Moravian Conference on EC

Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pa. will host Brian McLaren as part of its Zeisberger Lectures on Friday, April 21, from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. And the best part is -- it's free!

Here's their website description of this Conference on the Emergent Church:

What is the emergent church? A movement? A new way of doing “incarnational theology”? A Christian beachhead in cyberspace? A state of mind? Encompassing all of these, it’s a way of being Christian that hearkens back to the first century, when followers of the Way found themselves proclaiming the Gospel to a sophisticated, religiously pluralistic, and skeptical but spiritually hungry culture. At the same time, it is a response to a wired, postmodern generation that favors experience over doctrine and relationships over institutional structures. In this conference, Brian McLaren, one of the movement’s leading thinkers, will share his experience with and reflections about the emergent church as a laboratory for being Christian in the twenty-first century.

ELCA emergents on Nightline

Spirit Garage, an ELCA emerging church in Minneapolis, and Bluer, a Vineyard church in town, were featured on a Nightline segment called "Prayer Party" a couple weeks ago. Spirit Garage is "a church that feels more like Saturday night than Sunday morning," Pastor Rob Norris-Weber told Nightline. One worshipper says that the connection, for her, in the traditional church was the familiar music and liturgy -- but not that she really belonged or it spoke to her faith. At Spirit Garage, she says, "the people are real, the faith is real and the music is from the heart."

Nightline interviewed Brian McLaren, who describes the emerging church "as an R&D department of people who are trying to innovate...and discover things that can serve the church."

Watch it here, courtesty of Bluer's website: Quicktime or Windows Media

Experiencing is believing

When the other disciples tell Thomas the Twin, "We have seen the Lord!" it must have been an emotional moment. For most of the group it was a transforming experience, their despair morphing immediately into joy, and they were high on the power of hope. Thomas, though, must have had a range of emotions. He was no doubt shocked at this surprising news, and lost his bearings for a few moments. Likely he felt a glimmer of his companions' excitement fighting with his cautious nature and protected himself from being hurt further. There was also a twinge of feeling left out, which often provokes a bit of defensiveness.

Reading his story again I notice two things. His resistance -- "I won't believe it unless I see him, and touch his wounds" -- isn't really directed at Jesus, but at the disciples' report. It's not surprising considering what he has gone through. First, John 20:9 makes clear that the disciples weren't really expecting the resurrection. Mary Magdalene was so distraught at finding Jesus' body gone that she conversed with the risen Lord but didn't know him until he named her. Her experience led her to tell the other disciples -- it isn't clear if Thomas was there -- so they were prepared, in a way, for Jesus to appear to them while cowered behind locked doors.

Thomas is like many people today. He hears about the others' experience of Jesus, but he demands experience of his own. Or as has been observed about "postmodern" people's reaction to the Church, they want to experience Jesus' love and power in the life of the Christians they see, not just hear information about Jesus that they're told they need to know. Thomas isn't overly stubborn -- clearly he shouldn't have known this was going to happen -- but he is looking for his own experience of Jesus.

The Messiah, for his part, knows this, too. And when he next appears to the disciples, he directly addresses Thomas' specific questions, "proving" that Jesus has been with Thomas even when Thomas wasn't aware of it, and creating a uniquely personal experience of Jesus for him.

It's easy to be like Thomas. I find myself frequently thinking things that sound like him: "Lord, I think you want me to go this way but I won't really know unless you show me." When I know but I don't know, I'm really asking for the knowledge to come out of experience, out of relationship, rather than just out of my head. Is that really different than what most people on a spiritual quest are asking?

Those of us who, unlike Thomas, believe without physically seeing Jesus are blessed. But if Christians are sent out just as the Father sent Jesus, then the people we run into in the world should experience through us God's care and compassion for the world, just as people experienced from Jesus. Otherwise, why should they believe our story?



"The obviously well-kept secret of the 'ordinary' is that it is made to be a receptacle of the divine, a place where the life of God flows."
-- Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

Today I was blessed to have a conversation with a retired couple at church, who were excited about their ministry being present for the many older retired folks in their complex. But the conversation started off with a tinge of guilt about not being able to do more in the church. I said that I thought their work where they are if as valuable (if not more so) than any "ministry" they could take on, and asked them to let us know how we (the congregation) could help.

Lutheran Zephyr posts about the current MasterCard commercial where Peyton Manning cheers on workers doing ordinary stuff -- the stuff we do every day and that, in Willard's view, Jesus would do if he were here. LZ suggests that "The problem with so much of our spiritual regimens (both present-day and past) is that they depend on importing "Godly things" into our daily lives ... But this "I have to bring spirituality into my daily life" attitude implies that our daily life has no inherent spiritual value."

There's no doubt that we have some work to do sorting out our attitudes about the sacred and the ordinary. Spiritual disciplines of Scripture reading, prayer, worship and service ground us, tell us who and whose we are. Unless we're shaped by God through these regimens, we're likely to miss the sacred significance of our "non-religious" work. Unless the life of God flows through it, the ordinary is just, well, ordinary. But we're equally at risk of dismissing this sacredness by placing a higher value on "spiritual" things. Even worse, in the church bubble we're often guilty of emphasizing the work we do keeping the congregation/institution humming over the connections we make on the job, in the neighborhood, or at school.

Brother Maynard blogged about this disconnect today, as well. (Seems like we've got a theme going). Jesus, he notes, just said "Follow me!" -- without specifying attendance at temple meetings or other of our metrics. Should the church be asking people for a significant percentage of their "free" time when being present with their family, connecting with neighbors and coworkers or serving the poor are equally valid ways of following the Savior? How can we reconfigure "church" so our people are freed up to be ministers outside of our walls as well as within them? Can we think about supporting people in their ministries instead of pestering them to join ours?

A couple months ago at St. James we asked people to bring in symbols of the ways they serve as Jesus served, wherever that happens. And we blessed them...and sent people out to be empowered in their serving. We need to keep working at cheering each other on in recognizing the sacredness of everyday life...that's one way the Kingdom of God grows!


Drought plagues Tanzania

Our Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the ELCA is partnered with a companion synod, the North-Eastern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania. Word arrived today from Anneth Munga, wife of Bishop Stephen Munga, about growing drought conditions in the country. Water is always an issue in this region, and this shortage is growing worse. Please keep the people there in prayer! Here's an excerpt from her email:
Many sincere thanks for praying for and with us during these difficult times. Here in Lushoto and surrounding areas it doesn't look bad because the market is full with fruits, potatoes, rice, dried fish, vegetables, etc. But the water shortage is tangible, people are often on the way looking for new places to fetch water because all old springs and rivers have dried up. You might remember that when you travel up to Lushoto from Mombo, you could see a small "waterfall" before reaching Soni. It has dried up totally!

Dodoma is in the middle part of Tanzania. It is a semi-arid area by nature and the drought has made the situation much worse. So the newspapers have reported about cows etc dying in thousands. In the National parks in the north of Tanzania, tourists have informed us about how they have seen hippos rolling in mud, trying to survive. As you travel along the main road from Arusha to Dar es Salaam you see skiny cows walking around. Some cattle keepers walk with their herds for miles in search for water. Others just leave them to die. You try to look all sides as you travel along the road, and it's just grey. As I said, no reports have come out about people who have died from hunger. What we suspect is that in this situation, malnutrition and dehydration e.g. among children can hardly be avoided which eventually contributes to death.


Dreams and homesickness

Richard Kew, an Episcopal priest down South, writes an eloquent post about his homesickness for his native England and the emotional resonance with his reaction to the emerging church experiments cropping up in the Anglican world (and elsewhere). It's a worthwhile read. (ht: Karen Ward)

The emerging church, he writes, "is attempting to turn the church into a missionary community effectively addressing the Gospel into this postmodern world. I applaud the younger people who are pioneering this massive task, often marginalized or laughed at by denominational leaders." Yet he acknowledges his pain: "I have to accept that these new expressions of the faith in the postmodern world are coming into being at the expense of the church that I love, the one that I grew up in and which nurtured me. This is the church for which I am homesick."

Richard writes with wisdom and generosity about the tension we're living into, whether we choose to or not. We are in a new world, in many senses, compared with the "glories" of Christendom. New forms, styles and language that connect with the emerging context do require letting go of beloved assumptions and practices that made perfect sense in the previous context. And this raises important questions for the ELCA and all denominational systems. How do we both affirm the ways that have worked for so many of us and bless the Spirit-led experiments trying to connect with those uninterested in the church-as-we-know-it? If in a cultural shift some congregations have to change radically and some have to affirm their traditional stance, if some have to be planted and some have to die, how do affirm this growth and change (and even death) for the sake of the Kingdom rather than focus on individual wins or losses? How do we care for the traditionalists in emerging congregations, and the postmodern in traditional congregations, and bless them to find forms that work for them rather than doom them to fight on as a minority -- or simply give up on church? How do we deal with the hurt that the needed experiments will inevitably cause?

Richard's maturity and insight is a great model to look at in starting to answer those questions. "My generation can do one of several things in such a situation. We can, for example, as is the case in most denominations, hold onto leadership and stand in the way of all that a younger generation of Christians brings in terms of richness. In many places we are doing just this" -- in the liberal mainline and in boomer megachurches. He concludes:
I know it spells the end to the kind of church that suits me best. But the Gospel isn't about what suits me best, it is about being obedient to Jesus's Great Commission so that it works for the emerging world. My kind of church is in decline, but that does not mean the Gospel is without its grace and power to transform. The baggage that I appreciate needs to be either cut away or reconfigured so that a newly contextualized faith will work in the West, even if it does not show the world the face that I would like shown.
If all of us -- traditional and emerging -- could keep this focus, the Church will be the better for it.

Richard's post also offers us an important challenge. He writes that he would like to "be set free from so many of my responsibilities to stand in the background to mentor, advise, and generally be a midwife to this movement in one form or another." When I left a comment encouraging him to offer that gift, he wrote back a lament that "there is today little in the way of resources to support such a ministry. Elders, if they are to put bread on the table have to make ends meet."

It is heart-breaking to think that such wisdom and insight would be kept from the emerging church because we can't figure out how to set people free to midwife a movement of the Kingdom. Surely, Church, we have the creativity to figure out how to share resources and people in response to the Spirit's nudging. Or have our modern, "winner-take-all" roots doomed us to see this as an either-or, win-lose situation, and keep fighting until either the church Richard is homesick for dies or the emerging churches give up and leave our denominations?

My Day in Africa

The BBC is collecting stories of daily life in Africa on their website. They're short glimpses into people's lives from across the continent. I'm amazed at how much they convey in under 300 words.

Right now the lead is a Kenyan nun's account of her missionary work in Ivory Coast. She works with children dying of AIDS and malaria and teaches literacy to prostitutes. Political tension makes travel uncertain. Yet every day she does devotions at 0530, and "After this, I set out to go to mass and walk for 15 minutes down a dirty and smelly path - but at least I get to greet people as I walk." Now there's missional living.

I really resonated with Sarah from Uganda. Her ordinary tale brought back the sights and smells of the incredible rush-hour traffic in Kampala, and the ubiquitous cell phone billboards along the roads. So much of her story could be mine: "I check my email and attend to tasks as soon as possible. There are always lots of deadlines to meet. Some days are so overwhelming that I never hit the mark." Yet she know's what's really important: "I always love coming home to see my husband and baby - they relieve my stress."

Thanks, BBC. These stories help us to remember that what we have so much more in common than we have differences.

Italian court considers Jesus case

From the BBC: "An Italian court has begun the task of deciding whether a priest should be called to face questioning over whether or not Jesus Christ actually existed."

A 76-year-old Italian man, a former trainee priest and now devoted athiest, has sued a priest who "attacked him in print for casting doubt over the legitimacy of the Christian gospels."

For his part, "The atheist contends that Christianity relies on purely anecdotal evidence." He says "he hopes to use the case 'to denounce the abuse that the Catholic Church commits by profiting from its prestige to present historical facts as if they are real when they are only inventions.'"

Note that this makes great copy, but it's not new. Doubt about specific historical underpinnings of Christianity have been around for a long time. It does show, though, how far from the pinnacle of Christendom we have moved.

I think it also shows that in this postmodern age, when people long for meaning but are skeptical of anyone who claims to be able to offer it, our "story" and how we live it is more important than our "facts" and how well we "prove" them.


Political scan

They needed research to figure this out? From msnbc.com:


Thieves and salesmen

But I found thieves and salesmen
Living in my father's house
I know how they got in here
and I know how to get them out
I’m turning this place over
From floor to balcony
and then just like these doves and sheep
Oh, you will be set free
-- Derek Webb, "Lover"

Reflecting on Matthew 21:12-17, the story of Jesus turning over tables in the Temple. The text I'm reading this morning has Jesus saying: "The Scriptures say, `My house should be called a place of worship.' But you have turned it into a place where robbers hide."

I've generally read this as a critique of practices of buying and selling in sacred space. This has been shaped in part by our Lutheran aversion to "fundraising," and by the experience that this text is usually quoted in meetings to oppose new ways of funding or providing programs.

I think Jesus here is not talking about the moneychangers and sellers per se. Yes, there is usually some dishonesty inherent in this type of system. Exchanging currencies involves a fee that can be extreme, and any time one has to buy from a "single source" -- like the official sellers of doves -- it gets expensive. But I think the "robbers" are those who set up a system where pilgrims are required to go through such hoops to get what is free -- God's love and mercy.

The meditation on rejesus.co.uk today says that a service to help foreigners had become "a business enterprise." I think that's key -- this system creates hoops for "outsiders" to help them become "insiders," and Jesus has been clear that outsiders are insiders already. It goes on to say, "This isn't the first time that holy places had lost their heart and soul, and it wouldn't be the last." As wrong as the sellers' opportunism is, the loss of heart and soul is deeper, in the system and leaders that are setting themselves up as gatekeepers to God's kingdom and being arrogant enough to believe they can sell what God has already given.

This isn't a sign of some singluar, stunning evil. I can find my thoughts straying this way as a natural by-product of being in leadership. Even as we have allowed cookie and candle sales to help fund programs, the Church finds many ways to draw dividing lines and create hoops for "outsiders" to jump through. Those hoops can be liturgies or inward focus or doctrines that seem as natural to us as the tables of caged birds and foreign exchange market seemed to the Jews entering the Temple. What are the things that turn us into robbers, charging others (and ourselves) for what has already been given free?

I need to keep working at seeing this gift, which Derek beautifully describes in the last verse of his song:

I am my beloved’s
and my beloved’s mine
So you bring all your history
I’ll bring the bread and wine
and we'll have us a party
Where all drinks are on me
Because as surely as the rising sun
Oh, you will be set free


Contextualizating faith

My devotions this morning focused on Matthew 8:5-13, the story of Jesus healing an army officer's servant. I love when I read a passage of Scripture that I have read many times and I'm greeted with a new understanding -- an epiphany! This is a story I know well, but it has never presented itself to me as a story of contextualization before.

What is interesting is that it is not a case of Jesus contextualizing his message, but of the officer localizing Jesus in his world. So often we focus our energy on how we "do" contextualization, how we translate God's love and mercy (I use that word a lot myself) or how we become relevant, and don't leave room in our thinking for the ways people in their own world can see Christ in their midst.

It's clear that's what happened to the officer, because he isn't standing by the gate making idle chat with one of many passing travelers. He seeks Jesus out and addresses him as "Lord," implying that he recognizes Jesus' authority. His statement about his servant's pain is clearly a request, since there's no real reason for him to bring that up in casual conversation. Jesus recognizes his seriousness and his faith and agrees to go heal the servant.

Here's where it gets interesting. Clearly this officer has seen something in Jesus, or been told something about him, that he recognizes as authority worth submitting to. Soldiers are trained, of course, to obey the constituted authorities over them in service of their mission. But they are not likely to submit to just any authority. Occupying forces learn to be wary of the populations they are imposing themselves on, as US forces are in Iraq, uncertain who is an insurgant and who is just trying to get on with their everyday life. There are certain trust relationships assumed with political and tribal leadership, but for this soldier to risk trust in an unconstituted authority, the "leader" and teacher of a religious minority, he must have sensed in Jesus a larger authority.

There is nothing said of how the officer came to know this. Perhaps he witnessed one of Jesus' healing, or been told about his teaching with authority. But he immediately places Jesus and his authority in his world. The officer knows these relationships well. Disobeying a direct order from his superiors would have dire consequences for him, and he would no doubt impose serious punishment on one of the soldiers under his command for the same infraction. In his world obeying orders is a matter of life and death. And he senses that Jesus is the real deal, that he is in command of forces of health and life. So he both recognizes his place ("I'm not good enough for you to come into my house") in the chain of command and submits not only his servant but himself to Jesus' order. He could have just commandeered Jesus and taken him to lay hands on the servant; he had that authority. But he saw beyond the benefit he could get from Jesus' gift of healing and glimpsed who Jesus was, his goodness and his true authority.

Jesus is quick to use this display of faith as a teching moment. "This," he says, "is faith: knowing who I am and living as if that is true." The officer didn't need guarantees or convincing, he didn't need a display of power to see if his faith was warranted, he simply recognized who Jesus was and oriented his life around that fact. And Jesus is very clear here that that is the kind of faith that is required, not having the right genes, the right outward actions or the right beliefs. "The ones who should have been in the kingdom will be thrown out into the dark."

The crowd must've been amazed. The Pharisees preached an extreme "attractional" model: Get it together and be like us to be right with God. Jesus seems to be saying here that it's not about becoming a Pharisee or even a Jew -- "Many will come from everywhere to enjoy the feast in the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Rather, he praises the officer, an outsider who recognizes who Jesus is and, because his world is exposed to the living God, is forever changed by the contact. There's a stunning reciprocity in the contextualization that goes on here; the officer locates Jesus in his context and then, in this case, expands that context to include Jesus along side, even above, the authorities that can punish or execute him.

The question for the day is: How are we -- as individuals and as church -- presenting who Jesus is? Many people hear judgment and exclusion from Christians, a call to change first and then we'll talk. How do we present a merciful and inclusive God whom people can imagine and desire in their own lives, and whose goodness can help them to enlarge and reshape those lives?


Justice Sunday III: Revenge of the civil religion?

In case you didn't know, today is Justice Sunday III -- a big rally tonight at a North Philly church transmitted to churches around the country to "petition" the government on the eve of Samuel Alito's confirmation hearings. The Philadelphia Inquirer has it under a headline "Plans for Christian Rally are Attacked."

Ministers from Philadelphia, New York and Washington yesterday criticized plans by religious conservatives to hold a nationally broadcast rally ... at an African American church on North Broad Street on the eve of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington and a United Church of Christ minister, called the gathering nothing more than "a big play" by its conveners "to gain control over the one branch of government they don't now control."

The Family Research Council, sponsor of the event, says Alito's confirmation is part of the solution to the problem of government hostility to religion. Ummmm... say again? Well, who says conservatives are against activist judges. Activism is apparently only working for something they're against.

80 million people are supposed to watch Dobson, Falwell and (it just gets better) Sen. Rick Santorum whip up the faithful. Interestingly, the Inquirer says, some black clergy, such as Rev. Robert Shine of the PA Statewide Coalition of Black Clergy, are concerned about the signal sent by hosting this event at an African American church.
"It gives the impression that the African American church is in full agreement," Shine said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
I find it interesting how people can exercise civil religion to claim that we don't have one.

The Baptism of Our Lord


TiVo church?

WHYY's Radio Times this week had an interview with Syracuse University's Robert Thompson talking about television. When I was a kid shows were transmitted and we had to watch them when they were broadcast, or we were out of luck. To watch a show again we waited for reruns. Thompson notes that TiVo has really expanded on the revolution started 25 years ago by VCR's, making timeshifting easy and allowing us to program our own personal networks. If you wake up at 3 a.m., instead of setting for an informercial, you can go to your personal list and call up the show and episode you want. (Well, you can -- I haven't sprung for one yet.)

This move to being our own programmers is springing up in all kinds of ways. I often listen to a podcast on the way to work instead of terrestrial radio. People are now watching TV on an iPod or checking email in the doctor's waiting room rather than reading old magazines. We're becoming a society that is used to programming its own inputs and consuming them when we want.

There certainly are downsides to being taught to desire "what I want, when I want it!" But I want to take the positive aspects into account. With all of the pressures on our time today, the ability to find content you want and view/listen/read it when you have time is very helpful, provided we resist the temptation to inform/entertain ourselves all the time and not get any sabbath. Me, I like catching up on technology podcasts or Grace Matters in the car sometimes instead of listening to formula radio.

This brings up the question: "What does Church look like in the TiVo world?" By that I mean how do we take advantage of people's ability to seek out what they value and use it when it works for them, and meet their expectation that that will be available? I'm thinking about this because of a convesation in the ELCA Communicators discussion group about podcasting sermons. One take: If you're doing recordings now, podcasts are an efficient method of distribution. The opposite: Audio doesn't convey the style of presentation or the sense of the community; hearing the words without the context of the community is a bad idea.

This isn't just an old paradigm/new paradigm thing. I hear in this a valid concern that participation in the community is of prime importance. Beyond that, I think that there's a danger of sending the message that the content of the sermon is key, rather than the act of the community coming together. It's valid to ask, I think, if a sermon doesn't work in a podcast, is it working in the community?

Just talking about sermons limits the discussion. Our church programs are for the most part like the network schedules in the 70s. Worship is Sunday morning and if you miss it, it's not rerun. You can't time shift it. The same with Bible study, Christian education, etc. Those that can attend do and get real value from the face to face community. But what about those who are left out? How can a TiVo model work with worship? Podcasting a service isn't the answer, but how can worship be a part of every gathering of parts of the community? How can podcasts or just posting worship aids help families to worship when they are away from the gathering? Can discussion "sermons" be podcast so people can participate, even if they weren't originally there, via email or blog? How can we help people to program a path of spiritual formation so that the time that they have to listen, read or interact with family and friends can promote spiritual growth?

Gathering is important, and its becoming more important in our culture. But we have to let go of the idea that there is our gathering, with "the" sermon and "the" community, and then everything else. Can we look at people's spiritual lives as formed not just by church (which hasn't been a reality for a very long time anyway) but by a self-programmed network that they tune into? And then how can we provide or point them to gatherings, discussions, books, podcasts and sermons that can be part of that network?

Instead of viewing the options as a threat, we should be looking at them as ways of bringing people into the gathering and nourishing them between gatherings, however frequently that is for them. What if we looked at our gatherings as adding something of real value to the program that people self-select, and helped them to program their network with valuable stuff, instead of telling them it's our way, take it or leave it?

What would we want to podcast, or make downloadable, or make options within our schedule, that would enhance rather than compete with communitiy gatherings?

Oops, he did it again!

Pat Robertson's speaking for God again. This time he says God punished Ariel Sharon with a stroke for giving land back to Palestinians. (AP via ABC News)

No, it's not surprising. It is disappointing to continually hear God portrayed as a wrathful overseer, striking down those who act in disrespect of His (often linked with America's) interests. It's not surprising that it is difficult to get a hearing for the crucified Christ and God's mission to bless and redeem the world that is regularly hearing, from men of God, who the Lord is excluding and punishing. Does it seem to you that this type of talk is ramping up? Why do fear and control seem to be such strong themes for so many Christians? And how do we speak effectively when the media spreads such messages worldwide every time one of these "leaders" shoots off his mouth?

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League said it well: "His remarks are un-Christian and a perversion of religion. Unlike Robertson, we don't see God as cruel and vengeful."

So much better to pray for Mr. Sharon, the nation of Israel, and the fragile peace process that hangs in the balance.

Update: Lutheran Zephyr points to a really funny (but not very generous) satire piece on why Robertson's inanity gets so much press coverage. A taste: "Is there a better argument against intelligent design than Pat Robertson?"