Sunday, December 30, 2012

Getting One Thing Straight

It seems like maybe I need to do a little clarification on the purposes of this blog.  As I say at the top, these are my personal and professional musings, of a person who happens to be very clearly in the minority in the ELCA.

Take a look at the blog - some of it's personal, some of it's professional.  Some of it is critical of the ELCA, other posts, neutral or less so. 

I want this to be a place where I can toss out my musings, as I say, and where others can engage the conversation - tell me I'm right, tell me I'm wrong, ask questions, offer your own thoughts, etc. 

But: I don't want anyone to interpret my criticism of the ELCA as a lack of "loyalty", or my continued presence in a church body with which I frequently disagree as indication of my failure to have any personal integrity/listen to God/reject heretics/etc.

I am in the ELCA because it is where God has called me to be, and to stay, and to preach and teach and administer the sacraments.  This is not a conclusion that I have come to lightly.  Long before 2009, and in its wake, I thought and prayed long and hard about where God would have me serve and worship.  I did the very - very - hard work of discerning this.  I shed many, many tears.  I read like crazy, I met with people of varying denominational and confessional stripes.  I thought, cried, and prayed some more.  And through it all, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, right behind where God was leading me. 

And here I am.  It is not a perfect place, but neither is it the maw of hell.  Attempts to convince me otherwise, to try to convert me to...whatever, or to consign to perdition any and/or all who are in any way associated with the ELCA, are not helpful for any of us.  A very, very wise pastor who is by no means unclear on the necessity of proclaiming the law in addition to the gospel, who I have yet to see sacrifice truth for popularity or convenience, once said, "We are called to speak the truth in love.  If you cannot speak the truth in love, you are not ready to speak the truth."

I have many good friends, and plenty of acquaintances who have left the ELCA for a wide of variety of reasons.  I do not in any way begrudge them this.  The splintering of the Church is a tragedy, and all of us would do well to ponder and pray on that more often, but it also is what it is, and a good friend once reminded me that "it's not going to go back together the way it came apart". 

If the ELCA is not the place where you can, in good conscience, do these things - and for many people it is not - then by all means, get out.  Go in peace, + and go with God - wherever it is that he leads.  And then let go.  Let go of the hatred, the anger, the bitterness that you have toward the ELCA or mainline Protestants or liberals or whoever.  Remember the words of St. Paul, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you", and St. James, "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God."  Let go.

And if the ELCA continues to be a place where you can worship, pray, proclaim, and live in good conscience, then please stay.  God is not yet finished with "this church".

Each one of us needs to be where God calls us to be, for whatever his purposes might be.  We need to be in a place where we can worship in peace and in good conscience.  We need to be in a place where we can focus on the main thing - the death and resurrection of Jesus as the only thing that has the power to fix this broken world, forgive sin, bring life out of death, and overcome the power of the devil.  But we cannot do that if we consistently spend our days fixating on denominational affiliation - our own or anybody else's.

Faith, hope, and love - for God and neighbor: may these gifts of God be yours in the coming year, and wherever you live denominationally or confessionally, may you keep your eyes focused firmly on Christ.

Did Christmas Really Happen?

Last week, a former seminary professor of mine wrote an article for Huffington Post whereby he claims that he doesn't "know or care if [the Christmas story] 'really happened'" and that whether it is or isn't "factually accurate" doesn't matter as to whether the general themes of the story are "trustworthy and true". 

As much as I like David Lose (heck, I even made a figgy pudding for Christmas dinner this year!) I'm sure you can guess that I have a big problem with this.

Dr. Lose uses most of his article to do some pretty basic historical and textual criticism of the varying Biblical "infancy narratives".  Luke and Matthew have basically no factual overlap, we can't really know the details because they're reported so differently, nobody else but Matthew talks about the Slaughter of the Innocents, Luke "seems not to know about" the escape to Egypt, etc, etc.  Thus, Lose tells us, the two accounts are "virtually irreconcilable", but none of this matters because 
Such stories tell us the truth, the truth about the world we live in, about our capacity for good and evil, bravery and cowardice, and about the hopes and fears and tragedies of our lives. But they don't stop there. These stories of wayward magicians, outcast shepherds, and unwed teens also confess the truth that somehow, somewhere, God is mixed up in all of this.

Okay, let's start with this: I am not opposed to historical (or other) criticism per se.  I think that knowing the geopolitical, religious, and other cultural settings at the time of the writing of various books of the Bible is interesting and helpful.  I think it's good to know how language and literature functioned in the ancient world, what the various intended audiences of the prophets, story-tellers, and letter-writers would have heard, and how they might have reacted, to the message.  I am completely fine with the idea that, particularly in the Gospels and the historical books of the OT where there are multiple accounts of the same event, it's because there were different individuals writing (or otherwise preserving) the accounts, and they had different purposes and different audiences.  I don't feel the need to harmonize the Easter stories, and I don't feel the need to get all worked up about two different creation stories.  There are things to be gained from each rendering, and it need not destroy our faith. 

That said, I think that we need to be incredibly humble when we start claiming that so-and-so "seems to know nothing about" Event A, or that he is "playing fast and loose" with the facts.  No matter how good our archaeology is, no matter how deep into history we might get, we, living 6000 miles away and 2000 years hence, will never know more about "what happened" than people who actually lived in that land, in that time, in that culture, people who knew the participants in the events, or at least, knew the people who knew them.  To suggest otherwise - that we know more about 1st century Palestinian events than people who actually lived in Palestine in the first century - is arrogant, along with just patently ridiculous.

To be sure, literature did function differently in the ancient world than it does today.  Dr. Lose is completely correct in stating, "Luke - and Matthew, Mark, and John for that matter - are playing for bigger stakes than mere historical accuracy. They are trying to share their faith far more than they are trying to establish the facts."

And what of it?  We still do this today, after all.  Anybody who has preached a sermon can tell you that there are details of the story they've chosen not to deal with (you can't preach on everything, all in one sermon), there are theological minutiae that they've skirted around, or linguistic ambiguities they haven't engaged, for the purpose of the sermon at hand.  And so long as we aren't twisting the text to make it say what we want, in contradiction to what it in fact says, or making things up out of whole cloth, I don't think there's anything wrong with this.  Depending on how good of a preacher you are, you've got people's attention for somewhere between 10 and 45 minutes - there's no way you're going to be able to say it all.  Heck, we even do this in the movies!  Does anyone think that Lincoln is 100% factually accurate in every last detail?  Of course not.  But it, and your average Sunday sermon, are on the whole, reasonably close to "factually accurate".  Which is the task of the preacher, and the documentary-ish filmmaker. 

So why then are we Christians so afraid to extend that same charity to the Biblical authors?  Do Luke and Matthew share different details of Jesus' conception, birth, and infancy?  Yes.  Do all four gospel writers share different - even contradicting - details of his trial, death, and resurrection?  Yes.  Does that mean that, on the whole, they are not reasonably close to "factually accurate"?  Of course not.  When two honest-and-sincere witnesses share differing accounts of a car accident we do not impugn and denigrate their motives, throw up our hands, and declare that we'll never know, and it doesn't even really matter if the accident itself happened, all we need to know is that some people are hurting right now.

"Did it really happen?" matters because Christianity (and Judaism, for that matter) is a religion based on claims that God actually, factually, concretely intervened in the long, sorry history of this world, and further claims that the consequence of this intervention is that the long, sorry history of this world and the people in it have been redeemed, and that one day, the "final intervention" will take place, and the whole entire thing will be completely recreated. 

If we find that the Gospel writers are playing "fast and loose" with the facts of this intervention, then those of us who have placed our trust in the God we believe has intervened in this way, are placing our entire salvation at stake.  Because once we declare that the Gospel writers are the sort of people who manipulate historical facts to the point that they no longer recognizably represent the event (regardless of the reason why), then everything they wrote about - up to and including the Resurrection - is up for grabs.  And as St. Paul writes, if Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead then our faith is in vain and we are most of all to be pitied.  

To be fair, I don't think David Lose, in this article, is denying the historicity of the Nativity.  I think he's attempting to reach out and make Christianity slightly more palatable and accessible to the average 21st-century skeptic.  But I just don't think anything is gained by this strategy.  Christianity is offensive, for any number of reasons, not the least of which is because it asks us to believe things, that, to put it mildly, boggle the mind.  It asks us to suspend disbelief, and trust the promises.  And how are we to know what those promises are, and that they are real, if they weren't, at some point, in some particular situation, given to us?  Whether it's from the top of a mountain or the back room of the Temple or in a field by night, somewhere along the line it had to actually happen.  Backing down from the authority or reliability of the canon in an attempt to "win over skeptics" is not doing them - or the faith - any favors. 

Thus, I'm frustrated, in part, because I think this particular article could have been written with all the info explaining that Matthew/Luke/John were writing to different audiences, Matthew is taking great pains to set the infancy narrative in the context of Jewish history, Luke is concerned with geopolitical history, and John's prologue focuses on cosmic history.  This of course means that stories and details will be somewhat different, but as Christians who affirm that the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit, we believe that, all things considered, the birth of Christ happened basically in the fashion in which it's described, and while there are many parts of the story that are "hard to believe", we nevertheless find it harder to believe that God is a liar whose word cannot be trusted.  Therefore, dear skeptic, because we believe that God chose to intervene in history in this way, at that time, in that place, because we believe that Jesus is Immanuel, God-with-us, we also believe that God is just as present at a Slaughter of the Innocents in Newtown, CT, as he was in Bethlehem; we believe that the young Jesus whose parents spirited him away to Egypt and who knows what it is to hide from crazy murderers was lovingly, graciously, really present in closets and bathrooms with young children attempting to escape the crazy murderer of their own day. 

Bottom line: if we are going to do evangelism and apologetics, let us do them well.  To "apologize" in the classic sense, is to defend - as in, "defend the faith", not "defend our inability/lack of desire to believe."  The historic, orthodox, traditional Christian faith tells us, in the words of the Apostles Creed, that Jesus was "conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary."  Let us not shrink from this scandalous nature of our faith, nor water it down - for when we alter the message because we can't bear it, are we not counted among the company of the rich young ruler, or no-longer-disciples of John 6? And that, Christians, is a place I don't want to be...

PS: One final point on the topic of historical criticism - it is so strange to me that Biblical scholars feel totally free to deny the historicity of, say, the Slaughter of the Innocents, an event which is attested to by the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of James, and Macrobius, and which has been observed by the Church as a liturgical feast since 485 AD, and yet, also feel free to unequivocally affirm the existence of "Q". (This is not about David Lose in particular - I have no idea about his personal opinion on Q, I'm speaking of scholars in general here.)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Life Update

It's 9:00 on December 23rd, and I'm bored, so I thought I'd update all 6 of you on life in South Dakota...

Running: Going awesome.  Just finished Week 2 in Couch-to-5K.  I decided to do two of each weekly plan, rather than pushing it super hard.  I'm getting a lot of flak from the Couch-to-5K Facebook page, who are basically all telling just to keep moving, but a) I'm a serious couch potato, and b) running with a prosthesis means that I'm already expending 2x the energy of the "normal" runner...also, since I don't have a "running" leg (the carbon fiber blades you see Oscar Pistorius and his gang run with), that doesn't help the situation at all.  So I'm taking it a little slow, but it's winter in SD, and 18 weeks instead of 9 still barely gets me to the 5K season up here...  Anyways, it feels great.  I've had to hit the treadmill the last couple weeks, since it's been solid ice on the sidewalks around town.  I can figure out how to handle the cold, but I'm not too keen on the prospect of falling flat on my face...  For some reason my shin splints and general knee pain are worse on the treadmill (???) than on the concrete...who's ready for the ice to melt?  Also, this week was Day 1 of TOM, and holy cow did I get nailed...Tuesday was my first day of Week 2 - it was tough, but I made it through. Thursday was my 2nd day of Week 2, and Day 1 of AF, and criminy I thought I was going to die.  I seriously only made it about 75% through the workout - I just had no energy.  Which was strange because was one of those months where I actually felt reasonably decent, as opposed to some months where it's 4:00 pm before I can even think about getting up off the couch...  So, TMI for all y'all, but then I ran again this afternoon after church (had Anytime Fitness all to myself  = awesome), made it through and it felt great.  Again, a tough workout, but a good one.  Yay!

Church: Pretty good, all things considered. We have lots of work too, mainly involving a shift in focus from survival/maintenance mode to growth/outreach mode.  The real issue, I think, is that there's a belief (or a want-to-believe) that this is basically the 1940s, everybody pretty much goes to church, and the way to grow the church is to have a pastor that makes people want to come to this church instead of the church down the street.  Don't get me wrong - I think this is probably the situation that a lot of churches are finding themselves in, and so we're not alone.  But I'm excited about the task ahead, which is preaching the idea that we're not in a Christian, or even a post-Christian era.  I'm starting to think that we're really in a pre-Christian era - people haven't heard the story and rejected it, they've never heard it in the first place.  The way to grow the church is not "be the coolest church around", but preach God's love and mercy and salvation, and have members that are on fire and ready to tell the good news - not that their church is cool, but that Jesus is infinitely amazing and is the only thing that has the power to resurrect the dead - whatever "dead" looks like in your life.  It's a huge mental shift for people who aren't used to thinking along those lines, and it'll come with time, I believe, so I'm not particularly frustrated or concerned - it was a huge mental shift for me the first time I encountered this approach to ministry.  The good news, though, is that the people are awesome.  It's just a really great congregation, that loves, and that has so many gifts, and is just waiting to burst forth, so let's go.

Confirmation: I just love teaching confirmation.  It was my favorite part of internship, it's my favorite part of ordained ministry.  These kids are just fantastic - I love giving them freedom to ask lots of questions.  Sometimes they're on topic, and sometimes not-so-much, but they get me and I get them.  We're having fun, and they seem to be learning.  What I want them to get out of confirmation is not to be perfect-little-Lutherans, but faithful, growing Christians who get it.  We're tossing out the memorize-every-word-of-the-Small-Catechism in favor of memorizing the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments + 3 Bible verses that they choose.  I want them to have a faith that is meaningful to them.  So this year we're doing a little freelance-ish Youth Alpha and the Small Catechism (the whole thing, not just what I'm making them memorize).  This summer at camp, we'll do worship (why do we structure worship the way we do?), and next year they'll do a Bible overview - The Story, maybe, or something similar.   They're just really fantastic kids who are trying to get it, and learning how to think about and talk about God, and it's so much fun to watch!

Life in a Small Town: It's alright.  I like my town - it's actually a really good size - small enough to feel cozy, but big enough to have a grocery store and gym and Wal-Mart and furniture store and several churches and some fast food...The congregation has been pretty welcoming - I went to my grandparents' for Thanksgiving, but I'm having Christmas Eve dinner with a couple from the call committee.  The ladies made me a quilt for my installation today, which is absolutely gorgeous, and I just love to pieces.  But I'd also be lying if I said that I'm not lonely.  There really aren't many people here who are my age, and the ones who are, are all married-with-kids.  Most nights I come home and chill in front of the TV or Netflix.  I just don't have much in the way of friends, which is why I drive to Sioux Falls on a fairly regular basis to see friends from school, or just find random things to do - like Christmas at the Capitol.  Honestly, it's really hard to be single.  I can "offer it up" all I want, or try to see it as part of "suffering for the Kingdom" or whatever, but it still just really stings doing Christmas completely alone.  And it's harder having all my married friends say, "Of course it's sad that you can't see your parents, but you just start your own traditions!"  Well...that's easy to say if you come home from Christmas Eve worship and your wife and kids are there.  Or if the "new tradition" is that you put off opening presents until after Christmas Day worship that Mommy has to preach at.  When your holidays are you, and only you, it's just really, really hard, and I know hardly anyone who understands that.  My "new tradition" is Netflix, Campbell's Chunky Soup, and leftover Christmas cookies - or whatever.  I know a lot of people have it a lot harder than I do - relatives who have died or who live so far away as to be un-travelable-to or such broken relationships that they don't even really want to go home.  And it's true, I'm much better off than that...  But honestly, I'd rather argue about whose family we're going to see for Christmas this year, than be totally alone.  I'm also really struggling with being the pastor and the pastor's wife, but that's for another post...  Pray for me, please, if you're so inclined...

Going to Church: For everyone who has an excuse about why they can't come to church that really boils down to "I just didn't want to put in the effort to get there because it's not that important to me" - one of the ladies in the nursing home here just weaned herself off oxygen so that she could take the senior transit bus to church on Sundays.  I ♥ this. 

On the Other Hand: I'm working on some awesome Christmas cooking/baking projects this year, which I will definitely post pics of when I am done...

Merry Christmas, everyone - remember that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, can not, will not overcome it!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Thoughts from an alum

Given the news coming out of Luther Seminary today, I thought I'd offer my reflections.  A couple of things I write here are suggestions of actions I believe would be helpful; some are simply my thoughts, feelings, and reactions.  Other people may disagree with my suggestions, or feel, think, and react differently.  That is fine.  Also, please note: I am a very recent alum.  I am not an HR guru, a finance person, or a higher ed administrator.  I am not a current student, nor a an old-timer with a degree from LNTS.  I'm a first-call pastor at a smallish congregation in a small Midwestern town.  So, here goes.
  • I like Rick Bliese.  From his rosy Santa Claus cheeks to his "dad jeans", by all accounts, he is a good, caring person who loves Jesus and the students, faculty, and staff at Luther.  He has personally been very supportive to me during my time at seminary and in candidacy, and I feel bad that this is what eventually "had" to happen.
  • We need to be in prayer for him and his family - obviously this is a huge, and hugely negative, transition for them, down to the fact that they live in seminary housing and so will need to find a new place to live.
  • The seminary is going to have to find a way to start handling pastoral care for students.  I'm aware Luther just hired a new campus pastor - I know nothing about her except that she's supposedly good.  I hope she is, although she has no institutional memory at this point, and in times of major upheaval such as this, that can be somewhat limiting.  Others are going to have to step up.  Students on campus are literally (yes) dying for someone to care for them.  Administration is generally available to meet one-on-one, or hold a "forum" in the chapel for people to (sort of) air their concerns.  But very few individuals offer one-on-one prayers, or hugs-and-tears.  Students feel trampled-upon at frequent intervals, and the sense, I believe, is that even when policies, decisions, transitions, whatever are "good" or "right", they are handled in a way that communicates that students aren't all that important.  Just like churches that want to grow need to start asking, "If I were a visitor, how would I react to this?", Luther staff/administration needs to start asking, "If I were a student, how would I react to this?"  
  • I feel lied to.  For years, we have heard from President Bliese and others that, "Look, the economy [and the 2009 decisions] have been rough on everybody.  We're struggling, but we're making good decisions, and we're going to be okay.  We're certainly in better shape than the others."  I'm not sure whether Luther is "struggling, and not going to be okay", or whether the other 7 are already 6-feet-under, as it were.
  • This raises huge vocational questions.  What are any of us doing as pastors in the ELCA, receiving graduate education from her seminaries, when they are all barely - barely - keeping their heads above water? What is the long-term survivability of the ELCA?  And if the answer is "not much", then why are we all dragging ourselves through the torture that is candidacy?  
  • It also raises huge vocational reminders: I don't believe (or at least, I haven't heard anything that would make me think) Rick Bliese is guilty of true illegalities: fraud or embezzlement or such.  Apparently he asked forgiveness today for "poor fiscal leadership".  Mismanagement and poor leadership are not illegal, but they are sinful.  As pastors/youth leaders/professors/etc, we need to be aware that our own mismanagement and poor stewardship of what we've been given (not necessarily, or only, money) is just as sinful in the eyes of Our Lord as embezzlement. 
  • I love Luther, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.  (Well, most days...)  I love the faculty and staff, the administration, my fellow students.  I learned a lot of really awesome facts and ideas there, and I grew tremendously.  But I have a ton of educational debt, as do most of my fellow students.  The cafeteria is barely open anymore.  Contracts prevent students from purchasing the bookstore. And yet, certain individuals and departments spend ridiculous amounts of seminary funds on high-end coffee and cookies every day of the week.  There are flat-screen TVs in every corner of Northwestern and the OCC.  NW and OCC have both recently undergone major asthetic remodels, while the dorms and apartments battle bedbugs and mold year-round.  I understand that fundraising is not as simple as "write us a check, please, and make it out to 'cash'".  I understand that donors want to earmark their money for things that they might not realize aren't totally the top priority.  But the administration needs to realize that students notice these things, and fair or not, find statements about "concern for rising student debt" to sound rather platitudinous against the backdrop of a flatscreen TV  hanging on the wall in the lunchline. 
  • "Where there is no vision, the people perish."  Look, this isn't about Rick Bliese.  It's not really even about the economy, or about 2009 decisions that torqued off rich old ladies, or spending money on frivolities instead of necessities.  It's about the fact that much of the ELCA and many of her associated enterprises - Luther Seminary among them - has taken its eye off the ball.  We are told that we are to be missional - but missional about what?  A vast cohort of students, faculty, and staff (and therefore pastors, bishops, and synod staff) get more worked up about personal pronouns for God than personal relationships with God.  We are taught that to "want people to come to church on Sunday morning" indicates a lack of understanding that God works outside the church.  We are taught that the Church, and Word & Sacrament, are nice, you know, but so are justice and advocacy.  I spent more time in seminary learning about "family systems" than I did sacramental theology.  No, for realz.  I was assigned more papers about why we shouldn't evangelize, than about how and why we should.  I recognize that this is a huge indictment of the entire system, and I want to be clear that I do not, by any means, include anyone and everyone who is part of the system in this.  There remain many, many good and faithful students, faculty, staff, pastors, bishops, and synod staff.  But donors (and your average layperson trying to decide whether to venture out into the cold to go to church on Sunday, for that matter) don't get excited about advocacy for advocacy's sake, or "training students to reflect a baptismal approach to missionality blah blah blah", or even "buy your own hymnal!"  You know what's exciting?  Jesus.  Jesus is exciting because He forgives sins - our own, and everybody else's.  He is exciting because by the power of the resurrection, he transforms lives in the here and now.  He is exciting because he is constantly creating us anew, he promises us eternal life, he has already begun to set this upside-down world right-side-up again and one day he's going to finish the job, there's gonna be a new heaven and a new earth, where everything is going to be fixed, and how awesome is that going to be? Tell little old ladies that we're training pastors to reach out to the world around us and share the everlasting love of Jesus Christ.  Tell them that with passion, and conviction, like it's the best thing you've ever heard about (because it is - even better than sliced bread) and they'll start writing checks.  Tell them you've got students who are slogging through the economy just like the rest of us, but who are so in love with Jesus that they'd be here no matter what, come hell or high water, bedbugs or mold, learning how to spread the Good News in the 21st century just like Paul did in the 1st, and people will be fired up.   
So there you've got it - just some honest first impressions from the recent grad. Feel free to chime in with your own, or tell me I'm totally wrong.  But something's gotta be done, that's all I know.  And remember to pray for Rick Bliese.