Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon Podcasts

Would love to invite all readers of Lutheran Confessions to listen to, subscribe to, review, or rate, our sermon podcasts, available here:

Friday, September 27, 2013

13 Reasons Faith Will Make Your Life Harder

Disclaimer: This list is serious, except when it isn't. Subtitle could be: Why you should think twice about having your baby baptized!

  • Faith will commit you to the cause of the poor and marginalized. You will end up in jail, at the garbage dump, in recovery, at hospice, in a cemetery. You will give away more than you mean to and fail to save for your next trip to the beach as a result. The suffering of your neighbor will trump the comfort you thought you sought.
  • You'll have to start listening to "Christian" or "religious" music. Somebody might put Michael W. Smith on the radio, or turn on a radio station that is purportedly "safe for the whole family."
  • You will start believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast, like: Lutherans can end malaria worldwide, kindness makes a difference, prayer does things, peace is possible, forgiveness is possible, Jesus is both God and human, etc.
  • You will start apologizing more often, and mean it. The first thesis of Christian faith is likely: "Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance" (from Luther's 95 theses). Constant repentance as a way of life. Yeah, that'll be a cinch.
  • Sitting in pews. Nuf' said.
  • You will have to think. Contrary to popular opinion, faith is neither blind allegiance nor simpleminded devotion. No, faith is trust, and it is trust of a rational and thoughtful variety. If you think faith is simple, just read Paul's letter to the Romans. Seriously, Paul actually thought some tiny little mission development in the capitol city of the Roman Empire needed that as a resource for growing and strengthening the faith in their place.
  • You will have to lose yourself in order to find yourself. There is a selflessness to faith of an extraordinary sort. Lots of people want to find themselves. Faith pushes us to lose ourselves first in order to be found and so find ourselves. Even when we think we understand this, we don't. Which is why it is hard.
  • You will die. Faith is not an escape from death. It is instead a wager that even death, which the faithful experience (first for Christians in their baptism, which is baptism into the death of Christ, then at their physical death) cannot separate us from love. It is trust that God's love (the love of a seemingly weak and suffering God) transcends death.
  • You might have to read Kierkegaard, or Bonhoeffer, or Flannery O'Connor, authors who wrote books with titles like Fear and Trembling, The Sickness Unto Death, The Cost of Discipleship, and The Violent Bear It Away. Authors who look the world and humanity right in the face and see Jesus there anyway.
  • You'll start to have doubts, which is the only place true faith rather than certitude is fostered and strengthened. Like steel, faith is a thing tempered by fire. Like Mother Teresa, the hallmark of your faith will be not the comfort of the presence of God, but the devastating frustration of God's seeming absence.
  • You won't have as much faith as others, because faith is not distributed in equal measure to all. And some people that you doubt have faith will force you to recognize your lack of faith because your lack of faith in the faith you think they lack is itself faithless. In other words, at the very moment you believe you have identified an unbeliever, the only real unbeliever will be you.
  • Faith will get all in-your-face counter-cultural on you. It will evoke joy, trust, and thanksgiving from you when the world wants you a skeptic. It will send you into despair, grief, and struggle when the world wants you at ease.
  • It will never be your own faith, exactly. It will always rest in other people (who are notoriously difficult), and in God (who is notoriously notable). God and others end up pretty much being the same thing (in Jesus), and this will be awkward, and hard, and kind of awesome.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Finding God Among Our Neighbors

Kristin Johnson Largen has written an outstanding interfaith systematic theology. This will now be one of THE seminal books in the emergence of what is called comparative theology. Just when systematic theology seemed to have gotten a bit tired, here comes a former student of Ted Peters to enlargen the conversation and reconfigure the scope of the field.

Largen's approach to systematic theology is, on the one hand, very straightforward. Her book is "an attempt to do systematic theology in a new way, by considering interreligious engagement as part of the foundation of Christian theology, rather than as a decoration" (1).

Systematic theology in the Christian context has almost always been founded on preceding doctrinal work in Christian theology. Resources for developing theological constructs were and still are typically drawn internally from within the Christian conversation. Although Christianity has always also been at least to some degree involved in inter religious dialogue, typically a work of systematic theology would therefore work out all the doctrinal commitments in advance, and only then ask, "Okay, now that we know who God is in our systematic theology, how can we compare this to how Muslims think about God?"

Largen takes a different approach. Interreligious dialogue is foundational. And it bears fruit in at least three ways.

First, she believes such an approach is "for the sake of the neighbor." In this sense, it is a faithful Christian approach to developing theology. It exhibits love of neighbor.

Second, since God's self-revelation is universal, Christians can and must learn from how God reveals Godself in and through other religious traditions.

Third, Christian faith is both challenged and stretched but also deepened and strengthened by interfaith constructive theological engagement.

The first four chapters of the book engage four major world religions: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam. They serve as helpful introductions to these faith traditions for Christians, especially seminary students or those preparing for careers in public ministry.

The second half of the book explores three main loci in Christian theology through comparative theology. These include God, humanity, and creation. This portion of the book is influenced by Francis Clooney's seminal Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders

Largen is intentional about not drawing new conclusions from the comparative theology she is engaging, but instead offers the comparisons as a space to open up new connections for readers.

This is a spectacular book. I plan to read it a second time and even more closely, because I believe it is a premier example of what emerging Lutheran theology looks like in interfaith perspective.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Spirituality of Anniversaries: Commemorating the Reformation in 2017

2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (for a really snappy resource hosted by the Evangelische Kirche im Deutschland, visit Luther 2017 500 Jahre Reformation).

That's still four years from now, admittedly, but by any measure 500th anniversaries are rather significant. Really the only thing bigger than a 500th is a millenial anniversary, and I think we can all agree that thousand year anniversaries are kind of a big deal.

Anyway, in preparation for the commemoration, a joint commission of Lutherans and Roman Catholics have produced a spectacular report, From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017.

So why should you consider reading this report? It might be natural to postpone reading a report in preparation for an anniversary four years hence, authored by a committee, about Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical relations, what with Brad Pitt's World War Z just hitting Red Box and all.

Can I persuade you to read it anyway, and soon, preferably with a group of friends? Because truly, of all the resources I have read in the past decade on ecumenical dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics, this might be the best and most accessible of the bunch?

Here's why:

1) The report models the best insight of ecumenical theology--it focuses on what we share in common rather than what divides us. We need to learn and practice this model more frequently.

2) The report is preparation for the first anniversary of the Reformation in a truly ecumenical era. Even the 450th anniversary was still before such major ecumenical milestone as Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

3) It serves perfectly as a primer on church history in the Reformation era, including a concise and riveting chapter, "a historical sketch of the Lutheran Reformation and the Catholic Response."

4) It also includes a great little chapter, "New Perspectives on Martin Luther and the Reformation," that takes into account recent research into Luther and Reformation history.

5) It highlights five basic themes in Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue worthy of our attention. Readers of any type will benefit from a clearer understanding both of their own tradition around these topics, as well as greater insight and sympathy to the commonalities shared between the two communities:

  • Luther's grounding in medieval and mystical theology
  • The doctrine of justification
  • The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist
  • The office of ministry
  • The way we approach Scripture and tradition

6) It highlights that baptism is the basis for our unity and common commemoration. It therefore invites all Christians to begin from a position of repentance. We first regret and lament what divides us, then pray for the unity that Christ gives.

7) It offers five ecumenical imperatives:

  • Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.
  • Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.
  • Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.
  • Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.
  • Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

8) It models something simple but profound. Lutherans and Catholics sitting down and authoring a common statement, illustrating that dialogue is the best and only way forward.

9) It's free and available on-line.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Five Things Norwegian Foxes Can Teach Theologians

What Does the Fox Say?

My alma mater, Luther College, has an Ylvisaker Hall. It's the dorm where I spent my freshman year, tucked as I was into a super tiny corner room right next to the ping pong table. My loft was so tall I scraped my nose most mornings upon waking, and I definitely spent as much time at the ping pong table as in my room.

None of this has any bearing on what follows, but Ylvisaker shares a last name with the two Norwegian pop stars who wrote the viral hit, What Does the Fox Say? Except of course they spell their name Ylvisåker, which looks way cooler than Ylvisaker.

In any event, as mentioned, Bård and Vegard Ylvisåker wrote this wonderfully ironic pop masterpiece and filmed an even more sharable video, which "went viral" last week all over the Internets. If you haven't seen it yet, pause now and watch it. If you have seen it, pause now and watch it again. It will soothe your soul.

"There is thumping bass and a silly, easily imitatable dance: In short, it is the video internet hipsters and five-year-olds can finally agree on."

Now, to complete our video journey, prior to outlining the five lessons we can draw from this meme-splosion, also watch the Ohio University marching band cover What Does the Fox Say?

Are you ready? Okay, here goes:

Everything comes from somewhere

It's difficult to even catalog how many "rules" of the pop music form the Ylvisåker brothers have riffed in this song. There's the anthemic build, the catchy refrain keyed to simple dance moves, the faux earnestness (the red coated fox as an angel in disguise). The irony and pleasure of the video is dependent on the artistry of hundreds of previous pop and dance tunes, and the ironists' knowledge of them. As a viewer of the video, so much depends upon how much of this culture you have consumed. A little bit, and the video is simply a quirky and memorable piece with high production values about animal sounds. Know a lot, and you fall out of your chair laughing hysterically. ROTFL.

The marching band rendition is also pitch perfect. Marching band tunes are almost never original. Marching bands know their audience, so they perform music that is hopefully familiar to them. This used to mean playing the "classics" (like the Beatles). However, in modern meme culture, if you can arrange something fast enough, riding the wave of a meme can function like the new version of a classic. Classics are now whatever are charting high on the Twitter feeds, or what you can quickly pull up on Youtube.

Imitation is an art

Some of the best art is imitation of previous forms of art. In some ways, I like the marching band rendition even better than the original fox video. I try to imagine the director sitting down with the song, writing out and arranging all the parts for the band, then heading out to the field with that large crowd of university students to work out the dance routine. That's an amazing amount of human creativity and time all invested in imitating (in a new artistic medium) what the Ylvisåker brothers created in their video.

So much of theology is like this. It is often the same "production" as a previous generation, or even simply a previous book, but arranged differently. And if you read widely in theology, you learn how much the arrangement matters. Quite a bit of theology is simple rehashing. It takes true artistry to convey theology in a new key with poise and beauty and panache.

Irony is a form of worship

This one is going to be hardest sell. Some people don't get irony. Often even people who get irony don't "get" irony if it's not irony they get.

That makes no sense, and you know exactly what I mean, right?

Nevertheless, there is something about irony that is core to worship. Worship is a kind of displacement. Like irony, it overwhelms us with negative significance, offering the presence of God in God's absence, faithfulness in and through skepticism, utter earnestness through deep humor. For more on what I mean, read these two quotes from Kierkegaard's The Concept of Irony on irony and humor, and think worship:
...irony [is] the infinite absolute negativity. It is negativity, because it only negates; it is infinite, because it does not negate this or that phenomenon; it is absolute, because that by virtue of which it negates is a higher something that still is not. The irony established nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it.... Irony is a qualification of subjectivity. In irony, the subject is negatively free, since the actuality that is supposed to give the subject content is not there. He is free from the constraint in which the given actuality holds the subject, but he is negatively free and as such is suspended, because there is nothing that holds him. But this very freedom, this suspension, gives the ironist a certain enthusiasm, because he becomes intoxicated, so to speak, in the infinity of possibilities.... But if irony is a qualification of subjectivity, then it must manifest itself the first time subjectivity makes its appearance in world history. Irony is, namely, the first and most abstract qualification of subjectivity. This points to the historical turning point where subjectivity made its appearance for the first time, and with this we have come to Socrates.... For him, the whole given actuality had entirely lost its validity; he had become alien to the actuality of the whole substantial world. This is one side of irony, but on the other hand he used irony as he destroyed Greek culture. His conduct toward it was at all times ironic; he was ignorant and knew nothing but was continually seeking information from others; yet as he let the existing go on existing, it foundered. He kept on using this tactic until the very last, as was especially evident when he was accused. But his fervor in this service consumed him, and in the end irony overwhelmed; he became dizzy, and everything lost its reality (p. 262ff.).
Finally, insofar as there may be a question concerning irony's "eternal validity," this question can be answered only by entering into the realm of humor. Humor has a far more profound skepticism than irony, because here the focus is on sinfulness, not on finitude. The skepticism of humor is related to the skepticism of irony as ignorance is related to the old thesis: credo quia absurdum [I believe because it is absurd], but it also has a far deeper positivity, since it moves not in human but in theanthropological categories; it finds rest not by making man man but by making man God-man (p. 329).
Even foxes and pop stars speak in tongues

If a fox is going to speak to a horse, will he use morse code? The song, though a joke (foxes aren't typically in the pantheon of animals we teach children the sound of, perhaps because they actually sound like a small baby crying with pain), is the most popular example of speaking in tongues in the cultural Zeitgeist right now, and it really does ask a question worth asking, "What does the incommunicable sound like?"

How do we speak faith beyond faith?

Making strange is making meaning

For far too long, and even up to the present day, the Enlightenment fascination with rationality and explanation has dominated the liturgical and theological landscape. Almost anything in worship that is strange, in a foreign language, represents awe or mystery or transcendence, has been expunged. Although I'm not necessarily in favor of going back to the Latin Rite for the liturgy, I get why some people want to return to it. There is power and transcendence and meaning in many things that are incomprehensible and strange. This is why I like naming cherubim and seraphim in the Eucharist. And why a dancing fox is somehow chock full of meaning (even inspiring) beyond all logic.

Liturgy, to paraphrase Catherine Pickstock, is the consummation of philosophy, rather than the other way around. The extent to which we think liturgy is consummated in rationality, is challenged by the fox meme. May we have more theology, and more liturgy, of the fox variety.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

La Femme Nadia: Pastrix

Wednesday September 11th I walked in to church for our evening youth event, and one of the adult leaders already had a copy of Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saintin her hand. She had pre-ordered it via Amazon so she could start reading it right away.

I had a copy of it myself in my saddle bag. I had already read the first chapter, and knew it was going to be even better than I had anticipated.

Here's what Nadia excels at, and why our church (the ELCA) simply adores her: She breaks down law-gospel proclamation, a fancy title for the kind of preaching Lutherans of the ELCA variety hope to excel at, and turns it into language that makes sense to pretty much everybody. And she does so with the timing of a comedian. She's gratingly funny.

She does law-gospel preaching through a memoir. She lets her life speak.

That sounds more saccharine than I intend it. But Nadia is never saccharine. If she ever is, she smells it right away, and drops another expletive and deprecates herself. Even when she gets in the way she doesn't get in the way, because her whole story in here is about the grace extended to her in Christ in spite of the failings of the church, in spite of her own failings as a person and pastor.

There's a lot in this book that is deeply emotional. I broke into sobs on page 18, reading how her father very humbly pulled out scripture and spoke words of grace that confirmed her call to become a "pastor to her people."

I have to admit: I wish this were a book I had written. People like to say: I could have written a book like that. Usually that's not true. You don't have a book in you just waiting to be written down. To write a book, you have to write a book.

I can only imagine that Nadia has bled in the writing of this book, because it is so deeply personal, and yet so profoundly theological. Again and again, she illustrates how pastoral ministry is life in the trenches--wrestling with a biblical text until you get a blessing, blogging and being open to abuse by those who disagree with you, welcoming all kinds of people, even the people you never thought would join you, into your church.

It's one woman's testimony of how God made her life a catechism, often in spite of her, and graciously enlivened her. It's the story of a church working out what it means to be church among people who have often been hurt by the church.

Nadia also pulls off what very few authors are allowed. She swears like a sailor while proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. As a farm boy from Iowa, I find this so refreshing. Farmers swear less than sailors, but we do swear. We tend to have less tattoos. But it's good for readers to know that pastors swear also.

It's also good to know that pastors are real, that church is real, that church will let you down. And that's part of what church IS, if it is made up of people who are always simultaneously saint and sinner.

Seriously, you want to read this book, and you want to read it soon. If you are a pastor, your people will already be clamoring to read it with you. Mine already are. I've never had a book (well, maybe The Shack where so many of my own people wanted to read the book with me. Usually I'm trying to hand books to people and convince them to read it.

This book wants to be read, and people want to talk about it.

Nadia, you rock, you really rock. Thanks, Nadia, for reminding us that ultimately, it's not about us, it's not even about Nadia. It's about a gracious God. A God who prefers to hang out on the underside, on the other side of whatever line we like to draw between ourselves and others. Thank you for a life story that tells it that way. Because it's true.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why going to church is good for you

September 15th is Back to Church Sunday

This past Sunday, our congregation was out logging a record number of volunteer hours (see the post earlier this week on why volunteering is a really bad idea), doing God's work with our hands at non-profits and organizations all over town. It was profoundly inspiring. You can see some great photos on our web site, and via our church e-blast.

This Sunday, I invite us to commit to being in worship, and sustaining that pattern for the whole year. Worship attendance is a lot like many other habits. It takes commitment, then a sustained period of keeping at it, for it to become a natural part of our routine. It's like flossing, or exercising. It takes some work, but there is a payoff. It's about health, and life, and faith. It's worth it.

According to a variety of recent studies, attending church weekly really is good for you. T.M. Luhrmann (one of the great up and coming anthropologists of religion), summarizes the findings in a recent New York Times articles:

One of the most striking scientific discoveries about religion in recent years is that going to church weekly is good for you. Religious attendance — at least, religiosity — boosts the immune system and decreases blood pressure. It may add as much as two to three years to your life. The reason for this is not entirely clear.
Having an active spiritual life is one of the best ways to accomplish a happier, longer life. There are a variety of likely causes. At least one: church participation extends our social network, which means the social support available to many church-goers is strengthened.

Luhrmann analyzes some of the contributing factors to the greater health of regular church-goers, and then adds her own insight, based on extensive anthropological research in evangelical communities:
[A skill Christian worship exercises is] the capacity to be caught up in your imagination, in a way you enjoy. What I saw in church as an anthropological observer was that people were encouraged to listen to God in their minds, but only to pay attention to mental experiences that were in accord with what they took to be God’s character, which they took to be good. I saw that people were able to learn to experience God in this way, and that those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were healthier — at least, as judged by a standardized psychiatric scale. Increasingly, other studies bear out this observation that the capacity to imagine a loving God vividly leads to better health.
From a theological perspective, of course, worship is good primarily because it is praise of God together with others. We do not worship first of all because it has benefits. We worship because God is worthy of worship.

And in fact, worship attendance is not a panacea. Many people go to church and remain depressed, or ill. Church is clearly not just about better health--it is also space for lament, and grief, and pain.

Many other things are good for us, also; many other things are good to do. But it is encouraging and promising that something many of us intend to do, but end up doing less often that we intend, is also just plain good for us.

So if you have been considering church for the first time, or hope to get back to church after an absence, make September 15th the day to do so. As a pastor, I like to joke that although I value daily Mass and wish I woke up to the Eucharist every day, I haven't yet gotten in the habit, so every Sunday is back to church Sunday for me also, because I've gone at least five or six days without worship.

82% of people will come to church if invited by a trusted friend

Furthermore, according to Thom Rainer’s book, The Unchurched Next Door: Understanding Faith Stages as Keys to Sharing Your Faith
, "82% of people will come to church if they are invited by a trusted relative or friend."

If you already find yourself in church regularly, this Sunday is a great day to invite someone you know.

Here are some simple steps that will help prepare you for Back to Church Sunday:

1. Make a renewed commitment to regular worship. Write it in on your calendar. Pray for the Holy Spirit to strengthen you in your commitment.

2. Pray for and invite five people you know to join you for worship.

3. Share the Back to Church link with a friend or in your social network (

4. Join the Facebook event page for Good Shepherd's Back to Church Sunday (or create one for your own church) (

5. Why do you go to church? Personally, as a pastor, the central thing for me is communion, receiving Christ's body and blood. It is a tremendous gift. If you know why you go, it will help get you there.

I really believe in the mission of our church. I believe worship centers us in this mission, and prepares us to be God's ambassadors in the world. I invite you to join together regularly with us, and to invite others to do so also.

Monday, September 09, 2013

7 Reasons Volunteering is a REALLY Bad Idea

It seemed like a good idea at the time, when that sign-up sheet was getting passed around, but now you actually have to go do it. Volunteer. Let's be honest, it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Here are seven reasons volunteering is a really bad idea.

1. A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again

I'll be the first to admit that often when I volunteer, the ideal of volunteering always seems more attractive than the reality of actually doing it. Like luxury cruises and eating four plates of food at Thanksgiving, volunteering is one of those things that really can be too much of a good thing. Better to avoid doing anything that overwhelms you with significance. Spend a week on a mission trip with a group from church, and you might come back exhausted, far too familiar with what socks smell like that haven't been laundered for a week, and hyper-aware of how good things are for you, really.

2. Like the sacred heart of Jesus, your heart might break

Offering our time in places we might not otherwise go hurts our hearts. We are exposed to human pain--loneliness, illness, imprisonment, anxiety, loss--and we are reminded of our own pain, and reminded how much of human pain in the world we have not busied ourselves alleviating. We are, in fact, reminded how much human pain in the world we are incapable of alleviating. Today, for example, while singing at the Veterans Home, our Sunday school youth met many men with forms of dementia that cannot be healed this side of the eschaton. It's hard to simply spend time with them. You/we want to do something, fix something. If we can't do something, or fix something, why are we there? Then crack, your heart breaks and pours out, both to God in prayer, and to the person in need.

3. It might be addictive

We think our lives are already full. Then we go lead worship at the women's prison, or serve a meal with an area feeding program, and God very clearly speaks a word to us: "You should do this every week, or even every day!" and we wonder how that could ever happen, given how over-committed we already are. Better to avoid volunteering altogether than put ourselves into situations where God might call something new and deeply sacrificial out of us.

4. Your life might never be the same

Every time I lead worship in the women's prison, on the drive home I have the same reflection: "That's the only real worship I attend or lead." I know, I know, real worship is about God and not our perceptions of what counts as true worship. Nevertheless, speaking a word of Christian freedom, going to a group of people and spending time with them because they are incarcerated and unable to come to you, doing this has the tendency to clarify the heart and mind, and teach us how much of what we call "worship" is actually our habitual practicing of privilege. We approach worship most of the time with a sense of entitlement--I deserve a worship service where the music is my style, where I will be fed by the message, and where I will like the experience. Go to church in jail, and suddenly everything old, everything normal, becomes supercharged with grace and meaning. Worship in that context is no longer about us and our privilege--it is about God and the people God loves and the word of hope and freedom God speaks to us in Christ.

As result, the next Sunday "normal" worship will seem so normal by comparison. Or at the very least, you'll be reminded that every worship service is preaching to those who are "in prison." Once again a good reason not to volunteer or go to the prison in the first place.

5. You might find out you have to change or learn something

The first time I had to visit patients on a hospital floor for my Clinical Pastoral Education, I was petrified. I didn't know what to say, had no idea how to visit people who were sick who I didn't already know. I needed to be equipped, and trained. Volunteering can challenge us in a similar way. We might find out we need to grow up, or go through therapy, or exercise, or learn a skill. As we all know, growing up, working on our emotional immaturities, skill building, and exercise are all hard work. Better to stay home and watch Comedy Central.

6. You'll be at risk of thinking volunteering is more important that the "normal" stuff you do every day

Sometimes when we volunteer we are tempted to think our volunteer service is more holy, or more important, than our daily vocations. We help people get nets to protect them from malaria in Africa, while we fail to protect the children in the school right next door, or shout at or neglect our own children. Charles Dickens in Bleak House tells the story of Mrs. Jellyby, who was so involved in mission work for Africa that she had no time for her own children or self-care. He writes, "Mrs Jellyby had very good hair, but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it." Moral of the story: Don't end up like Mrs. Jellyby. Avoid volunteering like the plague, and just go home and brush your hair.

7. Your "holier than thou" detector might get recalibrated

While volunteering, it is easy to become self-righteous. Look across the street at that lazy slob out on his porch sunning himself and reading a paperback. Yes, you are so much better than that guy over there. You're volunteering, repairing the front door on a ministry that feeds people seven days a week. Right? Smile to yourself in your superiority, then remember, the next time the volunteer sheet is passed around, to skip writing your name down because next weekend YOU deserve to be out in your yard sunning. You did just volunteer last weekend, remember? You've earned your rest!

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Mission Table: Renewing Congregation and Community

Stephen Bouman, more than any other leader in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, capably articulates the ELCA approach to missional church, congregational life, social justice ministry, and community organizing. His first book, "From the Parish for the Life of the World," brought the daily life of the church into conversation with a mission-focused model for healing the world. His second book, They Are Us: Lutherans and Immigrations, offered the most concise history of immigration policy in the United States and its relation to religious non-profit ministry for immigrants and refugees.

His new book, The Mission Table: Renewing Congregation and Community, is inspired by the work he does leading domestic mission for the ELCA. Like many mainline Protestant denominations, the ELCA recognizes that our numeric decline is both a sign of our failure in missional focus and a lack of imagination for evangelism in the 21st century. However, from Bouman's perspective, this is not reason for fear or anxiety, but rather inspiration to rely once again on the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through local communities as we listen to their deepest hopes and dreams and form tables centered in the Christ's meal that then are energized for mission in God's world.

The book is designed to be read by congregational leadership teams. It includes a brief three-module format for reading the book as a congregation over the course of a year.

For Bouman, the mission of the church is "God's reconciling and restoring action in the world."

Bouman has an inimitable style. He weaves together biblical reflection, community organizing concepts, stories of ministry in action, all connected to the daily and weekly ministries that center the church (baptism and Eucharist).

Here's his outline for discussion, which gives a sense of the topics Bouman covers in this short and readable book:

Module A: Tables (introduction chapters 1-3)
Session One: Mission and the Mainline (introduction)
Session Two: The Table of Creation (chapter 1)
Session Three: From the Kitchen Table to the Altar Table (Chapter 2)
Session Four: Seeking Hospitality at New Tables (Chapter 3)

Module B: Exploring the Biblical Marks of a Missional Congregation (Chapter 4)
Session Five: Mark 1-3
Session Six: Mark 4-7
Session Seven: Mark 8-10

Module C: Rerooting in the Community (Chapters 5-7)
Session Eight: Mission Table Leadership (Chapter 5)
Session Nine: Setting Mission Tables (Chapter 6)
Session Ten: Restoring the Broken Table (Chapter 7)

In module one, you can see Bouman's commitment to lifting up the connection between the Eucharistic table and God's care of creation, the deep connection between faith in the church and faith in family and household life, and the oppenness we are called to have to new tables being formed in our midst.

In this section, I found particularly refreshing a meditation Bouman opens up on the etymology of two words often abused in our culture. Religion, which he says means originally "to connect again," and synod, which at root means "together on the road." He writes, "Renewal in mission involves leaving our table and seeking companionship at new tables, our neighbors' tables, living and sharing the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus for the life of the world" (34).

He follows up this theological definition with three vibrant stories of how he saw this kind of movement active in parishes he has served or visited.

Also helpful is this list Bouman creates of the Ten Biblical Marks of a Missional Congregation:

1. A congregation in mission is always listening.
2. A congregation in mission mentors and trains its leaders.
3. A congregation in mission nurtures communal leadership.
4. A congregation in mission faces paralysis with courage.
5. A congregation in mission reroots in the community.
6. A congregatoin in mission risks new things.
7. A congregation in mission makes all decisions based on its mission.
8. A congregation in mission is clear about money and relationships.
9. A congregation in mission is propelled by the resurrection of Jesus.
10. A congregation in mission is shaped by Word and sacraments.

And Nine Characters of a Missional Leader:

1.  A missional leader is relational.
2. A mission leader pays attention to insittutional relationships and networks of support.
3. A mission leader has an entrepreneurial spirit.
4. A mission leader is clear about the power of money.
5. A mission leader builds a strong cadre of local leadership.
6. A mission leader is a witness to the presence of the risen Jesus.
7. A mission leader roots deep in the community.
8. A mission leader is adaptive.
9. A mission leader is a servant leader.

Bouman believes that the path to renewal of a congregation is directly connected to the renewal of its community.

This happens by doing the three great listenings:

1. To God.
2. To the church.
3. To the world around us.

Bouman believes that this kind of listening happens best when it is organized as area mission tables and congregational mission tables.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Seven Great Religion Podcasts

I have more time to listen to podcasts now that I walk the dog a few times per day. I've been discovering some great podcasts along the way, which I share here. Would love to have readers share their favorites also.

1. Revs Podcast

Beth and Scott are pastors married to each other podcasting about church, family and God. In their most recent podcast, after discussing their varying reactions to the election of Elizabeth Eaton as new presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, they discuss Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

I think my favorite thing about Beth and Scott's podcast is their transparency. Listening to Beth talk about Lean In, you hear how her experience as a woman pastor shapes how well she understands the continuing gender bias in our culture. Scott, on the other hand, though sensitive, still has his experience colored by being a male pastor. So though he tries to understand, he doesn't really understand. Listening to the two of them talk together about it, the listener gets inspired to read the book, and experiences how profound the challenge continues to be for females in leadership.

2. Homebrewed Christianity

Equipping grassroots theologians for creative thinking, engaging, and living. Homebrewed's most recent podcast is a panel discussion at the Wild Goose Festival on the 50th anniversary of the civil right's march in Washington D.C.

3. Pray As You Go

A Jesuit resource, daily prayer for your mp3 player. Lots of podcasts attempt to be conversations, interviews with talent, thought leaders, and more. This podcast accompanies listeners in their prayer life. It is, as it were, a prayer-cast. Given that prayer is an under-emphasized mode in social media more generally, it's refreshing to have a podcast that doesn't just talk about prayer, but prays.

4. On Being

"On Being is a spacious conversation — and an evolving media space — about the big questions at the center of human life, from the boldest new science of the human brain to the most ancient traditions of the human spirit. The program began as an occasional series on Minnesota Public Radio in 1999, then became a monthly national program in September 2001, and launched as a weekly program titled Speaking of Faith in the summer of 2003.

On Being, as the show was re-named in 2010, is now heard on hundreds of public radio stations in the U.S. and globally via Internet and podcast. In 2008, the program was awarded the highest honors in both broadcasting and electronic media — the Peabodyand their second Webby Award. On Being is the only public radio program in the U.S. to achieve this distinction.

Krista envisions a program that would draw out the intellectual and spiritual content of religion that should nourish our common life, but that is often obscured precisely when religion enters the news. Their sustained growth as a show has also been nurtured by a cultural shift that seeks conversation, shared life, and problem-solving within and across religious traditions and across categories of belief and non-belief. On Being has both responded and contributed to a growing acknowledgement that there are basic questions of meaning that pertain to the entire human experience. The particular dramas and dynamics of the 21st century — ecological, political, cultural, technological, and economic — are bringing this into relief."

5. God Complex Radio 

"It has been said that preachers should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. However, Carol Howard Merritt and Derrick Weston are more likely to read the Bible on their iPhones with Google News open in a computer browser window. As young pastors in a historic mainline Christian denomination, the partners of God Complex Radio are determined to lead Christianity into the 21st century and translate the values of the Christian faith to the next generation.
Through the production of a podcast and the development of media, join Carol and Derrick as they welcome writers, speakers, thinkers, musicians, and poets who are (and are destined to become) the voices of the next generation of the faith."

Recent interviews include a conversation with Meredith Gould on her new book, The Social Media Gospel, and Bruce Reyes-Chow on religion and faith.

6. White Horse Inn

A multi-media catalyst for reformation. The most recent podcast is an interview with Os Guiness on the case for civility. Michael Horton, the host, also happens to be an incredibly prolific author, most recently a systematic theology for modern day pilgrims.

7. David Housholder

David is a Libertarian, a Luthercostal pastor in Huntingdon Beach, a surfer, and more. He comes at many topics from a fresh perspective. We don't always agree on specifics, but we always agree that we enjoy the back and forth of conversation even in our differences.


I would be re-miss not to at least mention that our church has a podcast as well, of our weekly Sunday sermons. You can subscribe on iTunes:

And here's a brief advance idea, for those who have read this far. I'm thinking of podcasting Kierkegaard this next year, reading him out loud as he hoped to be read. So if this interests you, let me know. I'd love to know if people are interested in hearing great literature read out loud in manageable portions.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

What does God want?

For those with the spiritual question, "What does God want?" today's sermon for the first of September, provides an actual answer. For those of an intellectual bent, the sermon dealt with mimetic theory, patron-client relations, and gift economy. For those planning a party this week, the sermon offered lessons in etiquette and hospitality practices.

There was also some stuff in there about God and Jesus. Enjoy!

Click on through to iTunes and subscribe, and if you're really inspired, rate the podcast and leave some comments. Blessings to all this Labor Day weekend!