Monday, August 31, 2009

Hymn of the Day

I'm retitling this hymn "The Emerging Missional Church Theme Song"

The church of Christ in every age,
beset by change but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage
and keep on rising from the dead.

Across the world, across the street,
the victims of injustice cry
for shelter and for bread to eat,
and never live until they die.

The let the servant church arise,
a caring church that longs to be
a partner in Christ's sacrifice,
and clothed in Christ's humanity.

For he alone, whose blood was shed,
can cure the fever in our blood,
and teach us how to share our bread
and feed the starving multitude.

We have no mission but to serve
in full obedience to our Lord:
to care for all, without reserve,
and spread his liberating word.

Original publishing details here.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Well, here's something different

During the Churchwide Assembly, one of the other voting members (with whom I had shared a pint at Brit's Pub) came up to me and told me about one of the other voting members (who was speaking against the sexuality changes) appearing on a gay news website called The article was entitled "Watch Live: Listen to Lutheran hate speech as it happens", and as you could perhaps guess, it was not flattering to this young pastor, and the comments were downright horrible. So I posted a comment about what this pub friend of mine had done in response, which turned into another whole article.

Then I got an email from the publisher of, asking if I would be willing to write a guest op-ed piece for them. I agreed, and here it is.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Brit's Pub in Minneapolis

So the hour has come when I normally turn to a nice pint of homebrew (or NW microbrew if I've been lazy on brewing lately). And since I've caught something horrible (they tell me it is a cold, not swine flu like I thought) from my dear friends in Minneapolis, the the idea of a beer right now is pretty much the last thing on my mind (say it ain't so!). So instead of drinking a nice homebrewed IPA in the style of Diamond Knot instead I am sipping diet 7up and reflecting on the amazing public house experience that is Brit's Pub in Minneapolis.

With a name like Brit's, I should have expected no less, who but the British know how to create the real pub experience? However, knock-offs are legion, and so I was suspicious. Brit's is the real deal (nonsensical Andy Capp cartoons in the bathroom is proof enough for me). Like a slowly opening flower, Brit's revealed its amazingness to me bit by bit. I came upon it looking for a home away from home from which to blog (following a life changing trip to Solomons's Porch and the White Castle). And, not only did I find a friendly place with room at the bar and a local-ish IPA on tap (Goose Island from Chicago, which was a new one for me, and really good) but free Wi-Fi, which I have decided is a new requirement for pubs. And so I blogged away, enjoying the publy surroundings.

The next trip was for an early dinner, at the suggestion of my aunt who is from Minneapolis. She, my cousin, and I dined on their rooftop patio (they have a patio?) and talked about the Churchwide Assembly (and more interestingly I think) my 17 year old cousin's experience at the ELCA Youth Gathering. While I enjoyed shepherd's pie (amazing) and company of my family, we watched the young beautiful happy-hour people of downtown Minneapolis (Dot-com crowd? Does that even exist anymore?) playing lawn bowling on the roof. Yes you read that right, lawn bowling. This increased the coolness level of Brit's to a whole new level for me. And they had an outdoor movie screen. If The Big Lebowski had been playing I'm pretty sure I would have taken up residence.

I found myself drawn again and again to this place, for some amazing conversation, some fantastic blogging, and some great beer. I also discovered the British delicacy known as "Scotch Eggs" (special ingredient: evil) and I think you could have probably checked my cholesterol that night with a dipstick. So, I'm a bit sad that Brit's is 1371 miles from my house. But with $6 beers, and heart-stoppingly greasy food I would have to order again and again, I suppose I shouldn't be too upset.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

While we're at it, let's talk about divorce too

In all the talk about lifelong committed same-gender partnerships for homosexual people over the past several years, we have lost much conversation about divorce which (I would expect) actually affects more people in our churches directly. While there are many congregations that don't have (openly) gay members, I doubt that there are any that have no divorced members. Families too--its becoming more and more rare to find families not affected by divorce in one way or another.

This comes hot on the heels of the reaction of (many? some? a few?) ELCA pastors and congregations connected to the LutheranCORE organization who can not abide the stance of the ELCA on homosexuality at the Churchwide Assembly and are now leaving the ELCA (or pulling funding anyhow) and joining a new denomination, the LCMC, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (not to be confused with the LC-MS, Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod).

When read with the same sort of lens as LutheranCORE and others have offered to the homosexuality discussion, the Bible has some pretty clear words on divorce, many from the mouth of Jesus himself, which actually seem less open to interpretation than the ones on homosexuality: Malachi 2:16, Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-12, Luke 16:18, 1 Corinthians 7:10-17. I'm interested in how this will play out, as I imagine that (many? some? a few?) of the people who leave the ELCA for the LCMC will be (or will have in their close friends and family) people who are divorced and remarried. Will the LCMC reach out in welcome to them, even though one could assert, from the Bible, that they are "adulterers"? Will they only allow "repentant" divorced people who agree to remain celebate? Will they allow divorced (and further, divorced and remarried) pastors? Will they bless marriages (or unions) in which one or both of the partners has been divorced?

People think I'm just being snarky when I ask these sorts of questions, but I'm honestly not. I'm concerned where the argument for this sort of way of reading the Bible naturally leads, and how that will affect people who have experienced divorce. And here's a big reason why: In 2006, during my first year as a Lutheran pastor, the Gospel reading for one of the Sunday's in early October was Mark 10:2-16, which included Jesus' teachings on marriage being "joining a man and a woman into one flesh" and "what God has joined let no one separate" and "whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery."

Now, as a Lutheran pastor I am trained to draw my preaching from the Bible, to use the readings presented to shape the message, and to not be afraid to preach "Law" to lead people to long to hear the "Gospel"--to shake them up when needed so they can hear the Good News even more clearly. So I crafted a sermon that had some harsh things to say about the brokenness of human relationships--lifting up God's standard and showing how we fall away from it, how easily we stray from what God created us to be. "Jesus tells us God is against divorce," I told my congregation, "and even calls people who divorced 'adulterers'. But he does so in a 'love the sinner, hate the sin' sort of way. And the Good News is that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." The idea was to shock them with God's standards (which are harsh in this text) so that they Good News that we're all broken might be clearer. But as I looked out at the room, I got the sense that what people were actually hearing was Bad News, and that the promise of forgiveness didn't sound so promising to them.

And then my face fell on a couple, with whom I had been on a hiking trip with the day before (Saturday--after my sermon was done and printed). On this "get to know the new pastor" hike, these folks in their late 50's shared their story with me: how they'd had difficult marriages that fell apart, how they'd felt alone for so many years, how they turned to our congregation for support and care in their brokenness, and found not a harsh critique of what had happened to them, but a loving, welcoming community that has as a guiding principle "Everyone is Welcome" and lives this out every day. And then, by sheer Grace, God introduced them to one another through the church--the best thing that ever happened to them, they said--and they fell in love and got married, transforming their lives and faiths in the process.

By the time I looked to these two (snuggling in their normal place in the pews) it was too late. I was on a roll, the law was flowing forth with gusto, and though I paused, there was not much I could do but keep going. But when I came to the part that was meant to comfort, to console-- to show people that all that law was simply to show us all that Jesus loves everybody equally, forgives sins, and calls us to a new way of life--it seemed somehow less than convincing, even to me. What I was trying to say simply did not mesh the story that I'd heard the day before: that God turns brokenness into healing, death into new life, heals broken relationships when people reach out with hospitality and love. And as I got down from the pulpit I felt like crap, realizing that I'd failed in my calling to preach the Gospel in ways that people can hear it. And though the law is appropriate at times, and we need to call one another to account, I simply couldn't see in this case how it helped--but I could clearly see on the face of these two people, how it hurt them.

So after worship I pulled the couple into my office, explained to them all these thoughts, and apologized for what I had done, how I had hurt them without good cause, and to speak in person the "Good News" part I'd failed to fully communicate in the sermon. And they were unbelievably gracious to me, as only broken and healed people can be, and embraced me. They could hear, even in my sermon, what my intent was and that I didn't mean them any ill will. And since we had started build a relationship (though only a day old) they were willing to cut me some slack (thanks be to God!). But I'm haunted by the fact that there were two visiting families that day who have never come back, whose stories of brokenness and healing I'll never get to know.

Its funny how this law/gospel thing works sometimes, and this experience was a sharp lesson for me in how much context matters. What might be the sort of "law" in one context that could lead to embracing Good News (say if I were counseling a couple to stick it out in their marriage even though it is hard) became something diabolical and merely hurtful in this context. And my attempt at a "law" sermon did preach the law that leads to repentance, but I was the recipient of it. In my own speaking I condemned myself, and only through turning to the reconciliation offered in Christ (which led me to apologize) did I hear the Good News for me. And how ironic that (contrary to my own preaching) these supposed "unrepentant, adulterous" remarried people became God's messengers of both Law (when I looked on them and realized my own sin) and Gospel when, despite what I had done to them, they offered me the unmerited grace I had denied to them.

And while I don't suggest we get rid of the law, we need to recognize that it is a much more mysterious thing than just enforcing God's law or calling for repentance. In this example the preaching of the law had precisely its interned effect--but the effect God had in mind was speaking law to me, not me speaking God's law to someone else. It is a reminder to me that our over focus on law (on rules and who breaks them) can lead us to harm one another and set up a false distinction between "law followers" and "law ignorers." The reality is that both of these false "camps" are harmful, and lead us to mistreat one another. The true power of the law is that it shows how screwed up this whole way of arguing is--we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and when we debate who is in and who is out, who is lawful and who is not, we end up hurting one another. And I'm pretty sure that if God keeps a sin score-card (which of course he doesn't but if he did) "Christians hurting other Christians in the name of Jesus" would fall pretty close to the top of that list. The truth of my sermon on divorce was that we were all broken people in need of reconciled relationships, and we needed each other both to remind one another of that fact, but also in solidarity to give and receive forgiveness as Jesus taught us.

So back to church politics, here's where this teaching of the strict "laws" against homosexuality (to the point where some Lutherans intend to "divorce" themselves from one another) seems to lead down a legalistic path that might be really hard to carry out lovingly in their context on other things like divorce. Its one thing to draw a line in the sand when it comes to God's law for gay and lesbian folks especially if that is culturally acceptable or tolerated, or if there aren't any (openly) gay people in your congregation. But to follow the same line of logic on divorce is going to stir up some major conflict in pretty much any congregation, and will make the task of telling people about Jesus that much more difficult.

Imagine a conversation in a restaurant: Non-Christian couple: "Thank you for sharing the Good News about Jesus with us! What is to prevent us from being baptized? Can we come to church with you on Sunday?" Christian evangelist: "Sure! But wait, is this your first marriage?" Non-Christian couple: " We've both been married twice before." Christian evangelist: "I'm sorry, Christians believe that second marriages are adulterous and you wouldn't be welcome. Sorry. Bye!"

I fully understand the desire of my brother and sister Lutherans to stand on conscience and not allow what they understand to be false teaching. Homosexuality, they assert, is contrary to the clear teachings of the Bible. I also understand the desire (following dear Luther himself) to be willing to sacrifice the unity of the Church for one's principles. We are, after all, ecclesia semper reformanda, an "always reforming church." But I worry, if teachings such as this aren't consistent, wouldn't there quickly be yet another split--between those in the LCMC who insist on the same sort of reading on divorce (and perhaps, women clergy?!) against those who disagree. And then, I don't know what argument can be made that wouldn't contradict the one used on homosexuality.

LutheranCORE, wrote a letter sent on 8/21/09 suggesting ELCA congregations join LCMC and either leave the ELCA or withhold their money (but keep their pensions and other benefits of being part of the ELCA. This is bad stewardship in my view, but that's another blog). Sorry, back to my point--In this letter they assert: "The assembly has voted to remove the ELCA from the universal Christian consensus on marriage and homosexual behavior. Lutheran CORE intends to remain faithful to the clear teaching of Scripture and the consistent teaching of the Christian Church worldwide and throughout time.” I honor their claim and their commitment to their principles (and to Biblical principles), but I wonder if they realize how costly this will be for them, especially if they follow they "universal consensus on marriage and homosexual behavior" as taught by the Roman Catholic Church, which gives special honor to celibacy (contrary to Luther's own writings on the subject), and refuses to bless people who have been divorced, ordain women, or clergy in any sort of sexual relationship (with a few exceptions). The Eastern Orthodox Church also requires any clergy not married before ordination to remain celibate, and previously married pastors are forbidden to remarry (even in the case of death of the spouse). And there hardly seems to be "universal consensus" on divorce among protestants (even very conservative ones) and if there was, why don't we see (as disagreement generally plays out in our sound bite culture) signs proclaiming: "God hates divorce! Malachi 2:16" like the "God hates fags! Romans 9:13" signs that have been so "popular" in the past few decades?

To those of you who disagree with me, I would love to hear how the teachings on homosexuality and divorce are different, and why the teaching of groups such as LutheranCORE (or other conservative Christian groups that forbid homosexuality but allow divorce and remarriage) would be different on one arena of sexual behavior forbidden in the Bible than on another. To me, it seems like the approach that the ELCA is leaning into with the newly adopted social statement and decisions on GLBT relationships and clergy is much better able to answer these seeming contradictions.

In a nutshell, the change in the ELCA which the folks at LutheranCORE (and elsewhere) are so upset about isn't to categorically say "homosexuality is totally OK" but to admit to the existing range of Lutheran interpretation and applications a fourth possibility that allows congregations for which it makes sense (and who believe it Biblically) to bless same gender relationships and ordain pastors in these relationships. It doesn't actually force any Lutherans to believe any differently than they do, except to recognize that there are other points of view, and to trust that we can differ on this point without breaking fellowship with one another. This is a very Lutheran attempt to still be one in Christ amidst differences (which are many beyond this issue) and to say there are things we could be spending our time on (say, mission and evangelism) that would be more interesting to fight over than this. Here's the section on this range of understandings from the social statement:
This church recognizes that, with conviction and integrity:

• On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are
convinced that same-gender sexual behavior is sinful,
contrary to biblical teaching and their understanding of
natural law. They believe same-gender sexual behavior
carries the grave danger of unrepentant sin. They therefore
conclude that the neighbor and the community are best
served by calling people in same-gender sexual
relationships to repentance for that behavior and to a
celibate lifestyle. Such decisions are intended to be
accompanied by pastoral response and community support.

• On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are
convinced that homosexuality and even lifelong,
monogamous, homosexual relationships reflect a broken
world in which some relationships do not pattern
themselves after the creation God intended. While they
acknowledge that such relationships may be lived out with
mutuality and care, they do not believe that the neighbor or
community are best served by publicly recognizing such
relationships as traditional marriage.

• On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are
convinced that the scriptural witness does not address the
context of sexual orientation and lifelong loving and
committed relationships that we experience today. They
believe that the neighbor and community are best served
when same-gender relationships are honored and held to
high standards and public accountability, but they do not
equate these relationships with marriage. They do,
however, affirm the need for community support and the
role of pastoral care, and may wish to surround lifelong
monogamous relationships or covenant unions with prayer.

• On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are
convinced that the scriptural witness does not address the
context of sexual orientation and committed relationships
that we experience today. They believe that the neighbor
and community are best served when same-gender
relationships are lived out with lifelong and monogamous
commitments that are held to the same rigorous standards,
sexual ethics, and status as heterosexual marriage. They
surround such couples and their lifelong commitments with
prayer to live in ways that glorify God, find strength for the
challenges that will be faced, and serve others. They
believe same-gender couples should avail themselves of
social and legal support for themselves, their children and
other dependents, and seek the highest legal accountability
available for their relationships.
In addition, the assembly affirmed that we need to respect the "bound consciences" of one another--not just that some will have consciences which are bound to one interpretation, but also that our consciences are bound to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We need all of these understandings and applications of the Biblical witness in context because it allows us all to see more fully, and to be in relationship with those who profoundly disagree. This is not how the world works--you are meant to pick a side and battle until one beats the other and the true winner is declared. This other way just doesnt make sense.

The fact that it doesn't make sense (How can people who fundamentally disagree on important matters of faith and scripture not battle to the death until one mind is reached?) is part of its profound beauty, and its reliance on the "strange to the world" Lutheran theological emphasis on paradoxical "both/and" thinking. Christ was both human and divine, we are both sinners and saints, the world is both loved by God and profoundly disordered. Saturday morning at the Churchwide Assembly, Pr. John Nunes of Lutheran World Relief quoted Arthur Carl Piepkorn: "Only Jesus death and resurrection can make sense, ultimate sense, out of our terrifying absurdity." The prospect of holding this range teaching without splintering to little bits is "terrifyingly absurd" (its really haaard, to quote Nadia Bolz-Weber) and I think it reminds us how absurd this whole "one in Christ" thing is--Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, men and women, gay and straight, red states and blue states, and all range of worldly divisions that try to split us apart melt away because all we really have in common, when it comes right down to it, is Jesus. Crazy talk. But that's how we Lutherans roll.

It seems to me that people and groups like LutheranCORE that oppose the fourth option are going to have a much better time sticking things out together within this framework than outside of it. I think its reasonable to say something like: "Because of how we have come to understand together what the Bible means in our context, it makes sense to "bind" the teaching on homosexuality even as we "loose" the teaching on divorce and women pastors. But we don't claim to be totally right for all times and places and so we not only stay in fellowship with people who disagree, but we allow one another to challenge each other, because the capital-T Truth is not really in one understanding or another, but in Christ--the Word of God that comes to us in community through the Bible by the power of the Holy Spirit--and we all see through a glass darkly. "

But, as this assembly has proven over and over to me, that Word of God comes to us first as law, reveals us all to be in bondage to sin (legalists, antinomians, and mushy-centrists alike) at the foot of the cross, and painfully reveals how screwed up our community has become over this. What sort of witness is that we have been offering to the world?

What does speak volumes (and I hope is the witness of this past week) is that Christians, like the Lutherans (screwed up as we may be), can think all sorts of things on important issues, can disagree and even argue passionately with one another, but in the end, we are family--and don't allow these wordly divisions to get in the way of unity in Christ. At the danger of being redundant from my previous posts, what the ELCA claimed (and quite publicly) is to embody the words of the song "Peace" from Church of the Beloved in Edmonds, WA:
"Broken conversations, broken people, we're broken Lord. Terrified illusions, seeking comfort, we're seeking more. We need each other more than we need to agree. Father, Son, Spirit bless us with your love, with your grace and peace. Peace. Let there be peace."
We are a broken people, a screwed up church that can't figure out one authoritative teaching on sexuality for all times and places that will do what God intends. But we know we need each other, and we long to be in relationship with one another as Christ calls us to be. And like the couple from my church who found out what real love looked like because of the brokeness they had experienced in previous relationships and so were able to offer it to me when I needed it, we're just a bunch of broken people connecting to other broken people who find peace not in all being perfect (or even all being the same) but in Jesus who broke himself for us--and continue to break himself for us--so that we could be made whole. And I still wonder what would have happened with those two families whom I never saw again if I'd figured all of this out before now.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A little CWA blogroll

I keep coming across interesting things worth reading about the Churchwide Assembly. So I'm going to make a little blogroll in this post, and I'll keep adding to it. (This is actually a pretty good read of what happened, I just disagree with his conclusions). (Jake has lots of good stuff to say) (If you aren't reading Nadia's stuff by now, you should be)

Some links to others telling my story

One of the things I found myself doing at (and now after) the Churchwide Assembly was telling my story, and the story of how God had spoken to me through other people's stories. Its a strange thing telling other peoples stories, but an important exercise I think because we really want to be faithful to them as we do so--putting the best read on our neighbor's intentions. Its humbling too when others tell your story, especially when "you" are really not the point of the story, but they use it to talk about Jesus. This happens all the time in Christian community and usually we don't know about it. But the Twitter/Facebook/Blogosphere makes this way more visible, especially as we share that we are telling these stories (which also keeps us accountable).

I've found a couple of links to ways that people have used my story (and the story of my new friend John) to talk about Jesus, and I thought I'd share them. They (actually) are better at talking about what I was trying to get at that I have been. So (especially for those who are pissed that I spoke at the red mic against ordaining gay and lesbian pastors even though I voted for it) check out what I meant to say through these people's telling:

I'll keep adding to that list on this post if I find any more. Feel free to steal any of my stories to talk about Jesus! (if you make money off it though, I'd love a beer).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A parable of reconciliation

Very early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, a disciple of Jesus was sitting alone in the marketplace. Just then, some people approached him, still rejoicing in the wonders they had seen in the assembly. Among them was a man who had been mute from birth, who had found healing and now was speaking. And the people told the disciple that today the ones who had been far off had been brought near, even to the very heart of the assembly where bread is broken and wine poured out. Everyone who had gathered had seen the Lord, and justice had been done, but some were mourning.

And while they were still speaking, a stranger approached and began to speak to them. She spoke from her confusion and those who were rejoicing did not understand a single word that she was saying to them. Suddenly the man who had been mute understood her to be a foreigner, and in her rush of speech he was silenced again. The man who had been mute spoke his truth to her, although she did not hear him, and he walked away. His friends who had been rejoicing with him followed quickly after to comfort him, leaving the woman alone with the disciple. She continued to speak about all manner of things—about brokenness, about loosing her home and her family, about feeling betrayed, about having no where to feel safe, and finally about the pain of being silenced.

Then the Holy Spirit spoke to the disciple saying: “Take this woman to her brother, that all may be reconciled.” The disciple took her by the hand and led her to her brother and she embraced him. And through their tears they whispered to one another the words neither had been allowed to say. Then the Holy Spirit said to the man who had been mute: “Tell her what it is like to be silenced, to feel broken, betrayed, alone. Use your pain to comfort your sister.” And the man who had been mute spoke the Good News to her, and to all who were gathered there, and they saw the face of Christ in one another.

Then the disciple said to them: Go and tell what you have seen here, of the power of God for the reconciliation of brothers and sisters. To this we are witnesses. And all those who had gathered were scattered, and returning to their homes, they told of all the wonders they had seen and heard. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being made whole.

What will be my witness?

Bishop Hanson asked all those at the Churchwide Assembly "What will be your witness?" This week has been one of law and gospel, of brokenness and wholeness, of tears and laughter, of sadness and joy, of broken relationships and reconciliation. I know it will take a lot of processing to figure out what happened this week, and what it means to the Church and the world. But this week I experienced the Church of Jesus in an incredibly tangible way, as our "wish dream" of the church community (to use Bonhoeffer's term) was replaced with genuine community--through suffering to reconciliation, through death to resurrection, through Good Friday to Easter Morning. To quote Bonhoeffer in "Life Together":
Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.
[Here is a strange thing: when I searched for this quote, the first link on Google was a blog that had as its main image the very same image that has been hanging in the worship space at the assembly. Strange. Holy Spirit?]

So anyhow, the question is what will my witness be, and when I think of this word I can't help but think about the Book of Acts where "you are witnesses to these things" rings like a constant refrain. And again and again the disciples of Jesus encounter others, listen to them, and then tell their story, and Jesus' story, into the lives of those they encounter--even (and perhaps especially) when those people are in some way "other." And it is somehow in the listening and telling of these stories that the Holy Spirit uses the disciples to bring Good News to people who haven't experienced it before (or haven't experienced it for them anyway). Through stories hearts are transformed and community is created. So my witness, I think, is the stories I now bear of just what happened as the ELCA gathered to be that strange form of Church, the Churchwide Assembly. So I will tell my stories and from time to time post them as I come to reflect on them, and I imagine they will continue to bear meaning even as we journey away from the assembly.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Seeing the face of Christ

Yesterday, I felt compelled to speak before the ELCA Churchwide Assembly--something which absolutely terrified me. (You can watch it here, about 37 minutes into the video--also watch Jay McDivit who spoke two people after me.) This is not something I would normally be inclined to do, but I felt like I had a perspective to offer that I hadn't yet heard. And so, when the Assembly went into Committee of the Whole to discuss "Gift and Trust: The ELCA Social Statement on Human Sexuality" I quickly found myself in the queue at the mic to speak in favor of adopting the social statement.

I was honestly pretty freaked out to be at the mic, and I voiced this fear (hoping it might calm my nerves to acknowledge it publicly) and asked the assembly if it would pray for me as I spoke. People who know me asked if this was an intentional "ice breaker" to get people engaged and on my side, because typically I come off as quite confident in public speaking (I'm a preacher for crying out loud) and they were surprised that I would be so nervous. But it wasn't a ploy at all, I was shaking as I stood in line and that got even worse after I sat down. Simply terrified. I don't know if it was the gravity of the situation, the 3 minute time limit, or the fact that I was making a very public proclamation on an issue that is very controversial. But I knew I needed the prayers of this church to make it through (and I came to find out later via Twitter and Facebook that many of my friends were praying along at home.)

My call for prayer, however, was answered in another way that caught me totally off guard. While I was standing in line before my turn came at the green "in favor" mic I met the fellow in the red "opposed" line next to me whose name was John. During some moment of parliamentary mumbo-jumbo on the stage we had been chatting about what we thought was key to this issue of homosexuality and the Bible. We had a great conversation over those few minutes, but it was clear that we were coming from totally different places on this and that we would be speaking opposite points to the assembly. But the conversation was good--just the sort of open, honest theological engagement with people who disagree that I hope this social statement will lead us into. But what caught me totally off guard was that when I asked for prayer from the Assembly, John put his hand on my shoulder and left it there, holding me in prayer the entire time I was speaking.

As powerful as the laying on of hand was for me this Sunday at Solomon's Porch (see post below) this act of kindness and Christian compassion blew my mind. Added to that I was speaking about Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 and how when these two people shared faith across differences that both emerged changed. On my shoulder I had a physical reminder of just how powerful this can be--and why disagreements need not divide us from our Christian brothers and sisters. John became for me the face of Christ in a place I least expected it. A word, a touch, and act of unbelievable grace across the aisle, with someone whom it would be so easy to ignore, attack, or dismiss. A reminder that Christ calls us ALL to repentance, to confess of the ways that we have failed to be neighborly to one another, and thus have failed to make Christ real in the lives of others. John, you made Christ real for me last night.

And so tonight, my heart broke when the social statement was adopted. Don't get me wrong, I was in favor of it passing, but my heart broke because I knew that while I celebrated, my brother in Christ John would be mourning. And when the Presiding Bishop announced that worship the next day would include a time for washing one another's feet, I knew that I needed to worship with John, to take an opportunity to repay the amazing gift he had given me, to sing and pray together, to share Christ's body and blood, and on bended knee to wash my new friend's feet. I need to be the church with John for both of our sakes, to let the Word wash over me and him together, to be united in prayer, to be encountered by Christ in the bread and wine we share, to humble myself as he humbled himself.

When I went to find John, I found him already deep in conversation with someone about the effects of this social statement for him. And as I stood waiting for a moment to invite him to join me the next day for worship, I overheard his pain, his sadness, his sense of betrayal of the church he knows and loves. And I know that John is not alone in his grief. Tonight there are many ELCA Lutherans in mourning, wondering where they will now find a place where they are welcome, that preaches the Good News of Jesus in a way they can understand and be encountered by it. But the closeness of the vote (EXACTLY the 2/3 needed for adoption--that never happens) reminds me that this situation could have so easily been reversed (by a single vote). But, had that happened, I would not have been surprised had John tracked me down, embraced me, offered words of comfort and encouragement, and invited me to worship with him. To reach out with that neighborly love that Jesus calls us to extend to one another.

In the end, this is what this whole conversation is really all about. How will we love one another, remain in community with one another, support and uplift each other in the face of extreme differences? That is the calling that Christ gives us when we are baptized into the community of the Church. It is a mighty challenge, especially when it comes to issues that ignite great passion. But that is where we are called in Baptism--to be one body, one church, one community of people who come together not because we agree on everything, but because of Christ. And John was the face of Christ to me through this, and I pray that I (or someone) can be the face of Christ for him, to share the grace that he and so many others desperately need to hear, that they too are welcome, that they are valued as beloved Children of God, and that even though we profoundly disagree our unity comes from Christ.

My church is less without John and all of those people who read the Bible differently than I do, who apply it differently based on their context, their lives, and their best attempts to be faithful in life and practice. All the news this evening has been about the upcoming split in the ELCA, but I pray that the news of tomorrow and the days ahead is the shocking, countercultural news that the ELCA did not split--that those who "lost" embraced those who "won" and walked hand in hand from the plenary hall where motions are debated and decisions made into the worship hall where Christ comes to us all--whoever we are, whatever we believe, however different we are--and transforms us into his body for the sake of the world. That would be Good News indeed.

"Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I will have the grace to let you be my servant too."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

God is already at work in Minneapolis

On my way to Minneapolis today, I realized that I would be arriving early enough in the afternoon that I might still have time to gather with one of the emergent Christian communities in Minneapolis. Trouble is, I didn't know where to go. My inquiries via Twitter and Facebook friends came up nil, and then I remembered a tweet from a few days ago from author, pastor, and emergent figurehead or whatever Doug Pagitt (whose tweets I follow) about him renting out a room in Minneapolis. So while waiting to "de-plane" I googled him on the trusty ol' iPhone and found out that his church (Solomons's Porch) had a 6pm service. I also figured out that it was one simple bus ride from my hotel (and there is a White Castle mid route, yeah!). Seriously, how did we get by before all this super-connected technology? (oh yeah, we planned ahead)

Since I'd missed lunch while crossing time zones and I didn't think I had time to hop off the bus for the White Castle, I arrived at Solomon's Porch quite hungry, but also hungry in another sense. The Churchwide Assembly has been weighing on me these past days, and I needed a place and a community in which to pray--to spend some good ol' quality time with Jesus, and find some rest for my spirit. As I sat in quiet contemplation on my chosen couch (yes, couch), down sits a guy called Mark with his family. We get to talking and I tell him I'm a Lutheran pastor in town for the assembly and it turns out he is a PHD student at Luther Seminary. Then the service begins.

I'd noticed when I'd sat down that there was some flat bread and a decanter of wine or juice or something on the coffee table in front of me and other loaves of various kind of bread and similar decanters on other tables throughout the worship space. I noticed them especially because I hadn't eaten in 7 hours, but for a fleeting second I thought they might be food for my other need--the "encountering Jesus in, with, and under bread and wine in a community" need. But I've been to other post-modern, emergent, or otherwise non-liturgical churches who have rediscovered the sacraments and are exploring how to reintroduce them into their community life--so I wasn't getting my hopes up (except for the snack). Most of the time I've been at worship services like this that include communion it's hardly the incarnational event that it is in worship in the Lutheran tradition. And its not that folks aren't trying. Its just that there is something about saying "hey, we're doing communion tonight, its over there" that is fundamentally different from the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus embedded in the liturgy that moves from the proclamation of Grace in the particular, to Grace in the specific ("the Body and Blood of Christ, even for you", as one of my friends once said) an embodied Grace that I get to take and eat--to taste and see for myself that the Lord is good. There is a depth and richness to that communion event that is just lacking in most non-liturgical traditions, at least the ones I have experienced.

So I wasn't expecting much from communion at Solomon's Porch, and really wasn't all that surprised when, following the first song, they announced that they had moved communion to the beginning of the service, and after reciting something religious sounding (that did include mention of Jesus), we were to serve each other around our little coffee table groups. At least, I thought, I'd get my snack. So people moved about, breaking bread, saying various things to one another as they did, and having communion/snack time together (the bread was very tasty). But during this, something happened that transformed the whole thing for me. The pastor, Doug Pagitt, came over to my new friend Mark and asked him if he would offer a prayer when we got to that point in the service. "So," says Doug to Mark, "it turns out that there are a whole bunch of Lutherans gathering in town this week to talk about some important stuff, and I'd like you to offer a prayer for them." "Sure," says Mark to Doug, "in fact, Erik here is a Lutheran pastor in town for the conference." "You are?" says Doug to me, "Maybe you could say a few things to the group so we could understand more what is going on better before we pray." "Sure," says I.

And here I was, having come to this place of prayer to spend some time with just me and God, and suddenly I was invited into the community, to speak, to ask for prayer and to receive it on behalf of my fellow Lutherans. Just to be included and lifted up in prayer was communion for me--an embodied, spirit filled, act of Grace from God through ordinary stuff (in this case people)--and it was exactly what I was hungering for. And so, at that point in the service, Mark and I got up and I shared with this strange community in which I didn't know anyone (except for Mark) my deep need for prayer, and my desire for unity amidst difference in the ELCA, and that the Holy Spirit would be at work among us. I spoke for all 4.6 million of us, seeking the prayers and support of this community of faith with whom we may have little in common except we all follow Jesus. And then Mark prayed, and as he spoke I felt a hand on my shoulder, then another, and another. And in that moment I experienced specifically, bodily, and for me what until that point had been only proclaimed in the general--you are not alone, we are all in this together, and even more importantly, that the Church of Jesus is one despite our differences.

I may never step foot in this place again, might never encounter this community again, but they were for me tonight the Body of Christ--and that's exactly what I was hungering for. With this experience tonight (and the White Castle hamburgers in my tummy) it is clear to me that God is at work in this place, that the Holy Spirit works in, with, and under everything that we do. And so I enter this week in great hope that the followers of Jesus who come together to be the ELCA in Churchwide Assembly will be filled and inspired, and will converse and deliberate, and will embody the Good News of Jesus so that every one of us--and all who hear of what God is up to among us--can encounter God in Jesus Christ in this crazy gathering of people we call the Church.

My prayer for this week (from @Luth55IL): Lord, when our debates are over and the votes counted may those watching be able to say: "See how they love one another".

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Back to what is really important

So far in this blog experience I have been writing about the "public ministry" side of my little pub trinity (see the header if you don't know what I mean). This is, of course, because I will soon (tomorrow) be in Minnesota as a Voting Member to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, and this particular adventure is taking the role of primary vocation for the next week.

In order to prepare for the emotional, physical, and spiritual gauntlet that is about to take place, I have left Spokane, WA and returned to the Western Side of my home state to recharge my batteries with a bit of family, bike riding, and--of course--a few pints. And this brings me to the topic of this post, beer.

I really enjoy living in Spokane. It is a wonderful community, the weather (aside from occasional freakiness) is generally quite nice, and it is a fantastic place to bike, hike, snowboard, and kayak. Its a growing metropolitan area that still thinks of itself as a small town, and it suits me just fine. My only complaint, Spokane, is your glaring lack of microbrew pubs--and I take this quite seriously.

Now, don't get me wrong, there is good beer to be found in Spokane. But there is something, I don't know, "right and salutary" about encountering a beer in its natural habitat--and knowing that it only recently has moved from fermenter to keg to my glass. Not only is this good from a carbon footprint perspective (how much CO2 is generated hauling crappy beer all across this great nation?) but there is something different about drinking a beer from the place it was made, perhaps sharing a conversation about its development from the brewer sitting next to you at the bar, and being in a place where other people "get" what makes that particular brew unique. It provides for instant commonality and a basis for relationship, and I think is a big part of what makes a pub community "hang together".

Spokane has, to my knowledge, only three brew pubs: The Steamplant, Northern Lights, and C.I. Shenannigans. I'll start with the least known, Shenannigans, which I discovered (on a bike ride) houses a small, almost secret brewing operation--an extension of "The Ram" brewing company in Tacoma that was a mainstay when I was at PLU. The beer there is quite good, but overpriced, and the atmosphere is a bit "snooty" for my tastes--meaning, I feel a bit awkward bellying up to the bar in my sweaty bike togs. There is also no bike rack, which is odd because they are actually on the Centennial Trail. Northern Lights also has great beer, but something about the "vibe" in their brewpub leads me to prefer drinking their beer elsewhere. The Steamplant is far and away my favorite in Spokane. The atmosphere of the building alone (renovated from the old steam plant in fact) makes it fun to hang out in. The beer is fantastic (ala Couer d'Alene Brewing Co. brewed on premises) and the happy hour beer prices simply can't be beat. However, the food is vastly overpriced and frankly sucks (apart from the hummus plate, which is amazing) and there is just a certain something missing--close but not quite the full brewpub experience.

So on this little Western Washington layover, I found myself once again at the Boundary Bay Brewing Company in Bellingham, WA. I am a major "hop head," meaning I think a beer should be so bitter it makes you shudder, and I find a really good IPA to be proof that God loves us and want us to be happy. My favorite beer in the universe is the IPA that comes from the Diamond Knot brewery in Mukilteo, WA--but the Boundary Bay IPA is a close second. One of the more fantastic things about the Boundary Bay brewpub, however is that (as my college roommate Chris pointed out) ALL of their beers are as hoppy as most brewery's IPAs, which opens up a whole world of options (Scotch Ale and the dry-hopped cask ESB winning the day this trip). As if this wasn't enough, Boundary Bay has the most amazing food, the type of "pub grub" that only exists in the Pacific Northwest (Why didn't I order the Great Northwest Pizza: smoked salmon, roasted garlic, roma tomatoes, chevre cheese, with pesto sauce?)

I don't know if it simply a result of the fantastic brews and food, but Boundary Bay also has that "something" that my local brewpubs lack. On a Friday evening at 6pm the place was getting quite full (though you can still get a table without waiting all night, which is important) and the noise level in the place slowly raised from quiet conversation to exuberant over the course of our meal and beverages. The bike rack out front was JAMMED and many of the patrons had just recently ridden 100 miles from Seattle that morning and were still in their bike gear (in fact, Boundary Bay has their own bike jersey for sale). When another friend drops by, you don't feel strange rearranging the furniture, and it would be easy to fall into a conversation with the next table which led to dragging the two tables together. Its the kind of place where new friendships are born and revolutions planned. Just what a pub should be.

The fantasticness of Boundary Bay as a pub was confirmed for me in a random happenstance there last night. I know only three people in Bellingham: my college roommate (who was at the pub because I was crashing at his place) and two friends from seminary who are now pastors in the area. And as we are sitting in the pub, up comes one of my seminary friends, Lydia, to say hello. It turns out she was at Boundary Bay to hear her friend's band who would be playing in the beer garden later that evening, and wondered what I was doing there. So we chatted a bit, and went on our ways--much like we would have done had we lived in the same area and bumped into one another. What is strange about the whole encounter is its lack of strangeness, even though I was 350 miles from home with 66% of the people I know in a town who happened to be at the same place at the same time. It's just that this sort of thing happens all the time at "The Pub"--lives intersecting, beers shared, community formed. If only Spokane had such a place!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Those crazy Methodists

If we ever get off the topic of sex at the Churchwide Assembly (please?) we will be talking about a proposal for Full Communion with the United Methodist Church. "Full Communion" is an approach to ecumenical relationships that the ELCA has used quite a bit in the last decade, and has established full communion relationships with several US denominations: Reformed, Presbyterian, UCC, Moravian, and Episcopalian. It starts with each group deciding to no longer condemn one another (a good first step in any relationship), working toward agreement on key theological bits (especially baptism and communion), and once the full communion agreement is officially reached, allowing interchangeability of members, pastors, and pretty much saying "we're basically up to the same thing, let's play well together." It seems to me to be a pretty good approach to working with other Christian groups, and from people I know who have congregations working with our full communion partners, it provides a great basis for common work. My congregation, Bethlehem Lutheran in Spokane, will soon be sharing building space with one of our full communion partners (Bethany Presbyterian), so I'll get to see what this all looks like first hand.

It's clear that some sort of theological agreement is important in these sorts of relationships--though just what level of agreement is needed isn't quite so clear. Theologically, as Lutherans we don't believe that we all have to agree on every jot and tittle in order to have unity in the Church. Article VII of the Augsburg Confession states that “the true unity of the church” is present where the Gospel is rightly preached and Sacraments rightly administered. And I for one think that is right on. So its not surprising that we should be seeking these sorts of relationships even where there are theological disagreements. But as a student of Lutheran theology and the Lutheran Confessions it seems to me we haven't spent a huge amount of time on what "rightly" means exactly these days on either the Gospel or the Sacraments, or how that impacts these agreements. I think the hope is that we'll figure it out as we go along, but it does seem that some of the theological debates about the Lord's Supper that raged in the 16th century actually had some valid differences that shouldn't be so quickly overlooked (though we can play nice and probably not need to kill one another over them anymore.)

The biggest difference from where I stand comes from some of the secondary conclusions that come from a the different views of how Christ is present in the bread and wine of communion. In a more symbolic understanding (ala Reformed, especially following Zwingli) where the act and elements of communion are understood merely to "remind" one of the Last Supper, or of Christ, or are some other sort of symbolic reenacting for our remembering sake, we loose something of the power and mystery of communion. The underlying assumption is that God (who is essentially holy and in charge) doesn't fool around with ordinary stuff like bread and wine, or if God does, its only to bring to mind more lofty things. The Reformation era version of this view was something along the lines of "How can Christ be present in two places at once? He can't be at the right hand of God and in the bread and wine of this table. This "stuff" just reminds us of Christ who is enthroned on high." But as Jane Strohl, my professor at PLTS, once remarked "Its not as if the right hand of God is a folding chair!" Lutherans tend not to get bogged down in the spacial nature of this whole deal, and are willing to embrace a bit of mystery (i.e. if God really is God, then don't you think God could figure out how to many places at once?). But there is more to it than that.

One of the most important things (I think) about the Lutheran understanding of how Christ is present in communion is precisely that God does mess about in ordinary things like bread and wine, and would step down from on high to become present to us and for us, even though we are jerks. In fact while we assume that "on high" is where we ought to look for God, in fact God is really found in low places where God is most needed--among the poor, the suffering, the outcast, and when we are at our worst. This concept is referred to by theology nerds as the "Theology of the Cross" (or for the uber-geeks Theologia Crucis) and is one of the main reasons I love being Lutheran. And, in one of my favorite Luther "quotes" that nobody can ever seem to find in print, Luther contends that because he has been able to experience Christ present in the bread and wine of communion, he is able to experience Christ in his pea soup--meaning in the everyday stuff of human existence. Luther (and Lutherans) insist that God is essentially "incarnational"--meaning "enfleshed" or "embodied" or otherwise deeply connected to the ordinary stuff of human experience--and that's how we experience God: in, with, and under ordinary stuff. We've tended to call this "real presence" meaning Christ is really, truly, actually present in the elements of communion, even if we have no freaking clue how this actually might work on a technical level.

So its hard for me to see how we can be in "full communion" with denominations who don't share this fundamental understanding of how God works in relationship to creation, to humans, and to the bread and wine of communion. I haven't read too deeply about the agreements of 1997 (UCC, Presbyterian, and Reformed) or how these things have been talked through, but my guess is that they really haven't. The Episcopal church, following more closely the Roman Catholic tradition from which they came, seems closer to this Lutheran understanding. And, to be honest, I know pretty much zilch about the Moravians (do you?). And then we come to the Methodists.

Now I don't know all that many Methodists, nor have I experienced a wide variety of Methodist worship, but from the folks I know and the services I have attended, it doesn't seem like communion gets a lot of air time. And my impression of their theological understanding of communion are pretty much in line with those of your general American protestants (aka Reformed) and more along the lines of "symbol" than any sort of "real presence" or "incarnational" understanding. So knowing that we've been able to work these things out (or maybe just get by without talking too deeply about them) with our Christian brothers and sisters from the Reformed tradition (I'm including the PCUSA and UCC here too) it didn't come as too much of a surprise to me that we had reached the point of voting on an official Full Communion relationship with the United Methodist Church.

I know full well that this agreement is very likely to pass without much issue at the Churchwide Assembly (I imagine we'll be so relieved to not talk about sex for 20 minutes that we'll gladly pass anything) but I did think it was my duty to look fully into this whole thing and figure out if I actually thought it was a good idea and whether I could, in good conscience, vote for the thing. Now, my inclination is towards closer relationships with Christians of any and all theological viewpoints (didn't Jesus pray that we all would be one?) but when we are talking "Full Communion" I want to be sure that I'm being faithful to the Lutheran Confessions and their understanding of "right celebration" as important for unity in the church so that our "communion" might actually be as "full" as could be.

So I must say I was pleasantly surprised to read the statement on communion that the UMC put out a number of years ago. It is really quite compatible with the Lutheran understanding though we each emphasize our own favorite things: holiness for the Methodists, human depravity (and Grace, don't forget Grace) for the Lutherans. I'd suggest you check it out yourself (you can find it here). The Lutheran version of the same sort of thing can be found here.

It was also kind of fun to realize that the same sort of practical issues that affected the weekly practice of communion for my Lutheran pietist ancestors are shared with our Methodist brothers and sisters. The lack of clergy led to less than weekly communion in most congregations (they only got a pastor in town once a quarter out in the heartland when he rode in for the weekend). This led to a change in how it was understood, how it was practiced, and the overall point that was communicated. Both groups are rediscovering weekly communion, putting it back in the center of the worshiping life of our Christian communities, and a reclaiming some of the theological implications that have slipped away. I think we have more in common that either group probably realizes. That, it seems to me, is what ecumenical relationships are meant to be all about.

Monday, August 10, 2009

More on Sex

It is rare that my prayers are answered as completely or as quickly as one just was. Last night I wrote about my teacher Dr. Tim Lull and ended with this question: Who will speak the truth of the Lutheran Confessions like this to us today? And then, in my inbox this morning is a link to the latest edition of "The Journal of Lutheran Ethics" and the second half of a dialogue between Michael Root and Edward Schroeder. In my quest for actual Lutheran theological reflection and dialogue, I must say this is better stuff than the Braaten-Chilstrom conversation I mentioned in a previous post. I recommend the Root-Schroeder conversation to anyone interested in the ELCA, homosexuality and the church, and especially the Lutheran Confessions.

Schroeder also links to an article he wrote from lectures delivered in 2001, and it is very good as well.

And an "after press time" additional voice in the dialoge (from our Missouri-Synod friends) can be found here (thanks to @chad_thompson) Isn't theological dialogue fun?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

What the Church is

There are many days that I miss my mentor, The Rev. Dr. Tim Lull, and his wisdom for the Church. Today is one of those days. I've been studying up for the upcoming Churchwide Assembly and cracked open (literally, the book is pretty trashed) a book written by Dr. Lull and published in 1980 by something called the "Parish Life Press." The book is entitled "Called to Confess Christ" and is one of the most accessible little books on why the Lutheran Confessions actually matter for the life of the Lutheran church that I've ever read. Sadly, its out of print and damn near impossible to find. I only wish he were around today to write an updated version for us.

Here's the section that jumped out at me, and (strangely enough) is where the book naturally opened when I took it off the shelf (was this a nudge, Dr. Lull? You never were subtle.)

He's writing on page 153 about Article 8 of the Augsburg Confession which he quotes:
Again, although the Christian church, properly speaking, is nothing else than the assembly of all believers and saints, yet because in this life many false Christians, hypocrites, and even open sinners remain among the godly, the sacraments are efficacious even if the priests who administer them are wicked men, for as Christ himself indicated, "The Pharisees sit on Moses' seat" (Matt. 23:2) Accordingly the Donatiasts and all others who hold contrary views are condemned.
Then Dr. Lull adds his commentary:
Here the church is viewed from yet another angle. God's sustaining grace means that the church can continue to be the church even though it contains "many false Christians, hypocrites, and even open sinners." Because the church lives by God's grace rather than human holiness, it can survive even this internal weakness. In fact, since human motives are known only to God, the church can continue without having to try to separate true from false (and possibly, through blindness, losing some of the true beleivers and real saints in the process.) Even if some of the clergy be wicked persons, the church can endure, since it is no more founded on the excellence of the pastors than on the holiness of the people.
Who will speak the truth of the Lutheran Confessions like this to us today?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Emergence and the ELCA Constitution

As a Voting Member at the upcoming ELCA Churchwide Assembly I've been sent an entire REAM of reading material from our beloved Churchwide organization to plow through in the next two weeks. On the very first page of this tome is a footnote to a paragraph in the ELCA constitution (I was still reading the footnotes on page viii, not so much 100 pages later). This footnote contained the following text that describes the purpose of the ELCA:

To participate in God’s mission, this church shall:

a. Proclaim God’s saving Gospel of justification by grace for Christ’s sake through faith alone, according to the apostolic witness in the Holy Scripture, preserving and transmitting the Gospel faithfully to future generations.

b. Carry out Christ’s Great Commission by reaching out to all people to bring them to faith in Christ and by doing all ministry with a global awareness consistent with the understanding of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of all.

c. Serve in response to God’s love to meet human needs, caring for the sick and the aged, advocating dignity and justice for all people, working for peace and reconciliation among the nations, and standing with the poor and powerless and committing itself to their needs.

d. Worship God in proclamation of the Word and administration of the sacraments and through lives of prayer, praise, thanksgiving, witness, and service.

e. Nurture its members in the Word of God so as to grow in faith and hope and love, to see daily life as the primary setting for the exercise of their Christian calling, and to use the gifts of the Spirit for their life together and for their calling in the world.

f. Manifest the unity given to the people of God by living together in the love of Christ and by joining with other Christians in prayer and action to express and preserve the unity which the Spirit gives.
A couple of weeks ago (on the plane to New Orleans for the ELCA Youth Gathering) I read Phyllis Tickle's book "The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why"--one of the best books I have ever read. As I read this section from the ELCA Constitution (and I may well be the only person alive to have ever read both documents) I couldn't help but notice a connection between the ELCA's bullet points on how the ELCA lives out our purpose, and the four quadrants of Christianity that Tickle points out in chapters 6 and 7 in the section on "The Great Emergence: Where is it Going?"

Tickle reflects on four primary expressions of Christianity, which she labels "Conservatives," "Renewalists," "Social Justice Christians," and "Liturgicals." Tickle's contends that while one could pretty safely park denominations in the 20th Century into one or the other of these quadrants--there is something happening now (in fact, emerging) in the place where these four strands come together that is blurring these distinctions. At the same time as this "whatever it is" emerges, some Christians in each of these quadrants are reacting away from the center to their own corners--"liturgicals" emphasising proper worship, "social justice Christians" to being even more justice oriented, etc. And yet, amidst the reactionaries, a new emergent form of Christian faith is being born--drawing on and incorporating all these strands and becoming something more than simply the sum of its parts. And, according to a recent interview, Tickle sees this emergent Christianity as on its way to becoming the dominant form of Christianity in North America by 2050,

When I read the section from the ELCA constitution I quoted above, Tickle's four quadrants popped immediately to mind--lining up precisely with the first four ways (a, b, c, and d) the ELCA lives out its purpose in the world. As I ponder the contentious debates we've had over our 20 years as the ELCA, it seems that many of them are really just arguments between the corners of these different quadrants. Sometimes the quadrants team up, in particular I think of the great conflict between the "conservatives" and "renewalists" in the trenches against the "liturgicals" and "social justice" folks at Higgins Road (or perhaps this is just the ALC vs LCA in different garb). It's a battle over which quadrant will rule the ELCA, and what it means to be "truly Lutheran" and with the issue of homosexuality finally on the table--it has become a battle to the death. And yet, even as these battles rage on in our church (as they will for sure in a few weeks on the Churchwide Assembly floor), something else is emerging, a bit under the radar.

I've been a student of emergent forms of Christianity for a while now, and (little did I know) was even experimenting with emergent worship before the term had any sort of widespread cachet. I'm also a big Lutheran theology nerd, and even wrote my MA thesis on different theological approaches to the Lutheran Confessions. All the while, I've had a lingering suspicion that this whole "emergent Christianity thing" (whatever it is) ought to be a slam dunk for a church like the ELCA--but it wasn't until putting these two documents together that I finally figured out why.

First: this ELCA experiment was founded on the idea that these four quadrants could actually live together in one church body. We know that the liturgicals are going to argue with the renewalists, and the conservatives with the social justice folks, and everybody else with each other. But somewhere in the midst of all of this is a different kind of unity, which my teacher Samuel Torvend calls "sacramental unity", that means we all--though different--find our unity not in agreeing with one another but only in Christ. This is (or should be) what the ELCA lives for--and should be nicely tilled soil for emergent forms of Christianity to flourish.

Second: Lutheran theology is fundamentally grounded in Baptism--that amazing, freely given, God moment where grace is poured onto us and into us, freeing us from our fascination with ourselves, filling us with the Holy Spirit, making us one with one another, and sending us forth to live out our vocations in the world.

That's our unique gift as Lutherans in this time and place, I think. We Lutherans live (or could live) in any one of these quadrants or in all of them simultaneously, but always recognizing our underlying unity (item f in the constitutional list) and knowing that it is in the living out of our vocations in the world (item e) that this comes to fullest expression. What if we could reclaim our theological grounding in the vocational calling of all Christians (whatever quadrant your particular calling falls into)? What if we could remember that the church exists not where things are kept the way they have always been or even in the way which most challenges the status quo, but where the Good News of Jesus is proclaimed in ways that people can actually be encountered by it and the Sacraments administered in ways that people can actually be transformed by them?

Phyllis Tickle in the interview I mentioned above, says that denominations have perhaps 18 months to realize what is happening in emergent forms of Christianity and be a part of it or they will miss the boat. My fear is that the next few weeks of the Churchwide Assembly will be so dominated by the "corners" of these four quadrants that the growing emergent center will brushed aside--and by the time we recover from our battle, the time to be a positive force in emergent Christianity will have passed. I think this is our moment to claim this constitutional identity for its true power--to be a multivalent church in which this emergent seed can flourish.

The question is, will we grasp after the false unity that comes from everyone agreeing entirely with one another (which, when it fails, will surely lead to splintering the quadrants) or will we embrace the true sacramental unity that comes from living together in Christ despite our deep differences? Will we embrace all six of these "ways we participate in God's mission" or will we fight so hard for the one we think is most important that the others simply head off to do their own thing? And what will happen to theologically conservative, liturgical, renewalist, social justice, vocational, ecumenical Lutheran Christians like myself?

I have great hope that if our ELCA is able to grasp this moment, that we could be a leading force in living together faithfully in this emergent Christian era--and infusing this often root-less movement with a theological framework, a sacramental worldview, and a vocational way of being in the world. But I also know (as Ruban Duran likes to say) that "God is going to do what God is going to do. The only question is, do we want to be a part of it or not." I for one, want to be a part of it, and I want my church to be too.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Let's talk about sex

We're now just under two weeks away from the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, where I will be a Voting Member. The topic of the week will be homosexuality--whether to recognize same sex relationships and whether to ordain pastors in such relationships. The Lutheran blog and journal world have been abuzz about these things for years, and it is the hope of many that this Churchwide Assembly will finally put the issue to rest. I find that unlikely, especially given the correspondence on both sides of the issue I have received over the past several months (one of the "fringe benefits" of Voting Members I was not aware of).

I've been disapointed because most of what I have been receiving is, frankly, crap--appeals to "Jesus loves everybody" or "we've never done things that way", hate mail or thinly veiled fearmongering that this vote (which apparently has already been decided in both directions) will destroy the ELCA. I've seen very little of actual theological substance on these issues, from either side, much to my dismay. My biggest concern is that we will make a decision on homosexuality (in either direction) without doing our theological homework and the result will be disaster.

Several weeks ago I stumbled upon an open letter in favor of the sexuality statement and policy recommendations from several theologians (a list on which I find all of my teachers, and many of their teachers) that was in response to a widely circulated one against these two documents Now it was fun to see the competing lists of "important Lutheran theologians" but apart from "find your teammates and pick your side" it was hard for me to see how this contributed much to the debate except listing which theologians agree with the opinions the rest of us have already formed.

But a recent exchange between Herbert Chilstrom (former Presiding Bishop of the ELCA) and Carl Braaten (former Professor of Theology at LSTC and Lutheran theologian extraordinaire) has given me much more hope. For the first time in this whole debate I am seeing some actual theological discussion--honest debate on our core Lutheran theological principles. It is my hope that more people read the letter from Rev. Dr. Chilstrom and the response from Rev. Dr. Braaten and that this sort of interchange forms the background of our discussion and debate in Minnesota.

Finally we are talking about the issues that lay under the issues of "justice" and "sexual ethics" that seem to dominate our talk about homosexuality in the ELCA--and it is these underlying issues that explain why homosexuality is more than just a passing subject in the Lutheran church. Finally we are talking about what we mean by "Word of God" and how has that shaped the decisions we have made on other similar issues--ordaining women and remarried divorced pastors-- that (by one understanding of what the Word of God means) "go against Scripture". Finally we are talking about the fact that we make decisions all the time that affect our ecumenical relationships. Finally we are talking about the unresolved issues lingering in the ELCA since its formation and the unlikely union among pietists (and recovering peietists), liberal Protestants, evangelical catholics, and all sorts of other strands that form our crazy Lutheran family. Finally we are recognizing that this decision is going to be costly, however it is decided, and that we will have to figure out how to live together after the vote has been recorded.

I hope that homosexuality is not yet another stage for a power struggle between these (apparently) competing understandings of what it means to be a "true Lutheran". The ELCA is a wild mix of varying viewpoints, and I think we are at our best when we can actually articulate these things theologically (as Chilstrom and Braaten have done) and discuss them as such. Our theology is best under pressure, and best when we can argue--publicly, openly, and honestly--about what matters most to us, while at the same time putting the best spin on our neighbors' intentions.

And maybe, just maybe, we could get back to more important matters like what it means to follow Jesus and how to proclaim the Good News in a world that is so sick of us fighting amongst ourselves that it no longer gives a crap about what we have to say.

I've gotten hooked on the music from Church of the Beloved and I think their song "Peace" will be my continual prayer as I head to Minnesota--particularly the line "We need each other more than we need to agree." I hope our church can recognize that we need to take care that as we bite and devour one another we are not consumed by one another. No matter how we desire to draw lines in the sand, put "us" on the side of truth and "them" on the side of error, we are all in this thing together--male and female, Jew and gentile, slave and free, gay and straight. I just wish we could act like that sometimes.


Broken conversations, broken people, we're broken Lord.

Terrified illusions, seeking comfort, we're seeking more.

We need each other more than we need to agree.

Father, Son, Spirit bless us with your love,

with your grace and peace.


Let there be peace.

Let there be peace.

Let there be peace.

Let us see and not destroy. Let us listen. Let us listen.

Let us suspend judgement for the sake of love, for the sake of love.

We need each other more than we need to agree.

Father, Son, Spirit bless us with your love,

with your grace and peace.


Let there be love. (among us)

Let there be love. (among us)

Let there be love.

Monday, August 3, 2009

That's what it's all about!

I just got back from 10 days in New Orleans working with the ELCA Youth Gathering. My days were spent in the air conditioned mystery that is the SuperDome--chaperoning speakers and bands, setting up for mass cast things like the glow stick heart beat, and trying to figure out how 38,000 people can receive communion in 20 minutes. In other words, having the time of my life.

What I miss out on, living in the Dome as I do at these things, is all the other fun stuff going on at the Gathering--this time especially the service projects that were happening throughout the area as groups of 12,000 Lutheran youth spread out each day to serve.

And so because I have no service related stories of my own, I have to live vicariously through my youth directing friends. Gordon Fitch, youth director to the stars (or at least to the Lutherans in the Spokane Valley), relayed this story to me yesterday and I steal it shamelessly.

The Spokane Valley Lutheran Youth embarked on their service project, loading on to one of a great fleet of chartered buses. They went off to the 9th Ward to pull weeds and clean trash and such things, and after three hours came back on the same bus, where they were given Subway sandwiches for lunch. They had noticed on previous days the abundance of leftover sandwiches from the other returning groups--and how they had ended up being given away to other kids or simply tossed away. On previous days they simply helped themselves to extra sandwiches and didn't give it much thought. But after their morning service project, this abundance (and waste) seemed somehow different. So instead of heading back to their hotel for an air conditioned nap--or strolling through the French Quarter--these young Lutheran Christians spent the afternoon rounding up all the leftover sandwiches, and calling around homeless shelters and crisis centers to see if they could use them. And they walked four miles in the 90% humidity to make this happen. On the way to drop the sandwiches off, a homeless person asked for some money (to buy a sandwich no less) and instead of flipping him a quarter, one of the kids opened their bag, handed him a sandwich and asked if he wanted chips and cookies to go with it.

Now, there are critics who have said "What difference will a few hours of community service really make?" And yes, even though they have calculated these youth worked over a year's worth of person-hours in three days, it does seem like this is simply a small drop in a very large bucket. But if the experience of the other youth there was anything like the kids from Spokane--I think something incredible has happened. In just a few hours, their eyes were opened--to the need, yes, but also to their giftedness. And suddenly a pile of sandwiches was no longer just a free lunch for them, or a pile of wasted food headed for the dumpster, but a gift to be shared, and an opportunity for them to make a difference in the lives of other people. And here were six young people, no longer just a youth group to be shuttled from service project to service project, but disciples of Jesus empowered to feed the hungry. In the Gospel lesson for that Sunday, it was a little boy with bread and fish whom Jesus used to feed 5000. How many did these 6 young people feed? How many will 38,000 feed? And how many will be inspired by their example to serve in their communities too?

One of our crazier ideas in the Dome was the "Peace Pokey"--teaching the passing of the peace to the tune of the Hokey Pokey (8 minutes into video #5 here). (So crazy, in fact, we never thought it would actually happen.) The song goes like this: "You put your right hand in, they put their right hand out, you meet in the middle and you shake it all about. You say 'The peace be with you' and they say it too. That's how you share the peace."

It's so easy to think that the things we do in church (like this peace-passing handshake sign of reconciliation before sharing communion) are "what it's all about." What it's really all about (following Jesus that is) is a pile of leftover sandwiches being transformed into food for the hungry, and group of youth being transformed into witnesses of the Good News of Jesus in a hungry world. Ordinary things--bread, wine, sandwiches--become the very presence of Christ. And ordinary people--yes, especially the young--become bearers of Christ to their neighbors. That's what it's all about.