Let's keep the Cross in Christmas

In one of the year's best film moments (note I did NOT say best films), Will Ferrell's "Ricky Bobby" offers an amazing parody of prayer to "Lord Baby Jesus" as grace over the family's spread of fast food. When his wife and her father point out that Jesus grew up and became a man with a beard, he replies that "I like the Christmas Jesus best." What ensues, amid foul-mouthed comments and product placements, is an interesting tweaking of contemporary piety, in which Jesus' prime role is to take credit for the blessings we have been given, no matter how ordinary or excessive.

The scene inflamed many Christians, some to the point of boycotts. But as a reviewer at Hollywood Jesus put it, "The most offensive, frightening reality of the film is that Ricky Bobby’s world is a slightly-distorted mirror of our own." Pastor David Julen, whose First Cramerton Baptist Church was used in the movie, is more pointed: "Do we, like Ricky, really prefer the baby Jesus because He makes no demands upon us?"

Most Christians, of course, answer "No!" But the same is not true of our culture. Battles are fought over public creches, not crucifixes. The secular culture can get behind a helpless infant in a forgotten stall because of his message of peace and love; there's no threat here to the status quo. But the rabbi who called the religious leaders a brood of vipers? Who said his kingdom was outside the government's power?

The church is not exempt from this preference for the "Christmas Jesus." For many years a highlight of my Christmas was singing the second verse of the Lutheran Book of Worship arrangement of "What Child is This?"
Nails, spears shall pierce him through;
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail, the Word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary.

Many hymnbooks and artists, though, have edited the cross out of this carol. One of my favorite recordings, Caedmon's Call's energetic rendition, substitutes "This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing" for this refrain, as does the default text in our presentation program. Sarah McLachlan's beautiful new version simply skips this verse altogether. Perhaps singing "Good Christian, fear, for sinners here the silent Word is pleading" would require an admission that we are not blessed people who welcome a baby as another blessing but sinners in need of a Savior.

Christmas, unlike Ricky Bobby's Jesus, makes demands on us. It calls us into the incarnational work God began in that smelly manger in Bethlehem. It calls us to be Christ's body in the world today, especially in its out of the way, forgotten places. Tonight we will remember the Love that entered the world through a tiny, helpless baby, the incredible sign of how far God was willing to go to restore God's people. Yet we do well to remember that this infant was not just a baby. The uncompressed, uncommercialized message of Christmas, as our bishop notes in her Christmas letter, is even better news:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. [Colossians 1:19-20]

May we all experience Christ's peace this Christmas and always: not just the absence of strife or war, but the recognition that God is pleased to reconcile us -- sins and all -- to himself through Christ.


Shepherd me, O God!

Shepherd me, O God,
beyond my wants,
beyone my fears,
from death into life!
I first sang Marty Haugen's elegant paraphrase of Psalm 23 years ago, at the funeral of a dear pastor friend. I loved, and continue to cling to its spirit of defiance, its assertion that all the things that attack us -- the things we truly lack and the unmet desires that annoy, the uncertainty that scares us senseless, even death, the only real power this world has -- ultimately bow to Christ the Good Shepherd, the One who leads us to life abundant. To this day, I find it hard to get through this refrain without feeling the tears well up.

I've long had a problem with the image of Christ followers as sheep, of Church as flock. Sheep are stupid and dirty. Can't do much of anything on their own, except wander away and get into trouble. We are smarter than that, right? God has given us brains and hearts and abilities that take us far out of the company of sheep. We're not just fed and watered, we are invited to participate in God's mission.

Yet this makes sense only in terms of the world we can see. We may know what to do with money, or wisdom, or organizational skills in this world. But when it comes to reality -- to the upside down, unexpected kingdom of God -- we are like sheep. We are not able to see the scope of God's action, the intensity of his hope, the depths of his mercy. Sure, we are smart enough to look back and see signs of the kingdom, but can we comprehend enough to think we know what a God who responds to the cries of those at the margins and pushes those at the center off their pedestals will do in the situations we're involved in? Glimmers, if we're lucky, like peering through a dark glass, as Paul said.

In the kingdom, we are sheep. We do not know the path. We cannot go our own way. We do not have the strength or wits to fend off our enemy. All we can do is recognize our Good Shepherd's voice, and follow him.

This is wonderful comfort, especially in these moments when we don't know what the next step is even in this life. Having a shepherd means we don't have to be in control. Like John the Baptist, we are not the one. We can rest knowing the Shepherd is in charge:
God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction. - Psalm 23:1-3, The Message
Sometimes, when frantic activity sends us running only in circles, or moving backwards, catching our breath is exactly what we need. And we can trust that Christ will watch over us as we rest and heal, and -- when we are ready -- he will send us off in the right direction.

The psalmist is clear: The shepherd knows there are dark valleys, and he will lead us through. He knows we have enemies -- around us and within us -- and he spites them by feeding us richly in their presence. He knows we seek our own way, and he uses his rod and staff to close some roads to us and to pull us out of the brambles when we stray. He knows we will get discouraged, and when our heads droop he gently lifts them up, and anoints them with sweet oils.

The shepherd's kingdom is good, and it is so strange and inscrutable that we can't fathom it -- but we can follow him into it. Its enemies seek to distract and discourage us -- destroy us, even. But in the end, they have no power. Writing about Satan's minions, Martin Luther summed it up defiantly (and I find this hard to sing without tears, as well):
Were they to take our house --
goods, honor, child or spouse --
Though life be wrenched away,
They cannot win the day.
The kingdom's ours -- forever!
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!


Advent labyrinth

Last Friday I walked the Advent labyrinth at Christ's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Oreland, Pa. Pastor Mike Carlson and Elise Seyfried, the director of spiritual formation (what a great title!) created the stations and audio from scratch, focusing on the inner journey from hopelessness to hope that we all experience and that Advent speaks to so well. In my media role with our synod I talked this up with a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer, who did a nice job covering it in today's paper (though the headline plays up a minor theme of the piece, in my opinion).

I've been walking this journey all during Advent, so it was a real blessing to experience anxiety, frantic activity, rage and God's companionship, among many emotions, through Mike and Elise's wise and comforting choices of words, images and music. Unfortunately, it's closed up for the season...but if you ask nicely maybe they'll do it again next year. :)

Let it be

(Jumping back in where we are, with the pray-as-you go podcast for 12/20/2006, based on Luke 1:26-38)

When I envision Gabriel's visit to Mary, I see something like Tanner's Annunciation, a remarkable image of God's kingdom breaking into ordinary life. I feel for the angel -- like Zechariah, Mary asks "How can this be?" If I were Gabriel (not possessing the certainty of God's mind that an angel has) I would wonder about this message I'm delivering.

But Mary hears the angel's strange explanation, one implausible to skeptical, scientific ears, and says "Here I am. Let it be with me according to your word." A simple, trusting answer, confident in the midst of impending change and great uncertainty. How do I become that trusting when stepping off into the unknown?

Struck dumb

(Trying to get back on track with the Advent pray-as-you-go podcasts...)

I have been resonating with Zechariah of late. Faced with last week's reading of Isaiah 40:21-31, with its promise of renewed strength and hope -- a promise offered by a God so powerful that not a single star can resist his command -- I've struggled with how much I can trust that promise. Intellectually I know I can and must, but in the midst of confusion and facing the unknown, it's hard to really live in that place. So like Zechariah, I have asked "How can I be sure of this?" Zechariah knew that he and his wife were not long for bearing children, so the promise of a son sounds too good to be true. I, too, have looked at seemingly impossible situations and said, what can even God bring out of this?

Like Zechariah, I lost my voice (at least my reflective voice). Silence has been necessary because these Advent themes have hit very close to home for me and required a lot of offline processing. Waiting is hard... Not having control is hard... Expecting God to act is hard... There are times in life when it seems like God is not acting, has turned his face.

In the midst of this time I was blessed to find this great quote from St. John Cassian at the Radical Congruency blog:
But for God’s permission and allowance [for occasional spiritual depression] there is a twofold reason. First, that being for a short time forsaken by the Lord, and observing with all humility the weakness of our own heart, we may not be puffed up on account of the previous purity of heart granted to us by His visitation; and that by proving that when we are forsaken by Him we cannot possibly recover our former state of purity and delight by any groanings and efforts of our own, we may also learn that our previous gladness of heart resulted not from our own earnestness but from His gift, and that for the present time it must be sought once more from His grace and enlightenment.
I don't know why it is so hard not to take "gladness of heart" for granted. It is a gift, and one our heavenly Father wishes to bestow on us often. But when I'm puffed up and assume it I'm vulnerable to doubt when gladness gives way to ordinariness or times of fear and hopelessness. And it takes time to remember that God's presence -- and even the awareness that I am distant from him -- is a blessing, a sign of relationship. And though I can warm or cool that relationship through my state of mind, I can't turn it off, because
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
When I heard the 12/14 reading... "I am holding you by the right hand" ... I couldn't help but feeling like an old man, being helped across the street. I both loved and hated that feeling. I don't want to admit how little my faculties and powers are, how dependent I really am. (And aging images don't play so well with mid-life questions, either.) Yet when the poor and the weak cry out, "I, the Lord, will answer them." That is, really, so much more than I can ever dream of doing for myself. When I try to fix things myself, my "solutions" are so puny, so unimaginative, so ineffective that "understanding no one can fathom" becomes a really good thing!

"How can I be sure of this?" It's a real question. It hits hard when the paths we take seem to be dead-ends, when the questions overwhelm the answers, when seeming certainties betray us. And ask we must. Sometimes answers will take God's time in coming. So we stand, struck dumb like Zechariah, until the One who calls every star by name reveals his power, and gives us back our voice.


A ROSE by any other name?

Business Week has a fascinating article on Best Buy's efforts to transform organizational culture through a program called Results-Only Work Environment. (ht: SBSDiva) Basically, the idea is that in an age of ubiquitous wireless, transcontinental contacts, and increasing stress, employees can have more control and thus be more productive by working when and where they need to. The company describes a ROWE as "one where people do whatever they want whenever they want as long as the work gets done." Best Buy claims significant improvements in productivity in their formerly seat- and face-time dependent culture. They've even formed a subsidiary called CultureRx to evangelize this concept with other corporations.

Their website summarizes the imperative on their website:

"Stop thinking of work as someplace you go... Start thinking of work as something you do."

Hmmm. This sounds suspiciously like the missional church movement to be less "attractional" than "incarnational," to focus less on getting people into our (God's?) house and getting God, through us, into their house.

Imagine if we stopped thinking of church as someplace we go, and instead lived it out as something we are. What if we focused on Relationship-Oriented Spiritual Environments (sm), where we stopped worrying about people's pew time and valued their relationship time with Christ, with their families, with people at the margins, with each other in environments that allow for life-changing spiritual conversation and growth. What if we figured out, like Best Buy, how to relate not just as a group of people occupying the same sanctuary on the same day and time, but as interrelated networks of people on a mission? Could e-mail exchanges and coffeeshop conversations have the impact of "a service?" (Many people, even church people, I think, would already say 'yes.') Can meals, or serving meals, be as sacramental as the official Meal? Can we focus on being part of God's mission rather than just putting in time?

How can we make the faith community's power to form and inform its people something that is available 24/7, at the cabin or soccer field or fellowship hall, rather than an hour a week in the sanctuary? (I've written about this before.) How can we empower each other to have more to say to a neighbor or co-worker who is seeking other than, 'You should come to my church?'

There's nothing really new here other than a language and a perspective that tweaks our conventional wisdom. Given that the church is not a business but is, as is Best Buy, an organization of individuals working together on a mission, there might be something to listen to here. The church's mission -- God's mission -- is a far better thing to devote one's time and energy to, IMHO. But if we looked honestly at our performance in being part of that mission, would we say we're doing better than Best Buy?

This is, according to BW, ROWE's commandment number 1 (there are 13): "People at all levels stop doing any activity that is a waste of their time, the customer's time, or the company's money."

What would it look like if we structured the church so that Christians, "professional" and non, stopped any activity that didn't bring people into a deeper relationship with Christ and God's people, and wasted money that could change the lives of people at the margins?



Wither the grass?

(reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/12/2006, on Isaiah 40:1-9)

We bloom.

We fade.

We rise anew and are soon trampled.

No matter. The true promise is joy in God's presence, which swallows up our inconstancy and spits it out whole.

It's our fragile nature as grass that magnfies the heights we have to climb and the depths of the valleys. But if we can accept the comfort of God's perspective they are leveled in the context of the destination, the glory of the Lord revealed.

Debts paid. Broken relationships restored. Why is this comfort so hard to really accept?

Rejoicing in the wasteland

(A day late and probably more than a dollar short -- my reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/11/2006, based on Isaiah 35.)

"The wastelands will rejoice and bloom..."

Driving through the bleak pre-winter in Pennsylvania, trees' naked arms twisting toward heaven, leaves and plants shriveled and brown, looking quite barren in the harsh, low-angle sun, Isaiah's account of God's promise to let waters flow and beautiful flowers bloom in the desert brings a smile. I know the landscape will get more sterile, darker, before it blooms with life. I think of the friends whose lives and spirits are parched, the regions of the world whose arms reach to the sky pleading for release, of people I know waiting with a loved one for death.

"The wastelands will rejoice and bloom..."

I'm amazed that Isaiah doesn't phrase this the way I would say it: In my wasteland I want to bloom, and then rejoice. I want fruit to come, live-giving waters to flow into the desolation, before I will rejoice. So that I can rejoice. But Isaiah says it's the other way around. The desert will stop despairing of being a desert and rejoice in the midst of its desert-ness. And in so doing it will bloom. Because without the One who created it and who causes it to rejoice, no fruit can come.

It's so human to want fruit to confirm God's promise rather than to just trust it; to want the blessings before the thanksgiving. But God's way is so much better... By making our hearts not to fear, we live courage. By losing our lives we find them. By looking past the desert to the oasis God will bring and rejoicing, we help loose the cleansing stream and bountiful crop that is God's kingdom.


Anxiously unaware

(Playing catch-up...a reflection on today's pray-as-you-go podcast):

Our world rolls on its course each day, filled with treachery, and love affairs, desperate hunger, and conspicuous consumption. For the most part it is unaware – though this unawareness hardly brings it bliss – that its creator gazes lovingly onto each corner of the globe. Waging war, doing business, seeking pleasure, deteriorating and dying, people just like me, living day to day. God smiles the small kindnesses, the moments of heroism, the generosity in which humans reflect God’s nature, and must be angered by the ways we find, in the midst of bounty, to manipulate, objectify, hurt and ignore one another. Yet it is into this awful and beautiful world, filled with sinner-saints, that God comes, vulnerable to the worst we can do in order to give us better than we can imagine. And few see it; few are like Mary, able in awe and wonder to give herself fully to God’s strange and beautiful will.

What do I desire?

(Oh, well. Less than a week in and already behind. Such is a busy life. Still...a reflection on pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/7/2006):

How much do I really desire justice? The idea of our man-made hierarchies and status being flung in the dust sounds good, because I know how unjust those levels really are. While I am not in danger of needed the services of “wealth preservation” experts nor of having power to change the nation’s political structures, I am relatively high up in the citadel. It is humbling to know that God cares not a bit for prestige, degrees, accomplishment or wealth, but desires a safe place for all God’s people.


Already ... and not yet

(Reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/6/2006. I tried to post this at 8 am, but blogger was down, and I'm just getting back on the computer...)

Isaiah paints a picture of the world as God intended: All people as God’s children, the shrouds that divide nations removed, every tear dried, every shame covered by God’s mercy. The problem for us is that we live in in-between times. The Lord has spoken. He will personally wipe away every tear, destroy death and include all people at his table. But we are not there yet. We are journeying on a promise, and it is hard to keep a promise so radical, so foreign to our daily experience, as our beacon.

Our world, our lives, are not as God intends them to be. Wars rend the world, and anxiety and despair plague many of us. While God will bring God’s intention to pass, Jesus invites us, today, into bringing that kingdom about now – in part.

We don’t live in a world where people’s tears are dried, where nations are not blinded and divided, where all people sit together at the Lord’s table. But if I show compassion to those who are hurting, to work for understanding rather than enmity between nations, to include “others” rather than exclude or simply avoid them, the world becomes, bit by bit, more like God intends.

We don’t live in a world where the poor, the wretched, the grieving, the not-quite-together are blessed. But if I act generously, am open to God’s presence in everyone, and work for equity, the world becomes a little more like Jesus described. The kingdom is at hand and may, for a few moments, become visible. And that vision of the destination helps keep me focused on the next steps to take.

Lord, help me to take actions today that will bring your kingdom nearer, not farther away.


Wolves and lambs

(A reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/5/2006, based on Isaiah 11:1-9. A little late because of a late event last night.)

I've always loved Edward Hicks' paintings on the theme of "The Peaceable Kingdom" taken from Isaiah 11. (Experts surmise that Hicks, a Quaker, painted this theme about 100 times!) The odd juxtaposition of the wolf and the lamb lying down together -- resting, almost snuggling, rather than in a kill or be-killed fight to the finish -- points out just how odd the kingdom of God really is!

This text is about God's promise that the world one day will be the way it was created to be. Not only will the endless contending to survive at the expense of others be over -- contention that manifests itself in war, in greed, in econcomic survival of the fittest and social Darwinism, and in the narrowness and self-focus that it is so easy to slip into (I know it is for me!). In its place will be not just the absense of contention but the Presence of Peace, the ultimate reality that the poor, marginalized and non-conformists truly are blessed, that life can come out of loss and death, that God is doing a new thing!

Our world cries out for justice, and Isaiah tells us it is coming...but not in the way we expect. I often want the world to be much as it is but a little more fair or calm. But God's peace and justice turns our understandings on their heads. Our world is not just off the mark, it is upside down. Our task is not to refocus a bit or amp up our efforts, but to learn to see the world as God made it: A place where those who think they have nothing in common are truly sisters and brothers; a world where wealth is not ultimate value but just another kind of value, like creativity, the created value of each person, and the value of those who lack to tweak those of us who have.

The question for those of us who follow the one who said that God's kingdom is at hand is: If God's reality is better than "all of us are created equal, but some are more equal than others," if lambs and wolves can lie down, if children can lead us, if a righteous leader will enter a verdict for the poor, how do we live in this reality and not the one we see around us?

I can think of no better prayer than to be shaped to the point where the fear of the Lord is our breath.


Thinking upside-down

(A reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/4/2006, based on Isaiah 2:1-5.)

It's hard to imagine today the nations of the world, even many people in our so-called "Christian" culture, spontaneously surrendering our ways to the Lord's. Yet that is what Isaiah sees: a time when all peoples will seek to learn the Lord's ways not because they are our ways but better, but because they are so radically different, so upside-down from our conventional ways of thinking, that they actually offer transformation and hope.

Isaiah's vision is one of peace, unity and justice. He prophesies a time when nations will not take up arms and beat swords into plowshares -- not just a call to give up war but to give up the seeking of one's own advantage, of bringing others under power military or economic or political, that is at the root of much of the manipulation and dispute in our world.

What would this look like in our time? Each of us would have our own vision. Mine would include people coming together to ponder the Lord's ways, to question our own ways, and to learn to walk together in the light of the Lord. Whatever they look like, realizing Isaiah's prophecy starts with recognizing the gospel not as a tonic for the anxiety and dis-ease in our way of life but as a radically different way of life that God offers to share with us.

What's your vision?


Selective focus

(A reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/1/2006, based on Isaiah 53.)

Heading into Advent, I find it important to remember not to look forward only to the manger, but to (and through) the rough-hewn cross.

As a human being, I have only to look inside to see the stubbornness and pride that makes it easy to overlook God's love. We're stiff-necked, as scripture says, and in love with our own insight. As incredible as it is that God would himself come to be with us hard-headed and -hearted beings, it is so much more amazing that he would die to do all the work of reconciliation with us.

It's God's transformative nature to bring light out of darkness, life out of death, reconciliation out of hostility and violence. A classic Christmas carol puts it well:
Nails, spears shall pierce him through;
The cross be born for me, for you.
Hail! Hail, the Word made flesh,
The babe, the Son of Mary.
I've always been surprised that so many songbooks omit or amend this refrain of "What Child is This," and that congregations sometimes skip this "unpleasant" verse in the midst of Christmas pageants. The Nativity is a great story, but it's the cross -- and the resurrection -- that gives it its transforming power. Power not just to change the story, but to change our lives, here, now.

World AIDS Day

Today, I remember in prayer:
  • Martha ... and all the grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other extended families that are caring for Africa's AIDS orphans.
  • Audax, Justa and Jonson ... and all the children who are also "heads of households" as a result of the epidemic.
  • Denis ... and all the children born with the disease.
  • Sr. Renathe ... and all of the church as it struggles to be the hands and heart of Jesus in the midst of an overwhelming situation.
Lord, have mercy!


Companions on the journey

(A reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 11/30/2006, based on Romans 10:11-18.)

Thinking back on the people who have made Christ known to me, I'm struck by how ordinary they were, and how my relationship with Christ has grown not through extraordinary breakthroughs but small, everyday revelations. Sure, there have been services and encounters and retreats and readings that have broken things open a bit. Overall I am amazed and grateful at how faithful God has been, providing people to tell the story and to be there for every twist and detour and dead end on this long journey.

The psalmist reminds us that God walks beside us every step of the journey, and is already where he is calling us to go in the next step, and the one after that.
I look behind me and you're there
then up ahead and you're there, too --
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful --
I can't take it all in. (Psalm 139, The Message)
I'm grateful to so many God has sent along side me along the way: to Mom for putting a picture Bible in my hands as a kid, and introducing me to church; to Bob, long out of touch, who was a kindred seeker at church camp; to Suzanne, for modeling adult faith when we were barely adults and helping me to see myself as acceptable to God; to Pastor Landis, who modeled quiet spirituality and patience amid the most awful circumstances; to Pastor Dottie, who showed me that Lutherans could have a passionate faith and work out of our hearts, not just our heads; to my spiritual director, who has helped me open up to God's love; to my friends, for challenging questions and ideas and for always having a pin handy when I get puffed up.

Thank you for being companions on the journey. I hope you know that simple acts, random conversations, doing your job, just being there has made a difference. I pray that I can do the same for you.

Lord, help me to appreciate and do better at the little things I do each day that tell others about you, even (especially) when I'm not conscious of it.


Future tense?

(I've been using the wonderful "pray-as-you-go" podcast as part of my daily spiritual practice for a while, and for Advent my goal is to discipline myself to not only listen but to write a brief reflection each day. As warm-up, this is a reflection on Luke 21:5-11 and pray-as-you-go podcast for 11/28/06.)

Christianity is essentially a future-oriented religion. Yes, the past is important -- God's provision in creation; the life, death and resurrection of Christ; the witness of scripture and the saints -- and so is the present, the time/space where God's kingdom breaks into our own worlds. But it's God's future intention for us and creation, the completeness he signals in the universe and through Jesus Christ, that gives meaning and shape to the tradition and our everyday experience of the kingdom. I encountered this thinking in a theology class, reading Ted Peters' "God: The World's Future," in which he talks about the "bowling ball" theory of creation -- God released the ball, the pins are at the end of the lane, and our job is to adjust the trajectory to avoid a gutter ball. He argues that in Christ God has revealed the world's future, and that God is pulling the ball toward the pins, and that the reality of a strike breaks into our experience from time to time along the way.

That doesn't stop us from practicing Christianity looking backwards. In the text the people are admiring their Temple, "remarking how beautiful it was, the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts," as The Message puts it, and we -- yes, I -- sometimes do that today. It's very human to want to preserve or go back to the glory days. To the casual observer, the church today can sometimes look like a photographer watching the dying sunset waiting for the elusive green flash, the moment when the longer-wavelength red light has "set", the easily scattered blue light is diluted and the low angle absorbs the yellow energy and there is a fleeting, intense flash of green along the horizon reminiscent of the glory of the sun at full blaze. Then it disappears. (Aside: You can see and learn more about this phenomenon by going here and scrolling down to the third photograph. But I digress...)

Faith, properly understood, doesn't focus on the last radiant bursts of former glory, but rests on God's promise that there will be a sunrise tomorrow.

Like the people in the text, I am often guilty of putting my trust in what I can see and control (or so I think...) rather than in God's promise. I may have once placed more trust in institutions and buildings, but I have come to a place where, while I realize that those structures are useful and necessary and provide blessings, I see that they are not in and of themselves transforming. I am more likely to trust in what I can do (even after properly stopping down my ego to note that that is with God's leading and help) to "make a difference."

But Jesus tells us that all those things -- our edifices, our institutional structures, our imagined self-sufficiency -- are temporary: "All this you're admiring so much—the time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble."

Then follows distrurbing talk of signs and portents of the end which, despite Jesus' clear instructions to the contrary, are often used to warn of a final cataclysm. "End" is a word with a reputation in our culture, and in this context we want to read the end as destruction, because that's what we fear most. But what if, as Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon argue in "Resident Aliens," the end is that God brings the world, through Christ, to be what it was created to be? Not nothing, from whence it came, but into the dream God dreamed into process, ex nihilo?

This end, this eschatology, is "the very basis for Jesus' ethical teaching," they write. But in this end, it's not "be afraid and straighten up, or else!" Wars and insurrections are not divine rumblings but indicators that we are not yet who God wants us to be. Plagues and famines, AIDS and Darfur are not retribution from God but wake up calls that we are not treating creation and each other as God intends. We live and act in the tension that what will be has been revealed, but we are not there yet. As Hauerwas and Willimon put it:
If the world is really a place where God blesses the poor, the hungry, and the persecuted for righteousness' sake, then we must act in accordance with reality or else appear bafflingly out of step with the way things are. ... It makes all the difference, in this matter of ethics, what we are looking at.
Ultimately, the place to look is not at ourselves, at our dreams and abilities, at our fears, at our comfort zones or safe structures. It is to the cross ... and to the empty tomb.

Lord, grant me the grace to let go of my preferred future and look at the world through your future. Amen!


The Big Moo

I've never read any of Seth Godin's books, but I've seen enough of his stuff on the web to know that he offers some useful insights into what's going on in our culture (not just business and marketing). I just came across again a summary of 15 ideas from his business guru book "The Big Moo," ( ht: Steven ) and there are a couple worth pondering (followed by my comment):

2. Wanting growth and attaining growth are two different things ( Preface xv ) - Companies usually end up paralyzed by trying to focus on how they'll grow instead of actually growing. (Sound familiar, church?)

Those who fit in now won't stand out later ( Page 5 ) - It's difficult to change once you get into a rhythm of mediocrity. (In a culture of change, playing it safe has some risks. In a time when people are looking for the church to take a different role in society, clinging to the old, Christendom concept could be a recipe for irrelevane.)

You can't predict the future ( Page 55 ) - ... (my crystal ball is certainly in the shop)

A product is what the customer thinks it is ( Page 131 ) - How many times have you gotten pissed at a user of your software for "using it wrong" ? (Or at someone whose vision of / value of the church isn't your way?)

Don't let the seeds stop you from enjoying the watermelon ( Page 134 ) - The world is grey. Every solution, product, feature is the result of several trade-offs. (Been here, done that... I'm working at seeing the fruit, not the seeds, but it ain't easy.)


Out of context

I post a lot of stuff that I read to my del.icio.us bookmarks. But you probably don't take the time to click through those links, so I'm going to occasionally post pointers to the best stuff I'm finding:


pray-as-you-go: Figure the Cost

How do I feel about Jesus' words in Luke 14:25-33 -- "Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters -- yes, even one's own self! -- can't be my disciple."

My head knows that this is the proper order, so I don't hear this as a threat any longer. There is even a sense of freedom in letting go of all these claims on me, and letting go of my own need to control things, to be part of Jesus' bigger picture. Yet my heart has trouble. Especially with letting go of myself. I'd like to connect with Jesus while retaining my relationships and prerogatives. Later in the passage Jesus talks about not being ruled by our possessions. I like that theory, too. But I also like my Powerbook, and the newly re-painted and furnished home office I'm typing in, and...

Of course, Jesus is not saying to absolutely cut off relationships or wholesale sell off my net worth in order to be a disciple. But he is saying to me that I need to be more tightly attached to him than I am to my family, my self and my stuff. I need to be more generous and less selfish. I need to be willing to work in the interests of others even when theirs conflict with mine; as Luther would say, to be Christ to my neighbor. When God invites me to the banquet (see v. 15-24) I need to not be too busy and preoccupied with things that don't matter. When God asks me to let go of what is in the way, I need to do it. That's scary, yet strangely freeing the more I struggle with it.

What about the examples of figuring the cost? Do you lead with your head or your heart?

I'm a dreamer at times, and I often prefer to follow my heart rather than my head. This relates to me because I can, at times, get so excited about an idea or new project that I don't plan it well enought to really succeed. This is a great reminder that good soil is prepared and ready to nurture growth in its natural time. Flourishes of energy produce excitement but don't necessarily have lasting fruit.

In the example of the king preparing for battle, I hear a word of wisdom for the Church. It is not that we should capitulate to the Enemy. No, it is that we should be realistic and strategic about the situation we are engaging. In the culture we find ourselves in, that means hearing those who are outside our church bubbles -- the poor and marginalized in society, yes, and those who have not rejected God but what they have seen of Christians. (Read this blunt critique, if you don't know what I mean. ht: Dave Wainscott) I think it also means being willing to let go of our cherished church possessions when they get in the way of the Gospel. Not throw them away for the sake of the throwing, but in the sense that we have to let ourselves take a back seat sometimes to truly be disciples.


Going to their house

Tall Skinny Kiwi today links to an old post that relates to my earlier post on Luke 10. In this 2004 post he relates what he sees as a needed refocusing of the "house church movement" from our house to "theirs" -- getting out into the missional community. This, he says, is what Jesus was sending his followers out to do:
Jesus told his short-term missionaries to put peace on THEIR (those other people, the ones they were sent to) house, enter THEIR house, live in THEIR house, eat in THEIR house, heal someone or something in THEIR house. Right there is the base of a new church and it is in THEIR house. Do we no longer trust God enough to free up people to run with the Kingdom of God in their houses? Have we replaced our trust in the Spirit's power for the scaffolding of programs and hierarchies that prop up our temples?
For the record, despite his griping about the model, Andrew sees great value in the small communities that are springing up around the world. "For most of the world, starting new churches means cleaning up before the living room fills up with people. Millions of churches around the word are starting this way and millions more are needed."

Philly Emergent cohort tomorrow night

Theologian John Franke from Biblical Seminary in Hatfield will speak at the Philly Emergent Cohort gathering tomorrow, Oct. 19, at 8 pm at Scott Collins-Jones' house. It's BYOBGB -- Bring Your Own Brains and Good Beer. It should be a good conversation. Get the details at www.phillyemergent.com.

The world in a nutshell

In Luke 10, Jesus sends out advance teams to all the places he intends to go. Their job is not just to make arrangements and get the lay of the land, as we would think based on the advance teams that precede our politicians today. Their work is his work -- sitting at table, bringing peace, healing, and proclaiming the arrival of God's kingdom.

It's a big job, hard work. Jesus makes that clear when he warns them how huge the harvest is. And how much of a wolf-pack the world that he hasn't yet penetrated is. So overwhelming that his primary instruction isn't a technique or a strategy -- it's a prayer. A kind of helpless prayer... "This is too big, God... Send help!!!"

How easy it is to feel like our appointed work is like that -- overwhelming, incomplete, perhaps even futile. And our human wiring responds to these big challenges with preparation. Load up on supplies. Get all the latest tools. Learn all we can -- read books, collect intelligence. Make sure we have the resources. Raise the money. Hire the staff.

When I take an infrequent camping trip, I know that I seriously overpack. It's not my regular environment, so I want to make sure I have clothes for all the weather possibilities, food for meals and plenty of snacks in case I get 11 o'clock-ish far from Wawa, that really nice mat for under my sleeping bag. Last time I filled my slightly-too-big boots with an extra layer of socks, and while hiking got a couple of nasty heel blisters for my trouble.

Contrast my method with Jesus'. Though he is sending his 70 our as "lambs among wolves," he does not prescribe body armor. He sends his advance teams out almost naked -- no purse, no bag, not even shoes to protect their feet along the road. They are to rely on what -- if anything -- is provided when they arrive.

This is not about naive trust, about daring God to supply needs. It's not about surface denial of self. Jesus is after something deeper and more subtle here. More than wanting his workers not to have to worry whether it's time to dig into savings now, or if they should keep the trail mix for worse conditions, Jesus is imparting to them perspective. What's important is trusting God. Only by learning -- the hard way, of necessity -- that wallets and backpacks and boots are not really of value can they learn to cultivate what is important...prayer, and a relationship with the Lord of the harvest.

Mystic and recluse Julian of Norwich learned this in a vision she received from the Lord when she was 30. While having a vivid vision of blood flowing from the thorns piercing Christ's brow, she tells that the Lord then gave her a "spiritual vision" of the entire cosmos as nothing more than a hazelnut, fragile in her hand and in danger of falling away into nothingness. This is how she tells it (in chapter iv of the short text of her "Showings"):
"What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God."
Having the world in her hands, and esteeming it not, opened for Julian the immensities of God's love. What God creates, God loves; what God loves, God preserves. That connection, not the bounties of creation, bring peace, she found:
"For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have love or rest or true happiness; until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me. And who will do this deed? Truly, he himself, by his mercy and his grace, for he has made me for this and has blessedly restored me."
We are created to be advance teams for Christ. Whether we live that out in public ministries, behind the scenes in our homes and jobs, or in spontaneous, organic communites as the ones that developed when the peace Jesus' followers spoke was accepted, what we truly need is not knowledge, or wisdom, or techniques, or even faith. It is to know God, and to be in the spiritual rest of God's kingdom.
"God wishes to be known, and it pleases him that we should rest in him; for all things which are beneath him are not sufficient for us. And this is the reason why no soul has rest until it has despised as nothing all which is created. When the soul has become nothing for love, so as to have him who is all that is good, then it is able to receive spiritual rest."
Lord, have mercy, and teach me to receive!


Five years on...

Random thoughts on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary...

The constant reruns of footage from the WTC brought back a lot of emotions. I remember the call from my wife, who was at her nursery school getting reports of something going on in NYC from the parents dropping off their kids. I was busy working at my home office, and had no outside media on. I flipped on the TV in time to hear Peter Jennings reduced to muttering "Oh, my God" as the first tower collapsed. I started working on emailing information and requests for prayer to the churches in our synod, and building a web site to collect reactions and prayers, because it was all I could think to do.

I was particularly moved by the unfolding tales of the heroism of the firefighters, NYPD and other emergency workers. As a volunteer firefighter and professional paramedic in a previous life, I knew what it was like to run the "wrong" way in a time of crisis. I understood the call to put personal safety aside to help others -- though, let's be clear, I had never been tested with anything like the challenge that faced the FDNY that day. For the first time in years I regretted letting my certifications lapse, and I had an intense desire to be part of the local crews that were heading toward New York in mutual aid. I don't think I ever felt more helpless.

Packing up the videos in our living room on Saturday I came across a tape I had made of a classic moment of television: Peter Jennings' Saturday morning special for kids done a few days after the attacks. The nation had found community during the preceding days through the shared experience of watching the attacks and their aftermath on TV. But this hour was healing for me, and an example of what media can be at its best. Jennings, who had been on-air almost constantly for days, sat on the floor with children talking about their fears, and their hopes. It was inspiring to see this important journalist, whose voice and eyes millions relied on, taking time to sit with children. Jennings, I recall, really cared about what the kids were experiencing. But more than that, he knew that being present with those children, and millions of kids (and their parents) across the country, was perhaps more important than the endless stream of raw facts, analyses and theories it was his job to communicate. It was incredibly cathartic to watch. I do miss Peter Jennings.

Views from the blog-world:

In a post titled "Remembering Sept. 10th," Ariah at Trying to follow offers an important perspective: "The evil of hunger claimed the lives of 40,000 children on 9/10 that did not need to die. They were little ones to whom belongs the kingdom. Their death was not due to the overt hatred and action of ones they would call their enemies. These children died because of the passive complacency of people they might even call friends. There is no monument built at which to lay flowers or say prayers on behalf of these victims. Their names are not remembered on this campus, for we did not know them personally."

In ...How then shall we live, Will Samson laments the road not taken in response to the attacks: "GK Chesterton once remarked, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." To paraphrase and apply this lens to the American governmental response to September 11, a Christian response to the attacks of September 11 was not tried and found wanting; it was found difficult as a re-election platform and not tried. "

And from NPR:

On today's Speaking of Faith, Krista Tippett reprises 5 years of conversations with Muslims to ask what we have -- and haven't learned -- about this major faith. Several speakers talk about the non-extremist Islam, rooted in prayer and charity and action (not just belief). This quote from Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University is worth considering: "Now, there is the tendency in America to want to convert the world to our view — and not our long-term view, our view of the immediate moment, the absolutization of the transient. We have the tendency in this country to absolutize very, very transient fashions and ideas and so forth at the moment when we’re living it. And that’s why, today — I always said the 1950s is like pharaonic Egypt: it’s already long, long time past. Whereas many people are alive today were alive in 1950 and functioning. And so we want to convert the world not to what, let’s say, Andrew Jackson thought or Abraham Lincoln thought, or even Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton, but to what we consider right now."


On mission and vision

"Where there is no vision the people perish" -- Proverbs 29:18a, KJV
If people can't see what God is doing,
they stumble all over themselves;
But when they attend to what he reveals,
they are most blessed. -- Proverbs 29:18, The Message
Seeing is believing, according to the aphorism. And having a vision is life-giving to God's people, the proverb says. Conventional wisdom holds that our corporate life -- that of nations and conglomerates and soccer clubs and congregations -- also flourishes with the appropriate mission and vision "statements." But what is a vision?

In Scripture visions are foretastes of the feast to come -- sometimes dire warnings, sometimes descriptions of God's desire, but always pointers to the ultimate and true reality that underlies the world of the senses. Visions are given to a prophet or sage. But if they are to have any meaning at all, they must become the people's vision story, the lenses through which they view and interpret the world and God's action in it.

The NIV (and The Message) and the NRSV render "vision" as "revelation" and "prophesy." I like these less poetic renderings better, because they give the sense that the vision is not just an inspired idea but a gift from God, a window into the hidden workings of creation. Such a vision is inspiration, inspection and introspection. It invites me not just to share the vision but to engage it, wrestle with it, to have a relationship with it -- and the one who gives the vision. It calls up the reality Socrates addressed when he wrote that "the unexamined life is not worth living." I can stumble along blinded by the limits of my "vision," or I can allow that vision to be shaped by the story of God's revealed desires for the world, and us.

We spend a lot of time with mission and vision "statements" in organizations, including the church. Often it's hard to tell them apart, and for leaders to encourage organizations to have interrelated missions and visions. For many organizations, the unspoken question becomes: We have a mission, why on earth would we need a vision, too?

A mission statement is primarily a tool. On the journey of the organization's existence, the mission is the compass that leaders have to consult to determine if they are actually going in the right direction. Does this project/product/service really align with where we think we should go, or does it veer off at 90 degrees? Consider hiking in the woods or driving in an unfamiliar city. It is hard to determine that you're off course visually, often times, until you're already lost. But if you know you're supposed to be heading generally north from the airport to your destination, and the compass points to south, it's providing valuable input.

(Yes, today a traveler would switch on the GPS, but that's only because we know our physical world well enough to completely surround it with satellites. In the worlds our organizations live and move and have their being in, territory is still being discovered, and there are no reference signals to calibrate to.)

If a mission statement is a compass, a vision statement is the course charted on the map. It acknowledges not only the path we want to take but also the paths we have foresaken. Without a destination there is no way along the journey to know where you should be going, and thus no need for the compass. (As the old saw says, If you don't know where you're going, you'll never get there.) The journey of a thousand miles may start with a single step, but if that step isn't heading toward the goal it's not a start; you've just re-defined the journey as one of a thousand miles and one step.

If a mission is a tool, then a vision is a dream, a picture of what the business gurus call a "preferred future." And isn't that what God gives people through Scriptural visions -- a picture of how God is in action behind the visible actions and motivations of the world, and a sense of how they can be part of (or work against) that action?

Mission statements can and sometimes do end up being recapitulations of the existing: We do x, y and z, so our mission is to do x, y and z (but better). And missions can be frustratingly vague. At one former employment, my boss used to joke that our mission was "the broad side of a barn" -- there was almost nothing we could do, short of trashing the organization's reputation or embezzling, that wouldn't further the mission. That's great if I want to justify what I'm doing, but not so helpful if I want to know if I'm going in the right direction (as opposed to going in any direction but reverse).

A vision, by definition, requires seeing something. It requires a picture of a heretofore unseen need that can be met, a niche to be filled, a way of being a community that does not presently exist. It is a dream that has the potential to unify and inspire people, and to demand their best. On a journey it is not the running congruence of direction to plan that excites people -- it is the possibilities that are unleashed by the destination.

There's always a tension between vision and mission, between the possible and the practical. And both are needed. It's great to want to go on your dream trip, but to do it you have to chart a course, decide whether to fly or drive, buy tickets or gas, and actually leave your driveway. But having a mission without a vision reduces that dream to driving around the block but never leaving your neighborhood.


"God is there..."

Some of you may remember "Davey & Goliath," the animated kids series of the 60s and 70s sponsored by the former Lutheran Church in America. I used to watch it on Channel 6 early Sundays and wonder...what are Lutherans? Guess I absorbed something...

Anyway, the ELCA has a cool disaster PSA for kids featuring the pair, reminding kids (and grown ups) that "God is there" in a disaster, in "the hands of the people who help."

Check it out here.

15 seconds of fame

One of the cool things about my job as the communicator for our synod is that I get to work with the public media. As a former newspaperman myself, I appreciate the role that the media can have in raising the visibility of the church. And a good placement can give our folks a reason to talk to friends and neighbors about what the church is doing.

Media relations has its frustrations, too. Attention often comes for the wrong thing. Our former bishop did some TV work when the ELCA's discussions of sexuality were in the news. I remember the day that the church released its recommendations not to change policy. I had a newspaper interview lined up and a TV crew on its way for an early afternoon interview. But when the TV assignment editor found that the church was not going to ordain persons in same-gender relationships or bless such unions, they turned the van around.

This week I was excited when KYW NewsRadio 1060, a powerful voice in the Philly radio market, called about doing an update on local efforts to assist in Gulf Coast hurricane relief. Nancy Griffin, who is the religion reporter, had been out at Christ Lutheran in Kulpsville last fall when they launched the first of a series of trucks laden with relief supplies on its way to Jackson, MS. She interviewed me and a local Lutheran who has been down to work at Grace, New Orleans four times (so far).

The good news is that ELCA members have sent $25 million to the Gulf so far, and 15,000 volunteers have offered 600,000 volunteer hours. Locally there have been more than 30 work parties from our synod, many volunteers have been there more than once, and most everyone comes back pumped to serve in their local communities.

So while it was wierd to have a microphone in my face standing on Independence Mall, it was very cool to tell KYW's vast audience that disaster response is in the Lutheran DNA...that for many of us living out the Gospel with the vulnerable and in-need is important. Well, will see if I told them....my soundbytes could all end up in the outtake bit bin. The piece is slated to air either Saturday or Tuesday, the anniversary of Katrina's landfall.

Update: The piece aired 8/29 and can be heard here.


New Orleans, one year later

I had lunch the other day with Pastor Dan Duke of Grace Lutheran Church in New Orleans, who was in our area on a pastoral exchange with Redeemer Lutheran in Jamison. A year after Katrina changed his call, his life, and the lives of his congregation members, I was fascinated to hear about the wrenching year they have had. While some long to "return to normal," Pr. Dan says what the city will emerge to, maybe 10 or more years down the line, is "a new normal." Pastorally, he's had to deal with people who have lived in a disaster zone for a year, with a congregation that includes people who transferred out, people whose extended family lost multiple homes, and those whose greatest inconvenience was waiting for cable to be turned on and want to get on with things. In the midst of this I was impressed by Pr. Dan's take on the experience of being reduced to waiting on the kindness of strangers:

“Strangers are praying for us. Strangers are helping to rebuild our church, and in the process they are not strangers any more,” Pr. Dan says. “If what’s happening to Grace isn’t a powerful message that God cares about us, I don’t know what is.”

At times like this a denomination can shine. Dan said his bishop was on the phone with him making arrangements to continue his salary before he even thought about that, and that the Gulf Coast Synod has been able to keep most pastors in place thanks to gifts from around the ELCA. An appeal to ELCA churches named Grace (there are more than 300 of them) around the U.S. has helped fund repairs to their building. Volunteers from all over have showed up to muck, to rebuild, and even delievered a used organ.

Pr. Dan's main point was this: The smallest bits of help are appreciated, and it's definitely not too late. Especially as we prepare to be inundated by media "anniversary" stories and perspectives, remember to pray for the people who struggle every day living amid constant reminders of disaster, for those who feel vulnerable in the only place they know as home, and for the pastors and church leaders who bear their burdens while managing their own.

Read more of what Dan had to say here.

Existing / Emerging

For a presentation I will give next month, I'm thinking about the ways that existing congregations can integrate some of the insights of the "emerging church" movement. For example, at the congregation I'm part of we've included elements from the "alt.worship" movement, and tried to increase the interactive, participatory elements. We've also worked at getting out of the building and into the community for fellowship, meetings and discussions. It continues to be a challenge to be aware of the "consumer" models we're steeped in and to inject missional elements.

But my experience is limited. I'm interested in what you're doing, and thinking, about bringing emergent insights into established congregations. Can it be done? Can a community "blend" in ways that embrace people who have been served by the traditional church and those who need something different? Is it best to start a new service, or a new cohort, with a different ethos? Have you run into brick walls in the process? What would you want to share with mainline/established church folks exploring this brave, new world?


Free stuff

Free Derek Webb

Who says you can't get good stuff free? One of my most listened to albums of the year, Derek Webb's "Mockingbird," will be available for free download in 12 days. I love this collection because it doesn't flinch addressing some tough issues -- war and peace, poverty and justice, church and state -- from a faith perspective (and with pretty good theology, mostly). I'll try to write about some of its highlights in the coming days. Mockingbird hangs together as a collection very well. I saw Derek and his wife, Sandra McCracken, at Circle of Hope in Philly this spring, and they devoted the second set to playing through the album, without comment, and it was powerful.

Derek posts this about why he's offering the work for free:

i love music. i have grown up with music as a close confidant. and i believe in the power of music to move people. there's something remarkable about the way a melody can soften someone to a new idea.

as an artist (and often an agitator), this is something i am keenly aware of. my most recent record 'mockingbird' deals with many sensitive issues including poverty, war, and the basic ethics by which we live and deal with others. but i found that music has been an exceptional means by which to get this potentially difficult conversation going. and this is certainly an important moment for dialogue amongst people who disagree about how to best love and take care of people, to get into the nuances of the issues.


Learning party!

Hey, what goes together better than learning and a party? Karen Ward of church of the apostles will be in Northeastern PA on Sept 16 for an Emerging Church Learning Party sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem. I've been asked to give a talk as part of the event. But despite that, it should be a great event :) !! It's from 10 am to 5 pm at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Wilkes Barre.

Last September I attended one of COTA's learning parties on their home turf in Seattle. It's a great opportunity to get explore the emerging church and postmodern faith and learn how existing mainline congregations can engage what is going on in our culture. If you're thinking about how your congregation can connect with postmoderns, this learning party with COTA's postmodern guides can help you get started. If you attended our "Emerging in the Mainline" event in February, you might want to get a couple other folks from your congregation to this event to build momentum. If you missed that event, don't miss this attempt to learn first-hand from a Lutheran/Episcopal group blazing new trails in a highly postmodern and unchurched communitiy.


Tasty morsels from the blog world

As work has increased my blog diet has cut back quite a bit, but I have found some very nutritional nuggets in recent days. Here's the dessert tray; pick one or more of your favorites:

Malcolm Chamberlain has a great reflection on "curating" worship rather than leading worship, with a great quote from Pete Rollins of Ikon: "Each service also attempts to remain faithful to the Augustinian axiom that only God gives God. Because of this the services are designed in such a way as to minimize specific doctrinal statements in favour of employing the Christian narrative to create a space for reflection and encounter. In this way Ikon resembles more an optician's surgery, which helps the eye become more receptive and sensitive to light, rather than a painter's studio, which would offer images for the sight."

Steve Collins has a great metaphor for the church that is trying to emerge: The Omlette Church.

Mike Bishop has some interesting ideas on pastor as spiritual guide: "Spiritual orienteers are the extreme sport junkies of the church. They are not content to plod along with the status quo, adding badges to their spiritual Boy Scout uniforms. They dive into the depths of God’s riches in prayer, in the Word, in His mind and His thoughts. Together they search for answers to the growing-edge questions posed by the community. They pursue the wisdom of other saints and guides that have gone before and completed the course. ..."

Churchrelevance.com has a great piece on Five Questions that will Kill a Big Vision: "Dreaming big is a vital part of incredible churches. Although in the long run churches need to be practical in their decisions, beginning a creative or planning process with practical questions a quick way to maim your church’s potential..."

Ryan Bolger (co-author of "Emerging Churches") wrote a while ago on "Please, No More Doing Church for 'Them'": "A focus on the church service as connecting point perpetuates the idea that following Jesus is about going to church. The community's life takes the form of American congregational religion rather than the fluid practices of the gospel, and this emphasis presents quite a barrier to the 'seeker' outside, as they need to be converted to the values of American religious congregationalism before they can come to faith. "

Update: Corrected Malcolm's name (15 July)


Wading in the waters

Three times in 18 months. That's how many times the residents of Raubsville, PA have lost everything. Everything. Lost to the raging confluence of the Delaware Canal and its big brother river.

"I don't know what to think. Is it global warming? Too much development?" said one resident, I'll call him Tom*, as he sat on the nearly washed out footbridge over the normally placid canal. He stared off at the muddy, oily-smelling water racing just inches below, reminscing about the newly seeded lawn he had planned to hold a July 4 party on. He was just about to move back into his home a year after the flood of April '05 devastated it and everything on Canal St. "We were about to say, 'We're back!'" he said, and shook his head.

Its the same up and down the river. Tom's neighbors spent much of today on the porch watching the water rise, and headed for dry land when it spilled into the first floor. Farther south in Upper Black Eddy, the brown rapids reached to the top of the Route 32 signs on River Rd and almost back to the canal. Yardley and Trenton waited tonight for the river to crest so residents could begin to estimate the damage. Over on the Schuylkill, in Pottstown and Phoenixville and Manayunk, it's more of the same. And we're in one of the lucky areas of Pennsylvania.

I went down to Raubsville today with Pastor Bill Rex and Linda Frey, two of the many Palisades Lutheran Cluster volunteers who've been helping people along the river put their lives back together since Hurricane Ivan "the terrible" baptized the area with a new sense of history in the fall of '04. It will be hard for them, and their fellow volunteers, to see the houses they've mucked and rebuilt once, if not twice, in ruins again. But that's nothing compared to the anguish riverside residents are feeling.

"I don't know what we're going to do," Tom says as he nurses the bandaged hand hurt while rushing to get belongings out of his house, again. His pain is obvious as he talks about the neighbors who have moved on in the wake of the first and second storms, and he wonders how many will stay after Number Three. But he offers a positive spin on his ongoing battle with old man river.

"When the church came down here," he says, nodding to Rex and Frey, "it was beautiful. Going through this is hard, and it was just so important to us to know we weren't going through this alone."

In the midst of an unprecedented series of storms, in low lying strips of land waiting for the Delaware to recede, conversation and construction has made for incarnational ministry -- and it will again. By next weekend volunteers will be mobilizing to once again fill dumpsters with soggy insulation and wallboard, and more priceless memories reduced to pulp. And in the booted feet and gloved hands and masked faces of the volunteers, Christ will again be with those in need. And it will, in Tom's words, be beautiful.

It's pouring again in Bucks County, and the National Weather Service has just added insult to injury, issuing another flash flood warning. Lord, have mercy!

* Not his real name.

P.S. -- My colleague Kay Braun wrote a great prayer that we've distributed to congregations for use this Sunday.
P.P.S. -- I'll try to find time to post some pictures tomorrow.

Good reads

:: Andre at emerging mosaic lists some questions, via Reggie MacNeal, contrasting the tough questions the missional church should ask vs. the wrong questions we often do ask. A sample:
The shift from church growth to kingdom growth.
a) Wrong question: How do we grow this church?
b) Tough question: How do we transform our community?
Read: missional and emergent

:: next reformation has a good meditation on the Lord's prayer. Read: prayer for justice


Liquid discipleship

"Discipleship has something to do with a willingness to allow God to take us up into the divine life, fulfilling the destiny for which we were created." -- David S. Cunningham, in These Three Are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology, quoted in Pete Ward's Liquid Church.

Update: corrected attribution.


How many more Sundays?

I had the opportunity to hear Brian McLaren give a day of talks at Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, PA last month. He quoted our Lutheran attrition stats, that something like 90 percent of the young people who come up through the ELCA are gone by college years. (Our bishop has used the same statistic on several occasions, with the rejoinder: If you're ok with only 10 percent staying, then you don't have to change anything!) Brian went on to note that the Southern Baptists and other denominations have similar statistics. Later he observed that while denominations are rightly concerned about the missing 18-29 year olds, he is becoming concerned about the 45-year-olds in our churches who are wondering if they can keep doing church one more Sunday.

That hits home, because my peers are in this age group, and I know a number of people who are going through the motions of church with no real engagement, and several more who have just plain given up, dropped out as solidly as any college freshman. And of the folks I know who are solidly churched, well ... I happened to start sharing this observation with a friend from church and before I could get to Brian's point, she supplied it for me. The next day I spoke to a friend from another church, and she, too, supplied the "can I do this one more Sunday?" line before I could.

This anecdotal evidence is hardly proof of a trend, and this observation is not new (George Barna hits upon it, with some dire predictions, in his Revolution, published last year). Still, it's worth paying attention to. The average age of ELCA members is 58, and the average age in the five-county Philadelphia area is 37. If even a small percentage of our 40-50 year olds, who are often key leaders and givers, are wondering about their commitment to church, where will we be in 10 years? Where will their kids be?

Out of the frying pan...

I think I'm breathing again.

For most of April I was quite immersed in preparation for our Synod Assembly -- producing videos, making tech arrangements, helping to plan worship, arranging musicians, organizing PowerPoint(R)'s, etc. The Assembly itself was an amazing time; the election of a new bishop was a process much more holy and spiritual than political, which is not how I had experienced other elections.

As soon as it was over I jumped into working to connect the media with our bishop-elect, and I started with my first online course. It's with Nate Frambach at Wartburg Seminary, on youth and family ministry in postmodern culture. So I'm still too busy to blog much, but the experience of using "moodle," the collaborative course software they use, and all the ideas springing out of my head from my reading have made it inevitable that I'll be thinking out loud here from time to time.

For this course I'm at present working through two books: "Practicing Passion" by Kenda Creasy Dean and "Liquid Church" by Pete Ward. I'm still too much in the middle of them to offer much cogent reflection, but I will share a couple of interesting ideas I've gotten from each so far:

Dean argues that the adolescent years are focused on passion -- the quest to love and be loved, and to find loves worth giving one's all for. She says there's a huge parallel between that life stage and the Passion of Jesus Christ, broadly considered (the entire incarnation event, not just the events of Holy Week). But the church has tamed that story and drained it of most of its pathos, leaving youth wondering why they would commit to the church. She spends some energy arguing that the problems of youth ministry are the problems at the church, and that while adolescents experience this to the extreme the lack of a passionate church -- both one with energy and one with something to live, and die, for -- affects many adults as well. I agree. While many view whatever is emerging as a generational thing, I have seen many in my generation who would offer some of the same critiques of the church that adolescents and young adults do -- too much going through the motions, too little passion and life change. In short, I think that's good news, because it means that the answers aren't about style and music and attitude but about getting back to the same reality, the Passion of Jesus, that drove the early church to explode.

Ward's book is really interesting to me. He avoids the pitfalls of talking about postmodernism by contrasting the "solid modernity" of the last several hundred years with our current "liquid modernity." It's a great way to describe how fluid attitudes and institutions and certainties have become in my lifetime. He also argues that this fluidity has impacted the church, even where it says it has not. The modern church has mutated, in his term, and takes a stance regarding the fluid culture. The church becomes a heritage site, preserving for future generations what it has been entrusted with. This is not bad, unless it makes inaccessible the very treasures it is trying to keep accessible. Or the church become a refuge from the fluid culture, creating a Christian bubble world (and sometimes megachurches that are like resorts), he says. Or the church becomes a nostalgic community, hoping 1957 will come again someday, and telling itself stories to pass the time. An excerpt:
The nostalgic community sells itself as the one place where communal meetings remain possible in society. We tell ourselves that in church young and old gather together in ways they never do outside of church. This kind of myth makes us feel good about our congregation... The nostalgic community is more wish fulfillment than reality. Congregations are generally monocultures reflecting the tastes of one or perhaps two different types of people. Black and white most often worship separately, as do the working class and the middle class... (28 ff)
It looks like "Liquid Church" is not a rant against the system but a realistic look at how church and culture are colliding. I like his idea of liquid church, spelled out in the introduction:
I suggest that we need to shift from seeing church as a gathering of people meeting in one place at one time -- that is, a congregation -- to a notion of church as a series of relationships and communications. (2)
This sounds like the early church, meeting together, breaking bread, teaching, and also caring for widows and orphans -- relationships and communications. More later...

Can love be commanded?

This past Sunday we read the appointed Gospel lesson about Jesus commanding his disciples to love one another. It was observed that love can be given, and love can be inspired ... but it can't be commanded. Demanding a relationship that must be voluntarily entered into is an oxymoron.

It occurs to me that what Jesus was doing was being contextual, using the language of his audience. To the observant Jews of his time, the commandments were the pinnacle of piety -- keeping the law wasn't part of the religion, it was the point of religion. It was the only relationship with God that mattered, that of obeying the externally observable rules.

Jesus had been very clear in the sermon on the mount that keeping the law was a first step, not a destination. This "righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees" would be exceeded by people who lived in the kingdom. But it was the litmus test of his time, used to include some and exclude others.

By making love a commandment, Jesus isn't asking his followers to force the feeling of love. He isn't coercing the disciples, nor is he simply describing another "law" that can be measured by neutral observers. Rather, Jesus' point, I think, is to say this: You think that the point of your religion is to keep the law. No, I say the central thing is love. You think you have been given a law to keep, I say you have been loved extravagantly. The response isn't just to keep the law, it's to love in the same way.

We accompanied this reading and discussion with a new video by The Work of the People, based on Derek Webb's song "A New Law."

don’t teach me about politics and government
just tell me who to vote for

don’t teach me about truth and beauty
just label my music

don’t teach me how to live like a free man
just give me a new law

i don’t wanna know if the answers aren’t easy
so just bring it down from the mountain to me

The film uses a great visual piece of business... people on the street are handing out blindfolds, which people wear to walk, eat, drive, read books, view art, preach... and finally have the boldness to peak out to see what's really there.

That seems to me to be what Jesus was saying... don't just take the law and then use blinders to shut out its implications for your life, but look... really look... and where love can make a difference. And then do it.

Thank you, God, for taking off your blinders and coming to live among us.


Style vs. substance

The Lutheran Zephyr has a great post on style vs. substance over here. His main observation is that many people choose churches based on the style of worship and the community rather than theology, ecclesiology, etc. And he suggests that denominations such as the ELCA, which predominantly offers one "traditional" worship style, are making a mistake limiting solid theology to one or two predominant styles. He notes:
Style is what catches the eye of many potential churchgoers, but our denominations are overwhelmingly offering only one way of ministry.

If you believe (like me) that the substance of our tradition can be authentically expressed, experienced, portrayed and conveyed in a variety of ways, then the unholy, monogamous marriage of our tradition to one particular style of ministry is simiply unevangelical, artificial and lacking vision. Our denominations need variety - not necessarily within individual congregations - but within the denomination, between parishes. Not only will this variety draw in people of different backgrounds, interests and walks of life, but this variety will more greatly contribute to our experience of God, the church's mission in the world, and our relevance in this new century.

Read his post and the comments. There's some good food for thought there. Here's what I wrote:

Amen. It only makes sense that people are drawn to a style first. People new to faith are going to be pulled by an inner stirring of the Spirit, but that usually doesn't come with a whole lot of theology or dogma -- the appreciation of theology comes as one grows in faith. And de-churched people are likely focused on avoiding what wounded them. The substance, important as it is, only attracts the churched and relocated (or shopping).

In Christendom we could expect people to come with a predisposition for a certain flavor of substance. In post-Christendom, we have to earn the right to talk substance with people, and that comes through our contextual engagement with their lives, including the style of worship/discussion/etc.

There's nothing wrong with "traditional" worship or a century old style of education if it works for some people, and it does, for *some*. The lack of diversity that you describe, and that I have experienced, says pretty clearly that others need not apply, that we're not interested in them enough to be with them where they are...we want them to be like us first. How unlike how God comes along side us in Jesus!

You're right -- we've got a problem! We seem happy to let people who don't like "our" style wander off into other places, where if they hang out they will be formed by other theologies and practices. If this keeps happening, will Lutheran theology be anything more than an historical footnote? I hope this never happens, but we're going to have to explore contextual styles if we're going to avoid it!

What do you think?