Easter, delayed.

It was the morning after Easter when I heard that my dad was dying, and that I should come home.

Of course, my Holy Week and Easter were a bit different than normal. I wasn’t leading multiple services over multiple days at my church, as I would have at home. Called months earlier into active duty service with my National Guard unit, I was at a mobilization station getting ready to deploy overseas. I ended up traveling over Holy Thursday and Good Friday, canceling a liturgy I had planned to lead at the mobilization station chapel.

Dad holding my son, Naaman, 13 months-old at the time, at my ordination in 2008.

When I arrived overseas on Good Friday afternoon I struggled to stay awake just late enough to go to bed by 8pm. I didn’t make it to chapel that night, the first Good Friday service I’ve missed in memory. With travel and time zone lag, my sleep was off for those first few days, resulting in me waking up an hour or two before the ridiculously early sunrise here.

On Easter Monday I woke up crazy early, my sleep still off, and I noticed a text message from my brother. Please call. It was around 3am. I promptly called him, still Easter evening back home, and he told me the news. Dad was dying. Hospice was called.

There we were, in the wake of the resurrection, preparing for our father’s death.

The military post is largely quiet at that hour. Most people are asleep. I wandered from my bunk to the laundry room to an amphitheater where morale events are held, talking on the phone, crying, and shaking my fist at God.

You know, I always thought that was a metaphor, to shake your fist at God. But that night, it wasn’t. After getting off the phone with my brother and then my dear wife, and unable to go to sleep, I went for a predawn run. And on that run I cried and I yelled some more. And I shook my fist at God. Literally. I shook my fist toward the sky and shouted out. And sobbed. And ran some more.

The predawn sky that received my anger and grief on that morning run,
and responded to my shaking fist with a gorgeous array of color.

I wish I could tell you that I felt joyously comforted in that moment by the promise of the resurrection. That, like the disciples walking the road to Emmaus, my heart was warmed by the presence of Jesus by my side. But that really wasn’t the case. Jesus was by my side, I have no doubt, but it felt more like Jesus of the cross than Jesus of the empty tomb.

I know my Bible, and I know the church year, and that knowledge helps. A lot. Because in that fist-shaking, tear-streaming, ugly-crying moment I wasn’t feeling the joy of the resurrection. Not at all. I was in the depths, crying out.

Now, I know how the story progresses from the cross to the empty grave, and that knowledge comforts me. I know that Good Friday’s lament leads to Easter Sunday’s joy. Death is no more – this is what the church has taught me. And it didn’t just teach me, but the church embedded this truth deep within me with by drawing me into its liturgy and hymns and prayers and public witness and caring presence and persistent hope. And early on that Easter Monday morning as I faced my father’s death, I knew this to be true – death is no more – even if I wasn’t feeling it in that moment.

Easter was delayed for me this year. And while part of me feels robbed, I’m also at peace. Because I know that Easter will come again. I know that death is no more. That is what the church has taught me, and I know it to be true. And when my feelings recover, I’ll feel that truth again. Though, probably, it’ll feel a bit different. And that’s ok. Because faith is not the same as feelings.

Praying by Name for School Teachers and Staff

On Sunday my congregation prayed for the teachers and staff of our community’s schools. We prayed for them by name – over 100 of them.

I asked each student in my church to make a list of their teachers and their school staff – office staff, cafeteria staff, maintenance staff, etc.. To help them with this task, we had an online form on our website that families could use to submit names. We also had a My School Prayer Worksheet kids could download, complete, and bring to church. We also had blank forms at church that many kids filled out that morning.

The prayer took place during the Children’s Message, and also included a Blessing of the Backpacks (a “back to school” theme for the Children’s Message). I spoke briefly with the kids about the good and holy things they are doing at school, and the people whose holy work it is to care for them and help them learn.

After thanking God for all who care for our children and help them grow and learn, I read all the names that were given to me. It was a bit ridiculous, and it took some time to read the 100+ names (which I tried to do with speed yet also with dignity), but it was so worth it. Praying by name for our teachers and school staff was a powerful experience, and a very vivid reminder of all the people in our community who are committed to the care and education of our children. One member of the church commented that it was great not only to pray for her kids’ current teachers, but to pray for teachers her children had in previous years whose names were submitted by younger children in the congregation.

At the end of the prayer the congregation cheered and let out an enthusiastic applause. It may have been a cheer of relief at the end of such a long prayer … but I’m much more inclined to think that the congregation was truly joy-filled by naming in prayer so many teachers and caregivers whose vocation it is to nurture our children in learning and growth. Such people truly merit not only our prayers but also our cheers. I’m glad we did both.

11870924_10206321051079286_7337353756989982197_nAfter the Children’s Message and prayer, I spread the prayer sheets over the altar. Those names were there as I preached (yes, I preach from the altar), led the Prayers of Intercession, and as I presided at Holy Communion. It was particularly powerful for me – and I shared this observation with the congregation – to prepare to serve the food and drink of the Lord’s Supper as the names of cafeteria workers graced the altar. Holy Food. Holy People. Holy Callings.

It was a good Sunday, and an experience I’ll certainly do again in the future.

Why I Left the Revised Common Lectionary Behind

The Revised Common Lectionary, as it appears in the front of the pew edition of Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

On many occasions I have been asked by friends and colleagues why I do not use the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in my congregation. Often these questions come from a place of honest curiosity. Sometimes they come from a place of liturgical condescension. Either way, my answer is rather simple – it’s mostly because of how the RCL treats the Old Testament. But there’s more.

So, here are the reasons why I left the RCL behind.

1. The RCL presents Old Testament texts only in relation to the Gospel text. This is pretty bad.

“[T]he Old Testament reading is closely related to the gospel reading for the day” (Introduction to the Revised Common Lectionary, 11). This is problematic in that Old Testament texts are chosen only in relation to a gospel counterpart. The result of this pairing is that the story of God’s grace and promise in the Old Testament is told in no sequence or narrative but only as it relates to, or previews, a gospel parallel. Whereas the gospel moves sequentially each week, chapter by chapter through the story of the life of Jesus, the Old Testament reading jumps around to provide no sequence or cohesive story of God’s work among the people Israel.

For example, for the six weeks from the Third Sunday after Epiphany through to the Eight Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, we read from parts of chapters 4, 5, and 6 of the Gospel of Matthew. For the first reading, we read from Isaiah 9, Micah 6, Isaiah 58, Deuteronomy 30, Leviticus 19, and Isaiah 49. While these pairings are appropriate and shed light on the context of the Gospel, as a unit these selections do not tell a coherent story of God’s movement among God’s chosen people.

The RCL identifies the “problem” of how to read and use the Old Testament in Christian worship (Introduction, 40-44). Bafflingly, it paints extremes of excluding the Old Testament altogether from Christian worship (on one hand), or of reading it only as Scripture and prophesies that have been fulfilled by the New Testament writings (on the other hand). It rightly recognizes that the Old Testament is Scripture that can be read and exegeted in its own right. Yet, it oddly suggests that attempts to do so would result in reading Old Testament texts “at eucharistic worship, or Christian worship in general, as though there were no linkage with Christian belief and prayer” (Introduction, 42). “No linkage”? This is laughable. The editors of the Revised Common Lectionary seem here to forget that Scripture is read in worship surrounded by Christian hymns, prayers, preaching, and sacraments.

For about half of the year the RCL offers an alternate cycle of “semi-continuous” Old Testament readings. In Year A this cycle begins in Genesis; in Year B in 1 Samuel; and, in Year C in 1 Kings. This semi-continuous cycle corrects some of what I find problematic in the RCL, if only for half of the year … much of which falls during the summer months (see #4, below).

2. The RCL is too focused on the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

There’s lots of Good News throughout Scripture, Old Testament and New Testament. And though the RCL covers lots of Scripture in its three year cycle, it does so with an unnecessarily limiting orientation to the first four books of the New Testament. Christian preachers are more than capable of proclaiming, and Christian congregations are capable of hearing, the wonder of God’s saving work without a requisite weekly reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. This is especially true in liturgical and sacramental traditions, whose liturgies and hymns are filled with imagery from the Gospels.

3. The RCL skips the Old Testament during the most important season of the church year.

The RCL replaces the Old Testament reading with passages from the Acts of the Apostles during Easter. Acts is fantastic. This is true. But that it supersedes the Old Testament reading during the Easter season does a disservice to the relationship we claim exists between the Old Testament promise and the New Testament’s witness to the resurrection.

4. The year is all off.

I know. The church year begins in Advent, and the RCL has a beautiful internal integrity that flows throughout the cycle of the church year. Yet, most of our congregations follow a program year calendar that closely tracks the school year. Sunday School, youth group, men’s or women’s groups, and other ministries often meet during the school year, and often take the summer off. Attendance dips during the summer, and in August or September the programming kicks up – and so does the attendance. September is the start to a new year. Many of our congregations fit into the RCL’s December-November cycle awkwardly, at best. Meanwhile, the internal integrity of the RCL is lost as major portions of the life and ministry of Jesus are proclaimed during the summer months of low attendance and suspended Christian education.

5. The unity achieved by the RCL is overstated. 

When I share that I set aside the Revised Common Lectionary, I am often asked about the unity that the RCL fosters.

The unity of the church is found in Christ, in the proclamation of the Word and the sharing of the sacraments, and in our shared witness to the resurrection. It is too easy to overstate the significance of a shared cycle of readings – as if the unity of the church depended on the selection of readings for worship! Most of the “unity” fostered by the RCL’s cross-denominational use is experienced by clergy in text studies, online clergy groups, worship planning resources, and so forth. Very few and very far between are stories of Lutheran and Presbyterian laity gathering for lunch after worship to talk about their pastor’s sermons on the same texts. And while common practices across church bodies are perhaps desirable, the churches that use the RCL inhabit a shared theological space and heritage such that any variation in their Sunday reading schedules would hardly inhibit the unity they already have in liturgical practice or public witness.

“But you’re tearing the church apart by abandoning the RCL!” Congregations that set the RCL aside are hardly abandoning the unity of the church. A Christian community that selects an alternate lectionary or develops its own is more than capable of teaching and preaching and carrying out acts of service and care. Such congregations continue to proclaim Christ within and beyond their walls. Such congregations continue to follow the ebb and flow of the church’s principal festivals. Most continue to gather around Word and Sacrament. Setting aside the 1992 RCL is hardly a crushing blow to church unity. Claiming the lectionary is a linchpin to church unity does a disservice to the unity we share with Christian churches that do not use the RCL.

 


 

I didn’t depart from the Revised Common Lectionary lightly. I take seriously its wisdom and beauty and yes, its shared use. I’ve written prayers for Bread for the Day, a Revised Common Lectionary daily devotional. And, I have at times in my life committed to daily prayer rooted in the movement of the RCL’s daily lectionary.

Nonetheless, as noted above, I find the RCL lacking mostly for its treatment of the Old Testament, but also its calendar orientation that doesn’t fit well with the life cycle of my (and many other) congregations. When I began looking for alternatives to the RCL over three years ago, I considered the Narrative Lectionarya year-long program such as The Story; or a series of shorter-term thematic series. I ultimately landed on the Narrative Lectionary, and have found it to be a wonderful guide for using Scripture in worship, and I have found its online community to be faithful, diverse, and creative.

Originally published in August 2015. Lighted edited December 2017

Mormon Bashing

“‘All things are lawful,'” but not all things are beneficial.
All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” – 1 Corinthians 10:23

This week The Current in Westfield and The Current in Carmel included a 12-page “advertising supplement” entitled “Non-Mormon Temple Visitors Guide.” In this “guide” provided by Tri-Grace Ministries of Ephraim, Utah, you’ll read all kinds of claims about the Mormon faith written by non-Mormons and by people who claim to be former Mormons.

Twice on the first page this “guide” refers to Mormon teaching as “deception.” I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that this is not an entirely fair “guide.”  This guide may be sincerely written by people of faith, but it is harmful to our community and particularly to our Mormon friends and neighbors.

“‘All things are lawful,'” but not all things are beneficial.
‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” – 1 Corinthians 10:23

It is entirely lawful for The Current to run this “advertising supplement.” The First Amendment protects and guarantees their free speech and that of the authors of this “advertising supplement.” But this massive “advertising supplement” is not beneficial. It does not build up our community.

It is not beneficial for a newspaper that arrives at every single house in our ZIP Code to distribute such a “guide” that dismisses as “deceptive” the teachings, practices, and faith of the Mormon Church. This “advertising supplement” is a form of public bullying, disparaging the faith and church of many of our neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. Mormonism is a minority religion whose adherents have, for much of their history, been bullied, harassed, persecuted, and chased out of town. That ugly tradition continues with this “advertising supplement.”

Next week will The Current run a 12-page screed against Jews? Roman Catholics? Muslims? Lutherans? Homosexuals?

No matter what theological qualms some may have about the Mormon Church (or the Roman Catholic Church, or Islam, or Lutheranism, or whatever), it does not build up our community when a public asset such as The Current distributes divisive and biased literature to every single household in our community. Rather than spread divisive and biased literature, The Current should seek mutual understanding, interpret the words, faith, and actions of our neighbors in the best possible light, and celebrate when members of our community celebrate (such as our Mormon friends are doing this week with the opening of their new Temple).

Martin Luther, in his teaching on the 8th Commandment (“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”), says:

We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

I am attending an Open House at the new Mormon Temple in Carmel next week. I am doing so to learn more about the Mormon faith so that I can “come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” I am also attending the Open House so that I can stand with my friends and neighbors against the unfair attacks and slander they experience all too often.

Theological differences between the Mormon Church and the Lutheran Church are real. But so too is the unfair treatment our neighbors, friends, and fellow children of God of the Mormon Church receive to this day. My friends and neighbors don’t deserve to receive, on their doorstep, such a publication. I cannot remain silent. I have to speak out.

For me, living a life of faith is not about projecting my faith into the public square to the detriment of others, or seeking public assets – be they government or business – to enshrine and propagate my faith through their power and reach. Instead, living a life of faith is about coming to the defense of my neighbors, seeking the good of the community – particularly the most vulnerable and “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) – living into the promises of the coming Kingdom of God, and having the opportunity to worship and live according to the dictates of faith.

I pray for mutual understanding among the faith communities of Westfield and Carmel.
I pray for a renewed commitment by our communities to seek the common good.
I pray for God’s grace to strengthen us, and especially those oppressed by bigotry and prejudice of any kind.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

UPDATE – Saturday, July 11

After three days I have turned off comments on this post, as the conversation in the comment thread was no longer constructive. We all seem to be talking past each other. Thank you for the conversation and for sharing your different points of view on this matter.

Blessings.

Decline of What?

The church is in decline.

Sure, I guess. But, what do you mean by that?

city-methodist-cathedral-2

Membership is down in many congregations. Average weekly attendance is down, too. They are down as compared to 1965. They are down as compared to 1985. They are down, in many places, as compared even to 2005. There has been a general decline in the church.

And it’s not just people. There’s not enough money. Ministries – campus ministries, urban ministries, youth ministries – are being closed down or cut back due to lack of funding. And the buildings. They are crumbling. Literally, crumbling

The church is in decline.

Sure, I guess. But, what do you mean by that?

[Confused that I asked the question again]

No, not what do you mean by decline. You already covered that. This time I’m asking about what you mean by church. What is this “church” that is in decline?

The church on the corner. It has beautiful stained glass windows, dark wood pews, and a fellowship hall. Two worship services. Sunday school classes and Vacation Bible School. A seniors group and, sometimes, a youth group. It’s a place where people come to learn and grow and be together and worship and serve. That’s the church that’s in decline. 

OK. Glad we got that cleared up. The institution that we’ve come to know and love, the institution that we have called “church” all these years, is in decline. Yes. But, I’m unwilling to say that “the church” is in decline. You see, it all depends on what you mean by “church.”

church n  a big building on a corner lot with one (or more) full-time pastor(s) and other staff members, where people of a common faith gather for weekly worship and Bible study, a variety of fellowship, program, and service ministries, youth programs, education, etc.

church n the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.

Increasingly we are unable to sustain the first definition of church. That first definition represents a model of being church that was born in an era that has come and gone, an era in which church was seen as a prestigious community institution to stand alongside government and civic institutions. It is a way to do church that thrived on historically high rates of church participation, a culture that embraced (certain forms of) religion, and a post-war economic boom. It is a way to do church that was funded by an unusually high volume of offerings given faithfully by the unusually high numbers of people who attended church. Lots of good and faithful ministry happened in this model of being the church, but it is a model that does not thrive in today’s cultural and economic climate as much as it did in the past.

Today, church participation rates are leveling out in relation to historical trends. Today, the church does not have as vaunted a privileged place in society as it once did. Today, household discretionary income is at historic lows, debt levels are skyrocketing, and good paying jobs for young and middle aged people are harder to find. Today’s culture and economy simply do not support the model of church that thrived in the mid 20th century.

Too often when we speak of “church decline” we speak of the inability to maintain the buildings and staffing and programming of the 20th century church. We speak of an inability to pay the bills. Fair enough. But buildings and staffing and programming (and money to fund these) are not the church. A lack of funds represents a decline in how we do church, but not in church itself.

People, gathering at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave to give God their praise and receive God’s many blessings – that is church. Or, to prayer groupuse traditionally Lutheran lingo, the church is “the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly” (the second definition, above, from the Augsburg Confession VII). Or, to quote Professors Wengert and Lathrop, “Church is not a noun; it is a verb, an event, or, to use the language of the sixties, a happening” (Christian Assembly: Marks of the Church in a Pluralistic Age, pg 27). Church is that encounter with God’s Word that puts sin to death and gives rise to a new creation. Such an understanding of church doesn’t require dedicated buildings, staff, or programs.

In some places the received model of church – building, program ministries, staff – is working well. Thanks be to God! Let us pray for the church to thrive in such a way! Yet in a growing number of communities this model of being the church is struggling.

Many of our attempts to renew the church today are aimed at renewing the 20th century model of church, at renewing the received model 0f church supported by a building, pastor, and programs. I hope and pray that such renewal efforts bear fruit, and indeed it seems that some such efforts are bearing fruit. Praise be to God!

Nonetheless, I think we need the creative and faithful imagination to conceive of, and the courage to be, church in drastically new ways, as well. Alongside familiar and renewed models of church, let us also live into new ways of being the church. Such new ways might look like extremely old ways (see Acts and the early church), ways that may have fewer of the trappings of the (beloved) institutional church. Such new/old ways of being church might have a different kind of intimacy, meeting in living rooms and coffee shops rather than in grand sanctuaries. Such new/old ways of being church may have less reliance on professional clergy and more reliance on the shared wisdom and faith of the community. Such new/old ways of being church might find an essential connectivity in social media, just as Saint Paul used social media (letters that were passed around among early Christians) to connect with and encourage the earliest Gentile churches.

Particularly in those areas where the received model of being the church is not thriving, but also alongside established congregations, such new/old ways of being church can renew our experience of a Christian community that gathers at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave. Such new/old ways of being church can faithfully gather God’s people around Word and Sacrament and be that community of sinners redeemed and saints sent into the world to love and serve.

The church church is not in decline as much as the way we do church is in decline. Let us nurture established congregations into ever more faithfulness and vitality, and let us also give birth to new/old communities that live into the promises of God in new ways for this new day.

Learning How to Give

You’d think it wouldn’t take much to learn how to give. Just reach into your pocket and give, right?

franpitre-boysfightovertoy2Of course, if you’ve ever spent time in a preschool, you know that there is often a reluctance in giving and sharing. Sharing toys doesn’t come naturally. Giving that toy to Bobby is even harder.

I was raised by parents who, each in their own way, were generous with their time and treasure. They modeled giving. As a young adult I strived to follow their model, often volunteering for and giving financial gifts to those organizations that were important to me, particularly the church.

But I didn’t start giving in a more significant, sacrificial way, until I met Larry. Larry hired me to work in the development office at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I was young, about to get married, and this was my first job where I was expected to wear a tie to work every day. I was working in fundraising, and after a few weeks on the job Larry asked me for my pledge.

My pledge?

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Creating Space for Communion Before Baptism

Who is welcome to receive Holy Communion?

Are all invited to receive the sacrament? All baptized Christians? Or, all baptized Christians who believe that Christ is truly present in the sacrament? Variations on these three invitations can be found printed in worship bulletins across our church.

Communion in the HandThe longstanding understanding of the church is that communion is for the baptized, a teaching that is upheld in The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on The Practice of Word and Sacrament, adopted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1997.

THE HOLY COMMUNION IS GIVEN TO THE BAPTIZED Principle 37
Admission to the Sacrament is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the Church to those who are baptized.

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