Soccer and school and Holy Week

At Christmas time many Christians decry that Christmas has lost its religious identity either by retailers who do not wish customers “Merry Christmas,” or by the lack of a Christmas tree on a town hall lawn, or by the presence of Santa Claus and reindeer, or by the consumerism which surrounds a holiday dedicated to One who calls us to give not to the point of debt, but to the point of death. It’s a familiar, if wearying, annual tradition.

At Easter time we don’t hear a similar cry, even though Easter is the more important holiday on the Christian calendar (without the cross and the empty grave, the birth of Jesus means nothing). Easter Bunnies will hop at shopping malls, and our shopping goes on with hardly a protest. On Maundy Thursday my daughter has an orientation at the high school for rising 9th graders, and on Good Friday evening my other daughter has soccer practice. And each of my children will be at school on Good Friday, even as Wall Street pauses for the day that Christian societies had for centuries marked with prayer and fasting.

And this is fine with me. Christianity, and in particular the historic forms of Christianity that shaped the calendar of western society for more than a millennium, no longer holds sway over our society as it used to. However incrementally, our society is moving into post-Christendom. And we who live the Christian faith do so with marginally fewer “helps” from culture. School, youth sports, and other extra-curricular activities heap increasingly high expectations and expenses on children and families. Work hours extend into times and places that used to be considered personal. Sundays are “fun days” in the cultural vernacular.

Christians can certainly continue practicing the faith even if the broader society no longer helps us out by setting aside time on Sundays and holidays where other activities are prohibited. It is hardly oppression for my family to wrestle with the schedule conflict of school events and worship services. It is what millions of religious people who practice non-majority faiths do every day.

In fact, this cultural shift moves Christian believers, however modestly, toward the experience of Christians in the first few centuries of the faith, who practiced their faith not in societies where they held power and wide influence, but instead in societies that variously ignored them, benignly acknowledged them, looked askance at them, or even persecuted them.

As we turn to the cross and the empty grave of this Great and Holy Week, may we be renewed to live our own death and resurrection every day, trusting in God’s promises that sin and death do not have ultimate power over us. And may we find support for our lives of faith from the Body of Christ itself, the church and its richest traditions, that recall for us the mystery and power of our Lord’s Passover from death to life.

For our Lord did not come into the world to condemn it, but instead that the world might be renewed through him.

What’s Wrong With Us? We Have Hope.

Star Wars Rebels is a wonderful animated television series bridging the gap between Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (where Anakin Skywalker completes his transformation into the evil Darth Vader), and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (where Luke Skywalker rises up as a Jedi and leader of the Rebellion against the Empire). Star Wars Rebels tells the stories of a small band of rebels from the planet Lothal who resist the Empire with small scale vandalism and interference with imperial activity, but who at this point have not (yet) inspired or led a wider movement against the Empire.

Nonetheless, for their careful attacks and the presence of a Jedi among them, this band of rebels has garnered the attention of the Empire. Targeted several times for capture, they have skillfully eluded the Empire, but have also failed in their attempts to strike a bigger blow against the Empire.

In Vision of Hope, Ezra – a young boy among the rebels who is a padawan, or Jedi apprentice – rides a roller coaster of feelings. Early in the episode he has a vision that ignites in him hope that they can strike a significant blow against the Empire. Yet, the mission that forms from his vision – involving a senator the rebels thought was sympathetic to their cause, but who turned out to be working for the Empire all along – turned out to be a failure.

Screenshot from Vision of Hope: Ezra speaking with Hera

Screenshot from Star Wars Rebels episode, Vision of Hope. Ezra speaking with Hera on boarding platform of their ship, The Ghost.

At the end of the episode Ezra sits down with Hera, the pilot of the rebels’ ship. Reflecting not only the sense of failure from this mission, but from their several failed attempts to thwart the Empire, Ezra is dejected.

“What’s wrong with us?” Ezra asks.

“We have hope,” Hera responds. “Hope that things can get better. And they will.”

I love that Hera’s response to Ezra’s gloomy question – “What’s wrong with us?” – is not an answer about tactics, or manpower, or funding for their mission. And more, Hera doesn’t deny that something is wrong with them.

But instead, when asked, “What’s wrong with us?” Hera responds with a straightforward answer – “We have hope.” That’s what’s wrong with us. We have hope.

We have hope. That word hope looms large in the Star Wars canon, with echoes of Princess Leia calling out to Ben Kenobi in a holographic message in the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope. “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

Hope. Hope looms large in the Christian faith. Christians have a hope that all will be made right in God’s promised future. Isaiah 25 looks forward in hope to when all will gather at the Lord’s holy mountain and feast on rich foods and drink well-aged wine. Revelation speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. Paul writes of Christians being made into new creations. Mary proclaims of her yet-in-utero son that he will lift the lowly up and fill the hungry with good things, while knocking the mighty off their thrones and sending the rich away empty. And Jesus himself gives a glimpse of his power by healing the sick and raising the dead, offering a hope that what they done in his miracles will be commonplace in the coming Kingdom of God.

Yet, having hope can feel like a liability. “What’s wrong with us?” “We have hope.” Yes, in a world saturated in cynicism and self-reliance, having hope in a God who promises a future where death is no more and tears are wiped from our eyes is a bit strange. Belief in a God who forgives sin, raises the dead, and grants grace freely and even recklessly – well, that’s just plain bizarre. Most of what we see around us could cause us to lose hope, yet as people of faith we are also people of hope.

What’s wrong with us? We have hope. We have hope because we refuse to believe that what we see is all that there is to see … and to know, and to believe. We have hope because we know that what we see is not all there is. We have hope because we know that sin and death and brokenness are not the end of the story, but that there is a resurrection on the other side of the grave. We have hope because we know that weeping lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30).

We have hope. That’s what’s wrong with us. We have hope, in a world filled with despair.

God Sharing Your Underwear Drawer

A Christmas Day sermon preached in 2011 at Grace Lutheran Church in Saint Paul, MN. The reading for the day was John 1:1-14.

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

In this sacred season we celebrate God’s presence among us,
and we become particularly enamored of the image of the baby Jesus
being held in his mother’s arms while surrounded by farm animals
and shepherds and angels and kings.
It is quite an image, and something that brings us comfort.
Yes, the angel proclaimed to Joseph that the child shall be called
“Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”
In a world where we can feel distant from God and from each other,
where phones become a lifeline and friendships are virtual,
the news that God is with us is meant to comfort us,
to close the aching gap of distant relationships
and to surround us with love rather than loneliness.

But what if … but what if there is a side to the incarnation,
an aspect to God being with us that is less-than-comforting?
What if, like a teenager’s relationship with her parent,
we are comforted by knowing that God our parent is near to us,
we rely on the protection and care that God our parent gives to us,
we are grateful that God our parent is there for us when we need, but …
but we also like our distance,
we like to close our bedroom door to keep God our parent out,
so we can have our privacy, our own space,
some distance from God our parent.
What if we are like the teenager, who completely depends on her parent,
but isn’t entirely sure that she wants her parent around all the time?

In today’s Gospel, we read that the Word became flesh and lived among us.
Literally translated, this passage says that God’s Word took on flesh
and pitched a tent with us, took up camp alongside us, moved into our lives.
So, teenager, your heavenly parent is moving into your room.
Bringing in a pillow and taking over half the bed,
probably steeling the sheets in the process, and likely snoring at night.
All parents of teenagers snore, I think.
So uncool.

This heavenly parent of yours has moved into your room and is taking over your space,
putting totally uncool clothing in your jam-packed closet,
hanging up ABBA and BeeGees posters on your walls,
blasting cheesy disco music from your stereo,
and putting their underwear in your underwear drawer – gross!
“This is too close!” you protest. “Eww! Get out of my room. Don’t be so close.”
“You’re supposed to be a parent, like, over there, in your own room.
And do, you know, old people things, and well, stay away.
Go away. Keep your distance. I want my space.”

The Word of God, the heavenly Word, the divine presence,
the Word that spoke creation into being and which was spoken by holy prophets,
was always at some distance –
up in the heavens, or on the lips of a prophet easily ignored ….
But now this Word, this once-easy-to-keep-at-a-distance Word
has become flesh and lives among us,
has come really close, frighteningly close, in-your-face close,
sharing-your-underwear-drawer close.
Ultimately, this is Good News,
that God is so intimately close to us and with us
that we cannot get away from God’s saving, loving, and compassionate presence.
God has pitched a tent and moved into our rooms,
God has gotten in our face and isn’t going away.
It’s not all sweet and comforting, folks. At times it’s annoying as all get out.
We want our space.
But God’s not going to give it to us. Instead, God fills that space with love and grace,
a love and grace that is at times unnerving,
a love and grace that is at times overwhelming,
a love and grace that is at all times surrounding us and holding us,
leading us from death to life,
from sin to grace,
from darkness to light,
from despair to hope,
from weeping to joy,
from a manger to a cross to an empty grave …
to a new kingdom of everlasting life.

Amen.

Relationship: Parent

I recently completed a marathon of paperwork for my children’s elementary school. It is my annual handwriting workout. I write more by hand at this time of year than at any other time of the year.

  • Emergency contact forms.
  • Medical forms.
  • Tell us about your child forms.
  • School policy forms.
  • How your child gets to and from school forms.
  • Acknowledgement of receipt of homework and discipline policy forms.
  • A form to confirm receipt of forms (ok, not really)

Many of these forms ask for the names of adults and their relationship to the child.

Name: Chris Duckworth
Relationship to student: Parent

I write Parent. Not Father. But Parent.

room mom Read More

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.

Violence Pollution

Polluted air will affect a small number of people more than most. The majority who are pretty healthy will have few, if any, ill effects. Those with certain conditions will become sicker and sicker, even to the point of death.

Our cultural air has become polluted with violence, and our society littered with firearms. This pollution doesn’t trigger an ill-effect in most people who are able to filter out the pollutants. But for a small number of people with certain tendencies – and for those who happen to be nearby them – this pollution can prove to be deadly.

We need to reduce the pollutants of violence in our culture and access to firearms in our society. Reducing these pollutants hurts nobody. And benefits everybody.

Let’s consume, condone, and glorify violence less. Let’s make high capacity ammunition clips and high powered weapons harder to get.

For the sake of those who are less able to filter out the pollutants, and for those of us who unsuspectingly live and work alongside of them, let’s clean up, just a little bit, the cultural and social mess we’ve made.

Pastor’s Approach: Emergency Contact

I’ve been writing monthly articles in my church newsletter about my approach to various aspects of congregational ministry – worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, and so forth. In my experience, pastors have widely varying approaches to responding to emergencies, and congregations have widely varying expectations for their pastor’s ability to respond to personal emergencies. I wrote this article in our August newsletter to clarify my approach to responding to emergencies.

To see other articles in this Pastor’s Approach series, click on the Church Newsletter category link.

In May and in June of this year I was involved in several funerals – three in just over a week in May, and five in two weeks in June. Some of these funerals were for members of Grace. Others were for family members of members of Grace. And one was for a member at a nearby church, where I was providing emergency pastoral care while their pastor was on vacation.

In most of these situations, the people who were grieving were apologetic for reaching out to me in the evening or over a weekend. “I don’t want to bother you, Pastor Chris, but …” While I appreciate the concern that some have for my time, let me be clear – it is no bother. As your pastor, one of my responsibilities is to walk with you in your times of suffering and grief, to proclaim God’s Word to you in those moments, to offer care, and, if necessary, conduct funeral services or other rites of prayer, healing, and blessing following a traumatic event.

The truth is, however, that I will not always be immediately available. I will be on vacation at times. At other times I will be tied up with family or other church-related responsibilities. Yet most of the time my schedule is flexible, and I am generally available to be with you and your family in your time of need. If I cannot respond immediately I will let you know. I will spend some time with you on the phone, and arrange to be with you and your family as soon as I possibly can.

So if you find yourself grieving the declining health and imminent death of a loved one, or if you or a loved one show up in a hospital unexpectedly, don’t hesitate to call me – at church, or on my cell phone. I will make every effort to be with you immediately or soon thereafter, or I will spend some time with you on the phone and schedule a time to see you.

Though I do not publish my cell phone number in the church directory or in the bulletin, you can call the church office and our secretary will give it to you if you wish to reach me during an emergency. Or simply take note of my cell phone number here – (*** ***-****). Always call the church first, but if you have an emergency in the evening or over the weekend and you would like to reach me, please call my cell phone.

Emergencies come up. Loved ones die, we get sick, accidents happen. I am glad – no, I am honored – to be invited to walk with you in such times.