastic insight into kenotic connective leadership in Thy Kingdom Connected: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks.

He writes:

"That's what connective leaders do; they humbly serve those connected to them, linking them to others even at great personal cost... An thoughtful person serving as a connective leader for a faith community will seek to link its participants with other nodes within their cluster, but they will not stop there. Connective leaders will aid each connecting node in weaving a web that safely and uniquely cradles that node." 
At one point, he quotes Sally Morgenthaler:
"Leadership in a truly flattened world has no precedents. Never in the history of humankind have individuals and communities had the power to influence so much, so quickly. The rules of engagement have changed, and they have changed in the favor of those who leave the addictive world of hierarchy to function relationally, intuitively, systematically, and contextually." 
To function relationally, intuitively, systematically, and contextually, a connective leader needs to be relaxed. Mission begins in peace. 

Peace is missional. God's mission is peace. 

Networks are not frantic; networks rest.

To release, you have to open your hands. Then that fish flops out into the blue water and swims, far away, touched by you but no longer led or controlled or hooked. 

Missional, if it is anything at all, is a movement of resting in God's mission, which is to set the world free to rest and relax and have life. Until our approach to missional church rests, truly rests, relaxes, repents, it will always still be the new colonialism, a reaching out to the other to colonize them and make them like us.

Which is no mission at all, because the mission of God isn't to make others like us, but for all of us together, stewarding the ecology of our relationships, to become truly, for the first time, who we already are.

In all likelihood, this probably means missional is about prayer, both as a beginning, middle, and end. Prayer is the rest of the church in God's mission.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and the Churchwide Assembly

I spent a good portion of last week wrapped up in an election process most of the rest of the world overlooked. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America held their church wide assembly in Pittsburg, and part of that assembly included the election of the presiding bishop of our 4 million member denomination.

Most of us anticipated that the current presiding bishop, Mark Hanson (pictured in the background of this photo applauding the installation of Eaton as bishop of the Northeastern Ohio synod in 2006), would be re-elected handily. Mark has been an amazing and faithful leader for the past twelve years. In addition to serving two terms as our presiding bishop, he spent a term serving as the president of the Lutheran World Federation. He is a classy, emotional, caring, energetic, full-orbed presence. He's the real deal.

But then there is our actual ecclesial ballot process. On the first ballot of the ELCA, any name can be written in. Without going into all the hairy details, on the first ballot a few dozen names emerged. Those nominees who released their names to go forward then appeared on the second ballot. Already, some front-runners were apparent. Bishop Hanson had a clear majority, but not enough votes to win on the first ballot.

On the second ballot, the field shrunk, and votes consolidated some. Bishop Hanson did not win, and Jessica Crist rose to a significant second place (she serves as bishop of the Montana synod). 

After this ballot, the remaining field of four were offered the opportunity to speak. At this point, it was three women and Mark Hanson. Elizabeth Eaton, who until this time had been at the bottom of the balloting but always with enough votes to stay in the running, jumped handily into the lead.

Watching the process to this point, you realize a couple of things. First, you realize that the Spirit really is at work in ecclesial ballots. It's mysterious, and you know some of what will happen, but you don't know everything.

Second, you realize that how people speak, how they respond to questions live and in person, matters. The assembly as a whole recognized something vital and clarifying in Elizabeth Eaton's responses. 

From there on out in the balloting process, it was kind of a done deal. The other great candidates are removed formally in subsequent ballots. On the fifth ballot, with just a vote for either Elizabeth Eaton or Mark Hanson, a clear and compelling majority voted for Elizabeth Eaton. And with that action of the assembly, she became the fourth bishop of the twenty-five year old denomination, the ELCA.

I have glowing things to say about every single one of our past presiding bishops. H. George Anderson was my college president at Luther College before becoming PB. Herbert Chilstrom is simply one of the great leaders in mainline Christianity.

I anticipate having much to celebrate in the leadership of Elizabeth Eaton, even if at this point I know much less about her other than the fact that she has served well as bishop in Ohio prior to her election as presiding bishop of the ELCA. I look forward to learning more.

The theme of the church wide assembly this year was: Always being made new (2 Corinthians 5:17). This also happens to be the theme for our denomination this year as we celebrate our 25th anniversary.

I don't think any of us thought this was the particular way our denomination would live out the theme. Even Elizabeth Eaton herself has said the intent was never for Mark Hanson not to be re-elected. The point was to host a conversation.

When the news did pick this story up, they focused on the fact that Elizabeth Eaton is a woman (see Nadia Bolz-Weber's column in Huffington Post, for example). And indeed, that is big news. It's wonderful that, like the Episcopal Church-USA, and increasing numbers of church communions worldwide, the ELCA has as role-models women in prominent positions of church leadership.

But the bigger news in the ELCA, from my perspective, is that our church just modeled what it looks like for a denomination to transition through leadership in a way completely devoid of factionalism, and led by the Holy Spirit. There's that famous line in Acts, "It seemed good to the Spirit and to us…" (Acts 15:28)

It seemed good to the Spirit, and to us (the ELCA) to honor and thank Mark Hanson for his twelve years of faithful service, AND to elect a new presiding bishop to lead us now, in a new day.

Watching the two of them interact and lead worship in the days after Bishop-Elect Eaton's election--that looked like the church to me.

The excitement in my heart, the tears in my eyes, that come even as I type this: That feels like Jesus Christ present, in and through this very earthy and real church body.

God's work, our hands, indeed.


Last night, for church council, I showed the following video. It made me even more thrilled to be a part of this church. I'm learning something new all the time about us as a denomination. Like the fact that we are helping give birth to a Lutheran church in Myanmar. Myanmar!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Ten Best Reads to Understand ELCA Theology

To say I love books would be an understatement. So just imagine the exhilaration I felt when the following question arrived in my Facebook messages yesterday:

What is the best read for an astute lay person to understand ELCA theology?

I immediately thought: Thanks for asking!

Then I thought: This is actually a somewhat tricky question, because although there are many ELCA teaching theologians, there is no one monolithic ELCA theology per se.

Instead, there are ELCA theologies (plural). There are many ELCA theologians. Read enough of them, and you begin to get a sense of how there is unity even in the midst of diversity.

To represent diversity, I have to offer a list of resources rather than one book. So, here are my top ten best reads for an astute lay person to understand ELCA theology. I would welcome readers to add their own suggestions in the comments.

The List

1. Heidi Neumark's Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx

This is a memoir, but it is living theology, one pastor's commitment to living out ELCA theology as she develops a vibrant ministry in the South Bronx.

2. The Promise of Lutheran Ethics. Although this book is about ethics, it is one of the more cogent attempts to answer the question of what unifies Lutheran theology.

3. Here I'm suggesting another memoir, this time a pastor who served a rural parish in southern Illinois before going on to become a professor of homiletics. Richard Lischer's Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery

4. My friend wanted something that presented moderate Lutheran theology in general, a work of theology, and something that would present the nature of Christ as understood by Lutherans to a Coptic friend. For this, I'd recommend Where God Meets Man. I could recommend almost any book by Forde, including some of his essays collected in the Lutheran Quarterly series. But this one is his classic.

5. I would be remiss in not mentioning the Augsburg Confession, which is best read as it is included in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Many different kinds of Lutherans consider this their confessions, but so do moderate Lutherans.

6. For a living sense of the vitality and diversity of Lutheran theology, you can't do better than Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives

7. I've not read this book, but it is probably the book written most intentionally as an answer to my friend's question. Martin Marty's Lutheran Questions, Lutheran Answers: Exploring Christian Faith

8. If you'd prefer to read a web site rather than a book, I could recommend either browsing the ELCA web site,, which has many entries on our theological commitments as a denomination;, which is Luther Seminary's weekly commentary the lectionary;, which if you read it over time would point you to many different blogs that give a sense of living ELCA theology; or, which is the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. I might also mention, a journal for Christian ministry.

9. Three recent books that I hope represent where we are headed theologically as a denomination. Jessicah Krey Duckworth's Wide Welcome, Gregory Walter's forthcoming Being Promised, and Cheryl Meese Peterson's Who Is the Church?

10. Finally, let's say a book just isn't working, or you need a resource other than a book. Then I'd recommend Sparkhouse's Animate series. Although these are videos with speakers from traditions other than Lutheran, Lutheranism of the moderate variety is like that, and is loosely a participant in what I would call the emergent or progressive Christian conversation.

I'm sure I've overlooked something in this top ten list. On the other hand, this list will bring any reader a long ways towards understanding the diversity in unity that is the great strength and joy of experiencing theological reflection from an ELCA, moderate Lutheran perspective.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Two-Year-Old Takes Pastor-Dad to Church

Disclaimer: Parents who take children to church weekly are rock stars. Today on vacation I took my two-year-old son to church while the older two went with their mom and grandma to the state fair. 

In everything I write below, keep in mind that a) I only do this once or twice a year, while my wife does this every single week, and b) I only had one of the three (thus, a man-to-man defense), while she takes all three to church every Sunday and solo parents (zone defense).

Which means a) my wife is a superstar and my hero, and b) it's far, far easier to lead worship and preach on Sunday morning than it is to parent children through worship. 

Which takes me back to my original point: Parents who take children to church are rock stars. I offer this play-by-play of church today both as an act of sympathy and as a reflection on the joys and perils of worshipping with children.

Des Moines, Iowa, the East Side: Tucked back in a quaint little residential neighborhood is St. Mark's Episcopal Church. It's a small, low-church Episcopal congregation. They hold one worship service at 10 a.m., which includes Godly Play concurrent with worship.

The two-year-old and I got to church right as the opening hymn was being sung. No one handed me a bulletin, so it was a good thing I knew the liturgy. I had to peak across the aisle to find the hymn # from Gather, and then realized since my son wanted me to hold him and his cracker cup, I couldn't hold a hymnal simultaneously.

So I lip-synced and hummed. This experience, which I've had multiple times, convinced me even traditional worship would benefit from the words of hymns up on a screen.

The son said this at the end of the gathering hymn, "Let's go, dad, let's get out of here." Panic struck. We still had 55 minutes to go!

First, I explained the plan. Often our two-year-old responds remarkable well to good old-fashioned reason. But this time, he asked to leave again, more adamantly.

So we had to implement the slate of coping mechanisms. I started by offering a snack, only to realize he had already eaten his small container of cheesy crackers on the drive to church.

Next, I tried to narrate the service for him. However, we had gotten into the lectionary readings. There's not much to narrate there. Lucky for us, this particular Episcopalian parish has small icons of the stations of the cross all along the back walls (look carefully in the photo and you will see them). So, I walked very slowly from one icon to another narrating the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This was really compelling, and worked well. There was also a St. John's Bible in the back, which we paged through.

This got us to the reading of the gospel.

This particular church has created a small "soft" area in the very front of the sanctuary for infants and children. It's profoundly welcoming. Although the congregation's average age is probably closer to 65 or 70, they're clearly committed to forming faith in children. If I am ever not pastoring, and I live in a town like Des Moines, I think I'll take my children to a small church. There are major advantages.

For example, the children were addressed repeatedly in worship, both personally by fellow worshippers, by participation in the Rite of Baptism, and warm greetings from worship leaders during the Sharing of the Peace.

Nevertheless, at this point, I had to bring out the big guns.

The iPhone!

First we played Angry Birds, and then Palace Pets, and then Desicable Me. The iPhone is a saving grace for parents during the sermon. Seriously. What did people do during the sermon before iDevices?

The "soft" area in the front of the sanctuary included a blanket with stuffed toys, and a stack of children's books. I read five books to the son while the sermon was going.

Then it was time for the baptism. Again my son wanted to leave. But the priest asked all the children to come forward and gather around the font for the baptism and chrismation. We stood right with the family as the baptism took place. In fact we were so close that after service at the sharing of the peace some people asked if we were part of their family.

This struck me as one of the great joys of church. You can be mistaken as the family of people you have never met before. And you actually are family, in Christ.

After the baptism, we had to try to make it to communion. I can't not stay for communion. So we walked the sanctuary again, climbed into the choir loft and looked over the organ, looked down at the elements on the table as they were consecrated. Snacks are always appealing to our son, so he was willing to stay if he could snack on Jesus.

He also knows the whole Lord's Prayer already, so when we got to that part of the service, he said the whole thing with me. I credit our nightly rehearsal of that prayer. One win for dad.

Then he squirmed out of my arms and used his cracker cup to smash a large spider crawling across the floor near the bima. Sigh. Gonna have to work on the the spirituality of respect for creation.

The newly baptized infant received communion first, a very small piece of wafer and a finger dipped in wine/port. Then we all communed. At the conclusion of communion, I had to hold onto the son long enough for the prayer and blessing. I felt bad delaying our exit, but also felt need of a blessing.

My son was confused why the server would only allow him to give his wafer to her to dip in the cup rather than share the common cup like everyone else. "Why I not drink it?!"

Blessing bestowed, we bolted. Straight out the doors, back into the van, where we watched A Bug's Life on the drive to the mall.

It must be said that the two-year-old was equally impatient at the Genius Bar at the Apple Store (had to get my iPhone 4s repaired)--but I don't blame him, so was I. And the visit to the Apple Store felt strangely sacramental. It was a packed house. The crowd was quite a bit younger. On the way, I drove past the packed and bustling Hope of West Des Moines, the largest and fastest growing church in the ELCA.

But overall the community at Apple felt nervous/anxious. Whereas at that small little church tucked quietly away in an East Des Moines neighborhood, everyone took enough time to share the peace with every single other person, even my son.

I did not pray or meditate like I might when worshipping alone. It was absolutely not a centering or spiritual experience like being on retreat or praying in solitude.

But I did do the best I could to be a good neighbor and father to my son and help him encounter the living Christ through the church's worship. That's a tall order. You're never quite sure whether you're forcing a child to endure something, or taking them through a repeated experience that will form them in faith. Formation and drudgery are close cousins.

Hats off to all of you who do it week in and week out. It's quite a vocation.

My list of things to do more with my children to help my kids worship:

1. Sing more hymns to and with them.
2. Start working on learning the Apostles' Creed.
3. Find iPhone apps for worship. Tips anyone?
4. Hang icons or stations of the cross or bible story art in the house.
5. Learn to dance to hymns.

My list of things to introduce into our worship that may (emphasis on "may") help children and parents:

1. Words up on the screen.
2. More art in the worship space.
3. Less vast expanses of non-engaged passive listening.
4. Seat children up front and make it interactive.
5. Shoot candy from ceiling mounted canons periodically during the service.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Advocacy in August Matters: Compassionate Immigration Reform #LIRS

It gets really hot and humid in Washington D.C. in August, so it's the month to go on recess. Congressional leaders and politicians of all stripes return to their home districts for work and leisure. They'll read the newspaper. Their staffers will read their newspapers. They'll talk to their constituents. They'll go fishing and reflect deeply on the momentous decisions they are called on to make as elected officials.

And then this fall, they'll return to vote on comprehensive immigration reform. 

Voices of faith can make a huge difference. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, for which I am a huge advocate, is busy advocating for fair and humane reform this month, and you can participate. It takes your time, and your effort to write letters, either to congressional leaders, or to your local newspaper. 

You can use a simple tool at LIRS to write to your representatives,

At the very least, you can learn. Here are some great resources from LIRS:

Or use the following letter as a template and re-write it for your own context:

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Gen Xers Will Save the Church

Gen Xers Will Save the Church

Here's why. 

Only Gen Xers are jaded enough to look at what is going on with the massive burn-out of the Boomers and the weirdness/Noneness of the Millenials--not to mention the absolute morbidity of the Gen Yers--and yet remain able, with their unique blend of creativity and irony, and their ability to sustain and reinvent, to create and be the future.

Gen Xers are our future. This is just about right. When you look at our roads and infrastructure, our/my generation (I am a Gen Xer) when it assumes political leadership will be the only generation sustaining rather than building. If you don't believe me, just go look at a bridge somewhere.

Like our national infrastructure, much of our church infrastructure is "built out." But if the Gen Xers are our future, the irony, the destructive and creative dimension of Gen Xer (radical detachment and attachment, for example), are the kind of things that uniquely situate us to look to what was built that needs to be torn down, and what hasn't been built that is yet to be built. Millenials are so last millennium!

Forget about the Millenials. Gen Xers are the church's future!

Some readers of this blog are going to need biblical proof texts to back up this culture war proposal. For such readers, I offer St. Paul the Apostle's (patently a member of Generation X) radical statement in the Corinthian correspondence: "God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are" (1 Corinthians 1:28).

If you doubt that Gen Xers are low and despised in the world, ask yourself: When was the last time anyone got all angsty about Gen Xers in the way absolutely everyone gets angsty over Millenials? When were we even blamed for something the way everyone blames the Boomers?

In fact, when was the last time someone mentioned Gen X at all without a slight snicker and then a look of grief and sadness as they paid homage to Cobain and DFW of blessed memory?

And you know why? I have a thesis. Please bear with me in some music culture geekiness (side note: Gen Xers brought us geek culture as the Zeitgeist). The only thing Gen Xers had going for them at the time they were emerging as Gen Xers was Kurt Cobain. And look where that went (may he rest in peace.)

Then, there was Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam was a good band. But the best thing they ever did was with Soundgarden when they recorded that amazing album Temple of the Dog. After you listen to it, pretty much everything else that comes afterwards is a disappointment.

And I mean, Eddie Vedder is cool and all, but after that solid Into the Wild soundtrack, he decided to record a bunch of ukulele songs, and that was simply embarrassing.

Gen Xers are like that. Just when you think they are most definitely rocking it, they pull the rug out from under the project and take it in an absurdly creative if embarrassing direction.

Because let's be honest with ourselves. Yes, the ukulele and Eddie Vedder is a "low and despised thing," but once you've heard it, once you've even simply heard of it, you can't stop thinking about it, can you? It makes you wonder why anyone ever played guitar in a rock band when the ukulele was available.

Say the word "Millenials" at a synod assembly and clergy will start saying, "We need to do music that appeals to Millenials in our worship services." Say the word "Gen X" and no pastor says this. Why? The answer is obvious. Gen Xers, when asked what kind of worship music they prefer, typically answer, "Whatever."

In addition, it is transparently the case that no generation has as cross-centered a theology as Generation X. It's in our name, after all. We own cruciform theology. No one can build a cross anymore without offering a commission to our generation. The patron saint of our generation is St. Andrew, who purportedly was martyred on such a cross, a saltire.

Some stats: Gen Xers volunteer more than other generations. 

Gen Xers created the best music, and the worst. We remember MTV when MTV was music. 

We have Stephen Colbert. He's more funny than all the other comedians, and will save the church, America, and the world with his truthiness.

We won't try to explain irony to you. If you aren't Gen X, you probably don't get it. But it is the core of the gospel. So we probably are slackers on this one, because no Gen Xer has yet to help the wider culture see the connection between irony and the cross (except for Kierkegaard, and maybe Matt Groening--and Douglas Copeland, okay actually quite a few if we are allowed to include a Danish philosopher from the 19th century)

And if you don't believe me, listen to Wikipedia!

Compared with previous generations, Generation X represents a more apparently heterogeneous generation, openly acknowledging and embracing social diversity in terms of such characteristics as race, class, religion, ethnicity, culture, language, gender identity, and sexual orientation. 
Unlike their parents who challenged leaders with an intent to replace them, Gen Xers have a less prominent tendency to idolize leaders and a greater tendency to work toward long-term institutional and systematic change through economic, media and consumer actions. 
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Generation X statistically holds the highest education levels when looking at current age groups: U.S. Census Bureau, in their 2009 Statistical Abstract. 
The 2011 publication "The Generation X Report", based on annual surveys used in the Longitudinal Study of today's adults, finds that Gen Xers, who are defined in the report as people born between 1961 and 1981, are highly educated, active, balanced, happy and family-oriented. The study dispels the materialistic, slacker, disenfranchised stereotype associated with youth in the 1970 and 80s.
Or maybe we're none of these things. I mean, if we were, wouldn't you know about it already? What's the point. Maybe the Millenials are the last great hope. Whatever. All I know is, Gen Xers will likely save the church by losing the culture war. And by and large we're just fine with that. Except when we're not.

Monday, August 05, 2013

5 Signs You Are Part of a Healthy Church

It's kind of a miracle--and you wouldn't know it from social media these days--but a lot of people go to church for worship on Sunday morning. Some of them even come back mid-week for things like trombone ensemble rehearsal, intense small group hermeneutical inquiry, staffing of homeless shelters, and team building of large scale Lego models of key biblical events (okay, this last one might be more of a wish than a reality).

For all the hand-wringing about all the people leaving church these days, the truth is, in my context, I see more and more people joining church, not leaving. 

It's not just Sunday morning worship (although that's the most common). People get out together for ecumenical mission between congregations, catalytic conversations between non-profits and the church, and clicking "like" on church Facebook pages, among other activities.

There's a reason people decide to become part of a church. They do it because it gives them life, expands their horizons, brings them closer to God. It helps them rub shoulders with neighbors. Sometimes their pastor visits them in the hospital or recommends books for them to read or posts a blog they like. That kind of thing.

So what are the signs you are really part of a health church? What should you be looking for? 

Here's my admittedly non-scientific but nevertheless brilliant list of five marks of a health church.

1. Stewardship: Everyone laughs until it hurts

We all know people are willing to part with their money more quickly while they are laughing. This is why comedians like Jerry Seinfeld make so much money. Or David Letterman. But that's not why we laugh in the church. We laugh in the church because honestly, what other option is there? The church is a place for hurting sinners, and there's plenty to cry over, for sure. But a people who laugh together in the face of death, as a guarantee that God is on the side of justice even in spite of the evidence... well, that's a community that knows the etymological roots of the word "stewardship" are in the word "sty-ward," someone who takes care of a pigsty. And we all know pigstys are funny, right?

2. Faith: People ask really random questions, and everyone talks about the answers

I mean really, we all come up with the craziest stuff sometimes, and the questions other people ask are always way random compared to ours. We, it must be recognized, are consistently on topic and clear. Nevertheless, in a healthy church, people feel free to ask really random questions, and the community as a whole is perfectly willing to go off on a tangent and talk about that question for the rest of bible study. Because isn't that what bible study is for, to let the Holy Spirit guide conversation around random questions inspired by an ancient book?

3. Multiplication: There's a stroller parked next to the wheelchair

It's not quite clear how this happens, but many churches have more than one wheelchair. It's almost as if they multiply--like rabbits. If you park one next to a stroller, the odds of wheelchair multiplication increase greatly.  People in wheelchairs like people in strollers, and people in strollers like to gnaw on people in wheelchairs. It's mutually satisfying. People pushing wheelchairs and strollers often have a lot in common, and plenty to talk about. Leave them to their own devices in the narthex, and by the end of the afternoon, they will have cooked up and spun off an entire new congregation. It's a formula for church multiplication, guaranteed.

4. Growth: Newcomers make the community uncomfortable, but they like it that way

None of us like change that much (except for those of us who do), so really healthy churches anticipate that new people in their midst will actually be abrasive and frustrating in some ways. Newcomers won't know how to put away the dishes or run the garbage disposal. Which will then lead to ants. Which will remind the custodian that last weekend a group of people from the church (made up mostly of new members) cooked enough to feed eighty people at a community meal across town. And then the custodian will smile, maybe even laugh with glee, and slaughter the ants as he celebrates ecumenism.

5. Jesus: There's kind of a mess on the organ... 

Let's face it, none of us really know anymore what the real church musical instrument is, but organs are pretty cool. I mean, Arcade Fire used one on Neon Bible, so it must be pretty hip, right? In any event, the best organ is a messy organ, because that means somebody creative is using it. And we know creative people are close to Jesus, so a messy organ is a sign of a Jesus-centered church. 

Finally, just in case five signs is insufficient for some readers, I offer a sixth. 

6. Communio-Ecclesiology: A Materialist Spirituality

This is the church geek mark, but a church committed to being a church of churches, in visible unity with other churches, including not only full communion sharing, but also ministerial sharing, and even sharing of each other's kitchens and sauna facilities, would obviously be one of the deepest marks that you are part of a healthy church. If you actually believe you belong to not just one church, but a couple of churches, or even the whole church, you are on your way. You earthy-mystic, communio-ecclesiology geek, you.