Friday, October 31, 2014

Why I am Pro Life

It's true. Although as a Lutheran blogger and pastor of the ELCA variety, many folks assume I fall solidly over in the "liberal" spectrum on social issues, I'm solidly pro-life.

So then you're going to ask what I mean by that, right?

Well, it means just what it typically means. I hope and pray that abortions would be very, very, very rare, much less common than they are in our North American culture. As much as I agree that women's reproductive rights are important, I think the rights of unborn children are even more important, if we have to set them up in opposition to each other.

I also know that the issue of abortion is fraught with all kinds of emotions, and each family decision to consider one is highly individual. So I very rarely state my arguments for the pro-life position in such stark terms without qualifying them. There are clearly exceptions to the pro-life stance, times when a woman needs to make this decision for herself, and have all the protections of the law, and safe medical systems in place, without fear, without guilt, and with the support of her family and faith community.

I'm also pro-life because I wish we were having more babies as a culture. I think babies are a good thing.

And I'm pro-life because my denomination is pro-life. We have a social statement on abortion, and you can read it if you wish: Two of my favorite summary quotes from the social statement include:
  • As a community of forgiven sinners, “our love for neighbor embraces especially those who are most vulnerable, including both the pregnant woman and the life in her womb”
  • The gift of human life comes from God, has intrinsic value, worth and dignity in all phases of development, and is guided by God’s law 
So this brings me to the next point. I'm pro-life, but I'm pro-life not simply on the issue of abortion, but more widely, I'm for life because I believe the Spirit is the Spirit of Life, Christ came to redeem and give us new life, and God the Father created all life.

As such, I am called as a Christian to advocate for systems of life and human flourishing. If you read this blog regularly, you probably know there are certain topics that come up over and over again that I believe are important "life" topics in our contemporary life. Here are some examples:

So now let me end by telling a couple of stories, this time about the LGBTQ community. Sometimes people ask me why I am so focused on advocacy for, being an ally with, this community. It's a good question. If we were to stack up all the social justice issues of our day, would advocacy for the LGBTQ community rise to the top? Perhaps the answer is no. If you asked me to force rank current issues, I'd probably say I'm most concerned for the vulnerable population in Syria most of all, and for immigrant children in our own country languishing in cages and inhumane border facilities most of all.

However, I do not meet these situations on a daily basis. They aren't "immediate" to me, if you will. On the other hand, I see daily the impact of a death-dealing community on my neighbors and church members who are LGBTQ. So I end up working for justice on their behalf because they are my immediate neighbors, and my friends.

A couple of stories. First, there is a couple I blessed this summer when marriages for same-gender couples were temporarily legal in Arkansas. I got a call early on a Monday morning saying, "Could you come down to the courthouse and marry us?" Of course I said yes. These are people I love, members of my own flock. So I drove down to the courthouse with my three year old and my wife, and we stood with them after they came out from the courthouse with their marriage license, and we prayed for and blessed them and helped them say their vows before each other and before God.

I think strengthening families is definitely about life. But then, even more, they drove down to Little Rock the next day, and for the first time were able to put the second mom's name on their son's birth certificate. Until that day, they did not have guarantees that they could both visit him in the hospital in emergencies. They lacked the security all other families regularly have to be able to care for their son.

That's about life.

Yesterday I hung out for an hour at St. Martin's, our campus ministry center. While meeting with our campus pastor and a few others, a representative of the transgender community came in to talk with our campus pastor. They are planning a transgender day of remembrance ceremony there in November. This annual observance remembers those who have died in the past year through acts of violence against transgender people. So far this year, hundreds of people have been killed simply because they were transgender. 

So it amazes me, given that so much violence against the transgender community comes precisely out of the religious community (think, for example, of how the current campaign against an anti-discrimination ordinance in our own city, Fayetteville, is led by religious communities who should know better, who should be against, not for, discrimination), that this person is willing to come into our campus ministry community, and wants to work with our pastor to plan a day of remembrance service.

That's about life. That's about protecting life, and about extending life and community to a group of people so often excluded from it.

Another parishioner who is in a same-gender marriage regularly works to battle the prevalence of rape in our society. There's an organization for this:

Because rape is the opposite of life. And Christians are called to be about life.

I could go on. I simply can't tell you how often I've had conversations with folks who are LGBTQ who, when they told their faith communities they were gay, that the pastor said things like, "You can leave." or "you can't teach Sunday school." or "Get out!" Christian communities single LGBTQ people out often, denying them freedoms, casting them out, sometimes wanting them to wear some kind of label that says, "I'm gay, so be careful of me."

That's death-dealing kinds of stuff. It kills the soul. And since these are people I know, and they are my friends, and I love them, I know of no other way to advocate for life than to extend whole-hearted welcome to them, and guarantee to them all the ministries of the church extended to everyone in our faith community.

Because it's about life!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Why I Bless Same Gender Marriages... and you should too

Many churches across the country are having to discern in new ways how they will respond to changes in their state laws guaranteeing freedom to marry for same-gender couples.

As part of my letter of call, my congregation called me to speak for justice on behalf of the poor and the oppressed, and to guide the congregation in proclaiming God’s love through Word & deed.

This central part of the call of a pastor is not always easy. Working for justice on behalf of the oppressed is not always easy. In this post I indicate why I perform same-gender blessings (and marriages if and when they become legal in Arkansas). I feel I owe it to everyone, especially those for whom I hope I am an ally, to describe what I believe on this topic, and why I move forward in ministry energized by it as I do.

When the church is in error, even if it is a long-standing error with considerable historical precedent, it is called to repent and change. For too many centuries, the church has been complicit in the hurting and shaming of families in same-gender relationships, and those whose sexual identity differs from heteronormativity.

In fact, when the church discovers it has sinned at this systemic of a level, it is called to take every action it can in repairing the harm it has done to oppressed communities, rather than continuing it. It should avoid any actions that might tend in the direction of continuing harm and exclusion.

Many congregations, now that marriage equality has been established in something like 30 states across the country, are at a crossroads. They will feel compelled to act. One of the worst steps any congregation can take at this juncture is to put such relationships, or the blessing of them, up for a congregational vote.

First of all, the pastoral ministry and its extension to all peoples should not be a matter of vote. When we vote to not bless same-gender relationships, we are considering denying to members of our own congregations the blessing and support so many others freely seek in our congregations. We call into question the validity of blessings already conducted. And we alienate both the members of the congregations who are LGBTQ, and their allies.

I fully understand that some others in Christian congregations feel they are hurt by the openness of church leaders or churches to begin blessing families previously denied such blessings. It’s hard to acknowledge our complicity in sin and oppression. It’s hard to change. But the pain somebody feels because their beliefs about what others should receive as a blessing is of a different order of magnitude, and is of a completely different sort, from the pain people legitimately experience when they are discriminated against on the basis of their age, race, gender, or sexual orientation.

So I promise, as a pastor in this church, that whenever any couple approaches me for pastoral care and preparation for the blessing of their relationship, I will treat them in exactly the same way, whether it is a heterosexual couple, a same-gender couple, an elderly couple, divorcĂ©es, a poor couple, or an inter-racial couple. I will prepare them for marriage or blessing using the Prepare-Enrich resources I always use to counsel families as they prepare for life together. Everyone has a guarantee from me that they will not be excluded or turned away.

On the specific issue of voting about this at congregational meetings, or voting on it at all. Not only do I not believe it is good or right to vote about relationships, I also believe it is perhaps even inappropriate to gather for such a vote in the first place. It sets a bad precedent for congregations to begin taking votes on who in the congregation the pastor or other leaders can be available for for blessing and support. As much as I love the social statement our denomination adopted in 2009, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, I think it failed at this critical moment, it put relationships to a vote. I was at that time and still remain in agreement with dissenting position 2 of the social statement, which argued for more unequivocal statement of full inclusion for LGBQT persons in the life of the ELCA.

If I do not believe congregations should vote on the blessing of same-gender marriages, what is the alternative practice we should engage in? If we are to take any actions as a Christian communities to repair the heterosexism so long rampant among us, we should simply adopt a wide statement of welcome, like the following:

Our congregation embraces Jesus' message that God loves and accepts every person.  We practice acceptance, belonging, caring, compassion, and spiritual growth.  We believe in creating space at the Lord’s table for all God's children to transform our church and world into the full expression of Christ's inclusive love.

We respect the inherent and valuable contributions each member makes to the Body of Christ.  We celebrate our diversity and recognize the sacred worth and dignity of all persons regardless of sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, race, age, ethnicity, physical or mental capacity, education, or economic or marital status.

As we journey towards reconciliation, we proclaim this statement of welcome to all who have known the pain of exclusion and discrimination within the church.  We welcome all persons to full participation in the life and ministries of our congregation.

At the same time, we recognize that there remain differences of opinion among us.  We do not seek to erase our differences.  We welcome all in our journey together in faith toward greater understanding and mutual respect.  As a Reconciling congregation, we invite all people to join us in our faith journey toward greater love, understanding, and mutual respect.

As this is from God, who reconciled us . . . through Christ, and who gives us the ministry of reconciliation.  II Corinthians 5:18

If this were on the agenda of council meetings across the country, or at upcoming congregational meetings, I would be fully in support of it, and believe it to be commensurate with the call extended to me when I began ministry as a pastor in Christ's church. It would be the church joining wholeheartedly God's heart for justice.

For further reading, consider the following:

Monday, October 20, 2014

95 Theses for the 21st Century Church

Disputation of Doctor Clint Schnekloth on the Power and Efficacy of Reformations (2014)

Martin Luther famously posted 95 theses for consideration and discussion (though there is some debate as to where he posted them, and whether they were as singularly nailed to a blank door as is often depicted). Although the following theses make no claim to the same cohesion and rigor as Luther's 95, they do riff on them. 

1. Jesus Christ, when he said, "Repent," willed that our whole lives should be lives of repentance.
2. Although penitential disciplines are infrequently exercised in the contemporary religious landscape, they are still the starting point for life.
3. This stands in tension with the dominant faith of North America, moralistic therapeutic deism, which emphasizes that God exists, helps me live a good life, and is there for me in my needs.
4. Because moralistic therapeutic deism is the dominant faith of most people in our culture, regardless of actual religious tradition, true repentance will be misunderstood by many.
5. When it is misunderstood, it will also not be practiced, and instead practices will arise to take its place--especially self-sufficiency, partisanship, and closed confessionalism.
6. Glory and success will become the markers of communities that forget repentance; the weakness and suffering of God (and the human) will in those places be denigrated.
7. In large part, although secularism is not to blame for this shift, it is the rise of secularities that has created the conditions for this type of religiosity to take hold in our context(s).
8. We have before us the condition where the religious and non-religious can equally disregard repentance because selves have become buffered.
9. This rampant individualism, each buffered self doing its own thing, is actually a shift in the culture away from rather than towards true freedom.
10. We find ourselves each doing our own thing, which amounts to the same thing, so we live under the hegemony of experiencing bondage as freedom.
11. True freedom arises in recognizing our common humanity, our common createdness, and in so doing letting down the barriers to our individual selves.
12. This, or something like it, is an aspect of repentance; being open to the other in order for the other to free us from who we have caged ourselves into being.
13. One of those others to which we are open is Scripture. We are open to the possibility that the Scripture might tell us who we are.
14. However, we also read Scripture against Scripture, because the past errors of our reading have read themselves into Scripture itself.
14. So we read Scripture against Scripture in order to repair gender inequality, address racism, overcome heterosexism, break down the stratification of classes.
15. "The secular is not the taken-for-granted opposite of religion but a set of conditions in which modern ideas of religion are constructed." (Varieties of Secularism, 25)
16. The fragilizing of our options, secular or sacred, is another instance of the centrality of repentance, of mutual repentance, in order to honor the conditions of our mutual fragility.
17. In this way, new communities can exist in place of the old.
18. Where there was the parish, hierarchical and centered in the church, now there are new parishes, patterned networks of mutual reciprocity that share geographical space and exist for the good of the neighborhood.
19. It is not good to live above place.
20. In a quantum world, the idea of being localized to a place, though not relativized, has been radicalized.
21. So the new parish is both local and in one place, but also networked to all the places where there are places.
22. We know that the secular is truly present not when the new parish has lost its sacredness, but rather when the blend of secularities within a place is held sacred in its mutual indwelling.
23. Everywhere secularities happen, cuius regio, eius religio becomes true again but differently.
24. The whose of whose region (cuius) becomes the network itself rather than the governor.
25. The network in the new parish becomes the new parish when it recognizes itself.
26. The first mark of this network is repentance, repentance to living above place, setting up dividing walls, living inattentively.
27. Repentance is paying attention.
28. Repentance is laughing again.
29. Repentance laughs at itself, and its inattentions.

30. The buffered self lacks humor because its only posture can be ironic, but ironic in the sense of you standing there, being seriously ironic.
31. A mark of repentance is laughing at things others find funny.
32. Communities arise and take shape when they can be humorously human together.
33. Reformation is formation, and formation is neurological. Reformation includes reforming the brain.
34. But the brain isn't everything, even if consciousness has been an obsession of theologians and philosophers since Schliermacher through Husserl.
35. Reformation includes the the formation of all things, tending towards the grain of the universe and the future of God.
36. This formation requires repetition.
37. Repetition is central to identity in an age of distraction (Kierkegaard, Deleuze, Pickstock)
38. The future of the faith is linked to our best approaches to non-identical, or complex, repetition.
39. Repetition of some kind is integral to repentance properly understood, repentance not as grief over wrong-doing, or shame at failure, but turning and moving in a different direction.
40. The new direction to which we are to turn is the one promised to us, and given to us, in Christ.
41. The age of distraction attempts to cloud the articulation of promise, and hide the gift.
42. Christians are to be taught again and again to enter into solidarity with the poor.
43. Christians are to learn again and again to think of themselves based on what they have been given, not what they earn.
44. Christians are to understand their whole lives as non-identical repetition of Christ's own life in them.
45. Christians are to be taught this means they are completely open to the other, and the discovery of faith in the other as the rediscovery of their own.
46. Christians are to be taught this includes the religious other, perhaps especially the very other.
47. Christians are to be taught that their very identity rests not in bounded identity, but open solidarity.
48. Christians are to be taught they will discover this identity again and again in the Eucharist.
49. Christians are to be taught they are washed into this identity in baptism.
50. Christians are to be taught that this identity is sustained in Scripture, but never at the expense of the other or the community.
51. Christians are to be taught again and again to confess their faith, but hold it light.
52. Those fully committed to secularism are still haunted by the transcendent. Immanence is too full for itself.
53. Those convicted in faith are still haunted by secularism, for the transcendent is ever-receding in greater and greater immanence.
54. Part of the continuing reformation is recognizing that not everyone is haunted by secularization, and so not everyone is haunted like we are.
55. All institutions who have entered into full communion agreements in the late modern era who have agreed about communion but have not yet joined up their institutions have not actually entered into full communion.
56. The speck in the eye is the best magnifying glass. (Adorno)
57. To magnify our sin, perhaps God has hardened our hearts so as to remain in the institutions we deserve.
58. Yet just deserts are not at the heart of repentance. True repentance leads to dessert.
59. That there are food deserts gives indication we have not yet accomplished Christian unity.
60. The failure of each religion is entwined in the success of the others, and the hunger of the poor.
61. No direct correlation between the disunity of the church and the hunger of the poor has been established, but unity and an end to hunger both should be tried.
62. There is one church.
63. The church is holy.
64. The church is catholic.
65. The church is apostolic.
66. No one knows what these terms mean in a divided church in a secular age.
67. If it means anything it means unity in diversity.
68. If holy, then holy precisely in lowliness.
69. If catholic, then whole only in part.
70. If apostolic, then apostolic arising from the grass rather than handed down by the hands of the apostles.
71. If the 20th century was the century of the Luther Renaissance, the ecumenical movement, and Vatican II, then the 21st century will be the century of the Nietzschean Renaissance, the ecological movement, and Vatican III.
72. Which is to say, Reformation will include the atheist, the earth, and Rome.
73. It remains to be see whether this new conversation will include the Holy Spirit.
74. If it does, the task of this century will be to properly think through the work of the Spirit in penitential reform.
75. The further task of this century will be to reconsider architecture and faith, architecture once again wedded to the suffering of the world.
76. The worship wars will end, and those who worship may simply go home.
77. The economic forces of late modernity will send most clergy home as well, blending once again what has too long been put asunder... the laity and clergy.
78. But all prognostications, all future theorizing, will be proven wrong, sometimes by being proven right.
79. The end will not happen, because it already has.
80. The end will not happen, because it is on the way.
81. The end will not happen, because it is happening.
82. To wit: Even if a unity of faith is not possible, a unity of love is. (Hans Urs von Balthasar)
83. Again: We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
84. Again: Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. (Stanley Hauerwas)
85. Again: To sing about freedom and to pray for its coming is not enough. Freedom must be actualized in history by oppressed peoples who accept the intellectual challenge to analyze the world for the purpose of changing it. (James Cone)
86. Again: "And so I ask God to rid me of God," Meister Eckhart says. The God who is known and familiar is too small for him.” (Dorothee Soelle)
87. Again: “Once one understands that the evolving community of life on Earth is God’s beloved creation and its ruination an unspeakable sin, then deep affection shown in action on behalf of ecojustice becomes an indivisible part of one’s life.” (Elizabeth Johnson)
88: Again: This is an anthropological discovery of unimaginable proportions. At exactly the same moment as God is revealed as quite beyond any human understanding marked by death, entirely gratuitous love, so also it is revealed that the human understanding marked by death is something accidental to being human, not something essential. Here we have the linchpin of any understanding of original sin: that what we are as beings-toward-death is itself something capable of forgiveness. Furthermore we can see that the only way we are able to appreciate our true condition as humans-marked-by-death is precisely as it is revealed to us that that condition is unnecessary. It is in this way that the doctrine of original sin is the culmination of the revealed understanding of being human: the shape of divine forgiveness revealed in the resurrection of Jesus shows itself to stretch into our congenial involvement with death. The doctrine of original sin is the doctrine of the un-necessity of death.” (James Alison)89. In the midst of all this thinking and reforming, we are called to remember that it is music that will carry us forward. Reformation is sung.
90. Too many reformations have been iconoclastic, to the detriment of art. Reformations grounded in repentance will honor the icons of the saints.
91. Additionally, many reformations have been too static, too focused on stability, whereas the mark of true Reformation is agility. Reformation dances.
92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Peace, peace," and there is no peace!
93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Cross, cross," and there is no cross!
94. The Reformation is dead.
95. Long live the Reformation.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Altar Rail that Divided the World

Why is there, in vast swaths of North American Christianity, mutual disenfranchisement of the clergy and the laity? Why do so many clergy feel overly set apart by their congregations, and burdened with more than their fair share of the ministry? Why do so many of the laity feel frustrated by heavy-handed clericalism, a sense that they can't ever really break in to leadership in the congregation because the pastor does all of it?

I've been talking about this topic for a while now with a good friend and theologian, Gregory Walter at St. Olaf College, who studied at seminary with me but who has remained among the "laity" while serving as a professor of religion and studying and teaching theology as his lifelong vocation.

As a lay person, he experiences church differently than I do. As a friend, he alerts me to the ways clergy regularly disenfranchise parishioners. In a recent text exchange, he wrote this:

I'm going to come back around to the points he raises in a bit, but first a disclaimer. I would like to think that in my own ministry, I don't disenfranchise folks. My ideal is to, as my letter of call states, equip the saints for the work of ministry. I desire to be a facilitator of the ministry of others, not a block to it.

However, in the congregations I have served, I have had parishioners, over time, report to me feelings on both ends of the spectrum. Some folks report that I really have equipped them for ministry, and they feel I lead in a way that creates space for the ministry of everyone. I have had others report that they felt like I said in an unspoken (or perhaps even spoken) manner, "You don't need to do this, I've got it."

I imagine there are two reasons for this phenomenon. First, it probably happens because I treat different people differently. I don't mean to, but it might happen. So, it might be that I encourage the ministry of some while discouraging the ministry of others. In those instances, mea culpa. I'm really sorry, and I repent. I want to do better.

Second, it probably happens that different types of parishioners perceive my actions differently. The complaint of disenfranchisement might be a self-imposed one, created by the emotional reactions of people. They might expect to be disenfranchised, or simply perceive actions not intended as such as tending that way. Sometimes it might arise out of the past experience of the parishioner, or their response to a new leadership style (mine) than what they were used to.

Basically, there's just something about that altar rail. The old joke goes: Do you know why there are altar rails in Episcopalian churches? Answer: To divide the Republicans from the Democrats. But the real joke, which isn't a joke, is that ordination and clericalism hoards too much of the ministry on one side of the rail, and the laity, oddly but really, let this happen or even passively encourage it, even while being discouraged by it.

What's more awkward, however, is that this cycle is mutually reinforcing, and most of us, clergy and laity, are unaware of how deeply this system is embedded in our congregational practices. It's probably why clergy have a hard time retiring. They simply don't know what to do in a congregation if they aren't the pastor. Frankly, it will mean being on the receiving end of the hoarding they have done for so many years.

It's also why strong leaders in congregations who aren't pastors frequently leave or get frustrated--there's very little room for strong leadership than isn't the pastor taking the lead.

Returning to Greg's note above, I'd like to focus from here on out on worship. Although we might talk about the ministry of the people of God in all its forms, and how the clergy/laity divide influences things like social ministry, mission, etc., by focusing on worship and how we prepare for it, we can offer a really good test case for the thesis that clergy and laity mutually disenfranchise each other (and themselves), in different ways.

Take my own worship leadership, for example. I offer it here not as model practice, but as actual practice. Ideally I will modify some of what I analyze here because I realize it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. But I need to describe for you what I actually do, here, at Good Shepherd in Fayetteville, AR. I'd love for my own parishioners, and other readers, to weigh in and modify my description according to their own perceptions.

Here's what we do. The pastor is primarily responsible for preaching, and for presiding at the sacraments. The laity take many of the other roles. We have an assisting minister who chants, prays, and assists at the meal. Other lay people serve as lectors, ushers, greeters, and on the altar guild. A professional lay person plays the organ and directs the choir. A lay worship band leads music for the contemporary service. Two other lay leaders do sound and video. Other lay leaders offer healing prayer (our parish nurse). There is a worship committee that focuses on paraments and other worship supplies and seasonal decor. We have a fairly large choir who also offers an anthem most Sundays, plus some other music ensembles like chimes and a band.

During the actual worship service, the leadership of worship is divided up by these roles. We maintain lists of folks who have volunteered for these roles, and our office manager assigns them to specific services and Sundays. Only a rather limited subset of the entire congregation volunteers in these roles. By my estimate, about 20% of the congregational membership volunteers for some kind of worship leadership role. That's not bad, but it's still only 1 out of 5.

Greg's point is that lay people are left out of the planning of worship. I think this is true. Although I sometimes think about the sermon mid-week by posting status updates on Facebook or talking about the text with folks, etc. I do not have a regular group that meets to evaluate my sermons after the fact, or study the text with me to prepare the sermon in advance. We do not have a committee that selects the lessons or studies the lectionary texts to make decisions about the liturgy for various seasons. I write or adapt the prayers of the people (I once tried to organize a group to write these, but it kind of fizzled out).

I don't think I've thought of worship planning as a form of Christian faith formation, although I should and could. We do not rotate people in and out of the worship committee and other worship leadership roles so that a majority of the congregation, over time, connects to and plans worship.

And we don't share the leadership of the sacraments. If I'm not here, there can't be communion, unless we find another pastor to preside. Interestingly, I disagree with this practice theologically, but I imagine most of the lay leaders actually agree with it. They want a pastor to preside.

I don't think it occurs to most people to baptize others. They leave that to the pastor. Similarly, the office of the keys, offering confession and absolution, is left to the clergy, and I do not think we have any solid practices in place to offer or exercise this office with joint lay and clergy planning and leadership.

I could go on. But you see the point, I think. You could analyze your own context, and tell us what you do. It would be informative.

I like the ideas presented by Greg. I think they would be worth implementing. I do believe some congregations probably already have structures in place that accomplish this. I remember reading stuff from Doug Pagitt in Minneapolis, and perhaps others, about sermon-planning together with a group. Some traditions (like the Quakers) even allow the sermons to arise, inspired by the Spirit, by whoever is in the gathering.

In order to break the negative cycle currently in place, of clergy and laity mutually disenfranchising each other, both sides of the rail would need to own their contribution to the problem. Clergy would need to recognize the extent to which they have happily hoarded the ministry. As much as clergy complain about having so many parts of ministry placed on their shoulders, clergy are also, as a group, quite enamored of that Cheap Trick song, "I want you to want me, I need you to need me."

On the other hand, laity need to stop caving so quickly and readily to a system that disenfranchises them. As much as many laity complain about disenfranchisement, they are also, on the other hand, quite happy to let the pastors do quite a bit of the ministry (especially talking in front of groups of people and praying in public). It wouldn't take much for the laity to take back the ministry. #Occupychurch anyone?

In a sense what I am saying here is laity should become pastors, and pastors should become laity. Clergy should return to the priesthood of all the baptized. The priesthood of all the baptized should claim its priesthood.

On the one hand, this is an unfulfilled aspect of the Reformation. In our practice, even if not in our theology, we have set clergy and laity apart from each other to the detriment of both.

Clergy feel alone and burdened, while they enjoy their power.

Laity feel powerless and passive, but enjoy their seats and the freedom to critique without being responsible.

There are also probably great cross-sections of the laity who have no such feelings, or practice nothing of the sort, and many clergy who share their ministries and equip their people.

Even in these instances, however, the divide still holds, because in order to equip, you already have to be, in a certain sense, the patron. Or to be so unconcerned for the organization of the church, as many laity are, you already have to be as free as the laity are not to feel responsible.

I am aware this argument will meet resistance. I am also aware that a good portion of the phenomenon is energized by who is salaried in a church, and who is not. On that matter, we should all go back and read Kierkegaard's Judge for Yourselves again.

The organic church movement wants to get rid of clergy altogether (Neil Cole). The Orthodox movement wants to maintain the role of bishop/pastor as essential to the church (Zizioulas), with the laity having as their proper role simply saying the "Amen."

The ministry writ large is the most contested field in ecumenical conversations. Just look at the lengthy portion of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM) that is devoted to it (link to this here).

So I'll leave the topic lifted but not settled here, as it needs to be. What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Busy is the new works righteousness

Before you read any further, go read this long essay by Alan Jacobs first. Please?

Okay, welcome back.

Sometimes I think a blog post should just link to another post, then end there. Jacobs' essay is so worth reading, so helpful, I am tempted to do that.

But I'm inspired by this line in Jacobs' essay:
I guess what I’m asking for is pretty simple: for writers of all kinds, journalists as well as fiction writers, and artists and academics, to strive to extricate themselves from an “artificial obvious” that has been constructed for us by the dominant institutions of our culture. Simple; also probably impossible. But it’s worth trying. Few things are more worth trying.
So I'll go a little further, attempting the impossible, because it is worth it.

Here's the artificial obvious: We're all so proud to be so busy. As much as we complain, a considerable part of our identity and self-worth arises from being so busy.

Periodically, we doubt whether we ought to be so busy. Then we spend time feeling guilty about being so busy. This only lasts until we are busy again (you can only feel guilt about being busy when you have enough time to regret), or until the gap in busy-ness is sufficiently lengthy that we desire a return to the very thing that ails us.

This is our obduracy. We like being busy.

We like being busy because we enjoy our slavishness to the dominant culture, to late market capitalism and the like.

No wonder that the average Christian, when surveyed, although participating in a community that confesses justification by faith apart from the works of the law, still actually believes in salvation by works.

We prefer to save ourselves. We prefer to be busy. Busy is who we are.

Now, I like to be efficient as much as the next person. I like to get things done. I like to read stuff like this, that helps me get even more efficient. Productivity isn't a bad thing.

That being said, it is wise to doubt our work. We might get really efficient doing the wrong things. Some soldiers operating machine guns during World War I were highly efficient, mowing down thousands of enemy soldiers. They were very effective at what they did. Does this mean it was worth doing?

Hats spinning on fans
A man covered in George Washington stamps
On the other hand, many of those who appear to do little or nothing, may in fact be "spending" their time better. Two groups of people who spend their time in a way others rarely understand: monks and panhandlers.

If you think panhandling is easy, and panhandlers don't earn what they receive, then you haven't ever pan-handled. It's hard work. But even if it weren't, panhandling is also intriguing because it is a type of transaction outside the capitalist system. It is actually the regular reception of gifts. Interesting that so many of us are angered when something we give as a gift isn't used in the way we wish. Yet isn't that the nature of gift.

Monks, on the other hand, give their time to prayer. They are transacting their time not for cash but in prayer, to God. More than once, I've heard someone say, "It's such a waste, talented people spending their whole lives in prayer." I guess it matters quite a lot what you think prayer does or accomplishes. And who is to say, even if it does nothing at all, whether time spent in prayer has more or less value than time spent trading shares, or creating a product, or playing a game.

Other strangelings: Do we vacation because we rest, because we are abiding with no need to do, or do we vacation because we have to recover from all our work, or to take payment for how much we have worked.

"Take a break, you deserve it!"

The truth: Although we wake up most days assuming how we plan to shape our time is worth the time, it's not actually clear this is so. It may be, but our first step in doing the impossible, extricating ourselves from the artificial obvious, means complexifying the valuation of our time.

Last week I spent an evening at the State of Art exhibit at Crystal Bridges. Some of the most incredible art required exorbitant amounts of time. Cutting out thousands if not millions of letters from books to create new prints. Covering the human body in George Washington stamps. An efficiency consultant, asked whether this would be a good use of time, might doubt. But the artists, entangled in creativity, don't.

Who is right?

And in the meantime, might we wonder, what can post-busy-ness look like?

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

What is the catechumenate? Is it Lutheran?

Our congregation is hosting its third catechumenate this year (to learn more about the catechumenate as a faith formation practice, visit God is up to some amazingness through it. The last two years, we have seen dozens of adults affirm their baptism, multiple adults be baptized for the first time, not to mention dozens of children and infants. Those who participate in Our Lives This Text (OLTT) come away from it with a deeper understanding of their faith and commitment to the life of the church. We anticipate many being received into our congregation at the Easter Vigil again this year. It is a beautiful service to which all are invited. It rivals Christmas Eve, with candles, readings, fire, water and meal.

The New Fire at the Easter Vigil

You can join us for the next gathering of Our Lives, This Text this Sunday evening, October 12th, at 6 p.m. We begin with a shared meal. Then Pastor Clint will offer an introduction to the history of the Lutheran church and a presentation on the ELCA and its ecumenical relationships. After this, we break out into small groups for bible study discussing the gospel lesson from Sunday morning. Nursery care will be provided, and since there are so many children participating this time around, we'll offer them a mini-camp experience while the adults gather for bible study.

Many of our participants are coming to Christian faith after long absence, or perhaps for the first time. Some have past experiences having been hurt in the church, and are wary. Because of this, we try to offer during the fall a very open process, space for questions and exploration. Later, after Christmas, we intentionally go deeper, begin meeting weekly, and include welcome rites in worship that begin to connect the group more and more intentionally to the sacramental life of the congregation.

Other participants come to us because they have moved to Northwest Arkansas. They are transferring from other Lutheran churches. For them, OLTT becomes a space to meet new people, get to know the congregation, and deepen their faith.

Over the course of the year, participants in OLTT engage the core Lutheran and Christian practices of our church. We study Scripture together. We build community together around a shared meal. We match newcomers with sponsors, current members of the congregation. We center our time in the sacraments, preparing for affirmation of baptism or baptism at the Easter Vigil. We give our participants a copy of the Lutheran Study Bible ( and the hymnal, so that they are formed in the rich resources of our faith. In some ways, the process is like confirmation or catechism for adults.

The "curriculum," if you want to call it that, is liturgy and life. The whole process is focused on our worship and on Scripture. Sometimes we call this ministry of Word & Sacrament. It's the way Lutherans practice faith. And then, centered in that faith, our lives are poured out in service and love in the world.

Everything is structured to make space for the new in our midst to have a place, and for our congregation to attend to them.  It keeps our attention focused, like a laser, watching for opportunities to invite new people into the process. Making the welcome of newcomers central to our faith practice as a congregation has the double benefit of being a positive experience for newcomers, and also changes the existing congregation, reforming us continually to stay focused on the most essential aspects of faith.

If all of this intrigues you, consider volunteering this year as a sponsor. Or if you are reading this invitation for the first time, wondering whether life at Good Shepherd is a good match for you, join us Sunday evening to just check things out. We really mean it when we say ALL are welcome.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

A Simple Way to Bless Pets (on the weekend of St. Francis)


P: The Lord be with you.
C: And also with you.

The Lesson
Psalm 8

Lord, our Lord, how majestic
    is your name throughout the earth!
    You made your glory higher than heaven![b]
From the mouths of nursing babies
    you have laid a strong foundation
    because of your foes,
    in order to stop vengeful enemies.
When I look up at your skies,
    at what your fingers made—
    the moon and the stars
    that you set firmly in place—
        what are human beings
            that you think about them;
        what are human beings
            that you pay attention to them?
You’ve made them only slightly less than divine,
    crowning them with glory and grandeur.
You’ve let them rule over your handiwork,
    putting everything under their feet—
        all sheep and all cattle,
        the wild animals too,
        the birds in the sky,
        the fish of the ocean,
        everything that travels the pathways of the sea.
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth!
The Blessing (spoken over each pet, or each household of pets; each pet may be sprinkled with water... not all pets will like this)

“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this/these pet(s). By the power of your love, enable it/them to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”


The Lord's Prayer

Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.


The Doxology (sung)

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Praise God, all creatures here below. Praise God above you, heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

[note there may be many different kinds of pets present. Keep this very short and manageable for the diversity of pet owners and pets. A brief word of welcome, one reading from Scripture, a prayer, and a sending song. Invite pet owners to bring proxies (photos, for example), if their pet doesn't do well in a crowd of animals]

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Vote for Lutheran Confessions (and discover other great Christian blogs)

The Very Best Resources Introducing Lutheranism

Another question frequently asked of Lutheran clergy: "What is a Lutheran?"

It is slightly more difficult to recommend resources that serve as concise, simple introductions to Lutheranism than it is to recommend resources introducing Christianity.

Partially, this is because the core resource for Lutheranism, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church isn't widely known or read among Lutherans. Not only that, but many of the faith
commitments of the confessions, though ostensibly still commitments of contemporary Lutherans, are expressed in modes from which there has been considerable drift over the intervening 500 years.

Nevertheless, the confessions are a good place to start, so I recommend them.

Aside from the confessions, I highly recommend the web site of the ELCA, in particular the resources on ELCA Faith. This page includes click through resources to the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, inter-religious resources, basic introductions to Lutheran theology, and daily bible reading resources.

However, to get a sense of what it means to be a Lutheran today, I tend to think it is worth reading the stories of Lutherans. Some of the best include Richard Lischer's book on rural ministry, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, Nadia Bolz-Weber's memoir developing a congregation in urban Denver, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, and Heidi Neumark's book on developing multicultural Lutheran ministries in the Bronx, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.

An older but still wonderful resource is the novel Hammer of God. Three consecutive generations of pastors learn the necessity of relying on God's grace. The novel illustrates historical developments in Lutheranism in Northern Europe.

In my neck of the woods, I often end up needing to articulate the difference between different types of Lutheran, especially between the Missouri Synod and the ELCA. My basic answer is that the Missouri synod practices faith more out of the fundamentalist tradition, and so more conservative in terms of social norms--only male clergy, close communion, etc.--while ELCA practices faith more out of the liberal Protestant tradition--female clergy, openness to congregations calling clergy in same-gender marriages, etc.--while we also share many commitments, such as being liturgical in worship, and focused on social justice in the world, especially through ministries like Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

For a great book that helps chart the emergence of the Missouri Synod as it distinguished itself increasingly from the merger Lutheran denominations, see Power Politics and the Missouri Synod

Another way to introduce Lutheranism is to simply point people to our core resources. Adults who participate in our catechumenate each year receive a copy of the Lutheran Study Bible and Evangelical Lutheran Worship: Pew Edition, our hymnal. Since Lutherans are above all people of Word & Sacrament, it makes sense for us to introduce Lutheranism by reading Scripture, and gathering for worship. That, better than anything else, gives indication of what Lutheranism is.

Some readers will really want to go deeper, delving either into the history or the theology of Lutheranism. For the history, I recommend A History of Lutheranism "Second Edition"
by Eric Gritsch. 

For the theology, I recommend either Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives or Oswald Bayer's Theology the Lutheran Way (Lutheran Quarterly Books). Neither of these will be an easy read, but they will give a wide and comprehensive sense of what is particular, and peculiar, about Lutheranism in the 21st century.

Finally, it's worth recognizing that Lutheranism is a global movement. Some of the best resources for learning about Lutheranism in global perspective include the Lutheran World Federation web site, and The Future of Lutheranism in a Global Context, and Liberating Lutheran Theology: Freedom for Justice and Solidarity in a Global Context (Studies in Lutheran History and Theology).

To order the long-sleeve t-shirt at the top of the page, visit here. Old Lutheran rules.