Apocalypse and Conversion

Whew! It felt to me like it had been a Really Long Time since my last post here, but WordPress tells me that my last entry was on March 7, just a little over a month ago. That’s nice. Helps me feel a little less like a slacker.

In any case, here’s the latest “poop.” I hope this doesn’t bleed over too much into tomorrow’s sermon, but please accept my apologies if it does.

Recently in our parish we’ve been embroiled in a bit of a “controversy” over whom we may or may not allow to serve Communion elements. I don’t really care to rehash all of that here, but I bring it up just to repeat what I said in the recent Town Hall meeting: This has become a matter of upholding the gospel for me.

What is the gospel? (I’m making a distinction here between the “Capital G” Gospel genre belonging to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John on the one hand, and the “small g” gospel, meaning the content of the “good news of God in Christ.” Most of you probably are aware of that distinction, but I wanted to make it explicit here.)

Again, what is the gospel? I believe that a lot of people will answer this differently. We had the assignment in seminary to boil it down into kind of an elevator speech, knowing that HOW we as pastors would proclaim the gospel in different contexts would need to look or sound different than in an academic paper at seminary.

For me, the core message of the goespel is the revelation (apocalypsis) through Jesus Christ that “God” is “good,” meaning that “God” is “for us.”

I put “God” in quotes because it’s a bit of a loaded term. Like “gospel,” if you ask 100 people what it means, you’re likely to get (at least) 100 answers. What *I* mean by God is the Abba witnessed to in the Gospels by Jesus.

I also put “good” and “for us” in quotes. Unpacking that a little, I would say that God being good and for us means that God desires that we, as a species, should flourish. I’m not talking about a “prosperity gospel,” but rather about a commitment by God to us the Creation that we should live abundantly, a desire that we belong to the Kingdom, etc.

Abundant life does not mean, of course, that “anything goes.” Instead, we need to look at everything through a gospel lens: Does what we believe — or more importantly, what we do *liberate* people? Does it *promote human flourishing*? Or does it *bind* people, *accuse* people, seek to *control or exclude* people? Does it *inhibit* human flourishing? Everything we do, espacially as a people who draws our identity from Jesus, needs to be scrutinized in light of those gospel questions.

As I’ve been thinking about this in recent weeks, it has occurred to me that, what I seek to do in my ministry in the parish, is to confront people with the goespel — to shine a gospel light on our congregations (and sometimes personal?) practices and ask, “Does the gospel confirm this? Does it call for us to re-evaluate what we’re doing? Does it outright oppose what we’re doing?”

When Michael Hardin came to visit us last September, he put into words something that has been on my heart especially since the last year of seminary, but was a seed planted way, way back in my Catholic school experience. Michael said that he felt part of his call was “to convert Christians to Jesus.” ūüôā When he said that, it really hit me that this has ALWAYS belonged to my call to the church! I just never knew how to articulate it.

Now, there’s a little caveat I need to add, and I know Michael would agree with this: Converting people isn’t my job. It’s not Michael’s job. It’s not any of our job. Conversion belongs to the work of the Holy Spirit. BUT, what all of us are called to do — some perhaps more than others — is to help people listen to the Holy Spirit so that they can get out of her way and allow themselves to be converted. THIS is what I mean by confronting people with the gospel.

Now, a lot of this work is necessarily deconstructive. A good deal of it is saying, “OK, this is what you believe” or “this is what you practice, but WHY?! Where did you get that? Is it because ‘we’ve always done it that way’? Is it because you’re building this on a solid biblical foundation? Or is it simply an unexamined belief or practice? What happens to it when we scrutinize it under a gospel light?”

Some people are going to resent this work. None of us likes to be confronted. Most of us don’t like to undergo that kind of scrutiny, especially when we’re dealing with long-held or dearly-held beliefs or practices or traditions. I remember a LOT of people getting really angry at professors in seminary, who would force us to bear witness to the WHYs of our beliefs. For a lot of folks, it had to do with things they learned in Sunday School that were just wrong. Or they learned it from beloved pastors or elders, but it had no grounding in truth or reality. Sometimes the arguments got pretty ugly. That happens during a deconstructive phase. But it doesn’t mean it’s bad to have it happen. It’s a GOOD thing, when it leads to REconstruction on more solid ground.

But people hated it in seminary, and they hate it in parishes, too.

The other day I had a good conversation with someone about the Communion server incident, and we got to talking about how I have come to realize that my heart lies with people who have been excluded from the Table. This person said, “Yeah, I’ve noticed that! So-and-so and I were talking about that, and …” At this point, my conversation partner kind of let slip that the two people who had been talking about my passion for the homeless, the addict, etc. felt that it was in that kind of street ministry where I “belonged.”

I can’t say for certain that there was anything to read beneath the surface of that comment, but as I reflected on it for the next couple of days, the thought occurred to me: “Did they mean that I belonged with the street folks INSTEAD of in the congregation?” If so … and this is a HUGE “if,” the implication is “and then you’d leave us alone and let us be comfortable in our tried and true traditions.”

I’ve heard people say that about other pastors folks don’t like, and about pastors who confront congregations, trying to move them to a different place than where they are. Please hear this: I understand discomfort with change. It’s universal. But so is change. Universal and inevitable. It doesn’t make it any more comfortable to know that, but it’s also not helpful to think we can wish change away. It’s GOING to happen, one way or another. Adaptation is change. So is death. It’s going to happen. I would prefer that people choose adaptation, even if it’s painful, to death.

Anyway, got off track there. I’ve heard people talk about pastors that way, saying, “Oh, she was hard to deal with. She really belonged in the seminary teaching. That’s where she would have been the happiest.” The unspoken part of that sentence: “And she would have been out of our hair.”

And this leads me to this last bit: We have a vicious circle going on here, at least in our denomination. We have good seminarys, staffed by good faculty teaching good and enthusiastic seminarians, whom we are ordaining and sending them into parishes that are unwilling to receive them, especially when those newly-minted pastors start asking the “Why” questions, the “how does that square with the gospel” questions. And so we end up with unhappy parishioners AND frustrated pastors, some of whom actually do end up “doing their time” in a congregation, high-tailing it back to get their Doctorates, then heading back to seminary to teach and start the whole thing over again.

What the Church needs is people who are willing to stick it out in the parish, even when the seas get rough. We need people who will work as change agents — not for change’s sake, but for the sake of the liberating, inclusive gospel. Parishes need to learn to listen to the movement of the Spirit who, being the Spirit of Jesus, meets them first where they are, but isn’t satisfied to leave well enough alone. Instead, the Spirit of Christ calls us BEYOND ourselves, our inward-focused budgets, our inward-focused missions, our inward-focused, individualistic, pietistic theologies. The Spirit calls us BEYOND religion into REVELATION. We get apocalypsed. This is the beginning of our deconstruction. And then we get converted. Converted from “Christians” to followers of The Way.

If you want to learn more about this, please consult the book of the Acts of the Apostles as well as Paul’s letters. And of course, don’t forget about the Gospels.

Lost Sheep, Lost Coins, Lost Sons & Ambassadors of Reconciliation

The last couple of weeks have been pretty rough on a personal level. Lent is one of those seasons that I really, really love. It’s typically quieter than the rest of the year, and I find that the midweek contemplative services we offer at church help fill out a sense of prayerful, meditative contemplation, and that kind of thing really feeds my soul.

This year we’ve been doing a round-robin preaching cycle within our Synod’s “cluster.” (For us, that means the ELCA congregations in and just outside of Tulsa.) While this is a great idea and I think we should keep doing it in the future, this is really exhausting to me. It’s not extra work, per se: Each preacher writes a single sermon, then delivers it every Wednesday in a different congregation. Pretty simple, really, but for me it’s very anxiety-inducing. I need to meet and make myself vulnerable to a brand new set of people every Wednesday evening, and this gets ratcheted up when I’m expected to come and make small talk at the simple suppers beforehand. I’m not complaining about this. Just being honest.

So, yeah, I support this and will keep on doing this kind of thing in the future. As much as I ask our congregation to stretch their comfort zones, I need to also be willing to stretch. And I think the whole thing has been very positively received in each of the congregations so far.

But it’s tiring. And it makes Lent less worshipful for me, somewhat ironically. Combine this with both of my kids entering different phases of independence at the same time (again, a good and healthy thing, but tiring for Mom and Dad), all of the bureaucratic junk that comes with pastoring a congregation, all the time spent meeting with folks inside and outside the congregation, a couple of online classes I’m taking, etc. etc., … Well, it gets to be a little much after a while. Don’t worry. I’m taking a vacation right after Easter, so I should have some time to refill my energy reserves (and take in a couple of movies I’ve been meaning to see).

All of this goes just to say that, in a busy season like this, one has to look for highlights and uplifts wherever they might be found. I found a gem of one on Sunday.

Let me back up a touch. Fridays are generally my sermon-writing days. I spend the first part of the week looking at the texts and letting them sink in, as well as entering “conversation” with some of my favorite study resources. All of this marinates together until Friday morning, when I put it in the oven and pull it out, hopefully less half-baked than the week before.

But this Friday I just wasn’t feeling it. I wrote down some thoughts, but couldn’t bring them together. Synapses weren’t firing well. So I thought to myself, “Well, tomorrow’s Saturday. I hate writing sermons on Saturday, but I just can’t get it done today. I’ll wait until Chris is outside playing with the neighbor kids and Emily is down for her nap.”

Well, Saturday came. Chris went across the street to invite the kids to play. They were getting ready for a trip to their grandparents’ place and wouldn’t be back until Tuesday. Crap. I put Emily down for her nap. 10 minutes later, she’s wide awake. I spent the next 40 mintues trying to put her back down, but she just won’t stay asleep. Double crap.

By the time Christy got home from the book fair she was working, it was time to eat, get the kids ready for bed, and I was wiped. the heck. out.

I went to bed early, but oddly unconcerned. I figured I had enough stuff stewing in my brain to pull together a sermon. Went into the office early, realizing I was under a deadline: I usually pick up a friend who can’t drive and bring her in to church at around 8.

A quick glance at my clock (OK, the clock on my phone, truth be told), I realized I only had about 15 minutes to finish. Just then I get a text. My friend couldn’t make it that day. I felt bad for her, but internally grateful that I had a few more minutes to write.

Cranked out the last little bit and hit “print.” As I got up to retrieve the freshly printed manuscript, the door buzzer sounded. “Great. Now what?” I thought. It was my friend L – a guy who lives on the streets. We’ve known eachother a couple of years now. He comes by to use the phone, the bathroom, and occasionally the shower, but also to hang out and tell me about what’s going on with his life. He’s a very nice guy, especially when he’s sober.

But on Sunday morning, he was schnookered. He could barely stand, but somehow he made it up the stairs to our door. I went out to meet him, and he was half frozen. So he came in and we had some coffee together. His hands weren’t working well, so I helped him wash them, and he asked for a foot washing. How can I turn that down?! Then he wanted to wash MY feet. Boy, did I ever feel like Peter! But he did it, and we prayed together a while.

I offered him one of the prayer blankets our congregation has begun making. It’s a cool ministry. Not only does prayer go into the making of these items, but also we bless them as a community, so they are just infused with prayer. It’s pretty awesome.

By the time I gave him the blanket, he was a little less drunk and almost coherent. I asked him if we wanted to stay for church. Our street friends almost never do that. I think they feel out of place in a worship space where they’re the only ones not dressed up, unshowered and unkempt. Plus, we’re a liturgical church, and while most of our friends from the street are people of faith, they tend to come from a less formal worship setting. Lots of baptists, lots of pentecostals and the like, most of whom feel judged by God and Man for their alcoholic and other moral transgressions. (This is a big reason I think our city – and every city! – needs a voice like the one our denomination has, at least on some level. We know there’s nothing you can do to EARN God’s favor, and there’s nothing you can do, no sin big enough to overpower God’s mercy.)

Anyway, L stayed to worship with us. I knew our Middle Class Lutheran congregation might need a little prep for what could happen with a drunken L among us, so I introduced him as a charismatic friend who is living on the streets. I asked people to go with the flow, and to set aside for a moment our Lutheran shyness and formality, and to come and lay hands on L as we prayed for him.

I was overwhelmed by the positive response. People really went with it! I think the only people who didn’t stand up were those with physical limitations that prevented them from doing so.

Then we worshipped together. The music was great. I preached a sermon on the so-called parable of the prodigal son (in relation to the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin). During the sermon I encouraged folks to notice that, unlike the lost sheep and coin stories, which have a happy ending, the lost son story has NO ending: it winds up with the father and the son standing in the field, with the father urging/pleading with the elder son to come into the party.

I asked people to imagine what will happen in the end. Will the older brother steadfastly refuse to join the banquet? Or will he give in to grace and rejoice with his family? What about when the father eventually dies? Will the older brother follow his father’s wishes and keep the younger son within the fold, or will he excommunicate him as he so richly “deserves?”

We finished the service, and I discovered that L’s brother from Oklahoma City had come to pick him up. We spent a few minutes chatting about L, his recovery issues, where he seems to do better and where his pitfalls are. L’s brother didn’t hold out much hope for recovery. He told me that the other siblings have given up on him entirely, then he said, “All I can do is take him home and sober him up. It might not last long. Sometimes he gets violent with me and I have to turn him out again.”

I said to him, “Well, thanks for taking him back today.”

He responded, “He’s my brother. What else can I do?”

Perfect ending to that parable, don’t you think?

In the midst of a very hectic season, both in the church and at home – a season where my Depression has returned in the past few weeks with a vengeance, and so much of life seems dark and foreboding, something like this happens, and it breathes new life.

I’m thankful for L, for his brother, and for our church community. I don’t know that we’ve done everything we could, and I don’t know what the results of our efforts will be, but I think we’ve all been faithful to St. Paul’s admonition that came in our second reading on Sunday, to become what we were called to be: Ambassadors of reconciliation.


I Saw the Sign…

Some of you locals may have seen our church marquis and wondered about it. Right now it says, “The Bible is not the Word of God; that’s Jesus.”

Hyperbole? Sure. A cheap shot at biblical literalists? No, not intentionally. But it is meant to provoke conversation. A church sign doesn’t always do that, but it can. Many of the messages you’ll typically see on church a church marquis are strictly informational: Name of church, worship times, maybe the pastor’s name, maybe the web address and/or phone number. We’ve got that covered on one side.

Sometimes a church sign will have a little whimsical musing, a message, a verse of scripture. All too often, these become unintentionally hilarious. (For example)

Every once in a while, a sign will provoke people to wonder, “Now just what the heck are they talking about?!” This seems to be the case this time around. We’ve already had some inquiries. The most notable was from a gentleman who has studied Scripture, but says he’s not a believer at all. That was a valuable conversation!

But some of us sitting in the pews might also wonder what the heck it means. Today we were asked for a 30 second run-down, so here goes:

According to John 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with (or face-to-face with) God, and the Word was God (or divine).” This does NOT refer to the Bible. The Bible, as it’s currently assembled in our particular faith tradition, hasn’t been around for more than 1700 years, let alone from “the beginning.” John is referring here, as he unfolds in his Gospel, to Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, who dwelt among us, who is the perfect image of God. That is the beginning of our understanding about what the Word of God means or is.

In the Lutheran tradition, proclamation about Jesus (aka preaching) is secondarily the word of God. In a tertiary place stands the Bible as the word of God.

That’s the 30 second answer, and so far, that has seemed to satisfy those who felt provoked enough to inquire.

But in case people care to dig a little deeper, we’ll add about another minute and a half worth of run-down, because people might object:¬†“But don’t we know about Jesus in the first place because of the Bible?” Yes, more or less that’s true. Although there still was not “Bible” within the Church for¬†around 200 some years after Christ. Still, that Scriptural witness to Jesus is one of the primary ways we come to know about (and perhaps to know) Jesus. So, we’re not throwing out the Bible entirely as the “word of God,” but we are putting a caveat on it and hoping people will ask what we mean.

The Bible is our authority, but the Bible is complicated. It’s not so much a book as it is a library of books, containing multiple viewpoints, a number of voices – voices that contradict one another in many places. Part of what it means that Jesus takes precedence as the Word over the Bible comes from that contradiction. We have to ask as we read our Scriptures: “Does that sound like something Jesus would say or do?” If the answer is no, we have to follow the Jesus thread as authoritative.

If Scripture says we should dash the heads of our enemies’ babies against the rocks, and we ask the question, “Would Jesus command that?” I’m pretty sure most of us would say, “Absolutely not!”

Some might object, appealing to dispensations or appealing to God giving different messages to different people at different times, but that requires a lot of mental gymnastics, whereas simply asking the cliched-but-valuable question WWJD really simplifies it. If Jesus Christ is, as Scripture attests, the perfect reflection of the Father, and if Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (again as Scripture testifies), that leads us to ask serious questions about the multiple voices in Scripture. And it must lead to the conclusion that either the Bible is schizophrenic (of that God is two-faced, sometimes wrathful, sometimes merciful), or that our view of the Scriptures needs a serious corrective.

So, neither this post nor the sign are meant to be conclusive statements, but are meant to provoke conversation, reflection, maybe even a little consternation and unsettlement. It’s Lent, after all. What better time for some deep mind and soul work?

Hashtag ashtag, hashtag blessing

It’s 5:30 p.m. on Ash Wednesday, and it has been one of the busiest and most blessed days of the year so far.

Began this morning the way I begin every weekday morning: by dropping of my Lad at school. It’s normally a fight to get him to school at a reasonable hour, but this morning, he got out of bed in a good mood the very first time I called on him. He ate his breakfast, largely without complaint. Things ran so smoothly, that we even had to wait in the car a few minutes before the school doors opened. This was a miracle.

Went over to a pick up a friend at the edge of downtown – she’s here sort of temporarily from out of state and wound up (like me) accidentally becoming Lutheran. That’s beside the point. But she doesn’t drive, so I went over there and arrived a couple minutes early. Another miracle.

We headed over to Panera bread in the Cherry Street district, as is my wont of a Wednesday morning. Was expecting to meet a prospective new participant at church, but she wasn’t there. That’s cool. I did meet one other person I had been expecting, but also encountered a homeless couple I know. We had had a big falling out a few weeks ago. Since then, every time I’ve seen them, they’ve been clean & sober, articulate, funny even. We all had coffee together and one of our church members said, “This has changed my whole perspective on homeless people.” Another miracle.

Got to church with still no Ash Wednesday sermon prepared, and less than 2 hours to go – plus I needed to get a haircut. Dashed out the door while returning a call to the local synagogue, where one of the rabbis was asking us to partner with them on an English as a Second Language program in our neighborhood. Miracle? Maybe so. A blessing at least.

Got back to the office. Whipped off a sermon. Held a service, which had more people than expected in attendance. It was beautiful and the sermon didn’t seem to have offended anybody. Total freaking miracle! ūüôā

After the sermon, went back over to Cherry Street and imposed ashes on one of the waitresses at Panera, the guy who owns the European market, a couple of homeless people on the street, three people in the bar at Kilkenny’s, a shop owner at a quirky furniture store, and got back to the office by 2:15 p.m. Probably not miraculous, but again, a blessing.

I’m sitting now, just waiting for the last Ash Wednesday service of the day. I’m tired but energized at the same time. Miracle? Nah. But a beautiful paradox, and a blessing beyond belief.

A good start to Lent, I’d say. May yours be blessed, as well.

Long time, no see!

Hi, all. Haven’t written in a while. No excuses. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

Truth is: I haven’t been inspired. In my draft box, I’ve got 3 posts on 3 different topics started, but not completed. Sometimes I make things more complicated than they need to be, and that winds up becoming overwhelming, which leads to feelings of dread and procrastination. Any other anxiety sufferers out there willing to gimme an “Amen?”

But here we are now. I’m still overwhelmed, but am diving in anyway.

A couple of things I wanted to announce:

1. Pub Theology is still going on every Thursday night. I won’t always be there – in fact, most of the time I’ll just be there the first Thursday of each month. But someone should always be there to facilitate. I’m grateful to Pr. Liz Albertson, our synod’s Director for Evangelical Mission, for stepping into the facilitator role when she can. But the rest of the folks there know the drill, so there ought always to be a friendly face at the table over at the White Lion on Thursday nights at 8.

2. Part of the reason I’m scaling back is that I can’t afford to go out every single week anymore. The budget is tight. I can write these off as non-reimbursed business expenses, but that only goes so far.

3. Another reason I’m scaling back is that I’m trying to do other things. I’m going back to my Wednesday morning “Coffee with the Pastor” meetings at Panera. A refillable coffee is a LOT cheaper than Pub Theology, though I find both very gratifying, spiritually.

But on top of this, I’ve been wanting to do some other kinds of ministry aside from just “talk ministry.” While theological work is really important, as is the kind of fellowship that happens in pubs and coffee shops, it primarily “serves” or focuses on people who can afford to pay for that kind of thing. In the meantime, people on the streets are hungry and cold.

So, on the nights when I’m not at the Pub, I plan on heading down to Night Light Tulsa. I’d be thrilled if any or all of you would join me in building relationships with some of the homeless folks in our town. If you can’t make it, please pray for us, send us good vibes or positive thoughts, whatever you can do. The people down there aren’t homeless because homelessness is part of “an active outdoor lifestyle,” but instead because they are in pain – emotional pain, spiritual pain, often physical pain.

Part of my criticism of the church when I stepped¬†away from it years ago is the same criticism I have now – we’re so “heavenly minded, we ain’t no earthly good.” In other words, we’re turned in on ourselves, our preferences, our programs, our member care, our worship, our music. We have been gifted, as I keep saying in my sermons, not for our own good, but for the sake of the world. If we hold on to our gifts as though they were rare treasures instead of as abundant assets to be shared, we’re turning our backs on our call to serve the Lord in our neighbor, and we’re turning our backs on the gospel. This, by the way, is also a criticism that many young people have of the church. A body turned in on itself is useless.

So, this is one of the major mission focus shifts I’m making in my own life. It sure would be good if you guys would join me.

More to come. This is good for now.


Pr. Rob

Article for your consideration

Here’s a link to a blog entry called “Why I Still Call Myself a Christian,” which I wanted to share with you all – not because it’s a good article (it is), but in particular because of some of the comments that show up in the comment feed of the guy whose Facebook page I took this from. In light of our recent conversations about doing things differently for the sake of proclaiming the gospel (Jesus) to people outside of our currently gathered community, these things are important for us to hear. I’m just going to list them here for your collective reflection.

“I couldn’t agree more with Caleb on this. I long ago stopped understanding my Christianity as having anything to do with my adhering to a particular set of beliefs, or in my rejecting of others. I’ve also long ago had to mentally cut ties to many portions of the monolith of Christendom, while maintaining a devotion to, and fascination with, the person of Jesus. I am a Christian, not because I dent a pew, add mass to an offering bag, giddily agree to certain rules, or accept everything a particular denomination tells me is orthodox. I am a Christian because I follow the person of Jesus. Period.” (JT)

Really good and true of where I find myself too. Non of the frills and thrills do it for me anymore it’s Jesus only.” (HG)

“Yes! I bet if I did a survey of my friends 99% of them would define a Christian as one who goes to church and follows the rules. There would be little to no mention of following Jesus.” (LM)

Why I’m being Open about my Depression

Last Sunday we were meant to hold a town hall meeting about nailing down our core values, which we would then translate into guiding principles and a purpose statement in order to focus our mission and ministries for the next couple of years. In preparation for this, I had been thinking it through for a month or so, but had been too busy with other responsibilities (and maybe some irresponsibilities?) to do the actual piecing together of the program for the town hall until the very last minute.

My plan had been to finish the sermon on the Friday preceding, then to spend the afternoon hammering out details for presentation. By the time I was done writing the sermon, though, I was spent. I mean, wiped. Utterly kaputt.

Then on Saturday, there were family obligations, so that didn’t work out well, either, during the day. At midnight, I woke up with an anxiety dream – it had to do with criticism about how I preside over the Eucharist. Weird dream, I know. But I think the specifics aren’t as important as the fact that I was dealing with anxiety, and that kept me from sleeping.

A friend of mine from back home noticed that I was online at 12:30 a.m., and we were doing kind of a counseling session related to his PTSD. Finished that up after about 30 minutes or so, and I remained restless. By 2:15 I had decided that I’d better go in and finish off the presentation, figuring it would probably take me all night, anyway. I was right.

I worked from 2:30 until about 7:30, and I felt pretty good about the presentation. Tired, but pretty good. We had worship service at 9:30; I reminded people to come to the town hall; and suddenly I realized that, of the 60+ people that had been in worship, only about 20 had stayed for the meeting. I also noticed a couple of pretty important faces who weren’t present. And I shut down. I told people, “Thanks for coming, but we don’t have critical mass for this meeting. You’re free to go home.” Bam. Then I kind of retreated into my shell.

Fast forward to Monday.

I was with fellow rostered leaders at the synod’s Fall Theological Conference, and I had absolutely zero desire to be there. No interest in engaging or playing any of the ice-breaking games, or even sitting with other people at dinner. Just wanted to sit in my cave of misery and sulk.

Dinner time came, and I went to a table by myself. One of my colleagues, whom I knew from seminary, came and sat next to me. He’s an EXTREME extrovert, which was really the last thing I felt like dealing with at the moment, but he sat down next to me and said, “I need to say this to you in love,” and then he began to tell me about his dad.

His dad was also a pastor. Many years before, his dad was sitting in a church council meeting and was feeling low. In the middle of the meeting, he started packing up his stuff and said to the council, “We’re done here today.” Everyone was kind of baffled, but he just said, “That’s it. You can go home now.” He had just shut down.

Long story short: My colleague’s dad was suffering from acute Depression. It was affecting his ministry, his relationships at church, his life at home. His family asked him to get some help. Soon he was placed on medication, and his life and ministry became manageable once again.

When my colleague told me that story about his dad, I said to him, “Dude. I just did that same thing to a room full of people on Sunday” and told him the story about The Town Hall Meeting That Wasn’t. He pushed me to call for help that very same day, and I did. Thanks to his intervention, I’ve met with my primary care physician and am on medication, which we’ll be monitoring for the next several months. I’m also working on setting up an appointment with a psychotherapist here in town for next week or the one after that.2014-01-18 16.25.14

I’ve been in psychotherapy on and off for a number of years. It became the air I breathe in some ways. Working with my therapist it came out that I have PTSD stemming from a number of rather dramatic losses of close family members when I was a child. This somatized for me when I was about 7 and I developed an irregular heartbeat. That physical part seems to have worked itself out, but PTSD doesn’t just go away. All of this may also play into my diagnosis with dysthimic disorder (formerly known as melancholy – there’s a reason I like Kierkegaard and Tom Waits, after all!).

Why am I telling you about all of this? First, I’ve had several people contact me privately to let me know they’re praying and sending positive thoughts. I appreciate that. Some have shared that they ¬†have experienced similar things. I really appreciate that sharing. Everybody was working to be respectful of my privacy, and I’m also grateful for that.

But that leads to the other reason I’m sharing: We are the church. There is a tendency in the church for people to hide their problems, as though the low spots in our lives were either some sort of punishment for sinful behavior, or probably more commonly, a sign of faulty faith – something to be ashamed of. Mental illness, though, is a disease and no more shameful than type 1 diabetes or high cholesterol or breast cancer. It’s just a thing that happens, and there’s no use pretending it doesn’t. We need to talk about this stuff if we are really to be a Christian community whose members bear one another’s burdens.

I want to be as forthcoming and transparent with all of you about this as I can be, in hopes that we might be able to share our burdens together, to be together authentically, and not have our real lives hidden behind a veneer of “I’m just fine, thanks.” I guess I hope that if I model that kind of transparency with all of you, the taboos might fall and we can be vulnerable together. (For the record, my medication has some potential side effects that I might not be comfortable sharing and that you might rather not have me share. I’m cool with that. There has to be some mystery, right?)

Anyway, I hope this can pave the way for helpful conversations. As I keep saying, if we have things that we can’t talk about it, those things won’t likely be transformed. Transformation is at the center of our whole gospel narrative. God turns sorrow to joy, weeping to gladness,¬†death into life. Let’s talk.


EDIT: The other thing is, I need to be healthy in order to be there for other people. If I’m a hot mess, I can’t do anybody much good. So suddenly all kinds of health are becoming a priority for me, so that I might do what I’m called to do. If you’re reading this and feel guilty about “pulling Eeyore’s tail” as one person once put it – drop that guilt like a hot potato. I’m working on health for me AND for you. We understand each other here? I hope so!

Missional Identity, Congregational Purpose, & Core Values Town Hall Meeting

Theme: Missional Identity, Congregational Purpose, & Core Values

Goals: 1 – To draft a workable purpose statement for FELC
2 РTo name and begin to prioritize a set of core values for FELC in light of our                             Missional Identity, for a team to translate into 5 Р7 Guiding Principles, which                         in turn will help us focus our mission/ministry strategies for the next 1 Р3                               years.

Tools: Prayer; Scripture; Critical thought & discussion

Preamble: Here is a quick breakdown on that term, “Missional Identity.” “Missional” refers to the Missio Dei, God’s mission: to bring healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration – in short, “Shalom,” or “Wholeness” to the world.¬†20150920_073316

God’s missional strategy is primarily Jesus, whom God sent into the world, and also the Church that Jesus commissioned, of which he is the head, who refer to him as “Lord.”

Basically, everything we do as the Church is grounded in our identity as participants in God’s reconciling mission in and through Jesus. All of this answers the question: “Who are we?”

The next question is: “Well, what DO we do?” The answer is: “Whatever God is calling us to do.”

This is a very subjective answer that depends on a number of things that we need to discern. Discernment is a process that involves Prayer, Scripture Study, and Involvement/Engagement with and in our Context. We determine who our neighbors are and what needs they have that we can work on alongside of them; and we determine what gifts and assets we have to help us do that accompaniment. This is our Common Purpose.

So, we’re not asking, “What cool stuff can we do,” so much as we’re looking around and paying attention to what God is already up to. How is God already at work and leading us – right here in our own context – to jump in and participate in God’s mission?

Purpose Statement

Working with material adapted from Pastor Dave Daubert’s book Living Lutheran, we take a look at Acts 14:8-18. Read that and pray with me.

Lord of humanity, you have formed us in your image and called us to be your people so that your dreams could be our dreams, as well. Help us to see your purpose for our lives and give us a common sense of purpose as your church in this place. We ask you now to guide us in our work – What is it that we are to be MOST concerned with, and how may we participate in completing your dream?

Who are the actors in this story?
Who is the church?
What would you say is their Missional Identity? (How do they answer the “who are we” question?)
Describe their context in this story. How do they engage that context?
What were the gifts/assets they brought to that community and (how) did those gifts intersect with the community’s needs?
What were Paul and Barnabas willing to commit to in order to be faithful to their purpose?
If you were to write a purpose statment for the Church of Sts. Paul and Barnabas, what would you write? “God’s purpose for Sts. Paul and Barnabas is _____” (12 words or fewer).

We’ve already established that the Church is:
Commissioned by Jesus and
called and gifted by his Spirit
to participate in God’s Shalom mission in and for the sake of the world.

This means that we are called out beyond ourselves and service primarily to our own membership. Our Shared Vision of what it means and looks like to embody that work in our context MUST then be reflected in our Core Values. AND we must be committed to those values.

Core Values:
These are the values that drive all of a congregation’s thinking, action, and planning.

Core values fall more or less into two categories: 1) Desired or Preferred values; and 2) Actual values.

Preferred values, a lot of times, are those idealized things we’d like to be able to say about ourselves, or that we think we OUGHT to say about ourselves. That’s well and good, and we’ll talk more about that in a minute, but you can tell they’re not “real” or “actual,” because they’re the things that people don’t actually invest in (in terms of time, talents, treasures). As such, you’ll see a disconnect between what we SAY we value (preferred values) and what we ACTUALLY do invest in. The BEHAVIOR of pastors, staff, lay people don’t line up with what we claim to value.

Actual values are often unwritten and unstated. We know them if we care to observe our behavior and patterns of behavior in recent history. These values are deeply ingrained and tend to focus where we do spend our time, money, and talents, even if they have little or nothing to do with our missional identity, our purpose as a congregation, or our vision for aligning all of those things.

That’s kind of the Bad News about Core Values.
BUT, the good news is that we are Christians and we therefore believe in the possibility of TRANSFORMATION! With intentionality and commitment, with a healthy dose of behavior modification and cognitive restructuring, we can work to align our practices with what we SAY we ought to be practicing!

Let’s read Acts 4:32-5:11

Pray with me: God of new life, even though we often hear your call on our lives, we find it difficult to commit fully. We hear voices call us in many directions. We lean on and trust in your mercy and forgiveness when we fall short and follow voices other than your own. Speak to us now, we pray. In which parts of our lives do we most fall short? Where do we waiver in our commitment to you as disciples?

What core values do you see at work in the church as described in this section of Acts?
Do you see conflict or disconnect between behavior and values? Describe what you see.

I have to put in this caveat: This story bothers me a lot. I know it’s in the Bible, but look at all the room for abuse here.

I think it’s appropriate to look at two possible ways of reading this story: One is to follow the “plain reading” of the text that accuses Ananais and Sapphira of “holding out on Jesus.” That reading almost invites us to celebrate their demise.

But we can also read this in a way that stands up for Ananais and Sapphira. The text doesn’t really tell us that the values of unity of heart and soul among believers, the holding of all things in common possession, strong financial stewardship are SPOKEN and articulated core values. Maybe they’re ASSUMED, and maybe this couple missed the memo. It’s helpful maybe to examine those values – to ask whether this is just something that people do (we’ve always done this since Pentecost), what it is about those values that’s actually to be valued for the community in light of their missional identity. What presuppositions might there be behind the values we’ve just named? Are they just or unjust? (I’m not making a judgment one way or the other – just posing the idea that it’s GOOD to question WHY we value what we value.)

FELC’s stated Core Values

Based on our work with Kairos (the Congregational Assessment Tool and the subsequent work with David Misenheimer) and with the Comprehensive Ministry Review Team, here’s what we have said we value:


Christ-centered theology (of grace and love)

Christian education for all ages

Service to/care for our community and our neighbors

Fellowship among our members

Inclusivity of all people

Lutheran Tradition


What do you make of this list? Are these Preferred values or Actual values?
What is it about each of these items that we value?
In what way(s) are we (or are we not) investing in them with our time, talents, treasures?
What here are we willing to COMMIT to?
Are there things on this list that maybe shouldn’t be there?
Are there other things that we’re missing from this list?
Think about these questions in light of our Missional Identity (who we are as claimed, gathered, and sent disciples of Jesus), in light of our Common Purpose, and in light of our Shared Vision as a congregation in this particular context with our particular set of gifts/assets.


Now, given all the work we’ve done today, lets take the time we have left and craft a Purpose statment for FELC.
“God’s purpose for First Evangelical Lutheran Church (in 12 words or fewer) is:” (Go!)

Now, let’s do some work on core values.
“The Core Values we’d like to claim for FELC are:”
Here, everybody create a list of 6-10 things AND PRIORITIZE them for YOURSELF.
What are you willing to commit to in order to make sure these things remain a priority?
(If you’re not willing to commit, there’s a question about whether it’s a value.)

I’ll take the list of items over the next 2 weeks and compile them. I’ll try to group them together by commonalities, then take them to the CORE Council. We (and anybody else who’s willing to work on this) will then craft those top 5 – 7 core values into a set of Guiding Principles, which we’ll bring back to you for discussion, approval, amendment, etc.

The goal here is to have the Guiding Principles and a functioning, faithful purpose statment in place in time for the Annual Meeting in November. This will replace our now long-outdated mission statement, and it will guide the course for what work we will be doing as a congregation over the next couple of years. We’ll also be putting together strategies for making that happen.

Thanks to you all!

Grace and Peace,

Pr. Rob

On Sacred Harp Singing and the Call to Follow Jesus

In mid-June 2002, I first met this guy:


That’s Tim Eriksen. I had never heard of him before that, but my museum was in the middle of putting on its first annual Folk Festival, and Tim was there for that event. I remember the first time I saw him, he was dressed like this, more or less, sans fiddle. Just a tall, dark, intimidating guy dressed entirely in black with multiple bits of jewelry hanging from various appendages. I thought, “Who the hell IS this guy?!” It seemed he might have been a bit sinister. A few hours later, I heard him sing, and I thought, “Who the hell IS this guy!?” It seemed he might have been an angel.

Well, Tim played a little fiddle and a little banjo at that folk festival. He sang a few tunes – some traditional, some original, and I was hooked. “What a cool guy!”

sacred_harp¬† ¬†He came back the following summer, and that’s when I first heard about the Sacred Harp.Tim was leading a workshop, teaching us museumy folk about the origins of the Sacred Harp hymnal, and the solfage used therein. (You’ll have to check out this or this website for technical details.) He explained about the lining-out style of singing popular in the New England colonies, to which shaped note notation was a direct backlash.

We learned that the squares were called La.fasola
The circles were called Sol.
The Flags were called Fa.
And the diamonds were called Mi.
(No purple horsehoes or red baloons, Lucky Charms, fans. Sorry.)

Anyway, Tim taught us about how this kind of music was used to teach music to people who didn’t know how to read music – how a whole singing school tradition had developed from this type of hymnal. Remember Ichabod Crane? Yeah, he was a singing school teacher.

So, we did some practicing of these tunes, singing “on the notes.” That means, instead of singing the words, the singers sing the names of the notes. “Fa fa mi la sol fa sol la, la la la sol fa fa la sol…” Etc. After you sing that through once, you move to the words.

I didn’t need the words. Just the sound of people singing in harmony had me hooked.

This isn’t like a regular choir, where people are arranged by voice in rows in order to sing to an audience: we are arranged by voice into sections that face one another over a “hollow square.”
Basses (who sing the bottom line) are seated across from the
Trebles (who sing the top line);
Tenors (who sing the second line from the bottom) sit facing the
Counter-tenors (who sing the second line from the top).

Tenors carry the main melody, although the tunes are mostly written so that each line is a melody in and of itself.

And in the center, there’s that hollow square, where a leader will stand, set the pitch, and keep the time as we sing.

Again, there’s no audience. We sing to one another and for one another. In time, I came to see that we also sing to and for God, but that took me a while to get there.

The harmonies had me hooked, as I say. Each part sang their starting pitch, and the chord that emerged knocked me on.the.floor. It’s like no other sound that you’ve heard – or unlike any I had heard up until that day.

And then came the words. I was still many years separated from the church in June of 2003, and singing songs about Jesus was definitely NOT on the top of my list of Fun Stuff to Do. But somehow… somehow singing with Tim, singing in a way that felt like walking ancient paths … that made it “safe” for me. After a few months (and a wedding in which I felt the hand of God moving), I began to sing boldly.

Shape note music, especially the Sacred Harp and the Missiouri Harmony, were critical stages for welcoming me back to the Church, back to a faith I had long neglected and hadn’t really been interested in rekindling.

Why should YOU come to the Sacred Harp sing on Sept. 26? Will YOU also feel a spark like that? I don’t know. There are no guarantees that my experience will be yours. But if nothing else, come for the singing. Come for the SOUND. Come for the harmony. Come.

Another cross-over post

As part of my continuing education, I’m currently taking a class online. Our group is studying St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. It has been a paradigm-exploding class already, and we’re only one month in. One down, five to go.

The texts our instructor chose for us include J. Louis Martyn’s commentary on Galatians from the Anchor Yale Bible series; Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer; and Zondervan’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

Here’s my cross-over post.


For my class on Galatians, we’re also reading Henri Nouwen’s “The Wounded Healer.” I’ve tried on multiple occasions to read Nouwen, and kept coming up flat. It turned out that I liked the *concept* of Nouwen, but couldn’t really connect with his works. But it’s been my experience that sometimes things kind of need to come to me in the right season. What didn’t make sense to me last year, might hit me like a 2×4 this year.

So, I’m reading Nouwen this morning, and he’s talking about the struggle for older people (or people with what he calls a “prenuclear” worldview) to understand the mindset of the current generation. (Kids these days, eh?) What they/we can’t understand is that, while prenuclear people saw themselves in the midst of a grand narrative that has a past, a present, and a future (which opens up the possibility to despair for the future), the “nuclear” person is historically dislocated. Since we have the technological potential to wipe out all current life on this planet, end even effectivily eliminate the possiblity for all future life, there is no real sense of future to dispair of. No responsibility for that future. Ennui.

This is part of the issue the traditional church faces. I’ve heard several people in the congregation say, “I don’t understand why this isn’t important for the young people.”

To that, Nouwen responds: “When we wonder why the language of traditional Christianity has lost its liberating power for nuclear man, we have to realize that most Christian preaching is still based on the presupposition that man see himself as meaningfully integrated with a history in which God came to us in the past, is living under us in the present, and will come to liberate us in the future. But when man’s historical consciousness is broken, the whole Christian message seems like a lecture about the great pioneers to a boy on an acid trip.”

OK, Henri. I think you’ve caught my attention this time.