Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Thank you Blogger

Recently I've been messing around with Wordpress because our church web site is designed using that interface. I had been contemplating how retro the Blogger interface was becoming, when voila, today Google launched a new interface. It's spectacular, crisp and clean and with lots of tools for monitoring page views, etc., that convince me that my long fidelity in the same direction with Blogger has been a solid choice. Here's to another decade or more blogging with Blogger!

Monday, August 29, 2011

I desire goodness and not sacrifice

The fundamental conviction of the prophets, which distinguished them from the ordinary religious life of their day, was the conviction that God demands righteousness and demands nothing but righteousness.

Insofar as people have attempted to use the Old Testament as a code of model laws and institutions and have applied these to modern conditions, regardless of the historical connections, these attempts have left a trail of blunder and disaster. Insofar as they have caught the spirit that burned in the hearts of the prophets and breathed in gentle humanity through the Mosaic Law, the influence of the Old Testament has been one of the great permanent forces making for democracy and social justice.

[a couple of choice quotes from an opening chapter of Walter Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church]

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Revenge is sweet

Wrestled with the topic of vengeance and revenge today in the sermon, which you can listen to as a podcast for August 28th here.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Razorbash and Ethnography

Or: what I learned hosting a table at an event that welcomes students to the University of Arkansas campus.

Ethnography is the "science of contextualization." It may now be my primary metaphor or approach to church and the mission of God. Hosting a table at Razorbash this past Thursday was a major ethnographic event for me.

It is somewhat hard to figure the way "in" to describing why this particular event was so apposite. After all, over 140 organizations were hosting tables, including most of the ubiquitous pizza companies, many campus ministries, fraternities, sororities, university organizations, etc. So it must be acknowledged that by hosting a table, we were not attempting something radical, or novel. This is not rocket science.

No, we were just in the mix. But in the context of festivity and welcome, being "in the mix" is everything. You stand at the crossroads of major flows of traffic. You rub shoulders with other ministries, offer a friendly face to new students, welcome older students back to campus, chat with faculty, and so on. And you slowly transform the imagination of yourself and your congregation about the feasibility and necessity of developing a university ministry.

Although meeting new students and inviting them to our church and university ministries was the "focus" of our being there, being there was about way more than just inviting new students. For example:

1) I learned that we have a highly energized group of lay leaders in our congregation passionate about university ministry and equipped to contribute significantly. One member designed a spectacular "Lutherans Rock" banner for us which we'll use at other events in the future. Another helped us print our stickers and large informational banner.Another member (bless her heart!) donated funds to purchase 200 Discraft Ultimate discs to give away with our church logo and web site printed on them. For those of you unfamiliar with ultimate and the frisbee industry, giving these away was analogous to a Halloween scenario, the one house that gives away whole candy bars instead of bagged chocolates. Pretty soon everyone know THAT is THE house to trick or treat. Students kept picking them up and saying, "Wow, this like the real thing." Another member organized our t-shirt order in time so we could be in uniform, others stopped by to offer faculty support. Others of our members are at this very moment calling the congregations of the Arkansas-Oklahoma synod to get the names and contact information of students currently attending the university from their congregations.

2) I learned that there is a large and tight Vietnamese student population on campus, and some of them are Lutherans. They kept stopping by throughout the day. Who knew!?

3) I met some key university staff, including the head of the graduate studies recruitment office. I met Daniel Pugh, Vice Provost for Student Affairs/Dean of Students & Associate Professor of Higher Education, who immediately (yet that evening) helped connect me with the Council of Religious Organizations, which meets monthly on Thursdays. Since we are particularly called as a denomination and church to catalyze ecumenical conversations, I am prioritizing this meeting on my calendar.

4) I learned that students at a university respond to a church table in diverse ways. Clearly some young people have been "burned" by the church and want nothing to do with us. [In retrospect, I wish I would have been wearing a "Safe Zone" button during Razorbash. But there is always next year.] Others are zealous Christians, but connected to some other tradition, so they stop by and then say, "I had a great bible study with Cru last night." Others are really just searching, and if you look friendly, they are curious. Other students come running to the table shouting "there are Lutherans in Fayetteville?!" This was a happy thing, that we could be there for them, but it also left me pondering, "Why are these young people not given more direct information and guidance from their home congregations before they are sent off to a new town? Why don't pastors, youth directors, or other lay leaders make at least some attempt to connect their graduating seniors with campus ministries in the places they are going?" When I walked around to visit other tables, I overheard one telling conversation. A student asked a campus ministry leader, "Is your group based out of a denomination?" The answer: "No, we're non-denominational." Student: "Oh, good, then I'll probably come check you out." [My internal reaction: they're both fooling themselves, every movement has a historical and cultural locus, non-denominational almost always means small "b" baptist. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but let's be honest.]

5) I learned that although there are many campus ministry organizations, very few of them are congregationally based. Most of our full communion partners have campus ministries, slightly teased out and separate from the congregations in Fayetteville they're affiliated with denominationally. So St. Joseph's Catholic Church as the St. Thomas Aquinas Student Center, United Presbyterians has the United Campus Ministry Center, St. Paul's Episcopal has St. Martin's, and so on. Two baptist congregations near the university had tables. 

6) I was reminded again of the power of festival and the need for more of it. There is an energy, a joy, a je ne sais quoi, about designating a common space where everyone can come together, give stuff away for free, and celebrate a new start, that has transformative power in communities. We simply need more public festivals.

7) I reflected, at least a couple of times during the day, on the ministry of small talk. When I met new students on campus, and asked the basic questions--"What's your name? Where are you from? Are you new to town? How are you doing?"--I would watch their faces visibly relax. It's all new. They're nervous. They are so happy to discover a friendly face and a voice that wonders how they are doing. That itself is ministry. Ministry shouldn't always be about outcomes. It should most of the time be about presence. That's why small talk is ministry.

8) We all learned together how hard it is to tighten up your message. If you have a booth like this, what do you want to say about yourself. In a few short words. Ecumenical? Affirming? Liturgy? Theology? Rocking? Focus on the church or the developing campus ministry? How do you title your worship services (see the sticker we created above)? Developing a brief and focused message is no mean feat. Similarly, displaying all of this in a graphically pleasing way also takes some doing.

9) Being present at the event deepened my already considerable respect for the university and its faculty and staff--we received a warm welcome from everyone, all the way from the staffers helping us carry our stuff to the tables, all the way up to the provost and faculty stopping by. The university welcomed us outside organizations warmly and curated a great space for healthy interaction and community building.

10) Everything is cooler (everyone is cooler) when techno music is blaring loudly from speakers on a veranda.

11) Not everyone likes frisbees--the wide receiver for the Razorbacks simply said, "No, I don't want a frisbee. I wouldn't use it." The additional glance we got indicated how much he would not use it. :)

12) I learned that, in all likelihood, if we are going to follow up with these students and communicate with them, the way to do so is by texting. They gave us their e-mail, they're on Facebook, but the one's I have already texted with clarifying questions, etc. responded immediately. 

I'm sure there is much more I learned that I'm not currently itemizing here, and some of you who were at this event (or have hosted tables at similar events) can weigh in with other insights, no doubt. We'll keep finding more ways to do this and connect, hopefully with an increasingly large cadre of students and university folk who are interested in joining us in the science of contextualization. And I am convinced that when we focus on this, we will bring the connecting, ecumenical, paradoxical, freeing and affirming message of God in Christ to the university community in a way Lutherans are uniquely equipped by God to accomplish. That is why we are there.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

30 Ways to Connect at Work

 Recently, Josh Reeves posted some very practical ideas for blessing others in the workplace:
1. Instead of eating lunch alone, intentionally eat with other co-workers and learn their story.
2. Get to work early so you can spend some time praying for your co-workers and the day ahead.
3. Make it a daily priority to speak or write encouragement when someone does good work.
4. Bring extra snacks when you make your lunch to give away to others.
5. Bring breakfast (donuts, burritos, cereal, etc.) once a month for everyone in your department.
6. Organize a running/walking group in the before or after work.
7. Have your missional community/small group bring lunch to your workplace once a month.
8. Create a regular time to invite coworkers over or out for drinks.
9. Make a list of your co-workers birthdays and find a way to bless everyone on their birthday.
10. Organize and throw office parties as appropriate to your job.
11. Make every effort to avoid gossip in the office. Be a voice of thanksgiving not complaining.
12. Find others that live near you and create a car pool.
13. Offer to throw a shower for a co-worker who is having a baby.
14. Offer to cover for a co-worker who needs off for something.
15. Start a regular lunch out with co-workers (don’t be selective on the invites).
16. Organize a weekly/monthly pot luck to make lunch a bit more exciting.
17. Ask someone who others typically ignore if you can grab them a soda/coffee while you’re out.
18. Be the first person to greet and welcome new people.
19. Make every effort to know the names of co-workers and clients along with their families.
20. Visit coworkers when they are in the hospital.
21. Bring sodas or work appropriate drinks to keep in your break room for coworkers to enjoy. Know what your co-workers like.
22. Go out of your way to talk to your janitors and cleaning people who most people overlook.
23. Find out your co-workers favorite music and make a playlist that includes as much as you can (if suitable for work).
24. Invite your co-workers in to the service projects you are already involved in.
25. Start/join a city league team with your co-workers.
26. Organize a weekly co-working group for local entrepreneurs at a local coffee shop.
27. Start a small business that will bless your community and create space for mission.
28. Work hard to reconcile co-workers who are fighting with one another.
29. Keep small candy, gum, or little snacks around to offer to others during a long day.
30. Lead the charge in organizing others to help co-workers in need.
Be sure and check out the full article here.
Do you have some other ideas or ways that you’ve been missional at work? Let us know below in the Comments section!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hope of Eternal Life

The 11th Round of U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue on the topic Hope of Eternal Life. Anyone else out there reading this and interested in discussion around it?

Another week in the life of a pastor

I'm perennially curious how people spend their week, and hope these brief summaries satisfy the curiosity of those interested in how pastors (or at least this pastor) spends their time.

Sunday--Three worship services, including a sermon on Rocks. Pre-baptism class with a family, then during the kids' nap time in the afternoon wrote a book review of Edith M. Humphrey's Grand Entrance: Worship on Earth as in Heaven.

Monday--Morning coffee with a member, including very cool conversation about Activision and Call of Duty and how this relates to youth culture and the church; back to the office for final Razorbash planning, then to the coffee shop to design the liturgy and select hymns for September-October; all travel by bicycle.

Tuesday--Quick meetings with various staff and one parishioner before driving up to Bella Vista for a conversation with Joe Liles (new mission developer) and other pastors and key leaders in Northwest Arkansas concerning mission development in the Northwest Arkansas corridor; evening practice with the praise band, SCOPE meeting for video recording equipment in the worship space, and development of a plan for the use of images in contemporary worship

Wednesday--Lunch at Butterfield Village with Harold Oleson, retired pastor in our congregation, wonderful man and great knowledge of Lutheranism in Iowa, Arkansas, and the Danish Lutheran community; afternoon prep for evening Communion Camp with 25 preschool and elementary age children from the congregation. Worked on video content for a video in development for the welcome spot on our church web site. Trip to Hobby Lobby for last minute supplies for Razorbash.

Thursday--Razorbash, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. including set up and presence. Going to wear the Old Lutheran pastor t-shirt, give away water bottles, Discraft Ultimate frisbees, etc. Simply excited to be present, talk with and meet people, and be on campus for the day. Afternoon sermon research and finalization of bulletins, late afternoon run with a neighbor.


Saturday--As much reading and conceptual work as possible developing the sermon. Because of the approach I take to preaching, this is more ad hoc and organic to the day rather than a block of time carved out specifically for the purpose.

[I should mention, if readers ever wonder why there's very little mention of family activities or recreation, that I intentionally don't post these to the blog. They're in the week, but I don't think they pertain to the topic of the blog.]

Monday, August 22, 2011

Reading the Poets Laureate Backwards

For the past few months I've been slowly digesting The Poets Laureate Anthology. I picked it up at Nightbird Books about three months ago, the first anthology of poetry that has caught my eye in some time. It's organized backwards, with the most recent U.S. poet laureate up front (W.S. Merwin) and the first last (Joseph Auslander).

Each chapter includes a selection of poems from the poet, a short biography, and, one of my favorite parts of the book, a one paragraph comment from that poet on the "state" of poetry or its function.

Mark Strand writes the following, which I believe could easily apply to preachers, replacing "poet" with "preacher." Unfortunately, we more often try to be politicians.

"Politicians are always looking for people to agree with them, but they tend to do the most disagreeable things... Poets, on the other hand, tend to be cheerleaders for the universe. That's why it's dangerous for them to align themselves with political causes. People will say they've (the poets) been taken in. They should stick to the broad issues, and the broadest issue of our experience are life and death. That's the stuff of all great poems."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

"Though the church serves the mission for which it has been sent to every corner of the world, mission does not constitute the basis of the identity of the church. The church is primarily a foretaste of the eschatological assembly of the Lord, made present to the world."

"The Church is transcendent of secular institutions, so it does not compete with them. As a sign of the limits and transience of all institutions, the Church prevents every worldly claim from becoming totalitarian."

"The more of your eschatological identity you carry with you, the more you will love and come to the aid of whoever needs your help, whatever it costs you."

"Today organized social work is the responsibility of the State and is usually performed better by it. If its charity becomes managed and administered, the Church will be drive by secular imperatives and cease to love, for love must always be free."

Friday, August 19, 2011

Praying in Prison

Some of the best church happens behind bars. This past Sunday, lay Eucharistic ministers from St. Paul's Episcopal here in Fayetteville invited us (myself and three lay people from Good Shepherd) as visitors to learn about and participate in the leadership of Eucharistic ministry at the women's prison in Fayetteville. 

We met in the St. Paul's sacristy. Of course, the Episcopalians wore cassocks with surplices. Of course. Which I very much like, but here I was  clergy person in jeans and a Lewis & Clark button down. In actuality I only wear cassocks on Ash Wednesday, and when I'm inhabiting an avatar on Second Life. *grin* We gathered up the supplies (wine, bread, flowers, bulletins) and took the short two block trip over to the prison.

Tom the chaplain greeted us. We did the typical security detail (metal detector, name tags, sign in sign out), then walked through those heavy bolted doors and down to the gathering room. Set up worship in the round, using the identical order of service the congregation had used at St. Paul's that morning. Then we waited. All the women came in (wearing yellow), and here's where all my emotional sensors started tripping. The prison has a "no touch" rule. The women can't hug, walk arm in arm, etc. during the course of the week. But during worship they can. So as soon as they entered the worship space, they were hugging each other, walking hand in hand, etc. I can think of no more powerful habit that speaks, "This space we are entering is holy."

We sat around the circle in our folding chairs, and began worship. A capella singing (robust if creaky), the priest invited various readers for the lessons and psalms, offered a brief sermon on the text (from the heart, unscripted), then went to the communion liturgy. I was honored to be invited to serve the bread wit him.

I somehow doubt that all these women had been raised Episcopalian (approx. 30 of the 100 residents attended), but you wouldn't know it by their collective action. They had truly made the liturgy the work of the people. They knew the actions, and the songs. They sang a TaizĂ© chant during communion distribution, "Jesus Remember Me When You Come Into Your Kingdom," non-stop during the entire distribution. They did that wonderful sharing of the peace really close congregations do. 

After worship, a brief chat and then back to their cells, and us back to the freedom of life outside the prison walls. One young woman had just arrived that day. She was nervous, scared. A few women gathered around her and said, "We'll do this, we'll get through this." During worship, we also blessed two women who were leaving incarceration that very week. And we remembered and recognized two women who had been baptized in worship the Sunday prior.

And all of this, though straightforward, very traditional and liturgical, all very normal, had a hallowed glow to it that I simply cannot describe in this blog. It was luminous. And then it ended. And they are still in prison. And I sit here free to write this. And Christ is in the midst of all of us. And yes, those are tears.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Admit it, you've always wanted to volunteer in North Dakota!

In late June, record flooding devastated the city of Minot, North Dakota, forcing nearly a third of the residents to evacuate and leaving more than 4,000 homes and businesses heavily damaged.

Local residents have been hard at work, but the task is too much for local volunteers alone.  As Lutherans, we're experts at rolling up our sleeves when there is a need, and our sisters and brothers in Minot need our help now.  The goal is to have as many flood-damaged homes gutted as possible before the first major snowfall, which could be less than three months away.

This is an all-call for volunteers from around the country.  Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota has set-up a volunteer hotline, and anyone interested in helping should call 218-443-4970 to register.  You can also visit to find volunteer registration forms and other important information about volunteering.

Volunteers should be 18 and older (16 and 17 year olds accepted with signed parental consent).  All volunteers will need to have an updated tetanus shot and will need to wear long pants and thick-soled boots or shoes.  Local congregations will be providing basic housing, if needed, but volunteers will likely need to provide their own food.  Training will be done on site, and it is helpful (but not necessary) if volunteers can bring some of the following items:  work gloves, goggles, N-95 grade air filter masks, hammers, brooms, buckets, pliers, and crowbars.

Anyone with questions or concerns can also call the Lutheran Disaster Response national office at 773-380-2863, or e-mail Associate Director Mike Nevergall  And thanks in advance for your willingness to serve!

Lutheran Disaster Response
Bringing Help and Hope...
Phone:  773-380-2748
Fax:      773-380-2493
Visit us online at

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Friday, August 12, 2011

Donate now, not later

Dear leader,
Last week I wrote inviting you to pray for the ELCA Churchwide Assembly that begins Monday. Today I have been thinking about those who pray with eager longing, "Give us today our daily bread."
In the Horn of Africa, the lives and livelihoods of millions of people have been devastated by the worst drought in 60 years. Crops have failed and water is scarce. Desperate families are abandoning their homes seeking aid. Hundreds of thousands of people have already made their way to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. More than twelve million people are in need of help now.
For those who have made their way to the Dadaab camp in Kenya and the Doolo Ado camp in Ethiopia, the ELCA is helping provide safe water and nutritious food. Both camps were established with the support of the ELCA through ELCA World Hunger; the camps are managed by Lutherans through our global church partner The Lutheran World Federation.
This church has been at work for years reducing the effects of drought in communities throughout this arid part of Africa. Thanks to the many water projects and other sustainable agriculture projects funded by ELCA World Hunger, communities are making it through these hard times without the suffering we have seen elsewhere. This long-standing work will continue even as we address this year's crisis.
Thanks to the generosity of ELCA members like you, we have committed $1.25 million for drought relief work in the Horn of Africa through ELCA Disaster Response. In addition, your gifts to ELCA World Hunger provide more than $1 million each year for drought prevention work in Central and East Africa -- and that commitment will continue.
I am asking that you take time in worship and throughout your week to hold our sisters and brothers in prayer. As you are able, please make a renewed commitment to ELCA World Hunger and ELCA Disaster Response. You can find additional information and resources for your congregation's announcements, including an updated bulletin insert, at
Thank you for your prayers and faithful witness to the gospel.
In God's grace,
The Rev. Mark S. Hanson
Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


If you're anything like me, you learned these things last week. 1) Since the 1940s, U.S. debt has been rated AAA. 2) AAA = risk free and stable. 3) Last Friday, Standard & Poors (but not other rating agencies like Moody's) downgraded U.S. debt to AA+. 4) AA+ is the rating right below AAA, and we share it with nations like Belgium and New Zealand. 5) This downgrade may have a modest impact on U.S. and international markets. 6) The S & P made their decision not because of the debt per se, but because of "the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking."

The news of these past weeks has been dispiriting. It is not pleasant to watch our elected leaders bicker and argue and grandstand. It is not happy to watch needed social programs get cut, or to contemplate the ramifications of such large national debt. 

Ideally, we would have no debt, a robust economy where taxation sufficiently funds government services, and enough jobs for all. Ideally, we would be a nation that cares for the poor, as well as a nation alive with an entrepreneurial spirit creating new jobs and a hopeful future. The fact that we are struggling in all of these areas, and that our politicians seem to have trouble even talking like adults with each other to problem-solve, causes anxiety. 

Some readers of this paper have lost jobs. Others are financially insecure. Other readers have benefited immensely from the current economic landscape and historically low rates of taxation for those at higher levels of income. We're all in the same boat, but it's a big boat, with widely varying accommodations. It is no small feat for us to avoid being smug in our success or deflated in our failures. Yet we must.


This past Sunday, our congregation sang "O God Our Help In Ages Past" as our sending hymn. The full text of the first verse of the hymn reads:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home. 

I quipped during the announcements, "Translation: God still has a AAA rating." Not a bad way to translate this classic hymn into a contemporary idiom. We confess in worship that our help, our hope, and our home, is not the economy, but God. I venture to guess that the faithful from widely differing religious traditions would say something similar. When we look to something like the national economy for everything good, we will, inevitably, be disappointed. 

In my tradition, putting our final hope in a nation or economy is idolatry. Martin Luther wrote, for example, "A god is that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart." Ratings agencies might give out AAA ratings for risk free debt, but we all know there is no such thing as risk free debt. Such a designation verges on idolatry.

The wise course here (and in situations like this it is not easy to exercise wisdom) is the middling way. Expect the economy to prosper. Demand that government take responsibility for decisive and healthy action. But do not place all your trust in such institutions. Similarly, place full confidence in the providence of God, but do not let that confidence blind you to the very real needs of the neighbor in need. God may be our shelter from the stormy blast, but when your neighbor has just lost their job, they may need you and your comforting presence first, and a word about God as shelter much later in the day. In these times, we ourselves are called to be AAA--Authentic, Affirming, and Available. Those are ways of being we can exercise in any economy.

[this column will appear in the Saturday edition of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette]

Thursday, August 11, 2011

East African Drought and Famine

Subject: Crisis in the Horn of Africa

Dear Friends,

You may have seen the pictures of starving people in the Horn of Africa on your TV screens. We are all asking: how can this be happening again? Parts of Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia are facing one of the worst droughts in 60 years, and more than 12 million people are desperately in need of food, clean water and basic sanitation.

Join me in calling on world leaders to save millions of lives - today and tomorrow: 

Despite the urgency of the situation, most world leaders are responding too slowly. Immediate aid is essential. Yet at the same time we must not let them drop the ball on long term solutions as has too often happened in the past.

Take action right now at:

Thank you, Clint

Another week in the life of a pastor

Sunday--three worship services, problem-solving podcasting of sermons on-line (now live at Pre-baptism class with a family.

Monday--Stephen Ministry leader planning meeting, coordination matching ministers with care-receivers, check-in with staff, coffee meeting with young adult, ecumenical meeting of campus ministry personnel at University of Arkansas, writing newspaper column (goes live Saturday), afternoon writing Sundays and Seasons seasonal essays, late afternoon run with parishioner

Tuesday--Planning meeting for fall events, staff meeting, visit Bears group, finalize worship bulletin, more writing for Sundays & Seasons, contemporary worship practice

Wednesday--Visit Tyson Foods, Fayetteville campus; sermon composition, continued work on Sundays & Seasons (9 seasonal essays are due August 26th); evening Joy of Giving Thrivent event at the Poole Mansion in Bentonville

Thursday--Morning coaching conversation, prayer phone calls and contacts, full day of writing, evening stewardship appeal meeting


Sunday--Worship including blessing of backpacks and a renewal of wedding vows, afternoon Womenseucharist at women's prison

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Worship planning for fall

Labor Rally
September is a conflicted month in the life of many churches. On the one hand, it is simply the continuation of the lengthy “Time After Pentecost,” now plainly retitled “Lectionary.” On the other hand, it is the season for Rally Day, Labor Day, Comeback Sunday, School Year Blessings, harvest festivals, stewardship drives, etc. How to balance these competing forces? It is likely that many congregations simply repurpose the lectionary texts so that they preach the pre-selected message. As in, “Well, this gospel is really about the extravagance of forgiveness, but this is Rally Sunday, so let’s find a way to have it address the beginning of another Sunday school year.” This is not always a bad approach. Certainly, preachers and worship leaders always need to find creative ways to connect the lectionary (designed at a distance, by a heady group of people, a long time ago) to the local context. Life happens, and it is part of the creativity of reading Scripture to connect what happens daily to what we read in Scripture daily.
In fact, consider encouraging making connections between Scripture and life in your congregation this fall. Faith Inkubators has developed a model for five minute at home devotions that they call the Faith Five ( These are:

1. SHARE highs & lows of the day

2. READ and highlight a verse of Scripture in your Bible

3. TALK about how the verse relates to your highs & lows

4. PRAY for your highs & lows, for your family, and for the world

5. BLESS one another 
If we ask our parishioners to do this daily, it only makes sense that even the Sunday lectionary is read via this hermeneutical strategy. What are we up to this week? What are our highs and lows? Let’s talk about how the gospel relates to our highs and lows.
However, a danger in this approach is eisegesis. Eisegesis “is the process of misinterpreting a text in such a way that it introduces one's own ideas, reading into the text” ( One reason congregations use the lectionary is in order to avoid eisegesis. By adopting a three year schedule for reading, ostensibly the goal is to be read by the Scriptures, allowing them to imbue and shape our ideas, and inspire in us greater faithfulness and Christlikeness. 
This might be accomplished by giving Rally Day completely over to proclamation on the actual central theme of the gospel lessons for the first few Sundays of Autumn--forgiveness and reconciliation. What if the rally cry of the church is not, “Let’s get enthusiastic! Let’s kick off another amazing, successful year” but rather “Lord have mercy! Let us learn to forgive one another from the heart!” If the congregation is engaged in a stewardship appeal, imagine stewarding not only material gifts and spiritual gifts, but the gift the reformers called the Office of the Keys, based on Matthew 18:18, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” What if the congregation devoted itself to reviewing and reciting the section of the Small Catechism devoted to the Office of the Keys? What kind of rally might this be?

Christians learn to be Christian in Sunday school and confirmation, right? A pervasive myth in our churches is that Christian education is where faith is formed. This is why so many parents still drop their children off for Sunday school but do not attend worship with them. However, most experts in pedagogy will tell you that children learn by what they do, and what they see done, more than what they are told to do but seldom see. This pertains to worship in a profound way.
One of the most prevalent misconceptions in the church around worship practices, for example, is that in order to receive the Lord’s Supper rightly, one must understand it cognitively. So churches require children at some grade level or another to attend first communion classes before they receive their first communion. In the meantime, Sunday after Sunday, if the children are in worship with their parents, they see the host elevated, the words of promise spoken in relation to the meal, and an invitation extended to receive it, but then they themselves are excluded. They are crossed over and crossed out from receiving the meal, sometimes very literally when they have the sign of the cross marked on their foreheads. 
These congregations have not listened to Paul’s instructions, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:28), but have misunderstood its implications. They have misunderstood first how individuals come to discern the body rightly. Discernment is not ensured by attending a class and completing a workbook--discernment is learned through the order of worship itself, where the pastor declares what the meal is, and how to be prepared to receive it. Training in discernment is liturgical. Second, discernment of the body refers not necessarily (or only) to the body that is present in, with, and under the bread (real presence), but the body as the gathered community (ecclesiology, body of Christ). In this sense, it means discerning that all those who are in worship together, together with all those in every time and place who gather around this meal, are themselves the body of Christ, gathered in worship and praise of God the Father.
What if we re-thought this practice from a re-formation perspective, and realized that children are formed by worship practices themselves, and this applies at every level. If they receive the meal weekly, and hear the words, “This is for you for the forgiveness of sins,” they will learn through the actual worship practice what the meal is (the body and blood of Jesus in with and under the bread and the wine), why they are receiving it (for the forgiveness of sins), and what the outcome of receiving it is (incorporation into the body of Christ, strengthening and keeping us in God’s grace). Participation in worship and the sacraments is itself, then, in this sense, re-formation.
This applies not only to what is admittedly a matter of some dispute in our churches, but to our worship practices more widely taken. Children learn to worship God by worshipping God, not by being told about the importance of worshipping God. Children learn to pray by praying, not by being taught models and methods of prayer. Actually, we all learn this way, not just children, but it is in this autumn season that many congregations especially focus on children’s ministries like Sunday school and confirmation. So it is a good time to remind ourselves that worship is itself training in Christian discipleship, and formation in faith.
So, seek out and employ as many methods as you know how to encourage families to worship together, and to train (re-form) their children in faith through right worship. Offer ideas weekly on how children can be full participants in the liturgy of the church. Use hands, face, and body posture in ways that help the whole body pray. Practice singing and teach singing. Teach parents to point their way along in the hymnal with their children. If churches use projected words for the songs, give instructions to parents on how to direct their children’s attention to the proper resources in the sanctuary. Teach children to splash themselves with water from the font and make the sign of the cross, in remembrance of their baptism. Regularly offer ideas on how families can take these practices into their own homes. And extend the invitation to communion to all the baptized.

The Autumn Leaves
The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold....
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sunburned hands, I used to hold
Since you went away, the days grow long
And soon I'll hear ol' winter's song.
But I miss you most of all my darling,
When autumn leaves start to fall.
Since you went away, the days grow long
And soon I'll hear ol' winter's song.
But I miss you most of all my darling,
When autumn leaves start to fall.

This jazz standard, originally a French song, Les feuilles mortes (the dead leaves), is a touching evocation of the spiritual and relational longing of this season. Some congregations encourage the offering of special gifts during the offering. Consider finding a singer or ensemble in the congregation that might perform it around the time the leaves begin to turn. It might be an especially fitting song to sing on one of the Sundays leading up to All Saints Sunday (November 6).
There are many beautiful ways to weave the autumn leaves into worship art and space. Gardens and yards have come to the end of their cornucopia-like productivity, and many gardeners may be looking for ways to make use of this abundance. Consider constructing a large harvest display of produce, flowers, and plants that can then be donated to a local soup kitchen or pantry. Set up a bulb exchange in the narthex or church parking lot. There are many resources available for designing plant displays, wreaths, etc., with which to grace walls, doors, and windows.  And although green is still the liturgical color for the season, many stoles, altar frontals, and banner patterns appropriately mix the darker hues of fall into patterns and weaves with green to match the deepening (and also fading) colors of the season.
Avoid treating autumn like a second spring, as if all these colors, or even all of this abundance, is full of new life comparable to the spring of the year. The abundance of fall is the richness of the end of life. Many people find their latter years abundant indeed, rich in convergences, sometimes in wealth, relationships, and time. But this wealth comes at the end, and in complete knowledge that the end is near. The end of the liturgical year is approaching. Most plants harvested in the fall give up their life in the process of bringing the fruits to fulness. 
So sing songs in this autumn season that accentuate the loamy wealth of death, such as “As Saints of Old” (ELW #695), “For the Fruit of All Creation” (ELW #679), “We Give Thee But Thine Own” (ELW #685), or “Sing to the Lord of Harvest” (ELW #694). In fact, many of the hymns located in the “Stewardship” section of ELW are appropriate and worthy of consideration during this season, as are hymns recommended under “Growth” in the Topical Index of Hymns, such as “God, Whose Farm Is All Creation” (ELW #734).
The Churchbook
Frederick Dale Bruner divides his commentary on Matthew into two volumes, the first volume, on chapters 1-12 has the subtitle “the Christbook,” and volume two on chapters 13-28 has the subtitle “the Churchbook.” During the summer months, the gospel lessons for each Sunday had already introduced worshipers to the “Churchbook,” but now in these autumn months, the theme of “church” truly comes to the fore. In September and October, the gospel lessons for each Sunday continue to be from Matthew, chapters 18-23. Since this is such a coherent series, congregations may wish to keep the series and use the lessons for Lectionary 31 (October 30th) rather than the lessons for Reformation Sunday. 
Here’s the internal coherence. Chapters 18-20 of Matthew can be considered sermons on community, what Bruner terms “the little sermon on the mount” (ix). Chapter 18, read the first two Sundays of September, focuses on the doctrine of Christian community, especially issues of confrontation and forgiveness. Chapter 20, read the third Sunday, is clear proclamation on vocation. All three function as a unit, proclaiming how to reprove sin, how to forgive, and how to work and earn without envying others. Underlying it all are expressions of God’s grace.
The lessons from Chapter 21 and 22, read the fourth through sixth Sundays of this season, offer parables on true faith. The emphasis here, a topic often neglected in church proclamation, is that what has been given can also be taken away and given to others. And in point of fact, many of those who are already convinced that they have the gift and are secure in it, but then neglect it, can actually lose it. Here are the significant “red letter” quotes from each lesson: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (21:31); “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43); “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’” (22:8-9). 
Finally, the final two lessons (Matthew 22:15-46 split into two sections) emerge out of a conversation on how to be thoughtful and faithful people. First, the political question--what should we do about taxes? Second, a hermeneutical question--what is the greatest commandment? Third, an eschatological question--how can we identify the Lordship of the Christ? 
Furthermore, if worship leaders and preachers choose to read the lectionary text for October 30th rather than the Reformation Sunday text, they will still have a gospel lesson well-suited to the theme of reformation, precisely because in this section of Matthew, Jesus teaches about false and true religious leadership, certainly a Reformation theme if ever there was one.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A lifeline for refugees

As part of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service's Stand for Welcome campaign, I took action to support a critical financial lifeline for refugees and other migrants who are elderly or have disabilities. Please take a few minutes to do the same! Our voices to our elected officials are integral for urging them to support fair and humane policies for newcomers.

You may also be interested in signing up for Stand for Welcome, the LIRS campaign for immigration reform. Thanks in advance for joining your voice on these important issues!

Friday, August 05, 2011

A provocative narrative thesis on how Lutherans think about evangelical campus ministry

My first day of college, I was reading a fantasy novel in the Dragonlance series quietly in my room. My RA, a Campus Crusader, stopped in, and dropped this line, "Well you know, garbage in garbage out." I've always remembered it, and developed a fairly substantial theological architecture for refuting it. 

I think the hermeneutical divide is wide and deep between us, almost to the point of something like Lessing's ugly broad ditch. Nevertheless and in spite of this failure at Horizontverschmelzung, I think the only way forward is engagement, in the form of a paradoxical combination of humility and Lutheran swagger.

Which is, actually, one of the main reasons I'm now a Lutheran pastor in Fayetteville, Arkansas. 

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Reality is Broken: And Video Games are Salvific

I was a gaming addict before games were social. Through most of my middle and high school years (and my first year of college, after which I gave up gaming), I played way more video games than I'd like to admit. These were the old flat screen Macintosh and Apple games--Loderunner, Conan, Bard's Tale, Might & Magic. Some were video games, some puzzle games, some role playing. I also spent time playing garden variety games like Tetris, and in my first year of college, I discovered truly social text-based games called MUDs--multi-user dimensions. One such MUD I played non-stop during J-term is actually where one of my best friends of that time met his wife. I was best man in his wedding. She was in Texas. He was in Iowa. They met on-line, then on the phone, then in person. And that game in which they met was the old school form of gaming, completely text-based. Man, I'm old.

Jane McGonigal has written the perfect book for someone like myself who is still interested in gaming but leery of getting back into it. In consecutive chapters she describes the most popular games of today and shows why they matter, games like World of Warcraft, Farmville, Halo 3, Lexulous, and so on. But the book is much more than a catalog of games and how to play them. It's more of a philosophical treatise on the nature of gaming with a significant pop psychology and social commentary component. She's interested in things like happiness, sociality, satisfaction, and creativity.

In fact, the greatest contribution of the book is to reverse the terms. Typically games are seen as an escape from reality. But McGonigal sees them as potentially a shaping influence ON reality. She wants to see us play games that make the real world a better place.

That's an intriguing enough of a thesis to hook me into reading the whole book. It may be a bit over-the-top in the "games can save the world" cheering, but she has a worthwhile point that is seldom articulated. And given that so many of us are gaming, exploring how gaming will shape our world is necessary. This is definitely the book to read first on that journey.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Why Brief (Pastoral) Counseling Is Better

An article in the New York Times yesterday reminded me of a theory I've been developing for quite some time. My own theory lacks any kind of scientific rigor. I haven't done any quantitative research. But isn't that what blogs are for, to spout as yet unverified theories?

So my theory is that a lot of counseling, and a lot of pastoral counseling, creates barriers or problems because the assumption is that counseling needs to be long, in depth, and multi-session. The Freudian psychoanalytic method is so ingrained in the popular psyche that when people hear the word "counseling" they often immediately think of that old saw, "So, tell me about your father..." No wonder a lot of people avoid it altogether.

Personally, I'll be the first to admit that I have benefited from in-depth counseling, especially the counseling all pastors go through when they participate in CPE, but also counseling I've engaged in while serving as a pastor. I figure, if I'm going to be providing counsel, I ought to be receiving it. Over the years, I've seen a clinical therapist, a spiritual director, and more recently, a coach. I value these sessions, the people I've worked with, and the discoveries I've made. It has been worth the time, and I do not mean at all to denigrate this work in what I write here.

However, not everyone is as prone to self-reflection. There's something about pastors, we seem to be constantly asking ourselves about purpose, meaning, call, and so we have to discover grand narratives and descriptions, etc. But not everyone is like that. So it was a relief a few years ago to read Howard Stone's short little book Strategies for Brief Pastoral Counseling (Creative Pastoral Care and Counseling). It offered some scientific rigor to what I had been noticing--that lots of folks want outcome based conversations, and they want them to be short. Here's what I wrote in 2007 about the book in a mini-review on Amazon:

Many pastors do indeed provide brief pastoral counseling. I know I do. Often you don't even know you're providing counseling until your in the middle of it. Stone's book helps prepare pastors for this reality, even to embrace it. This is a great book to read if your idea of counseling has been primarily shaped by longer term forms of therapy and/or psychotherapy.
I was reminded of this book, and the concept of brief pastoral counseling, the other day when reading the New York Times article mentioned above.  September 11th revealed psychology's limits. Two take aways from the article: first, providing counseling in New York after the attacks was more meaningful to the counselors who provided counseling than those on the receiving end. And second, going too in-depth into rehashing what had happened was often harmful and traumatic to the counselees.

Third and fascinating insight (one that really should be obvious if you just think about the majority of the people that you know)--Most people are more resilient than the psychological community thinks they are.

All of which is to say, as much as I value counseling (and I do value it, and engage in a lot of it every week), I tend to think care needs to be taken not to make it bigger or more in-depth than it needs to be, it needs to truly meet the needs of counselees or parishioners, not the needs of the counselor or pastor; and it's good to be alert that it might be short, organic, in-the-moment, and solution oriented.

A final point. Pastors actually aren't so much counselors as they are hearers of confession. Or at least, that's the historic model. So when people come to us for counsel, they aren't actually seeking psychotherapy (or they may be, but that's not what we're called to provide). What we're supposed to do is help both of us, pastor and parishioner, meet Christ. So pastors should open Scripture. We should pray. We should speak a word from the Lord. We should do all the traditional things you think a pastor would do. Brief and to the point. Often, that is more than enough.