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?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Guiding Questions

I spoke with three pastors regarding their involvement in relationships between American church bodies and international communities.  In the near future, I will share my summaries of these conversations.  Before I do that, I want to share the questions I asked and my reasoning for asking these questions.

My first conversations were with Rev. Bimen Limbong and Rev. Chris Duckworth.  Rev. Bimen Limbong coordinates the ELCA Indiana-Kentucky Mission Territory’s engagement with the Huria Batak Protestant Church (HBKP or the Batak Church).  Rev. Chris Duckworth coordinates the synod’s engagement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile (IELCH).  I brought the following six questions to these conversations:

1) “What is your role within the Indiana-Kentucky Synod’s relationship with (HBKP or IELCH)?”  I asked this question as a soft introduction to the conversation and to establish where this person works within the Companion Synod Relationship.

2) “In what events did you participate when you traveled to (Indonesia or Chile) and met with (the Batak church or IELCH, respectively)?”  Both men had recently traveled to Indonesia or Chile to meet with the respective church organization in these nations.  I wanted to hear what had taken place during these trips and get a feel for how these relationships play out when the two church bodies come together.

3) “How would you describe the ideal relationship between (the Companion Synod Relationship partner in question) and the Indiana-Kentucky Synod?”  The Indiana-Kentucky Mission Territory is in the process of reshaping its Companion Synod Relationships.  With this question, I invited these leaders to share their goals for these reshaped relationships and what the rest of the synod can expect as the work goes forward.  I hoped that the leaders would also share the theology which informs the process and defines the goals for these relationships.  I also asked Rev. Duckworth how the ELCA’s recent focus on missional theology has played a role within the reshaping of these relationships.

4) The Lutheran featured in its February 2014 issue an article discussing why ELCA World Hunger does not practice child sponsorship.  This article led to a great deal of discussion, which is summarized in the March 2014 issue by two letters which either supported or disputed the points within the original article.  What would you say to someone who asked about organizing a child sponsorship structure within our companion synod relationships?”  I asked the two leaders to compare their goals for the Companion Synod Relationships with the child sponsorship model for relationships between individuals or congregations in the United States and communities around the world.  Before attending seminary, I worked as a sales associate for Family Christian Stores.  This company is a major partner with World Vision, one of the most widely-recognized child sponsorship organizations in the United States.  Because many people think of World Vision, Compassion International, and other similar organizations as the primary models for relationships between Christians in the United States and communities around the world, I asked these leaders to address the child sponsorship model and whether this model fit within the ideal relationships they hoped to form with the Batak Church and the IELCH.

5) “In the past month, there have been two natural disasters in Chile.  First, an earthquake measuring 8.2 on the Richter Scale occurred off the coast of Chile.  Shortly after this, a city-wide fire struck Valparaiso, Chile’s main port.  What is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile’s response to these events?  What have they asked the ELCA Indiana-Kentucky Synod to do to support them in the aftermath of these events?”  With these being current and pressing issues within the nation of Chile, I asked Rev. Duckworth whether the two church bodies were in contact regarding these events and whether the IELCH had asked for the Indiana-Kentucky Mission Territory to take direct action in response to these events.

6) “How might a congregation or an individual who has an interest in what our synod is doing with these churches in Chile and Indonesia participate in our companion synod relationships?”  Right now, the synod office and the task forces directly involved with the companion synod relationships carry out the relationships on behalf of the rest of the synod.  I asked this question to see how others within the synod can currently participate in this process.

As I stated in my previous post, I also interviewed Rev. Tanner Smith for this project.  This interview took a very different shape, however, because Rev. Smith is a Reformed pastor whose congregation is directly involved with communities in Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti.  Our conversation also began with Rev. Smith’s involvement with a growing immigrant community within his community of Sioux Center, Iowa.  However, Rev. Smith did address the topics of what he and his congregation are doing within these three international communities, his picture of the ideal relationship between the congregation and these communities, how this picture compared to the ideal relationships described by Rev. Limbong and Rev. Duckworth, and how these relationships have impacted the congregation’s involvement with the local immigrant community.

What other questions do you have?  What questions should I have asked?