The Lutheran online communities I have been a part of have tended to be very quiet. Many members. A few active participants in discussions (and usually a couple who tend to dominate). A lot of lurkers. Many discussions are echo chambers, with one or two people energizing the thread until it dies.

Well, unless that we tread into one particular subject. This is from the wall of a Lutheran group I joined on Facebook:

*Sigh*  C'mon, people, is this really what we want to show people is at the top of our minds and agendas?


In 30 seconds or less...

We used this video to preface our community's retelling of the Christmas story. Enjoy!


Love has come. For you.

Here's the Christmas message from Kairos tonight. Have a blessed Christmas!

Love has come!

Love has come to you!

The marvelous part of this story is not that it happened a long time ago in a place far, far away.  The Word is waiting to become flesh tonight, right here in this room, right in you!  The Word is waiting to take on your flesh, to be reborn in your heart.

This is such a human story.  A couple faced with a difficult predicament.  A poor family left out of the comfortable accommodations.  The message comes to a simple teenager.  To working men, the kind who would have had to shower after work if they had had showers then, right at their jobsite. 

Yet it is the fulfillment of a centuries old promise, the working out of divine will.  Isaiah promised that the zeal of the Lord of hosts – the love of God for all of God’s people – would bring this child into the world.  He is not born to be tender and mild. Nor is he born to be meek and make no crying.  The songwriters of the church have long told of the cosmic significance of Christ:

This verse from "What Child is This" often gets skipped at Christmas:

Nails, spears, shall pierce him through / the cross be borne for me, for you.

And listen to this verse from "O Holy Night":

Truly he taught us to love one another / his law is love and his gospel is peace
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother / and in his name all oppression shall cease!

This is big!  The story of Christmas is not just about a child in a manger.  It is about the healing of the world.  The mending of all of our broken parts.  The release of prisoners and captives of every kind.  It is about, as St. Paul writes, the very essence of the universe, of life – Jesus Christ is in it all and holds it all together, even – especially – when it seems that it is all about to come flying apart.

And that is why it is also our story.  This Savior of the world is born in dirt and straw.  This king is descended from rulers, and prostitutes and murderers.  His significance is recognized by working people and outcasts, the sick and deformed and completely missed by the religious elites.  He eats with sinners and tax collectors, and is executed as a political prisoner – a terrorist.

This is not a story of the world rising to God’s standards.  It is the good news that God comes to us where we are, just as we are.  God comes to you – right now – no matter what you’ve done wrong, what you are struggling with, no matter what darkness you dwell in.  God invites you to join him, to join Jesus in fixing the broken parts of this world, and to learn from him how to live freely and lightly.

Yes, love comes down to us.  And that love didn’t stay in the manger in Bethlehem, or in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, but walked across the land, to Jerusalem and eventually to Golgotha.  So the love that comes to us isn’t a secret treasure for us to hoard, but is a gift that we are called and compelled to give to our neighbors and our world.  Our forebear in the faith, Martin Luther, once said that the truest mark of whether an action was Christian was whether it cared for our neighbor.  Love comes down, but it must move out through us to those around us.

This Christmas, after all of the presents have been unwrapped and the celebrations are over, beneath all of the joy of giving and the worries about the economy, know this:  Emmanuel – God is with us! Right here and right now. Just as we are. And it is this reality, this love, that is the strong force that glues your life, your family, our community, the whole world together.

Love has come.  Love has come for you!

(Followed by a visual interpretation of "Ten Thousand Angels," by Sandra McCracken)

A matter of perspective

The Church Marketing Sucks blog poses a challenging question today:

How far off do we have to be if the celebration of a baby born in dirt and straw can be impacted by economic conditions?

We hear constantly that sales are down, spelling more gloom for the economy. NPR reported yesterday that Christmas tree sales are down 50% in some areas. Despite some hopeful signs, the Gallup Poll shows that people are not turning to faith -- or at least not coming to church -- to cope with their economic uncertainty and fear.

The most relevant thing we can say is to tell the world what the angel said to Mary, and to Elizabeth, and to the shepherds -- Do not be afraid! Just point to the miracle of God come to dirt and straw, moving into the neighborhood next to us, and worship.


The reason for the season

It's become a reflex in many Christian circles to remind revelers that "Jesus is the reason for the season." Our judicatory a couple years ago helped to sponsor local radio ads urging people to "Keep the Christ in Christmas." The "reason for the season" rhetoric often gets tied into the "War on Christmas" promoted by conservatives who sense a slippery slope being descended when businesses wish us "Happy Holidays."

I'm comfortable with the marketplace taking the Christ out of "Christmas" the cultural celebration. There is so much consumerist pressure on the holiday that adding a veneer of religiosity to it actually hurts the cause of Jesus. Does our spending really need to be identified as "Christian"? Isn't it enough that, with all the media gloom and doom about lackluster Christmas sales, it seems patriotic and in our self interest? Hearing a clerk say "Merry Christmas" -- ever hear a denizen of commerce say "Blessed Christmas" to you? -- may keep the holiday spending within my comfort zone, but is that a really good place to be comfortable?

Fernando Gros has an interesting post today asking, provocatively to some Christians, "What if there is more than one reason for the season?" (HT: The Corner) No, he is not watering down the theological import of Emmanuel, God with us, but rather pointing out that the dialogue about Christmas that the culture starts each year might be one we want to engage rather than rush in to "correct" by identifying why our reason is right and theirs is wrong.

Christmas is the center of our faith -- Love comes down and moves into our neighborhood, next door to incomplete, wrong-headed and broken people like you and me. The incarnation is the only ground we have for hope, which is sorely needed in times such as these. Jesus is the reason for our hope, and the season. And I think he wants us to stop cringing when the Grinch and Rudolph enter the story and people want Santa to bow before the manger in church, and engage a culture that thinks that consumption is love. With our story of hope and acceptance, we can show the world what love really is. And that, as the Beatles said, money can't buy it.


Call to worship

I love the passage from Isaiah that is traditional for Christmas Eve. Our community values participatory worship, so I wrote a call to worship that will allow the people to be part of the drama Isaiah describes. Enjoy!

People: Help us Lord! Darkness looms over us, the night is heavy, and it’s hard to see our way.

Leader: Don’t be afraid! The Light shines on you even now. Love has come for you.

People: Help us Lord! We are oppressed by fear and uncertainty. The weight of busyness, and distraction lies heavily on our shoulders.

Leader: Don’t be afraid! The bar you carry is already broken, and the boot soles that would crush you have already been burned. Love has come for you.

Leader: Hear what the Lord, your God, has promised – your Maker, and the one who makes you whole:

All: For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.


Evangelism lessons from Penn

Being from a mainline, Lutheran tradition, evangelism is unfamiliar territory for me. Its one of those activities, like dieting, daily flossing and skipping Christmas cookies, that I know I ought to do, but somehow never get there.

The community I am part of is very good at testifying to our faith through actions. Collecting food and gifts for the needy, and serving in an essentially secular setting such as a food pantry, shows that someone cares enough to do something, but not necessarily why I care enough to do something for them. Interestingly, in the food pantry I volunteer at from time to time, which is run by the local ministerium, the waiting room has some religious posters but when I have been there there is never religious conversation.

Many of us mainliners are allergic to faith sharing and positively avoid anything that smacks of proselytizing. And with good reason. Approaches that focus on “are you saved?” and “you’re going to hell if you don’t believe what we do” have made many people resisting to even engaging God’s story.

I was fascinated though to come across a video by Penn Gillette (the talking half of Penn & Teller) on Tony Jones’ blog this morning.

In this episode of Penn’s vlog he offers an unusual reaction to the act of being “proselytized” after a recent show.

“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize,” Penn says.

If people of faith – or, for that matter, atheists like Penn – believe that they know something that can help another person, they have a duty to share it, he says. If you saw a truck bearing down on an unawares pedestrian, he says, you’d push them out of the way; why not for something “more important” such as “eternal life.”

Penn’s view of the non-proselytizing position was a whack upside the head:

“How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

It often sounds patronizing and self-serving when Christians cloak their attempts to proselytize in terms of “love.” But how interesting to hear this condemnation of the sin of omission, of failing to tell the story, from a self-professed non-believer!

Now he is certainly not suggesting that it’s a sign of love to threaten or cajole. In that quote I think he is getting at a message that is more life-giving than soul-saving. And therein is a great lesson for “evangelism,” however we conceive it.

If you watch the video, its clear from the way Penn pauses in the midst of telling this story that he was touched by the simple offer of a Gideon Bible from a fan who genuinely engaged him. Not convinced, mind you. His atheism is intact. But he clearly appreciated the love shown by this fan.

There are a couple of good tips modeled in Penn’s encounter with this unknown believer:
  1. Engage honestly. This fan didn’t stalk Penn and thrust his beliefs on him. He engaged him about his show and then simply shared what was important to him.
  2. Be nice, and sane.
  3. Make direct eye contact. This is a deeply personal contact, that makes one vulnerable, and it made an impression on Penn.
Rather than being offended, or labeling the man as a “religious nut,” Penn comes away from the encounter with a positive view --

“This guy was a really good guy… and he cared enough about me to proselytize and give me a Bible”

– with a note and several ways to contact the giver.

Penn says that “I know there is no God, and one polite person living his life right doesn’t change that.” But one polite person does make a difference, by simply sharing something that is important on his own journey. In the simple interaction Penn discerned the man’s goodness – and “with that kind of goodness it is ok to have that deep a disagreement.”

So what do you think? Is Penn’s reaction atypical, or is he on to something? Should we look at opportunities to share our story and our faith as something less scary, and more life-giving?


Tweet, tweet

At my day job, we're looking at what the rapidly evolving communications technologies mean for building community with younger church members and their peers, many of whom believe church/religion to be unconnected with and irrelevant to their lives.

Mark, a pastor in NC, observes the disconnect with younger people and wonders, "could it be that in holding on so tightly to the past, we are letting the future slip away from us?" His great post, "Can the Church catch up?" notes that the church has spent much of the last 200 years, during which we have gone from Charles Babbage's concept of a computer to ubiquitous handhelds, resisting the change exploding in human history. (We've gone from being earthbound to space travel, horses to jets, carrier pigeon to Twitter, while our hymnals have a lot of songs more than 200 years old.)

It's time that we catch on to the revolutions in connecting people that are taking place every year or so. I just hope we realize that we have to change our message and our style of communicating, not just the channel.

It's not just that printed newsletters work for almost no one, and email doesn't work for anyone under 25 anymore. We're used to sending out messages, while people are becoming more and more used to engaging in conversations. This means that a lot has to change.

In his book Tribes, marketing guru Seth Godin notes that the ad model that I grew up with, which interrupted us while watching TV, listening to radio or reading newspapers (remember them?) with ads we didn't ask for, is quickly dying. No major consumer brand has launched with that as its main strategy in the last decade, he says. Instead brands, especially Internet brands, are earning the loyalty of key fans who participate in and expand the company's sphere of influence.

The danger is trying to move old style interruption communications into the twittersphere. Young people may get status updates, invitations, news and weather by text message, but its wrong to think that we can just send the same old announcements and insider messages by SMS to any but those who are already loyal fans. The digital native generations may be less protective of their contact info -- when I first got a cell I limited who knew the number to avoid dreaded overage charges, now teens ask for texts in their facebook status messages -- but it is far easier to text "OFF" or click "ignore" than it is to throw away junk mail.

Getting into these new communications channels requires restraint and wisdom. We need to be thinking about how to equip those who are already linked-in with us to include their friends, share relevant info, offer events, etc. And we need to think how we can communicate more transparently, to acknowledge questions and doubts, to point out useful info and events even when they are not ours, to really communicate and not hide behind institution-speak. Perhaps more importantly, we will have to discipline ourselves to listen in these new communities before we speak.

From my sampling of the growing body of work on non-profit use of social media, it's clear that the church needs to be in this space. As Ed Stetzer says, "it is better to be connected using social media, recognizing the limitations, than to be disconnected." There are ways to do good: We can ask questions (as long as we listen to the answers), connect people with kindreds and with Christ, and generate energy around causes and ministries that solve problems. We can share perspectives from inside and outside the church. The key is putting attention on building community. We already have experiments with "social networks," and we have found that they languish without a champion who facilitates and expands the conversation.

But it is also wise to know what not to do. Having a blog, a Facebook account or a Twitter ID doesn't give you automatic access to people. As NP tech advocate Beth Kanter writes, the top of the list of the signs you're not ready to engage people on Twitter is:
You think Twitter is a bull horn and is a great way to broadcast campaign messaging from a Twitter account that is branded with your logo.

I think its going to be fun building new networks. I just have to remember that everything I learn is obsolete as soon as I learn it. :)


Immutable -- adjective -- unchanging over time or unable to be changed.

Its comforting to think that there is something constant in our world of change and uncertainty. As we watch new political possibilities open up only to be swallowed whole by economic turmoil that seems to defy our predictions and strategies, it is comforting to cling to St. Theresas prayer: "Let nothing disturb you, nothing distress you. All things fade away. God is unchanging."

It's possible, though, to let this idea of constancy become a prison of its own -- for us or for God. Some use this concept to freeze God into a place that is safe for them, to insist that this interpretation or that doctrine is unable to be changed. For others, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8) becomes a way to insist that Christ is locked in history at a safe distance from us, and would have nothing new or specific to say to us, here and now.

God's immutability is real. God is and always be who God has been: Creative. Gracious and merciful. Powerful. Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We can be confident that God is not like the weather, stock market, or the political winds, that seem to lurch to and fro in reaction to new conditions, nor is God like so many of the people we deal with daily -- like us! -- who move easily from support to self-absorption, from generosity to manipulation.

We can trust who God is, and know that God always deals with us where we are, as we are, right now. Things seem uncertain and fearful and new to us, but God knows them and walks with us through the apprehension and terror and novelty of it all. It's very comforting to know that *that* doesn't change.


Actions speak louder than words

Matthew 7:21, 24-27

"Do, or do not. There is no try." (Yoda)

Faith has to be lived, not just thought about.


Feeding work

Matthew 15:29-37

Isn’t it interesting who provides the bread, who gives the blessing, and who feeds the people?