Friday, November 28, 2014

The Spirituality of Thanksgiving

My Thanksgiving Day conversation with Kyle Kellams on KUAF, NPR Ozarks at Large:

Sarah Coakley on the Experience of Prayer in the Spirit

In the experience of the Spirit, prayer is found to be a two-way relationship, not just a talking at God, but God (the Holy Spirit) already cooperating in our prayer, energizing it from within, and no less also responding in it, alluring us again, inviting us into a continuing adventure. This is the ‘real thing,’ making ourselves a channel for the Spirit’s work, an intermingling of the human desire for God and the Spirit’s interceding to the Father. So, most interestingly, the Romans 8 theme is clearly stated and acknowledged, even made central. With this then comes the sense of prayer ‘in the Spirit” becoming a uniting thread of life, an all-encompassing relationship, so that prayer becomes no longer one activity (or duty) amongst others, but the wellspring of all activities (adapted, 169).

Although prayer in the Spirit is often prayer of joy and exaltation, prayer in the Spirit over time, if it is truly affected implicitly by christological issues of prayer and pain, prayer and desolation, prayer and apparent failure… if life in Christ, and thus in intimate relation to the Father, necessarily involved such stages of human testing, then it must be consistent with life in the Spirit too, otherwise the ‘persons’ would be divided. (adapted, 181).

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Keep Fayetteville Fair

Michelle Dugger left me a voice message the other day. I was sorry to not be home in person to take the call. Her goal was simple. As a resident of Tontitown, she was worried about Fayetteville passing an anti-discrimination ordinance. She wanted me to be aware that, in her interpretation of the ordinance, soon men would be going to the bathroom in the same space with my daughter.

Let me be clear. I do not have any doubts about the authenticity of Michelle Dugger's convictions, or her faith as a Christian. She is probably an upstanding member of the community and a good citizen. Nevertheless, as a Lutheran pastor who is committed to ending discrimination in every form, I do believe she is wrong, both in her interpretation of the implications of the ordinance, and in her opposition to it.

I would like to argue that Michelle has forgotten the proper role of Christians in the world. Whenever Christians start defending their own version of morality rather than defending the weak or marginalized, they have stopped modeling themselves after their Lord and the early Christian community.

Let me back up and tell you a little bit about Lutherans, in case you don't know us very well. Lutherans came to the United States as immigrant groups somewhat late in the trans-Atlantic migration of Europeans to North America. Because they were late-comers, many of them experienced discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity.

As a result, many of the ministries Lutherans have committed themselves to today work to combat discrimination in all its forms. One of our largest organizations, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, is focused on providing refuge for refugees, and creating safe havens for new immigrants coming to the United States.

Recently, in 2013, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at its churchwide assembly in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania passed a Gender Identity Discrimination resolution. The resolution came to the churchwide assembly from synods of our denomination across the country, including Eastern North Dakota, Northern Texas, Northern Louisiana, Eastern Washington, Idaho, South Central Synod of Wisconsin, Southwestern Texas, Saint Paul Area, Sierra Pacific, Northwest Washington, Greater Milwaukee, Southwest California, Minneapolis Area, Metropolitan New York, Northwestern Minnesota, Upstate New York, Northeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Southwestern Minnesota, Southwestern Pennsylvania, Metropolitan Washington, D.C., and Indiana-Kentucky.

Each of these synods wrote regarding their concern for the important issue of employment non-discrimination and their common cause in memorializing the 2013 Churchwide Assembly to acknowledge the continued lack of state and federal anti-discrimination workplace laws addressing the categories of sexual identity and gender identity. They wrote to recommit our church to principles of non-discrimination in employment and to call for other employers to engage in similar practices. To affirm the work by the ELCA advocacy ministries in supporting employment non-discrimination legislation, and request that they continue to support legislation that opposes workplace discrimination. To request that the presiding bishop of our denomination, Elizabeth Eaton, communicate to members of Congress the support of the ELCA for legislation that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, and to encourage all ELCA synods, congregations, and members to add their voices in support of legislation that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

All of this means our church and denomination stands clearly on the side of supporting the anti-discrimination ordinance passed by the city council this fall.  Our denomination is unequivocal on this. We stand with one voice. We are on the side of those who are discriminated against, in the same way Jesus Christ regularly stood with those who were about to be stoned, those who were ostracized, those who were discriminated against and alone.

Discrimination in our community is very real. The Human Rights Coalition, in a survey they conducted of communities the anti-discrimination ordinance would protect, report that twenty-five percent experienced employment discrimination, 37 percent experienced harassment at work, 39 percent experienced harassment from family, and 45 percent experienced harassment at school.

I feel bad that sometimes the Christian church has contributed to this kind of discrimination. But one of the great things about Christian faith is we believe we can repent, turn from our past failures, and recommit ourselves to justice. Whenever the church has been on the wrong side of something, it is the proper Christian response to repent, change, and get to work.

I am thankful for the bravery of our city council, who sat through long meetings and endured a lot to pass this anti-discrimination ordinance. I stand with my denomination in favor of passing such ordinances. And I hope and pray that others who share faith with me will see that to live in faith is not to defend one's own moral high ground, but rather to look for and watch for the vulnerable in our communities, and then stand in solidarity with them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Best Books of 2014: Think Black Friday and Christmas

This is a highly subjective list, and tips heavily towards theology and fiction, but nevertheless, it's the best stuff I read in 2014, and I recommend all of them as possible Christmas gifts:

Best Overall: Rowan Williams' Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer

Best Philosophy: Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman

Best Book from Iowa and best Novel: Marilyn Robinson's Lila: A Novel

Best Collection of EssaysQu'ran in Conversation

Best History: Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War

Best Book by the Author of this Blog: Clint Schnekloth, Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-media Era

Best cutting edge theology: Daniel Barber, On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity

Best Ministry Book: Paul Sparks and Tim Soerens, The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community

Best Social Sciences Resource: Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics

Most Fun Philosophy/Theology: James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor

Best Theology: Kendall Soulen, The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity: Distinguishing the Voices

Best Theology of the Cross: Mitri Raheb, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes

Best Historical Theology: D. Stephen Long, Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs Von Balthasar's Preoccupation

Best Near Future, Luddite: Dave Eggers, The Circle

Best Anthology: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Works, London, 1933-1935 (volume 13)

Best Far Future: William Gibson, The Peripheral

Best Near Future, Epidemic: Jon Scalzi, Lock In

Best Future, with a pastor as a space traveler
Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things

Best Co-Op Card Game: Sentinels of the Multiverse

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Myth of Narrative

So here's the thing. Lots of people seem to be talking story and narrative these days. Many of my own colleagues are using a Narrative Lectionary, under the assumption that the Scriptures can be presented in worship in a way that gives a sense of a grand narrative.

Similarly, many biblical commentators try to make grand sweeping arguments for a metanarrative of Scripture. Examples include Mike Breen and N.T. Wright.

In my own denomination, the charge for this narrative theology and reclamation of a metanarrative or master narrative is David Lose, previously of Luther Seminary and now president of a Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia.

In his Preaching at the Crossroads, he writes:
I am not confident that we can live long without some grand narrative. Indeed, it’s remarkably difficult to avoid offering grand narratives and making truth claims. For this reason, I think we live not in an era that has seen the end of metanarratives, but rather during an age that is simply saturated by grand stories, none of which, as Lyotard suggests, reigns self-evidently supreme... Let me be clear: the challenge I name is not primarily the need to bolster biblical literacy, as if knowledge of biblical quotations, places, and names were the issue. Rather, we need to develop in our congregations a meaningful familiarity with the biblical story such that it can inform, shape, and assist our daily living. We struggle, that is, not simply with a lack of biblical knowledge but rather with an impoverished biblical imagination.
The basic argument seems straightforward. If we equip people with a grand story, it can inspire their imaginations, gain a biblical imagination, and make more sense of their lives than prior to their having such an imagination.

I admit. I remain deeply skeptical of this argument. I am skeptical for two reasons. First, I highly doubt that even a majority of people are seeking a story for themselves. I am guessing the desire for a story is a very class-conditioned phenomenon. Second, I doubt that giving anyone a story to inspire their imaginations actually helps. In fact, it might hurt, both because it misrepresents Scripture, which is itself more compendium or pastiche than grand narrative; and because it misrepresents what can be accomplished in this life as far as getting a story that is indelibly us.

I am much more convinced by Frank Bascombe, a fictional character Richard Ford follows through his great trilogy of novels beginning with The Sportswriter, and which he has brought back for one last read in his collection of four stories, Let Me Be Frank With You.

Frank, while visiting his ex-wife in a long-term care facility, muses as he arrives:
Being an essentialist, Ann believes we have selves, characters we can't do anything about (but lie). Old Emerson believes the same. "... A man should give us a sense of mass...," etc. My mass has simply been deemed deficient. But I believe nothing of the sort. Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that. But nothing else--nothing hard or kernel-like. I've never seen evidence of anything resembling it. In fact I've seen quite the opposite: life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end... 
The vision of a Default Self is one we've all wrestled with even if we've failed to find it and gone away frustrated. We've eyed it hungrily, wishing we could figure it out and install it in our lives, like a hair shirt we could get cozy in. (145-146)
In other words, the myth of a narrative offers the myth of a default self. But if we are honest with ourselves, we are typically many selves, fragmented and diverse. To bring them all into one Default Self may even be a disservice to who we are "essentially," and also a disservice to who we are in the image of God, who is also unlikely to be best represented as a being with some type of essential character. God beyond God is also God beyond character, God beyond story.

Consider also the essays of Montaigne.

In Montaigne's "Of the Inconstancy of Our Actions," he writes:
"Even good authors do ill and take a wrong course, willfully to opinionate themselves about framing a constant and solid contexture for us. [Humans are in reality programmatically inconsistent.] We float and waver between diverse opinions: we will nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly." (xv)
The humorous thing about this quote is its irony. Montaigne, who experiences himself this way, has a kind of authorial cohesion because of his essays. He wrote himself into being to such a degree that we all experience a "self" there. But if we are to take that self at his word, it is a floating and wavering self.

So too Frank Bascombe, a character one comes to know very intimately over the course of Richard Ford's novels, is simply a fictional character. To serve as one, Ford has to write him into existence. But reading the novels, you realize the trajectory lacks a trajectory, the character lacks a character, the self is no self, and this is Frank's beauty and strength. He is frustrating in being consistently elusive.

Much the same could be said of Scripture. Almost all claims to depict Scripture as having a master narrative, or functioning as a metanarrative, collapse because they overtake and replace the actual Scriptures we have. It's no longer about the text, but about the narrative or story one draws out of the text.

But once there is a story, that's no longer Scripture. That's an interpretation. We are talking hermeneutics. The text remains the text, and the actual text in front of us is a text that takes a wrong course, willfully opinionated itself. The text we actually have floats and wavers between diverse opinions: it wills nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly.

This does not negate its status as Scripture. This is precisely what makes it Scripture! The attempt to make a narrative out of it is like capturing a snipe. If you succeed in catching it, and show it to me, that will simply prove what we already know, that snipes don't exist.

Monday, November 03, 2014

The Greatest Living Christian Artist: He Qi

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I met Rich Melheim. I was living in Madison, Wisconsin at the time, working part-time at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church as the coordinator for their confirmation ministries. I was in that liminal space between seminary and first-call, having just returned to the States after three months spent in Germany on a stipend from the Evangelische Kirche im Deutschland.

It was mid-winter. I called up Rich to ask him some questions about Faith Inkubators, and he very graciously said, "Why don't you come up here and visit us? I've got a room you can stay in."

My reply: "When?"

His reply: "How about tonight?"

I thought this was just about the craziest thing I'd ever heard of. But I didn't have kids, was in-between school and jobs, and it seemed like an adventure. So I packed up a bag, got in the car, and drove to Stillwater.

Of course, there was a snow storm.

Having made it to Stillwater, I found Faith Ink, and spent an amazing time with Rich as we toured his offices and talked about confirmation curricula and faith formation.

Faith Inkubators was, and continues to be, an innovator in resources equipping congregations and families to nurture the faith of children. At that time, their flagship resource was a curriculum for confirmation. Most ELCA congregations at the time either bought it, emulated it, or were considering using it. Rich was doing cutting edge stuff with graphic design, cartoons, drama, Powerpoints, structure.

When I got back to the parish, I had trouble imagining how to incorporate some of what Rich did into my own confirmation leadership. I'm kind of a music guy (not that Rich isn't) and word-centric rather than graphic. Nevertheless, it was an excellent challenge, to see a pastor of the church translate the faith into comics, drama, and art.

Ever since then, Rich's ministry has been a lodestone for me of how to innovate in Christian faith formation. He's kind of a radical, pushing the church to re-consider its most basic assumptions (right now, that includes publishing a book titled Killing Sunday School Before It Kills the Church).

His basic insight is spot on, though. Children learn the faith not at church, but from their parents. So churches are called to equip parents to pass on the faith. And his heart is in the right place also. He cares about families, and wants them to thrive.

I also love Rich because he loves to play. Recently, he created a meme to roast me. I love it. Perfect for this season of ubiquitous campaign signs.

I have another reason for loving Rich Melheim. He introduced me to the work of He Qi ( Rich has been using He Qi's work on his web site and print resources for years. The two of them are close friends.

Currently a Minnesota resident (USA), He Qi Studied at Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing Art Institute in China and Hamburg Art Institute in Germany. He was the first among Mainland Chinese to earn a Ph.D. in Religious Art after the Revolution(1992). He also received his Honorary Doctor Degree from Australia Catholic University in Melbourne (May, 2011). He is also a member of the China Art Association and a former council member of the Asian Christian Art Association (1998-2006).  He received the 20th Century Award for Achievement in recognition of outstanding achievements in the field of Religious Art Theory and Christian Art Creation of IBC in Cambridge UK. His art works have been displayed in museums, galleries, universities and churches, in New York, San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, St.Paul, Birmingham, Pittsburgh, St.Louis, Hartford, Elizabethton, Richmond,Tokyo, Kyoto, Hong Kong, Nanjing, London, Oxford, Gevena, Aachen, etc.

His art works have been introduced on numerous news paper and magazines, such as: Washington Post, Christianity Today, Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong Cable TV, BBC-UK, ABC-Australia, Copenhagen Daily (Denmark), Bet Binnenhof Daily in the Netherlands, China “Fine Art”, Xinhua News Paper, Princeton Post, Minnesota Monthly, Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Star Tribune, 
WCCO TV, etc.He has been invited by universities and seminaries to be a visiting professor and artist-in-residence to do lectures and art exhibits such as: Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, New College and Regent’s Park College of Oxford (UK), Toronto University(Canada), Wheaton College (IL), Luther Seminary (MN), Theological Seminary in San Francisco (CA), St.Olaf College (MN), Drew University (NJ), Samford University (AL),  Millgan College(TN), Nanjing University,Renmin University of China, Alliance Bible Seminary (Hong Kong), etc. He is currenlty guest professor of Drew University(NJ).

About two months ago, Rich alerted me to the presence of a traveling art exhibition of He Qi's work. Hosted previously at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Killeen, Texas, we now are hosting an exhibit of his work at Good Shepherd here in Fayetteville. Another friend and colleague, Jennifer Obermueller, pastor at Immanuel, helped arrange the transport of the art from Killeen to Fayetteville.

Actually, we should all keep Jennifer in our prayers. She was diagnosed this summer with cancer in her brain, and is undergoing treatments. A member of her parish was kind enough to bring the eight large boxes of He Qi's work from Killeen to Durant, Oklahoma. Thus begins another road trip story associated with Rich Melheim, who always seems to get me driving somewhere.

I drove our church van down to Durant, crossing large sections of Oklahoma in the midst of the fall colors, loaded up the boxes, and drove back. When I got back to church, the contemporary worship band was in the middle of rehearsal, Stephen's Ministry was meeting, our Eagle Scout had started work on his outdoor project, and carrying those boxes of art into the narthex and setting them out on display seemed vital, alive with the presence of Christ.

When you look at He Qi's art, there is a lot going on. I'm neither an art historian or even an amateur scholar of the visual arts. I know very, very little. All I can really say faithfully is that in He Qi's art, I see the intersection of three things I love very much. I see Chinese art. I see iconography. And I see Scripture. He Qi brings these three wonderful things together in a way that is miraculous.

I'm including some kind of raw and unedited photos of the pictures we have now hanging on display in the hallway between our sanctuary and multi-purpose room. They tell in eighteen images the story of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

I really hope you'll go to his web site and order some of his art ( It's always a great idea to support artists, and He Qi deserves to be more widely known. If only his art were hanging in more homes around the country, and more churches. Last week I took a group of kids during Gen On to the display, and we told our way through the paintings. A surprising number of the biblical stories were new to the kids, but the art sustained and transformed they way they heard the stories told.

There is something especially powerful about cross-cultural art. It's so tiresome to see paintings ad nauseum of the white Jesus who looks pretty much like me with long hair. Yes, you can paint a white Jesus if you want to. Every culture paints Jesus in their own image. But it is transformative, and faith-challenging, to see Jesus as a Chinese man blessing all nations. It's good to remember that those wise men from the East really were from the far east. And so on.

We plan to use this art in a variety of ways. The display will stay up at least through Christmas. We'll probably bring one piece per Sunday into the sanctuary during Advent to illustrate that season. I hope we'll host some kind of special reception and lecture. But more than anything, I hope the art helps us remember how embodied our faith is, how visual. Jesus could be heard, and seen, and touched. Art is like that.