“Layers” or “Levels” of God Encounters

Hi. I’ve been away from the blog for a little bit, kind of doing some thinking in a lot of different areas. I’ve mentioned here before that this search for Wisdom in my own life is – as one would expect – spilling over into my thoughts and understandings about my life in ministry.

In pursuit of that type of thing, I ran across an old video of a panel discussion that featured, among several other people, Cynthia Bourgeault, who has been leading my spirit in some fairly interesting directions for the last several months. In this video, someone mentioned how she seems to have left the old model of the church behind in favor of a more direct encounter of the Divine through various spiritual practices, including Centering Prayer, The Work (what students of G.I. Gurdjieff call his “Fourth Way” practices of involving all three energetic “centers” of the human being: heart, intellect, & emotion), chanting, etc.

Cynthia offers a gentle correction, and she does so by mentioning having learned about three “levels” of the church: The Exoteric, The Mesoteric, and The Esoteric.

“The Exoteric church, the one with the doors, that people come into off the streets, the one that needs pastors, the church that’s there when you’re ready to put a bullet in your head in the middle of the night — that church serves an extraordinarily important function, and without access to it, people aren’t ready to go further. Its role is to create a basic welcome container, basic pastoral/ethical nurturance, and a sense of devotional reference points.

“From there on, it opens into the Mesoteric, which is about Path; which is about practice, and that’s where you really sort of bring in the Centering Prayer, the chanting, the psalmody, the Orders of Life. And that, then, drives and makes possible the gateway into the Esoteric, which is badly understood in our culture. It’s sort of equated with the ‘secret knowledge,’ these ‘cosmic PIN codes,” where it really just means the deeper: the deeper understanding, the deeper immersion in what was there all along in the Exoteric, but you didn’t get it before.

“So, the Mesoteric is the real bridge. And I think it’s that bridge that people are hungering for. That’s the place we try and give them in Wisdom School, and that’s certainly the bridge I crossed without ever looking back when I became a teacher of Centering Prayer. [Centering Prayer does most of the heavy lifting] because it begins to change the way people think.

“There’s brain science now to show that meditative practice increases our capacity to bear paradox, to live in ambiguity, and to not immediately react from defensive postures. And it’s the part that was missing from the church. Nobody knew how to do this. Nobody made time and they were drowning in their own sort of ‘surface-ness.’

[There was a comment about the dying of the institutional church. ] “It’s not an either/or. Maybe there will be <strong>fewer</strong> churches. I think the <strong>parish church </strong>may be belly-up. The movement towards greater and more powerfully diverse and impassioned centers – kind of cathedrals in the old way of thinking: vortexes of human energy and then a lot of Mesoteric groups spinning out — that would be the model that I see as viable.

“But I certainly would never recommend going back and starting with ‘the Jesus church,’ because there’s no such thing, at least in our own culture.”

My take-away or reflection on this multi-structured way of looking at the church and spirituality is this: 12 years into my “pastoring gig,” as I like to call it, there are aspects of the Exoteric church that trouble me (institutional racism, institutional sexism, traditionalism over tradition, protection of the institution over living the gospel of Jesus, etc.), and much of it leaves me weary and empty. I NEED that Mesoteric church and sort of aspire to Esoteric practices and embracing integration. At the same time, what the Meso- and Esoteric churches teach me is: IT AIN’T ABOUT ME! There is clearly still a role – “an extraordinarily important function” – for the “regular ol'” church in this world, and I remain committed to it. My hope is that my ministry will help some “transcend” – or maybe simply go deeper into – the traditional church, rather than to just accept it at face value. If I can do that while also being there in the middle of the night, as Cynthia says, when someone wants to put a bullet in their brain, or when Grandma dies, or when someone wants to celebrate new life, I am content. It all belongs.

Why Use a Different Liturgy?

What’s wrong with the “traditional” Lutheran liturgy? You may be asking yourself that question, since our congregation has turned quite a bit lately to liturgies from other resources than the ones featured in our hymnals.

Well, to answer the question directly: nothing. There’s not a thing wrong with our liturgies. And there’s not a thing wrong with those other resources, either. It comes down to preferences and to the reasons for employing one setting over another.

But that’s kind of a funny thing. The hymnal most ELCA churches is using right now is called Evangelical Lutheran Worship. This came out somewhere around 2003. (Best I can do without looking it up. Hey, I’m lazy. Sue me.) Some people called this “the red hymnal,” but those who did were often sternly corrected by people who had grown up using the ACTUAL red hymnal, known as the Service Book and Hymnal. No, the ELW is actually “the cranberry hymnal.” OK, bruh. Have it your way.

Anyhow, the CRANBERRY hymnal replaced the Lutheran Book of Worship, aka LBW, aka “the green book.” LBW came out in the 70s and was probably the last thing that the ELCA’s predecessor bodies and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod worked on together or almost agreed about. Before the green book was the red book, and there was also “the black book,” and whether your congregation used the red book or the black book was a matter of which predecessor body of the ELCA your congregation came from. Were you “Swedish Lutherans?” Or were you Norwegians? Maybe you were Germans or Finnish or Danish or ….

And in between the green book and the cranberry book was a blue book called With One Voice, which our congregation has used on and off since I got here in 2012. Plus there were other hymnals used for praise bands, still others that sprang out of the “Renewing Worship” effort that eventually led to the ELW/Cranberry/Decidedly-NOT-Red book. And we haven’t even touched on This Far by Faith or Lead Me, Guide Me, which are both used in some Black Lutheran congregations!

The point here is: Lutheran worship is dynamic. Always has been. Luther himself recognized the diversity in approaches to worship and he had no issues with this.

Side note here, but it’s interesting to note: Many Lutheran churches in Germany used to use white wine for communion. Why? Because Germany is primarily a white-wine producing region. It made sense to use what was on hand. Luther also disliked the idea of using red wine, because he thought it too closely resembled blood, and could therefore be used as a “symbol” of the blood of Christ. It was important to Luther that there be no symbolism: this IS the body of Christ; this IS the blood of Christ. These are NOT symbols! Plus, I imagine altar guilds were happier with the use of white wine, which doesn’t stain as much. 🙂

Oh, and I should also mention that there is a NEW hymnal out just this past November. It’s purple. But technically, it’s really just a supplement to the ELW/cranberry hymnal. There are two new Communion settings in it. (ELW has 10. LBW has 8, I think. Not sure about the red and black hymnals) Plus there are more licensed songs & hymns, additional prayers for various occasions, etc. We have a couple copies sitting around, if you’re interested in looking. Just ask! It’s called All Creation Sings!

But here’s what it all boils down to: With all the variation in liturgical practices, the structure of worship follows a basic 4-part structure. There is a Gathering. There is a Sending. In between the Gathering and the Sending, there is the Word (reading of scripture), and there is (usually) the Meal. Communion. Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending.

Yes there are worship elements that generally fall in here, as well, though they aren’t 100% necessary to include – or at least they aren’t rigidly structured. Usually there’s a sung or spoken Kyrie (Lord, Have Mercy), a Gloria (Glory to God in the Highest), an Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), a Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) and several other pieces of liturgical music. There’s pretty much ALWAYS prayer in numerous forms, including “collect” prayers, the Lord’s prayer, intercessory prayers, prayers of thanksgiving, and so on. There’s often a creed, though not always. And which creed we use will depend on the season and other factors. But beyond the basic structure of Gather, Word, Meal, and Send, there is incredible freedom.

With the Worship Design Studios materials, there is usually a Prelude played to begin to set the mood. Then there comes a “Threshold Moment” which introduces the assembly to the journey or the theme for the day, maybe for the season. There’s a collect prayer, the reading of Scripture, time for reflection or a sermon or testimonies, there are intercessory prayers/prayers of the people. There’s an optional Communion liturgy. Then there’s a benediction or blessing, and finally a postlude. Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending. It’s all in there. The style may differ from so-called “traditional” worship, and the order of the elements may vary from what we’re used to. The feel may also be a bit different. But it fits. And it works.

Anyway, I didn’t write all of this because anybody complained or even asked. But at the same time, it felt important to let folks know that we’re not a bunch of liturgical deviants in this congregation. 🙂 You can rest assured of that one thing at least.

By the way, if you have questions about how we worship or why we do things this way or that, please let me know. I’m glad to write little blurbs about this stuff. It’s good to be reminded myself from time to time, and it’s also good for people who are new to our congregation or even our particular way of following Jesus in worship. No dumb questions. For real!

Upcoming Worship Gnus/News

Hi! It’s been a while since I’ve checked in, so here we are. Plans for Epiphany and the weeks after (leading up to Lent … which begins in the middle of February, if you can believe it. Just around the corner! Eeek!) are coming together nicely. Week one is already planned and we have the skeleton for the rest of the weeks after Epiphany.

With the exception of Epiphany Sunday itself, we’re sticking with Worship Design Studios and their version of a liturgy. The series we’re using is called “God is Holding Your Life.” Since we’re in the grips of this pandemic – still! – and because we’re moving into a new and hopefully better year, this message just seemed really appropriate and needed.

Below is a wee trailer that ought to give you kind of a taste. But Catherine will be playing the music. It won’t be “piped in” via video.

Video Series trailer for “God is Holding Your Life: A Journey of Assurance for the New Year” from Worship Design Studios.

I mentioned that Epiphany Sunday will look a little different from the rest of the weeks. That’s because the first Sunday will be a bit of a hybrid/amalgam worship service, combining elements of Worship Design Studio, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and a book of liturgies and prayers by Brian Wren. I think it will be nice. Familiar enough to feel pretty good, but with a couple things that are just different enough to (hopefully) keep your attention.

So that’s Epiphany and the weeks leading up to Lent. Lent itself is going to be VERY special this year, because the liturgical music will come from the heart and pen and skilled musicianship of our very own Catherine Conger! I’m really excited to hear what she is putting together for us!

In-person Worship, part deux

Hey, all. Been a little quiet here lately as the Looking Forward Taskforce gears up for some phone calls to set up interviews with folks from FELC and PoP, and also since I’ve been on the road to visit my mom.

First thing: Mom update. Apparently there is an appointment with a vascular surgeon floating around out there somewhere. When my niece tried to schedule it, the appointment was sent in the new year, but the doc said that was too far out, so HE would schedule it. Haven’t heard anything since. So that’s about all we know. Thank you again for your indulgence while my family wrestles with all of these health concerns.

Now, onto the update. Last night the CORE COUNCIL met to talk about the usual CORE COUNCIL things. Lately, in-person worship has been one of the recurring topics. House Church, one of our Building Use Partners, would like to do an Advent event, a bit of a self-directed, possibly timed event with various stations for candle lighting, silent prayer, Communion, etc. It sounds like a fantastic idea. However, the CORE folks were concerned about opening the building to Building Use Partners when we weren’t even using the space ourselves yet. So, based on how things went last time, with somewhere between 19 and 23 people in the sanctuary for 40 minutes, we’re gonna try it again.

Beginning on the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 29 (the first Sunday after Thanksgiving), we’re going to try in-person services. The only things I’d like to change, based on last time, have to do with singing, the call-and-response sections, and reading/assistant ministering. Since the space is “small,” the less vaporizing of particles we do, the better. IF you MUST sing, please try to keep it “in your mask.” No diaphragm singing and projection, please. Same with the spoken responses. Your “and also with you” is understood, so there’s no reason to shout it out. And if you’re reading, it would be better to have you come up to a microphone to do it, than to have you standing among the people, masked or not.

Oh, one other thing: you might want to anticipate standing in line before we let you in. In order to keep the time indoors to a minimum, we won’t let people in the door until five minutes before start time. That will avoid having folks breathing in the space for longer than the allowed 40 minutes.

One more note on the service: Our theme for Advent this year is “I Believe Even When.” Week One will still be based on Hope; Week Two on Faithfulness, etc., but the overarching theme is belief in the face of reasons NOT to believe. On our Facebook page, I invited people to contribute their own “I believe even when” statements, and we got a few great submissions. I’d like to extend the invitation again to send yours in, either to the link on FB, if you can find it, or directly to me at pastor@felctulsa.org.

Keep your eyes peeled for more updates!


Pr. R.

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.