Monday, April 29, 2013

Confessions of a church insider to those not affiliated with a church

Can I seek your forgiveness in advance? What I write here may be wrong in all sorts of ways. But I'm listening, I really am. I'm trying to understand.

Here's what I know. We in North America live in a culture that has thoroughly imbibed Christian faith. It's in the air, the water. It's so much a part of our history, in some ways we can't even know how much our perception of family, volunteering, work, and leisure, are "Christian."

On the other hand, I live in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It's a very religious town. It's a very religious state. Yet even here, in what some call the Bible Belt, I encounter more people who do not affiliate with a congregation than those who do.

So many of my neighbors who are culturally Christian don't formally affiliate with a church.

And on many levels a lot of adults I know who are not affiliated with a church live more Christian lives, and are more deeply faithful, than some people who go to church.

This leaves me in sort of a pickle. I am proud of the way many of my non-churchgoing neighbors comport themselves in the community and world. With no religious ostentation, no secondary layer of do-goodism, they just go about their business. They make quality things. They work and play well with others. They serve in the community. They provide food for their children. 

They're not perfect. Like those inside the church, they could use a good challenge sometimes, even a swift kick in the pants. They make bad choices. They shout at people on the phone. They hoard their wealth.

You know what I mean. In other words, the outward marks of the lives of non-churchgoers are, on almost every level, identical to the outward marks of the life of those who wake up and go to church Sunday morning.

In addition, generally speaking, they believe. They have faith. It is articulate or inarticulate to greater or lesser degrees. But they have faith. And specifically they have faith in Christ. They believe Christ makes a difference in their life, in the world. Those who do not go to church often have more than a general religious sensibility. They identify with the life and proclamation of Jesus.

In this way also they are just like churchgoers. I know more than one lifelong churchgoer who cannot articulate the Christian faith better than those who have rarely darkened the doors of a church building.

But then on Sunday mornings, while us churchgoers head off for worship, they head off for, well, whatever it is they do on Sunday mornings. Frankly, stuff I'd also like to do some Sunday mornings--read the paper, go for a run, drink coffee, mow the lawn, sleep in.


So here comes the conundrum. There are many days, most days, when I want to invite them in to our congregational life. And I do. I'm proud of what we do, and who we are. I'm constantly inviting others.

Then there are days when I have my doubts. Why should I interrupt their lives? Why should I convince them to add an additional layer of outward religiosity to lives that are already in many aspects faithful, spirit-filled, and good? Is it even possible that by getting them to affiliate with us, I will distract them or draw them away from excellent ministry in which they would otherwise be engaged, although not overtly on behalf of the church?

In other words, is it possible that by asking them to join us as church, they will in fact become less of what we want them to be as church than prior to their affiliation? 

Is there a way to do more church by being less church?

Is this what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had in mind when he outlined some notes on "religionless Christianity"?

For example, he writes to Eberhard Bethage on July 18, 1944:

[Religious humanity] must therefore live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. We must live a "secular" life, and thereby share in God's sufferings. We may live a "secular" life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a human--not a type of human, but the human that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.

Or again to Eberhard Bethage on July 21, 1944:

During the last year or so I've come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a human, as Jesus was a human...


So if I ask inquirers returning to the church why they are returning, what do they say? Well, for the many who after long absence come back, I often hear, "I missed it." Missed what? Well, "it." Pretty much what I miss if I miss a Sunday worship. Things like liturgy, sermons, the people, Eucharist, hymns. The whole "going to church" gig. There is a kind of meaning-making in the church that can't be had by other means.

"There was just something missing in my life." Worship seems to re-frame things for us in ways we can't always comprehend. There are fathom-less depths to gathering for Christian worship in community that are often numinous even if difficult to articulate.

So, this leaves me with a couple of confessions. First, I confess that part of me wants to figure out how to turn church completely inside out. What if there were a way to bring everything people seek from "going to church" out into the daily lives of people, so that the thing they miss could come to them in the already present vocations they engage in from day to day. This is the this-wordliness of Christinaity.

Although I have trouble imagining what this might look like, it takes my breath away considering possibilities.

A second confession is more dangerous to say aloud. Essentially, the question becomes: By inviting people to church, are there any ways in which I make them less Christian? Let me give some examples. If they give 10% of their income to a local shelter, but when they join the church they hear our stewardship appeal and divert some of their giving to us, is this a good thing? 

If, prior to coming to worship on Sunday mornings, they used to use that time to care for an ailing neighbor, catch up on essential conversation with their spouse, and simply rest, is that a worthy swap of time?

Or, if by becoming more overtly Christian or religious, those we have invited into our community now think there are especially "Christian" ways to do ordinary things, is there danger here? I think there is.

Gregory Walter writes, in his recent blog post, "I would much prefer, if there is a Christian difference in giving, to see how the economy of God's promise alters or frees up ordinary giving so that we can engage in ordinary giving in all its conflict and impurity [as opposed to giving that supposedly has some missional or ecclesial or evangelical 'end']."

And what kinds of habits are new members of our community learning when they become part of our community of faith? Are we really being as faithfully Christian in this community as we should? If those outside the church are being more faithful than those inside the church (and some are) perhaps the more evangelical posture is to tell people not to go to church, not to join my church.

These are simply thought experiments. Remember, I said at the beginning this post could go all kinds of ways wrong. Perhaps I'm completely off-track.

But here's what is on my heart. I really want to invite my friends and neighbors who are not currently attending a church to come join us at mine. I can imagine the many, many ways in which our church would be stronger, and do better ministry if they were a part of our community of faith. I desperately want to invite them in ways that strengthen us, and offer them a context where they can grow spiritually, and be strengthened in faith and life.

But I'm somewhat suspicious of my motives. So I don't want to invite for the wrong reasons. And I'm especially concerned that by inviting them, they'll hear implicit in the invitation a judgment on them that I actually don't have. 

I want to offer space for those currently not affiliated to rediscover what they miss, while honoring what is already Spirit-filled in their daily vocations and work and life. It's going to be different for each family, really each individual. 

And before I try to change their habits and invite them to become a part of what I do weekly, I want to make sure I have examined myself and motivations so what I invite them into serves not me but the free course of the gospel in the world.

Or something like that.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Vine and the Bible: A Meditation on Video Loops and my new iPhone

Neo-Luddite Confession

 I honestly thought, recently, that by navigating to Instagram and getting my first iPhone this past week, I was catching up with developments in social media. I'm a textual kind of guy, after all. I blog, preach sermons, write books. My favorite method of communication in the social media era is the status update.

So setting myself the challenge of communicating via images is kind of like asking a poet to paint their poem.

Not surprisingly, most of the first Instagram images I posted were of books (admittedly highly stylized with the Instagram patinas). This is a snapshot of my current profile on Instagram, for example.

But this week I started capturing short video interviews of youth in our congregation, hopefully for use at our strategic planning event tomorrow and perhaps for confirmation and worship in upcoming weeks. Today, while shooting some of these videos at our confirmation retreat, the kids asked (almost in unison), Are you making a Vine?

If you haven't yet heard of Vine, you're not alone, even if you soon will be. I hadn't heard of it. Well, I think I had scrolled past it recently while looking at possible apps to download for my iPhone. When I saw the description, "Vine is the best way to see and share life in motion. Create short, beautiful, looping videos in a simple and fun way for your friends and family to see," I immediately thought, Hmmmm.... looping videos, video creation. No, not so much.
But all of the twelve year olds had heard of Vine, and when they saw me making videos for worship, it's what immediately came into their minds.

This was when I realized that by migrating to Instagram, I had only caught up in the sense that being four steps behind counts as "catching up."

High schoolers, perhaps Millenials, are all migrating to Instagram and away from Facebook, and for various reason. For a great interview on some of these reasons, see Mark Zuckerberg's recent conversation with Wired magazine. In fact, for many many many reasons, read this interview. His insights into the shift to smaller groups on-line, and much more, is essential insight into how the web is changing (and responding to) community in the 21st century.

So, that generational cohort is "visual," but normal visual. Apparently the next cohort is hyper- or super-visual. It's not enough that images be images. Images have to loop and move and twist and adapt. 

Why does this matter for Christian faith? 

Well, from an educational perspective it matters quite a lot. Adults still think a great way to teach children bible stories is to give them crayons and have them draw pictures of what they hear described. But in this era, I am beginning to wonder if Christian education by necessity needs to include handing the whole class iPhones, and saying, "Go, make a Vine of this bible story. Post it and share it with your friends. Let's find out what they think about it."

Then send them off and see what they come back with.

And in fact, in this new media era, this exercise can be done without even gathering for class. Just text the challenge out to them, and get them working. New media requires our attention. We are invited to consider how to layer into our existing faith formation and worship practices.

For example, once kids have created some Vine looping videos, why not share them during worship, at the offering. Who says you can only share special music at the offering? Who made that rule up? Why not memes, or Vine videos, or a slideshow of Instagram photos from the past week?

And who will do this? Is Adapt social media creations for worship an item on our Time & Talent Survey? If not, why not?

In fact, new media is inviting us into a wholesale re-appraisal of how to conduct faith formation. None of us have even scratched the surface. Take any new development--iPad apps, social media, venues for creativity in all kinds of places--and ask yourself, What does it mean for us to explore Christian faith here, in this place, with these tools?

Old and new media layer like tells

And these new media don't replace existing media. Instead, they layer old upon new and mix them together in creative fashion. Like tells archaeologists excavate in Israel, you can find ancient media compressed right next to or even inside new media. For example, if the confirmation youth need to look up the Bible verse you are hoping they'll "Vine," they can of course simply navigate to that great Bible app for the iPhone published by This is another app I downloaded today. With it, you can stream all kinds of translations to your phone. You can also download translations, and audio recordings of some of the most popular translations. On the drive home from the confirmation retreat, I listened to four chapters of the gospel of John read from the NIV translation.

In this sense, my intuition to post photos of books to Instagram wasn't as out-of-touch as all that. A good book, posted as an Instagram-edited photo (or even better, scanned in some kind of looping video on Vine) might illustrate as much as anything the interconnections of all these media. A conversation expanding underneath in the comments, and a series of likes--well, that starts to look like a community around books. 

Know any other community that gathers regularly around a book?

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Hardest Question

If you're looking for quirky, cutting-edge commentary on the lectionary, consider The Hardest Question

This week, a phenomenological approach to glory and the gospel:

And a vision of heaven's descent to us:

Monday, April 15, 2013

Guest post: Cyndi Maddox shares her testimony of the journey to baptism at the Easter Vigil

My Journey toward Christ

I have always believed in God, but the thought of going to church was uncomfortable for me until now.  Growing up, church was not part of my life.  I learned about the Christian religion through basic bible stories during Easter and Christmas holidays.  I was a believer despite my limited exposure to the bible. 
My family moved to Ft. Smith, AR, from Memphis, TN, when I was 10 years old.  The culture of the two cities was remarkably different.  My discontent with the move made it difficult to fit in to my new community.  Adjusting to the Ft. Smith way of life was equally challenging.  One of the first questions that peers usually asked me was, “What church do you go to?”  Nobody in Memphis had ever inquired about my church life.  My answer, “We don’t go to church”, often alienated me from others.  Several peers in elementary school told me that I would “go to hell” if I was not “saved”.  I did not understand what they meant.  Those experiences made church seem like a scary place in my mind.  The questions and perceived judgments became few and far between during my teenage years.  
I sporadically attended various churches with friends as I grew older.  The services were always unfamiliar, yet sometimes the sermons spoke to me.  I attended midnight mass twice.  The first time was awkward.  It was my first experience with communion.  Everyone passed around a loaf of bread to break off individual pieces as they drank out of the same cup.  The person sitting next to me was ill, so all I could think about was germs and how many people would get sick after sharing the same bread and cup.  I missed the importance of that meal.
The second service I experienced was about a month after my grandfather passed away in 2008.  I went to St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Jonesboro with my future in-laws.  The suggestion of attending midnight mass with them was comforting during my time of grief.  The reverend spoke about the significance of fathers and grandfathers.  As I listened to the sermon, I knew I was meant to be there at that moment.  I skipped communion during the service, but had a better understanding of what taking communion meant to the congregation. 
In the fall of 2011, my husband, Tim Maddox, and his firm, deMx Architecture took on a new project.  He began designing a columbarium for the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.  He spoke fondly about the project on occasion.  One evening in January 2012, Tim told me about a series of lectures about death and dying that had been planned due to the new columbarium for the church.  One of my favorite former professors from the School of Social Work at the University of Arkansas, Dr. John King, was the lecturer.  I could not miss the opportunity to be taught about that aspect of life by Dr. King, so Tim and I planned to attend the series. 
Through conversation about the upcoming lectures, I learned that my friend and supervisor, Erin Rongers, was a member of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.  Small world!  It was nice to know someone from the congregation before my initial visit.  She shared positive experiences about belonging to the church.  I met many members of the congregation during the lecture series, including Linda and Stan Salmonson.  They would later become a significant part of my baptismal journey.  Everyone was kind and encouraged Tim and me to attend their worship services. 
We thought it would be good to learn more about the church, the congregation, and the Lutheran denomination so Tim and I set up a lunch meeting with Pastor Clint.  He described the traditions of the church, worship services, and bible studies among many other topics.  I hesitantly shared my religious history with Pastor Clint.  He said that numerous new visitors to the church had similar experiences.  Many had limited religious backgrounds or were coming from different denominations for a variety of reasons. 
            My spiritual journey toward baptism began in spring of 2012.  After attending several of the contemporary worship services, I decided that this was the church for me.  Pastor Clint preached inspiring sermons that always spoke to me.  I quickly felt a sense of belonging and acceptance from the congregation.  This was something that I had not felt at any of the other churches I had visited in the past. 
I decided to participate in the Wednesday lunch time bible study and met a very special group of people.  The timing and topic was perfect.  It seemed like a sign that I needed to be a part of this congregation.  Bible study focused on an introduction to the bible, taking participants through the entire bible using The Greatest Story participant book as a guide.  I was intimidated at first due to my lack of knowledge of the bible.  Everyone openly shared their feelings and opinions about the text.  We seemed to be learning new things together at times.  I was ready to take communion following many weeks of worship services and bible studies. 
Tim and I officially joined the church on July, 15, 2012.  The welcoming rite was touching.  Throughout the weeks following our membership, the theme of baptism came up on occasion.  Baptism was not something that I had even considered until a conversation with Pastor Clint.  It was a revelation to understand that there were other adults new to religion and interested in baptism.  The decision to be baptized was not a difficult one.  I was already on the path toward a better relationship with Christ and baptism was the next sensible step. 
A new group named “Our Lives This Text” was formed in order to help candidates through the progression of baptism and affirmation of baptism. I was going to be baptized and Tim decided to affirm his baptism during an Easter Vigil ceremony.  Support from the “Our Lives This Text” group was extraordinary.  Group leaders and sponsors dedicated so much of their time and passion to the candidates.  Linda and Stan became sponsors for Tim and me.  Every week, the group seemed to grow. New candidates joined the journey and new sponsors committed to them.  We shared a meal and discussed the weekly gospel in small groups.  Our Sunday evening gatherings were enlightening and motivating.  I enjoyed the growth of new friendships.  The Easter Vigil sounded beautiful as described by Pastor Clint.  I felt proud to be part of it.  All candidates were gifted with the Lutheran Study Bible and the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal to assist in their journey.  I will always cherish and utilize these gifts of knowledge. 
I became extremely nervous during the morning of the Easter Vigil.  Tim and I arrived at the church around 6:10PM and waited for more people to turn up for the 6:30PM start time.  We waited in the car for a few minutes before walking into the church.  We found the commencement bonfire on the opposite side of our entrance.  A large group gathered and as the ceremony began, individuals lit candles from a paschal candle ignited by the bonfire before the procession into the sanctuary.  Scriptures to honor and remember our Lord were read.  The baptismal ceremony began with babies and children.  Three adults were blessed with baptism.  My name was called and I moved toward the baptismal font.  As I leaned down, the aroma of the Easter bouquet surrounding the font was welcoming.  I was consumed with happiness and faith as the baptismal blessing was given by Pastor Clint while water flowed over my head. 
On Easter day, my new friend, Cindy Johnson, stated, “God places people in our lives for a reason”.  I absolutely believe this is true.  I am so thankful for all of my new friends and Pastor Clint.  I have so much to learn and am confident that I will have the support that I need to continue my spiritual journey as a newly baptized Christian.  I hope to be able to support others as well.  Thanks be to God!

Cyndi Maddox

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Glory of the Thing Itself


Although I read widely in philosophy and appreciate much of it, there is one area of philosophical study, and a rather major one at that, that has left me perplexed and befuddled. Phenomenology. Early in seminary I remember picking up a volume of Husserl (I think it was Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology). I read the first ten pages and promptly put it down. It was like reading the opening pages of Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Clearly there is a there there, something of import, perhaps even epochal, but for the life of me it remained impenetrable, opaque, impossible.

Have you ever felt this way? Put off by the insurmountable complexity of a book, a piece of art, a new skill to acquire? In any event, I did, and so set phenomenology aside, I thought for good.

Then, a serendipitous set of circumstances sent me back to phenomenology for a second look. My first stop: I read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on phenomenology ( That helped, kind of. There's a reason people write encyclopedia and dictionary and Wikipedia entries. They're concise and (hopefully) clear and helpful. They provide a map. In the case of phenomenology, however, this only took me so far.

Then, I had a big on-line discussion with some friends who teach theology and read lots of phenomenology. I worked out a bunch of my confusion by discussing phenomenology with them. I turned this discussion into a steampunk theology blog post

One friend said, "Phenomenology can't be gotten on the cheap." I considered this both a challenge and an invitation. So, I took the recommendation of my friends, and read the book that probably offers the clearest and most contemporary interpretation of the field of phenomenology, Jean-Luc Marion's Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness. If you're going to read just one book as an introduction to this field (unless, of course you want to go the source, in which case Cartesian Meditations will do nicely), make this the one. It's not an easy read, but then again, Marion is a French phenomenologist. Clarity of prose is not a hallmark of French philosophy.

If you read Marion, you will learn that the definition of phenomenology is contested even by phenomenologists themselves. If we just take the trajectory of Husserl-Heidegger-Marion, we see that Husserl believed a phenomenon gives itself in intuition, Heidegger believes a phenomenon is disclosed through things, being itself, and Marion argues that phenomenon give themselves in their givenness. Things are their givenness.

Already I think you might be intuiting why this stuff is difficult, and why it cannot be gotten on the cheap. The reason it matters to Husserl, Heidegger, and Marion to "bracket" out as many consideration in order to consider "the things themselves" is simple in its complexity--they believe our approach to understanding, interpretation, and seeing the world hinges on letting things become manifest as what they are, without forcing our own categories on them.

Heidegger spells this out explicitly when he looks at the etymology of the word phenomenon. It comes from "phainomon," which means "what shows itself, the self-showing, the manifest." "Logos" (which produces the "ology" of "phenomen-ology") is that which is conveyed in speaking, and lets something be seen as something.

So why is it so important to return to the things themselves and let things become manifest as what they are, without forcing our own categories on them? For Marion, and really for all phenomenologists, the bracketing out of our own preconceived notions, perceptions, and more, in order to arrive at the thing itself, actually increases givenness. The more we return to the thing itself, the more we perceive what is given precisely in its giving itself, the more rich, full, "saturated" the phenomenon becomes.

Marion in his extensive work on phenomenology as phenomenology of givenness, calls this "saturated phenomenon." A saturated phenomenon has a surplus of intuition. As an amateur phenomenologist hearing Marion define a saturated phenomenon, I cannot help but think of things like glory and mystery. In some things, often in very ordinary things, there is simply more there there than we dare to imagine. In this sense much that is ordinary is simultaneously extra-ordinary.

The unique perspective phenomenology brings to things like glory is that the saturated phenomenon in its glory is precisely glorious in the mundane, the simple. In his book In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomenon, Marion considers such everyday phenomenon as a lecture in a lecture hall, friendship, paintings, and the human body. John Caputo says of saturated phenomenon, it is "[the idea that] there are phenomena of such overwhelming givenness or overflowing fulfillment that the intentional acts aimed at these phenomena are overrun, flooded—or saturated."

Or to take Marion in his own conceptuality, saturated phenomenon "cannot be aimed at," they are unforeseen and catch us by surprise. They "cannot be born," they are so overwhelming to our senses that they dazzle us. They evade any analogy of experience. They are for this reason difficult to depict or describe, and are, in a sense, visible but so bright that we cannot regard them. Finally, saturated phenomenon are so overwhelming that they invert the relationship between the phenomenon and the I. Instead of an object being subject to an "I", the "I" becomes subject to the phenomenon, even constituted by it.

That's phenomenology for you, and it certainly sounds abstract. But I can send us to a graphic novel that represents saturated phenomenon perfectly, and illustrates all the points above. Kevin Huizenga, in his Glenn Ganges comics, now assembled in the book Gloriana, if not intentionally commentary on the saturated phenomenon, is evocative of it.

Take, for example, the story "The Sunset." In this story, Glenn has an explosion of thought while experiencing a sunset (see picture). Huizenga designs a page that looks very abstract, even chaotic, to depict his experience. He says of it, "The idea was to hit you with an unexpected, almost physical feeling, when it changes, and then a series of wallops and crescendos and noise, and to have it feel almost like music, and then build up to a busy fold-out, and then fade back to 'normal.' A lot of it was doodling things and playing them off each other. I put the pages on the floor and played around with the rhythm until it felt close enough." (

In another story, "The Moon Rose," Glenn goes to considerable lengths to explain to a family standing in the street that a giant blood red moon they are seeing on the horizon is not a sign of the end times, but is instead a "saturated" scientific phenomenon that has puzzled theorists for centuries, and requires a fascinating set of psychological and scientific explanations to resolve. However, in the process of explaining the red moon, something new happens both in his perception of it, and their perception of him, and their perception of the moon, all of which leaves things even less explained than prior to his mini-lecture.

In both instances, readers of the graphic novel are given concrete examples of how the very mundane experiences of daily life cannot be aimed at; the moon and the sunset catch him and them by surprise. They cannot be born; they are so overwhelming to the senses that they dazzle the eye. They evade any analogy of experience; Huizenga struggles even to adequately depict them in the comic medium. They are for this reason difficult to depict or describe, and are, in a sense, visible but so bright that we cannot regard them. Finally, saturated phenomenon are so overwhelming that they invert the relationship between the phenomenon and the I. Instead of an object being subject to an I, the I becomes subject to the phenomenon, even constituted by it. Glenn, both in describing the moon to his neighbors, and his experience of the sunset, loses himself (literally because he is no longer even pictured in the comic frames) and so is constituted by the phenomenon even while trying to constitute it.

Huizenga describes the process of creating the comic this way, "Something clicked and I felt really high and good about what I was doing, not that it was necessarily very good or smart, but actually that it was kind of stupid and weird, and had taken on a life of its own, and I felt good about everything in general. It felt really intense, out of nowhere. It was a rare thing."

The point of chasing down phenomenology and gaining the equipment necessary to bracket and perceive that which gives itself precisely in its givenness is not to be able to play circular language games, or befuddle readers with turgid, difficult prose, but because in such philosophical practices, the experience of intensity and goodness, out of nowhere, precisely in the regular and every day, is more likely to take place. Such "saturated phenomenon" and our experience of them opens doors to theological reflection we have mostly only dreamt about.


Husserl and the phenomenologists are not the first thinkers to call for a return to the "thing itself." Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Old Testament theologian Martin Luther wrote a justly famous work, the Heidelberg Disputations[1], at the center of which sits three theses that have sparked the imagination of theologians ever since. Luther wrote:

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly »perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25),
20. that person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
21. A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

Any Christian reader who has read this set of theses is forced to re-consider in their religious life how often they or others have constructed a theology of glory; more importantly, they are challenged to ponder what it really means to call a thing what it actually is. They are invited to see things in themselves through suffering and the cross.

The classic Latin phrase to label this kind of thinking is theologia crucis, a theology of the cross. It's more than a doctrinal system or set of theories. The theologia crucis  is a whole way of being in the world. Thus Luther's insistence that this is about whether or not someone even deserves to be called a theologian. Theologians of glory miss the boat, calling good evil and evil good, and just so divest themselves of the proper status of theologian altogether.

Luther also insists that "the things themselves" are focused in suffering and the cross. This is a solid and classic Christian commitment, more often articulated in piety than actually developed into a theological worldview or way of seeing the world. Yes, Jesus dying on the cross for us saves. Clearly the cross is central to our theology. But many if not most Christians most of the time wear this cross as an accoutrement rather than allowing it to transform their whole being in the world. Taken seriously, however, this way of thinking about the cross considers the cross not as an object of veneration, but as a lens, a bracketing tool. The cross is, as it were, a philosophy, a philosophy of life informed by who God is and has been in the world.

So return to Marion. Marion writes, "From now on, it is necessary that we learn to see what shows itself simply and strictly inasmuch as it shows itself, in the absolute freedom of its apparition. There is nothing easy about this apprenticeship, for what shows itself first gives itself and to see what gives itself, we must first renounce constituting and 'grasping' it (in the Cartesian sense), in favor of simply receiving it. But to receive, in philosophy as elsewhere--what could be more arduous?" (Marion, Being Given, 321) Anything start to click when you read this? Getting down to the givenness itself, seeing what shows itself without "grasping" it means to be subject to, to "suffer" that which gives itself. To be truly receptive to what first gives itself is a hallmark of Christian faith--it also happens to be a hallmark of Christ's own faithfulness. Christ's ultimate prayer, the one that gives the deepest indication of who he is, and who he is in God, is the one prayed last in the garden, "Not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42).

Then Marion again, "The saturated phenomenon therefore culminates in the type of paradox I call revelation, one that concentrates in itself--as the figure of Christ establishes its possibility--an event, an idol, a flesh, and an icon, all at the same time. Saturation passes beyond itself, exceeds the very concept of maximum, and finally gives its phenomenon without remainder or reserve." (Marion,  Being Given 241) Marion sees Christ as, in a certain sense, the phenomenon sine qua non.

However, to get clear on who precisely Christ is and what the gift of Christ means is going to take just a bit more phenomenological work, and one more round on the topic of the thing itself, this time by way of Augustine. Put your gloves on. There's some thorny terminology to work with here, but it is well worth your time, if you are willing to slow down and sit with it for a while.

Although Augustine never picks up a theology of the "Name of God" in one specific work, it is a discussion that wends its way through many of his books. The "Name of God" has long been discussed in Christian theology, and Augustine does not shy from it. It's a discussion that goes much deeper than what kind of gendered or non-gendered language to use for God (which seems to dominate our contemporary discussion of the issue), and instead goes after whether or not God can be named, and if God is named, how many names or which names can suffice to name God. In the Church Fathers, this has in many instances resulted in (and here I am dramatically over-simplifying the "Name of God" discussion) recognizing that the proliferation of names for God is one way to with integrity and dignity give indication of the ultimate un-nameability of God.

So, when Augustine gets busy naming God (as Marion points out in a late chapter in his 2012 book, In the Self's Place: The Approach of Saint Augustine (Cultural Memory in the Present), he offers all kinds of names, but his preferred name for God (or "denominating" God) is a little quirky Latin word: idipsum.  Bear with me. So, one way that Augustine denominates God repeatedly in his classic work on the Trinity, is this way, "idipsum quod Deus est, quidquid illud est" (that itself which is God, whatever that might be). The idipsum in Augustine is "the thing itself." Augustine goes to great lengths to avoid defining God with any more detail than this. It is a denominator without any determination. God is who God is, but this particular title does not in any positive or negative sense offer any specific attributes of God.

Augustine will even, in his Confessions, use this denomination as a name of God in praise of God.  "Itaque, tu Domine, qui non es alias aliud et alias alier, sed idipsum et idipsum et idipsum, 'sanctu, sanctus, sanctus, Dominus Deus omnipotens" (And therefore, you, O Lord, who are not here another and there otherwise, but the same thing itself and the same thing itself and the same thing itself [in other words,] holy, holy, holy")[2].  In other words, Augustine understands his preferred denominator for God--the thing itself--as roughly equivalent to the classic trifold name of God sung and spoken in the liturgy--holy holy holy.

Returning to Jean-luc Marion, Marion argues that this way of naming God in Augustine "shows" God without "signifying" anything. It is exactly like the way God names Godself in Exodus in the burning bush. Moses asks, "What is [God's] name?" and God replies, "I AM WHO I AM" (3:13, 14). The reply from the burning bush could just as easily have been the simple word, "HOLY," and a comparable sense of what or who God is would have been signified.

So, Marion, in his own words and in his translation of Augustine, decides to burrow down into Augustine's use of this tight little word. "What is idipsum [the thing itself]? How will I say this, if not by saying idipsum? My brothers [and sisters], if you can, understand idipsum. For, whatever else I say, I do not say [the signification of] idipsum. Idipsum therefore remains radically and definitively apophatic, says no essence, and reaches no definition. If it indicates God, it does so only by its own powerlessness to say him. All its privilege as most appropriate name comes, for idipsum, paradoxically from its patent void of signification, which frees for it the possibility of denominating without pretending to define" (Marion, In the Self's Place 300).

Here we are getting close to the thing itself as well as calling a thing what it is rather than calling the good bad or the bad good. By naming God with a name void of specific signification, it paradoxically names God as God is rather than subjecting God to our projections of how we might wish to define God.

This same re-naming takes place in the naming of Jesus Christ, where the angel gives direction, "You are to name him Jesus" (Matthew 1:21), with direct reference to the Old Testament text, "They shall name him Emmanuel, which means God with us" (1:23). In other words, Jesus Christ is to receive the name that adds nothing more than what is already apparent in the name of God itself, I AM WHO I AM, for this is the God that goes with the people in Godself and as Godself.

So we return to one last big block quote from Marion: "What must you hold [as true]? That he became Christ for you, because he is himself Christ; and Christ himself is understood correctly [as] I am who I am, in the mode in which he is 'in the form of God' [Philippians 2:6]. There where 'he did not consider it his property to be equal to God is precisely where he is idipsum. Thus, in order that you might partake of idipsum, he himself first partook of you, 'and the Word became flesh' [John 1:14] so that the flesh might partake of the Word)... Idipsum  can be incarnate by paying the price of kenosis and can give itself in partaking of [humanity], then it becomes clear that, for Saint Augustine, the function and characteristic of idipsum are not governed by Being, at least in the sense that metaphysics will understand Being in its ontology, but by the charity of God. It is because he first reestablished the "I AM WHO I AM" in its originally soteriological signification that Saint Augustine can deploy it in its most extreme reaches in the figure of the humble servant. There is idipsum for us, there where the 'form of God' takes on the 'condition of a slave,' in Christ the Savior" (Marion, In the Self's Place 302).

What is going on here is a careful theology of the cross interpretation of God's name in Exodus. There is some danger, when interpreting God's name spoken from the burning bush, in reading it as an assertion of power, glory, control. You get this kind of interpretation in, for example, the Harry Potter novels, where "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" arises out of fear of the one being named, because of their transcendent power. But God's denominating Godself as "I AM WHO I AM" is not of this order. God is not Lord Voldemort. God is God. And God is never more God than when God is giving Godself away in Christ, completely and utterly. The power of God rests securely in the powerlessness of God in the cross and in Christ. Returning to the Marion phenomenological language one last time, God is God in God's givenness. The intensity of the given, saturated phenomenon is, in Christian theology, most visible, most shown, in suffering and the cross. All phenomenology does is help explicate this line of thought, already available in Scripture in such passages as Exodus 3 or the Christ hymn of Phillipians 2.

So what does such a return to the thing itself, what does a theology of the cross, look like in run of the mill daily Christian life? I'll take two recent status updates I read recently as case studies. First, from a parishioner:

"There are angels on earth, covered in grime and smelling like stale cigarettes."

It is the expectation of a theologian of glory (and all of us are in various ways theologians of glory) to expect to see God in the beautiful, the wonderful, the, well, glorious. This is the kind of theology behind much popular contemporary theology, where, for example, giving to God is supposed to return blessings from God--or where proper faith will result, supposedly, in your best life now. Even simply in regular old daily life, we tend to look for God in beautiful things, like sunsets, happy events, and the births of babies.

So for my parishioner to identify the presence of the angelic in the grimy, stale smoky self is to see the glorious under the form of its opposite--to experience the messenger of God under the form of the opposite of glory, under suffering and the cross. Many of us also intuit this, discovering God precisely in our suffering, in the poor, in our cranky neighbor. Or even in our own suffering and cross-bearing.

Which brings me to the second Facebook status update, from a colleague:

"Sometimes being in ministry feels like having so little to offer - like i dig deep and yet all i have to put on the table is some dryer lint and a couple broken Happy Meal toys and i'm sure the deal is off and yet God seems to look at that and go 'perfect! THIS i can work with. let's get to it!' and again i am having to question God's judgement."

This is self-emptying on the human level comparable to the self-emptying of Christ, or the self-emptying of God, each one echoing down to the next and "partaking" in each other's life. From a phenomenological perspective, and with the insights gained here, we can see that the reason God can work with this weak and pathetic offering is that God in God's very name is also self-emptying. The thing itself (God) can glorify the thing itself (dryer lint) in the thing itself (Christ).

Returning to Huizenga's "The Moon Rose," all that explanation of the apparent size and color of the moon as it rose in the sky, as glorious as it is, as much as it partakes in divine holiness, is explained awkwardly and nervously by a math and science geek who does not quite know how to talk to his neighbors. The neighbors, equally, under the sway as they are of odd apocalyptic narratives that have convinced them a certain kind of red moon is an indicator of the end of the world, receive his scientific explanation with something less than grace, more like fear, certainly awkwardness.

Yet that very awkward moment is, on another level, glorious. Beautiful people talking beautiful things in beautiful prose are distant from the thing itself. Frequently such supposed beauty calls the good bad and the bad good.

A theologian of the cross, a community informed by the spirit that guides the phenomenological enterprise, angels smoking cigarettes or Christians who only have pocket lint to offer--these have a fighting chance of calling a thing what it is and getting to the things themselves--infused as they are by idipsum, the thing itself. Idipsum idipsum idipsum--sanctus sanctus sanctus.

[1] The full text of the disputation is available at For a seminal commentary on it from a theologian known for "calling a thing what it is," see Gerhard Forde's On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation (1518) (Eerdmans, 1997).
[2] Here I am making use of the fantastic commentary and translation of this work by Jean-Luc Marion in his In the Self's Place: The Approach of Saint Augustine (Stanford University Press, 2012, 296ff.)

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Professors Gregory Walter and David Hahn of St. Olaf College for many edifying conversations that provided much of the fodder for this essay.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Jesus Showed Himself Again

Sometimes you have to fish on the other side of the boat. 
Sometimes you are inspired to swim with your clothes on. 
Sometimes you count your fish. 
Sometimes love is a challenge. 
Sometimes you know someone so well you hardly know who they are. 
Sometimes breakfast fixes everything. 
Sometimes you eat fish for breakfast.

(On John 21, or Easter 3)

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Missional networks spread by losing control


I'm going to flash up a theological concept for our consideration. Let it sit with you for the duration of this presentation. It might be an overly facile connection. I'm not sure. But consider it.

Why did Jesus ascend? What does it mean for Jesus to have ascended to the Father? It's remarkable to me that the Ascension of Jesus typically plays such a small role in our constructive theology. Aside from treatments of it in Barth's Church Dogmatics and Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology,the only exception of which I'm aware as a kind of free standing treatment is Douglas Farrow's Ascension and Ecclesia. In any event, I think Christ's going away is the primary way "in" for a theological understanding of what I am presenting here. Jesus does not control the network he started. He goes away, and leaves it in the hands of others (continually enlivening it by the Spirit's networking presence). The church has had a lot of trouble emulating this model. The church wants to maintain control even though its Lord did not.

It seems clear that Jesus understood that missional networks spread by losing control. The church can now learn from the "here comes everybody," "world is flat," broadly mediated culture that it does not need to control. It needs to think of itself as spreadable media, spreadable networks. Real church starts when all hell breaks loose. The church will be full when it is empty (Philippians 2).

Part I

It is an honor to stand among you and speak today. I can hardly believe I am here doing this. Thank you for the invite.

I suspect I have been invited because of the work I do in social media. That or maybe you were just looking for a clergyperson with a rather unusual last name. I'm not sure. In any event, I plan to invest time talking about the church and networks.

And the first thing I need to say is this: I am not going to talk about a vision for 2020, because 2020 from a social media perspective is too far away. We can't vision that far. And in a way, visioning is for wimps. In the new era, real change of necessity needs to happen now, immediately... because it can and because it will.

Everything I'm going to talk about today are things I think could and should change now. These are concepts we can integrate into our individual ministries and the ministry of the ELCA even before we leave this building this afternoon. They are assets and resources that are all around us.

Oh, and as much as possible I'm going to try and talk about my failures, how I haven't yet figured this stuff out. I think that is important, because I think at this point in the digital and world-is-flat era, we are only observing the effects of the changes, and we don't know what the total overall change is going to be. That's an important distinction. I'll come back to it.


I honestly don't know how many of you are regular users of digital social networks. Some of the leaders in the ELCA are pretty high profile users. Michael Rinehart is a blogging and Facebooking bishop. Stephen Bouman engages the ELCA Clergy group a lot. Bishop Hanson has a solid Twitter following. And so on.

But if you are like me, or if you want to know how someone like me functions, one way to describe it is this: "I don't do and can't do much without my network. I make use of network as a mirror, filter, feedback loop, for almost everything I do."

So, when I was invited to come and speak with you, my first reaction was, "Can I post this in my networks? How will I share this in my networks?"

At first, I started discussing it with a smaller core of trusted folks. Still a network, just not a widely digitally mediated network. I called up one bishop. I talked to parishioners. I talked to my wife. I talked to colleagues by phone. One friend said, "See, this is why they asked you, even if they don't know it. I would have gone there and told them what to do. Your first response to being invited to give this presentation was to crowdsource the response."

So here is my question and insight for your three tables specifically at this point. Before you arrived at this gathering today, how much of this did you do? Have you been making use of your networks to gain insight, let the Spirit speak, let the crowd and not just the small core be the source for vision and leadership? If not, why not?
Next, I started floating possibilities, theoretical visions, in my digital networks, especially in the ELCA Clergy Facebook group.
The first idea that came to mind was to repeat the summary of what I have heard from some colleagues who work in Latino ministry in the ECLA.

 "We should put all of our eggs in one basket and devote all of our mission development, all of our institutional outreach, all of our new recruitment, everything we can muster, to developing our Latino ministries so that our church is as much Latino as Anglo by 2020."

Quite quickly I decided that although I like this proposal, I don't think I'm the best person equipped to make a case for it. So I dropped it. I did not gain a lot of conversation around this one. It didn't interest the crowd much.

So I tried idea #2, and posted it in the ELCA Clergy group. This post gathered over 600 comments in a few short days. If you are really interested in reading everything people wrote, I've put the permalink in the footnotes that I've handed out:

Apparently there is still a Babylonian Captivity of the Church, but it is of our own devising and we defend it and think well of it and do not even consider it is counter the very Reformation we supposedly represent.

The captivity is the captivity of the Eucharist. When we go on vacation, we think we have to bring an ordained person in. We think camps can't do the Eucharist without a pastor present. We think interns can't preside while serving on internship. We are nervous about authorizing lay presiders. We pre-consecrate elements (whatever kind of hocus pocus THAT is) for lay communion visitors or on the weekend we have to go to synod assembly.

We do everything we possibly can, both institutionally and personally, to act as if the validity of the holy meal of Jesus is dependent on the personal presence of an ordained minister.

In the meantime, our congregations are not aware that they are free to share this meal profligately, all over the place. They do not know, because we have not taught them, that they can preside at communion on the campus, in the coffee shop, in their own homes, at the park. They do not know that in the absence of the pastor, they could go on just fine having communion each week by designating a table host and carrying on.

We then coalesce all kinds of other ministries around the person who presides at this meal, and act as if church is only wherever the pastor is. No wonder we do not have churches starting churches. No one believes they themselves could start a church--because who can start a church without the Eucharist?

The church is trapped, and although pastors are not the only cause of the captivity, our theology of the office of the pastor in relation to the table is the primary cause, and until Christ's meal is freed up and presided at by all the baptized, in many places, and sundry times, we will not see the church grow.

* This is how to talk about this from a sacramental perspective: much the same could be said when talking about church structure, flattened network, transparent communication, priesthood of the baptized, and more.

I truly and deeply believe that this one is very close to what I want to say to you, but it is an expression of networks as it plays out ecclesiologically. And it is just a start. Although I believe in both of these posts, love them as concepts, they aren't yet the core, the cultural and theological insight I want to emphasize as central for our way forward.

Networks are distributed (Wiki)

So I posted this:

Let's say, 'hypothetically,' that you were invited to give a 15-18 minute TED talk to a gathering of some of the key leaders of the ELCA--representatives from the Executive Committees of the Church Council and Conference of Bishops, and the Churchwide Organization Administration Team. What would be THE thing that you would make central to your talk? What would you want to say?" Share your short version/response here, or make your own talk and post it in a video sharing venue or podcast.

An early response said this, when I asked why I wasn't getting a lot of concrete answers to the question:

"I think it is hard to get replies b/c it is hard to see how a TED like talk to the stewards of the institution would change the institution. I would rather put it out to the populace and let the revolution sort itself out."

Of course, I share this same suspicion. That's why I have already invited many people in my various networks to dream this dream together with us. Because I honestly think the answer to what 2020 will look like has to do with what the distributed network itself says it will be. And the social networks I inhabit all fairly universally seem to say that whatever change is going to happen, it needs to happen right now, immediately. No one knows what things will be like in seven years. Seriously.

There is deep suspicion of our institution (ELCA) among our people, very deep suspicion... And it's not because any individuals working at the ELCA are worthy of suspicion. It's more a part of how a hierarchy like ours functions as a "culture," and the general suspicion many of us now have of institutions and their power. 

My suspicion is the only way to fix this is to blast things open, commit ourselves to the old Polish and Russian commitments of Glasnost, perestroika, sobornost (can you tell I used to be an ELCA missionary in Eastern Europe). Transparency is invaluable, and the way forward is to let go of control.
This is precisely why I don't think we can vision for 2020. Trying to imagine a quasi-utopia seven years from now based on our assets... we won't get there. And we won't get there because my vision is we have to let go of control. My presentation, if it is nothing else, is to offer the greatest asset for consideration we have at our disposal right now. Our greatest assets are the opportunities for self-emptying, transparency, networking.

On social media, you gain influence and authority by giving it away. Gone is the time when keeping information / authority / etc to yourself gained you more. The new social media economy is an economy of generosity. Do you want more influence? Share the influence you have with others. Give it away.

See why I at least wanted to flash up Jesus' ascension for us?

What does this mean for the church? What does it look like for the church to have an economy of generosity? What does it look like for the church to give away its influence? For that, I need to tell a few stories.

First, I Gave the TED Away Somewhat

It came to me that I could crowd-source even the tech aspect of this presentation, which meant I could illustrate the power of distributed networks to you in another way... within 10 minutes of posting a request for help, I had Michael Sladek (, a presentation designer, on-board from Sammammish, Washington, someone's work I had seen, who volunteered to prepare my presentation and make the visuals polished and tight with the message. The goal here was to keep in tight with the idea of TEDs more generally speaking, which have very refined if simple visual aesthetics.

I already have a team willing and able to organize and provide all tech support for an ELCA version of the TEDs if and when we decide to organize one. Because the network was already in place, it wasn't even that hard. People will give their time away for the things they care about. People care about the future of our church.

I shared an early draft of this talk with my office manager. She is also highly networked, but with a lot of unchurched people and various types of folks around the country. She was kind enough to gather feedback from them (and they were kind enough to read it).

As I already mentioned, I took the step of reaching out to ELCA peeps, and my own networks, to field test various presentation topics. Many of these were spectacular failures. I offered the vision, for example, that we shouldn't change anything, and just stay the course. This troubled many readers. Then, when I said we should stop everything, completely, just stop, this also troubled others. Some (many) of my thought experiments didn't fly in my social networks. Often they even angered or confused people. I was reminded of something a friend (Drew Curtis, who started one of the world's largest news aggregators, had written recently:
Notice the lesson here for ELCA leadership. It is very unlikely that we can get anyone in our denomination to do anything. But we can put things in front of them that we know they'll want to react to.

By this point I was getting very clear both what I wanted to say and why it was so hard to say it. I wanted to tell you about the strength and power of these networks for the church and mission. They are indispensable to us, they are the way forward, but there is one very essential thing we have to know about the strength of these networks in order to move forward: missional networks spread by losing control. We can only begin to imagine doing church in these contexts if we are willing to accept the inevitability that all hell will break loose.

Then, I decided to make the TED about giving the church away

Let me say what I mean, offering some examples. A few years ago, I read Neil Cole's spectacular little book on Organic Church. Neil Cole started a house church movement. He didn't just start some house churches. He started a movement. One story in that book especially caught my attention. One day, when he was out in his yard, some friends stopped by and said, "It's great you started another house church on the same block as yours." Neil's response was, "No, I didn't." They said, "Yes, you did." It turns out that a house church he had helped start had split making some new house churches, who had themselves replicated into new house churches, so that by the time this new house church was starting on his block, it was three iterations away from his own actions. He had "lost control" in one sense. But he had planted the seed of a movement.

I have heard many stories like this from around the globe. Alan Hirsch reports on some in his The Forgotten Ways. In each instance, churches seem to have discovered a way to imprint communities they are founding with a kind of DNA that lets them fly from the next and become their own birds.
It makes me wonder to what degree we are imagining mission starts and missional leadership in our churches in this way. Are we comfortable with the ministries we give birth to flying so distant from us, and iterating themselves so many times, that we can't even keep track of what they are up to (let alone record adequate statistics about them)?

I have never started an exponentially replicating movement like this. Confession. But I know that is as much my failure of imagination as anything. I want to start one. I want to start a Lutheran movement that is so viral someday somebody will say to me, "Did you know somebody started a church like yours in Texarkana?" But let me tell another story that offers a hint to why I haven't yet gone as viral as all that.

A wonderful Hawaiian family visited our church a few times last year. They haven't yet become members of our congregation, but I remain hopeful.

In the meantime, they started a Hawaiian restaurant in town (if you live in or near Fayetteville you should eat there some time soon, and regularly, it's scrumptious. Hawaiian Brian's). Before Christmas, they asked me if I could help bring in hungry families to eat a free meal at their restaurant. Because I have a network here, I was able to connect Shanea and Brian to the head of the Single Parent Scholarship Fund and the Families in Transition program at the public schools (the social worker from the school is another person I consider a "potential" member of our church--the director of Single Parent Scholarship Fund IS a member of our church). We brought fifty people out to Hawaiian Brian's for a free meal. At the meal, we had a brief prayer service blessing their new restaurant. In my old way of thinking, I would try to figure out how to "count" this as being a ministry of our church, how to guide or direct it in some way. In the new model, I believe the network is the ministry. I can set new things in front of Shanea that can open doors for her to strengthen and expand her missional ministry--but she is already doing it. Heck, she could be her own church.

Did I mention that all the networking we did for this meal happened on Facebook, in various messaging strands?

So, I think my moderate level of facility with social media provided some bridges for connections to make an event happen that might not have otherwise. The lingering question, however, is: "What do I do now?" What is my role in this network? Most of the participants aren't members. Some of the participants I never even met. Yet I am clearly in a position to be a catalyst (Shanea would like to offer the meal again), bridge-builder (I can connect her to other needs-based social service agencies, other restaurant owners interested in doing similar ministry), but do I have the time? Do I know what next steps to take? Is there possibility here for the formation of a missional community rather than a church per se, or should I be inviting this whole community into the life of Good Shepherd?

Are these even the right questions to be asking?

Which then makes me wonder, do all of you have stories like this to tell? Open doors for the opening up of new networks that are highly distributed, won't work if they are hierarchical or top down, self-emptying in the sense that the only way to move them forward is to give away your influence and just be a node among many nodes?

Then a friend almost gave all the TEDs away

A good friend, Rich Melheim, on tour right now, see, and colleague many of you likely know, almost "gamed" my talk today. I had shared with him the concept, and he immediately start imagination "storming" it, as he often does. In minutes he had decided we should form a leadership team to start an ELCA version of the TED talks, invite 15 top leaders in the ELCA here to give the talks in the ELCA Headquarters chapel, bring in an outstanding recording team to record them, and then send them out into the digital world for people to view. I loved this idea, but then I asked him, "Do you know you're trying to organize a gathering in Chicago of TED talks the week after Easter, and it's only a month away?" Another good friend, David Hansen, and I reigned the concept in a bit (although I loved the energy) and we have decided it is a great idea to pursue, either as a distributed model or as a conference.

I tell this story to illustrate how putting your ideas and events out there requires giving up some control of them. People will run with them as they will. We do not have control of how people will respond to what we share with them. I don't even like the language of "reining" Rich in. Why should I do that? Here we are all, sitting down with this high level set of tables, a Tri-Table gathering, and outside these walls (actually, even immediately accessible through whatever wifi network is in this space) is a massive network, our people, and all the people they are connected to, and all the people they are connected to.

How would we be strengthened by letting them all in, or letting ourselves out? Frankly, trying to control the conversation isn't going that well. It certainly isn't spreading anything.

One of the hardest things I did this year was follow Paul Hoffman's advice not to lead or even sit in or visit the bible study small groups that were happening during our catechumenate. A group of us had done a trial run of the catechumenate in the summer, but by the time winter came around, and we were dividing our forty catechumens and their sponsors up into small groups, it was time to let the groups just be the gospel, the spirit, and the group.

We call our catechumenate "Our Lives, This Text."

There is such a natural inclination to want an authority in the room, to have right answers. This is not an inclination only those of us as clergy or as leaders have--even the people in those groups have that sense. It takes considerable spiritual fortitude to step back and let the group itself discover the truth they will discover when they bring their lives into conversation with the gospel text.

In this model, I still have a role, a very important one in fact. I help build bridges, getting people into a place where they can meet each other and meet the text.

But then I get out of the way. Already the newly baptized are doing far better than I ever could to invite the next set of inquirers into the process. We will meet the baptismal candidates God is preparing for us by my, in a sense, getting out of the way and letting the Spirit of what we have initiated, and the network it energizes, lead the way.

My ministry will be full when it is empty. Church gets started when all hell breaks loose, because really, what will they say, what crazy stuff will they come up with in the room if the pastor isn't there to direct the conversation?

What kind of mischief might the church get up to if Jesus doesn't stick around and monitor it?

Church gets started when all hell breaks loose. Missional networks spread by losing control.

The church will be full when it is empty.



Permalinks (only members of the ELCA Clergy group can view these posts):

First post in ELCA Clergy ask about TED talks:

TED Talks (examples of TEDs with synergy with mine, I think):