Friday, February 28, 2014

10 continuing education methods that will change you, human history, life, the universe, and everything

There may have been an era when even mediocre pastoral ministry led to growth and "success." If that utopian era existed at some time (maybe from about 1955 to 1979?), it certainly doesn't anymore, at least not in North America. Many church leaders sense that it takes Herculean efforts just to maintain. Daily ministry can feel

Anyone who feels like they spend each day pushing a rock up a hill, just to see it roll back down that night will, in desperation, latch on to any kind of fix, however desperate.

Enter church marketing. At its best, publishing houses and conference planners faithfully try to offer resources equipping leaders for more effective and faithful ministry. But the habits of the marketplace sometimes drive these same conference promoters to overstate their case. Come to our conference, and your church will grow exponentially. Attend this conference, and learn to emulate these proven and incredibly successful pastors.

So you go. And the conference was fine. But very little changes. Either you didn't have the equipment in your portfolio to translate what you learned back into your context. Or perhaps all the heroes up on the stage were part of a perfect storm of being the right person, in the right place, at the right time, a perfect storm most conference-goers will not be able to replicate in their context.

On the other hand, most of us in ministry (and this really applies to any profession) know that getting away, networking, studying, all of these practices really do benefit the work we do in our congregations when we return. There is something about going away and returning that has value in and of itself, regardless of the destination. And it is an almost universally acknowledged truism that lifelong learning is an essential part of the toolset for dynamic leaders.

This being the case, those of us with the time and the resources really do need to select events or conferences to attend. We need to design intentional methods for continued learning. Towards that end, I offer here a top ten list for "gaming" continuing education so it really accomplishes something for you and your ministry.

Spend a week with a church and pastor you respect

So many conferences take place in hotel conference rooms with experts up front and everyone else around tables, laptops open as they browse Amazon. Although you can learn something at a conference, it is not a good context for life-on-life formation. To really learn from another person, you need to spend time with them. So find a pastor or church you respect, and ask if you can simply shadow them for a week. Conversations can take place in the context of the daily, and you will return with a picture of another church that can mirror and challenge your own.

Plan an unconference with friends

Sometimes I like to say you shouldn't attend a conference because of the speakers, but because of the other people who will attend that you can skip the speeches with. Lots of conference-goers already know this. It's why SXSW is so popular. The events are great, but the after parties and networking opportunities are a primary reason people attend year after year. SXSW organizes networking opportunities. In the evenings, the coffee shops and bars are also simply full of people networking on their own.

But you don't have to shell out the big bucks for a conference in order to network with friends. Just sit down right now and make a list of ten people you wish you could spend time with in conversation for a week. Then rent a cabin, or get sleeping bags set up in your house, and invite everyone together to simply spend time together. Create an informal agenda (loose conversation topics for the morning and again the afternoon), prepare and eat your meals together, and plan recreation, especially walks.

Save up and go to the absolutely best conference on the planet

If you are going to attend a conference, go big or go home. Although I haven't been to any of these yet because of their cost, I think I will try some year. The ones that intrigue me the most include:

Go to a "normal" conference but "mod" it somehow

For example, I am presenting at the Revitalizing Your Congregation conference in Chicago in April. There will be excellent content. But ideally if you attend it, you should also bring some friends, or experience some outside of the box Chicago things, or network with the event organizers prior to the event so you get more out of the conference when you actually attend. Follow their Twitter. Strike up a conversation. Conferences don't begin and end when they meet. They have a pre-life and an extended life in social media. My favorite conference for this personally is the ELCA Youth Ministry Extravaganza.

Get Creative

Attend a stand-up improv training, like I/O in Chicago. Spend a week at the Grünewald Guild. If you still really want to do a "ministry" conference, go to one that focuses on creativity, like the Calvin Symposium on Worship, or the Notre Dame Liturgy Symposium. Go to the Sundance film festival.

Go way outside your comfort zone

Maybe in this era of decreasing returns for increasing effort, the best thing we can do is get out of our comfort zone and stretch ourselves. So, go to a camp and learn how to build a guitar. Learn to paint icons. Spend a week camping out on the streets. Live with a Catholic Worker community.

Take a week long retreat

Don't do anything for a week. Just stop. Some folks do this at retreat centers, entering time for silence and the daily prayer offices. Some people do it by walking the Appalachian trail solo. The point is, don't do anything you would normally do, and let your brain recalibrate. This will be the most difficult and rewarding week you ever spend.

Connect to a global movement

You might need to save up for this one, but getting connected to a global movement of fellow pilgrims may be a good move. Many people travel to France to go to Taizé. Others do the Walk of St. James to Santiago de Compostela. Start saving now to travel to Germany for the 2017 of the Reformation. Consider the spirituality of anniversaries as you prepare.

Hide and read -or- get out all over the place

Pick a table at the local library, and commit to being at that table for six hours a day for five days. Bring a stack of books you have been meaning to read. Go to the library stacks to burrow down into footnotes that intrigue you.

Alternatively, spend a week in your community going to all kinds of places you wouldn't normally. Walk into the thrift store you always drive by. Buy a comic book at the local anime store. Walk every street in a mile radius around your house or church. Meet the wait staff at your local restaurant. Volunteer for a day at the literacy council. Go to concerts in styles of music you don't like. Take your instrument to the farmer's market and be a busker for the day.

Have a trusted colleague or friend assign you the continuing ed you would avoid but really need

This one will prove interesting. It is difficult to submit to the insights of others, but worth your time. You will learn as much asking this of a friend as you will in completing the assignment. Thank them in advance.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it takes you some distance in planning learning events for the next few years that will truly change you and give you life. I hope I'm brave enough to try a few more of them myself.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Orthodox Priests and Pussy Riot: On Turning the Other Cheek

Might I request that before (or after) you read this post, you listen to this sermon?

We are called to read the Sermon on the Mount in its historical context stripped of illusion. Although it is a record of what witnesses testify Jesus to have preached during his earthly ministry, the gospel itself, Matthew, was written and published some time after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., probably between 80 and 90 A.D.

My basic assertion: Jesus' instructions to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile, and so on, are all historically contextual instructions. The original hearers would have heard this sermon as instructions in how to exercise creative peaceful resistance under the conditions of occupation, oppression, in the face of Empire.

Jesus' sermon is decidedly not supposed to be heard as a call to passivity in the face of violence. Instead, it's a call to active peacemaking. Active peacemaking of necessity is creative, and often surprises us and subverts established norms.

Two events widely publicized in the news these past weeks that I believe illustrate what "turning the other cheek" might look like if creatively re-appropriated for the modern context, are the presence of Ukrainian priests among the protestors and police in Ukraine, and the presence of Pussy Riot in Sochi.
On the surface, this may seem a false pairing. The priests, after all, have the backing of the establishment, of institutional Christianity. Dressed in flowing robes and sporting lengthy beards, they represent on many levels traditional patriarchal culture (at least to a Western eye). Pussy Riot, on the other hand, is as far as I can tell a gyno-centric Situationist-style guerrilla performance group that protests what they perceive as the imperialist, dictatorial leadership of Putin. Because Putin is tied closely to the Russian Orthodox Church, it could even seem that Pussy Riot's form of event-focused performance art is directly at odds with the devotional performance undertaken by Ukrainian priests.

Yet there are remarkable similarities. Both the priests and Pussy Riot believe the spectacle of what they are up to is central to the the peaceful resistance they are undertaking. Both seem to understand themselves at odds with, on some level or another, statist authoritarianism or late capitalism. 

The spectacle of punk video production in bright clothes, or the spectacle of public prayer and penance in clerics, are both types of performance art. Liturgy done outside is, in the modern era, decidedly avant-garde performance art, even, perhaps, guerrilla theatre.

I am taken with how close the actions are of these groups to Jesus' instructions: And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second (Matthew 5:41). 

The priests go the first mile, to the site of protest, and into pastoral care with the police. Then they go also the second mile, into the breach, in that liminal space between protestors and police power. They risk slaps from either side.

Pussy Riot, already arrested in Moscow and detained many places, go to Sochi, and perform there, fully anticipating the same treatment they have already received numerous times before.

Neither takes violent action. Neither resists arrest. Neither fight back. Both take considerable risks. Both exhibit profound courage. And the power imbalances are astounding. They take these risks with very little guarantee anything will change. It is a small band of women, a declining church and clergy, against empire, against force and war and misogyny and hate.

Punk, the very force of disestablishment the world hopes will grow up, exhibits in this instance considerable Jesus-like maturity. The priests, of whom the West have become slightly skeptical, themselves illustrate the same mature spirituality of resistance to Empire.

The only ones who aren't yet mature, who as yet are incomplete, imperfect, are those of us who do not think there is anything to resist, or are completely unaware of how much we are complicit in Empire.

Being Promised and Faith in the Face of Empire

A promise is a doubled and extended gift. This definition of promise, crucial to the overall program of Gregory Walter's new book, requires (and rewards) unpacking. A promise is a gift. It is something one gives. It is, first of all, two kinds of gifts at the same time. It is an archaic, reciprocal gift encompassing exchange and obligation (the Marcel Mauss anthropological type of gift), sent in a circle, requiring as part of the exchange reciprocal response. But it is also a pure, unilateral, free gift, a gift with no strings attached, the kind of gift Jacques Derrida in his phenomenology of the gift considered to be the only condition for a true gift, but just so conditioned making the gift impossible.

In this sense promise is two kinds of gift simultaneously, in that it is a kind of gift that can be both pure and exchanged at the same time. Or if it is not two kinds of gift simultaneously, it is a middling gift, a gift that "properly lies between the two forms of a pure and a purified gift. It upholds the nature of exchange with the field of love created by the initial token but defers the obligation that any gift bears" (33).

Additionally, a promise is an extended gift because it "is both less than a gift and more than one" (24). Promises are extended because they are more and less fragile than a pure gift, relying on the trust of the receiver for their fulfillment. This is the other way they are doubled, because although the promise before it is received by a trusting recipient is weaker than any gift since it does not yet give what it promises, it is stronger than other gifts because in not divesting itself into the kind of exchange intrinsic to archaic gifts, it takes on a body archaic gifts lose in the giving.

All of this work bracketing concepts in order to describe gift and promise illustrates to what degree Walter's work engages the anthropology of the gift and the phenomonology of promise. In fact, the book as a whole serves an excellent primer in a post-foundational engagement between theology and disciplines such as cultural anthropology and philosophical phenomenology. What is unique about Gregory Walter's work in relation to other theologians is his intentional and regular engagement with the discourses of neighboring disciples, precisely because he believes post-foundational theology lives in a situation of radical plurality and so requires a different way of making arguments. He finds promise to be particularly generative for this kind of argument making, because it is a "weak power that gives possibility directed toward the neighbor. It is open to public criticism and evaluation. Promise occupies no place and gives the place to the neighbor, requiring a radical kind of hospitality" (13).

It is then no surprise that in Walter's second chapter, he takes up the topic of hospitality directly, specifically in conversation with the event of Sarah's laughter. Phenomenologists of all sorts are taken with (perhaps even obsessed with) the event. It is a crucial concept to Derrida, Badiou, and others. It is closely related to what the great phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion identifies as saturated phenomenon. Theologians like John D. Caputo are picking it up as a primary leitmotif in their postmodern theological endeavors. Walter turns phenomenological attention to the event into a hermeneutical resource for reading the stranger's promise at the oaks of Mamre to Sarah and Abraham.

In terms of archaic gift exchange, the strangers give too much. Their gift is so beyond appropriate for the context that Sarah's laughter erupts. Her laughter is an event beyond full interpretation. It is surpassingly strange and just right at the same time. It expresses incredulity, doubt, even as she attempts to disguise it. However, the strangers roll that doubt into the promise itself by naming the promise (Isaac) after the laughter itself. The event is so full it is actually pregnant, full both of what is in the situation of hospitality and what is promised in expecting a child.

Walter shifts in chapter 3 to the relationship between the weakness of promise and the gift of time. The chapter is a meditation on the icon of Pentecost in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, again utilizing phenomenological conversation partners (such as John Milbank, Pierre Bourdieu, and Paul Ricoeur). In Walter's analysis, promise gives time where time has run out, in this sense liberating the recipient from the reciprocal time that is always time coming to an end.

Promise, phenomenologically speaking, has a weak power, inasmuch as it takes a hospitable approach to time and God's future. Weak for Walter means open to the other, welcoming of the new, a power that does not "attempt to preserve the present in the face of the past or the future" (49). Because the Spirit is this weak power, the future is not a already realized place to which the Spirit invites or from which the Spirit blows--rather, the Spirit is the future itself, a "welcome that allows one to expect the unexpected" (54).

Because this way of speaking of the Spirit prioritizes possibility over actuality, it is by definition the kind of theology Walter is hoping to prioritize in his work, non-foundational and post-metaphysical. Taking account of Giorgio Agamben's political theology, Walter concludes that the Spirit is itself the kind of promise phenomenologically analyzed in the early chapters, a doubled and extended gift. "Promise extends the future into the present as arrabon or down payment of the Reign of God even while the end is constantly arriving" (60).

In the meantime, nothing is pure. Walter's final two chapters fund the theological imagination for promise embedded in the nitty-gritty of everyday life and the give-and-take of liturgy. Walter surprises at every turn, even as he demands close reading and re-reading. This reviewer read the book three times as preparation for writing the review, and the rewards of reading through these last two chapters a third time were particularly rich.

Specifically, Walter offers a completely fresh definition of the concept of place and taking place. After offering a brief summary of Heidegger's definition of place, and the challenges to this definition of place forwarded by Catherine Pickstock and Jean-Yves Lacoste, Walter offers the Eucharist as itself a place "as non-place, a dis-place-ment of all local rootedness that moves toward another home... porous to the other's place... a doubled and extended gift... look[ing] forward to a place of community...nowhere except the neighbor" (87, italics added).

Walter perceives Eucharist as this kind of taking place phenomenologically. Like the basic phenomenological insight that the event is what is taking place in the event, so too it is what takes place in a place that is that place. This kind of bracketing, which reduces giver and gift to pure givenness, is precisely what happens in the Eucharist itself, because the giver (Christ) is elided. "[The Eucharist] circumvents the ordinary dyanamics of host and guest by the elision of the host" (90). In addition, because there is no host, there are also no guests, by the very nature of the case. "A host can discern who belongs to the community and who does not. But the promise rules out any sense that its location can be dominated or ruled by those charged to declare it. This does not mean that the churches have not and will not have tried to do so, domesticating this meal and making it their own feast instead of one that is itinerant, iterable, and open" (91). But the basic Husserlian rule applies, "More reduction, more givenness." The more the host and guest are reduced, the more promising the actual giving of the gift of the meal becomes.

Walter's concise prose and precise theological formulations are nothing if not demanding. Pastoral readers will immediately want to make the leap to practical implications, and may struggle on first read through the text to make the creative connections. However, let me make a suggestion. First of all, try reading Walter's book, then return to read the Genesis account of Abraham and Sarah's hospitality to the strangers and Sarah's strange laughter, and see if you can avoid thinking about promise in phenomenological terms. Similarly, view an icon of the Pentecost, and note if it does not radiate newly saturated light. Similarly, preside over the sacrament, the Eucharist, and try not to consider the implications of weak promise and porous place taking. Try not to think of the taking place of the neighbor in this meal of betrayal. As Walter concludes, "the Eucharist gives the place of the neighbor. Since the Eucharist is not its own place, it makes the church out to be no place at all, a place that is porous, anticipatory, and mutual" (93). The church as no place at all? In this sense, it is less that practical theologians have little to work with in appropriating Walter's work in their context, and more a question of whether they will have the courage to do so.  

Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes. By Mitri Raheb.  Orbis Books, 2014.  Pp. 166, paper.

Confession: Somewhere just beneath the surface of my thankfulness for this book lurks a doubt, Can there really be anything new to say about the Bible through a specific liberationist lens?  Rationally, I know this doubt is unfounded, because many of the most important hermeneutical insights of the last century came as a result of trusting the experience (and struggle) born of oppression, of occupation by empire.

This lurking doubt puzzles me. I do not have the same reaction when a new work of Christology is penned by a scholar I respect. In this sense, the critique of Western assumptions Raheb offers in the introduction is valid. I am (conditioned by my culture and context) insular and obsessed with fixed and rigid Eurocentric questions (6). For this reason, I need to read, and keep reading, the voices from the margins, voices that are, in the end, not the margins at all, but are marginalized only by my failure of imagination to realize that voices, and preeminently among them the Palestinian voice, are central rather than marginal, even if they are simultaneously silenced and ignored by Western theologians.

This book is Mitri Raheb's tour de force. In six tight chapters Raheb offers a post-colonial Palestinian liberationist hermeneutic that questions the prevailing evangelical and liberal Christian narratives (and to a certain degree Jewish and subjugated Palestinian narratives) that overlooks the native people of the land--the Canaanites and the Palestinians--and then making "the natives of the land... strangers in order to make room for an invented people to occupy the land" (38). This is not an anti-Semitic argument per se, although staunch Zionists will likely hear it as such. Instead, it is a geo-political re-reading of the place of Palestine, and the role of the people of that land, in biblical and world history.

In a way quite comparable to James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree (which I reviewed in a recent issue of Word & World), Raheb notes the complicit silence of liberal theologians in the oppression of a people. Raheb notices that the very theologians who should be the most sensitive to Palestinian concerns are blind to the Palestinian plight precisely because the role of the modern state of Israel plays a part in the hermeneutics of liberalism, which is itself influenced by its Orientalism (a term coined by the Palestian Protestant Christian Edward Said).

Raheb sees promise in some recent developments in both Jewish and Christian theology which have begun to attend to the Palestinian situation (for those who hope to read further, the chief Jewish voice is Marc Ellis, chief Palestian Christian voices include, Yohanna Katanach and Munther Isaac, and prominent U.S. Christian voice is Walter Brueggemann).

After middle chapters on geo-politics, Palestine and Empire (chapters four and five), Raheb proceeds to roll out generative exegetical insights into the biblical texts informed by the Palestinian experience of exile in their own land. Here his concept of the longue durée takes center stage. It is not just that Palestine is occupied now, it is that Palestine has, almost in uninterrupted fashion, always been occupied. In the context of occupation, one prayer to God is lifted over and over, "Where are you, God?" This is the "three-thousand-year-old lament that the inhabitants of Palestine have passed from one generation to the next" (68).

Those occupied by empire inevitably ask themselves: What is the best way to obtain liberation (74). Raheb catalogs five traditional ways occupied peoples have responded to oppression and sought liberation: fighting back, observing the law (like the Pharisees), accomodation (the Sadducees), collaboration, and retrieval (Qumran). Having outlined these five quests for liberation, Raheb then offers a modest Trinitarian theology, with chapters on God, Jesus, and the Spirit.

God is who we turn to in the face of omnipotent empire. In Raheb's analysis of Palestinian liberation theology, "it wasn't the notion that there is a God that was revelatory, but the response to that existential question, 'Where are you, God?' The people of Palestine were able to discover a unique answer to this question, and the answer made history" (86). The answer, in short, is that the oppressed Palestinians learned to spot God where others could not see God. God accompanies them into exile in Babylon, in the destruction of the temple, and so on. "The salient feature of this God was that he didn't run away when his people face their destiny but remained with them, showing solidarity and choosing to share their destiny" (87).

Jesus lives this solidarity also, and reveals this God on the cross. In the chapter on Jesus, Raheb offers a fascinating interpretation of Matthew 5:5, the meek shall inherit the earth. The meek inherit, according to Raheb, by staying in place. Empires come and go, but the meek people of the land remain. Jesus understood this geopolitics, and deeply identified with these people, the people of villages and of the countryside. He did not aim for Rome, and mostly avoided Jerusalem. He was a man of the land.

Finally, the Spirit is at work as the presence of this God in ways that quietly offer creative resistance and foster cultures of life. The Spirit calls the people to lives of hope, "living the reality and yet investing in a different one" (130).

These final chapters only begin to hint at a systematic theology, and exegete wonderfully brief passages of Scripture. Given Raheb's busy life (President of Dar al-Kalima University College in Bethlehem as well as president of the Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and Senior Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Palestine), it is a wonder he has produced this book at all, and yet if I wished for anything as I finished reading it, it is that it would be, perhaps in a second edition or future volume, a more expansive systematics or work of biblical theology that fleshes out the hermeneutic so wonderfully on display out of the Palestinian perspective.

Both of these reviews will appear in forthcoming issues of Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

* Warning: This Post Has Church Geek Written All Over It

If you truly love Jesus, have been saved, and are an earnest Christian, please click through these links and read their contents carefully before proceeding:

Did you read them? Every word? It's important, in order to join the geek church movement, that you immerse yourself in these two documents before proceeding. If there are any videos or attached links, you might want to chase those rabbit holes also.

Okay? Good. Now we can proceed.
Friends don't let friends play with fonts.

The existential crisis precipitating this post is straightforward... 

The ELCA recently announced its campaign, Always Being Made New. When I first heard about it, I was ambivalent. In fact I remain ambivalent.

(Obligatory geek conspiracy theory parenthetical aside: I think I am not alone in my ambivalence. Tiny elf reporters have informed me even those higher up in the church hierarchy may be similarly ambivalent.)

But I am a church geek. I love my church. So, rather than dismiss the campaign out-of-hand, I decided to explore a variety of related theological implications, and see where they lead.

My fundamental question: Does a financial campaign initiated and led by the ELCA Churchwide organization align with the LIFT recommendations?

Although the LIFT report offered a lot of recommendations, I think it focused on prioritizing the work of evangelical congregations. LIFT repeatedly calls on congregations to be centers of evangelical mission. 

When LIFT goes on to discuss how the three expressions of our church--congregations, synods, and church wide--are related, it says: "A primary role for the church wide organization is to support and build the capacity of synods, which are best positioned to work directly with congregations in planning and carrying out God's mission."

Center for Evangelical Mission
So, the evangelical mission of local congregations is central, and the work of the churchwide organization is to accompany synods in accompanying congregations in this mission.

At first blush, a national fundraising campaign for the churchwide organization seems to run afoul of this basic recommendation of LIFT. It sidesteps the fundraising and work of local congregations, and invites donors to give directly to the national organization rather than "centers for evangelical mission."

That's a legitimate critique and concern. It's a critique and concern that needs to be kept central if  the ELCA (as the national expression) is to accompany synods and congregations rather than colonialize them with churchwide directives or agendas. Although I can't in this blog post offer up a full comparison between this basic fund-raising topic and the topic of Paul's collection for the church in Jerusalem, I can hint at it, and provide another rabbit hole link (thanks to Bible Gateway).

That being said, we are also a church of churches. We practice, ostensibly, some form of communio-ecclesiology. Although local congregations are centers for evangelical mission, part of their evangelical mission is participation and sharing in the life of other congregations. We are ecumenical. We have a shared mission together. Shared mission includes shared resources. Share resources means shared money.

If we read the campaign goals for Always Being Made New, we see a significant portion of the funds ($35 million) are focused on renewing existing congregations, developing new congregations, developing leaders, and creating contexts for the formation of young people (for more on opportunities for young adults to be involved in global mission and gap year programs, see this post). So, if I get this right, the ELCA churchwide is campaigning to raise money so that local congregations will have more money (via grants from the ELCA through their synods) to fund redevelopment and development projects. And more programs will be in place to offer young adults immersion programs to discern vocation and serve in global mission. I'm all for this!

Here's where my skepticism remains. If congregations themselves are going to be centers of evangelical mission, then local congregations need to change their imaginations, and become churches that start churches. Until and when that occurs, all evangelical mission, although supposedly happening at the local congregational level, will still be churchwide funded, in which case the actual function of this campaign will be to make the ELCA churchwide unit a center for evangelical mission rather than local congregations. 

I am not quite sure what the solution is, but somehow this funding for development of new congregations, not to mention the funds for leaders, youth, and young adults, needs to be raised, administered, and distributed at the local congregational level. If this doesn't happen, congregations won't become centers of evangelical mission. So, although I am in favor of the goals of this campaign on this point, I am not in favor of the centralized nature of the campaign.

The remaining funds, and really the lion's share of the funds, are for world hunger and global mission ($154 million). These are the kinds of ministries where we really are "better together." Many local congregations could probably afford to send a missionary abroad, if their members gave sacrificially. Very few local congregations could establish a Young Adults in Global Mission program in South Africa, or address global hunger issues or work to end malaria.

So much depends upon whether or not the ELCA raises these funds and then makes use of them in hierarchical, centralized ways, or whether it takes its own best theology of accompaniment, not to mention recent insights into releasing missional networks, as a guide for development, redevelopment, and leadership formation.

My understanding is some of the funds for this campaign are already promised or given. Some donors with significant financial resources at their disposal want to give to larger organizations beyond their own local congregation, and the ELCA is a recipient of gifts such as these. Like Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, which raised $23 million of its $40 million for a new capital campaign from 24 donors, the ELCA can attract major donors. So this ELCA Campaign is worthwhile perhaps on that level, because it can capture donations local and smaller congregations might not be able to, but then in the service of local congregations.

But for the record, if you are one of those donors, and you'd like to make a very large donation that would make a difference in a local congregation, can I recommend Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and our current development of campus ministries and satellite ministries in a state where Lutherans are few and far between? Talk about centers for evangelical mission!

I'll stop here. I've invited readers to review a lot of material. I'm still processing all of this. I'm sure you are also. We need to open a conversation around this campaign, the LIFT report, and the future of the ELCA. For geeks like us (and if you have read this far you are officially a member of the ELCA geek club), the care we take over this campaign and these theological resources will shape who we are as a denomination over the next 25 years... by the grace of God.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Cancer and Theology: A Review

Ullestad and Bouma offer here, with the help of their friends, a wonderful collection of brief essays. There are a variety of ways in which this book is a gem. First, the chapters are brief. For those living as care-givers or currently journeying with cancer, it may be hard to read a longer work of theology. Brief meditations are helpful.

But these are intentionally not "devotional" meditations. The authors attempt to get beyond pious platitudes, and specifically platitudes they themselves have experienced as less than helpful. Bouma, himself a cancer survivor, invited the authors to do two things in their essays. First, take the theme of "cancer and theology" in any direction they wished. Second, provide at least one "theological one-liner"--a sound alternative to the pseudo-spiritual phrases frequently offered as encouragement to cancer patients.

In fact, this second assignment is the genius of the book. Bouma continues, "People are often compelled to say something reassuring to victims of tragedy, whether it be a cancer diagnosis or the death of a loved one; however, memonic eye-rollers like 'If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it' are misguided at best and hurtful at worst."

Ironically, one of the repeated insights of the book is that there may not be words for the tragedy of cancer. The authors repeatedly suggest a ministry of presence is central, that sometimes the best thing we can do in the presence of cancer is to do and be rather than say. But this is a book, and books have words. Sometimes we need words to get us back around to the other side of words.

Brian McLaren quotes Bruce Cockburn at the conclusion of his brief essay, and the quote says it all: "Those who know don't have the words to tell, and those with the words don't know so well."

If you have lacked the words, but suspect that might be the better part of wisdom when considering theology and cancer, this book will widen your mind and deepen your heart.

An Invitation to Ash Wednesday

Certain moments in our lives leave us open to new beginnings. The beginning of the academic year is one such time. The beginning of the actual new year is another. In each of these moments, we evaluate our lives and consider new habits and direction. We make space in our lives, letting go of old ways and initiating new ones.

I find these are likely times for new people to visit church. New people visit our church almost every week, but these "new start" times see a much higher number of people in whom I sense an opening to become a part of our community, an opening to deepening their faith in love of Christ and service to neighbor.

Ash Wednesday is another such moment in the life of the church. Like Christmas or Easter, where many people either return to church, or consider worship for the first time, Ash Wednesday has a powerful attraction.

There is something very real and true about Ash Wednesday. No fake religious veneer is on display. No one is required to be shiny or happy. It might be the most authentic day of the church year. Nothing fancy. Simple austerity in the face of sin and mortality.

And although this may not seem like an opportune time to reach out and invite a neighbor or friend to church, it is actually the best of times.

Some of the most meaningful moments I have ever spent in religious community have been at the invitation to participate in an Ash Wednesday liturgy with a friend at their church. Whether it was a small Episcopal parish in Pasadena, CA, or the ancient St. Elizabeth's Cathedral in Košice, Slovakia, I remember more Ash Wednesday services than any other service I attend. The spiritual commitment of Lent--to give alms to the poor, to fast, and to pray--centers the community in that which is most meaningful. The confession of sin, and the proclamation of the forgiveness of sin in Jesus' name, reminds us why it is we walk with this community week after week.

And that simple inscribing of ash on our foreheads, "from dust you have come... to dust you shall return..." as serious as that is, is also full of grace and truth. It will mark you. It will move you. And it makes you into a walking fulfillment of Paul's words, "As often as we eat this bread, and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."

It's the kind of worship to which you could invite a friend, a neighbor, because you know when you invite them, you are inviting them to the core of what you believe and practice as a Christian. Often we fail to invite our neighbors to worship because we don't know why we would. Ash Wednesday clarifies our faith, requires us to know.

So I encourage you to do so. Don't just receive the imposition of ashes on March 5th. Invite others to join you. Tell them what it means to you. Let them in on a little bit of the mystery of this journey we are on together. The worst thing that might happen is they would say no. In which case your "ask" would go down in ashes like those written on your forehead.

Finally, by inviting, you would be living out Psalm 51. Penitence is not private, it is public. David sings his lament before his people, and his people have sung it ever since as one of the psalms. It is what we will sing at noon or 6:45 on March 5th, also, at or in all likelihood at any number of Christian congregations near you, dear reader. Consider yourself invited.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

fortress press author q&a for mediating faith

author q&a: clint schnekloth 
scholarship that matters 800-328-4648 • 

Publisher: Fortress Press 
Format: Paperback 
List Price: $29.00 
Page Count: 126 
ISBN-13: 978-1-4514-7229-5 
eISBN: 978-1-4514-7971-3 
Rights: World 
Subjects: Christian Ministry and Preaching 

FP: Congratulations on the publication of your book, Mediating Faith. Tell us about the journey that inspired this work. What was your motivation for writing it? What did you hope to achieve? 

CS: I first became curious about faith formation and social media when I started exploring how bible study or other traditional types of formation processes in church life might take place in digitally-mediated contexts. It was clear to me, even from the very early days of Facebook (the early days when people my age were not allowed on Facebook) that formation was happening. The way we interact with each other shapes us in important ways. At about the same time, I became interested in a sub-field of cultural studies which is sometimes called media ecology. One of the leading lights in this field was the relatively famous Marshall McLuhan. I started devouring his works and others in the field. Eventually, my motivation for writing the book became the simple desire to bring the field of media ecology more directly into conversation with the conversation about faith formation in religious communities. What I wanted to achieve was simple to express, but difficult to practice: I wanted to raise our collective awareness of the effects of transitions to new media on the ways we are formed in faith. In addition, I wanted to awaken readers to the wide variety of ways, and the wide variety of media, through which formation happens, as well as some of the challenges and opportunities of these mediated environments. 

FP: A quick search on Amazon will show that books on social media usage for congregations are plentiful. How does this book differ from other works on social media and the church? 

CS: There are a lot of great books on the topic you mention, and I recommend them often, including Meredith Gould's The Social Media Gospel and Keith Anderson and Elizabeth Drescher's Click 2 Save and Craig Detweiler's iGods and Pete Ward's stuff on liquid church, to name just a few. I consider the authors of those books friends and partners in ministry. My book differs in that it isn't a "how-to" work per se, but instead looks phenomenologically at media effects. You could say it’s the philosophical cousin to more practical books on social media usage in the church. I analyze a lot of examples of ministry in mediated contexts (like MMORPGs, the catechumenate, Facebook, and more), but the focus is on trans-media effects. I am especially intrigued by how media form our brains neurologically, and how to think about the work of the Spirit in relationship new media. 

FP: Which portion of the book was most challenging to write and why? 

CS: I think the last chapter was the most challenging to write, because proposals on how to move forward are difficult when the media landscape is changing so quickly. There would be a risk of making recommendations, or describing realities, that would be passé even by the time of publication. It's also hard to predict the future when the future is coming so quickly towards us . . . and imagineering is always hard work, period. But I enjoyed lining out the three main proposals on beauty, sociality, and eschatology in that chapter, because I think they'll be fruitful for practitioners and theologians. 

FP: In discussing beauty as grace you say that media that are graceful and beautiful in their composition result in new forms and practices of social justice. How does this come about? 

CS: I'll give you an example I was just discussing with John Nunes today. John is the former President of Lutheran World Relief and now on faculty at Valparaiso University. The two of us had never met in person, but met in social media. In the social media context, our friendship has flourished and grown. I plan to be up at an event with him at Valparaiso the first part of February for a book signing. Both of us have many, many new friends now via social media, only some of whom we have ever met in person . . . but these friendships are deep and supportive. We find joy and camaraderie together. In some instances, we literally save each other's lives. Since I think friendship, real friendship, is a beautiful thing, the fact that some forms of new media open space for deep friendship, is simply outstanding. The fact that we can then in our friendship and networking bring about social justice and social change—that's even more incredible. Social media influence has leverage, and it makes a difference in the real world. How organizations like LWR raise money and awareness, or the new ways we all network, are examples of that. 

FP: Should readers expect to find practical tips about how to engage new media for the congregation in these pages? If so, can you give us an example? If not, what should they expect to find instead? 

CS: That's a great question. Yes, I think they can expect to find some practical tips, especially in story form. There's a whole chapter that describes the catechumenate, and how to implement it in congregational life. There are tips on how to do ministry in gaming environments, and the opening chapter on the effects of preaching on the brain of preachers will be especially interesting to the practically minded. On the other hand, this book is focused even more on helping us think clearly and well on our practices. So in that sense it is a meta-book on new media and congregational life. 

FP: How would you respond to those churches who not only aren’t curious about new media forms but are in fact actively concerned about their impact? 

CS: They're right to raise certain concerns. I identify and analyze many of those in the second chapter of the book on the neo-Luddites’ legitimate laments. However, I don't think fear or anxiety should ever drive our ministry, and I think many of the concerns people raise arise out of fear of the new, rather than faithful and joyous exploration of it. So I'd also say, "Hey, just play around some more. You might find some things in new media that are pretty amazing." 

FP: You talk about how trans-media and especially social media bring about the flattening of society. How does flattening encourage and reconstruct the concept of a Christian life together? 

CS: Because of social media, I have direct and immediate access to leaders in the church I didn't have access to ten years ago. I can have a Twitter conversation with bishops. I can immediately get to know and communicate with the author of a book I just read. I can message the CEO of Augsburg Fortress and hear back from her yet the same day. Similarly, parishioners in my congregation can post a note in our Facebook group and organize a book study of Nadia Bolz-Weber's Pastrix, and they don't have to go through me or any committee. They just post the invite, people respond, and away they go. This is flattening that widens access and creates many new kinds of community and life together. The flattening also encourages us to think that we really are all in this together. We're brothers and sisters together on a journey, and we have access to each other through these mediated contexts. 

FP: What is the one thing you hope readers walk away having grasped after reading? 

CS: That media layers rather than replaces, and that awareness of how this works can give us new insights into the leading of God's Spirit in a trans-media era. I'd also, if I am allowed to have one other thing, like readers to realize there is a big mission field immediately accessible to them, and it's on their computer, in their social network. You don't even have to leave home to be a missionary. Just create an avatar on Second Life. 

FP: You are a pastor as well as a well-known blogger and social media personality. How has your own experience with new media informed your ministry? How has it informed this book? 

CS: A lot of my connections for ministry in the local context take place via social media, for one. Almost everyone (though not absolutely everyone) who is active in our congregational life is also on Facebook or at least e-mail. We connect in those environments frequently. However, those digitally mediated connections enhance and strengthen our face-to-face congregational ministry. So I organize our catechumenate using Facebook groups and messaging, but all in the service of preparing for the next Sunday night meal and study. New media has also widened the scope of what I attend to. I know clergy and church leaders from all over because of new media that I wouldn't have known as well or at all in a previous era. This is neither better nor worse than previous eras, just different. I happen to enjoy it. 

FP: The world of social media, and our interactions with it, is changing fast. What are you most curious or confused about as you look at the landscape in 2014? 

CS: Can church take place completely on-line? Will transitions to new media mean that how we all connect, and how we all are connected, will change so dramatically in the next few years that we have to think completely differently about social interaction? I don't know for sure, but I think possibly yes. I'm most curious about fostering some forms of Christian faith formation that take place exclusively in digitally mediated environments. I also wonder, is anything ever going to be bigger than Facebook? Or will the shift we see among youth and young adults towards micro-communities shatter and transform Facebook as we know it? Facebook is very aware of this—just see what they did with Instagram and messaging this year . . . but it remains to be seen what that transition will look like.