Thursday, May 29, 2014

#YesAllWomen #YesAllBiblicalWomen #LiberatingVoices

I am haunted this week by something that feels like a call. Do you ever feel this way, that certain events converge or coalesce, and as difficult as they may be, they require thoughtful attention?

The call began when I started noticing the #YesAllWomen hashtag phenomenon. As an advocate for women’s rights, and a man concerned about the continuing gender inequalities and misogyny in our culture, I knew I needed to listen well. The horrific attacks and killings in Santa Barbara which precipitated the hashtags, this is the kind of news that typically sends me to my knees with an anguished, “Lord have mercy.” In the face of tragedy, supplicatory prayer is a good first step. But we can’t stop there.

What we all witnessed this week if we were paying attention to the hashtag #YesAllWomen was a grassroots, widespread, decentralized, authentic response to tragedy, energized by the shared experience, frustration, and empathy of millions of people.

As a man, I have to prayerfully think through how I should speak and act as I am appropriately reminded, once again, of the continuing gender inequalities in our culture. Anyone who inhabits a space of privilege or cultural dominance, anyone who is a member of the dominant race, gender, culture, language-group, economic group, etc. of a community has a responsibility to listen well to the voice of those who are experiencing oppression.

This is easier said than done, because those of us in positions of power are often blind to the power we have, and are often decidedly defensive because that is one of the best ways to protect our privilege and power.

As a pastor, I was especially interested in following the #YesAllBiblicalWomen hashtags that began to proliferate alongside the #YesAllWomen hashtags. Here are two that struck me most powerfully: “Bathsheba: Because I can’t bathe without being leered at. #YesAllWomen #YesAllBiblicalWomen.” “Hannah: because when I pray differently than you, you judge me and say I must be a drunk. #YesAllWomen #YesAllBiblicalWomen.”

Many of the tweets illustrate how endemic, violent, and sometimes how subtle misogyny is. It requires careful reflection to ensure we aren’t enacting the misogynist scripts our culture has trained us in. And although it is wonderful feminist movements like #YesAllWomen that draw our attention to such important matters, it is particularly incumbent on all of us, not just women, to root out and address misogynist trends in our culture.

This same week, we mourned the passing of Maya Angelou. My wife and I were saddened a few weeks ago when this great poet and author had to cancel her visit to the Fayetteville Public Library for a speaking engagement. Angelou’s first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recounts an event in her young life when she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Afterwards she withdrew into herself and went through a long period of not speaking.

The violence of men towards women includes the many ways men silence women. Imagine if we didn’t have the voice of Maya Angelou in our culture, if a woman in her town, Mrs. Flowers, hadn’t coaxed her out of her silence by reminding her that her love of poetry meant she needed to claim her voice. This was the voice that preached forth such amazing poetry as “Still I Rise”:

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

A parishioner and a member of our worship band recently sent me a recording of a new song, “Safe Love," he had written in honor of his daughter. She works in San Francisco with an organization that advocates to keep women safe from domestic violence. Clearly this theme is working its way into many hearts in many places.

The same day I was reading James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation with a book group at the Flying Burrito. Cone’s book is not an easy book to read for a white theologian who often takes for granted his whiteness, but it’s a necessary read. It’s necessary because sometimes it is the voices of the oppressed, the voices of liberation, who especially remind us of what the Christian faith, what the gospel is all about. Here’s one passage by way of example: 

"God has made the oppressed condition God's own condition. This is the essence of the Biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering...Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity." [pp. 63-64]

God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering. God is on the side of the women, on the side of the oppressed. One of the most important matters of faith in any age is whether or not we who are actively oppressing and humiliating others can recognize that when we do so, we are also oppressing God, the one at the receiving end of our oppressiveness. One of the best first steps is to simply listen to the voices, to really listen, rather than dismiss or condemn. Misogyny and racism and other forms of oppression will only be repaired through an intentional and ongoing conversation that includes active listening and intentional silence, as well as radical speech and faithfully giving voice. We all might start by reading the hashtags, and really hearing the pain expressed in them. That would be a good start.

--Forthcoming as the Faith Matters column for the Northwest Arkansas Times

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


St. Paul's Ascension window on temporary display in new sanctuary
Word association game: Say Ascension, and what immediately comes to mind?

For me, the answer is John Coltrane (he has a crazy great recording by this title, which tries to evoke the theological topic musically).

Then immediately after John Coltrane, I remember the stained glass window I used to scan weekly during worship at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. It was positioned magisterially directly above and behind the altar, so at each Eucharist, as the pastor raised the elements for communion, our eyes were drawn upwards to the ascending Christ, who was also drawing the eyes of the disciples up towards him in his ascent.

Finally, I remember the one and only book-length treatment of Ascension I've read, Douglas Farrow's Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology.

So far, however, that's just a list of things that are typically on the top of my mind in any free association game--jazz albums, churches, and works of systematic theology.

So let's try again, this time with a prayer:

Take time to read the notes, they're worth it
Almighty God, your only Son was taken into the heavens and in your presence intercedes for us. Receive us and our prayers for all the world, and in the end bring everything into your glory, through Jesus Christ, our Sovereign and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

That's the prayer of the day for Ascension of Our Lord, one of the less observed though important feasts of the Christian church year, less observed primarily because it falls on a Thursday. It falls on a Thursday because it is consistently commemorated forty days after Easter. Christ spent forty days among the early Christian community after his resurrection but before his Ascension. On the 40th day, he ascended in the sight of his disciples (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9).

Sometimes this type of prayer is called a Collect because it collects the lessons for the day into a short form on which we can meditate in our devotional life, and gathers the hearts and minds of the community into one prayer. This prayer is no exception.

The first thing to notice: Jesus continually intercedes for us. One of the most beautiful ways to think about prayer is to imagine that whenever we pray, we join Christ in his prayers. In this sense we never pray alone. We always pray "in Christ." He is already praying. Our prayers join his.

The strange thing about the Ascension is that by going away (ascending) he draws even closer to us. The mystery of the ascension is that it makes way for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Christ's living and spiritual presence in the community. His ascent is matched by the descent of the Holy Spirit ten days later at Pentecost.

What this means in practice is simple. We are not to look for Christ above or away, but among and between us. Jesus promised, even before his crucifixion: "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you" (John 14:18). Christ's way of coming to us is by making the community he assembled his own and real presence. We are to look for his presence among us in the gospel words we share and the bread we break together.

As a community "in Christ," we are free to pray for the needs of the world. We pray in hope, because there is enough of the world still broken that we desperately desire healing in Christ. Our appropriate prayer, when faced with concern for kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, or tense situations in Ukraine or Thailand, or concerns for justice for women and immigrants, or concerns in our own communities and homes, is to trust that Christ is already interceding on behalf of all those in any kind of need, and then join Christ in those prayers.

All of our best prayers are prayers growing up into the fulness of Christ's own prayers. And inasmuch as we join Christ in prayer, although our prayers go "up" with his, there is another sense in which the prayers immediately turn us "out" towards the world. Just as Christ's ascension led to an even deeper engagement with the community he had formed via the Spirit he sent, so too our prayers, paradoxically, though lifted away towards God are in the end the very thing that sends us even deeper into this life. They do so because this is what God is like. God is for us, so inasmuch as we are for God we are always more than ever before for each other and the world God made.

This is why I particularly like the conclusion of most collects. They conclude with this very long acclamation of who God is. They are in no way practical. But they do illustrate glory.

"Into your glory, through Jesus Christ, our Sovereign and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever."

Sometimes the thing we need to remember most in order to experience glory and full life now is to be reminded of how replete and full God's own life as Trinity already is, and get wrapped up in that. Christ ascended to the Father because he loves his life with the Father. But their life is so full and glorious that it gives away that glory and life to all the world.

That's Ascension.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Livestreaming Worship

Sunday mornings I find a church. I confess that for a few years in college and even in seminary my biological clock had me waking late on weekends and sometimes I missed service... but in my adult years, I have found I just don't feel good not being in worship on Sundays.

Because I'm a working pastor, most of the time this means leading worship. But on those Sundays when we are traveling, I always look for a good local option. This has, over the years, included Roman Catholic Mass, Orthodox Divine Service, Pentecostal Praise, mountain-top worship near the ski lift, campfire worship at the state park, Moravian and Methodist and more.

This morning, it means live streaming worship through the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Right now the priests are chanting Orthros, the service before the service. For full transparency, I am also live-blogging live-streaming worship.

Let's say you are at a weekend sports tournament and can't find a worship service that matches your schedule. Or you're stuck at home because the car broke down. Or you aren't well and can't leave home. Or for whatever reason, you desire to worship but can't make it to a house of worship. Increasingly there are resources available beyond television broadcast and radio worship to participate in the worship of local congregations.

For the sake of this post, I'm simply not going to debate the merits of on-line worship vs. worshipping in a church. Of course we can all worship at home on our own. Get two people together and sing some hymns and pray. Christ is in the midst of that also. Read the Scripture, break some bread and promise Christ and forgiveness to each other. That's worship also.

If, however, like me you're curious, or simply wish to be part of worship prepared by others, live streaming worship can be a good option.

Below, I've created a of some of the best resources I've discovered for worshipping on-line. I've added some livestream sites. I've also added some study resources that can help anyone prepare for Christian worship, like lectionary commentary sites. And I've linked to a couple of podcasts that focus especially on sermons. Even if you can't time your morning to watch a livestream, you might be able to assemble pastiche worship experience throughout the day--read the lessons upon waking, pray some prayers mid-day, listen to a sermon podcast on your run, share a meal with others in the evening.

I'd very much appreciate you adding to the, and voting on your favorite resources. Together we can help each other discover on-line worship. And if you like the resources a specific congregation creates, would you consider donating to that ministry? Churches can't do this for free. Watching the beauty of Orthodox worship this morning, I loved the beauty of the icons, the lovely chant of the choir, and could almost smell the incense. That congregation deserves some support from those who watch or listen. It's part of worship. It's the offering.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Eleven theses on secularization

1. European secularization is different from Canadian secularization which is different from United States secularization. There are even various stripes of secularization within Europe. In other words, there are varieties of secularization.

2. Much of the hand-wringing about secularization in the United States (the church is dying! we've lost the Millenials! What about all these Nones?!) is energized by a sublimated desire for revival by secularized Christians who want revival while remaining uncomfortable with the term.

3. Secularization slices every which way, creating what Charles Taylor calls cross-pressure. Secularization has not created a bicameral system (Christians vs. New Atheists) but rather a proliferation of ways of patching together religiosity in a post-secular world.

4. This means the freethinker and humanist tents at Block Party in Fayetteville last week are on many levels no different from the Seventh Day Adventist or fundamentalist tents at the county fair. They share more evangelical commitments than they realize. Both have been influenced by secularization to be closed rather than open.

5. In this post-secular situation, those who are religious or secular but have adopted an open posture in the face of the cross-pressure will find great commonality in being equally haunted, just by different hauntings. The so-called religious are haunted by pure immanence. The so-called secular are haunted by transcendence. And there are others. They haunt us also.

6. In a post-secular era, pure immanence phenomenologically speaking may actually be its own kind of transcendence. The peeking in of transcendence may be the new immanence.

7. A correct understanding of the phenomenon of the varieties of secularization is the most important topic for mission and indigenization of faith traditions precisely because secularization problematizes apologetics and returns mission to hermeneutics.

8. The bibliographic corollary: in a post-secular age the most influential handbook for missions will not be practical handbooks on evangelization, but rather analyses of secularization that offer shared language.

9. Fundamentalism is secularization gone rabid, precisely because it illustrates negative forms of secularization while exhibiting those same forms intrinsically.

10. The varieties of secularization drive all theology to return to what it had been in previous eras, but with a difference. All theology is now political theology.

11. Christianity, to abide in this milieu, will need to relate to the post-secular in differentiated and self-differentiated ways. This is what it means to be post-modern rather than hearken back to the pre-modern.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Minecraft | FaithCraft | MineChurch

If you haven't played, or at least heard, of Minecraft, you may not know any eight-year-olds. Sit down at a 2nd grade lunch table in anywhere U.S.A., and it is likely that the shared imaginative world discussed at the table will include (perhaps even be hegemonically dominated by) either Minecraft or Pokemon.

You will be assimilated. And at the table next to you a group of children will be singing a rousing rendition of "Let It Go"!

Christian communities can learn quite a bit from playing Minecraft or observing or participating in Minecraft community. In fact, the fact that Minecraft is a community is the first of at least five things we can learn from Minecraft, so I start there.

Minecraft is collective/communal play

Last summer I was at a family reunion, and I went downstairs to the basement to see what the kids were playing, and my two little cousins were at opposite ends of the couch on their phones. At first, I thought they were together but alone. Then, when I looked, in fact they had created a shared Minecraft server and were playing and building together. It's worth remembering that in the cell phone era, even when people look alone they aren't. There are layers to what is going on in any space we inhabit. Only one layer is the real body layer. At the coffee shop, at the family reunion, there are layers of relationality happening.

Minecraft is collective/communal play

Minecraft is a first-person game of exploration, resource gathering and management, construction, combat, and (if you’re playing multiplayer, which is completely optional) cooperation. There's a creative mode where you are completely free to simply build and mess around, like in a giant sandbox. A quick toggle of a switch puts you in survival mode, which is the first-person exploration option.

Imagine if faith communities curated worship, social ministries, Sunday school, and other contexts as cooperative space for exploration and construction. In fact, many faith communities do this. Think about how a church choir works. They take what they've got--perhaps a messy pile of anthems in the corner office of the choir director--and sit down with a piece they've selected. They have to mess around with it, see how it works, learn their parts, put the parts together to make a whole. Choir rehearsal at its best is a form of play.

Similarly, worship and other ministries of the church might also best be understood as play. Play typically begins with "agree," let's agree to try this together. It is marked by openness, whimsy, a spirit of shared joy. Watch a couple of kids building a treehouse in Minecraft, and you'll see what this looks like. Now imagine a couple of kids trusting they can build a shared faith house together in their church.

There are tutorials

Thousands of Minecrafters record videos of their creations, and show other players how to build what they have built. For example, here's a tutorial for building a medieval church on Minecraft:

Christian faith communities don't always tap into the shared wisdom of Wikia communities. They try to re-invent the wheel, or go it alone. Increasingly, there is no reason to go it alone. There's a wikia entry for almost everything. There are forums for everything. Even a forum for the Minecraft "religion," Cubeaism.

You can play Minecraft even when you're not playing Minecraft

Most kids at school have left their iPads and other devices at home, or at least in their backpacks, but this doesn't keep them from playing Minecraft at school. Minecraft is more than a game. It is an entire imaginative universe. Kids walk the track at recess discussing the best strategies for working with Red Stones. They recount founder stories of the Minecraft universe. The Minecraft world has escaped its digital confines and populates their brains.

In the best scenarios, this is what faith communities can do as well. Faith communities can play together, and play together well. When they do so, participants head back to their homes, or take a walk in the park, and when they are together, they mutually conspire: "How can we do that even better next time?" "What's the connection between the social justice advocacy we participated in this week and the founding texts of our faith?"

Minecraft is a Mission Field

If we only explore digitally-mediated worlds in order to learn more about our own mediated worlds, that's not all bad. Cross-pollination of cultures and world views is a good thing. But it is worth remembering that when we play Minecraft (or really when we inhabit any digitally-mediated context, such as Facebook or Twitter) we have the opportunity to learn what it means to be missionaries in those contexts. If you join a server with hundreds of other Minecraft players and play alongside of them, are there organic ways to live and share faith in those contexts. You don't need to build a medieval church (although that would be cool). It is worth remembering that the shared worlds we inhabit are not merely portals to the real people behind the avatars, but in a way we are all always avatars, all the time, so authentic Christian mission includes indigenization of the faith among the avatars right around you. These are our neighbors.


Minecraft: The Story of Mojang

This is a very good documentary about the creators of Minecraft. It touches a bit on how schools/classrooms are using Minecraft as a teaching tool -- along the lines of what this blog post is talking about.

For more on how the church can learn from various media, see:

Monday, May 05, 2014

Nine ways to not lose your graduating seniors

We are into the thick of senior graduations--2014! Classes finish up this week. Invites are arriving daily in the mail. I'm spending part of the week crafting the baccalaureate sermon.

This Saturday night our youth director and I are taking all our seniors out for Saturday pizza and conversation. I've been getting regular updates about college and military acceptances. I've had the seniors in prayer every week. I've had their parents in prayer even more regularly. It's a big step. These next steps chart a course for much of where life will go.

As a pastor, I am always contemplating how to ensure that seniors in this transition don't get lost. I don't want to lose track of them. I don't want them to get lost. Of course, some seniors want to get lost. These are some wander years, after all. But inasmuch as they are in my flock, I have the desire to connect them in appropriate ways.

Here's my top nine list for walking with seniors through this launch into "adult" life:

ELCA YAGMs at sending worship
Stay connected: Follow them on Facebook, keep their cell in your phone, send them care packages or paper letters. All college students like mail, and are floored if they get "real" mail. Never before have we had so many opportunities to stay connected to people when they move away from us geographically. Make use of the chance in positive ways.

Start a campus ministry at the university or college closest to you: At least in our denomination, funding for campus ministry has been greatly reduced in recent years. If there is going to be an ELCA presence on a campus, it needs to be supported and staffed by a church of our denomination near the school. When I learn that my graduating seniors are headed to the University of Central Arkansas, or Arkansas State University, or other places away from here, my first thought is: Who do I know there that leads an ELCA church or campus ministry? How can I get them connected to people there?

Tell them amazing stories about Gap Year programs: The ELCA, for example, has a program they call Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGMs), with locations in places like Rwanda, the U.K., South Africa, Hungary, Mexico, and more. This year, the ELCA had twice as many quality applicants for positions in this program as they had space. Young people increasingly are looking for meaning-making opportunities like this, and the church is poised, more than any other organization, to provide such life-changing and world-changing experiences. Many denominations offer similar programs, like Lutheran Volunteer Corps, Episcopal Service Corps, and more.

Donate money to fund Gap Year programs: Want young people to do things that will transform them in such deep ways that they will give their whole lives to the gospel, to being the hands and feet of Christ in the world? Make sure they have the chance to serve in these formative transition years.

Make your church feel right for a visiting 18-year-old: This will be harder than you think. Imagine, a young adult may have spent their whole life worshipping in just one church, their home church. No other church is going to ever feel like that "home." This might be good, it might be bad, but as churches we have to think through what it feels like for a young adult to visit a church where almost everyone is at least two decades older than them, perhaps even four or five. Start by trying to remember. When you were 18, what scared you? What made you feel welcome? What did you want to do? Who did you want to see?

Be super high contact in making connections to church or campus ministry: It's not enough to just send the mailing address of your seniors to the campus ministries in the places they are going (although that's a great first step). Call up the campus minister, and let them know about the student coming their way. Suggest friends on Facebook between them. You never know how this will pay off, but it often does. In one instance, I helped a senior connect with a church about three hours away at university. He ended up coming back to our church, but his experience at that church singing in the praise band was something he wanted to do at home also, so he is now a regular voice in our worship band.

Help their parents let go: Increasingly colleges and universities are reporting that students have a hard time the first weeks of college because they get homesick and don't connect. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that the helicopter parent generation is now sending their children to college. They are on the phone with their kids daily even when they go away. For young adults to flourish away, they need a supportive network that also releases them. Parents are struggling emotionally with this. You're the one who stays behind and helps the parents, too.

Create spaces for students to return to: Imagine if every church had internship opportunities for college students during the summer between years of school. Many if not most students need to gain experience in those summer months. How can your faith community be intentional about having the kinds of ministries that matter to young people?

Be intellectually inquisitive and honest: Students go off to school each year and are caught by surprise that universities are places of inquiry, places that ask really hard questions. In part, this is what energized the popularity of the movie God's Not Dead. If churches were more open and honest about the questions, and made doubt and questions central to the Christian experience rather than a shunted off and ancillary issue, less students would be caught off guard by the approach the university takes to asking difficult questions. You can be a Christian AND an intellectual. The university and its culture were formed out of a Christian milieu (specifically, Thomas Aquinas). That more of us don't know this is as much a failure of the church as the academy.