Saturday, December 5, 2009

Emergent Air Force?

Fairchild Air Force Base was not a place I was really expecting to encounter emergent ministry. It's not because I hold some sort of prejudice against the military. On the contrary, the men and women who serve in uniform (and support those in uniform) have, I think, some of the toughest jobs there are--and I am grateful for their dedicated service. The chaplains who serve our military folks do some of the most amazing work possible--bringing the Gospel into places that need it and to people desperate to hear a word of comfort and wholeness. But the military structure, as I understand it, is one of the most institutional constructions on this planet--hierarchical, structured, resistant to change, based on power, control, and influence. Just the sort of environment in which anything "emergent" seems to have no chance of survival.

My friend Bob serves as a chaplain contractor with a responsibility for "Single Airmen's Ministry" (the term "airmen" is gender-neutral he tells me) at Fairchild. He got this gig about six months ago, and has been really excited about it, which surprised me a bit at first. Bob (though a self proclaimed "boomer") lives and breathes post-modern, missional, emergent type of stuff. So this "military chaplain" thing seemed a bit surprising, though I knew he'd do a great job at it. But then, Bob described his "setting" and I started to get it. This week I got the chance to see it in person.

While the rest of the chaplains have offices in the chapel (a large, visible, churchy looking building you can't miss when you drive onto the base) Bob's office is tucked away in a little house right in the middle of a large circle of dorms where most of the 18-22 year old single airmen live. They call this the "Airmen's Ministry Center" and they just recently set up a Facebook page for themselves. When you walk in there is a table of books and materials. I noticed Don Miller's "Blue Like Jazz" right away (the last copy, says Bob, the airmen love it) and some perfect-for-keeping-with-you-size Bibles with plastic camo covers (I almost snagged one). To the left is a computer lab and off to the right is a living room with a giant flat screen, couches, and last night's (or this afternoon's?) dirty pizza boxes. Bob's office is right there in the mix. And they've got Wi-Fi (which I guess the dorms don't), so the place is generally hopping.

Now, there are a couple of ways this could go. In what I might expect, Bob's position would be more or less like a youth director--a program provider--who specializes in the religious goods and services that young people today enjoy. Ol' Bob might be expected to show up with his guitar, sing some Jesus camp songs, lead a trip or two and call that ministry. And, in fact, Bob's job description does include trips and retreats, events and mixers. But underlying this is a real sense from Bob that the Air Force Chaplain Corps is pretty clear that "ministry as usual" just isn't gonna fly anymore. What he does is not just a dumbed-down (or coolness added) religious program. The coffee shop, the TV, the trips, etc are all simply relational entry points for him to connect to the lives of these young people, and help them connect with one another--and through both to deepen spiritually. Here's how Bob describes what he's up to:
The Air Force Chaplain Corps has recognized that these 19 – 22 year-olds are caught up in the cultural shifts of contemporary society. They are unlikely to seek answers from traditional church structures. An alternative, a “third place,” like our Airman Ministry Center, is more conducive to ministry to these young post-moderns. And so, I spend half my day and many weekends hanging out with young adults, caring for them. I am based in an “Airman’s Lounge,” which is a living-room and wifi-hotspot surrounded by the singles’ dorms.

I would welcome your prayers for this service to young Airmen. While caring for people of any faith, and no faith at all, I believe the time is coming to see the gathering of an Airman community of Christian faith. Instead of building walls or pulling back from shop-mates and fellow dorm-dwellers, a group of believers should come together, and live out their covenant pilgrimage with God in the midst of the larger base community. For that to happen requires a birth from above.
The day after Bob called to invite me to check out what he was up to I was reading Reggie McNeal's (fantastic) book "Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church", in which he describes some work he's done with the Army Chief of Chaplains. McNeal has this to say:
Historically, the role of the chaplain has been to serve as a representative of the faith that people took with them into military service. However, the spiritual landscape among service personnel has changes significantly, particularly among younger recruits. Many of these soldiers are coming into service with no spiritual formation or religious affiliation.
He then goes on to describe a bit what this looks like and concludes:
It occurred to me only later that this same challenge applies to church leaders in North America. Most have been equipped to serve as institutional representatives for faith that people already possess. The challenge is to connect with a culture that is unacquainted with the Good News of Jesus. The default position for church leaders in North America is that of institutional represntatives... Leaders of a kingdom movement see themselves in a far different light. They talk about God, not just about church. And when they talk about God, they don't use the discussion as a way to get around to marketing their church.
What McNeal, and Bob (and the military chaplain leadership it seems) are on about is that business as usual is just not cutting it for the emerging generation. Recruiting people into our institutions and programs just simply can't pass for ministry and mission any more. And I'd bet if there are statistics on such things, this has been a growing trend within the regular chaplain ministry as well. If the same trends that function in the civilian churches hold, the 18-22 year olds simply aren't connecting AT ALL to the programs and structures and "the way we've always done things"--but its seems very likely that the generations before them have been connecting less and less. But unlike much of the institutional church, even in my limited in encounter with it, the Air Force chaplaincy system seems to get this--to understand that if we don't re-tool we're going to miss out on a whole generation of people. And perhaps, already have.

It gives me great hope that the US military, that institution that defines institution, is catching on to what is happening among emerging generations. I wonder, though, what makes them more willing to change, to address ministry differently, and to reach out to this disconnected population than many of our church institutions? Why is the Air Force spending time, effort, and energy investing in chaplains like Bob, setting them up in "coffee shop" settings, and empowering them to do this kind of relationship based ministry and spiritual deepening when our churches by and large aren't? Is the military more concerned about the spiritual health of young people than our churches are?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Perhaps this is not so crazy 130 years later

I was digging through some old papers my parents had sent me, and found an article that mentions my great-great grandfather, Rev. Torsten Moen (whose first name is my middle name, though nobody seems sure how it was really spelled). The article talks about a man named John Henry Peterson, from St. Cloud, MN one of the few (white) residents of that area in the 1870s which was inhabited largely by the Chippewa. Here's a bit of the article:

"Peterson tried to gather the scattered pioneers for worship and Sunday school in their homes. Peterson and a few other Scandinavians met in the home of Andrew Johnson on March 17, 1879 to organize a congregation. They named themselves the Sandvikens Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Congregation and Pastor Torsten Moen, a Norwegian missionary from Osakis, accepted a call to serve as their pastor. Moen, the head of 18 congregations, said he could only promise five or six visits a year. The congregation gathered in homes until 1888 when it constructed a small log church. In 1888, the congregation totaled 21 persons."

A few people organized themselves to be a church, and figured five or six visits a year from a pastor might help them do that better. They met in homes until they got kind of big for that, and found a way to all gather together. And so my great-grandfather rode from town to town checking in on these little communities (18 of them!) to see how these little groups of Jesus' disciples were getting on and helping them with whatever they needed--but clearly the mission and ministry didn't only happen when ol' T. Moen was in town. A network of house churches, followers of Jesus gathered together to be the church in the midst of an often hostile environment, sharing their lives and their gifts, and not worrying about all the many, many things that keep churches today from doing what we are called to do. Doesn't sound like such a bad model for 2009, now does it?

Oh, and 130 years later that little group of Swedes from a log cabin are still gathering as the followers of Jesus known as Gethsemane Lutheran Church.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

November 10th

Happy Birthday Martin Luther!

You really messed up the Church 500 years ago. May we who carry your name continue to be a force for reformation and transformation. I raise a glass of beer to you!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Called from brokenness

I'm sitting in a bar in the Salt Lake City airport and cannot resist the urge to post, simply because I am drinking a beverage named "Polygamy Porter". To make things even better, it has a slogan. Ready for it..."Why have just one?" And, since in finding the link above I found out it is only 4% ABV, I think I will have another.

But I'm on my way home from this conference about "vocation" and "call" so perhaps I should blog a bit more about that too.

One of the interesting things I'm starting to learn from hearing people's stories of not only "To what they feel called" but also those moments from their life story that led to those particular callings, is that they often result from some sort of brokenness or lack of support at some point in their lives. I'll use a public story as an example.

Jay Bakker is the son of Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker of televangelist fame. His story has been most recently made public through a documentary series entitled "One Punk Under God" (which I highly recommend adding to your Neflix queue). His dissatisfaction with the religious life he grew up in (and the subsequent and televised breakdown of his family) led him through a dark period in which he rejected his faith--and felt excluded from God. Now he's a pastor, but one quite unlike his famous father. You can hear his sense of call to this unique ministry in a bit of his bio from his church's website:
After witnessing firsthand the excommunicative treatment his family received from the church, Jay wanted nothing to do with God. And so began a new life filled with substances easily abused and nonstop partying created to mask the pain and suffering caused by this surreal rejection. Eventually, Jay was able to conquer his demons and made a personal decision to find out who God really was. What he discovered floored him – God wasn’t some judgmental, condemning deity sitting on a throne waving an angry fist in the direction of sinners – rather, he was an understanding God offering his gift of love and grace with no strings attached. For the first time Jay wasn’t being driven to Christ out of fear; he was being drawn to Christ through love.

As a result of this discovery, Jay started a church for those who feel rejected by traditional approaches to Christianity; this church is called Revolution. The idea behind Revolution is to show all people the unconditional love and grace of Jesus without any reservations due to their lifestyles or background, past or future. In the desire to bypass geographical boundaries, all Services are recorded and posted on the Revolution Church website to create an “online church for people who have given up on church.”
It's clear Jay's sense of call comes from his own hard experience, and what he wished had been available for him in the midst of it. Now he's devoted his life to helping others weather the same experiences he has, and find the support and community he longed for.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Jay's (and so many other's) sense of calling comes from their own deep pain, and a desire to help create the sort of world in which the sorts of things they have experienced don't become the life-ending problems they are for so many. I think of the sorts of "hero" calls one hears about: the kid that escaped the slums who comes back to start a youth center there, the young woman who experienced rape who volunteers to help girls foster self esteem, the man who grew up without a father in the home who now mentors teenage boys in his church, etc.

But I'm hearing this again and again in the more ordinary stories I'm hearing too. I have tended to think of call along the lines of "What gifts do I have that could be useful?" but this realization is helping me to see an added dimension of call which is "What wrong have you experienced that you are passionate to help right?" In many ways, I think the two are connected--and transforming a brokeness or hardship into a way to help other's through this might indeed be one of the most amazing gifts we have. It drives our passions and focuses our energy in ways that simple talents never will.

So, the question this raises is "What is your place of hardship that drives you to be passionate about what you are passionate about?" Might this be a place of call for you?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Are you called?

I'm at a conference in Atlanta put on by The Fund for Theological Education through their "Calling Congregations" program. We're test running a process and a curriculum for helping congregations recenter themselves on the notion of "call"--what are we (individuals, communities, etc) called to do, and better yet, who are we called to be?

The basic premise is to foster the practice of story telling (and story listening) along with the asking of questions. This happens by first creating a space in which this can happen, and then by forming a community in that space that can evoke, pull out, and engage the deep life questions we are all asking (even if not out loud). FTE hopes that by helping our congregations get better at this practice (spiritual practice, really) that we will be better at helping our young people figure out how they are called. It emerged for them out of the recognition that there is a shortage of young people following calls to ordained ministry, but they realized that the problem was deeper than that--and that the way to get at the root questions was to help foster communities in which young people especially, but also the whole intergenerational range of folks, could explore, ponder, and discern callings in the world. As one of the facilitators has said, if the Church is not doing this work, what the heck are we doing? I tend to agree.

Pastor types talk a lot about "call" about the "call to ministry" or whatever. As part of my preparation to be a pastor I had to reflect at length (ad naseum) about "vocation," about my own sense of call, where it came from, what I think it meant, and what God had to do with it. People asked me repeatedly about how, where, when, and why I felt called. My seminary professors, a board of people from my synod, and finally the congregation which I'm serving all had to hear my sense of how God was calling me to ordained ministry, and say "Yep, we think this guy is called to be a pastor too." In my ordination I said out loud that I would consider the call of the church the call of God and do my best to live fully into that calling. Call, call, call. I'm steeped in it. And I believe that all of us are called to something, or many somethings.

But I wonder, do the rest of us (non clergy folk) think much about call? What does the word "call" or "vocation" used in this way even mean to you? Do you all out in the real world think about the things that you are up to as callings? And if you do, do you think of them as callings from God? How is your calling connected to, or separate from, the work you do? And, do we ever actually talk about this other than in the context of people who think they are called to be pastors? Would it help if we talked about this sort of thing more?

And (in the spirit of this conference I'm at) do you have a 2 minute story that illustrates how (or why, or when) you feel called? If you do, feel free to share it in the comments--and ask questions about one another's stories too if you are curious or want to know more.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Big Tent Church

Images from our "Big Tent" Reformation Sunday worship and Oktoberfest

This was a joint service with Bethlehem Lutheran, Bethany Presbyterian, St. Paul's Lutheran, and Emmanuel Metropolitan Community Church. The offering (over $600) was given to Odyssey Youth Center for LGBTQA teens.

Seats for 270, mostly filled up later

Bagpipers who opened the service (thanks Presbyterians. The Lutherans retaliated with an accordion during the Oktoberfest part)

A big pile of communion bread, representing breads from all over the world.

I ruined my homebrew and had to buy a keg of Northern Lights Dunkel (which was amazing) for the party. My buddy Dave (on the left) from The Porch (a church in West Central Spokane) brought a keg of IPA they brewed in their community garden, with hops grown in the neighborhood. Thanks Dave for saving the day, and for making this event even more ecumenical (The Porch is affiliated with the Christian Missionary Alliance)

Sausage Church

Sausage Church:

Making 150 lbs of sausage with Bethlehem Lutheran for our joint worship service this weekend. Notice at the generations mixing, passing wisdom down from one to another.

A great definition of what the Church should be (in dialogue form)

(Stolen from my friend Skip)

This is a dialogue from a story by George MacDonald titled, Robert Falconer. In total it is a wonderful story. Falconer came from a very humble background as a shepherd, but he always had a deep desire to learn, and to know Christ. As an adult, with help from friends, he became a physician. He served as physician to the poorest of the poor in his city. He developed partnerships with other Christians to serve the poor. He met the young man he is in dialogue with here, and invited him to accompany him on his rounds. This takes place after they had made the rounds for the evening, and the young man asks Falconer, “Are you all a church?” To which Falconer responds, “No.” What you will read here is much along the lines of what I believe being the church means.

Are You A Church?

‘Are you a society, then?’ I asked at length.
‘No. At least we don’t use the word. And certainly no other society
would acknowledge us.’
‘What are you, then?’
‘Why should we be anything, so long as we do our work?’
‘Don’t you think there is some affectation in refusing a name?’
‘Yes, if the name belongs to you? Not otherwise.’
‘Do you lay claim to no epithet of any sort?’
‘We are a church, if you like. There!’
‘Who is your clergyman?’
‘Where do you meet?’
‘What are your rules, then?’
‘We have none.’
‘What makes you a church?’
‘Divine Service.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘The sort of thing you have seen tonight.’
‘What is your creed?’
‘Christ Jesus.’
‘But what do you believe about him?’
‘What we can. We count any belief in him—the smallest—better
than any belief about him—the greatest—or about anything else
besides. But we exclude no one.’
‘How do you manage without that?’
‘By admitting no one.’
‘I cannot understand you.’
‘Well, then: we are an undefined company of people, who have
grown into human relations with each other naturally, through one
attractive force—love for human beings, regarding them as human
beings only in virtue of the divine in them.’
‘But you must have some rules,’ I insisted.
‘None whatever. They would cause us only trouble. We have nothing
to take us from our work. Those that are most in earnest, draw
most together; those that are on the outskirts have only to do nothing,
and they are free of us. But we do sometimes ask people to help
us—not with money.’
‘But who are the we?’
‘Why you, if you will do anything, and I and Miss St. John and
twenty others—and a great many more I don’t know, for every one
is a centre to others. It is our work that binds us together.’
‘Then when that stops you drop to pieces.’
‘Yes, thank God. We shall then die. There will be no corporate
body—which means a bodied body, or an unsouled body, left behind
to simulate life, and corrupt, and work no end of disease. We
go to ashes at once, and leave no corpse for a ghoul to inhabit and
make a vampire of. When our spirit is dead, our body is vanished.’
‘Then you won’t last long.’
‘Then we oughtn’t to last long.’
‘But the work of the world could not go on so.’
‘We are not the life of the world. God is. And when we fail, He
can and will send out more and better labourers into his harvest field.
It is a divine accident by which we are thus associated.’
‘But surely the church must be otherwise constituted.’
‘My dear sir, you forget: I said we were a church, not the church.’
‘Do you belong to the Church of England?’
‘Yes, some of us. Why should we not? In as much as she has faithfully
preserved the holy records and traditions, our obligations to
her are infinite. And to leave her would be to quarrel, and start a
thousand vermiculate questions, as Lord Bacon calls them, for which
life is too serious in my eyes. I have no time for that.’
‘Then you count the Church of England the Church?’
‘Of England, yes; of the universe, no: that is constituted just like ours,
with the living working Lord for the heart of it.’
‘Will you take me for a member?’
‘Will you not, if—?’
‘You may make yourself one if you will. I will not speak a word to
gain you. I have shown you work. Do something, and you are of
Christ’s Church.’
We were almost at the door of my lodging, and I was getting very
weary in body, and indeed in mind, though I hope not in heart.
Before we separated, I ventured to say,
‘Will you tell me why you invited me to come and see you? Forgive
my presumption, but you seemed to seek acquaintance with
me, although you did make me address you first.’
He laughed gently, and answered in the words of the ancient
‘The moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.’
Robert Falconer

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Some thoughts on Original Sin

My Twitter friend Randy (@rschatz56560) posted this tweet today: "Any #outlawpreachers want to try to explain the concept of 'original sin'? Grew up RC, now ELCA and I reject it, but am willing to learn." It's kind of hard to talk about original sin in 140 characters (though that would be a challenge worth taking up!) but I did want to respond. Here's the "sitting at the pub" version.

The first thing is what do we mean by "sin"? Most people (both inside and outside of Christianity) think of sin as "doing bad stuff" or "breaking rules" or "refusing to submit to the arbitrary authority of some paternalistic, sexist, cartoon diety that doesn't really exist for the purpose of keeping people in line and denying us the ability to flourish as the beautiful, wonderful, amazing people we are." Yes? So then, we say, of course we don't believe in "original sin". Babies are beautiful, wonderful, and not subject to the same sort of BS as the rest of us. Sure, all the rest of us get caught up in rule breaking but not the 10 minute old baby. How could they? Not only do they not know the rules, they don't have the mental development for such a conversation about breaking them to even make sense. And if sin were primarily about rule breaking, I'd tend to agree with you.

So we go to Adam and Eve, the original sin originals. God said "Don't eat this here apple" and passed a law. No matter how arbitrary it was, those humans should have followed it. He could have said, "Always wear a hat on Tuesdays" and they should have done that too. And why not? He basically told them "Live in this paradise, don't work, be naked all the time, and have lots of sex". Couldn't they have done this teensy weensy thing that God asked of them? But no, they couldn't and so they screwed it up for all eternity. And now because of this "original sin" the rest of us have to live in smog filled cites, work for the Man, cover our naughty bits, and (except for the 1960's) keep our sex lives quiet and to ourselves. That better have been one damn good apple, guys.

But that's not really what this story is all about, and it's not what original sin is all about. Because sin is not really about rule breaking at all. It's about being "curved in on ourselves" (incurvatus in se if you want to get all geekly Latin about it). Its not first and foremost about our actions, its about our primary view of the world. Which, most of the time, is our own belly buttons. The nasty stuff we do to one another (and ourselves) is the result of our own inwardness, our own self-centered world that really doesn't have much room for our neighbor or for God.

St. Augstine wrote (somewhere) about the deeper meaning of original sin with something along the lines of "We don't want God to be God. We want to be God." God created humans to be in relationship. Relationship with God, with each other, with all that is. God created us whole, where our will and God's will for us were one and the same. But God also created us with free will, we're not puppets, and we have the ability to choose to reject God. And we do. Again and again and again. Every day. Even when we are trying really hard not to (maybe especially when we are trying really hard not to). Even Jesus prayed "Not my will, but yours be done." Adam's sin was not doing something God told him not to do, but in putting himself above God, saying in effect "I don't need you to be God. I'm perfectly happy being God, thank you very much."

When I talk about sin with people who don't know our churchy jingo (and even with people who do) I like to use the word "brokenness" to talk about sin. Most people, even those who think they are pretty "sin free" will admit that they are broken in one way or another. And we'd be fools not to admit that the world is broken, that families are broken, that relationships all around us are fundamentally broken. And even the most ardent agnostic would likely say "If there is a God, that God certainly didn't intend for the world to be like THIS!". (and that may be why they are an agnostic in the first place.) And in fact, the world is not the way that God intended it to be. He created the world for wholeness, he created us for wholeness, and we (from the very beginning--hence "original") break the world, break one another, break ourselves. And even our attempts to make it better, to make ourselves better, are broken too and often end up doing more harm than good.

It's not just that individuals break rules (or don't) but you and I and our relationships and this crazy system we've come up with to live together and the whole of human existence is, deep down, fundamentally broken and not what God had in mind for us. And we don't have a clue how to put it back together again. And still, we're not willing to let God be God for us. We don't trust God to handle it, we want to do it ourselves. Adam, you dummy, why did you let the good life slip through your fingers just so you could do whatever the hell you wanted to do? And, for that matter, why do I?

The Good News is that, despite what many of us have been taught, God is actually not so worried about our rule breaking "sins" but in our inward curving that leads to them. God is interested in putting the world back together, in putting us back together, in making us whole. God calls us to curve upward and outward. But God doesn't force us, God invites us. Invites us to embrace this Kingdom of wholeness that most reject--to be people of Grace, people of trust, followers of Jesus. Jesus' will was the same as God's will--for himself, for others, for the whole world. It goes back to Luther's concept of "free will" which is not doing whatever you want to do (which is how most of us define it) but having what you want for yourself and the world be the same as what God wants for you and the world. To be truly free is to put ultimate trust in God, not in ourselves.

To paraphrase the Order for Confession from the Lutheran Book of Worship: We are stuck in our brokenness and cannot make ourselves whole. We have made God's world more broken, when God calls us to seek wholeness. But when we face our brokenness, God, who loves wholeness above all else, loves us in the midst of our brokenness too, and loves us all into wholeness.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A difficult sermon

This Sunday I preached what I think may well have been the hardest sermon to preach in my life. The text was from Mark, and the rich man who is called to give up his wealth to follow Jesus (a call he rejects). The quesion I asked my congregation was "What is getting in the way of you following Jesus right now?" I also ask this of myself and share my answer.

Here it is.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Some tough questions for churches

I've recently picked up again a book by Alice Mann published by the Alban Insitute entitled "Can Our Church Live? Redeveloping Congregations in Decline." In it she asks some questions from fellow Alban Institute colleage Ed White (and adds a few of her own).

I'd be interested in my churchly friends answers to these questions (and my former churchly, and non churchly friends too from their experiences with Christian communities).

Is your church primarily in the fellowship business?
Is your church primarily in the social action or social service business?
Is your church primarily in the music business?
Is your church primarily in the historic preservation business?
Is your church primarily in the baby-sitting business?
Is your church primarily in the landlord business?
Is your church primarily in the investment management business?
Or, is your church primarily in the calling people into discipleship and forming them in a life-changing faith business?

Saturday, October 3, 2009


I have a new favorite German word: Frühschoppen. It has narrowly won out over my long time favorite: Stinktier, which means "skunk", but literally is "stinky animal" and also the only recently discovered Glühbirne, which means "light bulb" but literally is "glowing pear." You have to hand it to the Germans for being infinitely practical in their use of language.

I encountered Frühschoppen in the following sentence: "For example, it's not uncommon to see German men gathering after church for Frühschoppen (morning pint), a Sunday breakfast bonding session over bread, cheese, cold cuts, and a Hefeweizen'" The Germans have a word for the beer you drink on Sunday morning after church. As my 18 month old daughter loves to say: "WOW!" Unlike my other favorite German words, Frühschoppen is extremely unpractical, and not only that, my Norwegian ancestors would have looked with distain upon the practice of drinking beer in the late morning after church itself (though they probably would have partaken, just with guilty consciences) and certainly would never have coined a word for it. They would have called it "Dad is off in the garage again, don't you know." Frühschoppen is so much more direct.

The sentence I quoted above came from a magazine called "Beer Northwest" which I picked up at the Balefire Wine Bar in Everett, where I took my wife to celebrate her 30th birthday while taking advantage of a day of free babysitting by my parents. This was Tauni's first visit to Balefire, thought I been several times on previous visits with my dad (who has a mug in their mug club with "Pastor Mark" engraved on it). It's actually the place people from my dad's church go to share a beer after church (though not for Frühschoppen, they go after the evening service). I thought Tauni would enjoy it because they have 24 wines on tap (preserved with Argon gas) and it has 12 good beer taps for me (and I didn't even know about the bacon wrapped dates--Tauni's favorite). If the Balefire existed in Spokane I think it would be our regular hang out--the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, no such thing exists in Spokane to my knowledge. Too bad, I'll have to have my Frühschoppen at home.

The other thing that doesn't exist in Spokane is a magazine entitled "Beer Northwest" (though it should). Some highlights from the Table of Contents: "Two Wheels and Three Sheets: The DIY style of bicycles and beer in Portland, Oregon--page 20", "Take me out to the Ballgame: Learn the best places to find craft beer inside the Northwest's ball parks--pg 30"' "To Lemon, or Not to Lemon: The nuances of American and German Hefeweizens--page 34" (where the quote above came from) and "I 'Brew': Your wedding day is one of the most exciting days of your life; the beer you brew for the day should be equally monumental--page 52". If I were going to make up a beer magazine, these were the sorts of headlines I'd come up with. Amazingly enough there were actual articles to go with them. And now I feel reassured about my habit rejecting the lemon that comes with Hefeweizen (it does ruin it you know, the Germans know this) during my Frühschoppen.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Response to Nestingen on "Being Unchurched"

Rev. Dr. James Nestingen, professor emeritus from Luther Seminary and active with the WordAlone network these days, wrote an article for the WordAlone website about what the changes in the ELCA mean for him and others who disagree with allowing a variety of viewpoints in the ELCA on homosexuality. Here's his article:

I posted this link to my Facebook page with a comment about "Rev. Dr. Nestingen gets to the heart of it: The #ELCA was a bad idea all along. Three cheers for the Old ALC! Hmm..." which was meant to be ironic. A series of comments followed, some not catching my irony. I've now turned my response to Nestingen and my Facebook friends into this blog post:

My beef with Nestingen on this is not personal, but theological. My father studied with him back in his seminary days (to great acclaim) and my faith and love of the Lutheran Confessions surely owes a great debt to him.

Like many committed teachers, Nestingen has not published a whole lot of his work (which took place in classrooms over many decades). I used his writings and his theological approach to the Lutheran Confessional Writings as part of my MA Thesis (MA is in Systematic Theology, emphasis in Lutheran Confessional Theology). What I found as I analyzed the way he uses the documents is that he often intersperses American political philosophy and highly preferences one particular historical branch of Lutheranism which my family shares with him. It's a straigt line from the German Reformation to it's adoption in Norway (subscribing to the Augsburg Confession and Catechisms) to the United States via the Norwegian Synod (and some Haugean pietists thrown in from time to time) that kept Norwegian in worship long into the 20th Century, who formed the core of the ALC and had their stronghold in Luther Seminary (and St. Olaf and PLU). Nestingen again and again seems to refer to this as the "true Lutheran" herritage. This works great for Norwegian American Lutherans (who held a great deal of power in the ALC and less since the merger in 1988), but I just don't see how he can claim this as the predominant form of Lutheranism, or the mainstream of Christianity.

I'm actually OK with Nestingen (and anyone else) holding to their interpretation of the Bible as being against gay and lesbian sexual relationships (I know, this bugs some folks, but see my posting on for my logic). What annoys me about this particular article is the way in which Nestingen uses what the Lutheran Confessions have to say about the Church in a way that to me communicates exactly the opposite teaching than they are meant to.

When the Lutheran reformers crafted the Augsburg Confession they were defending themselves to the Roman Catholic Church (which was ready to boot them for what they had been teaching) and attempting to show that they were really part of the Christian Church. This is definition that Nestingen uses, it comes from Article VII: "Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered." After the split from the Catholics, this became an important point of unity for the protestants, because before the Augsburg Confession, the Church exists only within the bounds of the Roman Catholic Church. To be outside of the institution was to be separated from Christ. The reformers said no, the Church of Jesus is not tied to any human institution--it exists within those institutions, but also outside of it--wherever the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.

Nestingen instead flips this around to say that the ELCA (which by his ascertaining is not preaching the Gospel rightly) is THEREFOR no longer the Church. This was not in any way what the reformers were after--they were making a case that the Church could exist outside of its institutional forms NOT that the institutional forms (as broken as they may be) could not be the Church. Later on, the reformers got grumpy, started calling the pope the antichrist and other such nasty things, and started killing people who disagreed with them. But in terms of the Augsburg Confession, anyhow, they were making the case that the Church of Jesus MAY exist within our (or anybody's) attempts at organizing it and it MAY exist outside of these organizations--and really we're pretty poor judges of what God wants anyhow. The ELCA remains the Church even if we just made the stupidest decision ever made in the history of the Christianity. Otherwise, he's claiming that a gay pastor in a relationship (who Nestingen and others sees as an unrepentant sinner) has no chance of preaching law and gospel, offering forgiveness, and leading people to relationship with Christ. This is also not what the Confessions are after either.

Support for this comes in the very next section of the Augsburg Confession (Article VIII) entitled "What the Church is": "Although the Church properly is the congregation of saints and true believers, nevertheless, since in this life many hypocrites and evil persons are mingled therewith, it is lawful to use Sacraments administered by evil men, according to the saying of Christ: The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat, etc. Matt. 23:2. Both the Sacraments and Word are effectual by reason of the institution and commandment of Christ, notwithstanding they be administered by evil men."

So, I will allow that Nestigen thinks homosexuality is sin, and that preachers and congregations should not promote sin. Because the issue is clearly central to Christian faith as he sees it, I will also allow that he thinks he and many other people currently in the ELCA would be better served in relationship to another Christian denomination. I don't have a problem with that way of reading the Bible or people who are deciding to leave because they feel conscious bound to do so (though it makes me sad). But I will not permit (without comment anyhow) any Lutheran claiming (especially using the Augsburg Confession) that the ELCA is no longer a Church because of a decision that was made on how to read the Bible on the hot issue of the day, and I would argue this in the other direction as well. The institution or its official policies is not what makes the Church, it is Christ--proclaimed in Word and Sacrament.

Note carefully what Nestingen says here, near the end of this article: "Finally, since it isn’t institutional, the strongly suggested “wherever” of the seventh Article of the Augsburg Confession can under some circumstances lead beyond Lutheran parishes into other denominations."

Under some circumstances? Seriously? So much for the "wherever". He means to say: wherever the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered and is Lutheran (and maybe in other churches that are Lutheran but don't call themselves that). I hear in this that the "One True Lutheran" church (ELCA) has lost it's standing as such in Nestingen's eyes (and the LCMS, WELS, and other Lutheran groups aren't high on his list either based on his comments for those groups). I'm guessing that this happened when the ALC (more true?) merged into the ELCA and didn't get to do things exactly the way they had been doing them. But this understanding of the Church is a far cry from "wherever"--and I think he means wherever true Lutheran doctrine is being taught. Anybody else read him that way? If that's so, that's different.

On my Facebook page one of my friends who suggested we "Revive the LCA too while we're at it" and something about "ALC people wearing Birkenstocks" I replied with the following smart ass comment:

"Like the ELCA, the LCA was an abomination. The "One True Church" is the true heir of the Reformation, The Norwegian Lutheran Church that adopted the Unaltered Augsburg Confession (and never fooled around with Calvinists like the Germans). This perfect line was then carried to this country via the Norwegian Lutheran Synod (that never should have swtiched to English in worship) and perhaps some of the more Confessional Haugean Norwegains. This became the ALC (especially its leadership) and was represented fully at Luther Seminary (before that unholy union with Northwestern). These are my people (and Nestigens) and we would never be caught dead in Birkenstocks (ok, maybe, but only because they are amazingly practical and not flashy)."

My friend Jason, who is an elder in a more conservative Acts 29 church, didn't catch my sarcasm (or objected to my smart assery) and (rightly) rebuked me for speaking about other Christians in this way. To which I replied:

"Jason (and any other Christ follower) I have no problem recognizing you as a brother in Christ, and recognizing your Acts 29 church as part of the "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" even though you and I disagree on any number of theological issues. In fact, I value your witness and conversation (esp over beer). As Christians we are less when we allow differences to split us from one another.

I honestly believe that the Church exists among those who gather to hear the Word and receive the sacraments--inside Lutheran Churches and certainly outside of them. I don't think we have any unique claims to rightness (no matter how Norwegian I may be). But the Lutheran way of being Christian makes the most sense to me, and I believe God has called me to be a part of this church. I have no doubt that God has called you to be a part of your church. And I have, with you Jason (many years ago), experienced Christ in an Assembly of God congregation which I doubt would pass Dr. Nestingen's orthodoxy test (nor mine, and that's part of why I didn't linger in that community too long, but God used it at the right time to lead me deeper into following Jesus). But I would never, ever say that was not the Church. To do so would be to deny the power of Christ to use broken, wrong headed people to proclaim the Good News of Jesus. And that puts me right out of a job."

I'm actually not all that interested in talking about homosexuality, gay sex, or anything of the sort. But I am interested in talking about the Bible, the Lutheran Confessions, and how best to be the Church witnessing to Jesus in this time and place.

And let me tell you, I've gotten to do more of that in the past month than probably ever before. People hear I'm a Lutheran and they want to know how I read the Bible. A room full of atheists and former Christians drinking wine and eating dessert asked me to talk about my faith---and they were interested! The waitress at the Pub shared with me that she grew up Lutheran and was thinking about coming back after the assembly vote. I spent half an afternoon this week at a coffee shop talking to my favorite Atheist-Bhuddist friend about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. (Why don't more of my Christian friends want to do this?) And I got to reconnect to my old friend Jason and talk faith with him over beer--which I hope is the first of many such conversations. I live for this stuff!

I'm actually kind of offended that Nestigen uses "unchurched" to describe himself and those who disagree with the decisions of the ELCA. You may be "un-denominationed". But there are many hurting people out there who really are "unchurched" and way more importantly have never heard the gospel in a way that they can understand it, in a way that makes sense in their lives, and in a way to which they can respond. There are people with questions that Jesus can help them make sense of, there are people with hurts that a community of faith centered on Christ can help heal, and there are people desperate to hear Good News in a world that is so full of bad news.

And in my experience in the past month I'm finding it easier to talk to those outside of the Christian worldview about why Jesus matters to me (and could possibly also to them) because we have made a decision to allow people who think being gay is OK to be a part of our church--and we haven't kicked out those who think its not OK. This is a powerful witness to these people (and to me) about what life looks like when you center it not on human concerns, but on unity in Christ. It's strange, it's not what they expect, and it makes them take a second look at this thing called the church (and Jesus) which pretty much a whole generation (18-40 year olds) as well as many older folks have written off as irrelivant, homophobic, hypocritical, and out of touch with reality. (see the book "UnChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity... and Why It Matters" for the statistics on these).

Friday, September 18, 2009

A fantastic podcast from Nadia Bolz-Weber

I know that all of my readers are getting tired of me saying "Every Lutheran should read (or listen to) this" but I'm finding more amazing public witness by Lutherans than I have ever seen before. Let's keep it up friends!

Nadia Bolz-Weber (who I first encountered in this book my mom gave me, and then through her "Sarcastic Lutheran" blog) is a Lutheran pastor after my own heart and recntly recorded a really great podcast with fellow "Outlaw Preacher" Khad Young.

So, Lutherans (and others), listen to this if you feel like it, no pressure:

Also, Twitter folks can check out the loosly defined community of Outlaw Preachers by searching #outlawpreachers. There's a Facebook group too.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

More conversation on

After the ELCA Churchwide assembly I was asked to write a guest editorial for an LGBT news site called I had previously commented on a post that one of my fellow voting members had told me about. Then came a response via email that was then posted on the same site by ELCA Pastor Lura Groen which took me to task a bit (well, more than a bit) for my comments. I wrote a response to Lura which was posted on today. Here it is (it kind of helps to read the previous ones because they are all connected).

Saturday, September 12, 2009

An Article All Lutherans Need to Read

There has been a great deal of writing by Lutherans since the Churchwide Assembly, but nothing that I have seen that even comes close to as theological or pastoral as this blog posting by Dr. David Yeago from Lutheran Theoological Southern Seminary. Clearly he is one of the great doctors of the church.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

I finally get to preach back home about the Churchwide Assembly

It's really, really hard for a preacher not to get to preach, especially when I feel like the Holy Spirit has a lot to say through me (and with such amazing texts!). When I got back from Churchwide Assembly, I was raring to go--ready to preach like crazy to the folks at Bethlehem. But the "the doctors tell me its not swine" flu had other plans for me, and I spent the week in bed and early Sunday morning last week in the ER. I got better. Thankfully my favorite lay preacher Jon Zemke stepped in at the last minute with a fantastic sermon (and it only cost me lunch and a beer).

So today was my first sermon back in the pulpit at Bethlehem Lutheran in Spokane (Preaching on the book of James no less. Luther would be so ashamed). But actually, it's a great text to help us ponder what really happened at the Churchwide Assembly.

To hear it, follow the link to my sermon blog: "Reframing James: Faith without works is alright for you, but it's no good for your neighbor" by Rev. Erik Samuelson

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."