Thursday, April 29, 2010

Theology vs. Mission

I really enjoy the youth Bible Study that has been meeting this year on Wednesday nights. Recently we have gathered at Smokey Row, a locally owned coffee shop and soda fountain near downtown Des Moines. There is a church building across the street with beautiful stained glass windows that was abandoned in 2004. Recently, a religious group purchased the decaying building to fix it up and "do church" there. For the first time last night, we noticed lights on inside the church and people walking in and out. After about five minutes of speculating, we decided to go over and see what was happening.

The people at the church were very friendly. We were invited inside for a tour. The church folk had just concluded a worship service which had involved over 50 kids from the neighborhood (mostly Sudanese refugees). One of the people, Erin, spoke about the church's passion for missions, indicating that "If money weren't an issue, all of us would be overseas doing mission work." The old sanctuary space is now used as a warehouse for donations that are being sent to Haiti. Erin said they had sent 40 pallets of water, clothing, and computer equipment last month and are preparing for a similar shipment next week.

After a tour of the church and a delightful conversation with several of the people there, it was time to go. Our young people were very excited by this church's passion for local and global outreach. They also soon became aware that this church's theology was very different from ours. As we departed, I asked the young people to spend time thinking about this question:

Would you rather be at a church that is theologically rancid but does amazing mission work...or, would you prefer to be at a church that is theologically solid but apathetic about missions?

I pose this question to the people of koinonia as well. What do you think and why?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Things That Make You Go "Hmmmm"

The best part of doing a blog is the conversation that takes place in the "comments" section. I follow a few dozen church-related sites and occasionally participate in the back-and-forth that occurs between other readers. I hope that koinonia readers have a similar experience.

I was disappointed to discover that a popular Lutheran blog might not have the same philosophy.

Yesterday I read an article on Pretty Good Lutherans, a site run by Susan Hogan. The topic was the Augsburg Fortress pension circumstance. (More info here) After some fact-sharing and editorializing about the termination of the defined benefit compensation retirement plan, Hogan offered a sample resolution for people to make at synod assemblies, a memo from ELCA Secretary David Swartling, and a response from ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson.

Both the tone of Hogan's article and the accusations made within the reader comments didn't sit right with I decided to offer a comment of my own:

Pastors and other church leaders calling for Beth Lewis to be fired. Rostered leaders bashing David Swartling for being a lawyer. Baiting readers into an emotional frenzy with leading questions and accusatory statements.

This doesn’t sound like a group of “Pretty Good Lutherans”.

What happened with the AFP pensions is regrettable, but why the need to slander Lewis and Swartling as an expression of outrage?

Not a single person who has commented on this blog post knows the whole story, and yet many are passing judgment on individuals as though they are fully informed. Furthermore, even if you do know the whole story, why the personal attacks? I’d like to think that pastors and other church leaders are above such tactics.

I’m sure pastors would be upset if church members publicly called them out while using incomplete information and speculation. Why the double standard?

Certainly there’s a better way of showing support to the former AFP employees than slinging accusations and assuming the worst out of Lewis, Swartling, et al.

You won't see this comment on Pretty Good Lutherans because it didn't get approved. I inquired (via Twitter and the PGL website) about why my comment wasn't added to the conversation.

No reply.

Therefore I'm left to speculate as to why I wasn't added to the growing list of comments. Did I violate a code-of-conduct with my remarks? Is Hogan concerned that I serve on a Churchwide task force with Swartling...or that I write for Augsburg Fortress...or that my dad is on the Augsburg board of trustees? Is there no room for dissenting opinions to be shared on Pretty Good Lutherans? I wish I had been given the courtesy of a response, even if it was simply to say "I don't approve of your comment."

Why am I making such a big deal out of this? Two reasons:

  • When writers, church leaders, and blog readers claim to love Lutherans, but use their network of influence to mistreat fellow Lutherans with whom they disagree, the church is weakened. It may feel good to use the Internet as a place to publicly vent about frustrations with certain people, but it weakens the body of Christ and our public witness when we do this.

  • I dislike blog censorship as it pertains to civil discourse. If a person doesn't use inappropriate language, make threats of violence or verbal attacks...why remove their comment? If a person says something foolish, let them stand on the merits of their words and allow other readers to question their insights. As a website that is widely read and highly regarded in the Lutheran community, Pretty Good Lutherans has an obligation to be forthcoming and transparent in its initial reporting and with reader feedback. I hope that I'm the only one who has been given the silent treatment, but if I'm not, and there are others who are being omitted from the conversation, that's a shame.

I'm sure Susan Hogan is a fine person. We had a very pleasant meeting a few months ago. She has graciously linked to several things I've written, and she does a wonderful job of highlighting some unique ministries within the ELCA. I mean her no ill-will. If Susan would like to respond to my original comment about the pension situation or the content of what I have written here, she is more than welcome to do so on koinonia...even if I disagree with what she has to say.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Two Things That Made Me Think

Thing #1
Bishop N.T. Wright, from a presentation entitled "The Future of the People of God", has some thoughts on ecclesiology:

People have tended in the church to think that the first question is: "How can we get our act together within the church?" and if we have any time and energy left over, "How can we be God's people for the world?"

I've been convinced for many years that that's putting the cart before the horse and that...the question is, "Who are we supposed to be for the world; what is our mission and how do we do it?" and then to ask, "What sort of structures do we need in order to do that?"

Thing #2
Doug Pagitt has some thoughts on the National Day of Prayer.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

LIFT Comment

One of the best comments made on the LIFT / Ecology of the ELCA website:

I suggest that, for the 25th anniversary of the ELCA, we correct an original oversight and name four expressions: Home, Congregation, Synod, Churchwide.

Home is where faith is caught; where the “people in the pew” live and love and make decisions. It is at least as important to our self-understanding and self-definition as all the rest (I believe MORE important).

It’s high time for a small change.

Amen, Paul Hanson! I love this idea...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Pray Day

"Socialist / Muslim / President Obama has canceled the National Day of Prayer!"

This is according to the rumor-mongers on blogs and social networking sites.

On April 15 (ironically as uber-conservatives were Tea Partying) this falsehood was being "reported" every five seconds on Facebook.

Some will take this as an opportunity to lambaste the un-vetted, unfiltered, anything-goes world of Facebook. I'm tired of that topic...

Instead, here's my question: "Why all the fuss about Nation Day of Prayer?"

Even if we did away with the National Day, religious folks would still be able to pray to their deity of choice with the same freedom that they can any other day. Furthermore, I believe religious organizations should be the ones to encourage daily prayer; not the government. We are a nation founded on religious freedoms, including the freedom to not espouse any particular religion. Which begs another question:

"Why do we have the National Day of Prayer?"

It seems a Wisconsin federal judge, when faced with a similar question, declared the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. This is sure to incite outrage among some in the Christian community.

For many people of faith, myself included, this is much ado about nothing. We will continue our normal prayer rituals on May 6...and we will pray with the confidence that God hears our prayers no matter what day it is.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Ride

Our family has enjoyed several bike rides together already this spring. Today's route was 6.5 miles and took us about 2 hours, which included stops at a couple of city parks. I really enjoy using MapMyRun to figure out how far we traveled. It's also fun to share various routes with other people.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Social Media Stats

This video is almost one year old - so some of the data might be out-of-date - but it contains fascinating information about social networking and social media.

I'm planning to use this at church when talking to adults about Facebook, social networking, and Web 2.0. What other video resources would you recommend?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Greatest of These Is Hope?

If you live in the Des Moines area, you've probably heard of Lutheran Church of Hope. It is the fastest growing and largest congregation in the ELCA. It's also the largest church, regardless of denominational affiliation, in Iowa. Much of Hope's ministry is highlighted by local media outlets - so even if you're not interested in church, you are likely aware of its existence.

A mere mention of the church's name in Lutheran circles is likely to cause a strong response. Some will speak enthusiastically about Hope's rapid growth in the past 20 years...their dynamic and passionate pastoral staff, especially Pastor Mike Householder...their multi-sensory worship experiences...their small group ministries...their ability to inspire and mobilize their people for mission and outreach. Others will speak critically that Hope's growth is too rapid...that their Kingdom Expansion is more like corporate takeover...that they don't regularly participate in ministries that aren't Hope-sponsored...that it's a club for trendy, young, suburban Christians (a.k.a. "Hopesters")...that they are the place where disgruntled congregants flee to when times get tough at other churches.

For my part, I admire much of what Hope says and does. Most mainline congregations complain that they don't have any young people; Hope goes out and finds them and gets them involved in the life of their congregation. Most of their new members are un-churched. They are willing to embrace tradition without being enslaved by it. Hope is clear about what it teaches and what is expected of Christian disciples. Often, when I become upset at things that Hope is doing, my resentment is rooted in jealousy. However, there are a few times that I think that what they do is simply wrong.

One example is Pastor Mike's public responses to the human sexuality votes at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. In the months leading up to the vote, Pastor Mike was clear that this wasn't a core issue, but a secondary one. He often indicated that Hope was "threatening to stay" in the ELCA, even if they disagreed with the voting outcome. In the days that followed the assembly's decision to allow people in "publicly accountable life-long monogamous same-sex relationships" to serve as ELCA pastors, Householder became more outspoken. His quotes appeared on television stations and newspapers (not to mention blogs and YouTube videos) about how God's Word wasn't up to a vote and how the ELCA had strayed from Scripture. Hope chose to withhold their benevolent giving to the SE Iowa Synod and ELCA Churchwide ministries in protest of the Churchwide assembly votes. Pastor Mike has since softened his public outcry on this issue, recently saying, "I don't think it's fair the church gets reduced to this issue. The source of our unity runs a lot deeper than a political or social agenda. What defines us as a church, first and foremost, and what holds us together, is Jesus."

Hope's About Us page features a link to Pastor Mike's Q&A response to the Churchwide assembly. It addresses all of the major questions and concerns that people (on both "sides") have expressed. As with most things Hope-related, I'm completely on-board with much of what he says. That said, there were a few items that I take issue with, including:

"Hope receives no money from the ELCA."
They may not currently receive ELCA funds, but as a mission congregation of the ELCA, Lutheran Church of Hope exists because of the ministry of the synod and Churchwide bodies. They are withholding funds from the same organizations that started Hope in the first place.

"The ELCA churchwide assembly does not accurately represent the prevailing view in our denomination."

With what information does he make this claim? The people who attend the Churchwide assembly is as close to a representative sample of the ELCA as you can find. That group consists of 40% clergy and 60% lay people that gather every two years. The members of the Churchwide assembly are different every year. Anyone - including members of Hope - is able to be elected as a delegate to the Churchwide assembly.

"If the prevailing view taught throughout the ELCA (in our congregations) changes and aligns with the ELCA churchwide assembly votes, or if we could no longer teach and practice what we believe the Bible compels us to do regarding sexual boundaries, then we would have to ask whether or not Hope and the ELCA can continue to be church together. We are not there yet."

Adding "yet" seemed petty and presumptuous, as though to say, "we intend to leave someday, but not today."

"Unless we are going to insist that women who pray today in church wear head coverings (and there’s no applicable biblical reason to do so), then for the sake of biblical consistency, we can not insist that Paul’s command for the first-century Corinthian church to separate from sexual sinners applies to us, and certainly not to the relationship between Hope and the ELCA. That would be “proof texting” – a very dangerous game for Christians to play, and one that ultimately diminishes the significance of God’s Word in a church (picking and choosing Bible texts to support our causes, rather than letting the full text and context of a particular passage compel, challenge, and guide our lives). "
The argument could be made that people who say that the ELCA has strayed from Scripture are doing this very thing - "proof texting" - to make their argument of why openly gay people can't be pastors. This ignores the possibility that two people can read the same section of Scripture and come to different conclusions; which just might be the work of the Spirit. Who gets to decide which Bible passages carry more weight than others?

"Q: What about Abraham or Solomon, who had multiple wives and concubines? What about David, who committed adultery?
A: The Bible describes these relationships, but does not bless them. God does not bless polygamy. God does not bless adultery. God does not bless premarital sex. God does not bless homosexual behavior. God does not bless any sexual behavior, outside of marriage, at any point in the Bible."
God may not have blessed those relationships, but God DID bless the people in those relationships and equipped them with gifts for ministry. Abraham, Solomon, and David fulfilled the dual roles of king and priest and were blessed by God to be a blessing to others. Even if God won't bless homosexual sex, can't God bless those people for pastors?

"The Bible is not silent about homosexuality, so we can’t be silent or pretend that God really has nothing relevant to say about the matter. Homosexuality, like it or not, has become a major social issue in the world today, and God has a word that needs to be included in the conversation."
True, but the Bible points to much bigger issues than sexuality. There are over 2,000 verses in Scripture that talk about caring for the poor...and six or seven that talk about homosexual sex. Why not use Hope's massive following to fill the city with cries for feeding hungry, clothing naked, healing sick, visiting imprisoned (a.k.a. "social justice"). Jesus never talked about homosexuality. He did talk about divorce, though. Where's the public outcry for the ELCA's acceptance of divorced pastors?

"There are several other Lutheran denominations, as well as Lutheran “movements” or “alliances”... (and then he lists several groups with a paragraph-length explanation for each one)"
If Hope isn't interested in leaving the ELCA and wants to focus on unity, why mention groups that are causing denominational fracture? Doesn't this promote the schismatics' cause and stir up congregational enthusiasm for exploring non-ELCA options?

"All people, pastors at Hope included, are sinners. Being a sinner doesn’t disqualify a person from being a pastor. Being an unrepentant sinner does. Repentant sinners acknowledge their sinful behavior, seek forgiveness, and do not claim by words or actions that their behavior is God blessed and therefore something that should continue. On the other hand, pastors involved in same gender sexual relationships are involved in ongoing, and therefore unrepentant, sin.... For the sake of order and consistency, unrepentant sinners are asked to step away from church leadership positions."
The notion that everyone confesses and repents of every sin they've ever committed is ludicrous to me. There's no way to know the ways in which we sin daily just by being part of a sinful world / culture / community. What if even the simplest aspect of suburban American living is sinful? The food we eat...the water we drink...the fuel we put in our cars...the 2,000 square foot houses. I could argue that all of it is sinful, and yet we continue to live that lifestyle, refuse to discard it, and don't repent of that sin every moment. When Lutherans confess our sins, we confess "things known and unknown." I believe God's grace is sufficient to cover all of our sins, even the ones we don't repent of.


These are some the disagreements I have with Pastor Mike; but they're not deal-breakers. I don't hate Hope or its people. My family is very close with people who are members at Hope. I see them as brothers and sisters in Christ, partners in ministry. Not enemies.

I pray that people at Hope feel the same way about people in the ELCA.

I argue theology with my friends all of the time. They are still my friends.

My sisters and I disagree on a variety of things. We are still family.

At the invitation of Lutheran Church of Hope, the SE Iowa Synod Assembly will be held there in May. I, for one, will be curious to know how that goes. Perhaps it will be a step towards unity, not division.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Church Membership

Pastor Joelle Colville-Hanson posted an interesting rant about church transfers on her blog. I was so intrigued by church membership that I felt compelled to leave a comment:

I think it's lame that church members leave a church without directly informing their former congregation. That said, I wish people in our church would have an awareness that certain people are no longer attending, and would call the missing members and see what's up. There's plenty of blame to go around.

It makes me wonder - what's the point of church "membership" in the 21st century?

My experience is that Baby Boomers (and younger) will attend a variety of churches in their life without regard for their official membership. They might visit one congregation for a few weeks/months/years, and then move to another one when their needs change. It's a lot like consumerism (which sucks)...but it is reality for many people who are 50-and-under.

Gone are the days of "civic religion" where all upstanding members of the community were expected to belong to a church, even if their attendance was spotty at best. They were long-time members of a church in the same way they were members of various clubs & organizations in their community. No real ties to "being church" or "doing church"...just "belonging to a church". This is where institutional loyalty becomes a priority instead of living out the gospel in radical ways.

I can see how church membership rolls served a purpose in previous generations, but I'm not convinced that they do anything for us today...especially when the average membership / worship attendance ratio is 4:1 in ELCA congregations.

I'm curious - what would it look like if churches did away with church membership rosters and focused on making disciples among those who are present?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Easter Card

Every year, people send Christmas cards with summaries of what their family has been up to in the previous year. As one who likes Easter more than Christmas, I'd like to offer a quick update on what's going on in the life of the Ullestad family...

Evan (3) got his first bike today, which he rode non-stop for over an hour. He loves to tell knock-knock jokes and sing songs to nobody in particular. He's a very silly kid.

Isaac (5) is quite the budding basketball star, practicing on our hoop whenever he gets a chance. He also shed his training wheels and completed an 8-mile ride on Sunday.

Anna (7) recently completed six weeks of tap dance lessons. She reads constantly and loves to play with neighborhood friends. Last week she celebrated her birthday by getting her ears pierced.

Allison turned 31 yesterday, making her one year older than me for a week. She continues playing in a volleyball league and is gearing up for a busy summer of youth recreation programming for the city of West Des Moines.

I am nearing my seven-year anniversary at church. When I'm not riding bikes or shooting hoops with the kids, I'm having fun working on confirmation curriculum and studying the "ecology of the ELCA".

Happy Easter 2010

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Madness is Over

If I could only watch, play, or coach one game for the rest of my life it would be basketball. So it is with sadness that I bid farewell to the 2010 College Basketball season. Despite the lunacy of picking Northern Iowa (UNI) to win the title, my dad beat me in our annual bracket contest. (Turns out, he wasn't that crazy - UNI was in the Sweet 16 and Butler University, enrollment 4,000, made it to the championship game.) There were lots of upsets in the early rounds, some fascinating story lines, and a beautifully played national title game.

Here are seven things that I hope to remember from March Madness 2010:

1. The UNI Panthers beating #1 Kansas -

2. Ali "Maurice Newby" Farokhmanesh vs. UNLV

3. Ali "You Can't Be Serious With That Shot" Farokhmanesh vs. Kansas

4. Bob Huggins consoling Da'Shawn Butler after blowing out his knee in the Final Four

5. Gus Johnson calling the epic Xavier vs. Kansas State game

6. Gordon Haywood's half-court shot that almost won the title for Butler

7. Discontinuing my 16-year hatred of Duke...for now

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Passion According to Facebook

As we live through the emotional quagmire of Vigil Saturday, I think this file (.pdf) strikes the appropriate tone. Enjoy...

The Passion According to Facebook

Friday, April 2, 2010

iPad for Seniors

Apple's latest gadget, the iPad, will be released tomorrow. I don't really care, since I won't be buying one. However, I've been trying to get my grandparents to get a computer for the past few years...and I wonder if the iPad might do the trick. One of the big criticisms of the iPad is its simplicity -- no multitasking, Flash, web camera, HDMI, etc. For people who haven't owned a computer in the last 15-20 years, these items only add complexity to an already intimidating device. The touch screen is nice, too, so they don't have to plug in a keyboard, mouse, and monitor to a CPU. Wi-fi and 3G capabilities make it easier for newbies to get on the web.

When the Nintendo Wii came out a few years ago, I was surprised to discover that nursing homes were buying them to help the residents engage in low-impact fitness. The thought of a bunch of 80-year olds playing video games still makes me chuckle. I wonder if the iPad will fulfill a similar function for older folks who have wanted to delve into the world of computers, but lacked the gumption to try. Like all Apple products, it appears to be quite intuitive, which will help newcomers learn the new language of digital technology.

I'm curious to know what you think. Is the iPad the best entry-level "computer" on the market? If it's not, how come...and which device is better?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Maundy Memories

It all began with Maundy Thursday.

The Great Three Days (a.k.a. “The Passion of Jesus Christ”) begins with the Last Supper. We call it Maundy Thursday because this is when Jesus gave the New Commandment (maundatum = mandate or commandment).

It all began for me on Maundy Thursday as well. I was born on this day in the church year in 1979. Every year my parents retell the significant parts of the story -- Dubuque, Iowa...April 12...7:23 p.m...the infamous meatball sandwich that dad ate shortly before my arrival...the umbilical cord that was wrapped around my neck...etc etc etc.

Maundy Thursday is also the day that I learned of the death of my first grandparent. I was on choir tour in the spring of 2000, when I got a phone call that Grandma Mary had passed away. The choir sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” that night at worship in memory of my grandma.

This year, Maundy Thursday signified another beginning in my life -- the first time my two oldest children received the sacrament of Holy Communion. Anna and Isaac were very excited to do such a “grown up” thing. I was able to experience anew the gift of this holy meal (and this Holy Thursday) through the eager eyes of my children.

It’s interesting how some days become infused with additional meaning as we get older. Tonight, as I watch old family videos with a sleepless Isaac, I’m reminded of the Harry Chapin song that says:

All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown.
The moon rolls through the nighttime ‘til the daybreak comes around.
All my life’s a circle, but I can’t tell you why.

The seasons spinning ‘round again, the years keep rolling by.