Social Network Liturgy: Putting down the iPhone

I will be the first to admit it. I am addicted to my iPhone.

Most days I am much more willing to risk leaving my wallet or keys unprotected than my phone. I will leave my computer bag and my wallet  in the car in bad areas of town, but I won’t leave my phone on my desk in an empty church when I go to the water cooler in the adjacent room.

0_23_ibreviary_churchElectronic devices now dominate our time and attention. It is hard for many of us to be away from the constant stream of information. I am often glancing at facebook and Twitter, reading (writing) blogs, searching for something new to read, to learn, to laugh at, to be offended by, to think about, to distract.

This morning, in his opening essay, CBC Q’s Jian Ghomeshi talked about unplugging and being present. He gave two examples of experiences, a wedding and a concert, where attendees were asked to not use, and even surrender their devices, in order to be present and fully experience the event.

This is really hard to do.

This Easter I had the chance to simply sit in the pew because I was in between calls. During the sermon, the teenager in front of me was playing games on his iPod Touch. And his dad was watching over his shoulder, and his grandma was annoyed.

I think our default reaction is to be angry at a situation like this, to feel disrespected as pastors or long time church members. But here is the thing… I don’t think that teen had a choice. I don’t think his brain and body would have let him just sit and listen. He would have probably started “iWithdrawal” 30 seconds into the sermon.

This is sad.

A few posts back I wrote about Old and New Thinking, saying that the church really doesn’t know why people have drifted away. I also said that people might start drifting back, and we won’t know why either. But I think, without really doing it on purpose, the church has become a place to unplug, to fully experience the here and now. A rarity in our world these days.

Jian Ghomeshi mentioned a wedding and concert, occasional events that most of us might experience a handful of times a year. Yet, each week as I write my sermon, study scripture, prepare worship I have to slow down and be present. Each Sunday, as our congregation gathers, I get to put down the phone entirely. I get to fully engage and be present, to experience the here and now. The church, without being any different than it is now, provides a space to do that, week after week.

Liturgical worship is at one time a fully engaged experience of the present, and at the same time, the first and oldest form of social media. As I have heard it said, liturgy is like the stream of the faithful, of ritual and tradition, of history and community, of interconnectedness with people of all times and places. We get to wade, splash and swim in it, but the stream has been here long before us and will remain long after us. In liturgy we are bound together more powerfully than Facebook or Twitter, we see more deeply than Instagram, we weave stories and threads more powerfully than Pinterest, we proclaim wider scandal than Reddit, we experience something older and more forgotten than MySpace, we seek the lost and forgotten more thoroughly than Google+.

When many in our world begin to discover our devices are really satisfying that part of our brain that drives us to eat too much, drink too much, smoke too much, use too much… places where we can put down the devices will become sought after. In fact, Jesus says something to Martha about that this week.

And a place where we can put down the device but find an incredible social experience of community deeper than any network?

Well, the church will always be that place.

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I don’t get prayer

20130716-215908.jpgThat may be an odd thing for a pastor to say.

In a couple weeks, the lectionary appointed Gospel lesson will be Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, and it has got me thinking about prayer. Now, maybe I should be more specific when I say, “I don’t get prayer”. Because I am am a pastor and I do pray a lot. And I get prayer in worship, at meal times, to open meetings, prayer with the sick and dying, with those who grieving, with those who are celebrating.

So what was my problem again?

Well, my problem is with a specific kind of prayer.

I don’t get prayer as practiced by most Christians these days, especially evangelicals. The kind of prayer that is extemporaneous, rambling, telling God to do things, prayer that all about emotion and experience, preferably euphoria. Something like this:

The prayer that so many are trying to practice is the prayer of results. There seems to be this sense in North American Christianity, that prayer can get you stuff. And yes, Jesus does say something to that effect, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

Yet, Jesus was speaking to 1st Century Jews who were fearful of God, and for whom prayer was very prescribed and formal. Jesus encouraging a very restricted audience to broaden their prayer horizon. He was NOT speaking to North Americans who are accustomed to getting everything and having what they want. He was not providing prayer as means to get the things, the outcomes, the results that we want.

So I don’t get prayer as so many of us do it today.

To me prayer is a space set aside to be mindful of the divine. It is an experience of the sacred. It is a chance let go of those things that we cannot control, instead of demanding God provide the outcomes that we want for things that are out of our control.

Prayer is acknowledging that God holds all of creation in God’s self, that God holds on all of my stuff, my issues, my problems. Yet, I don’t get to tell God what to do with them.

So… maybe I do get prayer… just not North American Christianity.

Trying Not to Burn it Down: Managing Change in the Church

20130701-143707.jpgYesterday was my 4th Anniversary of Ordination. Yes, as a Canadian, it is hard to share that day with the Americans, but it is still also my day.

In 4 years,  I have served 3 congregations. I love all 3 in different ways. Each has taught me different lessons. Each was a place to express my vocation to pastoral ministry in different ways.

With 4 years under my belt, there are a few things I am beginning to notice that seem to be common across the church (ELCIC for my experience). Throughout seminary I remember being warned, often, with this message: “You can’t make too many changes in a church”. “You only have ‘3 Blue chips’ or 3 big changes in a ministry – Use them wisely”. “You shouldn’t do anything new for 6 months.”

Often, congregations seems to give the same message. “We do things this way”, “This is how we do things around here”, “We have always done this”.

There are 2 things that this advice has taught me:

1. We are really good as churches and pastors at not rocking the boat. We were trained in seminary, and then we reinforce in our people a fear of change. We often seek to maintain the institution and we are suspicious of new things. We have been experts at “not burning down the church”. We are great at making sure everything stays safe, the same and in place.

I am just as guilty as anyone of over preparing my people for change. I give lots of advance warning. I tell people we are only “trying” something. I say it won’t be as painful as they think. All this for ideas and new things that I think will be great and go well!!!

Now before I get too cynical:

2. The advice on change is wrong. While I hear the refrains against change, they are the most hollow phrases that people seem to utter these days. Congregations are desperate for new things, desperate for things to be different than they are. And despite the advice, amazing things, Spirit-led things are happening all the time in little corners of the church everywhere.

Some of the best changes that I have made in ministry, are things that I didn’t ask permission for, that I didn’t forewarn people of and I just did. And they worked great!

The vast majority of changes I have made in parishes happened in the first year of ministry (well, I have only had a first year in two of 3 congregations). The opportunity for change seems ripest before established patterns and expectations are set between pastor and congregation.

Now, The National Convention the ELCIC and General Synod of the Anglican Church in Canada, are meeting in “Joint Assembly” this week. The ELCIC is considering how to move forward with Structural Changes that will help us “right size” for the future. The conversation has been going on for years, and the national plan for Synods has been rejected, in part, along the way.

From my vantage point, the ELCIC seems a little dazed and confused, particularly the National Office. I can’t really tell what the plan is going forward.

But if I can offer a theory.

As restructuring has been presented, skepticism has abounded (my own included). We have sounded like any parish, “That’s not the way we do things around here”. But the opportunity for change is probably as high as ever. We are all wanting something different than what is.

And not to sound critical, but merging synods, creating areas and making national convention every 3 years instead of 2, if it were compared to the parish level, just feels too much like cutting the copier budget, installing a high efficiency furnace and publishing 8 newsletters instead of 12 a year. Yes, this will all save money, and probably even help the environment, but it does not feel like real change.

I think if the changes were more dramatic, more sweeping and more outside the box… they might actually have been received with more enthusiasm.  The ELCIC is “re-structuring” itself into the ether of irrelevancy.  It feels like we are trying to maintain our institution, even if it is a skeleton crew. We are answering the question, “What can we still do with less?” We have not seemed to asked the question, “What do we actually need for ministry as Lutherans in the Canadian context? And what resources do we have to do that ministry?”

Now is the time to dream big, or not at all.

Or in other words, maybe we need to burn down the church?

The Sacred Act of Washing Dishes

UnknownAs I grow into domesticated life, I found something that I once saw as a chore to be so much more than that. Most nights I volunteer to do the dishes. My wife is the primary cook, yet often we cook together (I get to cook the meat, which I very much enjoy and she does most of the other stuff). So I take on the dishes.

Dishes, until recently, were a necessary evil of eating at home. Yet lately they are beginning to become something more. When you look around at a kitchen full of pots and pans and the chaos of meal preparation, knowing where to begin is daunting. But as soon as those first dishes find their way to the dishwasher, when food makes its way to left over containers and back into the fridge, the feeling to getting somewhere takes over and the task becomes therapeutic. The act of taking chaos and bringing order becomes ritualized as it is repeated night after night. As pots get washed and cleaned, as surfaces are wiped down and the state of the kitchen is returned to a dormant state, a state of waiting for the next meal. There is a sense of being connected to the real passing of time, to the real experience of simple life.

Michael Pollen’s interview with Jian Ghomeshi last week reminded me of my dishes ritual. As a food author, he spoke about our connection to food as human beings. How preparing, cooking, and eating food connects us to life, make us slow down. You (generally) have to put down the phone, stop the emailing, Facebook, twittering, browsing etc… to properly cook food (even if you are using a online recipe). That cooking is connection to where come from and to the cycle of life that we try so desperately to detach from most of the time.

As a Pastor, I cannot help but see how my vocation is tied, on a deep level, to the act of preparing food, sharing meals, and cleaning up afterwards. This is the ritual action that I preside over week after week. Like a waiter presenting the weekly specials, I announce the meal that is being prepared and then serve it to the gathered people.

But… there is something even more divine about the dishes. One particular night, after returning to the kitchen to the place of sane anticipation. Clean and waiting for the next meal, I observed that this must be what God experiences with us. Through mercy and forgiveness, by washing, cleaning, restoring, finding new places for partially eaten meals and preserved ingredients and left overs, God restores order and calm to our world. Sure it doesn’t take long to get messy and to become chaotic, but that is part of life. A sign of life being lived. We are like meals being cooked and served. Some days we are just sustenance, and others we are works of art and beauty. But it is God, always there, cleaning and washing, redeeming and showing mercy.

So wash the dishes and know the divine, because cleaning up is a very sacred act.

Nothing Surprises me Anymore

hellfireSo this morning I got back to the office to catch the tail end of a funeral that was happening at our church because we have a larger space than the funeral home. Even though I thought it would be long over before I returned to the church from a meeting, I caught the last 10 minutes of the hour and 45 minute long affair.

Now before going further, I will say that I grew up in Lutheran church that ran the gamut from high church Norwegian Lutherans (our family), to low church pietist types, to fundamentalist missionary types, to charismatic speaking in tongues types, to social justice advocates, to not-too-sure-if-Jesus-was-a-rea- guy-types. We all managed to get along (most of the time), in a way that showed, to some degree, the diversity of the Kingdom of God. Growing up I heard some flakey stuff about giving your heart to Jesus, choosing to have faith, and even some pretty wonky spiritual warfare ideas. Along side was traditional Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone Gospel. The kind of stoic yet firmly Lutheran saw that “we are saved by grace and not by works” (and not by choosing Jesus as our Lord and Saviour).

Jesus chooses us. That was always clear to me.

And yes, I know that there are Hellfire and Brimstone preachers our there. I know that you can find lots of “Turn or burn” stuff on the internet or on TV.

But to walk into MY church (it isn’t really mine, but I can pretend) and hear someone in my pulpit (again not really mine) telling people that if “You don’t choose the right path, there is a lake of fire waiting for you” was surreal to say the least. I have never actually heard some one say those words from a pulpit, and especially not my pulpit. I mean absolutely never ever. Not. In. My. Pulpit.

It sucks that you can’t be ready for these moments. God doesn’t email a memo ahead of time. And it super sucks to have too much integrity (or cowardice) to make the scene that this kind of stuff deserves.

So there I was, in jeans, sketchers and black clergy shirt — no tab in, and all I could muster was my best death stare from the back doors of the sanctuary, and the most imperceptible of head shakes as I listened to some guy tell 200 people that they better choose Jesus or get punted into the inferno. If the preacher/eulogizer/random guy talking at a funeral saw me, he probably didn’t know why the under dressed young adult was squinting at him from the back of the church.

The worst part was that every inch of my being wanted to liturgically body check the guy out of the chancel and apologize for this kind of nonsense being preached in MY Church and MY pulpit.

The worst part was that I felt ashamed that all the people were present wear being subjected to BAD NEWS in the midst of their grief while in the place where I had been called to the public job of preaching GOOD NEWS.

The worst part was having the clearest admission we can muster as a society, present in the building with us — a dead body — and there was no one to boldly declare, that in the face of death, God is making all of us alive, even this person who is dead, right here in front of us. Like really alive. Not just spiritually or in memory. To actually say that there is real, tangible, unimaginable Life. And God is doing it.

That was the worst part. Having a funeral in MY house (yes I know it is God’s house), the greatest opportunity to preach the resurrection as pastor (even better than Easter), and witnessing someone turn that opportunity into a shameful and bullying attempt at evangelism. That was the worst.

I still don’t know what to make of what happened, and I still have no idea what to do next time. But I do know that the longer I am a pastor, the less surprised I am by what I see.

Old and New: Thinking about the world differently

St. Peter Lutheran Church - Old BuildingSometimes I wonder if I am thinking about the world differently than most people.

There is a rhetoric going around our world and in our churches that sounds much the same.

In the world it is that inequality is growing, people are not as well off as they once were.

For churches, it is that we are shrinking, losing members and people are forgetting about us.

These statements accurately describe our current situations. Yet, what I find interesting is how most people then predict where we are going to end up.

In the world, the prediction seems to be things are getting worse, inequality will grow. The rich will get richer and the poor poorer.

In the church, the prediction is that churches will just shrink forever. And eventually all the “old folks” will die.

And this is where I think I might see things differently. 100 years churches were not really taking off. Sure many were being started, but people didn’t attend every week. There was farming to be done, weather to contend with, distances to travel. And then the world wars came and following in the 1950’s church attendance exploded, people started flocking to the institution.

In Canada and US two decades ago, real estate was touted as a safe financial bet. Pay of your mortgage and you will have saved money while the value of your house rose. And in the US the housing market collapsed, leaving people with home values much lower than their mortgage debts. We are on the cusp of a slow correction in Canada, where prices will drop after reaching all time highs.

But what I find interesting is that very few people saw it coming. Everyone thought the future would just continue on in the same direction indefinitely. Churches will shrink, houses will continue to gain value.

Just as home prices are about to fall (sales are way down nationally), the church will likely slow its shrinking. But we can’t see it. All we can predict is more of the same, despite all the evidence of history telling us that our world more patterned and rhythmic, and less stuck in ever spiralling trends.

What does this means for us Lutherans? I think it means something pretty simple: Most of us have no idea why people started drifting away from church. We point to all sorts of reasons, but in the end we really don’t know.

Well, the same will happen the other way. I could be wrong, but I think, maybe I even have a gut feeling, that people will just start drifting back.

And we will have no idea why.

And I am pretty sure that is the way God wants to keep it.

I am a pastor and I don’t care.

pastoral_careI have been reading Will Willimon lately, not his books, but his blog. I am the product of the tech generation I guess. This recent post struck me.

It is definitely worth a read, but here is a quote:

Four decades later as bishop I saw too many of my fellow clergy allow congregational-caregiving and maintenance to trump other more important acts of ministry like truth-telling and mission leadership. Lacking the theological resources to resist the relentless cloying of self-centered congregations, these tired pastors breathlessly dashed about offering their parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth.

North American parishes are in a bad neighborhood for care-giving. Most of our people (at least those we are willing to include in mainline churches) solve biblically legitimate need (food, clothing, housing) with their check books. Now, in the little free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning, or inner well-being – matters of unconcern to Jesus. In this narcissistic environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.

Willimon is writing in an American context and my sense is that we are farther a long this process up here in Canada. We were living this 20 years ago and now the need for change and the need for purpose is much clearer to most bishops, pastors and congregations… I think… I really hope it is.

4 years ago this week, I walked across the convocation stage at seminary and completed my degree. So now I am at the point of roughly equal seminary experience to parish experience. In four years, I have served 3 congregations. One smaller rural family church, one large multi staff corporate church and now a medium pastoral/program size parish. All three have had different strengths, different challenges, different experiences. But I keep coming across evidence of this “caring for me and my family” system. I read it in policies and minutes, I hear stories from parishioners and see it in the attitudes of and systems put in place by predecessors. Our church has been running on the Pastor-as-caregiver model for a while now. Heaven forbid the pastor may want to help congregations grow as disciples, that would be infringing on their individualism. I cannot say whether this situation came about at the demand of parishioners or it was a way of being church imposed by leadership, clergy in particular. But it is not working anymore.

And in 4 years of running into the evidence, it is becoming frustrating. What are we, if we are not a community that is proclaiming gospel in word and action (specifically word and sacrament)? What are we if we are not boldly announcing God’s work in the world and among us? What are if we are not at one time admitting our place in the in-ward turned selfishness of the human condition while declaring that God is redeeming and transforming all of that into a new creation? A big group therapy club and community service club.

Well… that is not what I signed up for. I am a Lutheran Pastor and I don’t care. That is to say, I am not here to care my people into heaven, and I am certainly not here to reduce to the Gospel to therapy or moralisms. On the days when I get it right, I hope that I am telling people about Jesus, and witnessing to the people and things that God cares about.

And by the grace of God, for 4 years, the people I have served have been patient enough to come along with me. Most of the time.

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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