Monday, December 30, 2013

My 3 Words 2014 | #mythreewords

My favorite web development in 2013 was the launch of Early in the year, Lutheran Confessions had the honor of ending up 39th on a popular list of Christian blogs you should be reading. Thanks to Christian Piatt for creating that list.

One of the creators of, Nick Kellet, is inviting participation in My Three Words, an internet meme created by Chris Brogan a few years ago. Brogan's three words for 2013 were Walt. Ender. Monchu. Nick Kellet's three words for 2014 are Big. Collaboration. Experiment.

There's a lot of diversity in how people develop their three words. The three words are designed to help you focus your goals and objectives for the year.

Here's what Chris Brogan says about the value of choosing three words rather than listing task-specific goals for the new year:
In an effort to tell bigger stories, I’ve found that the concept of three words allows me to think in more dimensions about what I want to do with my life and it lets me apply lots of tangible goals instead of what most people do when they focus on just a finite task. It’s a bit like turbo-charged goal planning.
I invited folks in my social media network to share their three words with me, figuring hearing from others might be inspirational. It was! Here's a sampling of #mythreewords I heard for 2014 from friends around the world:

1. Love, care and share
2. Escuchar, equipar, enviar. Listen, equip, send.
3. Rebuild. Positive. Change.
4. Simplify. Domesticize. Write.
5. Create. More. Fun.
6. Focus, proclaim, swim
7. God is First. I am Third (after God and family)
8. Write. write. write.
9. Time to regift
10. Blessed are the ...
11. Health. Giving. Integrity.
12. Patience. Gentleness. Contentment.
13. Nonjudgmental. Listener. Giving.

Sharing these ideas around in your networks is a great idea, because some folks might invite you into their "three words" party. I plan to create more fun with some folks who especially liked #5 in the list above, for example.

So, some background. In 2013, my three words, although I didn't call them that, were definitely Releasing. Missional. Networks. I gave a presentation on this at ELCA Headquarters early in the year. I had the opportunity to write and present about it regularly during the year, and it's a set of words I'm still pondering and implementing in my own life and ministry.

For 2014, I'm struggling a bit more with the three words. But that's not a bad thing.

Consider the alternative... no planning for 2014 at all. That's an option, but not a good one.

But whenever I make a list of tasks for 2014, it gets long and sort of unwieldy. I actually did this about a week ago, and came up with the following:

1) Neighborhood church: I’m going to invite walk partners and walk our neighborhood once per week, knocking on doors and asking people what we can pray for for them, then include those prayers in worship Sunday mornings.
2) Setting a timeline to be leading my own Huddle by April of 2014.
3) Shift at least two hours of each week towards intentionally equipping others for ministry.
4) Gather at least one intentional community of any size, any shape, that specifically devotes itself to prayer for the ministry of our congregation, and renewal in the Spirit.
5) Work with our stewardship team to explore innovative and new patterns for fund-raising. I’m especially interested in learning best practices for fund-raising from non-profit leaders in our own community, and may even try to convene a colloquium on this with representatives from churches and non-profits.
6) Study enough to translate the faith really well in our culture and context. 
8) Run more, and get more freelance submissions out there (this last one is personal rather than professional).

You can see, I think, that these are focused, clear goals... but they're rather task specific, and difficult to memorize. The list could also be expanded ad nauseum, attempting to be exhaustive but ending up exhausting. Returning to Chris Brogan, he writes:

At first I was leaning towards Lord. Have. Mercy. as my 3 words for 2014. I like those words, because they are a big picture story of who I want to be, focused in prayer and faith, and indicative of who I want to be in relationship with in 2014--God, the merciful one.

But, spending a bit more time with it, I think I've finally focused in on my three words for 2014. They're a little weird and enigmatic, so bear with me if you would. They are:

Merciful. Drone. Trombones.


I hope to practice mercy in 2014. I was inspired to consider this word in a new way after listening to an interview between Walter Brueggemann and Krista Tippett on On Being the other day. Here's the excerpt:
Ms. Tippett: OK. You know, another one of those words that recurs a lot in your writing that comes also from [Scripture] is another word that we don't have in our culture very often. It's mercy. We talk about forgiveness, we talk about reconciliation. Mercy to me is something different, something bigger. Tell me about that. 
Mr. Brueggemann: You may know that the Hebrew word for — Phyllis Trible has taught us that the Hebrew word for mercy is the word for womb with different vowel points. So mercy, she's suggested, is womb-like mother love. And it is the capacity of a mother to totally give one's self over to the need and reality and identity of the child. And mutatis mutandis then, mercy is the capacity to give one's self away for the sake of the neighborhood. 
Now none of us do that completely, but it makes a difference if the quality of social transactions have to do with the willingness to give one's self away for the sake of the other rather than the need to always be drawing all of the resources to myself for my own well-being. So it is this kind of generous connectedness to others and then I think our task is to see how that translates into policy. I think that a community or a society finally cannot live without the quality of mercy. The problem for us is what will initiate that? What will break the pattern of self-preoccupation enough to notice that the others are out there and that we are attached to them?
Giving ourselves away for the sake of the neighborhood. That's inspiring if difficult. Willingness to give one's self away for the sake of the other rather than the need to always be drawing all resources to myself for my own well-being. These are the kinds of practices I believe can only happen when we are grounded in prayer and inspired by the Spirit. 


I am inordinately obsessed with and terrified by drones. I'm fascinated by the delivery system Amazon is developing to fly in products straight to your doorstep. They call it Amazon Prime Air, and their goal is to get products delivered to you in less than 30 minutes. 

On the other hand, I am profoundly disturbed by our use of military drones in various "theaters" abroad, not to mention our government's recent inability to assure us that they would not use drone strikes here on U.S. soil. No matter how you analyze the data, far too many civilians are being killed. Such strikes are, from my perspective as a Lutheran Christian, clear violation of just war practice, and need to be condemned. Our ELCA Social Statement on Peace is worth a read as a reminder of who God is calling us to be as peacemakers in God's world.

Unfortunately, mostly we aren't speaking out about drones, or any number of a wide range of immoral practices and injustices, and our silence becomes complicity in stunningly immoral action. The more I think about it, the more it bothers me. The more I consider my own silence on a whole range of social injustices, the more worried I become that my silence is actually active complicity.

As a preacher and blogger, I have some responsibility to spend time translating real faith into the real world, and remaining silent on issues like human trafficking, world hunger, our opportunity to end malaria in this generation, and so many other salient "wicked problems," simply isn't an option. 

Not only that, but I need to speak out and take action in ways that really matter. I doubt that simply posting something on my blog about it will make a difference. I need to put my money and my feet where it matters, and not just type out words about it on a screen.


Stay with me here, if you would. I used to play trombone. I used to play trombone a lot, both jazz and classical. Since college, with a few notable exceptions like a brass ensemble at Luther Seminary, my trombone has sat in my closet untouched. Although I feel bad about this, that twinge of guilt I feel at not playing trombone has rarely driven me to retrieve the trombone from the closet and practice. I'm in the habit of not practicing and playing trombone.

I'd like to change this habit. I'd love for 2014 to be the year the trombone re-emerges. 

Do you have some places in your life that feel like that trombone, stuck in the closet? 

The trombone stands in as a symbol for other changes I'd like to make, like running more. It also stands in symbolically for the recovery of gifts and strengths I have, for whatever reason, allowed to atrophy, but that if reincorporated, could greatly enhance life now and create intriguing pathways into future action.

But the trombone is not just a metaphor for changing habits. The trombone is also really and truly a trombone. It's not a drone (although you can listen to really cool trombone drones here). Music is a huge part of what I find life-giving in this world, and I would like to incorporate more music-making into my daily existence. It might enliven other aspects of life in surprising and unexpected ways.

Here's to merciful drone trombones. Consider designating your own three words, and add them to Nick Kellet's

Saturday, December 28, 2013

25 Best Religion and Spirituality Podcasts

On the drive across Iowa (Des Moines to Davenport) today I listened to two spectacular podcasts.

Both of them blew my mind, in different ways. The first was Tripp Fuller's spectacular book party with John Caputo at Homebrewed Christianity. He spent almost two hours talking to Caputo about his recent book, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion)

The second was Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann talking about the prophetic imagination with Krista Tippett in On Being.

We do sermon podcasts of our weekly worship from Good Shepherd, and I love to listen to sermons from all over, but on these long drives, it is these long-form podcasts that really allow the miles to pass quickly. It's hard to believe there's so much wonderful and intellectually stimulating theological content so readily available via the Podcasts app on your iPhone.

A while back, I posted Seven Great Religion Podcasts. Since that post, I've discovered, and so decided now is the time to create a 25 Best Religion and Spirituality Podcasts and collect responses from y'all on your favorite. So here it is. Vote for your favorites, and add ones not already on the list.

To begin surveying a good collection of such podcasts, you might also check out D.J. Chuang's list of expressly Christian podcasts.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

One Hipster to Rule Them All

Might you, dear reader, countenance the revealing of my secret identity as the simulacrum of a hipster? Indulge me, if you would, as I tease content from that staid purveyor of all things hipster in radio-land.

I mean NPR, of course.

It was awfully cute the other day when the Protojournalist--its by-line: very original reporting--over at NPR decided to ask, What exactly is hipster Christianity?

Cute because they clearly have no idea what a hipster is. Nor did anyone they interviewed.

In the post, they lead with the idea that hipster Christianity = cool Christianity.

But hipster isn't cool. If it were, pretty much all of American evangelical Christianity could lay claim to be making an attempt at being hipster, since that's been the agenda of American evangelicalism for quite some time... perhaps since the 18th century. 

Cool = culturally relevant. Cool is what a wide array of churches all across the denominational spectrum are attempting these days in order to reach the holy grail... the Millenials.

Cool isn't all bad. But it isn't hip. 

"Coolness is an admired aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance and style, influenced by and a product of the Zeitgeist" (or so says Wikipedia... a really cool resource for learning the meaning of words).

However, the NPR article may even miss the mark on being cool. Try this quote:
Living a hip lifestyle can be really cool, he says in our interview, "but what is more cool is the message of Jesus Christ. That's really cool."
Judge for yourself whether that sentence comports itself satisfactorily over against whatever barometer you use to measure cool or hip. See what I mean?

Let's dig into a few other lines from the NPR post, just for good measure. Here's another one, this time a screenshot:

"It's like indie rock or whatever." Exactly. Because hipsters are always saying "whatever."

On the other hand, that Arcade Fire reference isn't half bad. Arcade Fire was hip, a few years ago, because they headline at the Grammys, and before they became the poster band for all things indie. They still are hip, absolutely, because their parents gave them names that are enduringly hip. The lead singer is named Win Butler. He's from Texas. His wife's name is Régine Chassagne. She's French Canadian.

Did I mention that one definition of hipster = French Canadian?

However, I do have one quibble with the quote. Where in the world is it easy to find a hipster worship that sounds more like Arcade Fire than a hymn, because if there is such a thing I plan to uproot my family and pretty much everybody else I like and relocate to that church.

Want a test case to see whether or not a worship near you sounds like Arcade Fire? Try this song, the title track of their newest album, which happens to be produced by the absolute king of hipster, James Murphy.

"Thought you were praying to the resurrector/turns out it was just a reflektor (it's just a reflektor)"

Hipsters are so misunderstood

Hipsters are fundamentally misunderstood, at least in part because they don't understand themselves. They might currently have a mustache (hip) or wear thick glasses (hip), or listen to music that doesn't exist yet (hip). But if you met a hipster with a mustache wearing thick glasses and listening to a band from the future, and you told them they were a hipster, they'd be shocked, perhaps even insulted.

Hipsterism is ever elusive, because as soon as a mark of the hipster is identifiably hip, the true hipster has already moved on from it to occupy some other marker. Like this picture. 

This man (who admittedly has a beard rather than a mustache) is trying to maintain his identity as a liturgical calendar hipster. Hipsters try to be there first.

In this case he was doing Advent before Advent was cool. 

Now that everyone's doing Advent, he's prepared to continue being a hipster by, again, celebrating a day or season no one knows about. 

"Everyone does Advent, [so in order to remain a hipster, he] occupies Epiphany."

See what I mean?

See also why this constantly elusive, ironic posture of the hipster by definition precludes the possibility that Hillsong NYC might be the epicenter for hipster Christianity (the church NPR chooses to feature as a hipster church)?

For all I know, Hillsong is a really cool church. They have a cool web site. Their pastor sounds cool, based on the quotes in the NPR post.

The associate pastor does get the hipster shtick correct at one point. He bristles at being called a hipster or pastoring a hipster church. Smart move, Carl Lentz, smart move.

They then deflect attention from their style to the substance of what they are up to, which is care in community.

Hipster Christianity tends to wave its hand in the general direction of serving and doing good in the community as the true mark of being hip. I do not mean this as a criticism per se of hipster Christianity, because the truth is the church generally speaking waves its hand in the general direction of doing good. Here the ordinary and the hip share common cause.

However, this analysis of hipsterism draws our collective attention to what is lacking in all of Christianity that focuses on style. The problem with style is it simply can't carry the weight of its own importance. Inasmuch as the hipster or the cool person has to maintain their image, the style disallows the kind of radical extravagance the gospel entails. Style often (not always) descends from a place of privilege to occupy a position vis-a-vis the world. So stylish people or communities of any context operate out of a freedom they are often unaware of.

Christianity is not hip, or cool. It is according to Paul, foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18, Bible Gateway). Christianity doesn't wear well. Following Christ may put you, as the hipster hopes, ahead of the trend, but not because everyone will want to follow, but because no one or very few will. This is where foolhardy parts ways with hip.

So the true definition of hipster Christianity has to crucify the hipster just as much as the Christ in Christianity was crucified, and only then can we get at the crux of the true meaning of the term.

Perhaps the best way to narrate this is to offer some alternative examples of who might exemplify a cruciform hipster Christianity.

Cruciform Hipster Christians

The first living theologian who comes to mind is Peter Rollins. Rollins is relatively well-known in English-language hipster Christian communities for subverting classical Christianity from the inside out, bringing doubt centrally into the life of faith, observing Atheism for Lent as a contemplative practice, and practicing "pyrotheology."

If you are looking for a living example of hipster Christianity, Rollins comes awfully close, in much the same way Arcade Fire is a hipster indie rock band.

But to really dig in and discover the true hipster Christian, we may have to go back a few generations. I'm thinking here of Albert Schweitzer. Why? Well, let's try it out. Schweitzer practiced deliberate distancing. He began his career as an organist, and influenced the Orgelbewegung which brought organ music in Germany back to its baroque roots. He also founded the Paris Bach Society.

It wasn't enough for Schweitzer to reform that great hipster instrument, the organ, so he also wrote a book that transformed how historians and theologians think about The Quest of the Historical Jesus.

Also, did I mention he grew up speaking Alsatian? Another definition of hipster = speaks Alsatian.

Having accomplished these two things, Schweitzer resolved to pay back to the world for the happiness he had experienced in his life, so at the age of 30, he went back to school and studied to become a medical doctor. He devoted the rest of his life to medical missions in Gabon. He self-funded his medical missions through concerts and speaking engagements. 

All of this was really cool, until he became a medical missionary. His family was against it. He was kept from doing it by many leading theologians and church-leaders because his theology was not sufficiently orthodox. But he devoted his life to it in any event, which was either foolhardy or hip or a mix of both.

Continuing backwards in time, we can point to some other truly hipster Christians. Many readers might assume I would conclude this backwards genealogy of hipster Christians with reference to Søren Kierkegaard, and indeed, if anyone was capable of the ironic distancing native to the hipster, it was Kierkegaard. So, if it weren't for the existence of one other theologian, I would give S.K. the title "one hipster to rule them all," and leave it at that.

One Hipster To Rule Them All

But there is one, the one, who is in the end even more hip than all of the preceding. I am reluctant even to mention the man, for fear too many will flock to read him, and he will become simply cool rather than hip.

Nevertheless, I offer him up, at least in part because he wrote an essay on the letter H, and since hipster begins with H, well...

Hans Georg Hamann is our one hipster to rule them all for a variety of reasons, but at least these. 

First, as I have already mentioned, he wrote a "new apology of the letter h". Here it is in the original. If that's not hip, I don't know what is.

Furthermore, he was the clerk of a mercantile house, and throughout his career held many small public offices, so that he could devote his leisure to intense study. This offers hipster street cred on many levels, not the least of which is intense study in leisure, and working at a mercantile house.

Third, he wrote under a nom de plume: the Magus of the North. That is sooooo cool.

Fourth, he was a cross-disciplinary thinker, a kind of polyglot philologist, theologian, and philosopher who brought Lutheran theology to bear on Enlightment views, especially over against another (decidedly unhip) Lutheran, Immanuel Kant. All critics of Kant are hip, although the true hipster will distance themselves from post-Kantian criticism and perhaps occupy Kant. Perhaps.

Finally, it's rather difficult to read his short essays. No, it's really really hard to read his essays. They're often critical responses to other's work, dense with allusions and compacted into virtually incomprehensible German prose. 

It's hard to say that Hamann had or forwarded a system of his own. In fact some of his stuff is downright incomprehensible. But that makes it even more profound. In an ironic sort of way.

It also hides under the form of its opposite, for it transforms the Christian worldview not from a position of power or authority, but to weakness and marginalization. The greatest mind of that generation (according to other great minds) wrote in his spare time while working in public offices serving the public good.

If that isn't hipster Lutheranism, I don't know what is. This is not waving the hand in the direction of good works. It is occupying good works as a way of life, a vocation, without ever labeling it as such. 

That's hip.

Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide

Saturday, December 21, 2013

What does the fox (church) say?

This is more than a little genius. It's like off the charts amazing. Nice work, mission developer Jason Chesnut, and my friend and church media guru Meredith Gould.

Share widely. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My ten favorite books of the year...

A lot of wonderful books were published in 2013. These would make great last minute stocking stuffers, or first purchases with the gift cards you receive in your stockings next week.

1. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman

This is my favorite book of 2013. It is the book I give away to people struggling with faith, struggling with illness, struggling with grief. It is medicine for the soul, and prose from the gods.

2. Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography by Richard Rodriguez

Another writer whose prose is impeccable, and who snaps our attention back to the way faith is woven implicitly into the beauty of our lives. This happens to be my other go-to recommendation for those on the edges of faith. This book sneaks up on you and wins you over. 

3. Being Promised: Theology, Gift, and Practice by Gregory Walter

This book brings gift, phenomenology, and promise into conversation in ways that will forever transform how theologians talk about God's promised future. For a wonderful review, see The Cresset

4. Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church
by Jessicah Krey Duckworth

Churches that welcome newcomers often run into tensions between new incoming members and the existing membership. Duckworth offers an incredibly rich description of how congregations can address this challenge, which she sees as an opportunity for actually forming communities around the cross. Her exploration of the phenomenon of ongoing peripheral participation is particularly fascinating.

5. Open Mind, Faithful Heart by Pope Francis

I think we have seen a human being among human beings come into his own this year. I read his most recent apostolic exhortation the last two weeks, and fell in love with his way of thinking and writing as much as I am in love with his concrete actions as pope.

6. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart may be the smartest theologian writing in English on the planet. He synthesizes vast amounts of history, theology, and philosophy, but he has, in his most recent books, focused on being lucid, clear, and compelling. It is almost impossible to summarize this book other than to say almost everyone acts like they know what they are talking about when the talk about God, but Hart takes a stab at actually talking about God faithfully and accurately, and in conversation with a wide variety of faith traditions.

7. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber

I've reviewed this book in detail elsewhere, but the best recommendation I can give it is that a large group from my church all voluntarily organized and are currently conducting a chapter by chapter discussion of it at church. 

8. Arguing with God: A Theological Anthropology of the Psalms by Bernd Janowski

The psalms are the prayerbook of the church, and in many ways contain the whole of the scriptures in miniature. However, they're also often misunderstood because we overlook how they indicate who we are as praying humans before God. This is my read for most of the spring while we study the psalms in our mid-week bible study group.

9. Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee

We end up discussing this topic so often, I feel, but it is a conversation that continues to matter. This is now my go-to book to hand out to anyone with questions. Justin handles the conversation gently and kindly, leading in the direction of justice and love.

10. A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor

O'Connor's prayer journal, written while a student at the Writer's Workshop in Iowa City, is brief but powerful. This book includes a facsimile of the journal itself, so after reading the text first in print, you can read it in her own hand. Makes a wonderful morning devotional. Read one a day until finished.

Runner's up

When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible by Timothy Michael Law. Mind = blown.

Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death. Two classics translated afresh. I have been on a Kierkegaard binge all year.

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee. No other novelist so consistently haunts me. This novel does it again.

Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics, and Life by Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas is always worth reading, and this collection, though consistent in general with the Hauerwasian project, pushes in some new directions.

Jesus was a refugee | Stand for Welcome

As Christmas approaches, we look forward to a time of wonder, joy and celebration with our congregations and family members. Yet for thousands of congregations and individuals whose families have been torn apart by our broken immigration system, this Christmas will not bring the joy of celebrating together.

The numbers of deportations are staggering. Each year over 400,000 individuals are deported at incredible human and fiscal cost, breaking up families and separating children from their parents. In addition, tens of thousands of migrants currently languish in detention while awaiting justice, and many more face uncertain futures and the threat of deportation.

In 2013, LIRS and its many supporters tirelessly advocated for Congress to pass legislation that promotes family unity. In June, the Senate passed an historic immigration bill with many positive provisions protecting migrant and refugee families. If passed, the bill would reduce family visa backlog times, improve ways for refugee families to stay together, and give immigration judges discretion to consider the impact of an immigrant’s deportation on his or her family in the United States. LIRS applauds these and other reform efforts and will continue to urge the House of Representatives to pass legislation in 2014 that aligns with our principles for immigration reform.

As you celebrate Christmas with your family this year, we ask that you consider remembering migrant and refugee families that cannot be together in your holiday prayers. You can also take action to let your representatives know that people of faith strongly support compassionate reform that unites families.

Thank you for all you’ve done to stand for welcome this year. We wish you and your loved ones a very merry Christmas!

In peace,

Brittney Nystrom
LIRS Director for Advocacy 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Keeping the Christmas in Christmas

The Sentimental Version

Today included a visit to the post office. I had forgotten it was the week prior to Christmas, even though the reason for the visit was the acquisition of Christmas stamps for our Christmas cards.

There was a line. It was a long line. It was a very long line.

Standing immediately in front of me was a young mom and her two-year-old son. After exhausting various entertainment options, such as opening boxes, doing somersaults, and re-arranging philatelic collectibles in the shop, he turned to me with a huge smile.

"You are in line, too!"

For the next ten minutes or so, we had a little conversation. We then played that game where you say, "Hi five. On the side. Down low. Too slow." 

We played this game over and over. Meanwhile, the line got shorter and shorter.

I should say, I kept moving forward in the line. The line behind me was still long. 

Soon, a few folks from my church were in line behind us. We called out pleasantries one to the other from the front, to the middle, to the back. I swear I live in the biggest small town in America, because it never fails, in spite of our congregation making up only about 1% of the population of Fayetteville, that we see each other everywhere.

Having acquired appropriate Christmas stamps, I got back out on the road. 

There was traffic. There was a lot of traffic. 

You know those moments you have where you can't stop smiling? I was in one of those moments. That child was cute. Running into members of my church makes me happy. I was on my way to eat at a Lebanese restaurant with our campus community, people I really enjoy. 

I was going to drink Turkish coffee.

I also love the post office. I love stamps. I love postal workers. I'm related to some, and have had many of them as parishioners. 

We had just hosted elementary teachers at our church for a breakfast. The Bears group was making bears. People had stopped in to visit all morning. Meetings were accomplished. The car had a full tank of gas. 

You can see where this is going. It was a moment overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness.

The Restorative Justice Version

There's a lot yet to do this week to make Christmas happen. I have sermons to write, communion visits to make, work to finalize. I want to take time to encourage even more people to donate to the ministry of the church and the ministry of Lutheran World Relief as their end of year gifting.

But right now I just want to invite everyone, wherever you are, whatever you are up to, to look up, to take stock, and notice the place and the people among which God has planted you. There are neighbors to love. There are joys to be shared. There are ills to be mended, and wrongs to be righted.

There is a Savior who has come into the world, and as a result the world is changing. I don't mean this in any kind of sentimental sense, even though I currently feel more than a little bit sentimental. I'm a sentimental guy philosophically opposed to sentimentality.

My friend John Nunes of Valparaiso University, writes,
The Christmas drama of God’s mercy in a manger is not at all sentimental. It has nothing to do with God’s feelings for humanity. We think that, as Joseph Sittler puts it, because we’re “ingenious in evasion and flight and self-deception.” Rather, it’s a story of restorative love investing itself at the level of flesh, John 1:14.
He's so right. Christ's coming into the world in the flesh is not exclusively or even primarily to do with bright and shiny and happy things. God did not do it to make us feel good, or make God feel good. 

This is something that burdens us. The holiday sometimes seems to imply we are supposed to be more happy than we feel, more comfortable than we are able to be. But we should not be comfortable, because the truth is many of our neighbors aren't either. If you are like me, as happy as some parts of your morning made you, you also had really hard conversations and you grieved and wept with others.

God came in the flesh to make things right. To heal the broken-hearted. To lift up the poor. To cast down the overly powerful. To show solidarity with the refugee. To comfort the grieving. To offer deep solace to those who have lost children. To take on flesh that flesh might see and participate in the wholeness of God.

So, to all the readers of Lutheran Confessions, I invite us to hold on to this tension. We can put the Christ back in Christmas. It really is about Jesus. We can also put the mass back in Christmas. Christ had mass, he was flesh. So we can have a Mass where we share in his body and blood.

It likely means the synthesis we desperately seek, so transparently need, is to see Christmas in that post office line, AND to see it exclusively and most definitely in the One born into the world who will make all things right, even and including the wrongs we are unwilling to name or admit. 

Christmas is unrepentantly and unremittingly sacred and secular. It is that post office line, and the candlelight vigil, and the workers frantically rebuilding shelter in the Philippines. Disregard of any of it limits the expansiveness of "and he became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth."

Because if he dwelt among all of us, that means all and us

Merry Christmas! 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Typhoon Haiyan | A Thank You from the Field

Unbelievably moving account of the continuing recovery work in the Phillipines since the recent disaster in the Phillipines. Please watch, and share widely.

To donate, visit:

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela

A Young Lutheran South Africa Confession

In order to tell the story of Nelson Mandela's profound impact on my life and spiritual journey, I have to talk about Coca-Cola and my high school church choir. 

I have always preferred Pepsi products to Coke products. Although I drink them much less often now, during high school I was more than a little bit addicted to Mountain Dew, a Pepsi product. For years, our church had a Pepsi machine, for which I was grateful. Then suddenly, one year, I think this was 1987 or 88, the new business manager of our congregation secured a better deal with Coke (or so he reports--he was from Texas and a huge fan of Coke products--to this day when we see each other we kind of tease each other about this event), and one day we found the Coke 
machine standing there in place of the Pepsi machine.

All of us at this time were quite aware of the international anti-apartheid campaign. Although the disinvestment campaign in the United States began on university campuses in the late 70s, it really gained critical mass between 1984-1989. Coca-Cola was one of the more prominent corporations from which to divest. At the time Pepsi had more clearly divested already than Coca-Cola; the process of Coca-Cola's divestment was a bit more complicated; even what I have just claimed is still contested and examined in historical context, historians are researching yet to this day.  

So full disclosure: I, a high school junior and a fan of Pepsi products, actually brought a resolution to our annual congregational meeting asking us to divest from Coca-Cola and bring back the Pepsi machine, because Pepsi was not complicit in the continuation of apartheid, and Coca-Cola was.

I fully confess to the self-interest implicit in this purportedly moral action, but I only realize it now in retrospect. At the time, I really believed it was an important way I could participate in a social justice movement to end apartheid. I remember reading very closely lists of corporations from which to divest, and tried not to buy their products.

Interestingly, Coca-Cola has now worked together with the Weinstein Brothers to produce a movie about Nelson Mandela.

It's always difficult to imagine how we can work for social justice for communities distant from us. South Africa is the most obvious example of this from my childhood. Apartheid was so obviously wrong, so obviously backwards compared to the gains most of us benefited from in some fashion from the Civil Rights movement, that it was a movement to which we wanted to add and with which we identified.

Iowa High Schoolers Singing Hymns from South Africa

The second story is also a high school story. Our church choir, led by our new youth pastor, now Bishop Michael Rinehart of the Gulf Coast Synod, included in its repertoire some great Christian hymns from South Africa. These were by far our favorite pieces, highly memorable, joyous and rocking to sing. They have since found their way into some of the worship resources of the ELCA. The two I remember best are the following:

Thuma Mina

Siyahamba (We Are Marching): Included in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #866

With these hymns, I can't say that they influenced me at a conscious level per se. I was in high school, after all, so I was in that choir to have a great time, make friends, and participate in the life of Christian worship. In retrospect, I realize how profoundly singing a couple of South African hymns as part of our repertoire shaped my understanding of Christian worship as global, ecumenical, and inspired by the Spirit of God which breathes music into many cultures and across all kinds of cultural and national barriers.

Again, this is not disconnected from Nelson Mandela at all. Our tour coincided with the release of Mandela from prison and the end of apartheid in 1990. We were singing on that midwest tour, in solidarity with the spirit of freedom being sung across South Africa that year. And it was Nelson Mandela on whom the charism of peace and justice especially rested.

I have continued over the years to be inspired by Christians living and serving in South Africa. Camp counselors on summer exchange from South Africa who told stories at camp of the continuing struggles for racial equality; the ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission South Africa program; outstanding South African theological educators influenced by the apartheid movement and working to continue its legacy in positive ways.

So on this day I give thanks for the life of Nelson Mandela. He is one of the great humans of this or any age.


Please find published below the full text of an article by Anthony Egan SJ, of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa in Johannesburg.

We woke this morning (Friday 6th December 2013) to the news that Nelson Mandela had died. Though expected for some time, it still came as a shock. I am not going to repeat the well-deserved tributes and obituaries but ask: what does Madiba’s life mean for us from a theological point of view? 
Central to Catholic Social Thought (CST) is dignity of persons and human rights. Even a brief sketch of Mandela’s life shows us how thoroughly he stood for human rights, not just for South Africans but all people. The struggle was for human rights and the end to dehumanisation of the majority of South Africans by apartheid. After 1994, inspired in part by Mandela’s inaugural “Never again!” speech, he led the country towards a human rights culture. Though a collaborative effort of many, our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the Constitutional Court set up to arbitrate the law in the light of the Bill of Rights, is a mirror of his vision. 
Mandela also lived dignity and demanded even in prison that prisoners and captors alike treat each other – and themselves – with respect. The recognition that human dignity is inherent lay also in his campaigning for the rights of women, children, refugees and especially people with HIV/AIDS. While lesser people equivocated or collaborated with stigmatising the latter, Madiba insisted that persons with HIV be treated with respect.Linked to dignity is option for the poor and vulnerable. Mandela, though he came from Xhosa nobility and was by profession a lawyer, could have stayed aloof from the poor. Yet he remained personally in touch with ordinary poor people and tried – within all the constraints of a global economy often indifferent to the poor – to help the marginalised. Though by no means poor himself, he lived simply (certainly by the standards of many of his former comrades) and concentrated his retirement on a series of projects to help poor people and children in need. 
Mandela was also a strong defender of peace and disarmament, in that – while not a pacifist – he promoted nonviolent resolution of conflict wherever possible. He was one of the central players in the negotiations that led to the 1994 democratic transition in South Africa, a process that many doubted could happen. Madiba and a core of similar minded people made it happen. 
Solidarity is another CST theme Nelson Mandela made his own. During his presidency he tried to infuse in South Africans a common sense of nationhood and the need to seek the common good. His famous support for the Springbok rugby team, a minority sport in the country, was an effort to bring black and white together around a common vision, unity in diversity. In his dealings with people he had the unusual knack of being able to meet people where they were and, in doing so, to make them feel he was part of their lives. 
I could go on. But I have made my point. Nelson Mandela deserves all the accolades he has received. But our greatest tribute to him, his greatest epitaph, must be in the years that follow. Madiba, you affected our lives for the good. May God help us all to take forward your great and generous vision.
Anthony Egan, SJ
Text from page
of the Vatican Radio website

Thursday, December 05, 2013

What in the world is the church?

To begin, I risk boring readers by stating some fairly commonplace definitions of the church. Then as we move along, I try and say things that are increasingly strange, but even more true, always remembering that the first and most commonplace definitions of the church are still, in another sense, equally true. Here goes.

The Church is Our Buildings

In one sense, we all think we know what the church is. It's the assembly of people who gather some place for worship, plus everything else that proceeds from that gathered and then sent event.

Intriguingly, we let the building in which these gatherings take place symbolically stand in for the church itself, so the church really is also, in most instances, a building.

Buildings are almost always integral to church because a) people have bodies, and bodies take up space (and need seats), especially when there are many bodies together, and b) the church in worship is formed around the sacraments, most of which include material elements like bread and wine and water that require things like tables and bowls and bathtubs and chalices.

The church is all the people who gather in all the buildings that make up the church. So the church is the whole church, what the creed calls the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

We aren't quite who we are without all of us, although there is some danger either in defining just our one way of being a church of churches as the one way to be church, and/or by mutually recognizing all other churches, reifying our own form of church because there is no need for us to work for structural unity of all the churches if each way of organizing church is itself already church.

Already we are at a level of complexity that gives indication why it is so hard to define "the church," especially the church in relation to other concepts like "culture"--think of Niebuhr's typology of Christ and culture, with the church against, of, above, in paradox, or transforming the culture--or recent inquiries into the church (like James Davison Hunter) as that which can change the "world."

The Church is the Sacrament of the Trinity

In theological perspective, the church gathers because it has been called together as the people of God to worship as the body of Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit. The church is the body of Christ. The church is the people of God. The Church is this in-Ppirited community.

So the church is all about God in Christ in the Spirit. It is the community that lives in hope of the promised community that is on the way. So, as if the sociological dimensions of church as institution were not complex enough to define church, we are required by the nature of the case to add this theological, Trinitarian dimension also.

We still don't know what the church really IS

Just take a couple of case studies.

1) Il Papa: Think about the news released recently that Pope Francis sneaks out of the Vatican at night to serve the homeless. Since the Pope is the Bishop of Rome and the head of the worldwide Catholic church, the pope more than any other living Christian likely can lay claim to representing "the church." And yet in order to live out the call of the Christian in the world (which is what the church collectively is called to do) he has had to do so under cloak of secrecy, because the church that is does not quite live in the way the church is called to be if it is in fact called to new life by one member of the church, the current pope.

2) Missional: Or take the word missional. We like this word a lot these days, primarily because we want to emphasize the sent-ness of the church, God's sending the church into the world participating in the missio dei, the mission of God. When the church realizes this call and focuses on sending, it discovers how complicated distinguishing church from world actually is in practice. Since the members of the church are also members of the world, it is not always simple or helpful to distinguish one from the other. And the very set-apart-ness the church assumes when talking about being missional requires formative practices in the church for the church to be its own thing sent distinctly into God's world. One of the best thought and practice leaders on this insight is 3DM, but then precisely because of this Up-In-Out understanding of the mission of the church, 3DM tends to re-define "church" in quite radical ways.

3) It's all one thing: Or perhaps none of this is even helpful at all, because even when the church is gathered as the church, it is still in and part of the world. There's no escaping the world even as the church desires both to transcend, be set apart, transform, or otherwise impact or change the world. There's nothing other than whatever is the case, the creation, and so the church is always implicit, complicit, and explicitly in and part of the very world it tends to attempt to set itself apart from.

4) It's the thing dying in Western contexts and thriving in the southern hemisphere: Pretty much every church is in decline in the United States now, and it's already a done deal in Canada and Europe. In the meantime, and for reasons that fall well beyond the scope of this post, it's an institution (whatever it is) thriving in the global south.

But what do we want out of church? 

I was struck recently by this short quote from John Updike in A Month of Sundays. "The churches bore... for me the same relation to God that billboards did to Coca-Cola: they promoted thirst without quenching it."

Setting aside for a bit both what the church is sociologically or theologically, or even what it does or how ideally it is to be modeled, in the North American context especially the church gets marketed to us often in some of the same ways as soda or sweet tea, and we have just about as many options for church as we do for soft drinks, but it does indeed leave us to wonder, in spite of the church's role in promoting thirst, whether it actually quenches it. On this latter point, I think most churches and church-leaders would have to admit we might be woefully inadequate, at least in part because we lack the courage to be the church in ways that actually quench rather than promote thirst.

I think this is one reason so many of us are drawn to Pope Francis. He seems to be more than a thirst-promoter. He models a way of being church we can see might actually quench our thirst. It's a rather unique situation, given that he is living as one Christian in the world but as the head of the largest communion of Christians (church) that exists. It's a phenomenon we're all watching but don't completely understand.

More importantly, it remains to be seen (and I count myself in this evaluation) whether we have the courage and faith to follow such a model.

For just one practical example of this, consider a recent report from a committee of the ELCA. This is a product of a committee at the national level of our church (our denomination) but it has radical implications for the local church, as well as the relationship between whatever we consider to be the church and the world:

The MAPP (Ministry Among People in Poverty) committee meeting was largely focused around deepening the conversation about how the ELCA and its congregations engage with people living in poverty or who are otherwise marginalized in society. 
Although there are many notable exceptions, our experience is that frequently what people in our congregations see as their response to the poor is to see the poor as clients for their charity, rather than living in faith community among the poor or facilitating the fullness of community among the poor. As a result we have many examples of places where the poor will come to the Lutheran Church for food and clothing but go to church down the street at the Pentecostal church, because at the Lutheran Church they are poor people, but at the Pentecostal Church they are just people. 
Part of the reason for this is that our standard model for a congregation with a professional staff and a building, costs, in most places, 125K-150K per year just to operate at a minimal level. If we were to take as a definition of a MAPP community as: 
Any word and sacrament community (SAWC, CUD, or Congregation) in which the average household income is less than or equal to twice the national poverty level…  
How can a community like this ever sustain a burden and overhead structure of 125K per year?  
This question led us to consider the idea that the essential or nuclear structure of any mission community consists of the intersection of three interlocking circles of PROCLAMATION, SERVICE, AND JUSTICE. In and of itself, such a community may or may not require the standard load structure of a congregation. But what sort of leadership does it require? What sort of space does it need? Could it be imagined as a community affiliated with some other congregation rather than as a completely independent entity? Could one leader shepherd several of these communities? What is the role of synods and churchwide structures in giving birth to these communities? What sort of ongoing support structure might be necessary to sustain them? How might this model change our approach to small immigrant communities, ex-offenders, runaway or throwaway teens, women who become mothers too soon and must drop out of high school, etc?