Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Things That Should Not Be Controversial But Currently Are Controversial

Among the fallout from recent grand jury decision to not issue indictments against police officers involved in the conflicts with Michael Brown and Eric Garner is a Twitter hashtag war.  Those who were upset with the non-indictments expressed their frustrations in many ways, including the spread of the comment #BlackLivesMatter.  Many people used this hashtag to connect with others who were upset by the non-indictments and discuss both how they felt and how they could respond to these events.

While some people used these forums to discuss constructive ideas and actions, others used these forums to lash out at either police officers or people who are not African American.  This led to the creation of two other hashtags: #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter.  The first began as a statement of support for police which would counter the anger expressed at many police officers during this volatile time.  The second began as an attempt to expand the "Black lives matter" message to include all races.

If you do a search of these three hashtags, however (the links above connect to the appropriate searches on Twitter), you will see that the messages are not consistent.  Because of the nature of social media, anyone who wishes to weigh in on a hashtag conversation may do so whether or not the person intends to be a constructive or destructive force within the conversation.  This is why you will see messages attacking police in the category #BlueLivesMatter or messages attacking other races in the other two categories.  (If you are a regular user of social media, you likely knew all of this already; if you are not a regular user of social media, I hope this gets you up to speed on how people use these hashtags to talk with others via social media.)

These conflicts within social media are spilling over into our real world conversations as well.  If someone makes the statement "All lives matter" at a public event, others will rush to criticize that person for minimizing the message that "Black lives matter."  If someone makes a statement that "Black lives matter," others will hear within the statement a criticism of police officers whether or not the statement ever addressed police officers.  If someone makes a statement that "Blue lives matter," others will rush to condemn that person for not caring about the lives of African Americans.

This blog post will not be able to bring these conflicting responses together and resolve the tensions.  However, I believe that it is important that the Church be involved in bringing these forces together to resolve their differences and reconcile with each other.  The Church already includes people who believe that African Americans do not receive equal treatment within the justice system.  The Church already includes people who believe that police officers are unfairly judged by people who were not present at the moment of conflict and can view the conflict with the benefits of hindsight and multiples viewpoints.  The Church already includes people who believe that each of us is created by God and loved by God.  Because of this, the Church can bring these three sides together for times of holy conversation regarding what has happened, what is happening, and what needs to happen so that we can address these issues in love, hope, and faithfulness.

While the Church may not stand behind everything that tries to claim the mantle of these three statements, the Church can assert these three things:

1) Black lives matter to God.

2) Blue lives matter to God.

3) All lives matter to God.

These three statements should not be controversial...and yet, in this environment, they may be incredibly controversial.  But the Church must still proclaim all three statements because the Lord created, loves, died for, and comes to every person covered by these three statements.

In this season of Advent, with all of the controversy within our world today, the Church continues to pray to the Lord.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Commemorating St. Lucia and St. John of the Cross

This weekend the Church remembered St. Lucia and St. John of the Cross.

Unfortunately, much of St. Lucia's story has been lost to history.  According to some stories, St. Lucia's mother arranged for her marriage to a wealthy pagan man.  St. Lucia opposed the arrangement and led her mother to a Christian shrine, the Tomb of St. Agatha.  Here at this shrine, the mother's chronic illness was suddenly cured; this healing convinced St. Lucia's mother to cancel the arranged marriage and allow St. Lucia to follow her calling as a Christian.

Other stories allege that St. Lucia was tortured by Roman officials carrying out Diocletian's persecution of Christians.  These stories allege that the officials gouged out St. Lucia's eyes, leaving her blind until the Lord restored her sight.  The popularity of these stories (and the literal meaning of her name, which is "light") led to St. Lucia being named as the patron saint of those who are blind or suffer from eye troubles.  These may also explain why the celebration of St. Lucia often includes young girls wearing on their heads wreaths bearing lit candles.

What we do know is that St. Lucia lived in Syracuse and died a martyr's death during the Diocletian persecution.  If you would like to hear more about the stories surrounding St. Lucia's life and death, check out this summary.

We know much more about St. John of the Cross (it helps that he lived and died 1200 years after St. Lucia).  St. John's father gave up the wealth and status of his family name to marry a weaver's daughter.  St. John grew up in poverty and found work as a caretaker for those suffering from incurable diseases or madness.  In these conditions, St. John sought out and celebrated the beauty of the Lord which he could see even within the darkness of poverty and illness.  He was recruited to help reform a religious order, but the order imprisoned him rather than agree to the reforms.  Even in prison, where he was beaten three times a week, St. John wrote mystical poetry proclaiming the beauty of the Lord even within prison.  St. John managed to escape from this prison and went on to become one of the great mystics of the Reformation era.  You can discover more about St. John of the Cross by reading this summary.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Commemorating St. Nicholas and St. Ambrose

Over the weekend, the Church commemorated two saints, one vastly more popular than the other.  St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey), is known for many things.  He was a survivor of the Diocletian persecution of the Church.  He attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.; this council created the original Nicene Creed.  In his day, he was well-known as a lover of the sea and a protector of sailors, leading to his designation as the patron saint of sailors as well as many congregations in port cities naming their churches after St. Nicholas.  But St. Nicholas is most-well known as someone who protected children and gave many gifts to the poor.  These traits of his led to him being the inspiration for Santa Claus.  You can read more about these stories here.

St. Ambrose is not as well-known today, but was a key theologian in the early church.  He wrote extensively and was highly regarded as a preacher and orator.  St. Augustine gave credit to St. Ambrose for convincing Augustine to convert to Christianity.  St. Ambrose fought against early heresies within the church and used his extensive knowledge of the Greek language to influence the development of the early Church's theology.  A more extensive telling of his work can be found here.

The Church commemorated St. Nicholas on December 6th and St. Ambrose on December 7th.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Addressing the Topic of Ferguson, Missouri

It's been a week since the grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown.  Some people believe that this was the most just outcome because they believe that Michael Brown was the aggressor during the encounter.  Others believe that Darren Wilson is getting away with murdering Michael Brown because they believe that Michael Brown was surrendering when he was shot.

While the case is now complete (pending action by the federal government's Department of Justice), the topic will not go away that easily.  The case has become a rallying cry for activists who want healthy responses and changes within society and a flashpoint for those who will use any excuse to instigate destructive practices such as vandalism and arson.  The violent acts now overshadow the constructive discussions which we could have after this event.

The question becomes: what do we do now?  What changes do we make in response to the shooting and the grand jury investigation?

I do not know.  The answers lie beyond a quick fix and a change in police training.  To fully address the issue in communities around the country, we need to study our society and look at ourselves with a good dose of honesty.  What will it take to heal the breach between law enforcement and communities that distrust law enforcement?  What elements of our culture do we need to change over the next several years, and how do we start the process?

I have witnessed a healthy relationship between a community and its local police force.  I sat in on a neighborhood association meeting.  A member of the local police force serves as a liaison between the association and the police force.  This officer briefed the association on how the police force was responding to and investigating incidents within the neighborhood, then listened to the concerns of the neighborhood association's members.  While this meeting included only a small portion of the local neighborhood, discussions such as these could begin to cut the tensions between communities and police departments.

Where can the Church be involved?  It can offer to host meetings like the one above.  The Church can also host, participate in, and guide discussions concerning our nation's economy, the racial divides within our culture, and other tough conversations which we as a society need to have.  These conversations will be difficult and contentious, but it is only through such (holy?) conversations that we will move beyond quick-fix ideas and into permanent changes that truly address the issues in our communities.

In this season of Advent, the Church can also pray, "Come, Lord Jesus."  Healing these divisions will be the work of the Lord.  I am confident that the Church will be called to participate in this healing in some form or fashion, but the Church will be called to carry out God's actions, not its own actions.  The Church will pray for the Lord's Kingdom to come and the Lord's will to be done while it discerns how the Lord may act through the Church to do these things.

We can choose to debate whether Darren Wilson should be charged with a crime.  A better choice would be to choose to discuss the larger issues within our society, our culture, and our communities.  We can choose to start the process of addressing these issues now or we can see how long until another incident ignites a heated debate.  May the Spirit call us into difficult yet necessary conversations and may the Lord's Kingdom break into our society.

Commemorating St. Andrew

Readers of this blog may have noticed that I am marking the lesser festivals and commemorations of the Church calendar year.  I started doing this as both a personal spiritual discipline and a learning experience.

Unfortunately, due to a busy week and an illness running through the family, I missed two commemorations this past week: Clement, Bishop of Rome (Nov. 23) and Isaac Watts, acclaimed hymn writer (Nov. 25).  However, I did manage to include a hymn written by Isaac Watts in this week's worship service (O God, Our Help in Ages Past, Hymn #320 in the Lutheran Book of Worship).

Today, the Church commemorates St. Andrew, the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus.  John 1:35-42 proclaims that Andrew was the first of the Twelve to be called into fellowship by Jesus.  Andrew responds by telling his brother, Peter, that he has found the Messiah, and rushes to bring Peter to meet Jesus.  Andrew develops a reputation for bringing people to meet Christ; Andrew brings the boy with the five loaves and the two fish to Jesus before Jesus feeds the 5,000 families (John 6:9); Andrew also brings before Jesus a group of Greeks who approached Philip and asked to meet Jesus (John 12:20-22).  While Peter, James, and John formed the "inner circle" among the disciples, Andrew would be the first disciple included when the circle expanded to include others.

After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, Church tradition holds that Andrew preached and traveled within the areas of modern-day Turkey and Greece.  He was crucified by the order of the Roman Governor of Patrae in Achaia; according to tradition, Andrew was tied to an X-shaped cross rather than be nailed to a traditional T-shaped cross.  To this day, the term "St. Andrew Cross" refers to an X-shaped cross; the symbol can be found on several flags, including the flag of Scotland, which claims Andrew as its patron saint.  Russia and Greece also name Andrew as their patron saint.

You can find a fuller account of Andrew's life, career, and legacy here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Commemorating St. Elizabeth of Hungary

On this snowy (in SE Indiana, at least) day, the Church remembers and commemorates St. Elizabeth of Hungary.  The daughter of Alexander II, King of Hungary, Elizabeth and the wife of Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia (in central Germany), Elizabeth did not give herself to a royal lifestyle of comfort.  During her marriage, she learned about the order of St. Francis of Assisi.  In response to what she learned, she lived as simply as possible while engaging in many efforts to help the poor in Thuringia.  After Louis IV died from an illness acquired on his way to join the latest Crusade, Elizabeth arranged for the care of her children, reacquired her dowry, and used that money to build a hospital at Marburg.  Here, she worked within the hospital to treat the sick and continued to give from her financial resources to the poor.  She died on November 17, 1231, at the young age of 24.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Commemorating St. Martin of Tours and Soren Kierkegaard

Today, the Church remembers both St. Martin, Bishop of Tours and Soren Kierkegaard.  Their lives, stories, and societies are very different.  We remember them together because both died on the date of November 11.

St. Martin was born in the year 315 AD.  The most popular story regarding St. Martin occurred during his brief military career.  As a member of the ceremonial cavalry unit which protected the Roman Emperor, Martin wore a white cloak which was lined with wool.  One winter day while wearing his uniform, Martin came across a homeless beggar; the beggar was so poor that he was nearly naked during the winter months.  Martin's reaction was one of compassion: he took off his cloak, used his sword to cut the cloak into two halves, and gave one half of the cloak to the beggar.  Later, Martin had a dream in which Jesus, who was wearing the cloak which Martin had given to the beggar, told several angels what Martin had done.  Years later, Martin would be elected as bishop by the people of Tours because they valued him as a model of holiness.  St. Martin is also known for refusing to continue in the Roman military after his baptism, playing a role in a man's miraculous healing, and for intervening on behalf of heretics against whom other bishops were using the civil authorities to prosecute and execute.  Read this summary for a fuller telling of St. Martin's life.

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish Lutheran philosopher and theologian.  Kierkegaard is credited as the founder of existentialism, although "later existentialists had significantly different agendas than his."  He is also known as a fierce opponent of "cheap grace" and Christendom because he believed that an easy Christian life without pain, suffering, cost, or risk was not truly a Christian life at all.  Kierkegaard is also credited for writing beautiful prayers, poems, and hymns.  You can read more about Kierkegaard in this article from "Christianity Today."

Friday, November 7, 2014

Remembering Three Lutheran Missionaries

Today, November 7th, is the day the Lutheran Church commemorates three missionaries.  Although only one of these missionaries died on November 7th, the Church chooses to commemorate the three of them on the same day because they were called and sent to Southeast Asia.

Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg was a German Lutheran who was sent as the first Protestant missionary to India.  Before his death in 1719, he was able to translate the entire New Testament and several books of the Old Testament (Genesis through Ruth) into Tamil, the local language.  He also established two congregations and a seminary to train their leaders.

John C. F. Heyer was born in Germany and emigrated to the United States as a teenager.  After studying theology in both America and Germany, he became a lay preacher in 1817 before his ordination in 1820.  After his wife of twenty years died in 1839, he discerned a calling as a missionary to India, where he served the same community as Ziegenbalg once served.  Heyer spent 15 years as a missionary in India before returning to the United States and settling in Minnesota, where he organized several congregations.

Ludwig Nommensen was born in a territory which often transitioned between Danish and Norwegian rulers.  He discerned his calling as a missionary and was sent as the first Christian missionary to the Indonesian island of Sumatra.  Nommensen spent his career in Sumatra with the Batak people, with whom he translated the Bible into Batak and guided the development of a native Batak church.  The Batak church is now one of the companion synod partners of the Indiana - Kentucky Mission Territory.

We give thanks to the Lord for these three missionaries and for all who answer the Holy Spirit's call to serve the Lord in a foreign land.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

All Saints Day

While we will fully observe the day tomorrow in worship, today is All Saints Day.  On this day, the Church remembers all of the Saints from generations past, present, and future.  While many saints have their own day (for example, St. Andrew on November 30th), this day gives recognition to every saint.  While history will not remember the vast majority of saints, every saint means something to Christ and leaves an impression on someone.  Therefore, we observe this day to remember the stories of those who left an impression on us.

One of the ways of marking this day is to recall the saints of the congregation who have died within the past year.  The congregation I serve will remember four members and three friends of the congregation who died since November 1, 2013.  At tomorrow's worship service, we will light a candle for each person as a visual reminder of their passing from life in Christ to death in Christ.

We also remember God's actions to adopt us as God's children and extend to us the promise of resurrection.  These things are encapsulated in this verse:

"Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." (1 John 3:2 NRSV)

Whom do you remember?  How will you remember them?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Reformation Day

October 31 is an important date on the calendar of the Lutheran Church.  This is the anniversary of the day on which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the front door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.  This document was the beginning of Luther's protests against several practices of the 16th Century Roman Catholic Church, including the selling of indulgences, the withholding of communion wine from laypeople, the use of the Latin language in worship, and the emphasis on good works.  The Roman Catholic Church responded to Luther's invitation to debate and discussion by ridiculing him, then excommunicating him.  However, the invention of the printing press aided the spread of Luther's ideas even as the Roman Catholic Church attempted to destroy Luther's documents.  Luther's writings and ideas sparked several different reform movements that drifted away from both the Roman Catholic Church and one another, leading to the various denominations we see within the Church today.

Because we are part of a tradition that claims the Church is "always reforming," October 31 is also a date to consider where the Church still needs reforming.  I ask you, what reforms do the Church need to implement?  What should the Church keep?  What should the Church add?  What should the Church release as a practice which used to serve the Church well but is no longer a good idea?

If you have answers to these questions, I invite you to leave your answers below and participate in a sharing of ideas.  I will respond to all suggestions.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Invite a Corporation to Church? Why not!

Yesterday, I came across this blog post in which the author expresses his displeasure over recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings which declare that corporations can be treated as people, including the constitutional rights granted to all people.  The author takes this conclusion of treating corporations as people and (sarcastically) invites Christians to go to corporations and invite the corporations to attend worship services at our churches.  The author voices his protest to the rulings by pointing out that corporations such as British Petroleum (BP), McDonald's, and Capital One will not show up because they are not people.

However, corporations are made up of people.  And if we take up this author's challenge to mainline protestants, it would be the largest evangelism effort that this country has ever seen!

I get that this author is trying to make a point.  No, Bank of America is not going to show up at your congregation.  However, the tellers at your local bank branch might come if you invite them.  The Walton family will not show up just because you wrote a letter to corporate headquarters, but the sales associate at the Walmart or IGA register may appreciate a warm conversation from a customer instead of another set of complaints and accusations.

So, yes, let's invite the people who work in corporations to worship with us on October 19th, or October 26th, or November 2nd.  Let's treat them as Sally and Mitch rather than throw scorn at their dress-code-compliant company shirt.  For the rest of this month, and in the future, let's interact with company people as people rather than as one piece of the company.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lutherans Responding to Ebola

Over the last month or so, you have likely heard that the Ebola virus is causing havoc in certain parts of Africa including Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.  The American media becomes most interested in the outbreak when American volunteers become infected with the virus.  Once these Americans either recover from the disease or fall victim to the disease, the American media turns its attention elsewhere.

However, the virus marches on.  While precautions can be taken to prevent the transmission of the disease, many do not have the necessary training or safety equipment to use these precautions effectively.  Worse, some communities have assumed a corporate attitude of denial, entered a medical facility meant to isolate the sick, stolen beds and medical equipment used to treat Ebola patients (a sure-fire way to spread the virus), and insisted that the patients are suffering from malaria.  The lack of equipment, training, facilities, and understanding all come together to prevent the containment of the Ebola virus.

Lutheran Disaster Response is stepping into the breach and helping to contain the Ebola virus.  They have put out a plea for financial donations which they can use to answer the call from our partners and companion churches who have "requested our help in responding to the outbreak with food distributions, shipment of personal protective equipment, training health workers, outreach through education about prevention, and construction of an isolation unit at Phebe Hospital and School of Nursing in Liberia.  Your gift designated for the Ebola Outbreak Response will be used in full (100 percent) to assist those who are suffering and living with the threat of this virus."

I invite you to click here to open the ELCA's designated donation page and donate what you can to Lutheran Disaster Response's efforts to contain the Ebola virus.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Promise of Resurrection in a Funeral Liturgy

First, I apologize for not writing a new post in recent weeks.  Since the last post, I have moved from one state to another, became ordained as a pastor within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and started as the called pastor of a congregation here in Ripley County.  This has kept me very busy and prevented me from returning to this blog.  I am still trying to establish my week-to-week routine, so blogging may be light until I can establish that routine.

I have already presided over a funeral in my new calling.  I also have a committal service in the near future (note to my congregation: no, you did not miss the news of another death in the congregation this week).  Because of this, I have spent time preparing to lead people as they prayed the prayers of the funeral liturgy within the Lutheran Book of Worship (or LBW).  I was struck again by how often these prayers point to the Lord's promise of a physical resurrection at the end of the age.  I invite you to pray these prayers and remember the Lord's promise of resurrection.

"When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death.  We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his."  (Page 206, a paraphrase of Romans 6:3-5
"Grant that all who have been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection may die to sin and rise to newness of life and that through the grave and gate of death we may pass with him to our joyful resurrection."  (Page 209) 
"Help us, we pray, in the midst of things we cannot understand, to believe and trust in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting."  (Page 210, a paraphrase of a portion of the third article of the Apostles Creed
"Almighty God, by the death and burial of Jesus, your anointed, you have destroyed death and sanctified the graves of all your saints.  Keep our brother/sister, whose body we now lay to rest, in the company of all your saints and, at the last, raise him/her up to share with all your faithful people the endless joy and peace won through the glorious resurrection of Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever."  (Page 212, italics in the original) 
"Since almighty God has called our brother/sister, (name), from this life to himself, we commit his/her body to the earth from which it was made/the deep/the elements/its resting place.  Christ was the first to rise from the dead, and we know that he will raise up our mortal bodies to be like his in glory.  We commend our brother/sister to the Lord: May the Lord receive him/her into his peace and raise him/her up on the last day." (Page 213, italics in the original)

Sometimes, our belief in the resurrection of the body is the weakest strand of our faith that we profess using either the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed.  But St. Paul claimed that the Corinthians got many other beliefs and practices wrong because they did not get this theological plank correct (see 1 Corinthians 15).  Perhaps we also get other beliefs and practices wrong because we do not always grasp this promise and truly understand it.  Or, perhaps we believe it, but we do not know how to best talk about it.

Do you find it difficult to understand and trust the Lord's promise of the resurrection of the body?  If so, what are your stumbling blocks?  If not, what reassures you that the promise is true?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Martin Luther on Suicide

Several years ago, Thrivent put together a movie which dramatically portrayed how Martin Luther became a leader of the Reformation movement.  Perhaps the most powerful scene in the movie is this clip in which Luther responds to a teenager's suicide in a radical way.  With depression and suicide in prominent focus after the death of Robin Williams, I invite you to watch this clip and consider the theological messages within it.  Which messages inspire hope within you?  Do you find yourself challenged by, or objecting to, some of these messages?  If so, which ones?  Please share your comments below.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Does Peace Equal Justice?

Today, we find several active military conflicts within the world.  The conflict that gets the most press is the conflict between Hamas and Israel.  Many people around the world are doing their best to bring the conflict to an end so that peace can come to the region.  Unfortunately, the definition of "peace" usually means the end of the fighting rather than a result that will lead to a lasting peace.

In our public schools, we are seeing a wave of "anti-bullying" efforts.  This is something I want to applaud, but I have some concerns about how these efforts are applied and carried out.  These efforts in combination with "no tolerance" policies for fighting lead to a message that goes against what we actually want to teach our children.  Although we want to teach our children to stand up to bullies and protect those who are bullied, the message that actually gets proclaimed is that our children should stand aside and not prevent a bully from harming another child.  A child that does step in to protect another student being assaulted will automatically be suspended for "participating" in a fight, even though we should support the child's actions on behalf of the one being harmed.  Because of this, we teach our children that preventing someone from harming another person is the responsibility of "authorities" and "officials," not ours.

Of course, if we limit our understanding of peace to a lack of violence and bullying to physical assault and battery, we miss a great deal of violence and bullying that takes place through non-physical means.  There are many who have found ways to use authorities and officials to do non-physical violence on their behalf.  This can exist in a range from the student who tells a false story to a teacher or principal so that another student gets suspended or expelled by the school to countries that sit on the UN Human Rights Council and point investigators away from the atrocities in their homeland.

If it helps, think of how Whitey is able to manipulate Beaver, his parents, and others in this clip:

I also suggest that you read Sarah Hoyt's thoughts on this topic.  This is a long blog post, but it is an excellent discussion of whether a lack of violence truly represents justice.  Here is a small portion of what she wrote:
"Faced with a classroom full of violent kids, or a world full of violent adults (none of us are angels) it’s very easy to say “I’ll just stop all fighting. I’ll beat anyone who fights.")
"Here’s a problem – you too are a fallible human and filled with violent impulses. (And before one of you asks – did I as a kid dispense the wrong justice? Probably not often. It was a small school and I was aware of the personalities and proclivities. Sometimes, though? Probably.) You’re going to listen to the side that seems right to you. The angelic looking and cleaner side does it for most adults. And half the time it will be the wrong side."

A quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. is "Peace is not the absence of war but the presence of justice."  How do we advocate for justice rather than for peace?  What does justice look like in public schools?  What does justice look like if the world is to stop ISIS from persecuting all people who are not sufficiently Islamic?  In what other situations does "justice" represent more than an end to the fighting?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Reframing the Church's Conversations About Marriage

My cousin, Jackie, shared this article on Facebook.  The author writes about how she internalized her congregation's message about virginity.  The congregation taught her that sex was reserved for marriage; extra-marital sex would lead to Hell.  Although she remained a virgin until she was married, she was afraid that she might "cross the line" and punch her ticket to Hell.  After the wedding, she still feared sex, which restricted her relationship with her husband.  In time, her internal pressures were too much to contain and she confessed her struggles to her husband, who suggested therapy.

What was the end result of this process?  The author states:
"I don't go to church anymore, nor am I religious. As I started to heal, I realized that I couldn't figure out how to be both religious and sexual at the same time. I chose sex... 
"I'm now thoroughly convinced that the entire concept of virginity is used to control female sexuality. If I could go back, I would not wait. I would have sex with my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I wouldn't go to hell for it. We would have gotten married at a more appropriate age and I would have kept my sexuality to myself."
These words should bother most people who believe that sex should be reserved for marriage.  Does this woman represent the majority of what our children and grandchildren hear and experience when we talk about purity and virginity?  Is this why many young adults remain away from the church: they do not believe that they can be both religious and sexual?  How can we talk about sex as part of God's good creation while also upholding the value of reserving sex for marriage?

During my time in seminary, I learned about the Church's traditional teachings concerning the three ends (or purposes) of marriage.  These three ends are:

  1. Unitive: the relationship between a husband and a wife is a living testimony to the relationship between the Lord and the Church.  The Lord is always faithful to the Lord's people, and the Church is always faithful to the Lord.  A couple that remains faithful to each other testifies to the relationship between the Lord and the Church.  On the other hand, a couple that does not remain faithful undercuts their testimony to the Lord and the Church.
  2. Procreative: the married couple raises children for the Lord and the Church.  Note that this purpose of marriage speaks to raising children, not creating children through sexual intercourse.  Because this purpose speaks to raising children, couples which are infertile, choose to adopt children, or remain childless can also fulfill this purpose by either adopting children or acting as adult mentors for other children in the congregation.
  3. Sacramental: the husband and wife jointly participate in worshipping the Lord and obeying the Lord's calling.  By doing so, the couple grows together in holiness.

I did not hear most of this as I was growing up.  I heard the message of "Don't have sex before marriage."  Obviously, I did not have the same experiences as the woman who wrote the article in question.  However, I can see how limiting our message to a command to refrain from sex with the threat of Hell as punishment can lead to poor relationships, poor understandings of sex within God's good order within marriage, and, in some, burnout, depression, and withdrawal from the Church.

I can also see how teaching these three ends of marriage is extremely counter-cultural.  Turn on your television or pop in a movie, and you will likely see something that proclaims that sex is a good thing, so we should have sex on a regular basis as long as we find someone else who will agree to have sex with us.  Today, in our culture, sex is not an activity by which married couples build their relationship; sex is an activity through which individuals obtain pleasure whether or not the individuals are in a relationship with one another.  Because our culture upholds pleasure as its own value, our culture dangles sex in front of us to catch our attention, to make us desire sex, and to train us to do certain "approved" things so that we can obtain sex.  Proclaiming that sex is much more than a vehicle for pleasure will put the Church at odds with our culture, which is where the Church is supposed to be in the first place.  Refraining from sex shows that we are not like the rest of our culture and that there are other options than the pursuit of pleasure through sex.

So, instead of simply telling our children, "Don't have sex until you are married," let's tell our children about what a marriage relationship truly is.  A proper marriage relationship will testify to the relationship between the Lord and the Church, raise children for the Church, and help the married couple grow in holiness.  Sex within such a relationship can fulfill these ends of marriage.  Refraining from sex when one in not a part of a marriage relationship also fulfills these ends of marriage.  After all, it would be a powerful message if the teens and young adults of the Church can turn to our culture and say, "We have found something more interesting than the pursuit of sex.  We are dedicated to our calling from the Lord and will testify to the Lord with our whole lives.  When we have sex, it will be within our faithful marriage relationships because the Lord has been faithful to us and to the Church."  Perhaps this is a more healthy message than the "Don't have sex before marriage or you will go to Hell" proclamation that many have heard in recent years.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Blog Title Change

As of Sunday, August 3, 2014, I am called by the congregation of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Olean, Indiana, to be the congregation's pastor.  The congregation, my wife, and I are very excited for this new beginning as we work together to carry out God's mission within the world.

To reflect this, I have changed the title of my blog.  This blog is not just my forum anymore.  Yes, I will still blog about topics on which the Church and the world are focusing and discussing.  However, this blog will also feature topics of concern within my new local community and congregation.  My plan (such as it is) will be to connect with others in the local community through this blog and through the congregation's social media efforts.

To all who have read this blog while it has been either my seminary project or my entry into social media ministry, thank you for your support.  I hope that you will continue to follow this blog as I enter into ordained ministry with the people of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Olean, Indiana.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Pray With Us

This weekend, my wife and I are meeting a congregation before the congregation votes whether to issue a call.  As we enter this time of discernment, I ask that you join us in praying this prayer:

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth. 

O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Virtual Bible Study: Eighth Sunday After Pentecost

As I prepare to preach this Sunday, I invite you to be a part of my sermon preparation.  These are the four readings which the Revised Common Lectionary assigned to this Sunday:

Isaiah 55:1-5

Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21

Romans 9:1-5

Matthew 14:13-21

Take a few minutes to read through these passages.  Because the Isaiah 55 and the Matthew 14 readings may be very familiar to you, read through these two passages a second time to prevent the "I know this story" bias.

As you read these passages, what catches your attention?  What word/phrase/image sticks with you?  Did anything catch you by surprise?  In the familiar stories, did you pick up on a detail which you did not notice when you have read this passage in the past?

Please share your answers to these questions, along with any other insights, in the comments section here on as a comment on my Facebook page.  I will respond to all comments and ask follow-up questions.  While I have some thoughts which I will share during the discussion, my main interest here is to read and hear your thoughts and opinions on these passages.

So how do these passages speak to you today?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Creation, Creationism, and....Aliens?

Yes, aliens.

Ken Ham, one of the leading proponents of Creationism, recently wrote a blog post on whether aliens exist and why we keep searching for aliens.  Ken Ham's main point was that all that Earth is special among the universe which God created; therefore, we should not expect to find created life elsewhere in the universe.

What has drawn a great deal of attention to Ken Ham's post, however, is this statement:
And I do believe there can’t be other intelligent beings in outer space because of the meaning of the gospel. You see, the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe. This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation.
Many are seizing upon this statement to say that Ken Ham has condemned aliens to Hell.  Ken Ham has responded by saying, in short, "Well, aliens do not exist; therefore, they cannot go to Heaven or Hell!"

I agree with Ken Ham in part.  I do not believe that aliens exist in the universe.  Too many things must line up in the absolutely perfect way and must remain aligned for too long of a time for life to spontaneously develop elsewhere in the universe.  Then, too many random proteins must link together without contamination from other proteins to form DNA.  I just cannot believe that this randomly happened once, much less multiple times around the universe.

Could God have created aliens?  Of course!  God can create whatever God wishes to create.  As a proponent of Intelligent Design, I proclaim that all that exists on Earth and, by extension, within the universe was created by God.  However, we have nothing to show or tell us that God has created life elsewhere in the universe.  While I am open to the possibility that life could exist elsewhere in the universe, I am not holding my breath and waiting for us to discover it.

Here is where I disagree with Ken Ham: if aliens do exist, I believe that aliens can have salvation.  I believe that God will act to redeem all forms of creation, including any alien life forms that may exist, at the end of the age.

Will everything and everyone enter into the New Jerusalem?  God tells us through the Bible that this is not the case.  We can argue as to how wide open the gates of Heaven will be.  I believe that the Lord will bring into the Kingdom more of Creation than we might expect, but I cannot say with any certainty who or what will or will not enter the New Jerusalem.

I also admit that I could be wrong in everything I have said in this posting.  Where do you agree or disagree?  What has you clapping in support or pounding the table and screaming "I object!"?  Leave your response in the comments and let's see where the discussion takes us.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Israel, Palestine, and the Pursuit of Peace

The newest phase in the conflict between Israel and Gaza is on the minds of many.  By "on the minds of many," I mean to say that many people are discussing the conflict through Facebook posts, tweets, and comments.

Some people believe that Hamas has provoked Israel into its latest offensive.  They point to the continuing rocket attacks and the tactics of hiding weapons inside schools and hospitals as justification for laying the blame at the feet of Hamas.

Others believe that Israel is acting unjustly in this latest offensive.  They point to the civilian casualties and the previous sanctions against Gaza to say that Israel has caused this conflict.

Good luck getting these two viewpoints to reconcile.

While I have my opinions concerning this issue, I know that sharing them in this forum will do nothing to settle the issue.

For the purposes of this post, I will state this: for a state of peace to exist between the two sides, both sides (including the leadership of both sides) must want this state of peace to come into existence.

Perhaps this is what we can pray for when we see #PrayForPeace.  Rather than pray for a non-specific peace, pray that the leaders of Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and other organizations in the area will want peace and will work together for peace.  Until these leaders want peace, we will not see peace within the region.

For what else or who else can we pray?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Video Describing Holy Communion

This is a video of an Episcopal bishop discussing the sacrament of Holy Communion, aka the Eucharist.  While Lutherans may not practice adding water to the wine (which is depicted in the video), Lutherans will agree with much of what is presented here.  I invite you to watch the video and share your impressions.  Did the video open up new ways to see the sacrament?  Did the bishop say anything with which you disagree?

Hat tip: the Rev. Stephen Friedrich, who shared it on Facebook.  I found the video because he posted it.

Friday, July 11, 2014

And Yet They Prayed

I have watched several of the World Cup games this past month including almost every game played by either the United States or Chile (BTW, congrats to both teams for advancing out of the group stage and giving good showings).  The most poignant moment for me, however, came at the end of the semifinal game between Brazil and Germany.

If you have been following the World Cup, you are likely wondering how a 7-1 blowout and worst defeat in World Cup semifinal history could hold the most poignant moment unless I am thinking of Klose's record-breaking 16th goal in World Cup games.  However, that is not the moment.

The moment came after the final whistle.  Brazil's embarrassment has just mercifully ended.  Most people would want to do the obligatory shaking of hands, hide their faces in towels, and walk to the locker room as quickly as possible.

But several of Brazil's players did something very different.  They dropped to their knees, bowed their heads, prayed, and crossed themselves before congratulating the German team and mourning their own loss.

How could they pray?  They just lost by six goals playing a sport in which four total goals in a game is "high-scoring."  They were the favorites to win it all.  They had not lost a "competitive" (read: major tournament) game at home in nearly 40 years!  They had every reason to be dejected and ignore or blame God for the loss.

And yet, they prayed.  On the field.  In full view of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

We will likely never experience a similar emotional experience, but we will be tempted to ignore or blame God during our times of trouble or embarrassment.  When it happens, can we include in the story, "And yet, we prayed"?

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy Independence Day

Today we celebrate the public announcement that the thirteen British colonies in America declared their independence from England and began to form their own nation.

This weekend, many congregations will sing patriotic songs as part of their worship service as their way of marking this holiday.

But, when we gather for worship, we gather to worship the Lord, not our nation.  Therefore, I offer this hymn as an alternative to songs like "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."  This hymn is "This is My Song, O God of All the Nations."

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Challenge to the Church (and Sports Fans)

As the World Cup continues in Brazil, soccer fans are making their case for why they are the best of all sports fans.  Fans of each sports clamor for this unofficial title of the best fans in all of sports.

Well, the bar was recently raised by a group that does not get as much credit as they deserve: hockey fans.

Gino Odjick, a professional hockey player who spent the majority of his career with the Vancouver Canucks, recently announced that he has a terminal illness and may have only a few weeks to live.  In his open letter to fans, he stated that he wished that he could hear hockey fans chant for him one last time.

NHL fans who remembered Gino as an enforcer heard this last wish.  Many fans gathered outside of Odjick's hospital in Vancouver and rallied in support of a retired but not forgotten hockey player.  Emotions were high as Gino came outside of the hospital to greet the fans who gathered and chanted his name one more time.

I ask you to look at your congregation.  Who within the congregation is suffering from a terminal illness?  What is their wish at this time?  And how might the congregation come together to fulfill that wish?

Monday, June 30, 2014

So, I Was Told I Sounded "Intolerant" the Other Day...

Hearing that is not a pleasant feeling, that's for sure.

What caused someone to accuse me of sounding intolerant?  The short version of the story is that a high school classmate asked his Facebook friends how he could discuss evolution and Creationism with a six-year-old.  I suggested talking about evolution as an attempt to explain the "how" of Creation while Genesis speaks to who created all things.  I also observed that an agreement to this understanding would remove much of the heat from the conversation.

Others who brought forth their own ideas, however, would not accept this suggestion.  Their suggestion was to compare Christianity to the popular idea of Santa Claus: something that kids eventually grow out of.  My suggestion clashed with their suggestion, so my suggestion needed to be discredited.  One of the participants who fell into this category suggested that my comments "sounded intolerant" and that she would never be forced to agree to these terms.

I could have responded to the three people opposing me and entered into a full-blown argument.  However, my friend's intention for the original post was to discover ways to communicate his own thoughts to a six-year-old, not start a religious argument.  With my friend not responding to the conversation, I decided to not participate in the conversation because it had already left my friend's original concern.

One of today's Supreme Court announcements has many people up in arms.  Some people are ecstatic while others are screaming mad.  Many have claimed or will claim that others are being "intolerant" of either their religious beliefs or their contraceptive choices.  (This will be the end of my comments on that topic.  Perhaps another blog post.)

"Tolerance" sounds like a good standard.  We do not have to agree, but we do not need to disassociate from others who do not share our opinions, correct?

But "tolerance" is not a good standard.  We can hate someone even as we "tolerate" their presence in the room.  We can wish all sorts of evil on someone even as we "tolerate" their opinions on Facebook and Twitter.  We can attack others and destroy reputations even as we "tolerate" what they say.

Rather than "tolerate" each other, how about we express our love for each other, including (perhaps especially) for those who do not share our opinions?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Asking a Better Question

My Facebook feed tends to show many people posting commentary and political opinions.  Some of these posts try to claim that God agrees with the person's political opinions.  I have seen conservatives claim that Jesus is a conservative.  I have seen liberals claim that Jesus is a liberal.

I have also seen people attempt to demonize those who disagree with them, one even going as far as trying to assign Satan to the other side of the political spectrum.

This tug-of-war, let's-claim-the-Lord-for-our-side way of debating politics bothers me quite a bit.  One reason for this is because a person attempting to debate politics with this claim reads the Bible with a conclusion in mind and tries to find scriptural justification for that conclusion.  This is a poor way of reading the Bible because it shuts out the Holy Spirit's voice.  One cannot hear the Holy Spirit through the Bible if one is looking for biblical support for one's politics.

The other reason that this way of debating politics bothers me is because it inverts our relationship with the Lord.   The Holy Spirit is calling us onto the Lord's side; we cannot call the Lord onto our side.  I would argue that attempting to call the Lord onto our political side actually puts our political opinions above our worship of the Lord.  Attempting to put the Lord onto our political side puts the Lord in the place of service to a political ideology.  Suddenly, our political ideology has become our idol, the true object of our worship.

The question is not, "Is God on our side?"  The question is, "Are we on God's side?"  Can we agree to focus on discerning where God is acting in the world and calling to us rather than argue whether God is on our side?  If we could do this in both word and deed, we would take a large step towards representing the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Will you join me in discerning where God is acting in the world today and how the Lord may be calling us to participate in that action?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Happy Holy Trinity Sunday!

As we celebrate Holy Trinity Sunday, check out The Lutheran Satire's video discussing how we try to talk about the Trinity.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

What I Wish I Could Have Said...

...on April 17th, 2007.  As this woman wrestles with what has happened at her school, she tells us how we can help her and others during their grief process.  I believe that this is the key part:
In times like these we need to lean on each other. We need to look to God, and begin to grapple with how we are going to forgive. In light of what has happened I ask that you be sensitive, and know this is more than a simple policy adjustment. A person died at my school, and a person died at Reynolds high. Two young lives were lost for someone’s sport, and that to me is one of the most evil crimes that can be committed. To say something as simple as gun control could have stopped it has can cause incredible damage to a family that lost their son. There is no simple answer as to why this happened, and losing your son, or your friend, or your roommate, or a classmate is complex and cannot be tied up with a neat answer. There is no reason why this should have happened, and instead of searching for answers or trying to define the incredible pain that people are feeling we need to learn to just be in it. We need to feel the anger and feel the heartbreak so that we can forgive. We need to cry and mourn because a friend was taken, and now hundreds more in Oregon are going through the same thing. If you want this to never happen again, the best place to start is simply by mourning the life that was lost, and disregarding how it was taken. Remember Paul Lee, a young 19 year old boy who was full of life and had many more years he should have spent dancing. Do not waste your time remembering how he died.
On behalf of my friends at SPU, please join us in remembering our friend. During a time of utter pain and confusion, it is heartening to see the support and love spreading on campus. A stranger came into our home with the intent to harm, and although we are broken, we are united. We are not a community centered in hate, or in vengeance, but in Christ. We are healing, and through healing feeling anger and sorrow, but yet learning to forgive.
Do you know people who are grieving after a traumatic incident?  How can you re-present Christ to them as they grieve?

Monday, June 2, 2014

We are Free for...?

Kevin D. Williamson was recently reflecting on the Elliot Rogers attacks.  Among his many observations and comments, Williamson wrote this:

Modernity sets us free, but it does not offer any answer to the question, "Free to do what?"
Williamson observed that modernity sets us free from focusing solely on meeting our needs for food and shelter, which was the gathering point for many societies throughout history.  Modern technology has freed most people from needing to grow their own crops, hunt or raise their own meat, and build their own homes.  But what do we do with this freedom?

I believe that there is a similar dynamic within the Church.  Many Christians hold to the promise that Christ has freed them from the power of sin and death.  However, how many Christians have gone beyond this promise of freedom to ask what they are free for?  What does the gift of freedom mean for us during our lifetime?

While I have some thoughts on this, right now I turn the question over to you.  Given that we have freedom in Christ and through Christ, what are we freed for?  I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments and discuss the question with others.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

What We've Forgotten This Week

The big news story this week is the shooting in Santa Barbara, California.  Many people are responding to the event by offering their opinions on gun control, sexism, and other issues.  In our rush to discuss those topics, however, I believe we have forgotten two important things.

First and foremost, we have forgotten that there are several grieving families out there.  We have forgotten about the Rogers family as they come to terms with what he has done.  We have also forgotten about the six people who died and the others who were injured by the attacker as well as their families.  Before we move into these other topics, I believe that we need to care for these families.  How can we walk with them during their time of grief?

In the aftermath, many people are focusing on the attacker's comments about sex.  The conversation often focuses on the attacker's, and society's, attitudes concerning sex.  The attacker assumed that he deserved sex.  Society calls us, men and women, to focus on sex.  If, as many have done during discussions this week, we accept society's premise that we should focus on sex, we forget that there are alternatives.  What a difference we could make if we could turn to society and say that, in the words of Dr. Daniel Bell, there are things in this world which are more interesting than sex.

Whatever your opinions might be concerning this week's hot-button issues, I ask that you remember the families who are grieving the deaths of their children or the wounding of their family members.  I also invite you to study the emphasis which society places on sex and how we can offer the people around us an alternative upon which they can focus.

Lord, we ask for your continued presence with those who grieve the death of a loved one.  We ask for your healing to come to those who were wounded and continue to recover.  We ask for your peace as you receive those who have died.  Finally, we ask for your guidance as we participate in many difficult conversations and discern how we can care for others so that future attacks can be thwarted before they occur.  We ask these things in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Friday, May 23, 2014

What Question do you Want to Ask but Feel Like You Cannot Ask?

I have a very inquisitive nature.  When my curiosity arises, I begin to search for the answer to my question.  I will ask others, run Google searches, dig into published articles, and learn all that I can until I find the answer to my question.

But there are times when I hesitate to ask the question I have because I think that others will think that I should already know the answer.  I should have seen that movie, read that book, heard about that news story, or remembered that family event.  I did not, or I do not remember doing so, but I do not want to admit it in front of these people who did and do remember.

Many people treat religious questions in the same manner.  There is a question to which one wants to find an answer, but one is afraid to ask.  The person fears seeing that look or hearing that comment which communicates oh-so-clearly, "Do you really have to ask that question?  EVERYBODY knows that!"

So I want to offer this forum as an opportunity to ask the religious questions you have wanted to ask but feared to do so.  What are the questions that you have wanted to ask your friends, pastor, or congregation, but were afraid to ask?  I will respond as best as I can.  If I do not know, I will say so and promise to search for an answer.  If you find that the answer leads to another question, ask that one, too!

So what questions do you want to ask?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

What is the Purpose for Attending a Worship Service?

When we talk about why we attend worship services at a certain congregation, we often offer a variety of reasons.  Perhaps we know the people here and it feels like home.  Perhaps we enjoy the music played or we like the pastor's sermon style.  Perhaps we feel as though we should go to a worship service, and this is what best fits our schedule.

And others would note that the question assumes that you are currently attending a worship service.  Many do not attend any worship service.  Many others will occasionally participate in a worship service but not on a regular basis.

Rev. Nathan Aaseng recently wrote a column exploring the reasons we give for attending a particular worship service.  (His column on why we attend any worship service at all is an excellent column which deserves its own post.)  He notes that many of our comments describing why we prefer one worship service over another or one congregation over another center on what we like and want.  If a congregation offers what we want, great.  If a congregation does not, we either lobby for it or leave to try another congregation.

In response, many congregations try to discover what people like to have in worship and then learn how to offer that preference.  Although congregations chase the preferences because they believe that these new preferences will increase worship attendance, increases in attendance and membership usually do not take place.

Rev. Aaseng notes what is missing from the discussion: an encounter with God.  If we continue to discuss worship using the terms of our preferences, then we feel free to leave when our preferences are not met.  Also, when an opportunity to do something we "enjoy" more than worship comes to us, we skip the worship service without a second thought because we are focused on our wants, desires, and preferences.

How might this change if we start talking about our worship services in terms of how we encounter the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?  If we can name how we encounter the Triune God in worship, we can shift our focus from our preferences to how we can continue to encounter the Triune God in worship.  We may come to worship prepared to meet God and see God within the people around us.

So how have you recently encountered Jesus?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Where is God?

My wife just shared with me an article discussing a recent study of the physical effects of prayer.  The study found that prayer and meditation have positive physical effects on the brain including improved memory in Alzheimer's patients.  While I would not want to use the article as a reason for people to pray more often, I do believe it is interesting.

The portion of the article that really caught my attention, however, was this comment by Dr. Andrew Newberg: "It only makes sense if God is up there and we are down here that we would have a brain that is capable of communicating to God, praying to God, doing the things that God needs us to do," said Dr. Newberg.

This is the comment that threw me for a loop.  For me, it makes no sense whatsoever to think of God as only being "up there" far away from those of us "down here."  It makes much more sense to say that God is here with us, celebrating as we celebrate, grieving as we grieve, and acting within creation as we live in creation.  If God is simply "up there," then how would God be able to change anything for Dorsey (who is a key figure in the article)?  How would God be able to change anything for us or for anyone else?

At the altar, we proclaim that Christ is present within the bread and wine of communion.  At baptism, we proclaim that the baptized person is sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  These are just two ways in which the Lord is "down here" with us.

Where else do you see God "down here" with us?

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Good Reminder

As I finish my semester, I am not able to update this blog as much as I'd like.  I will post a debrief entry once I have completed the semester.  Until then, this article is a great reminder for me and for others that pastors struggle with the same issues with which others struggle.  I hope you read through it  and remember to share with your pastor how much you appreciate her or him.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Project Summary

As I reflect on these interviews, I see three common themes within each conversation.  While I have added some of my own thoughts to clarify the theological connections, I believe that these theological connections greatly influence all of these relationships.

1) God acts in communities around the world.  God is not limited to our community.  Where do we see God acting within international communities?  Members of these international communities can help us see where God is acting and discern how we are called to participate in God’s actions if we are willing to listen to their wisdom.

2) We are basing our companion synod relationships not on our giving and their receiving but on mutual learning.  Churches in international communities carry out certain relationships and ministries better than we do.  As we build relationships with our Companion Synods, we discern areas in which our Companion Synods can train us for ministry in our communities.  Our Companion Synods are also discerning areas in which we can train them for ministry in their communities.  In the near future, we hope that we can put groups living in different countries but sharing similar interests in touch with each other so that they can share their various strategies, techniques, and activities with each other.

Ultimately, we must remember that our model for these relationships is the perfect unity between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The three persons of the Trinity share a perfect love which unites them as one God.  The Trinity also draws creation into its relationship and shares that perfect love with us.  Therefore, we engage these members of the Body of Christ not as victims of circumstance who need our financial and material support but as equals.  Instead of pressing forward with various tasks which we must accomplish as soon as possible, we focus on building these relationships and engaging in dialogues.

3) As we create the communication networks which will allow many more people to be directly involved in these Companion Synod Relationships, individuals and congregations can already participate in these relationships in several ways.  We can pray for our Companion Synods.  We can read international news stories which reveal the major events and stories within these countries.  We can participate in synod events and read synod announcements which discuss our latest steps within these relationships.  Finally, we can study the language(s) spoken within our Companion Synods and pursue the goal of conversing with our partners using their language.

Do you see other themes within this project?  What do you take away from here after reading through my reports?

My Conversation with Rev. Tanner Smith

Rev. Tanner Smith is a Reformed pastor who currently serves as senior pastor for a congregation in Sioux Center, Iowa.  I learned of Rev. Smith when I was assigned to read a paper he wrote during his studies in a Doctor of Ministry program.  Although the subject of the paper revolved around advocacy for the local immigrant community, he mentioned within the paper that his congregation participated in international ministries.  I became curious as to how the congregation carried out these ministries and asked Rev. Smith if I could speak with him about these ministries.  Rev. Smith granted my request, and we spoke on April 24, 2014.

Rev. Smith’s congregation carries out relationships with communities in Mexico, Haiti, and Guatemala.  The congregation is restarting the relationship with the community in Mexico after a forced hiatus because of safety concerns due to local drug trafficking activity.  As the congregation builds relationships with these communities, the congregation also offers parenting and leadership training within the local community.  Each year, different groups within the congregation make multiple trips to each community.  Rev. Smith says that the congregation has a great deal of ownership over the relationships rather than depending on him as pastor to carry out the relationships.

When I asked Rev. Smith to describe the ideal relationship between the congregation and these three communities, he quickly pointed to two things which he would change about the relationship.  First, he would arrange for members of these communities to travel to Iowa and train the congregation in certain areas.  This mutuality of sharing knowledge and strategies is “probably one of the things we lack the most.”  He also stated a desire to share these relationships with other congregations in Sioux Center, Iowa.  Another congregation participated in a recent trip and hosted the commissioning service prior to the trip.  Rev. Smith would love to bring other congregations into the relationship and involve the entire Sioux Center community in these relationships with communities in Mexico, Haiti, and Guatemala.  When I commented that his description of ideal relationships with international communities sounded like the accompaniment model described by Rev. Limbong and Rev. Duckworth, Rev. Smith affirmed the model and described the model as “the idea of human flourishing.”

Rev. Smith also credited the congregation’s relationships with these international communities with opening their eyes to local immigrants and influencing the congregation’s growing work with its local Latino community.  Several members are working with local Guatemalan immigrants to teach the English language and share cooking recipes with each other.  The congregation also works with the two food banks in the local area.  Rev. Smith commented that the congregation is working through a culture change from prioritizing the accomplishment of tasks to prioritizing the building of relationships.  “What is the difference between bringing dinner to an immigrant’s house and inviting the immigrant family to dinner?” is a question that Rev. Smith offers as a way to distinguish between the two priorities.

How would you answer this question?  Does this summary give you any ideas for things your congregation can do to engage either local or international communities?

My Conversation with Rev. Chris Duckworth

On April 22, 2014, I spoke with Rev. Chris Duckworth, who currently serves as the “de facto” chairperson for the Indiana-Kentucky Mission Territory’s Companion Synod Relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile (or IELCH).  Rev. Duckworth assumed this leadership role at the request of Rev. Bill Gafjken, who served as the chairperson before he was called to serve as synod bishop.  Rev. Duckworth now leads the effort to continue the relationship with the IELCH.

As chairperson, Rev. Duckworth traveled with a delegation from the ELCA’s Western Iowa synod to Chile and met with the IELCH president and other leaders.  The IELCH showed the group many of Chile’s historical sites, especially those related to the dictatorship of Pinochet in 1970’s and 1980’s.  The IELCH split from the other Lutheran denomination in Chile over differing reactions to this dictatorship, so the visits to museums, former detention centers, and survivors of the dictatorship served as ways to tell the stories of both the nation of Chile and the IELCH.  The delegation also visited several congregations and spent a day with a community health ministry.

Rev. Duckworth also believes that the accompaniment model is the best model for the Indiana-Kentucky Synod’s relationship with the IELCH.  The accompaniment model calls for a relationship based on walking in mutuality with our brothers and sisters in Christ rather than approaching the community and saying “we have the resources and we are going to help you do your thing.”  The two church bodies are working to develop a series of connections around certain ministry areas.  Ideally, groups in Chile, Indiana, and Kentucky who shared interests in sewing, camping ministries, or non-traditional stewardship practices would connect with each other through social media platforms, e-mail, and occasional visits (although such visits are expensive).

Although he believes that there is much work to be done to complete the transition to an accompaniment relationship, Rev. Duckworth provided several examples of how the two church bodies are already practicing this accompaniment.  He pointed to the IELCH’s history as a German church within Chile before transitioning into a truly Chilean church in the 1960’s.  Because many of our congregations still carry the marks of being German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, or other nationality churches, we can learn from the IELCH about their transformation from a German church to a Chilean church.  In the meantime, the IELCH has asked the Indiana-Kentucky Mission Territory for assistance in developing new accounting practices and teaching these practices to local Chilean congregations.  As the IELCH reforms the bonds with the other Lutheran denomination in Chile, the IELCH may also draw from the ELCA’s experiences during its merger in 1988.  These examples stand in stark contrast to the expectations of going to Chile to build churches or wells.  When the Indiana-Kentucky Synod travels to Chile, it goes with the intention of learning and forming relationships.

This accompaniment model has a “nice synergy” with missional theology.  The accompaniment model assumes that God is doing something in Chile and that the Kingdom of God is breaking into both Chile and the United States.  The goal is to observe this breaking in of God’s Kingdom, to learn from it, and (when asked) to participate in it in appropriate ways.  Rev. Duckworth describes this as a “more dynamic understanding of the church.”  He also credits the IELCH with making this shift from the congregation/parish model to this dynamic understanding of the church before the ELCA and hopes that the IELCH can teach us as we catch up.

Although he had not read the article about ELCA World Hunger and its rejection of the child sponsorship model, Rev. Duckworth understood the concerns about the model.  He called the model a “very paternalistic relationship.  We have resources and we can help you.”  He believes that this approach perpetuates the idea that these people need our help and creates a transaction rather than a relationship; the sponsor can feel good because the sponsor has met needs while the sponsored child can eat.  “The World Vision model tends to say, ‘We can help these people,’ rather than ‘These people are people of God and God is doing something among these people, and this is a way that we might be a part of it.’”

The Indiana-Kentucky Synod and the IELCH have first-hand experience with the weaknesses of this sponsorship model.  In the past, each conference within the Indiana-Kentucky Synod sponsored a congregation within the IELCH.  Some conferences were very active and supportive of their congregations.  Other conferences were not very active or supportive.  Still others provided their congregations with inconsistent support.  Finally, the IELCH bishop asked the synod to end this system because the differences in financial support were causing a division between IELCH congregations.

In the interests of full disclosure, Rev. Duckworth shared that his family does sponsor, through World Vision, three children in Peru and Bolivia.  The organization does do great work by serving these communities, and “we don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the pretty good.”

Recently, Chile has been rocked by an 8.2 earthquake and a huge fire in the city of Valparaiso, Chile’s main port.  So far, the IELCH has not asked the synod for financial support in connection to these events.  The earthquake, which occurred off the northern coast of Chile, did not impact the IELCH, which is located in central and southern Chile.  The local Lutheran church in Valparaiso was not damaged by the fire and the congregation is responding to the disaster by collecting materials for those who lost their homes and offering worship services.  Four years ago, when an earthquake struck the southern portion of Chile and impacted several Lutheran congregations, the IELCH asked for more direct support.

As the synod restructures its Companion Synod Relationships, Rev. Duckworth offered individuals and congregations several things which they can do now to participate in the relationship with the IELCH.  As the synod creates a global mission team, the synod will look for volunteers to serve on this team.  Rev. Duckworth invited people to pray for the IELCH and add news about Chile to their regular news readings so that they can learn more about both the nation and the IELCH.  Bilingual individuals can offer their services as the two church bodies communicate with one another and establish bonds between groups with mutual interests and affinities.  And, with synod assembly approaching, individuals and congregations can pay special attention to the reports from our Companion Synods and the committees working within these relationships.

How do some of these ideas strike you?  Would you be interested in sharing conversations with others who live around the world and share your interests in particular ministry activities?

My Conversation with Rev. Bimen Limbong

On April 14, 2014, I spoke with Rev. Bimen Limbong, who is originally from Indonesia and currently serves as the chairperson for the Indiana-Kentucky Mission Territory’s Companion Synod Relationship with the Huria Batak Protestant Church (HBKP or the Batak Church).  After Rev. Limbong moved to Kentucky several years ago, the synod office invited his participation within their Companion Synod Relationship with the Batak Church.  Rev. Limbong kindly took an hour of his time to share with me his experiences working within this relationship.

Rev. Limbong recently traveled with Bishop Bill Gafkjen and two others to the nation of Indonesia.  These four represented the synod as they met with the Batak Church district Bishop for the island of Sumatra as well as many local pastors, congregation members, seminary students, and residents.  After discussing with the Batak Church Bishop how the two church bodies could be in partnership with one another, the Batak Church Bishop invited the group to attend the National Children Worship Celebration.  Rather than try to describe that event, I refer you to Rev. Limbong’s description which he shared as part of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod’s Lenten Devotional series.

When I asked Rev. Limbong to describe his vision for the ideal relationship between the Indiana-Kentucky Mission Territory and the HBKP, he stated that both church bodies will need to educate their members so that local congregations and pastors understand the relationship which the two church bodies are trying to build.  Previously, the two church bodies built a “negative relationship:” the Indiana-Kentucky Mission Territory had resources which they could bring to the HBKP.  In doing so, they also brought Jesus to the Batak Church.  The two church bodies are now trying to build a relationship based on the “accompaniment model” which asks the two church bodies to work together, walk together, and teach each other.  For this to work, both sides need to carry the understanding that they must discern how the Lord is already present in Sumatra, Indiana, and Kentucky and how the Lord is calling the two church bodies to participate in what the Lord is already doing.  Rev. Limbong suggested that teaching this understanding of the relationship throughout the respective churches may be the biggest challenge as the two church bodies restructure a relationship which began in 1998.

Rev. Limbong gave the Batak Church great praise by saying that they are already responding to this challenge.  The Batak Church has adopted the theme of “Becoming a Blessing to the World” and is branching out from Indonesia to other parts of the world as they seek to fulfill their theme.   For the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, this shift is a great challenge because it offers a very different model and requires much more involvement in the relationship.  As both groups work through this change, each church body can teach the other by exchanging their best talents, gifts, and strategies with each other.

An example of this exchange of gifts and talents is an opportunity which the Batak Church has offered to Rev. Limbong.  The Bishop of the Sumatra district will turn 60 this July.  The district has invited Rev. Limbong to be one of 60 theologians to compose an essay in honor of the Bishop’s birthday.  These essays will be collected, published in book form, and presented to the Bishop as a birthday gift.  This opportunity is a great way for the two church bodies to put this accompaniment relationship into practice.

When I mentioned the recent discussion in The Lutheran magazine over the child sponsorship model and international relationships, Rev. Limbong emphasized the premise of relationships verses resources: “When we work together, we realize our needs.  We do not determine the priorities of our companions; we may give them gifts, but we cannot tell them where the gifts must go.  If we are directing the gifts, they are no longer gifts.  We trust that they will use our gifts in appropriate ways to meet their needs and priorities.”  As an example, Rev. Limbong referred to an orphanage run by the Batak Church.  The Indiana-Kentucky Mission Territory may support the orphanage, but it trusts the Batak Church to operate the orphanage and determine what is best for the orphanage.

Rev. Limbong also mentioned the inequality that can develop within a child sponsorship relationship.  While the financial contributions may go to the community, the personal communications go directly to individual children.  If a child is sponsored and receiving regular correspondence from his or her sponsor, the child feels loved.  However, if a child is not sponsored or does not receive regular correspondence from his or her sponsor, the child may feel unloved.  The inconsistencies within the child sponsorship model can greatly undercut the goals for the relationship.

Rev. Limbong is often asked, “What can we do?”  He asks that we keep in mind that the synod and the Batak Church are still transforming their relationship structures.  This transformation is a five-year process.  However, this does not mean that individuals and congregations should just sit and wait until the process is over.  Individuals can participate in upcoming “breakout sessions” during synod assembly and discuss the current issues within the Companion Synod Relationship.  Individuals and congregations can also read and pass along communications from the synod office and sponsor ELCA missionaries who are called to work in various communities around the world.  Meanwhile, the Indiana-Kentucky Mission Territory and the Batak Church continue to strengthen their communication practices and structures.

What are your reactions to these ideas?  Do you have any lingering questions about what the Indiana-Kentucky Synod and the Batak Church are trying to do?