Task Force, part 4

Another productive meeting yesterday. This time we talked about the Guide to One-on-One conversations, why to do them, how to do them, what we’re going to do with the information we gather. And we put together a list of partners for doing a dry-run. That’s our assignment for a week from now: to have called our partner, practiced a one-on-one with them, and then report back next week what we all learned about what drives and motivates our partner.

The following week we will assign people from both congregations to call and set up a time to meet (in person, over electronic meeting platforms, or on the telephone) to do a (roughly) 45-minute-long one-on-one with them. We’ll talk about that more next week.

Just to fit this into a bigger picture, we discussed how the information that we glean from our wider-reach one-on-ones will help us get a picture of what kind of Bible study we want to do. This way, we’ll be listening to one another (on the horizontal axis through one-on-ones) and listening to God (on the vertical axis through Bible study and prayer), and this will help to guide conversations along into the future. So this is going to give us plenty to do over the course of the next several weeks. As our cross-shaped listening (horizontal and vertical) unfolds, a plan will start to come together. (There IS, indeed, a method to our madness!)

We forgot (Pr. Rob forgot) to ask for a descriptive word from each participant. D’oh!

Task Force, Part 3

Well, our happy little Looking Forward Task Force is growing! In addition to the First Lutheran folks, we enjoyed the company and great input from Prince of Peace members Gayla and Vernetta (and Ava, of course, but she has been with us since meeting #2, anyway).

This meeting moved us a little closer to first action steps. Next time we get together, we’re going to do a little bit of learning about One-on-One conversations, then move into a little bit of practice doing those. That may be the focus for our next two meetings. After that, this group will begin scheduling One-on-Ones with folks from both congregations … and possibly some other people from outside our church communities who might be interested in partnering with us in the future.

What’s the purpose of these One-on-One meetings?

  1. Establishing or deepening relationships and building confidence;
  2. The listener will want to learn some significant things about the person they’re meeting with: what makes them “tick”, what they
    value, who they really are, and what has brought them to this point in life;
  3. The conversation partners might find commonly held interests, goals or values that can lead them into new opportunities for collaboration and community building inside and outside the congregation;
  4. There’s an opportunity or a possibility at least that, while a person begins talking about their story, they might actually learn some things about themselves that they didn’t realize were true, leading to new clarity and self-appreciation.

There are a list of questions … well, not really so much a list, but a number of conversations starters to ease folks into conversation, so nobody will have to go deep diving right off the bat. But the goal, really, is to find out what motivates people in life, what gives them joy, what makes them sad or angry, what it is that they really value and are willing to commit to, especially in terms of their faith life. If we want to have vibrant communities (and we do, right? Otherwise, what’s the point of church?), we need to know these kinds of things, so that we can shape and form community to be what we are longing for.

Once we learn some things about folks, the Looking Forward group will do some looking back, specifically to the Scriptures, to find biblical models that share the faith goals that OUR people have identified. This won’t look like a pastor teaching about a biblical model, but rather it will be collaborative and interactive searching of the scriptures for something that we relate with in practical ways. In any case, a biblical grounding will be necessary for informed community-building. As will prayer: both prayer that asks and prayer that listens. Listening to God through scripture and through one another will lay a great foundation for the future.

So, for the moment, that’s the plan.

One of the really neat/interesting things about the timing of all of this is that ACTION (the Tulsa area community action group to which both congregations belong as part of “Lutherans in ACTION”) is doing some training on One-on-One meetings right now, as well. Synchronicity! (Or, more likely, the movement of the Holy Spirit!) And so some of our folks have already started thinking about their own motivations right now.

I just wanted to share a little bit of that with you. Within our group, because this is a multi-racial gathering, we’re experiencing both anger and hope. Anger, because the era of racial tension we all thought we had outlived is still a going concern. Hope, because some of us who are privileged enough not to have to live the racial tension on a daily basis, seem finally to be hearing our siblings of color when they tell us how exhausting that is. The cry, “How long” is something folks will probably have to shout out for a long time to come, but at least there is some hope that times are slowly beginning to change. The church ought to be a group that champions justice for the historically marginalized and oppressed, calling for a leveling of the playing field. (Reading Luke’s Gospel gives us great insight into this.)

What’s starting to coalesce from the task force is that the congregation that comes out the other side of our Looking Forward process will need to be one that exists for the sake of others. (See Bonhoeffer’s answer to the question: Who is Christ for us today?) That means we will need to stand for racial reconciliation in Tulsa. Some other things we’ve identified so far include intentional “charity” work, intentional advocacy work, work to alleviate loneliness in our communities, and undergirding all of this, there lies a need for deepening spirituality. This is an opportunity for church to be more than something we do on Sundays, but really something good and meaningful that we could incorporate into our daily lives. That kind of purpose and that kind of mission is going to make a difference in terms of success and growth.

Emotional health of the congregation(s) is one final area we talked about. There is a program called “Healthy Congregations,” which is really a congregation-based approach to Family Systems Theory, and this can be very helpful in terms of dealing with conflicts that inevitably arise in community, ways to avoid unnecessary conflict and ways of dealing with conflict in ways that can lead to better understanding and deeper growth. It’s a huge field and deep work, but we would definitely benefit from it.

So, the last thing I wanted to mention was that we once again ended the meeting asking each participant to share how they were feeling by the time we finished up. Here’s how we shook out: Good, hopeful, excited, interested, relieved, thoughtful.

Task Force, Part 2

Do you remember on Happy Days when Richie, Potsy, and Ralph were in a band that occasionally sang at Arnold’s diner? They always closed their sets by thanking the audience on behalf of “Me, Potsy Webber, and … the band.” The band had no name. That sucked. Our task force also has no name, so for the moment I’m calling us … no, not the band, but that’s a good guess. I’m calling it the Looking Forward Task Force because we’re literally looking forward to the next stages of ministry for both First Lutheran and Prince of Peace.

Tonight we met for our second time, though two people had scheduling conflicts that came up at the last minute. That shifted our agenda some, but it wasn’t much of a problem after all, because we’re like guerrilla church that way: small, flexible, agile.

As we met tonight, we talked a little about resources and creating a resource bank, not only for the current crop of Looking Forward folks, but for all of us to draw on as we envision where to go next.

But the biggest chunk of the meeting was the sharing we did, and the chance to get a little cohesion as people on a common mission. We shared some of our hopes, some of the things that give us the cold anger (as opposed to hot-headed anger) to motivate us to action. The continued racial divide in our city, state, and country … and now that I think of it, our Synod and Cluster … is one source of that anger. For people living more than a half century after the great progress of the Civil Rights Era, and for people who claim to follow Jesus, a dark-skinned, Middle Eastern man, we still tend to be divided. We haven’t been willing enough, committed enough, to risk the comfort of worshipping alongside people who don’t look like us or travel in our social circles. We’d like to make a concerted effort to see that change.

Why change at all? Well, it doesn’t take a genius to see that both of our congregations follow the downward shift in weekly worship attendance. We’re also greying in both churches. We’re at that point on the church life cycle – the one that begins with growth until it reaches a peak, then begins to decline, and from that point can either continue the decline unto death or intentionally engage to revitalize – where we’re clearly on the decline side. Nobody wants to see their congregation die, and so the question becomes: do we just do hospice until we’re gone, or do we want to fight for something that stands for Good in this place? That might lead to one kind of death (i.e. church as we know it now) but result in new life (church in a new form, new place, with new people, new energy, new passion for the gospel). That’s where we’re at. The people in this small group are dedicated to the latter. So we talked about it.

We also talked about food in a number of ways. Nicole has been working with PoP to reinvigorate the little garden on their property. Right now it’s loaded with jalapenos, but usually there are other food items in there, as well. And Ava remarked that she has been able to observe movement in the neighborhood, noticing that there are a number of people who come by the little garden almost on the daily to see if there’s anything they can harvest. That’s a great thing.

As part of our food talk, we discussed things that tend to bring us together the most successfully, at least historically speaking, and that tends to involve pot lucks. People who normally won’t come to worship will come to enjoy fellowship and food. And Nicole discussed some work that her former congregation in OKC did in partnership with Life.Church to open a grocery store in the East OKC food desert. Food is where it’s at, and that might give us some kind of clue about how to move forward.

Even though we started the meeting somewhat inauspiciously, we all were able to share a word that described or defined how we felt about tonight’s gathering and prospects for future ones. Here they are, for your edification:

Bob: Progress
Nicole: Energy
Ava: Connected
Rob: Hopeful

Personal Questions, the 5th Part

This is the follow-up question posed in the previous post: How has your ministry changed over time?

While I was at seminary, I started to realize that your standard, blue-haired Norwegian Lutheran church probably wasn’t where I belonged. Maybe it was all the stories about church splits over the color of the sanctuary carpet. Maybe it’s because our “home congregation” of Bethel, the place where I discovered grace and generosity of spirit, decided to leave the ELCA over the decision by the denomination to allow congregations to call (not by mandate, but if they so chose) an LGBTQ pastor. That one really hurt. It happened right while I was in seminary, and in spite of my letters (all of which went unanswered) to the congregation in favor of remaining in the ELCA, so I was left adrift. (Fortunately I had found another congregation in Noblesville, a new start, that took me in and gave me shelter so I could finish the candidacy process).

However I came to the conclusion about “standard, cookie-cutter” congregations, through my Missional Leaders course at seminary, I learned about Mission Redevelopment training through the ELCA. I wound up interviewing in the church-wide offices and got accepted to the program at the same time that I was in the call process for a congregation in the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod. That’s where I landed, and it has been a great fit … most of the time. First Lutheran in Tulsa, despite some growing pains and speed bumps and other just human stuff, restored my hope in the church. I think they helped me heal some of my wounds.

First Lutheran is a bit of a strange congregation. I like to call us “The Church of the Weird.” A lot of that might be me projecting my own weirdness on the congregation, but I don’t think it’s entirely unfounded. They have been super willing to go along with a lot of ideas that may have been a bit out there. They were very tolerant, for example, of my interpretation of their plea to “deal with our homelessness situation” by inviting in the homeless people who flopped on our porches, just to use the restroom, have a cup of coffee, get warmed up or cooled down, and chat about how they got to the point they were now finding themselves. First Lutheran didn’t really blink an eye when those people started asking if they could join us on Sunday and I said, “By all means!” It wasn’t all smooth sailing or without its issues, but for the most part, the congregation kind of enjoyed it, I hear, to be part of a congregation where “All are welcome” wasn’t just lip service.

The long and short of this answer is this: I came into my call with a recognition that, while our congregation was getting financial help from the ELCA to be a redevelopment congregation, ALL congregations are essentially redevelopment congregation. Almost all congregations have, somewhere in their history, an understanding that they exist for more than JUST gathering on Sunday, singing pretty music together, and getting a “Jesus cracker.” An understanding, somewhere in the deep recesses of their minds, perhaps, that the grace they received really only becomes a gift when they give it away to others.

I’m still committed to that concept: all congregations are mission redevelopments, especially when they wind up coming together in new configurations. Whether it’s that there has been an argument that caused a schism and the people who stayed have to figure out what to do with the pieces left over, or whether there’s a new worship leader who comes in with their own style, inevitably there will be a change. It’s a new fish in the tank, a new surrounding, a new circumstance that changes the way a congregation walks. It might be big, it might be subtle, but the change is there. That realization is the continuity part of my answer.

How my ministry has changed: I think I’m clearer now than ever before that the world needs the church’s voice … as long as the church is speaking with the voice of its Master, Jesus. This has made me bolder in proclamation, I think, especially outside the walls of the congregation. It has changed the way I act as the public face of the church, and this introvert has stopped being quite as shy in shouting the message of inclusion of ALL God’s children … even if that upsets some apple carts or overturns a table or two. There’s nothing in an overturned table that can’t be rectified with earnest discussion, repentance, and a commitment to forgiveness. I’ve grown in the depth of that understanding much more than I’ve changed in the basis of it.

Personal Questions, the 4th Part

Fourth question: What events led you into your call to ordained ministry? Follow-up: How has your ministry changed in intervening years? (See next post for the follow-up.)

This is a story I’ve told a million times, but it still makes me laugh, in a way. It’s the story that one of my friends heard and responded: “Dude. God got jokes.”

A bit of background: Before I entered first grade, I don’t recall ever having gone to church or having anything to do with religion. Yes, I was baptized on October 15, 1969 at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (I think in Lincoln Park, MI). I was an infant and have zero memory of it. But I know that, somewhere along the line, I had SOME kind of religious instruction, because when my Mom told me about my father’s death, apparently I said, “Did he die on a cross like Jesus?” Again, no memory of this. I do know that if one of my kids had responded that way, I would have freaked the fudge out. Anyway.

But, my mom didn’t want me going to public schools. That hadn’t turned out well for my sisters. Our town had a Catholic school in it, but it was royally expensive. However, if one happened to be a member of the church, St. Vincent DePaul and other benefactors could arrange for very generous tuition assistance. And so we became Catholic.

I guess I liked it. Going to church was usually better than sitting in class. It was at least a change of pace, if nothing else. Along the line, although we never learned anything about the liturgy of the Mass, I picked up on what came first, which part came next, when we kneel, when we stand, when we sit, yadda yadda. I liked hearing the priests sing (actually, they were chanting the liturgy). I especially liked it during Easter when the priest chanted the more elaborate version of the phrase, “Through Him, with Him, and in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor are yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.” And we all chanted back, “Aaaaaaaaa-meeeeeeeeeen.” It was awesome. This chant in particular is the one I used to sing to myself as a prayer when night terrors woke me up for years and years as a kid.

I liked the Eucharist. It was cool. I was fascinated by the ritual and the mystery. What the hell is the priest doing up there? What’s with those bells? All of that stuff was really fascinating, and so, a few times, I tried to play Mass with my friends. This was not a popular suggestion. So I shoved it down, but I remained fascinated by that part in particular.

Fast forward to Junior year of high school. We had a mixture of lay people and sisters who taught us. Our Comparative Religions teacher was Sr. Peggy, a nun involved in the Catholic Charismatic movement. One day, during the busyness of the change of classes, she pulled me out of the crowded and chaotic hallway to say, “Rob, I think you have the call.” “Huh?” “The call to the priesthood.” I don’t remember exactly what, if anything, I said. It was probably something like, “Homina homina homina.” I tried to blow it off, but her pronouncement shook me. And it stayed in the far back burners of my mind. Never the fore burners, though.

Fast forward to 2003. By this time, I had been away from institutional religion for 16 years. I wanted nothing to do with it. But my then-finacee and I had a wedding coming up in July. Mind you: I never had wanted to get married. Never wanted to own a house. Never really had any ambitions for a particular full-time job. I was content to float along and let fortune take me where it willed.

So, I refused to get married in a church. It was one of my two conditions for marriage: I get to wear a kilt; No church wedding. Christy said to me, “Well, can we at least get a minister of some kind to do the wedding for us? It’s important to my mom.” OK. So she called around through the phone book. Started with the letter A, she went looking for a minister-type person who was free on a Friday in July. No luck until she got to the B section, Bethel Lutheran Church in Noblesville.

Pastor Doug of Bethel had that day open. He was also willing to meet us in Forest Park (I think that was the name), where Christy and I had spent a big chunk of our first Summer in Indiana, riding bikes, playing tennis. Horribly. Just enjoying. Pastor Doug agreed to the date and the venue, but insisted on 3 pre-marital counseling sessions first. I wasn’t pleased, but I relented, secretly still thankful that Christy let me get away with the kilt thing.

First session was fine. Annoying, but fine. Second session was OK. I had warmed up to Pr. Doug a little. The third session was hard to schedule, but we finally got it nailed down to Wednesday, July 9, two days before the wedding itself. We were on our way out the door to that session with our raincoats on, since it had been raining non-stop for about two weeks. On the other end was our photographer. “Hey, guys. We can’t get into Forest Park. The road is flooded out.” Damn. Now what?

To my shock, Christy took it in stride. She said, “Let’s just go to this last session and we’ll figure it out.” Pr. Doug was dripping with grace. “Hold the wedding here,” he said. “Shit,” I thought. We asked about the reception. “Do that here, too,” Pr. Doug said. “Only thing is, we’re having a bratwurst festival that evening, so you’ll have to kind of make it quick.” We got on the phone like caffeine-crazed weasels, calling everyone who had RSVPed to let them know of the venue change.

Wedding day came and went without a hitch. It was fun and overwhelming, and all of the things a wedding day is supposed to be. The rain held off long enough for pictures and everything. It was great.

But Pr. Doug never charged us an honorarium. He never even charged us for using the church building, not even when we put a hitch in the bratwurst cook-off plans. Everybody had been so great and so GRACIOUS, that it blew me away.

Sitting back a few weeks later, I said to Christy, “We really ought to go make a donation to their church.” “Totally,” she said. Knowing they’d be open on a Sunday, we went. I didn’t get hit by lightning. The service didn’t suck. It actually felt a lot like “home,” just without the baggage.

Before long, I found myself wanting to go back there. For church! Between Pr. Doug and the people of Bethel Lutheran, I was astounded how generous and cool church people could actually be. What a mind-bending change from the church of my youth! So I kept going back, sometimes with Christy, but a lot of the time just on my own.

One day, Pr. Doug was doing a blessing for Shelly, the youth minister. She had just completed 2 years of Lay Ministry school, where she got to learn about Old and New Testament, Liturgy, Prayer, and all kinds of interesting things. I asked her – because I knew her a bit by now – if she thought I’d get anything out of it. “For sure. You should totally do it.” Pr. Doug paired me up with another interested parishioner, and then for the next two years, Kelli and I would drive on a Friday afternoon from Noblesville up to Appleton, WI, attend our lay ministry classes, crash in a lay person’s home, finish up classes and Lunch on Saturday morning, then drive back to Indy. Once a month. For two years. It was great.

While I was there, I learned about the study of Systematic Theology, and I came to really love the two professors who taught it. They came, as it turned out, from Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque. In those classes, I began discerning a call to ordained ministry, and by the time the two years were up, Christy and I decided we’d make the trek to Dubuque to attend seminary.

“God got jokes.”

Personal Questions, the 3rd Part

The third question has to do with my “personal faith.” What is it? And a follow-up: How do I, as a pastor, go about teaching the faith to adults, teens, children?

It may be useful here to draw a distinction between “the faith” and “the tradition.” Lutheranism is really more of a tradition than a faith. In a religious setting, when we talk about faith, we’re talking about the English translation of the Greek word “pistis,” which really has more to do with trust, and that trust is based on a reliable relationship with what you would call your God. (See Luther’s explication of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism for a good explanation about what “God” is or what it means to have a god.)

So, bearing that distinction in mind, I think this question is more about teaching the tradition than anything else, although a teacher’s personal relationship with God is definitely going to underly and influence how that teaching comes across. You might call it a hermeneutic of trust.

Let me start with the relationship question. In the first of the Personal Questions, I talked a bit about my own background. Lots of tragedy, lots of chaos, right? And yet, I survived. I may have gone down a deep, dark hole, but I never felt abandoned by God. God, in other words, has always proved worthy of my trust, and I don’t expect anything different in the future. No matter how dark and grim and grisly things get, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” How do you know God loves you? Jesus. How do you know God can be trusted, ultimately? Jesus. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. I continue to live it. Everything else is commentary. Not sure if that makes sense, but that’s my grounding that goes beyond intellectual statements of belief, theological doctrines, anything else.

That intimate knowledge gives me a lot of freedom in my self-understanding as a Lutheran. Luther and his rediscovery of grace (he didn’t invent it, but rather found the message in his reading of Paul’s letters) by faith/trust was a game-changer for the world. But it needs to be stated right off the bat and quite clearly that Luther was not Jesus. In fact, Luther was wrong. About a lot of stuff. He was especially wrong about the Jews, and by the time of his death, he was a disgusting, raging anti-Semite.

Still, his instinct that there MUST be a loving and merciful God was – if you’ll excuse the crass phrase – dead-on-balls accurate. This is where all teaching about Lutheranism, the movement that bears Luther’s name, needs to begin. It’s also where it can end, depending on the context. Jesus never told us, “Go ye forth into the world and make Lutherans.” Instead, he told us to go into the world and make Jesus followers in all nations.

I happen to think a Lutheran way of following Jesus, by and large, is important, especially here in North America at the beginning of the 21st century, when there are many, many false gospels (that are actually the opposite of Good News) proclaimed through culture and even from pulpits. We have a unique understanding that the world needs. Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” (over against a theology of glory) is what I spoke of in the opening paragraphs here. The ugly, torturous cross is where God in the flesh fully identifies with a suffering humanity. The god who pops out of the box at the end of the play (or the end of a Hollywood feel-good movie) (also known classically as the deus ex machina) died in concept and in reality on Golgotha on Good Friday. God doesn’t swoop in to save the day like that. I think it was Fr. Gregory Boyle (or maybe Fr. Richard Rohr) who said that God doesn’t protect or save us from anything, but God does sustain us in everything. Trials, tribulations, temptations are bound to come. God doesn’t abandon us, but rather sits with us. And on the other side of it, if we were unfaithful, God shows that God has been faithful. That’s salvation. That’s grace. That’s the God I place my trust in.

Now, that explanation might not fly with kindergartners. They don’t have a developed neocortex to take all that in. But they understand what it means to be loved and to be in safe company. The content of their faith education is less important at this stage than the reality that Jesus people love them, care about what they care about, will stand by them (hmm, just like Jesus does!) as they go through their struggles in life. This is more critical than any particular educational program or curriculum. Build relationships between the generations and watch as they stay connected beyond “graduation” from “Confirmation.” Kids are not just the future of the church – they are part of its present.

Personal Questions, the 2nd Part

Second question: How do you go about preparing for worship?

I’m not 100% sure what this question is driving at? Are people wanting to know about how I spiritually prepare to go into worship? Or is this more of a question about what kind of planning goes into preparing a worship service?

Let me tackle the second one first. Generally speaking, there isn’t a lot of preparation for worship except at the beginning of a season or for a feast/fast day. That’s because Lutherans have a liturgy. Well, pretty much all traditions have a liturgy, whether they choose to call it by that name or have even heard of that word at all. Non-denominational Christians usually follow an order that looks something like 20 minutes of praise music, the reading of scripture followed by a sermon, more praise music, communal prayer, and more music. That’s a liturgy. Sometimes there are other elements placed in there, too, such as communion or laying on of hands or some similar kind of intercession. Liturgy.

For Lutherans, we have the ancient liturgies that we received from Catholicism, often run through the lens of Martin Luther and his revised liturgy called the Deutsche Messe. But Luther intentionally made the liturgy broad and adaptable. Modern Lutheran liturgies contain the following elements with LOTS of variations on the parts in between: Gathering — Word — Meal — Sending. The basic idea is that we are gathered together to hear Scripture, reflect on the death and resurrection of Christ, share in the Eucharistic meal that he invited and invites us to, and then we are sent out in the power of the same Spirit who gathered us, to take the grace we have heard proclaimed and to pass it on. That’s our liturgy.

In the in-between parts, we usually sing. There’s a gathering song and a sending song. There’s a hymn of the day that is meant to proclaim the gospel in both words and music. There is a sung prayer for mercy (the Kyrie), a hymn of praise (the Gloria), a sung preparation for the Eucharist (the Sanctus or Holy, Holy, Holy), a song to the Lamb of God (agnus Dei).

There are prayers, mostly communal ones, but in the pauses before those prayers to which we respond with one voice, we have the opportunity to add our own, individual prayers. We pray the so-called Lord’s Prayer (probably more properly called the Disciples’ Prayer). There’s a prayer of offering, a prayer of thanksgiving. Prayers of intercession. Prayer all over the place.

There are greetings, responses, passings of peace. And on and on. Most of this stuff is prepared for us by skilled liturgists who have put these things together into “settings” that are printed in our hymnals and accessible via online subscriptions that make it easy to put them in bulletin form, for those congregations who don’t use the hymnal (for various reasons).

So the preparation for worship is largely done well before the pastor and other leadership even have to begin thinking about it. The major prep work comes several weeks before the church season changes, and the biggest of these changes have to do with the preparatory seasons of Lent and Advent, then the festal seasons of Christmas and Easter. And the time after Pentecost, the longest time of the year, also has its own preparation. This is called “Ordinary Time,” but should maybe be called “ordinal” rather than ordinary, because it doesn’t mean “plain” or “regular” as much as it has to do with counting from the day of Pentecost to the season of Advent.

Of course there are other feast and fast days in between all of these things: Christ the King Sunday, Trinity Sunday, Reformation Sunday, feasts of particular saints (usually not celebrated in Lutheran traditions, because we don’t generally venerate individual, “canonized” saints any more than we do the saints in our own lives), and so on.

All of this work is best done, in my opinion, by a team, of which the pastor is a part and maybe the lead. Which setting will we use for each season? What songs shall we use each Sunday? How do we want the worship space to reflect the mood of each season? That kind of question. It can be a lot of work. It can also be as simple as following recommendations that our publishing houses offer us. That depends entirely on the congregation. I’ve done it a number of ways, and I don’t find one necessarily better than the other. The real question is: does it affirm life and love in the congregation, or does it become a bone of contention? And then the group has to figure out how to navigate the response, depending on how you answered the question above. So, I don’t have a single way to answer the prep question, but leave it to the congregational context, while sometimes affording myself the luxury of pushing for one thing or another if I think the situation calls for it, maybe to help the congregation stretch what they think is possible.

I will take a brief aside here to talk a bit about some of the ways that the congregation I serve and I have stretched those boundaries. We have used the “new” hymnal, the “Cranberry” one called Evangelical Lutheran Worship, which has 10 settings in it for the Eucharist, plus settings for Baptisms, Funerals, non-Eucharistic gatherings (aka Service of the Word), morning prayer (Matins), evening prayer (Vespers), Weddings and so forth. We have also used the “old” hymnal, the green one (Lutheran Book of Worship). We’ve used the Detroit Folk Mass (which, to be fair, isn’t at all a folk setting because it’s not at all easy to sing, but it’s good when done well). We’ve used Marty Haugen’s “Holden Evening Prayer.” Those are all pretty standard in most Lutheran churches.

We’ve also used liturgies from Worship Design Studio (particularly great for Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter); Prayer around the Cross from Holden Village’s contemplative prayer settings; Dinner church Eucharistic models from places such as St. Lydia’s Table in Brooklyn, NY. We’ve done blessings of the pets, blessings of backpacks and laptops, blessings of quilts and prayer shawls; laying on of hands; healing services; blessings of the grounds with walking prayer; stations of the cross. I can’t even think of everything we’ve done, but it is a credit to the congregations I have served that they are willing to engage more than just the standard fare when it comes to possibilities for different kinds of worship. There is a LOT of room for creativity at the local level.

The one thing I’ve left out of the regular service so far is preparation for preaching, because it deserves special attention. According to Martin Luther, the Word of God is first and foremost Jesus the Christ. This comes straight out of John’s Gospel, chapter 1. After that, the Word of God is the good news of God in Christ as preached in the sermon or homily. Finally, the word of God is the scriptures. This is not to downplay the importance of scripture, but rather to uplift the proclaimed word, the gospel (or Good News), and above all to lift up (and therefore to subjugate beneath him) the life, teaching, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Good preaching focuses on Jesus, and like the Bible itself, witnesses to him.

With that understanding in mind, preaching is serious business. I always pray before putting pen to paper (or sometimes fingers to keyboard) that it’s not MY message that’s coming across, but rather the message that the Father whispers to the Spirit about Jesus, and that this comes through to the people via (and sometimes in spite of) the words I use to convey it.

That said, preparing to be a vessel for the message takes work. I’ve mentioned prayer in one sense. Reading the appointed (lectionary) scriptures for the week usually involves for me the practice of lectio divina (divine reading). Here’s the process:
* I read through the texts once, out loud when possible, just to get a sense of the passage.
* I sit in silence and stillness of mind for a few minutes.
* I read the passages again, this time listening for a word or a phrase or an idea that draws my attention. A lot of times, this turns out to be something that troubles me in some way.
* I meditate on why it stood out to me and start to get some preliminary ideas for where a sermon might go.
* Then I read it a third time with that meditation in mind and then let the ideas stew for several days.

During those days between the lectio reading and the actual writing of a first draft, I engage myself in conversation with various partners. Sometimes those are live human beings with whom I talk about my ponderings over coffee or a pint. Sometimes it’s with authors of books or articles. Sometimes I let the scripture fight with another scripture to help bring clarity to one or the other (or to both!) passages.

One of my steady conversation partners over the last several years has been the French Catholic sociologist Rene Girard, who sort of re-discovered what some of his students called the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism. It can be a bit of a heady thing to consider, but the theory, usually called Mimetic Theory or Mimetic Realism has to do with how we acquire our desires, and what we will do in order to achieve our desires. The classic example involves imagining three toddlers in a room full of toys. None of the toys has any intrinsic value, but one of them will receive value when the first toddler shows an interest in it. The choice of that object was probably random, but suddenly that toy is now imbued with value because little Billy wants it, therefore it must be good, therefore I want it, too. Rivalry ensues, and it sometimes leads to violence. Transpose that example to the story of Cain and Abel, then realize that Cain, the brother-killer, is the one who survived and went on to form cities and found cultures, and then you have the basic idea behind how desire can become murderous, how it underlies culture, and how this is the actual basis of “original sin,” not an inherent badness. It’s actually a twisting of desire. And this lies at our core as humans. It’s the water we swim in without noticing, and it’s essentially what led us as a species to the scapegoating of Jesus. But Jesus knew how we were before the incarnation, and so, stepping into our matrix, he became a willing scapegoat – an innocent victim – who brought to the fore the futility of killing a scapegoat and calling it good (“it is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish”) and even to call it godly. He then came back on the third day, not as a vengeance-seeking spook, but as the Forgiving Victim, showing us the only viable way out of constantly regenerating the scapegoat mechanism. Obviously, there’s much more to it than this, but Girard’s work and the work of his many followers strongly colors my reading of the scriptures and what they mean for us today.

The other major influence on me – and this is much more recent and is still developing – draws on Western (and sometimes Eastern) Christian Wisdom traditions. That would take a lot more time and effort to unpack, but it has been truly transformational for my own spiritual life, and I think it helps me as a pastor for people who say that want a deeper sense of spirituality, a real transformation of heart and mind and emotion. I’ve barely begun to tap this well, and I’m excited to see how it continues to develop in the future.

I think that may be a good place to end the answer to question 2.

Some Personal Question

Not gonna put a long pre-amble on this, except to say that recent conversations have arisen, inviting me to think about a number of questions related to my vocation as an ordained minister and how/whether that intersects with who I am at heart, how I approach ministry, worship, preaching, teaching, etc.

First question: What’s your background that would help someone understand who you are as a pastor and a person?

I was born into a pain-filled family. My father, John, was one of two children born to Paul and Ethil Martin. Paul died before I was born, tragically, while he was out fishing with my dad, who had to row his dead body to shore. So I never met him. Because Ethil was very, very secretive, I know next to nothing about my grandfather, except what I gleaned from relatives on her side during the days surrounding Grandma’s funeral. All they could tell me was that he came down here (to Arkansas) with the idea to unionize some of the shops Grandma’s family owned, and they ran him out of town. This is how he and Grandma ended up in the Detroit area, where my dad grew up to become a cop (who unionized the police department he worked for) and married his first wife. They had two kids, a boy then a girl. Dad was an abusive husband to her and they got divorced.

My mom was born one of two children, but she was the only one to survive the birth process. She was surrounded by family, most of whom were really just the average amount of crazy. But her first husband was an alcoholic and a schizophrenic, a mama’s boy, probably a malignant narcissist. Together they had two daughters. My mom was 19 when she got married to Dick, but after 12 years, his diseases got the better of him and he died by suicide.

So mom, a widow with two kids, married dad, a divorced man with two kids, and they had me. When I was three, my dad died by suicide, as well. Our family of mom and Dick’s kids, plus me, plus a kind-of-adopted-but-not-official sister of my mom’s, moved in with my mom’s Mother, Fern, and Fern’s mother-in-law (she remarried after her first husband died, long before I was born) into a 900 square foot house abutting a field behind the local high school that my multitude of sisters attended.

When I was 5, the youngest of my mother’s first daughters died at age 17 under mysterious circumstances, which still are not officially understood to this day. The following year, Mom and I moved out into an apartment in the next town over, where we would stay for the rest of my childhood (even though we moved at least 7 times within that town before I left home at age 17). That same year, Grandma died from ovarian cancer.

For the next several years, my mom dated a number of really nice men, some of whom moved in with us, but didn’t stick around more than a year or two. My surviving sister from mom’s first marriage, who had been abusing substances from the time of her father’s death, moved in and out. I can’t help but think her addiction issues and the effects that had on all of us contributed to the short-term-ness of mom’s relationships.

When I turned 10, mom got remarried to a divorced man with a daughter, who stayed with her mom, and a son, who moved in with us because his mom didn’t know how to handle his behavior (although it’s difficult to understand from my perspective, but it was a good arrangement). A year later, my bio dad’s sister died by suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning, accidentally also killing my cousin who was just a month older than I was.

During this time, my sister was still moving in and out of our apartments, sometimes alone, sometimes with a boyfriend. She had one boyfriend who owned a hair styling business, and the two of them moved in together in a nearby town, but they broke up after a year or two, and he then died by suicide from hanging.

The point of all of this: I grew up in chaos, with lots of death close at hand, lots of drug use in my very near vicinity (my first exposure to marijuana that I was aware of was when I was about 4), and lots of shady characters, who to me were basically just family.

Those childhood experiences coupled with my introversion made me an observer, and largely what I observed was people seeking ways to hide from their pain and brokenness. My own tactic was to distance myself by observing it in others. It took years to figure that much out. But I also developed a real empathy for people in pain and grief, which is probably why Lutheranism and its emphasis on a theology of the cross appeals to me, why people tend to seek me out for non-judging and non-advice-giving listening, and this is why I was drawn to the pastorate.

That’s the basic answer to the first question.

Wisdom Post #1

Some weeks back, I wrote about some “Wisdom” work I began doing over the summer. How I wound up in that spot is a long story, and maybe we’ll get into it some day, but the immediate context for this push was an online “Introduction to Wisdom” course through the Center for Action and Contemplation led by Episcopal priest and long-time mystic Cynthia Bourgeault.

First of all, it seems a little brazen to apply the word “wisdom” to one’s learning. That seems to sound a little like saying, “I have acquired a great deal of knowledge for myself, which I will now condescend to pass unto you, mere mortal.” It’s not that at all. As Cynthia points out, “Wisdom is not knowing more, but knowing with more of you – knowing deeper, carving and digging your being deeper and deeper so that it can receive more knowing.” It’s inner work, transformational work, the consequence of which is fuller, more conscious, more abundant living. Its goal is to raise one’s state of being in order to become more open and more present to realities that are already there, but that one can’t see when one’s attention/being is too scattered, divided.

The path I’m on is a decidedly Christian path, taking Jesus as my Wisdom teacher, my moshel moshelim. With that in mind, I’m using the so-called “Gospel” of Thomas as a way into seeing Jesus as the Master who calls his students to an inner transformation, because, frankly, without inner transformation, we keep repeating the endless patterns of destructiveness that have brought us to our current litany of predicaments. And since we can’t control others and their behavior without coercion – a decidedly non-Wisdom activity – it’s better to focus on the plank in our own eye first.

So, this is just a little teaser for later blog posts. I’ll do a little here and a bit there, just for those who are interested in the journey. We’re living in a time where it’s so easy to be scattered and divided, but it’s also a time that demands a singleness of heart. This is important work for our world. I hope you’ll join me or at least enjoy the ride with me. Would love to hear your feedback along the way.

First “Vision” Meeting

Hi, everyone. Last night I had the good fortune and great pleasure of sitting down with the Task Force that we assembled to begin really thinking about next steps for First Lutheran post-Covid. The team, as of this minute, consists of Bob Moody (incoming Treasurer), Nicole Rowlette, Beth Lyons, and Mary Jane Halley. We had a hunch that we also ought to invite Ava Fisher from Prince of Peace, who was gracious enough to join us and add so much to our conversation.

I won’t bore you with all the details, but it was a fantastic first meeting. One of the themes that kept coming up was a desire for our two congregations to work towards some kind of joining up. Official merger would be one option. Another might be the formation of a new congregation with a unique mission. There may be other ways of going about this, as well, but the general consensus was a movement toward a greater representation of what Tulsa’s demographic actually looks like. Rather than a predominantly white congregation and a predominantly Black congregation, there seems to be an opportunity for us to have a single, racially integrated (although I realize that word carries a lot of baggage and we’ll have to find a different term moving forward) congregation focused on:
* gathering
* with good music
* good teaching, preaching
* liturgy
* anti-racism work
* combatting loneliness
* service to the community
* excitement to be church
* invitational AND outward-looking (knowing that we’re already here: it’s those who aren’t yet here that we want to focus on)
* intergenerational leadership

We talked about the history of both congregations, the financial assets and burdens of each, the potential location of a new congregation. I’m being vague about this part right now until we expand the circle a bit more. And that will be our next step, in fact. We have a couple of names in mind to invite to our next meeting, but we’re also interested in hearing everyone’s thoughts. No moves will happen until we’ve had good, deep conversation about this, as well as earnest prayer and attentive listening to the Holy Spirit. The next meeting will take place on Wednesday, October 7 at 5 p.m. at First Lutheran. (Tentatively. It might be a good idea to meet at Prince of Peace, but we’ll make that determination a little bit closer to the date. Keep your eyes peeled and let us know if you’d like to come.)

This is an exciting time to be church in Tulsa!