The kingdom breaks in

Suzanne and I treated ourselves to a day at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We spent the entire afternoon in the galleries, and hung around for Art After 5 and a jazz set by Orrin Evans to avoid the Friday afternoon traffic on the Schuylkill. It was a great day.

I almost skipped the American wing, but I'm glad I didn't. I'd forgotten that one of my favorite paintings, Henry Ossawa Tanner's "Annunciation," was there among the Eakins' and PA German furnishings. PMA has several paintings of this famous scene from scripture -- there's one of a thoroughly European Mary at her books at a green-clad table when she's surprised by Gabriel, and I recall one with Mary in regal blue robe and golden halo. Tanner's "Annunciation" stands out because it's so real yet so otherworldly.

Tanner, son of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, painted his "Annunciation" in 1898. His Mary is an ordinary peasant girl, in everyday robes, in a thoroughly modest bedchamber. The painting is remarkable for its unremarkableness, given the subject matter. Often religious artists pay homage to the venerable Mary, with radiant countenance, a sublime expression, and of course the halo's glow of near-divinity. Tanner paints her, instead, as if she were you or me: Sitting up on the edge of the bed in surprise, studying the angel with a cross between serious inspection and incredulity. One isn't sure, from his rendition, if the teen is going to say "No way!" or "Whatever."

Against this background, Tanner's handling of Mary's otherworldly visitor is surprising. Rather than the familiar hyper-realistic, vaguely militaristic winged figure, he paints Gabriel as a sliver of intense, unrelenting light. His angel seems to be materializing, as if he had a premonition of Star Trek's transporter beams. Interstingly, the bright beam plays against the shelf on the wall to create the appearance of a cross. There's no other source of light visible in the image. Imagine how dark and cold Mary's room was before Gabriel appeared.

To me, Tanner has created more than a snapshot of a moment in the Nativity narrative. His "Annunciation" is an icon of how God's kingdom breaks in amid the ordinariness and grittiness of life -- not just to Mary, not just in Bible times, but still, today. The more formal, formulaic depictions are beautiful and meaningful, and speak important realities about the story. But Tanner's vision of the Light illuminating the bleak, plain and completely recognizable place where Mary sits, alone and puzzled like us, gives hope that the divine can touch even our cold, dark recesses. A God who breaks into this reality and transforms it, who can change the world through one timid, confused teenage girl -- now there is good news for all of us!

The theme of transformation was underscored by the exhibit that contrasted New York and Paris paintings by Beauford Delaney, another African-American artist born three years after Tanner painted his "Annunciation." Delaney honed his skills in portraiture and expressionist cityscapes in New York in the 1940s.

Delaney's New York paintings captured the energy of the city in expressive and surprising ways. I loved "Greenwich Village," in which he captured an intersection on what must have been a rainy night, down to the green traffic light reflected along the edges of the outsized manhole covers in the street.

In 1953 -- at age 52 -- Delaney took a trip to Paris that was to have lasted a couple of months. He stayed there until his death in 1979. In Paris, he felt freed from the double prejudice he faced in America as a black, gay man, and his work immediately opened up. From his first days he experimented with color, abstraction and new forms.

In 1968, he painted a portrait of songstress Ella Fitzgerald that combined traditional portraiture and abstraction, with the singer's face seeming to hover in a subtly variegated field of yellow. The Paris paintings on display seemed to be the work of a man freed from the constraints of others, released to experiment with his own vision and not the conventions of the art world or society. It was for me an affirmation of possibility, that vision can be renewed and one can discover new things within oneself even well into midlife.

I looked at a number of paintings in new ways today. The other Annunciation I mentioned, with Mary a literate school girl reading at her desk, shows that through history people have worked to contextualize the gospel story so that they could see themselves in it, and thus believe it and participate in it. And I marvelled at the very realistic master renditions of familiar scenes, such as the crucifixion. In one the detailed faces of the crowd were painted in different scales, and the annotation suggested that the artist had acceded to the wishes of some patrons to be made more prominent. What an act of faith it could be if we, like these patrons, could actually see ourselves in the gospel, both worshipping Christ and participating in his execution. Maybe it could be an act of devotion to Photoshop(R) our images onto these masterpieces to locate ourselves, as well, in the midst of the story?


Christmas DJ service

My daughter grabbed this shot of me controlling the Christmas morning "DJ" worship service at St. James. We gave the band the morning off (after two Christmas Eve services) and I spun an eclectic mix of tunes along with some videos and stills on screen to help people meditate on Christ-mass.

Some highlights:

We opened with the traditional Roman Catholic Proclamation of the Birth of Christ read over George Winston's piano solo of the spiritual "Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head."

Our call to worship was David Crowder's "Oh Praise Him" (Sunsets and Sushi) with a flash animation to the Apollo 8 crew's reading of the creation story from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968 mixed in.

We did a two-voice reading of John 1:1-14 from The Message paced to fit over "Acknowledgement" from John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, with several pauses to let the text sink in.

Lynette's sermon featured the music video of Black Eyed Peas' "Where is the Love?"

We had several stations for people to reflect upon in response to the Word:

A station to light a candle for someone who is forgotten or left out (not just at Christmas), and an opportunity to jot down a prayer and then send it to heaven by burning it with incense. There was also a Christmas poem to meditate on and...

An opportunity to write down the name of someone we have trouble loving on a paper heart and place it on the altar.

There was also a series of graphics with a variety of Christmas texts from ancient hymns, early Christian fathers, and contemporary sources on the screen to reflect on. We played two versions of "Love Came Down at Christmas" -- key to our "Christ Comes Down...To Send Us Out" theme -- by Stacie Orrico and Shawn Colvin, along with Bruce Cockburn's "Strong Hand of Love" and Third Day's "Manger Throne" during the station time.

Participatory prayer and Communion finished out the service.

From the comments I received, people appreciated it as a "holy moment," and a nice complement to the more upbeat Christmas Eve services.

Here's the complete playlist:

Gathering time:
Red Nativity, "Silent Grace"
Eucharist CD, "House of the Lord"
Blind Boys of Alabama w/ Me'Shell Ndegeocello, "O Come All Ye Faithful"
Nova Cantica, "Natus est"
Tribe, "Adore" (very cool version of the Adoramus Te)

Call to worship
George Winston, "Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head" (with Proclamation read over it)
David Crowder Band, "O Praise Him" (with Genesis 1 from Apollo 8, space images on screen)

John Coltrane, "Acknowledgement" under John 1 (images of sunrise on screen)

Windam Hill Artists, "Angels We Have Heard On High"
Jim Brickman, "Joy to the World"
Black Eyed Peas, "Where is the Love" (music video)

Stacie Orrico, "Love Came Down"
Shawn Colvin, "Love Came Down at Christmas"
Bruce Cockburn, "Strong Hand of Love"
Third Day, "Manger Throne"

Harp 46, "In Wonder"
Alex De Grassi, "The Holly and the Ivy"

Eucharistic Prayer
Baltimore Consort, "Es ist ein' Ros' entsprugen" and "In dulci Jubilo." I used a very nice video montage from Highway Video called Symbols of Reverence here.

Derek Webb, "We Come to You" (with montage of images, and playout continuing during the distribution of Communion)

Ottmar Liebert, "Silent Nite"

Dismissal hymn
Blind Boys of Alabama with Aaron Neville, "Joy to the World"

Music for coffee and cookies
Kemper Crabb, "Divinum Mysterium"
Winter Solstice, "Joy to the World"
Matthew Perryman-Jones, "O Holy Night"
Sufjan Stevens, "Once in Royal David's City"
Jars of Clay, "Bethlehem Town"
Caedmon's Call, "What Child is This?" and "Babe in the Straw"

Thanks, Leah, for the photos!

Light shines in the darkness

Scenes from Christmas Eve 2005 @ St. James

Children left colored beads as gifts for Jesus

A small part of the communion of saints

I guess this makes us really "emergent"

Welcome to the Lord's table...

St. James Lutheran Church, Chalfont, PA. Dec. 24, 2005

Christ comes down...

...To send us out.

Our Christmas theme @ St. James focused on Christ's mission and our role in furthering that mission. We had two services -- a jammed 6 p.m. service filled with kids and families and a much more reflective, low-key 10 p.m. service.

At 6 the kids really took part in our mini "posada." Suzanne gathered them at the back of the church near the font and one child carried the baby Jesus in the procession up to the creche. I had to keep from laughing when the first boy she asked to carry the baby shook his head and backed away. It was all good, though... He (like the other kids) tooks some brightly colored glass beads to carry up and place at the manger. Very cool.

At 10 the mood was much quieter and more contemplative, and we could leave the lights down more. All these photos are from 10... I was too busy with the sound board to pick up the camera at 6.

Our altar space had been stark all during advent... plain blue drapes behind, with a massive stump brought in as the stand for the advent wreath. The transition for Christmas was impressive. Susan designed an array of simple white "trees" laden with white lights, that truly blazed in the night. The advent wreath was replaced by a small live tree, and the wreath was hung on the plain wooden cross. An evergreen branch was placed in the font at the rear of the church.

More photos in the next post....



For our worship team devotions today, Lynette set up a tableau with small figures of the holy family -- Mary, Joseph and Jesus -- surrounded by a rough crown of thorns. As we gathered our thoughts, lighting candles and contemplating the figures, I was struck by how we often focus on the full-ness of Christmas, the full-fillment of ancient prophecies. This time, my thoughts went to emptyness... how Mary had the faith and sense of adventure to empty herself even of control over her own body to be part of the new thing God was doing... how Joseph had the patience and trust to empty himself of his expectations of his wife-to-be and child and of the customs of his society to not get in the way of God's work... how the Son of God emptied himself of everything in order to take on our weak and limiting flesh. As Luther put it in the reading Lynette shared as part of the devotion, Christ became empty enough to step confidently into the form of an infant, and allow us to come near to him.

Emptyness. We're trained to think of it as a lower state, a problem to be fixed. Yet at this crucial point in the salvation story, it was the emptying of an ordinary young woman and her ordinary husband that allowed the fullness of God to dwell among us.

So, too, for me, emptying myself of pride, knowledge and answers is almost always necessary to discern and receive what God prepares for me. And how difficult that is! In a culture of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism, I am trained to be full of myself, confident in my abilities, sure of my direction (even when I am not!). Thanks be to God that Mary and Joseph stand as examples of the amazing blessings that can occur when we empty ourselves so God can fill us.

The Postmodern Parish

Our synod’s evangelism committee is reading Jim Kitchens’ “The Postmodern Parish” in preparation for hosting him at our Mission Fair in March. I just finished it over the break – it’s a quick and easy read. Here’s my take on the book:

It may take decades for the shape of the church that is emerging to become clear, but that’s no reason to delay following our best intuitions about ministry in postmodern culture. In “The Postmodern Parish,” Jim Kitchens advises church leaders to stop looking at what’s right in front of them and learn to trust their peripheral vision of the trends starting to emerge around the church.

This Alban Institute publication is a solid introduction to the emerging church for mainline pastors and church leaders who are becoming aware that the world they serve in is changing, but aren’t sure why the ground is shifting. Kitchens, a Presbyterian, is honest about the ways in which the mainline church is beholden to the dying assumptions of Christendom, and offers a solid analysis of the implications of postmodernism for the mainline. He also offers some examples from his experience with a California congregation struggling to respond to postmoderns’ shifting expectations of the church. “The Postmodern Parish” is accessible and relevant to mainline Christians interested in the renewal of existing congregations. (Kitchens will keynote the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod’s 2006 Mission Fair on March 18.)

Kitchens opens the book with a clear description of this new postmodern, post-Christian and postdenominational ministry context. (You can read the opening chapter in PDF format here). Distrust of modern ideas about progress and certainty mark the postmodern era, along with a focus on felt experiences over knowing and a dissatisfaction with 20th Century individualism. Society has dispensed with special privileges afforded the church, as most church leaders know but many deny, Kitchens writes, while a consumer mentality has undermined the denominational “brand loyalty” once so important to Christians. These three waves washing over the church simultaneously have radically altered the world of ministry, and church leaders can’t afford to ignore the changes, he says.

Even though now perceiving the altered landscape, Kitchens predicts that it may take 50 years or more for a new paradigm of ministry to fully emerge. But the church can ill afford to wait until the new pattern is clear to start adapting its tactics, because by then the opportunity of postmodern culture, a new openness to mystery and theology, will have passed:
“When we know what worked in the past no longer works, but we don’t yet see what should replace our former practices, we need to step out intuitively and cautiously into the future until we can see more clearly.” (31)
He likens the liminal glimpses we have of new forms of church to movements noted in our peripheral vision, which often disappear as soon as we look directly at them. Though he urges prayer and discernment in responding to these shadowy visions, he acknowledges that church leaders will have to trust their hunches and take action, realizing that it may not be possible to determine if these movements are of God except in hindsight. This is an important insight for mainline denominations including Lutherans, who like to nail down theological ramifications before taking action. The costs of not doing anything, he suggests, outweigh the risks of making the wrong move, especially if we act trusting the Spirit and testing our ideas with trusted colleagues on the same journey.

While home and school used to assist in the cultivation of Christian identity in the Christendom era, the Church is on its own in the post-Christendom era. As a result, Christian worship has to focus less on imparting information about the faith and more on faith formation, Kitchens says. Immersion in biblical stories and Christian concepts is called for, but more than talk is required.
“Mainline churches tend to have a bad case of verbal diarrhea: We fill the hour of worship with words heaped upon words. We tell God everything about us, but we rarely incorporate space in our worship to listen for a word from God…” (50)
Instead, he counsels worship that goes beyond talking head lectures to allow postmoderns to hear many voices, and that uses the arts and silence to create space for the scriptural witness to sink in and to discern the Spirit’s leading.

In a world where most people who come to churches are likely to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” formation of Christian identity has to be the primary goal of other church programs as well, from new member classes to Sunday School and council meetings, Kitchens says. He also briefly treats the welcome shift away from “the church’s mission” to accepting God’s invitation to join God’s mission to love and restore the world. Readers interested in this rediscovery of the mission field outside our front doors will find a much deeper treatment in Frost and Hirsch’s “The Shaping of Things to Come” (read my reviews here and here).

Leadership also takes on different dimensions in “generations ripe for a radical recovery of the Protestant principle of ‘the Priesthood of all believers,’” Kitchens writes. Flattening the artificial hierarchies that value clergy more than other Christians is a minimum here, he says. Taking postmodern ideas about leadership seriously will require questioning the administrative and corporate focus of church policies and the “adversarial nature” of our parliamentary procedures, he says. This will open the door to more holistic leadership structures and development of models for discernment that value all voices rather than giving great advantage to aggressive extroverts. And rethinking the professionalization of clergy, rather than devaluing learning, will allow pastors to reclaim their roles as shepherds and guides rather than CEOs, he says.

Kitchens’ experience at Davis Community Church in California, a downtown, university church with comfortable resources, won’t translate to every congregation, and his cautious approach is well suited to existing churches that want to incorporate innovations of cutting edge emerging churches into their traditions. Overall, “The Postmodern Parish” is a good introductory read for mainline Christians who are skeptical of the evangelical assumptions and experiences of many emerging church readers.

Click the image above to purchase the book at Amazon.com


Blessed Christ-mass

From our family to you and yours...
Blessed Christ-mass

To all on the good earth

This is a piece we're going to use in worship tomorrow morning. Hard to believe it was 37 years ago. The world, and our view of it, can change quickly.


Emerging in the Mainline

With our Bishop's support we're bringing Karen Ward, pastor of Church of the Apostles in Seattle, in for a day of conversation and reflection on the emerging church within the mainline tradition. It is open beyond the Lutheran fold, so if you're an emerging type in the area, please join us. It will be an all-day event on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2006.

Drop a comment and I'll email you a registration form. Registration forms will be posted on the Synod website soon.


Sivin Kit, a fellow Lutheran in Malaysia, has a great reflection on moving from involvement (or over-involvement, for many of us church/worship leaders in the run-up to the Nativity of Our Lord) to commitment, or recommitment. Going deeper, waiting, looking for Christ...Timely stuff for the last days of this Advent. Thanks.

Open for Christmas

I must say it's interesting that the media has jumped on the Christmas service/no service story so strongly. The Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed me last week for a local story, but didn't use anything from our talk because, well, there's no news in Lutherans doing Sunday worship. Local Episcopal Bishop Charles Bennison was quoted with a generous view, compared to one theologian who said there is something "missing" in communities that worship Christmas Eve and not Christmas Sunday:

But Bennison believes other houses of worship should decide what works best for their flocks.

"Jesus himself said, 'The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath,' " Bennison said. "Our observance should enhance our lives."

Of course, Christians cutting themselves slack on Christmas is a news story, since some of the same Christians spend a lot of time telling others how to live their lives.

That the media ignores the many churches that are just doing their regular thing and have no controversy reveals a rather limited view of the religious world. Actions that might be hypocritical (and might not, in my view) and opponents who want to toss anathemas at the drop of a service are tailor made for media that eat up simple, black-white stories. And the mainline church has dropped off of their radar screens, now occupied by evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Maybe its because we're quietistic, maybe because we aren't as controversial...or maybe because simply being institutional isn't any more interesting to reporters than it is to the religiously unaffiliated.

We need to pay attention to this. The media's filter determines what a lot of unaffiliated and marginally affiliated people know about the church and Christianity.

P.S. -- St. James is open, doing something different...

Christ climbed down

Lynette posts a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem on her Pastoral Ponderings page that calls us to reconceptualize Christ and christmas -- and its a lot of fun, too. Here's a taste:
Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars...
Read more:

Much is expected?

The Marketplace Morning Report today noted that middle income Americans are more generous than the very rich. While the top group gives 0.4% of income to charity, people who earn $50,000 to $100,000 give 2.4%.

Tangled webs

My son and I went to see "Syriana" the other night. It is in no danger of being called "the feel-good movie of the year." I left feeling quite disturbed.

The film portrays some of the political and economic forces that intertwine in setting foreign policy and determine interventions in other societies. This fictionalized story looks at forces at work off center stage in the US -- in the oil biz and intelligence community -- and touches on how people outside, leaders and terrorists, might look at US. It's certainly not political science or reportage, but does what art does best -- gives you a glimpse inside worlds we don't normally have access to.

I walked out of the theater with a vague sense of dread, and of being unclean. If nothing else, Syriana evokes the numbing sensation I often get from the news, that world events are too big and complex to do much about, but because it can tie many ends together in a story with characters that are human, if not sympathetic, there's another hit -- that I am complicit in them.

I like to think we can tackle the big, collective sins, but this film reminds me that neither I nor anyone else can completely define them. As we live together in communities, nations and the world, we all have interests, and what's "right" doesn't always win. And even if I "know" what is "right," I often don't have the power to do much about it, even if I vote, write my congressman or shop at Ten Thousand Villages. (I realize as I write this how easy it is to pick out actions I do take and ignore the ones I don't, and still try to look good.) It's easy to see why managing the personal sins I have "control" over and accomodating to the ones that are too big is an attractive option.

A gospel of the Kingdom of God doesn't let us get away with not being implicated in the big picture. If the Kingdom truly is at hand, then we're free to try to change the unchangeable and right unfathomable wrongs (why do I suddenly hear "Man of La Mancha" in my head?) If the focus isn't "did I win?" but "did I live out of Kingdom values?" I can do something, even if it doesn't change the course of the world even a degree.

What's truly scary about Syriana is that the main characters were trying to do what was, in their view, the right thing. Whether seeking wealth or power, pursuing social reform, terrorism or a quixotic sense of making things right, they were driven. The key question is, what (or who) is driving? If I give in to this sense that I can't effect anything, and go along for the ride, I'm not going to like who is driving. Because it will probably be me, not Christ.

Our complicity in the big picture and issues isn't new, of course. But we are more aware of what we are complicit in these days, thanks to media and global communications. And so we have to retool how we speak the gospel into a world that knows, even if only on a subconscious level, about our mutual implication in the world's brokenness. What is hope once we lose that illusion of innocence? This knowledge can drive me into a holy bunker, or it can drive me to join God's mission to the world. What it can't do is let me think I've done enough, because I find, like Luther, that I can never finish that to-do list.


Exile is over

One of the youth @ St. James created a video response to the reading of Isaiah 40:1-11 last Sunday. Exile is over... God finds us in the quiet, or in the busyness.

Nice job, Jacob!

You say you want a revolution...

If you’re looking for something to treat the agita of lack of vitality or even malaise in your congregation, George Barna has a word for you. But be warned, if your looking for insight into how to maintain the institution of your congregation or denomination, “Revolution” is going to go down more like syrup of ipecac than Pepto Bismol.

Based on his latest research, Barna has good news for the Church. He finds a small but growing cohort of passionate Christ-followers whose goal is to live in the way of Jesus. Driven by a transformational encounter with Christ, these “Revolutionaries” focus on the imitation of Jesus. But there’s bad news for congregations. Thanks to the relational focus of postmodernity, technology that links people across the globe and puts a stunning of resources at their fingertips, impatience with irrelevance and bricks and mortar, many of these Revolutionaries are following their quest outside the bounds of the traditional church.

Barna’s Revolutionaries would include many emerging types, but the phenomenon he observes is broader, including people in and dropping out of mainline and evangelical churches. He seems pretty skeptical of “postmodernism” in general, and lines up more with the segments of the church that are against culture or want to conform it to Christianity than with the sense of embedding within culture that is common to the church that is emerging. But his sense of the revolution as a reaction to civil religion and tepid Christianity, will resonate with many.
“Millions of devout followers of Jesus Christ are repudiating tepid systems and practices of the Christian faith and introducing a wholesale shift in how faith is understood, integrated, and influencing the world. …this revolution of faith is the most significant transition you or I will experience in our lifetime.” (11)
Barna’s demographic analysis sounds an alarm for the Church-as-we-know-it. In 2001, his research showed that 70% of adult Christians considered the local congregation their only or primary faith community. A tiny percentage had primary attachment to some other kind of community. But by 2025, Barna writes, just one third will have their primary attachment in a traditional congregation, and a like number will be connected with alternative forms of church. He notes that these forms are still emerging, but already include house churches, informal worship gatherings, small/accountability groups, and service ministries and parachurch organizations.

This shift has been bubbling under the surface for a while. A few years ago I saw this play out in a congregation I was working with. A younger couple, veterans of the corporate transfer life, arrived and began working hard to expand and enhance a budding contemporary worship service. But despite their work the congregation couldn’t move as fast as they were used to, and they faded away. Their zeal to worship and learn more fully couldn’t take a back seat to “the way we do things here.” And in moving away from congregations focused on caring just for themselves, I’ve been part of the shift myself, although I wouldn’t personally identify will all of Barna’s characterizations.

If reality approaches Barna’s numbers, the implications for congregations are staggering. The wholesale rejection of faith as product, perfected by the church-growth megachurches, means their influence will wane. And in the mainline, where many congregations are small and near the brink, the sheer decline in numbers means that many will succumb when a few key families make the break for the Revolution. The majority of ELCA members are lifelong Lutherans, and locally 20% of congregations are growing and 1/3 of congregations are considered “at-risk,” so a shift away from congregations could be devastating – if your goal is survival of the institution as we know it.

From the Revolutionary point of view there is opportunity here for the Church, as a growing number of people who identify with this revolution decide to live and work for the Kingdom of God rather than Sunday morning activities.
“…If we place all our hope in the local church, it is a misplaced hope. … The local church is one mechanism that can be instrumental in bringing us closer to Him and helping us to be more like Him. But, as the research data clearly show, churches are not doing the job. If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope.” (36)
Because the dominant, familiar forms of church today are products of history, not mandated by Scripture, Revolutionaries will feel free to change or dismantle them if they are not helping them pursue a serious, personal relationship with God. “They have no use for churches that play religious games, whether those games are worship services that drone on without the presence of God or ministry programs that bear no spiritual fruit.” (13)

Revolutionaries experience this fruitlessness all around them. In Barna’s research, 8 in 10 Christians say they don’t experience God’s presence in worship, and half say they have not entered into God’s presence in the last year. On average Christians give 3 percent of their income away (and think that’s generous) and just one in four serve others in a given week – usually in church, not out in the community.

In contrast, “The Revolutionary mind-set is simple: Do whatever it takes to get closer to God and to help others do the same. … (T)he Revolution is about recognizing that we are not called to go to church. We are called to be the Church.” (39)

Barna paints a picture of Revolutionaries who are, in emergent-speak, more interested in living into the Kingdom than sin-management. “What makes Revolutionaries so startling is that they are confidently returning to a first-century lifestyle based on faith, goodness, love, generosity, kindness, simplicity, and other values deemed ‘quaint’ by today’s frenetic and morally untethered standards.” (12)

Revolutionaries may be in a church or may not: “What matters is not whom you associate with (i.e., a local church), but who you are.” (29). Formed by the baby boomer’s famous impatience with irrelevance, questing for meaning, and desire for hands-on participation and making a difference, Revolutionaries will be part of a church if it’s producing fruit, and will leave if it’s not. Note that this is not typical consumerism; the focus, Barna says, is not on meeting needs but on zeal for a transforming relationship with God.

Technology allows them unprecedented access to resources for that relationship – sermons, curricula, theology, etc. – so they are not dependent on congregations and pastors to provide them. Individuals will take ownership of their journey from the church, and select resources from a wide base, not just that offered by a congregation or denomination. New leaders and structures will grow up, not to replace institutions but in “providing guidance in the construction of new hearts and minds that produce a thriving Church community.” (106)

“The Revolution of faith that is swelling within the soul of America…will affect you and everyone you know. Every social institution will be affected. This is not simply a movement; it is a full-scale reengineering of the role of faith in personal lives, the religious community, and society at large.” (102) As a result, while some congregations will fight the Revolution, and others will switch to follow its lead, all congregations will feel (are feeling?) pressure to react to this large-scale shift.

So what’s a church to do? Learn from the revolutionaries … and don’t be threatened. Seek ways to add value to the Revolution… bless revolutionaries, don’t judge them. Open your doors, accept what they offer as well as what they take. “Figure out how to create more Revolutionaries among those who are not aligned with the Christian faith community.” (139)

If history is instructive, as in some of the reaction to the emerging church, many church leaders will decide that they have to defeat the Revolution in order to protect the territory they’ve been given. Barna says God wants investment in expanding the Kingdom, not protection.
“The Revolution is not your enemy. Your enemies are spiritual complacency that renders people vulnerable to negative influences and the brittle wineskins that can no longer contain this extraordinary move of God in the hearts of His people.” (139-40)
Barna issues a call for congregations and leaders to examine both the torpor in the Church and the values of this Revolution and, like Martin Luther, declare where they stand. It’s certainly not required that all congregations join the Revolution; there will continue to be people for whom this passionate, intense approach is not their chalice of communion wine. However, its clear that some congregations must adapt or die. And if systems of congregations, such as the ELCA, are going to survive, new congregations – or house churches, informal communities, and servant groups – must be born to engage the passions of this fast-growing cohort of Revolutionaries.

Update: Purchase at Amazon.com

Mirrors (even if a little cracked)

In tomorrow's lessons, John the Baptizer makes clear that he's not the light, just a mirror. That doesn't minimize its brightness, it just locates the source at the appropriate point -- the Christ. Isaiah's proclamation of good news for the poor is another prism that makes the "God-colors" in the world visible for all to see, even though we'd never perceive it by our own unassisted vision. You and I are lenses and mirrors as well -- imperfect, but polished by our maker to reflect and refract God's frequencies to others can perceive them.
You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. -- Matthew 5:14, The Message.
When people look at us, will they see Christ?


Waiting is hard work. Yet it's good to have seasons of waiting from time to time, frustrating and annoying though they be. Advent is such a season for me this year. And I am realizing how much I am like the wind-blown grass of Israel that Isaiah spoke God into. I crave the mighty comfort God offers his people, yet I am impatient to get on to more important stuff -- answers, directions -- and forget that I, too, am fragile as wildflowers. I, too, forget the stories I have heard all my life of God's faithful presence, his relentless grace.

Isaiah speaks to me:

40:27Why would you ever complain, O Jacob,

or, whine, Israel, saying,

"GOD has lost track of me.

He doesn't care what happens to me"?

28Don't you know anything? Haven't you been listening?

GOD doesn't come and go. God lasts.

He's Creator of all you can see or imagine.

He doesn't get tired out, doesn't pause to catch his breath.

And he knows everything, inside and out.

29He energizes those who get tired,

gives fresh strength to dropouts.

Strength comes to those who wait. But I fight it with every breath, trying to get it myself.

It was pure gift to me when I saw Jonny Baker's reference to a wonderful video liturgy from the late vaux community. (I highly recommend going into a quiet place and watching it all.) Based around Walt Whitman's poem, 'finally comes the poet,' it reminds me that I am not alone in the waiting.
Christ waits to be emptied out ... emptied so entirely as to fit an infant's frame. Empty enough to need filling at a mother's breast.
So we, too, are called to empty ourselves as we wait, because full of ourselves we cannot be empty enough to receive God's gift. And that's the challenge. It's so easy to fall into the trap of calling on God to bless my fullness, to baptize my dreams, that I often miss the gifts that wait just outside my grasp.

Waiting is hard work, but it can bring unexpected blessings. One of my favorite expressions of those blessings is the last verse of the song "Mary Was an Only Child" (found on Art Garfunkel's "Angel Clare" album):
If you watch the stars at night,
And you find them shining equally bright,
You might have seen Jesus and not have known what you saw.
Who would notice a gem in a five-and-dime store?
In a Wal-Mart world, with the glow of parking lots masking the stars, with so much of our lives lived in tunnels, only waiting can help us see.


A question of honor?

This is the most disturbing news story I've heard in a long time: An NPR piece on "honor killings" in Iraq, where women and girls who have been abducted and raped are killed to balance the shame they have brought on the family. There is a disturbing interview with a policeman who pulled the trigger on a 16-year-old cousin who was abducted and returned, and might have been assaulted. Actually having her examined to determine if she had been raped would have spread the dishonor. He notes that Islam forbids this behavior, but tribal customs are stronger and deeper.

It's horrifying how an upstanding citizen, sworn to uphold the law and nominally religious, can accept such customs. And while this is the flaw writ large, we're all succeptible to it on some level, accepting some injustices to get along in the world. But the chilling clarity with which this man explains that decision holds up a mirror that its frightening to look into.


Snoopy was a postmodern?

Thanks to Dan Kimball for pointing out this, originally published 8/9/76.



In the next 60 seconds, five people will die of AIDS...

I wonder how Kenedy is today... if he is still alive.

That's him, second from left. He's the same age as the boy at the right of the picture, but you'd never know it. He was sick that day, and spent most of the time our group visited in his grandmother Martha's home staring out the door into the hot Tanzanian morning, chewing on a blade of grass.

It was an amazing moment of connection when Martha asked us "Why? Why does one of my grandsons have AIDS and the other doesn't?" Despite the differences between this struggling Tanzanian family and our group of visiting Lutheran communicators, we were one that moment -- one in helplessness before that question, one in anger at the forces that permit the epidemic to continue, and one in prayer to the God who holds all things -- even these confusing, painful things -- in his hands.

We're connected, too, by dedicated servants of Christ who work with countless families like Martha's -- thank God for them! But why is it so hard to maintain the connection? It seems like yesterday...and a lifetime ago... Maybe, for Kenedy, it was.

Here's what I wrote then:

A troubling question
9 FEB 2004

"Why does one of my grandsons have AIDS, and the other does not?"

The weariness that had been evident in Martha Symphorian's face and posture now crept into her voice, as she asked us to pray for her struggling family – three teenaged cousins being raised by a 74-year-old grandmother.

There was silence as our group of ELCA communicators learning about the hunger and AIDS crises in Africa pondered the depth of her question. In our several days visiting the hungry and orphans in Uganda and Tanzania, we had seen a lot of suffering, and a lot of faith and pride in its face. But Martha's anguish and frustration hit us on a deep, theological level.

"We don't know," our leader, Pastor Eric Shafer, said after a long pause. "That's a question we're all going to want to ask Jesus when we see him in heaven."

Martha's grandson Kenedy is slouched just inside the door to the modest brick home in the Eastern District of Tanzania's Northwestern Diocese, near Bukoba. He chews aimlessly on a piece of grass, staring sometimes at us and at other times off to the horizon, but never said a word. At 15 he is much smaller than his cousin Dennis and even than his 11-year-old cousin Rose. That's what AIDS does to young bodies.

Kenedy's father – Martha's son – died several years ago of AIDS. Kenedy was about a year old when his father died. As often happens, because of the stigma that attaches to AIDS, Kenedy's mother simply took off. She moved to another area to try life without everyone knowing her situation – perhaps to marry again – leaving Martha to raise her young grandson. Soon Kenedy began showing some symptoms of AIDS, an unfortunate accident of his birth. He excelled in school when he was well enough to go, but these days the disease is more on than off.

Dennis' and Rose's mother – Martha's daughter – also died of AIDS. It is the African tradition for the extended family to take care of such young orphans, and Martha followed tradition and took on a new family. Though aging, she works hard to cultivate the banana trees and avocados on their small plot of land, and sees that the children get to school and are cared for. But how hard it must be for her to follow the process to get Dennis admitted to a vocational secondary school – a rare and expensive privilege in this poor community – while watching her equally bright Kenedy wither and wait to die.

Martha and her family are not alone. The Northwestern Diocese is organized with a team of social workers and lay ministers who seek out and care for families in need in their territory. Sister Renathe is the social worker who tends to the Symphorians along with a lay evangelist from the local Lutheran parish. She helps Martha get assistance to pay school tuition – about $200 per year for each child – and takes Martha and Kenedy to a diocesan dispensary where he can get medication when his symptoms are active. Funding from the ELCA World Hunger Appeal helps the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania offer comprehensive social and medical as well as religious programs.

"Sometimes," she says, shaking her head, "you think he (Kenedy) is ready to die, and then he comes back…" Her voice trails off as she contemplates Kenedy's fate if medications were not available to him, even occasionally.

So we pray, quietly but fervently, for Martha, Kenedy, Dennis and Rose. Martha's request for prayer isn't surprising. The dominant decoration in her sparse living room is a collection of pictures, torn from calendars, of various aspects of Jesus' ministry – Jesus in the Temple, healing, Jesus on the cross. While there are many things she lacks, faith is not among them.

We pray for strength for this fragile family. We ask for food and schooling and access to medical care. Above all, we ask that whatever happens to them, that Martha, Kenedy, Dennis and Rose know the deep, deep love that Jesus has for them.

It doesn't matter that our translator doesn't repeat our petitions in Martha's language. She flashes a weary smile, and breathes peacefully, a clear sign that she has understood.