Friday, January 31, 2014

Zombie Theology: A Developmental View of the Religious Dimensions of Zombie Films

Let me confess, because I've been trained to confess: I struggle with zombies. As a Christian clergy person, I believe we are called to love and serve our neighbor. I have trouble recognizing zombies as "neighbor." Honestly, it's like an existential or ontological or definitional quandary of some sort. Is a zombie a neighbor in need? If they have a need, is it for me to shoot them in the head, or offer them some semblance of loving care, inasmuch as a being out to eat your brain can receive such care?

I'm reminded of a character early in The Walking Dead who has the opportunity to shoot his own wife (now a zombie) in the head, but he can't take the shot. This is the zombie struggle in nuce.

This Zombie-kampf, if you will tolerate the neologism, is all the more difficult because, in addition to the ethical entanglements of love and zombies, they are also, well... just gross. Contemporary zombie movies revel in blood and gore. As a cinema-goer, call me squeamish, I can only take so much. Wading through the entrails of dead but revivified bodies... I'm just not that into it.

Except that I am. I really am. I can't get zombies off my brain. Even though zombies make me sick, I also get that their dominance on the contemporary culture scene gives indication of the sickness of our culture, the neuroses of our waking sleep, the ghastly deadness of our living.

It is for this reason that I thank Greg Moody for this book. Moody has seen it all. He is able to take a big picture developmental approach to zombies on the big screen, and place them in anthropological and theological perspective.

For a pastor with insufficient time to go back and watch the whole back catalog of zombie movies (pre- and post-Romero), this brief introduction to zombies in film is just the ticket. I have read and re-read it, because I find it actually even more interesting than watching another episode of The Walking Dead.

I actually did watch a few episodes of The Walking Dead. And I liked Shaun of the Dead. But there's just something about zombies. Perhaps I'm on the leading edge of the zombie-survivalist movement. I have seen the horizon, and the zombie apocalypse begins not with the appearance of zombies in real life--the zombie apocalypse starts with their appearance, and of our seeing them, in the cinemas and home theaters where we hunker in seats, stale popcorn and sticky soda at our feet, and I, an early adopter and survivalist, have decided to flee the scene before they arrive.

This may be the pacifist option.

Or so I tell myself. But like Lot's wife, I can't not look back. I read posts from friends on Facebook (don't we all), and register their amazement at World War Z, their anticipation of the next season of The Walking Dead. And I remain curious, fascinated. I am a zombie-stalker at one remove, the Kierkegaardian "follower at second-hand." I want to know about zombies without knowing zombies.

I am, I must admit, intrigued by Moody's descriptions of the early zombie movies when zombies weren't undead but rather enslaved or soul-less or in a trance or in some other state, zombies with less appetite and in some form of spiritual slavery. But having caught glimpses of this kind of zombie in the Borg, or Chronicles of Riddick, even here I do not honestly know when I will go back and watch vintage zombie cinema.

For such as me, we have Greg's book. Moody has known the catharsis. He is a complete set-ist. He's seen it all, or at least quite a lot of it. He has walked straight into the fear, and out again. He knows the historical/anthropological origins. But more than anything else, I believe Moody sees the beauty in the horror, the truth in the gore, the revelation in the flat eyes. Haiti. Early film. The Romero transition. Theological interludes. Zombie-r-us. He has plenty of theories, amazing insight, but always threaded in and through the real history of these zombie films multiplying and morphing over a century. Moody tells us a story, and for those with ears to hear, ties the dead heart of zombie undeadness to the beating heart of sacramental Christian faith. For me, this is an indispensable resource for helping me look away from something from which I can't look away.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Four Mini-Reviews: Stanley Hauerwas, Catherine Pickstock, Robert Hoch, and Michael Welker

Many aspects of Hauerwas's new book, Approaching the End, will be familiar to his readers. The ordering of the chapters is arbitrary, because Hauerwas first wrote them as essays, and then assembled them into book form. But arbitrary ordering does not signify a lack of systematic purpose. The essays are inter-related. Hauerwas makes interesting assertions in one that may be fleshed out in another.

This is an example of why Hauerwas is so intensely rich. Hauerwas is often fully comprehensible and elusive at the same time.

Second, this book is developing an ecclesiology that Hauerwas has been at work on for some time, and it in some ways is a companion volume to an earlier book, The State of the University, except here he is working out the state (end) of the church.

The basic thesis of the book: Hauerwas is working out the significance of eschatology for understanding how Christians are to negotiate the world. The eschatological ecclesiology of Hauerwas is that the church doesn't have a social ethic, but IS a social ethic.

The strength of this approach is that Hauerwas can work out all kinds of novel and interesting ways of thinking about and presenting the church that might not occur to more traditional thinkers or ecclesiologists. Because he stands outside of the tradition that thinks intentionally about ecclesiology, he offers unique perspective (this is also true, for example, of his commentary in the Brazos commentary series on Matthew, where is work as an ethicist helps him interpret Matthew differently).

On the other hand, in practice it means Hauerwas always stands outside of (and to a certain degree never lands) with any concrete proposal for an eschatological ecclesiology. This has been witnessed in his own life, where (if I have read his memoir correctly) he has traveled over time from one communion to another, not always fully seeing himself situated in any particular tradition.

Hauerwas engages a range of contemporary authors in this book that are worth our attention. His "The End of Sacrifice" is a response to Peter Leithart's book on Constantine. His "Bearing Reality" considers J.M. Coetzee's important novel, Elizabeth Costello. As always, other formative theological influences play as well, especially Yoder, and Barth, and Wendell Berry.

Interestingly, to a certain degree, although the book is about the "end" of the church, it is just so more about our own end. Hauerwas is retiring, and increasingly he has been reflecting on death and how Christians learn to die. He believes that Christianity is training in being human (makes me wonder to what degree he reads Grundtvig), and so life in the church is the place for engaging those practices and that training.

If you have never read Hauerwas, this would be a wonderful place to start. If you are a long-time reader of Hauerwas, you will find things in here to surprise you, clarify your understanding of Hauerwas, and thrill your soul. You will also find plenty to argue with. And that's a good thing.


If you've never read Catherine Pickstock, don't miss out on reading her incomparable first book, After Writing: On the Liturgical Cosummation of Philosophy
  That first book was unique: a defense of the Mass, a reflection on first philosophy in liturgical perspective, a work that exhibited postmodern literary theory in the analysis of the text of the Mass, but by inverting meaning-making so that the liturgy itself is what means.

As a reader of that early book, a work I think back on regularly, I had been waiting a long time for something new from the pen of Pickstock. Her new book, though not nearly as ambitious as that first volume, does not disappoint. It is an analysis of repetition and identity as it plays out in writing and literature. 

What is most intriguing about Pickstock is her commitment to seeing theology as a literary event, or literature as theology. So in this book, part of a series of books that thinks about the role of literature in contemporary educational contexts, and looks at the wider implications of literary reading (and the need for its recovery) in the postmodern context.

Pickstock seems to take her cue especially from Kierkegaard on the topic of repetition, and of course he is a seminal philosopher/theologian who treats the theme in his own work. The book itself is quite programmatic. She works the reader very slowly through a big picture understanding of the nature of repetition, and illustrates it in discussions of various literary texts. This programmatic approach, though very systematic, is lively because of its engagement with the texts.

Pickstock being Pickstock, she then picks up on the theological opportunities latent in philosophical reflection on repetition. After having thoroughly analyzed the phenomenological distinctions between identical and non-identical repetition, she lays out a Kierkegaardian re-reading of recapitulation, and includes a final chapter that reflects on the Trinity and repetition in surprising and generative ways. The second to last chapter does this in an eschatological sense. The final chapter, on the "Repeated God," does it immanently in the Trinity itself. 

As indication of her influences, she offers a brief bibliographic note on her sources. Of course, Kierkegaard's work Repetition is listed first. She also points readers to Irenaeus (on recapitulation) but then also to Deleuze (who like K wrote a book on repetition), but also Sigmund Freud and Dinesen's Babette's Feast. 

If you are fascinated by these issues in theology or philosophy, or if you are intrigued by the ontological and identity issues in literature relative to repetition and recapitulation, this book is for you. Buy it as a companion piece to Pickstock's After Writing. Then give it some time. The two together will change how you read.


I love the way Hoch approaches his topic in this book. Hoch wants to propose church as exilic community, but avoids doing it theoretically. Instead, he travels to various communities he believes illustrate what it means to be church in exile, among exiles, and as antidote to exile, in various places around the country, and in his own hometown.

This way of framing his argument makes complete sense, because church as exile can't be a one-size fits all reproducible program. Instead, it arises out of the local need, the situation that creates exile.

His opening chapter on Postville illustrates how sometimes our national politics around immigrants create situations of exile. He then travels to the border itself, a ministry in Tucson, Arizona. He devotes considerable space to church among and with native peoples.

A particularly fascinating chapter describes the Cherith Brook community in Kansas City, Missouri. Affiliated with Catholic Worker movement, it is a tiny intentional Christian community. In this chapter, Hoch does a spectacular job describing exilic church without valorizing or idealizing it.

Many books on the church in exile are primarily laments for a declining church in North America. This is different. This is literally church at the margins, margins that existed even when the church was (supposedly) vital and growing.

Readers interested in how church can look very different and truly abide among those in exiles, this is a book for you.

Michael Welker's God the Spirit was one of those works of theology that blew open the way I think about God and pushed me in wild new directions, especially his reflections on "fields of force."

Welker has continued to publish regularly in German, and he is back now in English with a systematic look at Christology. It's really a remarkable approach. After an opening salvo engaging Bonhoeffer's question, "Who is Jesus Christ for us today?" he embarks on a survey of the first three quests for the historical Jesus, and outlines a fourth quest for the historical Jesus that, while taking account of the first three, allows for a more multivalent reading of Christ's life.

This first section of the book is already worth the price of admission, because in a very succinct and trenchant manner, he engages the the historical Jesus conversation, synthesizes it, and offers a very creative way forward.

Welker then proceeds to enter the fray section by section on the major arenas of Christological controversy. In the second section, he look at the historicity and scientific verifiability of the resurrection. Welker is a leader in the faith/science ecumenical conversation, and this plays a major role. Transcending traditional models of revivification, Welker argues for a liturgical type of "real presence."

In the third section, Welker approaches the theology of the cross. He starts with Luther (for obvious reasons) but then works his way through Hegel and Nietszche, in order to present a series of theses on what a synthetic theology of the cross might look like for us today. Like the preceding section on the resurrection, this one can be read as a handy primer in a theology of the cross. And it is highly readable.

After a transitional section on vicarious substitution and atonement, Welker moves on to the exalted Christ and his reign. Here is where Welker's previous work on the Holy Spirit comes into play. He proposes a Spirit-Christology, the coming reign of God as emergent reality and the power of free, creative self-withdrawal on behalf of others.

God in this Spirit is what humanity in it human-ness is conforming to... it is also public and eschatological.

In a final section, Welker meditates on the two natures (fully God, fully human) through a liturgical lens, first in baptism, then in communion. He first surveys the literature on the two natures, works his way through the sacramental material, and finally concludes with a fascinating inquiry into Christ's prophetic presence over against the governments and systems of the contemporary world.

If you have never, or seldom, read a work of Christology, this book would be a fantastic place to start. It surveys a lot of literature in a very clear and compelling manner. If you are a regular reader of systematic theology, this book is indispensable. Welker is at the forefront of contemporary theological reflection, and he synthesizes a vast swath of literature but in a generative and creative way. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Hi, my name is Clint, and I'm the least bible-minded pastor in America

I was raised in Davenport, Iowa, ranked 44th. My spouse hails from Des Moines, ranked 53rd. I spent my formative years just a hop, skip, and a jump up from Cedar Rapids, ranked 96th!

So here's my confession, since Iowa's poor showing has outed me. I may very well be the least bible-minded pastor in America.

Respondents to a recent longitudinal Barna study were asked two seemingly simple questions: Did you read the bible in the last seven days? And do you strongly agree in the accuracy of the bible?
Confession: I find all results from the Barna group highly suspect. It constantly surprises me that big and reputable sources look to Barna so frequently for statistics. They're so clearly biased towards one specific Christian hermeneutic.

Clearly I am not putting the best construal on my neighbors actions. I'm sure all the people who work for Barna are fine people. So in my distrust of Barna, I am violating the 8th commandment (the positive side of which, said Luther, was to construe your neighbor's actions in the best possible light). Thus one way I am not bible-minded... I should find a way to construe Barna stats as trustworthy, but I am unwilling).

But let me go on. If somebody called our house on the phone and asked me these questions, I confess to you I would have hung up. I don't do telephone surveys. I don't know if this is rude. It is probably not bible-minded.

If on a whim I would have stuck with the interview, and we came to the question, Do you believe strongly in the accuracy of the bible? I would have answered, No.

Why, you ask? Because although I trust the bible, and actually do find much of it accurate, I can't say I highly agree with the construal of a question with such a leading tone to it.... it's that little word, "strongly."

So let me imagine for a moment, my friends who live in Providence, and San Francisco, and Cedar Rapids, and Boston. I know people in these places. They get this phone call. They're Christians, many of them. Some of them are even non-Christians who read the bible. But you ask them, Do you strongly agree in the accuracy of the bible? Immediately, hairs go up on the back of their neck. They smell something fishy. So of course they answer no.

Now ask me the question, Did you read the bible in the last week? I answer, Of course I did. I had to preach on it, after all, and prepare a lesson for bible study. And the bible showed up in all kinds of other works I have been reading, including this little book right here by my nightstand by Michael Welker on Christology. Yes, I read the bible.

But did I engage in some kind of daily bible devotional reading? Well, it depends on what you mean. I pray the daily office. The daily prayer offices include Scripture lessons. So yes, but it might not occur to me to count this kind of reading.

Additionally, as a Christian who doesn't need to add "bible-believing" as the adjectival prelude to descriptions of myself as Christian, I also don't need to stretch the truth a bit when surveyed on the phone. I wouldn't feel a ton of guilt if I hadn't read the bible this past week, so I would be fairly free to tell the truth. You have to imagine that folks in this survey who live in truly bible-minded cities might feel a bit more social pressure to answer affirmatively even if they skipped a week (or a month, or a year).

And, as a Lutheran-Catholicish kind of person, I imagine myself into a non-clergy role, sitting at my kitchen table anxiously waiting for someone from Barna to call me, and realize I might answer the question--you know, the one about reading the bible in the last seven days--in the negative, because I didn't realize hearing the bible in the liturgy, or praying it with others, or reading it as quotes in other contexts, might count. I figure only evangelicals read the bible every day as part of their quiet time in the morning. Then they journal it and take a photo of their bible with a cup of coffee and post it on Facebook.

Like this
I argue that the two questions Barna asked in their study display a latent anti-Catholic, anti-Orthodox bias. Or said positively, the survey as it is framed displays a preferential option for evangelicals.

Not that there's anything wrong with evangelicals. But let's not let the evangelicals think they are the only bible-minded ones.

Go to church in a Lutheran church some Sunday and set a timer. Measure how much of the service is taken up reading Scripture out loud. Then go to a "Bible" church, and set a timer to measure how much of the service is devoted to the public reading of Scripture. I guarantee the bible gets more air time in the Lutheran church.

Consider this alternative way to measure bible-mindedness. Go to these cities and measure how much time is devoted in public worship to the reading of Scripture in community. Call those cities bible-minded. Better yet, call those cities "predominately Catholic."

What if "bible-minded" is not about believing in the bible's accuracy, but actually conforming our communal life to the Scriptures. In this scenario, Barna would have to rank highest those cities that feed the poor, provide potable water for all, give clothes away, visit those in prison, provide shelter for refugees, and bury their dead well. Barna could measure city codes and decide which ones adhere most closely to the commitment to justice so clearly illustrated in Scripture.

Which cities have the most people who forgive each other, bear wrongs patiently, and comfort the sick?

The truth is, you can read the bible every single day and not be bible-minded at all.

The truth is, you can completely doubt the accuracy of the bible, and yet be bible-minded to such a degree that Christ is clearly alive in and through you.

Bible-mindedness is not a narrowly construed modernist evangelical noetic hermeneutic. Bible-mindedness is a way of life, a story, and often those who question the texts are also the ones who most faithfully live it.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Public Church: What Youth See

Guest essay by Josh Graber, developer pastor of the Altyear program:

One of the lessons I learned as a youth director and one of the lessons I’m sure any one that works with youth has also learned is that youth aren’t dumb.  They play dumb sometimes, sure, and they may even seem to play dead sometimes, right in the middle of what you think is a great lesson, but they are usually listening.  They are paying attention even when it seems like they aren’t.  And late at night during a lock-in or traveling back from a mission trip, when you get that chance to talk with them one-to-one, they will reveal a whole world of ideas, emotions, and faith that you probably could not see on the surface.

Youth are not dumb.  They notice things, they are curious, they pay attention.  And so when youth look around the church and see a lack of young adults.  When they see their fellow youth group leaders, graduate from high school and go off to college or the work force or their parent’s basements and not show their face in a church and not connect with a faith community, they know that this time in youth group has an expiration date and as the curriculum of church culture teaches them so does their time in a faith community.

The least common demographic in church involvement is young adults.  Statistics back this up but any youth group participant could tell you that too.  We as a church do many great things for youth and provide opportunities for young adult leadership as camp counselors, campus ministries, and service leadership in places other than congregations, but it is leadership that churches and youth rarely see, and even when they do see these examples, they may not translate into a faith that is a daily experience and a life changing call. 

Youth need to see that the young adult years are not years to spend away from the church.  Years to graduate from the need for faith communities.  This is the time that faith communities most need to step up to support the human growth and contemplation of major life decisions and personality formation that occurs during young adult years.  We need to be there for young adults and if we are connecting with young adults, and the church and world sees that, it will be the best possible way to engage youth who are ready to grow up but not ready to grow out of the faith.  Youth are not dumb and care more about their faith communities than they will admit.

I have had the privilege to work with the leaders of Lutheran Year programs like Young Adults in Global Mission, Lutheran Volunteer Corps, Urban Servant Corps, and Border Servant Corps.  Along with the great tradition of Youth Encounter these ministries have given support and a transformative community experience for young adult Christians for decades and now we are working together to share these experiences more openly and publicly to the rest of the church and especially so that youth can see that there are opportunities for them to live out their faith even more deeply when they finish their youth group years.  This winter we will begin a push to let churches and youth groups know more about these opportunities.
For the most part these experiences are seen as service year opportunities, but there is room for new ideas and models that can reach young adults that may not see the church as having anything to offer them more than membership in a club that is owned and operated by older generations. 


ALT Year is a new model that creates space for young adults to boldly live out their faith with peers, the church, and society.  ALT stands for Abundant Life Together and it is a call for all people in our church to live into the abundant life Jesus came to give us (John 10:10) a life full of joys and challenges, faith and doubts.  It takes what has often been seen as the major weakness of our church, a lack of young adult participation, and gathers a critical mass of young adults in a specific location making it a strength for area congregations to gather around, support, and learn from.

The young adults participate in service leadership at area congregations, ministries, and nonprofits, they connect with mentors who teach them a skill or help them pursue a vocational interest, they have bible studies and do spiritual practice exercises with area pastors, they learn life skills like cooking, financial management, and group dynamics.  They pursue intellectual growth connected to faith conversation through texts, films, and speakers around monthly themes like Freedom, Imagination, Community, and Vocation.  This abundant way of living and learning is a relational “grade-free” model based on a 150 year old Scandinavian Folkehøgskole Tradition that values learning for learning sake and treats life as a curriculum.


ALT Communities also gather around the strengths and resources of the community that hosts them.  Our first site in Toledo, Ohio chose to focus on “Faithful Citizenship” because of its rich political tradition, its placement in the state that determines all presidential elections, the placement of the host church in the midst of the government plaza in downtown Toledo.
The windows of the ALT Room in Saint Paul’s (the host church for ALT Year Toledo) looks out on the courthouse, the police station, and the government center, with the Toledo Blade Newspaper building and the Valentine Theater in the periphery.  I like to say that this Faithful Citizenship site is planted in the middle of every season of the Wire (an HBO Series about the interconnected participants in civic life in Baltimore). 

In one of our first sessions I looked out on the government center and saw that the flags were lowered so we had a discussion and prayed for those affected by the shootings in Washington D.C.  Most of our sessions and prayers are interrupted by the sound of sirens passing by whether going from a police station, hospital, or fire house to help someone in need.  The sirens are a constant reminder of the needs of the community and to pray for those that are suffering.


One of the values that we hold up in ALT is “Courage”.  Courage is what is lacking in our church.  Our belief is that if our church leaders were better at embodying courage, especially the courage to change, courage to create something new, our voice among young adults would be magnified.  When we talk about a Public Faith we should understand that this is a faith defined by the courage to speak into a culture that may not understand or agree with us.

The ALT Year participants are introduced to courageous Christians from our tradition like Luther and Bonhoeffer, who followed their faith even to the point of risking their lives.   They learn about the prophets of the Bible and the Prophetic Imagination that has called empires to tension points of transformation. They identify leaders around them or from their past experience that they also see as courageous and willing to stand up to the status quo in order to help others and follow their calls faithfully.  We learned about Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero and the musician Rodriguez, a Detroit musician who affected the end of apartheid through his music.  Learning the courage to speak and to take action are areas that the group needs to be challenged in and they often challenge each other to live out their faith more deeply.  But the best way to be inspired to live out a courageous faith is to meet people that live out their faith in courageous ways in the very moment of our own context.

Our first Faithful Citizenship Session happened to be on the first day of the government shutdown this fall.  One of the hopes of ALT Year groups and especially this one in Toledo focused on Faithful Citizenship is that these young adults may be able to give older generation a better model for dialogue than what they see on TV and hear on the radio from D.C. and elsewhere.  The polarized paralysis of government this year was evidence of the need, but the group in Toledo got to see first hand that change is possible through civic action and living into a role of public church participants.

Early on the morning of the shutdown our ALT Facilitator gave me a call telling me that her husband, a local pastor at Salem Lutheran in Toledo’s Northside neighborhood was organizing a trip to visit politicians offices with some of his parisioners, in order to advocate for the poor who he said would be most quickly affected by the shutdown.  I pondered how involved to get in the action.  Our pilot group is made up of a pretty good cross section of the American political system from anarchists, to liberals, to conservatives.  We invited Pastor Vince to come talk with us along with his parishioners and they let the group know why they felt this action was important and was part of making their faith active and engaged with the world.

One of the ALT Participants joined them at their Toledo action where they attempted to go to a Senator’s office.  They had media cameras with them and when they were denied, the media revealed that the senator was meeting with corporate lobbyists at the same time in Washington D.C.  Vince was in the middle of a news story and in the middle of being public church. 

He came back at the end of the week and shared the experience of the group and the news footage from local TV about the Toledo event.  At the same time he was presenting, we learned that the Senator, perhaps in need of good publicity had begun floating compromise bills conceding some points to the opposition party.  I doubt the compromise went anywhere, but thanks to Pastor Vince sharing his action with us, the young adults is ALT Year were able to see first hand what being Faithful Citizens could look like and how these actions of lived out faith can make an impact and a chain reaction that we may not see at the beginning.


Too often we wait to act until something else happens.  We wait for the reaction as a link in the chain, but don’t know how to start it.  It’s my hope that the young adults who go through ALT Year will be exposed to so many people who practice an active public faith that they are able to easily live into the same faith.  But more than copying the best of our Christian example, I sincerely hope that these young adults will be able to lead us with good courage and creativity to new ventures of faith.  And that those actions and lives of faith are public to the people that most need to see their future in those lives of faith…our youth. 


Did you enjoy this article? Then join the ELCA Youth Ministry Network and receive Connect: The Journal of Youth & Family Ministry free. Have an article you'd like to publish in the journal? Here are the writer guidelines.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-media Era

A request. Mediating Faith comes out in less than two weeks. I would of course love for many of you to pre-order it, since a large part of the book is analysis of the way faith is formed here, in digital social media.

If you do pre-order it at Amazon, I'd love for you to get a glowing review up as soon as it is published February 1. Reviews and five stars help sales.

You can pre-read the introduction and first chapter at the Fortress Press web site already. Thanks so much to all of you for all you do, and for this blogging community!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Do you want to go to Hogwarts? | This Matrix Will Transform Your Church in 2014

Is your church cozy, bored, stressed, or discipling? Lately I have been meditating on the Invitation-Challenge Matrix from 3DM. It's an evaluative tool worth sustained consideration.

Here's why. I think many churches attempt to be strong at invitation. They say outwardly that ALL are welcome. Whether they actually are invitational is another story. Many churches believe they are high invitation when they are actually low invitation (we'll come back around to that in a bit). They're blind to the ways in which they are low invitation.
3DM Invitation-Challenge Matrix


The horizontal line on this matrix, however, is the line churches (and really all social organizations) struggle with the most. Many church leaders assume that high challenge is de facto low invitation. But that isn't the case. Cultures can be both highly invitational AND highly challenging. The only problem with high challenge is when it is coupled with low invitation. The matrix suggests that the sweet spot for discipleship is a culture that is high on invitation AND challenge. In this kind of culture, learners feel welcomed and gain a sense of belonging from invitation, and they also grow because they are challenged when it’s appropriate and necessary.

Here's an example. When I was in high school, the most dynamic youth program at our church was the high school choir. More high schoolers participated in the choir than in the Sunday evening youth gathering. Our choir director was great at balancing invitation and challenge. He created a very welcoming culture, but he also expected a lot out of us. We learned really difficult anthems, some in foreign languages, and with difficult time signatures. We prepared an entire set of songs for a one-week tour. By the end of the year, not only were we welcomed into an invitational community--we were also challenged to be better singers and musicians. I'm a better singer yet today because of that choir. We were challenged to make a difference, and to grow.

Cozy Magic

Many faith communities couple high invitation with low challenge. This can feel nice for a while, and no one feels excluded. But the result over time can be disastrous. Imagine, for example, if everyone knew how to get on the train to Hogwarts on platform 9 and 3/4s. Muggles would have had a run of the school, and no one would have actually learned to be a wizard, because the teachers would have been busy just making hot chocolate for everyone and ensuring no Muggle children got lost in the Forbidden Forest.

Cozy can feel nice for a time, but most of us, if we reflect on it, really also want to grow. I want to stay in shape, so I need a plan or someone to challenge me to run regularly, and step up in different types of running challenges. Cozy feels great, until I get depressed when I realize it has been three days and I'm still in my pajamas and I missed the job interview for a career that would have been difficult but deeply satisfying.

Oh, the stress

The dangers of the other quadrants in the matrix are also best illustrated with stories. I have heard stories over the years from parishioners who were asked to take on a rather challenging volunteer role, but then were not equipped for it. They were sold the task as an easy one, with little description of the challenges involved. Once they got into their role, they realized it was indeed worthwhile and challenging, but no one walked with them to mentor them and equip them for the role. All the challenge remained, but none of the invitation, and so the stress was high. 
This happens to Han Solo early in Star Wars. Obi-wan Kenobe asks Chewbacca and Han Solo at Mos Eisley to help them get off Tatooine. The promised payment is quite high, but the dangers involved with the mission are much greater than Solo anticipates. He considers bailing on the mission numerous times. At the very last minute, however, when everyone assumes the challenge was higher than the invitation could bear, Solo's growing love for Luke Skywalker results in his saving Solo from Darth Vader. You get an indication that, unbeknownst to Luke, he was extending invitation to Han Solo after all, paired with challenge, to help Han Solo be a better man.

Easy Come, Easy Go

Finally, we observe in many communities that people drift in, then drift out again, on a regular basis. This is the mark of a bored culture. Invitation is low. Challenge is low. The surprise in bored cultures is that anyone sticks around at all, and yet people, perhaps out of force of habit, really do stick with worship or attendance at sporting events or civic meetings, even for many years, without a real challenge and very little invitation.

This is not a life-giving pattern. It's the feeling many of us had in those stages of our schooling when we weren't self-motivated to learn, school was less challenging than it could have been, and we were going through the motions to fulfill only what was necessary. 

Unfortunately, many church programs drift toward bored cultures. We want the people there so we can report the numbers, but leadership fails to do the hard work of both challenging and inviting. It is easy to drift towards bored culture, because the opposite of bored culture--discipling culture--requires a lot of life-on-life mentoring and intentionality.

Put every aspect of life and ministry on the matrix

Take the time this week to run every aspect of your life and ministry through this matrix. Where are you or those you lead too cozy? When are you stressed? Who around you is bored? What are the contexts where the best discipleship is taking place?

This is an art rather than a science. For example, if my neighbor invited me to study Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit starting next week in the original German, I'd probably be intrigued but pass. I don't understand Hegel well enough, and my German is rusty enough, that the challenge is too high. However, a doctoral candidate at the university who has her syllabus today with Phänomologie des Geist on it is actually thrilled, because she knows she needs to acquire German-language skills for her chosen profession, needs to read Hegel, and anticipates tremendous discussions with her professor and classmates who will accompany her on the journey. 

Similarly, depending on what kind of discipleship process members of my own congregation are ready for, an invitation to a weekly supper and bible study as part of our catechumenate can appear either stressful or discipling, depending their life context. The challenge of a weekly meal and study needs to be coupled with a sense of belonging and community building (invitation) so the challenge of the new schedule is paired with the benefits of growth and belonging.

Every single aspect of Christian ministry can benefit from a review on this matrix. Are your church staff experiencing high invitation and challenge? Are your church council members getting a sense of a belonging to a meaningful leadership team (invitation) and challenged to grow in their own skills and faith practices (challenge)? Does your weekly bible study extend a warm welcome to all, but in a way that ensures that those participating also deepen their commitment to, passion for, and understanding, of Scripture? Do your Sunday school youth feel welcome, and do they also feel like they are participating in something that makes a difference, helps them gain new skills, brings them to greater maturity?

Finally, evaluate your own life in relationship to the matrix. Perhaps I have given myself to easy of an out on the Hegel thing. I speak some German, and it is getting rusty. Do I need a pairing of invitation and challenge, to find a community among whom I can improve my German and read Hegel, a philosopher I have come to admire and puzzle over more and more?

If you want to go to Hogwarts, you're going to need to find that platform. You also need an owl to drop an invitation off. Challenge-invitation. It's a matrix that will transform your life and your church in 2014.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Urgent: Keep All Unaccompanied Migrant Children Safe

Dear Clint,

I write to update you about LIRS’s serious concern for newly arrived refugees, vulnerable migrant children and the communities who walk with them. Without congressional action by January 15, our nation’s ability to provide a long and robust welcome to those fleeing persecution will be sorely diminished.

Growing instability in Central America and diminished government protection has led to a dramatic spike in the number of migrants fleeing the region. These unfortunate circumstances have caused anunprecedented number of unaccompanied children to flee to escape extortion, killings, forced recruitment into gangs, and generalized violence. Each month, thousands of these children cross the U.S.-Mexico border alone seeking safety. They are at special risk for abuse, exploitation, and trafficking during their journey and after arriving in the United States.

To keep all unaccompanied migrant children safe once they arrive within our borders as they navigate the U.S. immigration system, the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is in urgent need of additional funding.

In addition to providing for unaccompanied children, ORR also invests in the employment, education and health of many vulnerable migrants such as newly arrived refugees, asylees, survivors of human trafficking and torture, Cuban-Haitian entrants, and Iraqi and Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holders. Without additional funding from Congress, these vulnerable populations would experience diminished support.

Please join LIRS in calling your members of Congress through the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and urging them to support robust funding to serve unaccompanied migrant children and refugees. You can also take action online through the LIRS Action Center.

Thank you for standing on the side of welcome for those in urgent need.

In peace,

Brittney Nystrom
LIRS Director for Advocacy

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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Dark Psalms

Full confession: Throughout most of my junior high and high school career, on Sundays when I wasn't singing in the choir, I brought a fantasy or sci-fi novel to worship and surreptitiously read it during "low" moments of the service (especially during the sermon). I think I read all the Drizzt Do'urden novels during this period, for example.

In retrospect, I am not proud of this. I'm surprised at my parents' forbearance. On the other hand, I still go to church today, unlike many of my peers, so maybe they were on to something. 

It is what it is. 

The portions of the liturgy that captured my imagination during my teen years were musical in nature. I loved the hymns. I sang the liturgy loud and clear, sandwiched into a pew between my parents and my grandparents. Even in that early period, I think I was preparing myself to be a worship leader, because I would chant the leader portion of the liturgy under my breath. My favorite always was and still is the Proper Preface.

Another favorite: The psalms, pointed and chanted. For those unfamiliar with intoning the psalms, I've included a photo from the hymnal I grew up with at St. Paul Lutheran in Davenport. In that congregation, we primarily rotated between the first three tones listed at the top of the page.

Over time, the psalms seeped into my bones. Certain of the psalms are my go-to resources for prayer and comfort. Psalm 23 in times of trouble. Psalm 22 when I wonder where God has gone. Psalm 121 for hope. Psalm 46 as trust in God's strength. Psalm 1 when I dwell on the incredible beauty of God's law. Psalm 150 when I want to praise.

The psalms weave their way in and out of almost everything I pray and believe. They really are, as many have called them, the Prayerbook of the Bible. They tie together so many streams of what the Scriptures record. Many of the psalms (like Psalm 78) record the salvation history of God in miniature. Others (like Psalm 119) implement intricate poetic devices (acrostics) to celebrate God's law. 

There is a repleteness to the psalms that is simply incomparable. 

On the other hand, the psalms can be dangerous, inasmuch as some of the prayers of the Psalter, sung by a congregation, are unlikely to actually represent the lived experience of the community praying those prayers. There are prayers of anger, prayers for violence, prayers almost of hate. In the hymnal of my youth, these portions of the psalms were excised from the hymnal. All that remained were psalms or portions of psalms deemed by the hymnal committee appropriate for corporate Christian worship.

However, in the 1990s (when I started college), a group of liturgical theologians initiated a movement  to bring the practice of lament back into corporate worship. By the time the new hymnal of the ELCA was completed, this liturgical renewal movement had some influence, so the new ELW includes not only a set of hymns of lament, but also the entire Psalter, rather than an edited version of the psalter.

I think my first exposure to this possibility, that a community could and should pray the entire psalter, even including the petitions that do not seem authentic to their own experience, came upon reading Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk.

As she retreated with a Benedictine community and became an oblate with them, she discovered the cadence of the daily prayer offices centered in the psalms. She writes:
I really had never encountered the Psalms deeply until I started hanging out with these monks and nuns and praying with them because they do the Psalms every day, all day. You go through the whole book of 150 Psalms in about four weeks and then you start over again. So you really become familiar with them, and that has been a resource now when I’m angry or I’m grieving or something. I can think of a line from a Psalm. It’s sort of become part of me now. And so, that’s been really a blessing.
 Now, release your angerOnly your hatred can destroy me. 
The topic of the psalms and how they connect to our lives, however, keeps circling around. Most recently, Martin Tel has written a wonderful meditation on these Necessary Songs, in which he makes a case for singing the entire Psalter, inclusive of the "dark psalms," such as Psalm 79 (read it to see for yourself why it has often been excluded from hymnals). 

Similarly, Bernd Janowski's seminal commentary on the psalms, Arguing with God: A Theological Anthropology of the Psalms, makes the case that lament is simply central to the human's religious life before God, and the psalms open space for lament. If we cannot take our anger, our hatred, our lament, our disgust, to God, where else can it go?

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed:
All the things of which the Psalter speaks, which individuals can never fully comprehend and call their own, live only in the whole Christ. That is why the prayer of the Psalms belongs in the community in a special way. Even if a verse or a psalm is not my own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the community; and it is quite certainly the prayer of the truly human Jesus Christ and his body on earth.