Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Short Treatise against Modalism and Arianism

The G-d I know's not only One --
I shall not call G-d He;
neither shall I speak of They
for G-d's not only Three.

I had a lousy day at school yesterday, which included being reminded that while my friends understand and support my call and my love for Kristi, there are some people who don’t.
I went home and painted it out.
Then I skipped morning class and made pancakes and bacon.
Today is a much better day so far :)

Friday, March 25, 2011

the death of the seminary - and thus the church

Popping up on fellow seminarians' and pastors' blogs and Facebook feeds right now is an article by the Rev. Dr. Frederick Schmidt, called "Is It Time to Write the Eulogy?: The Future of Seminary Education."  In it, he argues that seminaries are preparing students for a world and a church that no longer exists, and that both churches and seminaries have really no idea what they want from their clergy.

He asserts that the world of theological education needs to be remade with the following convictions:

"One, rigorous academic preparation is absolutely essential to creative, competent, servants of Christ who are deeply formed and capable of forming others.

"Two, that kind of preparation is more important than ever before. We live in a complex and fast-changing world that will require a generation of leaders who are as well trained and educated as are the people in any other profession. It is a crime and miscarriage to require anything less. ... Churches that fearfully cast around for quick fixes to the training of clergy, give it scant attention, and then abandon their priests and pastors to the vagaries of forming themselves cannot expect to be a spiritual force in the world. Nor can they expect their clergy to be positive spiritual forces in the lives of others.

"Three, I am also convinced that as many new creative approaches to education as there might be, a residential model of focused, face-to-face education and formation in the faith is the best means of preparing a generation of thoughtful, faithful servants of the Gospel. This is not to denigrate those who have been encouraged by the church to pursue alternative means of completing the requirements for ordination. It is to say that the church should instead make resources available for all those who do pursue the church's ministry to avail themselves of that face-to-face formation."

This is very, very good.  (Also very scary if you consider that he's arguing that the church and seminaries are presently not doing this.)

He goes on to provide concrete examples of his three points in action, some of which really jumped out at me - not because they are necessarily accurate, but because of how clearly the church is failing in light of them.
  • "Candidates for ordination would be required to:  ... perform at the top of their ability."
Luther, at least for the past several years, has defaulted to grading students on a pass/fail basis.  And all the time, I hear:  "All I have to do is pass."  In a sort of dismissal way.  "This is a stupid course -- but all I have to do is pass."  I've said it myself.  And it's a terrible, terrible mentality.  The truth is that Luther is very intentional about what they're teaching us; they remake the curriculum and required classes constantly.  They really, really do want us to succeed.  The problem is not in the seminary.  The problem is in our (excuse me) shitty attitudes.

I am joined at seminary by many, many amazing fellow students, who are very gifted (in beautiful and various ways) and clearly called by the Spirit.

I am also joined at seminary by fellow students in whom I struggle to see the Spirit's call.

They have no trouble sacrificing the success of a group project if they do not consider it worth their while to do their part well (or to do it at all!).

They would rather find the correct answer or assert uncompromising positions than explore different options or listen to their colleagues' stories.

They see seminary not as a time of formation and education but as a bar to simply clear on their way to ordination.

In short - they know everything already.

I humbly put myself in this category.  There are certainly times and situations when I have been so bored, so irritated by class discussion that I have asked my friends:  "Why can't we just test out of this?"  And that, yes, is that "I know everything already" mentality.

Guess what?  Doesn't matter if I do.

It doesn't matter if I already perfectly know how to explain the LORD's actions in the near-sacrifice of Isaac, or the endings of Greek verb tenses, or the meaning of the Deus Absconditus, or the clear distinction between law and gospel.  First of all - I don't actually know everything.  I know just enough to be snide about people that know just a little less.  And secondly - I am going into a world that doesn'tknow these things.  I will need every single possible explanation at my disposal three years from now.  So I need to be paying rapt attention to every question - whether a professor's or a fellow student's - so that when a layperson comes to me and says, "Hey.  I'm struggling," I have trained myself to listen to them and not to the question, to give the response that will give them grace and not just tick off the "Right answer!" box in my mind.

So the question becomes:  is it the seminary's job to convince us of our need for education and formation?  Or is it the candidacy committee's job to say, "I'm sorry, your attitude is crap.  Please go away and come back when you're ready to lead by learning."
  • "In exchange, the church would:  ... Provide close, caring, thoughtful, formative companionship along the way."
I'm deeply jealous of my Episcopal brothers and sisters, because they have a year (or is it two?) of intimate discernment before they can apply for seminary.  A committee is assigned to them and meets with them repeatedly, helping them discern their call.

In the ELCA, I got approval from my pastor, wrote an essay, had one interview and was on my way.
  • "... Provide their candidates with an early, honest, responsible evaluation of their candidacy."

See above re: crappy attitudes.

  • In return the seminaries would promise to: ... Educate and spiritually form the students sent to them.
Luther tries to do this.  Every incoming student is randomly sorted into a discipleship group, which meets once a week with an advising professor.

It sounds nice.

It can be a disaster.

First, without guidance, students can be damned mean to each other.  One friend was told by a student in their discipleship group, "You're too young to have experienced a call to ministry."  Friend wept.  Other student?  Never apologized.  Faculty advisor?  Let it go.  How can my friend trust that group now?  How can she ever feel free to be open with them, especially about her struggles, when he call was openly rejected and the rejection was not refuted?  There need to be clear outlines for discussion and fellowship (drawing from Parker Palmer, perhaps) and they need to be enforced.

Second, without structure, the groups can go in any direction.  My discipleship group primarily did Bible study for the first semester, guided by a different student each week.  This is neat, but it's not really discipleship.  I don't feel that I know my fellow "disciples" any better than I did during the first week, except for being able to make some very broad assumptions about their hermeneutics.  And I don't feel that our faculty advisor (who will speak on my behalf to my candidacy committee!) knows me any better through discipleship than what he learned of me in the class I took from him.

Third, students are free to move from group to group.  This serves well for instances of total personality conflict between group members or a member and an advisor.  Or does it?  The ELCA has a very rigid hierarchical structure for calls.  In three years, I will have very little control over my relationship with my bishop or the nature of my first call.  Shouldn't I learn good tools for dealing with that now?

Fourth, discipleship groups can interrupt or supersede real discipleship.  Why is this random group of students considered a discipleship group, but our frequently deeply intimate conversations over lunch just considered talk?  Why do I get way more out of my spiritual direction group, but that's a voluntary option while discipleship is (somewhat) mandatory?  The discipleship groups cover every student - ensuring that we all have a chance to develop intimate friendships - but we aren't developing intimate friendships within them, and we're ignoring other options.

Schmidt goes on to talk about other responsibilities of the seminary, none of which jump out at me as contradictory to the present trajectory of Luther Seminary.  My quarrels with the seminary are honestly few.  I have had a very good year.

But Schmidt, as an observer of mainline denominations, misses a very big problem in my specific denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I can't speak to other denominations (because I haven't plumbed the depths of their assignment process) but I'll be honest:  first call in the ELCA can really, really, really suck.
Personal preferences can be totally ignored (both of the churches and the seminarian) when we are dropped into congregations who need a pastor.  The problem is rooted in the formation of the ELCA twenty years ago; the new church wanted to ensure that pastors from the Lutheran Church of America and pastors from the American Lutheran Church were actually serving other churches, not just returning to their preferred contexts.  This is a good thing.  But now that we're twenty years in, and the majority of my classmates have never known anything but the ELCA, does this work?


For first call, we are assigned to a specific region (sometimes in complete neglect to our families' needs and our personal preferences) and then to a synod (again, sometimes in neglect of personal preference).  Churches in need of a pastor are then presented with our name, along with others, on a non-comprehensive list of available pastors in the synod.

If we desire to move from a church, or (heaven forbid) from a synod, we are given very limited options.  Pastors and pastors-to-be do not get a list of all open pulpits and apply to those that are meaningful; we have to select a geographic area and then work within that.

This is stupid.  Honestly, it is.  It treats us all like we're single twenty-six year olds who can just go anywhere, or have a homemaker wife, and very very very few of us are.  Most of us have spouses, who, guess what? have jobs.  They can't just follow us willy-nilly round the USA; they have to have income.  Some of us have kids, who guess what?  don't do well when their roots are ripped up randomly.

The ELCA needs to make serious changes in the first-call and assignment process. The restructuring going on at the offices in Chicago is a hopeful sign, but the likelihood that I'll get out of seminary before this antiquated and crippling process is remade is very low.  And it is going to kill the church.  It's going to mean that instead of serving the Spirit, I'm serving a broken system.

Schmidt concludes by saying:

"The result would be fewer ordinands and students. There already are. But if churches and seminaries focus on the rigorous formation of clergy we could produce a generation of leaders who, God willing, might change the world and save mainline Christianity. The alternative is to limp and wander into the future, trusting Darwin with the lives of our clergy, seminaries, and churches. If we do, others will preach the Gospel, but God will not compensate us for faithless, feckless, unimaginative neglect."

Yep.  Pretty much.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Can a church exist without money?

We were asked this in Reading the Audiences precept group yesterday*.

After a pause, Britta said, "Yes."

I immediately added "No."

I think Yes, a church can exist without a budget.  House churches come to mind, for example.  They have no building to pay mortgage on, no electricity or heating bills.  Their staff live in them and don't work enough hours to get paid.

And it's possible also to envision a larger congregation existing without a lot of money - if the building where they meet is free or paid off, if the pastor is a working preacher who has a "regular" 9 to 5 job, etc.

The first question that comes to mind is, How long is this kind of church sustainable?  Can it grow?  Can it teach?

But the reason that I answered "No" is implicit costs.

If, for example, I end up being a "working preacher," I'll be limited in my occupational scope.  I won't be able to take a job that requires me to move away from my congregation.  I won't be able to work when we're having worship services.  And I won't be able to spend fifteen hours a week on my sermon - and I know some pastors do.

And if we have Sunday School curriculum or musical instruments or coffee hour, someone has to pay for those things.

I'm not saying that these are bad things; I'm simply saying that there are implicit costs to "running a church without money."

Just as there's no such thing as a free lunch - there's no such thing as free church.

*Reading the Audiences is a course in understanding the challenges the twenty-first century church is experiencing.  Precept groups are when a lecture class breaks into smaller groups for discussion.

[ the Mississippi's mighty ]

but it starts in Minnesota
at a place that you could walk across with five steps down

I bus to school as often as I can.  When I do, I get a much more intimate picture of the Mississippi than I do as a driver on 94; I can see the crest of the falls at Saint Anthony Main from the 6, or the slowly-widening expanse of burbling water at Washington Ave from the 3.

Well, at least, I can now.

A month ago the river was completely iced over.  Beautiful and still.  Covered in drifts of snow, with dark-blue ice glaring through in spots, glinting in the winter sunlight.  Quiet.  Serene.

But any Minnesotan can tell you that underneath, the river is still churning, still rushing along.  It only looks serene from the surface.

This is how I feel.  A month ago, the surface was serene.  Only those intimately acquainted with the ice knew what kind of churning and groaning lay underneath. The coping mechanisms were well refined, keeping everyone unaware of how hard my brain was working just underneath the beautifully blown snow.

Then the spring sun hit it, its warmth a dream of healthy living and thinking.  Within a week, the river is not ice but churn, foam, wave, burble.

and I guess that's how you started
like a pinprick to my heart

It shocks me how quickly my brain has learned to identify the repetitive and obsessive thoughts that terrify me, and how delighted it is to remember to sing or to pray or to read and to watch as the cycle breaks down.

It shocked me to realize that my friends are much more like themselves, and much less like the judgmental terrors the sick part of my brain tried to make them out to be.

It shocks me how beautiful I feel.  Not perfect, by any means, but beautiful.

It shocked me how my coping mechanisms have dictated so many relationships - have kept me from fully engaging with the people I love.

but at this point you rush right through me and I start to drown

I am not yet where I want to be.  Much work still lies before me, and much pain and unwrapping of my past and present.  But I have a dream for the future -healthy thinking - and I can see the river of my heart beginning to open.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Today I smell like yeast.

Today I smell like yeast.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and as is tradition (meaning:  we did it last year), we make pretzels in Sunday School.  My job is to buy supplies, make the dough, make sure everyone's hands are washed, walk the younger kids through rolling dough, walk the other kids through folding and egg-painting, get the tray in the oven, make more dough, write names on parchment paper so everyone gets to eat their own pretzel when they're done baking, tell a little one to go wash her hands again because she had her thumb in her mouth, get warm water for the kids whose dough is too dry, get flour for the kids whose dough is too wet (yes, there's a relationship there), put another tray in the oven, check the first tray, drag one of the older girls off the piano because as previously established we don't play piano during Sunday School time, make more dough, walk the youngest ones through rolling it again, convince the older ones not to just make "pretzels" that are the first letter of their name, promise the middle ones that yes-they-will-get-to-eat-them, make one more batch of dough, roll dough for the youngest ones, wipe down one table, get more warm water for the drier dough, wipe down the same table again, remove all the pretzels that are the size of footballs and suggest that their creators make them smaller just like the three they made before this one, finally finish all the pretzels and send the kids off to their classrooms, wipe down the second table, listen to the boy who disappeared next door for twenty minutes and now wants to make his pretzel and is whining because I'm soo mean.

And although it makes me crazy, I like this job.

Not just the pretzel baking (although it's pretty great, with tasty results) but I love working with the kids. I don't ever know if anything I'm teaching is sinking in, and there are some days when they are so adept at pushing my buttons that I want to yell or scream or possibly quit, but eighty-six percent of the time, I love my job.

Working with kids is one of the few social interactions that doesn't trigger anxiety.  I'd guess because the kids are all smaller than me, and I'm in a position of power.

But I think it's also because I'm in a position of service.

I signed on because I love these kids.  Yes, they drive me nuts, and they exhaust me, but I love them.  And I believe we have something worthwhile to teach them, something good and true and life-changing.  I want to be there for that.  I don't do this because I want them to have fun; if that was so, we'd just go to the playground down the street or run around in the fellowship hall or whatever they wanted to do.  No, there is something bigger going on, and I want to be a part of that.

So I realize that when I'm in a position of service - when I show up because I know something important is happening, and I want to put my hands to work in its mission - I don't feel anxious.  Something bigger than my obsessions and repetitive thoughts is going on.

And I want to keep being a part of that.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lent, day 1.

Have you ever played an out-of-tune piano?
It sounds weird.  You can’t make good music on it.  A song you know might still sound familiar, but “off”.  If it’s really out of tune, it will grate your ears; you will cover them, wince, try to leave the room if you can.
But what if, for fifteen years, all you’d had to play was an out-of-tune piano?
It would sound normal, eventually.  Especially if you’d learned to play on it.  You’d make your own rules, train your ear to expect the quarter-step differences that make a “tuned” ear weep.  You’d play your own music, make your own tunes, dance to your own melodies and sing your own harmonies.  
It sounds beautiful to you, because it’s all you know.  As long as you played by yourself, you’d be fine.
But if one day you met someone who had a tuned instrument?  Whose ear was properly trained?
You wouldn’t be able to play with them.  You’d have to tune your piano.  And once the piano was tuned, you’d have to tune your ear, as well.  Fifteen years of hearing notes and songs and concertos a certain way, and you realize that it’s “wrong.”
You can recognize that the way that everyone else is making music is more aesthetically pleasing.  You like it better, honestly.  That doesn’t change the fact that your mis-tuned ear is now an instinct, a nature you have to fight so that you can play with others.  You know that the songs you play are a quarter-step off from everyone else.  But these are the songs you’ve known for fifteen years; your horrific key of A-flat-melodic-minor-with-augmented-third-and-diminished-sixth is how you sing.
If you want to play with others - and you want to - you have to not only tune the piano, but entirely retrain your ear.
That’s the problem with my social anxiety.  I know that the piano of my brain is out of tune; I have an idea of how to tune it.  But how do I undo fifteen years of obsessive anxious thinking patterns?  How do I rewire my brain to sing in harmony with others?  And how do I learn to sing my own song, in a beautiful key - a song that others can join?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


[Sara Groves, "Remember Surrender"]

remember surrender
remember the rest
remember that weight lifting off of your chest
and realizing that it's not up to you and it never was

I tossed around a lot of ideas for Lent (which isn't strange for a seminarian, I think...).  Should I take up Anne's practice of writing "love letters," a note of thanks and love to a friend or family member for every day of Lent?  Should I push myself to do my yoga every day, to eat healthier, to sleep better?  Should I try to finally cultivate a visual image of G-d that incorporates the divine feminine?

remember surrender
remember relief
remember how tears rolled down both of your cheeks
as the warmth of a heavenly Father came closing in

All of these are good.  The divine feminine one, in fact, made my list of "things to do before I start my own church."  But I know what weighs on my heart the most, what most stands between me and a good life and a good ministry.

I want to do that again
why can't I live there
and make my home
in sweet surrender
I want to do so much 
more than remember

Since the age of self-consciousness, I have been overly self-conscious.  I am continually plagued by thoughts of how I am perceived by others, of who likes me and who doesn't.

This is not healthy.  This is extraordinarily painful.  It suffocates me.

There have been days - many more in the past, but a few even recently - when I cannot fathom leaving the apartment because I dread the social interaction of even running into a neighbor in the hallway.

I often have panic attacks when shopping.  I sometimes change outfits three times in the morning.  I apologize constantly for anything I imagine someone else might perceive as a slight.

I live with a voice constantly at the edge of my brain, whispering, "No one likes you."

remember surrender
remember peace
remember how soundly you fell fast asleep
in the face of your troubles your future still shone like the morning sun

But I live - I am alive only by the grace of G-d, and only because of it.

am alive.

But I will not live with that voice on my shoulder, with that condemnation in my ear.

remember surrender
remember that sound
of all of those voices inside dying down
but the One who speaks clearly of helping and healing you deep within

That voice pollutes me.  It strains my life with Kristi, it stunts my prayers, it impedes on my friendships, it stoppers my schoolwork.  It clamps my throat.  It breaks my heart.

I have fought it well, for years, and I cope reasonably well now - but I will not host a war inside me for the rest of my life.  The war is over.  The day of peace is come.

It is time to retrain my brain -
to teach it not to obsess -
and to liberate my heart
for the fullness of joy it can bear.

I want to do that again
why can't I live there
and make my home

For Lent, by the grace of G-d, by the saving hands of Christ, and by the power of the Spirit, 

I am giving up my anxiety.

in sweet surrender

I want to do so much 
more than remember

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Be glorified in me ... sort of.

Good and brilliant friends and I are working on an alternative worship service for the Luther community during Lent.

The task I'm sharing with Jami now is to find praise and worship music that is theologically and Biblically sound and also not male-centric, self-glorifying, or triumphalist.

Which means the classics of my days with the evangelicals are off the list:
- Days of Elijah (Biblically incorrect)
- Come, Now Is the Time to Worship (self-glorifying)
- Forever (male-centric)

I've been digging through my old files as well as looking at new music (even contemporary Lutheran music!  who'd'a'thunk?) and realizing:

A lot of the focus is a me-and-Jesus kind of thing.

You considered me a friend, capture my heart again

Let every breath, all that I am, never cease to worship You

I am so tired of compromising

Those who linger on this river's shore will come back thirsting for more of the Lord

Main theme:  Jesus, you are awesome; come to me, purify me.

None of this is bad; Lutheran theologians and scholars know that our roots lie in Martin Luther's conviction that we are depraved sinners & saved only by the grace of Christ.

But what are we being purified for?  I am not interested in insular self-transformation.  There is no point to purifying myself in a building with other purified individuals.  I can pray for purification alone.

And I can't wait to be purified & then go and save the world; it's too much time and not enough Spirit.  I'm a saint and a sinner.  There is no ladder to ascend; each day I start again from the bottom of my barren self.  Waiting for purification is not the answer.  I go and do my work even though I am broken and foolish and certain to fail somewhere.  It doesn't matter.

What I need, at this moment in my life, is not music that celebrates Jesus' death for me, or His ability to purify my soul.  I need music that celebrates the community, that lifts up the family of Jesus and declares our broken willingness to go out preaching and living His story of mercy and liberation in the kingdom of G-d.

But there aren't a lot of songs for that.