Friday, October 29, 2010

Youth Ministry and Gore

I have been reading (and enjoying greatly I might add) the book Relationships Unfiltered by Andrew Root, professor of youth and family at Luther Seminary. I saw an offer to be sent the book free, and I rarely pass up a free book offer, so I wrote him. In a nutshell, his book is about being truly incarnational with youth, not merely trying to influence them. Of course he points out that being incarnational means suffering with the youth since the incarnation is always connected with the crucifixion.

In his fifth chapter, he recounts a story about a five-year old Millie who asks the great question, "Why is it a good thing that Jesus died?" He then goes on a nice discussion of the cross and points out that it is not about torture. I suspect that in the coming Halloween weekend, there will be a number of youth who are subjected to hell houses or terrible accounts of the crucifixion in an attempt to influence them to accept Jesus as their savior. Root's following paragraphs are an excellent answer to this practice.

When talking about the crucifixion with adolescents, it's always tempting to emphasize the torture of the cross. I have sat through "cross night" camp talks in which the speaker sketches in gruesome detail where the nails were placed, how they punctured the skin, and how painful the event was, providing a kind of forensic examination of how Jesus died. This how is supposed to be so shocking and emotionally stirring that kids are supposed to (and some do) crumble with appreciation and then follow with commitment. But the how of blood and guts in the crucifixion misses the essential good news (and for that matter, intrigue) of the cross.

The power of the crucifixion is not in the blood but in the person. The power of the crucifixion is not in how it happened or how bloody it was; rather the power of the crucifixion rests in who is found on the cross. If it is only about the blood and not the person, then logically those who have suffered more bodily injuries and severe deaths than Jesus (and there are many; remember Jesus was only on the cross for a short time) could vie for the status of savior too. But the crucifixion is not a story of gore and torture. It's a story of who God is, a story about the depth and of this God's love for us and desire to be in relationship with us, to share our place. The power of the crucifixion is in the proclamation that the one who is suffering and dying in shame, pain and isolation is the fullness of God. It's the assertion that the beaten man, dying alone, is the fullness of God, that he bears the fullness of our humanity, entering completely into the horror of death, which is the destiny of us all. The crucifixion is not primarily about blood, but about a person, about relationship. The cross is about sharing our place so completely that God takes on suffering and death.
Unfiltered Relationships, pp. 80-81

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ritual, Comfort and Starbucks

The other day I was with my middle child (the one I wrote about here) shopping in Target. I got him to go with me on my errands by promising his after-school snack would come from the snack bar there. They also have a Starbucks in this store and I got a cup of coffee. While we were sitting there enjoying our repast, I spied the sign pictured there to the left.

"Take Comfort in Rituals" it says. How interesting I thought. As a liturgically-minded pastor, I was a little surprised. In the midst of the worship wars, when we talk about worship services, ritual seems to be out. And yet here is Starbucks trying to sell ritual. And there are rituals for coffee. My morning routine is very much a ritual. And it is multi-sensory. It engages my body and my mind. And there are some mornings when I do take great comfort in that ritual. Of course, Starbucks seems to be trying to sell its VIA instant coffee line... evidently you can have instant ritual.

But there are a number of people who would decry ritual as inauthentic to the Christian experience. I get this all the time from some who assume that just because the actions are scripted, and the form almost never changes, that it becomes meaningless. Folks can just go through by rote memory and never think about it at all. I will give them that just because we go through a ritual does not make the ritual effective just by doing it. Nonetheless ritual does bring comfort.

A few months ago, I sat at the bedside of a dying member with his wife. We went through the rite of Commendation of the Dying. After we prayed the rite, the wife said, "Do you know how much comfort that liturgy brings?" For her, I think, the ritual said things that she would not have been able to put into words at that moment. But she could assent to them. She could trust in those words because she trusted in Jesus' promise to be in our midst.

A couple of years ago, a family had been assigned to acolyte our Maundy Thursday service and the mother of the acolytes did not know what to expect. I explained that we would have corporate confession and forgiveness along with personal absolution along with washing of the feet the Eucharist. Being her first service with corporate confession and personal absolution, she was astounded by the power of the absolution. She recounted to me that she FELT forgiven. The power of ritual I think is that Christ acts concretely in its midst. We don't have to guess that we are forgiven. Christ, through the voice and laying on of hands of the pastor, has told us so and touched us through it.

If we trust in Christ and his promises, we can take great comfort in rituals because they bring the gospel to life. In a post-modern age we should not be shunning ritual but embracing them all the more. They are at times mysterious and say more through physical action than we might ever realize. They speak the truth more efficiently than we ever could with words. When we extend our hands in the midst of the Sunday service and bid others "The peace of the Lord be with you," it would take us ten minutes to explain what we are doing. But by engaging in this ritual time and again, we learn deep down that the peace which comes from the Lord Jesus is something that can be extended and given to others.

I hope Starbucks is right. I hope ritual, real ritual, is on the rise. We can engage with our bodies, our minds, our whole beings, the promises of the Lord and in turn trust in him.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey

A couple of weeks ago, I went to my Tuesday evening bible study after having dealt with the death of a parishioner. The bible study had diverged for a few weeks to look at early church councils, notably Nicea, Constantinople and then Chalcedon. But I had not had the time to pull stuff together for that meeting since all of the discussion of beings and essences, like and similar, Arius and Athanasius, take a fair bit of care. Not only did I not have the time that day to bring it all together, I was spent.

But I had earlier that day, found the full survey, questions and all from the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (executive survey: here; Full wording of questions and topline results, here). The big takeaway that the media reported was the amount that atheists knew about religions and how little some Christians knew, sometimes about their own denominations beliefs. I had been digging around to see exactly what the questions were, and what the details of the actual survey-taking were. So the others in the bible study were willing to look at the whole survey. We thought there were some very interesting things within.

It had been reported that over 3400 had taken the survey. True. 3412 respondents answered. And that is amazing since this survey appears to have been administered completely over the phone. This survey was not a trivial set of questions. Along with the 32 content questions, there were a great deal of questions about demographics and religious life. We estimated that the survey could have taken thirty to forty-five minutes to take. While over 3400 people took the survey, we wondered how many people were called and refused to take part given the length. To us this question matters, since the number reported is not just a random sampling of America, but a distribution of Americans who want to take this time to talk about religion... over the phone.

Of course this goes to the question of the reported results, specifically about religious knowledge of atheists and agnostics. Only four percent of the respondents identified themselves as atheist or agnostic. Out of 3412, then somewhere around 135 people are being lifted up here. I am sure that researchers will say that it is likely a proportionate number of Christians hung up or refused to take the survey. Could be. But if one is atheist, I wonder why they would want to take this much time talking about religion. Is this the average run of the mill atheist? Or those of a more militant stance seeking to show what they know?

I won’t dispute the general shape of the results since it is my experience that many atheists do know a good deal about religion. Most know exactly what they are denying. I do wonder though if the disparity is as great as reported. And then as I preached in my sermon the Sunday following the release of the results (which can be heard here), knowing about religion is not the same as knowing God.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Long weeks usually mean little time for blogging. This past week was one of those weeks. But the week ended really well. I presided at my daughter's baptism this morning. A parishioner snapped a couple shots with her phone and sent them to twitter.

It was a great morning. Bright and sunny. Full of family. Most importantly however, Jesus showed up, just like he promised he would.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Halloween and the Law

A neighbor on our street always does a huge Halloween display. Among his decorations are tombstones. Despite living on the same street and seeing his makeshift graveyard for six years now, this morning I saw it in a new light. The fake headstone in the picture here caught my attention this morning. In the midst of lots of "R.I.P" stones was one front and center. "Your time will come."

Everyone expects creepy and scary decorations at Halloween. Everyone expects skulls and skeletons, zombies and mummies, blood and gore galore. And it becomes comic. Or tamed, what with the softening of the classic creature, the vampire.

But if I had set up a bunch of signs in my front yard that said, "For the wages of sin is death" people would think I am a religious zealot (ok, I am, but not the way most folks expect). My neighbor's signs however, get to proclaim the reality of the law. As fallen human creatures we will die. Spooks and spirits aside, perhaps the real reason cemeteries give people the willies is at the very basic level they simply remind us of this reality of our existence.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Saint Francis, He's Not Just For Animals Anymore

Ah, the beloved Saint Francis... someone once told me that Saint Francis was a Lutheran saint. Not, mind you, that he was a forerunner to the Lutheran tradition in Christianity, but that he was a saint every Lutheran could love. After all, he loves those little critters, and how can we get upset with that, right?

On this day when so many folks are blessing animals, as I did yesterday, that Saint Francis' legacy is much bigger than just him out there preaching to the birds. And it must be said that I have a friend who upon hearing that I am blessing animals tells me that preaching to the birds was actually a social commentary on wealthy family who were somehow connected to bird names.

It is important to remember Francis as one who gave up everything. He came from a wealthy family where his father was successful in dealing cloth. After spending a year as a prisoner of war suffering from disease, he returns home more reflective and devout. His conversion comes in 1207, after which he rejects his wealthy and comfortable lifestyle. He embraces poverty and the mendicant life-style in order to imitate Christ. His father, not at all pleased with his son's decision, dragged him before the bishop to have Francis renounce any claim on his father's fortune. Francis gladly did. St. Bonaventure, Francis' most prominent biographer and significant member in the development of the Franciscan order, wrote about this moment,
A true lover of poverty, Francis showed himself eager to comply; he went before the bishop without any delay or hesitating. He did not wait for any words nor did he speak any, but immediately took off his clothes and gave them back to his father. Then it was discovered that the man of God had a hairshirt next to his skin under his fine clothes. Moreover, drunk with remarkable fervor, he even took off his underwear, stripping himself completely naked before all. He said to his father: "Until now, I have called you father here on earth, but now I can say without reservation, 'Our Father who art in heaven' [Matt 6:9], since I have placed all my treasure and all my hope in him" When the bishop saw this, he was amazed at such intenser fervor in the man of God. he immediately stood up and in tears drew Francis into his arms, covering him with the mantle he was wearing, like the pious and good man he was. He bade his servants give Francis something to cover his body. They brought him a poor, cheap cloak of a farmer who worked for the bishop. Francis accepted it gratefully and with his own hand marked a cross on it with a piece of chalk, thus designating it as the covering of a crucified man and a half-naked beggar. (from "The Life of Saint Francis" by Saint Bonaventure)
Francis heard a call from God to lead a radical lifestyle in response to Christ's command. Francis's legacy is surely something for us to hear in a time of overabundant possessions (even in a time of recession).

We may also be used to hearing the prayer "Lord make me an instrument of thy peace," and the saying "Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words." both attributed to Francis. And of course we may sing "All Creatures of Our God and King" which is a hymn based on Francis' "The Canticle of Brother Sun." But I found in an anthology of Christian Spirituality two beautiful prayers by Francis.

St. Francis' Prayer Before the Crucifix
Most High,
glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart
and give me, Lord,
a correct faith,
a certain hope,
a perfect charity,
sense and knowledge,
so that I may carry out your bold and true command.

and an untitled prayer that comes from Francis' "A Letter to the Entire Order"
Almighty, eternal and mercifucl God,
grant us in our misery [the grace]
to do for you alone
what we know You want us to do,
and always
to desire what pleases You.

inwardly cleansed,
interiorly enlightened,
and inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit,
may we be able to follow
in the footsteps of Your beloved Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ.

by Your grace alone,
may we make our way to You,
Most High,
Who live and rule
in perfect Trinity and simple Unity,
and are glorified
God all-powerful
forever and ever.

Hmm... I don't know... maybe Francis was Lutheran after all. May the witness of his discipleship inspire us all to respond to our Lord's call in faithful response to the grace bestowed upon us.

(Excerpt from Bonaventure's biography, and both prayers, taken from the most excellent anthology, Invitation to Christian Spirituality, edited by John R. Tyson, pages 162-165, Oxford University Press, 1999)

Lutheran Ethics, Jonathan Rundman and Piracy (of the Musical Sort)

I received an email about the new Journal of Lutheran Ethics issue and read with great interest Jonathan Rundman's piece titled, "Thieves in the Temple: Intellectual Property, Use of Media, and the Law (Not Yet) Written on Our Hearts." Rundman deals with the all too common issue of piracy and people's disregard for what belongs to others and their livelihood. What is nice is to see is that Rundman does not hammer on the seventh commandment "You shall not steal." Instead he goes to vocation. Rundman writes,
Perhaps the Lutheran understanding of vocation might be a helpful angle. We believe that God gives everyone different gifts and skills and passions, and in following those paths we can live out a life of service. Whether you are a bus driver, computer programmer, soldier, or bishop, your daily work becomes a beautiful and holy calling. Now, it is pretty easy to see church workers, teachers, and doctors in this light, and it is clear to us that we want to honor their work. Sometimes, though, we need a reminder that musicians, camera operators, editors, electricians, and factory workers are personally impacted when we drag 300 songs over from our friend's hard drive or when we buy a bootlegged DVD on the street corner.
The digital age does make our lives easier, but also ethically murkier. It is a complicated discussion to have with folks, and I have it often dealing with copyright issues. Rundman's reflection could help us all to think about the effects of our actions on others.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Living Lutheran -- new website

The other day, I was looking at my web statistics and I kept running across this website domain, Living Lutheran. I tried to click on the link to see what it was, and the site was not really up and running. I couldn't get to the site. But this didn't surprise me since "temp" was part of the URL.

But then yesterday (I think yesterday, but it could have been before that) I tried that link again and up pops the beta site of Living Lutheran. It seems to be a good mix of stories and blogs and other resources that point to what it means to be a Lutheran living out one's faith... at least an ELCA Lutheran.

I am not a huge fan of the layout, but the content looks good. Check it out.