Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Narrative of Place for the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia

What follows is a proposal for a January term independent study at LTSP.  It's in preparation for the beginning of GreenFaith certification program for the campus.  I'd love to hear what you think and would love suggestions, especially in terms of my bibliography.  Thanks!

On October 4th, 1889 a new campus in Mount Airy was dedicated for the then twenty-five year old Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. As part of the day’s festivities, Reverend George H. Gergbending delivered a greeting to new seminary, of which the first stanza read:

      School of the prophets, hail!
      Removed to regions fair,
      We greet thee in thy bright, new home,
      Engirt with beauty rare.
      We greet thy buildings all!
      How beautiful they stand!
      Their turrets, walls, foundation stones,
      So nobly wrought and planned!

While still bright and beautiful, much has changed on the LTSP campus over the last 122 years. What was then a newly constructed dormitory is now our recently renovated Brossman Center. Instead of the Krauth Memorial Library, an old barn stood on the northwest side of campus. In 1889 spacious verandas still surrounded the former summer home of James Gowen, now known as the Hagan Center.

It is a proposition of this study that through many changes a “narrative of place” has been constructed by the women and men who lived, studied, worked and worshiped at LTSP. The land has a story, populated by a diverse cast of characters that includes nobly wrought buildings, an ancient now dying tree and a recently repainted statue. This story has a complex plot with a central problem: how can LTSP best serve the church, Christ’s body on earth. Like all good stories, this narrative of place affects all those who relate and contribute to it: what do the Caucasian depictions in the chapel windows tell to the prospective African-American student? What does the seminary’s playground tell to the many neighbors who use it? This study will ask how is a narrative of place constructed on the LTSP campus, what is that current narrative and how does it affect the faith life of those who encounter it.

The proposed study will be for one credit, with evaluation done through a thirty-page paper. Besides original research through interviews, reading the seminary’s self studies and review of historic materials in Rev. Dr. John Kaufmann’s old office, the following bibliography will inform this study:

Berry, Wendell. The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays, Cultural and Agricultural. San
Francisco: North Point Press, 1981.

Brueggemann, Walter. The Land: Place As Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith.
Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.

Jarvis, Elizabeth Farmer. Mount Airy. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub, 2008.

Inge, John. A Christian Theology of Place. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2003.

Orsi, Robert A. Gods of the City Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington, IN:
Indiana University Press, 1999.

Pahl, Jon. Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place. Grand Rapids, Mich:
Brazos Press, 2003.

Sheldrake, Philip. Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity. Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Tappert, Theodore G. History of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia: 1864-1964.
Philadelphia: The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, 1964.

The Faith Community's Role at OccupyPhilly

I've been meaning to write a second theological reflection on my experience with OccupyPhilly for a while now.  I just watched this footage from ABC6 below, and boy, it's so compelling I had to write something:

Obviously, emotions have very much escalated since police began evicting the OccupyPhilly community from Dilworth Plaza.  While I've haven't personally been able to make it down there in recent days, from email updates I've read it is very clear that the Interfaith Working Group has been working hard to cool tensions and develop productive alternatives to occupying Dilworth Plaza.  Especially after seeing tonight's footage, it looks like OccupyPhilly needs the help of our local faith community to help keep the peace more than ever.

God's peace,

UPDATE (7:02 AM): Right originally posting this I came upon some more footage on OccupyPhilly Media. It looks like from some of the following footage that things were really quite bad tonight:

Are police really trampling folks with horses and pulling knives on people? While this news is still unsubstantiated, I believe our faith community really needs to actively observe what's now happening at OccupyPhilly to help prevent further violence.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Climate Changed

A couple weeks back I had the pleasure of attending PennFuture's annual Southeastern PA climate conference at the The Franklin Institute in Philly as part of my fieldwork with Lutheran Advocacy Ministries of PA.  It was a tough but informative experience for me... as a person of faith I'm glad to have learned more about how climate change is already affecting God's creation, but some of what I learned was difficult to bear.  PennFuture is an organization dedicated to "creating a just future where nature, communities and the economy thrive" through advocacy, organizing, legal services and public policy analysis.  The theme for this year's conference was "Climate, Changed: Extreme Weather and the Need to Take Action."  After some opening remarks, Katherine Gayewski began the evening by discussing Philadelphia's local efforts to both curb climate change and prepare for it's inevitable consequences.  As Director of Sustainability for Philadelphia, Katherine's work centers around implementation of Mayor Nutter's ambitious Greenworks initiative to make Philly "the number one green city in America by 2015."  It seems like a far fetched idea, but of the program's fifteen specific goals, some were already 60% to 70% met after only a year.  Katherine stated that climate change is already well underway, and our focus must shift from prevention to adaptation and minimization.  For instance, through the Greenworks program, Philadelphia is working to adapt for increased storm water runoff but is also moving reduce the city's emission of green house gases by 20%.

Dr. Howard Kunreuther, professor and director of the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at UPenn's Wharton School of Business, discussed long-term strategies to mitigate the financial risks associated with climate change.  "Business folks" are unfortunately somewhat unpopular in green circles yet Dr. Kunreuther presented a very enlightening perspective on climate change that can hopefully change that mindset.  There's over $10 trillion of risk from the coast of Northern Maine to Texas, most of which is largely uninsured against an increase of extreme weather events like floods and hurricanes.  Unfortunately, only 20% of people who buy flood insurance keep it after eight years, largely due to human psychology.  Dr. Kunreuther made a number of public policy proposals that could better fit flood insurance to the short time frames people think in.

The highlight of the event though was Dr. Heidi Cullen's presentation on the science and public perception of climate change.  Unfortunately, things haven't gone too well in recent years.  While media coverage of climate changed increased greatly after the release of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth in 2008 and 2009, coverage has greatly dropped off since the beginning of our recent recession.  After recent campaigns to falsely challenge the validity of science and the last Congress's failure to pass cap and trade legislation, the climate change community has largely been scrambling to find a next move.  Since most advocacy organizations put all their effort into passing national cap and trade legislation, it's been only recently that the focus has shifty to more local efforts like Philly's Greenworks program.  The Earth's average temperature has already risen well over one degree and in that same period the Northeast US has experienced a 67% increase in extreme weather events.  Unfortunately, the climate has already changed and our focus must shift from prevention to adaptation and minimization.

Wow, that was a whole lot of doom and gloom huh?  What's a faith leader to make of all this, and what role does the faith community have when dealing with climate change anyway?  The church  course should be serving as a moral conscience for the world and to do this faith leaders first need to help their parishioners reconnect with God's creation... only then will folks become more invested in the issue.  Knowing the magic and beauty that is in God's gift of creation, people will respond.  Then, begin thinking about how your own faith community can begin not only minimizing it's carbon footprint but also modelling good adaptation practices for parishioners... does your church have proper flood insurance and storm-water management systems for instance.  Being a prophetic witness by leading parishioners in advocating for local and federal public policies that curb climate change is also important.  God's creation is certainly groaning, but boy, there's a whole lot that we as people of faith can do to help.

God's peace,

Lion King Wedding Sermon

My first crack at a wedding sermon.  For those that know me, the inspiration for "Bobby" and "Sue" is pretty obvious.  I'm practice preaching this on Thursday and would love to hear some feedback.  Thanks friends!

Sue and Bobby, it was a great pleasure getting to know you over the past couple months.  It was amazing to hear your life stories, how you met, and to learn about your hopes and dreams for the future.  One thing that I found particularly striking was how Bobby often cited the Lion King when speaking about love and the meaning of marriage.  Since you’re both seminarians studying for a life of service in the church, I found this pattern a little bit odd.  Given your interest in psychology, Sue, I suppose it was a pretty interesting case study to hear how Bobby came up with such a wacky notion.  A couple weeks back after one of our meetings though, I decided to watch the Lion King for the first time in years and upon closer examination I have come to understand that Simba and Nala do in fact have something to tell us about the mystery of marriage.  That message is quite clear during the “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” scene:

Sure, there’s a lot idealism and over simplification of love in the Lion King… while you will have many nights and days where you can feel the love, many times when there is a romantic atmosphere or when the world is in perfect harmony, that of course won’t always be the case.  A peaceful life together may mean one that’s often quite mundane.  There will be other times without peace, when the trials and tribulations of your life together may be hard to bear.  The love of God, and your love for each other however, will provide support and comfort through both the sorrows and joys of life.  As it written in 1 Peter, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins… Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

Simba of course wasn’t perfect, and despite the love he felt that night he was still pretty worried about his shortcomings…  Having given up both the vanity of childhood and his calling to be king of the Pride Lands, Simba was burdened by a deep sense of guilt.  Simba may be a lion, but in such guilt he was human, all too human.  Nala, wasn’t perfect either… how many times for instance do you think she lied to her mom about just going to the watering hole only to get herself in trouble?  The thing though is that living amidst the scars, missteps and adversity of life Simba and Nala were given the gift of each other.  Sue and Bobby, you’re people, you’ve faced difficult pasts... your life together will not be perfect either.  Amid those though imperfections God will be there to forgive and to heal through the saving grace of Christ’s sacrifice.  God has given you the gift of each other, and you have in fact been called by God to love and serve each other through better and worse.

Timon really had it wrong in the beginning of the song… he didn’t actually have anything to worry about.  Simba was called to do a lot of things besides just loving and caring for Nala… he was still called to be a good friend to Timon and Pumba for one.  Both Nala and Simba were called to free and then lovingly lead all the animals living in the Pride Lands.  You too will love and serve your Creator in many vocations, empowered by the gift of each other and responding to the gift of God’s saving grace in Christ.  The married life is not perfect of course, and it’s not the only way on can serve God.  All gathered here today have been called to serve in any number of ways.

Sue and Bobby, today is the day to join with friends and family and celebrate what God is calling you toward… a new life together.  Today is the day to celebrate your love for each other, the day to celebrate the gift and mystery of marriage and to celebrate the gift of God’s love. With God’s help, you will have many more such happy days together.  Through good times and bad though, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.  Simba and Nala of course weren’t perfect.  However, through the gift of love however they were able to steal through the uncertainties of the night… to become the king and queen they saw inside each other.  May you too have such a blessed life together, faithfully serving each other and feeling the love of God tonight and forever.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

All Are Hungry in Christian Community

As I sit in CT on the night before Thanksgiving, watching to make sure a pot of sweet potatoes cooking for tomorrow doesn't boil over, I'm thinking a whole lot about what it means to feed the hungry in Christian community.  I often say we're all hungry, we're all really hungry...  Whether we're physically hungry, hungry to be remembered and accepted or (as we all are) hungry for the gospel, Christian community is a place where we can be hungry together, and feed each other as well.

Just this past week, amidst the flood of papers and assignments that is a fact of life the week before Thanksgiving vacation at seminary, I took two breaks for dinners where Christian community was definitely on the menu.  As part of my ongoing fieldwork with Lutheran Advocacy Ministries of PA, I attended two "empty bowl dinners" held at Arcadia University and Chestnut Hill, both to benefit a great ministry organization called Interfaith Hospitality Network.  The "empty bowl dinner" is an absolutely amazing fundraising idea where clay bowls are donated by local artisans (or school kids in art class) and are then used to eat a whole lot of soup donated by local restaurants.  I wasn't just there for a bowl of soup though (despite really enjoying a few)... my main goal was getting folks to sign a postcard campaign asking Mayor Nutter to develop a hunger plan for the City of Philadelphia.  Despite being a city where one in four residents are hungry, Philadelphia currently doesn't have specific goals to work toward on the issue.

Through a coalition of City Soup, Philabundance, the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, LAMPa and other local organizations, thirty thousands advocacy postcards have already been sent out to local congregations and other groups.  Due to the success of the campaign, twenty thousand more postcards have been printed.  If you're at all interested in getting your congregation or organization involved with the campaign, please send me an email at or simply post a comment to the blog.

From the many conversations I had over two empty bowl dinners, I learned that the petition campaign is doing a lot more than just advocating for a hungry plan in Philadelphia... it's reminding folks how much the church really matters to this city, and how much this city matters to the church as well.  I spoke with a number of people who were 'spiritual' but not involved with a specific congregation who said it was amazing that organized religion was moving beyond directly feeding people and advocating for ending hunger on a systematic level.  I even talked with a couple families who said that the petition campaign was a great reminder to get involved with a congregation again.  Most profoundly, one person told me that they were "hungry for a church that does what matters."

Christian community is a place where hungry people come to support each other in whatever their hunger is and be fed... by food, by fellowship and by the gospel.  By asking folks to sign orange postcards at two empty bowl dinners, I definitely experienced Christian community, and that's something I'm truly thankful for.  Looks like that pot might finally be about to boil over... have a blessed Thanksgiving!

God's peace,

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Grounded in the Cross: A Lutheran Theology of Education, Pt. 2

The following is the second of two posts, separated because of length.  End notes included at the end of each post.  Please comment with your thoughts and criticism!

     If a community centered on the cross is one where all members both learn and teach, then Christian education necessarily becomes an expression of Christian vocation.  All believers, not just clergy, are called by God to a number of vocations in the waters of baptism:

For Christian perfection is to fear God earnestly with the whole heart and yet also to have a sincere confidence, faith, and trust that we have a gracious, merciful God because of Christ; that we may and should pray for and request from God whatever we need and confidently expect help from him in all affliction, according to each person’s vocation and walk of life; and that meanwhile we should diligently do external good works and attend to our calling.[1]

All believers are called to serve God according to their vocation not out of a need for self-justification but rather as a spontaneous response to God’s saving act through Christ. During preaching and teaching, multiple vocations are exercised. When teachers and pastors exercise God given vocations, students also fulfill a calling to learn more about God and grow in faith. Congregations teach (and learn from) their neighbors about the meaning of community by feeding the hungry. When a child teaches his or her parents by saying something profound after Sunday worship, that child is following a vocation to be part of the body of Christ.

      Parenting is a particularly strong example of how education is an expression of Christian vocation. In the Large Catechism Luther suggests that God specifically honors parenting as a vocation: “God has given this walk of life, fatherhood and motherhood, a special position of honor, higher than that of any other walk of life under it… he distinguishes father and mother above all other persons on earth…”[2] Luther also identifies education as part of a parent’s vocation: “… it is the duty of every head of a household at least once a week to examine the children and servants one after the other and ascertain what they know or have learned of it, and , if they do not know it, to keep them faithfully at it.[3] Furthermore, teachers and government officials reflect and support a parent’s vocation:

For all other authority is derived and developed out of the authority of parents.  Where a father is unable by himself to bring up his child, he calls upon a schoolmaster to teach him; if he is too weak, he seeks the help of his friends and neighbors; if he dies, he confers and delegates his responsibility and authority to others appointed for the purpose.[4]

Through the vocational calls of parenting, governing and teaching, individuals can learn and good order is established, thereby creating a fertile environment for the gospel to propagate.

     A Christian community centered on the cross recognizes that God’s calling to teach and spread the gospel is best carried out in a well order society. Such a community also humbly acknowledges it cannot properly educate believers all on it’s own. A Christian community centered on the cross therefore advocates for a strong education system that equips all individuals to fulfill their God given vocations. As Luther argues in To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany:
…if children were instructed and trained in schools, or wherever learned and well-trained schoolmasters and schoolmistresses were available to teach the languages, the other arts, and history, they would then hear of the doings and sayings of the entire world… Thus, they could in a short time set before themselves as in a mirror the character, life, counsels and purposes – successful and unsuccessful- of the whole world from the beginning; on the basis of which they could then draw the proper inferences and in the fear of God take their own place in the stream of human events.[5] 
All types of quality education are necessary to maintain a well-ordered society where the gospel can spread and individuals can practice their God given vocations. Therefore, from the perspective of vocation and evangelism, all education is Christian education.

      While all education is Christian education, the humility of the cross compels us to admit that the church cannot fully educate believers without the help of our wider society. What then does the cross tell us about what must be taught specifically in the church school? What is our role as Christian educators? Paul Tillich’s theology of education provides an answer. In Theology of Culture Tillich identifies three distinct aims of education. The technical aim teaches specific skills and arts. The humanist aim develops the full potentiality and pursuit of truth for an individual while the inductive aim instructs and initiates the individual into a culture’s symbols and values.[6] Tillich’s diagnosis of how these three aims have been co-opted by contemporary society seems quite accurate:
…the educational idea of our present society in this and other Western countries shows heavy problems and deep inner conflict. Certainly it serves well the aim of inducting the new generations into the demands of the monstrous process of mass production and mass consumption… it is being trained in the special skills, partly by vocational schools, but mostly be participation in the different crafts, arts, and professions themselves… the [humanist] way in this country is a kind of permissiveness which makes it possible for young people to express their willfulness and aggressiveness uninhibited by a stern discipline, but in such a way that after several years an astonishing adjustment to the demands of contemporary society has taken place and the revolutionary spirit of the young has evaporated.[7]
Our current educational environment only inducts students into an American civil religion of consumerism and hyper-individualism. It develops the skills and potentialities of an individual only so far as to make them productive in that system.

     What then is the role of the church school? A church school centered on the cross must compensate for however our current education system fails to proclaim the gospel and promote good social order. In communities where the technical aim of education is not met by public schools, the church either advocates for reform or works to provide better vocational training. In a society that has generally failed to meet the humanist and inductive aims of education, the church school works to fill the gap. It begins by teaching the stories, symbols and values of the faith at a level appropriate to a student’s stage of development. The church school then helps the student identify existential questions and potentialities. Here is where the contemporary church school generally fails both children and adults, and it is certainly where the church school failed me back in first grade. As students develop existential questions, Christian educators show how the symbols and values of the faith can provide answers. As Bonhoeffer observes in Acts 2.42, “teaching means preaching” and “the church continued in the apostle’s teaching.”[8] Church schools must teach the universally saving message of the gospel in a way speaks specifically to an individual’s questions and context. The task of teaching is also never ending one. Believers always need to hear that God has chosen them, that by God’s grace they have been saved in Christ, through faith.

      Drowned and reborn in the waters of baptism every day, believers are hungry for the gospel… they are really hungry! Grounded in the cross, Christian education delivers that gospel message, comforting terrified souls. Christian education humbly recognizes that educators are fallible and that everyone has something to learn. Using this balanced approach the whole congregation becomes a learning community where all are both teachers and learners. The Christian learning community then moves beyond its own borders, teaching and learning from the local parish and the wider world. When grounded in the cross, Christian education becomes an expression of baptismal vocation. The church advocates for government to act as a parent for society by providing for good order and equipping individuals to carry out God given vocations. In a society where education only develops and inducts individuals into blind consumption and hyper-individualism, Christian education teaches the values and symbols of the faith, proclaiming the gospel in a way that speaks to where a person is and who they are.

[1] Kolb and Wengert, The Book of Concord, 88.
[2] Ibid, 400 – 401.
[3] Ibid, 383.
[4] Ibid, 405.
[5] Timothy F. Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 473.
[6] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 147.
[7] Tillich, Theology of Culture, 150.
[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Macmillan Paperbacks ed. (New York: The Macmillan Corporation, 1963), 278.

Grounded In the Cross: A Lutheran Theology of Education, Pt. 1

The following is the first of two posts, separated because of length. End notes included at the end of each post.  Please comment with your thoughts and criticism!

     My first experience of true Christian education took place not in a church sanctuary or Sunday school classroom, but rather at my grandmother’s house, sitting under stars, talking with my Uncle Gary.  It was a Sunday evening and I had yet another argument with my first grade Sunday school teacher earlier that day.  This time it concerned how Genesis 1 must be lie because it did not mention dinosaurs.  My teacher had completely shrugged off my argument, the other children in class had laughed at me, and then I reacted quite angrily.  Of course my mother was told about my inappropriate behavior, thus leading to further arguments at home throughout the day.  Only now while spending time with my favorite uncle at my grandmother’s house could I find any solace.  My uncle and I often talked about our faith as far back as I could remember, and unlike in Sunday school, my questions were always encouraged.  So that night I had no problem asking Uncle Gary about why there were no dinosaurs in Genesis, and he gave me a great answer.  He said he did not know, but that if I looked up at the stars and prayed about it, we could faithfully talk about what God said back to me.

     Ever since that evening, while often using different terms, I have always believed that Christian education must be grounded in the cross.  Without the cross Christian education merely becomes an exercise in original sin.  The teacher, student, denomination, the Christian religion or other human constructs become the central objects of worship and redemption, rather than God’s saving act through Christ.  While a theology of the cross is implicit throughout the Book of Concord, it is perhaps most clearly discussed in article nine of the Formula of Concord.  The short article was written in response to a number of second generation Lutheran disputes about the nature of Christ’s descent into hell:

… it is enough that we know that Christ descended into hell and destroyed hell for all believers and that he redeemed them from the power of death… How that happened we should save for the next world, where not only this matter but many others, which here we have simply believed and cannot comprehend with our blind reason, will be revealed.[1]

Here the writers of the Formula of Concord humbly recognize the limits of human reason, admitting that we must leave some matters to the mystery of faith. As Dr. Timothy Wengert asserts about the article:
This phrase comes as close as the Formula can to expressing Luther’s famous ‘theology of the cross.’  This theology… asserts that God is revealed ‘under the appearance of the opposite,’ that is, in the last place we would reasonably look.  This theology asserts that reason is not always a helper in theology but is many times the culprit.  When we try to make up our own reasonable answers to such mysteries, the gospel itself suffers.[2]
By humbly admitting our human limitations, we put God at the center of Christian education rather than ourselves. This means the best teacher may not be someone highly credentialed or well known. Instead, a quality Christian educator acts as a humble instrument of the Spirit, doing God’s work through words and action.

     Christian education centered on the cross not only emphasizes human humility, but balance as well. Teachers must give answers when needed and share the symbols and traditions of the Christian faith with students, yet they must be willing to allow for tough questions and learn from their students. The gospel is shared through Christian education yet contradictory messages of the wider society are also worked with, rather than immediately discounted. In a pluralistic society Christian education encourages a clinging to Christ while recognizing that religion is a human construct. Reflecting Bonhoeffer’s argument, such a balanced approach teaches that it is not the Christian religion itself, but rather the gift of Christ that saves us:

… the Christian religion as religion is not of God.  It is rather another example of a human way to God… Christ is not the bringer of a new religion, but rather the one who brings God.  Therefore, as an impossible way from the human to God, the Christian religion stands with other religions.  Christians can never pride themselves on their Christianity, for it remains human, all too human… the gift of Christ is not the Christian religion, but the grace and love of God which culminate in the cross.[3]

When Christian education is centered on the cross, learning moves beyond the walls of the classroom into the parish and the wider world. The line between teacher and student blurs, and the Christian can learn from persons of diverse backgrounds and abilities.

     The humility and balance of Christian education centered on the cross transforms the congregation and its surrounding parish into a community where all individuals are teachers and learners. As Everist describes it, “each individual needs to be a teacher in order to be a learner, and a learner in order to become and continue to be a teacher.”[4] In such a community centered on the cross, a grandmother of twelve can learn from the joyful singing of a young child in worship. A pastor can learn from her catechetical students. The lifelong churchgoer looks at his faith in a new way after listening to a Muslim neighbor explain different practices and beliefs. Centered on the cross a Christian learning community recognizes that no one is perfect, that everyone has something to learn, and that in our hyper-individualized culture, everyone is looking for place where she or he will be remembered. Indeed, by learning from and teaching one another, members of the Christian community act as the body of Christ in our contemporary, lonely world. Everist, citing Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:17, states:

We are to teach, ‘so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.’  The content of teaching in the Christian learning community is the cross of Christ.  This message makes no sense to the culture.  Each week not the learners, nor even the culture, will be put to the test, but the cross will be put to the test… Potential Christian learning communities are all around.  Our task may not so much be to create them as to recognize them, gather them, and affirm them.[5]

A learning community centered on the cross welcomes in the differently-abled and those marginalized by society to both learn and teach. All students are taught in a way appropriate to their age and level of psychological development. The Christian learning community goes out, tearing down borders, preaching and teaching to a culture hungry for the gospel.

     All too often individuals speak in a way that idealizes or romanticizes Christian community. Centered on the cross, the Christian learning community turns away from such misguided arguments with vigor. Christian community is far from perfect, merely another human construct, and when community is idolized, the gospel suffers. This happens frequently when individuals fall so in love with their congregation that they neglect to go out and learn from their next-door neighbor. No matter how healthy a community may be, it cannot be perfect, and should be open to learning from the successes (and failures) of other communities. There will be problems in even the strongest Christian communities. Children are sinners and will misbehave in class; adults will forget to show up for evening Bible study, yet all these matters are managed with a firm yet forgiving hand. As Bonhoeffer suggests:

…the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together- the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.[6]

In the Christian learning community, even the power of sin and the Devil becomes a learning experience, compelling us to have faith in the forgiving embrace of Christ’s love and sacrifice.

[1] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 514 – 515.
[2] Timothy J. Wengert, A Formula for Parish Practice (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmeans Publishing Company, 2006), 158.
[3] Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, eds., A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rev. ed. (New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, 1995), 53.
[4] Norma Cook Everist, The Church as Learning Community (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2002), 23.
[5] Everest, The Church as Learning Community, 29.
[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Class Exploration of Christian Community  (New York: Harper-Collins Publishing, 1954), 29.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Lutherans Are Advocating!

Here's a quick post to showcase two congregations that are beginning to do some really great advocacy work in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  A few weeks back I had the privilege of spending time with both St. Michael's Evangelical Lutheran Church (Sellersville, PA) and the Lutheran Church of God's Love (Newtown, PA) as part of my LAMPa field site placement.

St. Michael's is a dynamic congregation that has three vastly different worship services.  The early service is a cozy, more traditional worship experience in a small secondary chapel while the late service is much larger and held in the sanctuary.  In between there's a very free flowing emerging church service over coffee and pastry in St. Michael's parish hall.  I was lucky enough to preach on hunger advocacy at all three services for a sort of belated World Food Day.  The message seemed to be received well, and we also used the following Sesame Street clip for the family oriented emerging service:

Sort of a catchy Brad Paisley song huh?  After the services, Marissa (my LAMPa supervisor) and I had a great time talking with folks at St. Michael's about what the congregation is already doing to feed hungry people.  Besides participating in the local CROP walk and Souper Bowl of Caring, St. Michael's is developing a new ministry to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables to the local food bank.  We even heard that a group of youth at the church have created a goal of ending hunger in Sellersville before they graduate from high school.  That's awesome!  Many of the congregation members were excited to be thinking about advocacy efforts as well.

The Lutheran Church of God's Love is beginning to develop a strong model for advocacy that other churches should definitely consider.  Marissa and I had the privilege of joining a large group of congregation member who had just formed an advocacy minister.  Besides talking about LAMPa and how state and federal advocacy works, we assisted the group in identifying one specific issue to work on for a while.  Often when folks first get involved with advocacy it can be overwhelming and discouraging.  There are way too many problems out there!  By picking one issue to start with, the folks at the Lutheran Church of God's Love were giving themselves a little grace to learn and not get burned out.  I was certainly tired at the end of a long day visiting both congregations, but boy, it was encouraging!  Lutherans are advocating!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

OccupyPhilly: Interfaith Working Group

Just finished up with a really exciting Interfaith Working Group meeting at OccupyPhilly.  While it was my first time participating, today's meeting was the third of such gatherings... they're actually regularly scheduled on a bi-weekly basis: Saturdays @ 1:30p and Tuesdays @ noon.  There were fifteen folks involved from faith communities all around Philadelphia, and boy, it was really heartening to see that people of faith are becoming more visible at Occupy.  Besides providing a safe space for individuals to pray, meditate or just have a few moments of quiet contemplation, the Interfaith Working Group has also put together a weekly speaker series on Saturday afternoons.  An open-mic church is being organized for 5:00p on Sundays and a holiday celebration is also being talked about for December 17th.

As a Christian, I firmly believe the church is called to publicly witness to issues of hunger and inequality, issues which are central to the Occupy movement.  Even if believers don't specifically support the political goals of the Occupy movement, surely all Christians are interested in feeding, clothing and caring for individuals.  Currently OccupyPhilly is feeding roughly 900 people each day during the workweek and around 2100 each day on the weekend.  Collecting food and clothing to support this work is a ministry any faith community could participate in.  There is a strong pastoral care need down at OccupyPhilly as well.  If you're at all interested in finding out how to get involved, your best resource is the Interfaith Working Group's Facebook group, found here.  Thanks so much!

God's peace,

Friday, November 04, 2011


Tonight the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia held a very well attended LGBTQ forum. The conversation was part of LTSP's on-going commitment as a Reconciling in Christ seminary to be a welcoming and affirming community... and what an amazing event!  After sitting down to a hearty meal of pizza, salad and some delicious cupcakes, roughly forty students, faculty, alumni and their families gathered to discuss how far the seminary has come since becoming an RIC institution in April 2010.  Some students discussed how they felt supported by the community when coming out or navigating tricky candidacy processes.  Other students aired concerns and cited areas that still need improvement.  Straight students asked important questions about being the best possible allies.

The group discussed wider church issues as well.  I learned a great deal about what brothers and sisters in Christ face when working with less than supportive synods, when trying to find first calls and in getting appropriate Board of Pensions benefits for their spouses or partners.  I learned that despite the decisions made at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, the ELCA still has a whole lot of work to do... the popular notion that "thank God this is over and we can get back to ministry" isn't appropriate or even accurate.  I left the forum absolutely filled with the Spirit!  The best part of being a Reconciling In Christ community is that all members, no matter their sexual orientation, can know that they live, work, learn and play in a place that supports and affirms who they are.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Sermon Imagery for 11/6/11: Daily Called Towards Christ

This Sunday’s lectionary readings are absolutely filled with movement. Movement is a universal thing, something that we do by our very definition as living things. We move for a wide variety of reasons… we dance in community to celebrate great joys; we spend our lives running from death and great sorrow. We move to supply our most basic needs, whether it is through hunting a wild animal or traveling long distances to seek proper nutrition in an urban food desert. The theme of movement throughout this Sunday’s readings (Amos 5: 18 – 24, Psalm 70, 1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18 and Matthew 25: 1 – 13) could thus speak to congregations and individuals of any context.

What then is the nature of this movement? “Movement” of course is a fairly generic term… what specific image of movement could one convey in a sermon? Each reading illustrates a movement towards hope of one type or another. Amos is rich in movement imagery: one flees from a lion toward a bear and flees into a seemingly welcoming home only to be bitten by a snake. These words paint the image of a nightmare yet are also juxtaposed with the rolling waters of justice and the ever-flowing stream of righteousness. The Amos text places hope in God working through the right actions of humanity; the right actions of believers slowly, like an ever-flowing stream, chip away at what has been constructed by the powers of sin and death. 1 Thessalonians also illustrates movement towards hope. The dead rise at the archangel’s call and the sound of God’s trumpet while the living meet Christ in the clouds. Here, the embrace of our loving Christ is the hope we are drawn towards. In the gospel reading there are two types of movement. While bridesmaids either wisely or frantically prepare for the coming of the bridegroom, it is fact the bridegroom’s slow, steady movement towards the banquet that provides hope in the darkness of the night.

The image of movement towards hope in these Biblical texts puts emphasis on the actions of God rather than our own. That’s because while hope looks somewhat different in each of this Sunday’s readings, they all in different ways describe hope in terms of the eschatological event. The eschatological event is portrayed positively in 1 Thessalonians, negatively in Amos and ambivalently in Matthew. In the lives of believers every day is one of positives and negatives… every day we are drowned and reborn in the waters of baptism. All days in the lives of believers thus become their own little eschatological events. We die… we literally die, the world ends, and then we are reborn in the coming of Christ. Dying is not fun and by no means feels good. At times we might feel like we’ve fled into a cozy home only to be bitten by a snake or feel like we’re the bridesmaids left out in the cold. In that dying though we move from darkness to light… we’re reborn in Christ and respond to the hope of God’s loving saving grace by serving our neighbor as Christ.

While the imagery of movement towards hope can be used to preach law and gospel it also compels us to respond in action… and it is in that action where a preacher can crystallize the image for each individual in the congregation. Perhaps one’s congregants might be struggling simply to make ends meet, struggling to put food on the table and pay for rising healthcare costs in face of diminishing government support. Perhaps one’s congregants are struggling to make meaning out of the recent death of a loved one. Perhaps one’s congregants are simply struggling to discern how they should respond to God’s saving grace. Sunday’s lectionary readings can speak to whatever trials one might face. By painting a portrait of being moved towards hope in Christ, the preacher can help congregants see the “little eschatological events” of everyday life.