The blog of a lutheran pastor, writer, and political animal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Church isn't dying, it's just under 40

Last night at our Pub Theology entitled "Church for the Under 40 Crowd,” we discussed the ways the Xers, Millennials, and “Boomlets” are positioned to change the Church. We thought about the particulars of being under 40 at this time and place, and our relations to the Church. We then went on to dream about what the “Next Church” will look like.
And somewhere along that ride we came to the conclusion that the Church isn’t dying (contrary to what many experts both inside and outside the Church will say), it’s just dealing with all the same stuff that the under 40 crowd is dealing with—wage stagnation and instability of all kinds, most notably unstable schedules.

We concluded that the best thing pastors can do (as opposed to run after each new fad or become the new hyper-manager/cruise director) is to be with the people pastorally through every change. Also, congregations ought to do more “one off” events, fully aware that some of them will fail and that's okay.


Sunday, November 09, 2014

Keep awake

I’d struggled and sweated over my Master’s thesis through many a long night and finally submitted. I’d kept awake.
          I got on a plane back to the US and wrote the sermon for my best friend’s wedding on the 11-hour plane ride from London to Los Angeles. I’d kept awake.
          I wrote my Best Man’s toast and a speech about brotherhood, and friendship for the bachelor party, on the plane from LA to Eugene, Oregon. I kept awake.
          Kevin—my friend who was getting married—picked me up at the airport and took me straight to the bachelor party. I kept awake.
          Everyone showed up at the house down by the river—a bonfire was lit, a few golf-balls carelessly hit into the Willamette River. Drinks were poured. I gave my little speech about bachelorhood, brotherhood, and continued friendship. I kept awake.
          The party was roaring, such a celebration. I began to talk to a friend who I hadn’t seen in several years. We sat down on a couch…

          Then I was woken up by someone vigorously knocking against my sternum,
“Dude,” he said, “I’m glad you woke up. We’d talked to you, poured water on you—I even slapped you in the face a couple’a times. I can’t believe you slept through Kevin’s bachelor party, man. I can’t believe you couldn’t keep awake.”
          And that’s the bottom line for Matthew today—Keep Awake!


          They sometimes call the Gospel of Matthew the Church’s Book, or the Church’s Gospel, because it is the only Gospel that explicitly mentions “The Church.” Matthew, more than anyone other than Paul, wrestles with what Christian community looks like…
Matthew is also the most cynical and critical, of Church-folk. He consistently points out that there will always be those inside the church who are angels, and also those inside the church who are devils. We’re a mixed body—the church is an admixture of these two groups, and we’ll never be able to judge who among us is the angel and who is the devil—that is for God alone.
He writes about ONE flock, filled with both sheep and goats.
He writes about ONE field, filled with both wheat and weeds.
He writes about ONE wedding party—10 bridesmaids—all 10 have lamps and all 10 are in the same place, but 5 are wise and 5 are foolish.
In this case the only difference is one set of bridesmaids are prepared and keep awake.

Similarly, today Amos preaches frightening words to those who rested firmly in their own righteousness.
He hears his people praying for the Day of the LORD. The people remember back to the time of the Conquest of Canaan, when the LORD God of Armies was on the march and smote those who stood against His people.
The Day of the LORD when the weather, and elements and the Cosmos itself, battled against the enemies of Israel.
The Day of the LORD when an astronomical impossibility held the sun in place, so there would be daylight and time enough for Joshua and his army to slaughter the Amorites.

Amos hears these words from these insiders—and says in effect:
“I see your religious acts, and I have some bad news.
Most of it is pagan nonsense—your worship literally stinks (verse 21).
Where, in form, you’ve managed to be orthodox, I look beyond what you do in worship and into what you do in life.
I see you have built a dam to shut up justice and made righteousness into an irrigation ditch.
Your public officials take bribes,
The little the poor have, is stripped away from them,
The vulnerable immigrants—you hate them.”
You think you’re God’s people—but you didn’t keep awake, you’ve went off into a dream world and are sleep-walking into disaster.
You are expecting me to bring light so you can crush those you hate… it’s going to be darkness for you, those enemies will crush you—one disaster after another.

As those of you in the Thursday Afternoon Bible Study know, a very similar message is preached by Jeremiah—that God has quit going to the Temple and won’t hear the people’s prayers, because the people don’t hear God—they aren’t awake to their multitudinous idolatries and injustices.

This is a theme throughout scripture—that the religious insiders fall asleep, and manage to sleep-walk out into the wilderness, and go from being God’s people, to being not God’s people.
In fact, that great Theologian of the Church, St. Augustine, coined a phrase about this, “Many who seem outside the Church, are actually within it; many who seem within the Church, are actually outside it.”
Or to say it again with a different translation, “Many whom God has, the Church does not have; Many whom the Church has, God does not have.”
(Does that make sense? not all outsiders are outsiders, not all insiders are insiders.)

And to this reality, we must again shout, Keep Awake! Keep Awake! Keep Awake!
This refrain is almost like a police siren.
Think about it,
When you’re going 45 in a 25 a police siren is bad news.
But when someone breaks into your house, nothing sounds better than that siren and those blue and red lights.

So too, keep awake has a dual edge—it has two sides.
Keep awake here Church-folk, among Church-folk. People far more pious than you have fallen asleep, and taken their position as God’s people for granted, and gained God’s scorn. They’ve asked God to hail down wrath upon His enemies, only to find they themselves are His enemy. Be awake when you consider your religious practices, and the way you live in society.

Keep awake there Church-folk, out among a whole host of peoples every day. Look around you and see what God is doing, and not just here at Church, not just among Church-folk, but everywhere
—it’s amazing what God is doing in this, His world, among all kinds of people who are his people, even when we don’t expect it.
Keep awake to what God is doing, there is grace hanging everywhere—at this feast of the bridegroom, this bachelor party for the Son of Man.

Two quick examples:
This last Wednesday a relative of one of our Church members called me up offering a weeks worth of unopened meals, he thought they could help someone. Because of this non-Church member, a shut-in on Hospice Care won’t need to worry about where her meals are coming from for this week. Keep awake.
That same day, I was going through a fast-food drive-up, and after I paid for my meal, the cashier said, “could you hold up a sec.”
I was dozing through life, and assumed he’d forgotten napkins or something,
but then I looked up and he asked me to pray for his father who is suffering with Scoliosis—and we prayed right there in the Wendy’s Drive-through. Keep awake.

Keep awake so your heart does not grow cold, and your faith faint.
Keep awake so you see your sisters and brothers when they come to you.
Keep Awake. A+A


Sunday, November 02, 2014

All Saints Sunday: Six generations around the throne of God.

All Saints Sunday: Six generations around the throne of God.

I recently attended Bishop’s Convocation—it was a two day event around the topic, “Ministry Across the Generations: From Infancy through Elderhood.”
The thrust of the presentations were that for the first time in human history there are 6 generations all living together, and worshipping together…
and because of this we as Pastors, and as the Church, need to keep in mind the wide variety of experiences the people in the pews of different generations have.
At one point an Older Pastor suggested all the generations are pretty much the same, saying, “We all learned to read with Dick and Jane Books…”
And before he could finish his thought, the Associate Pastor of his Church—a Millennial, responded,
“I have no clue what a Dick and Jane Book is.”
And from somewhere in the room came a snide voice, “Our Sunday School Students don’t know what books are.”
A wide variety of experiences between the GI generation and the as yet un-named generation populated by our pre-teens, all of them in our pews.

And just to get an idea about these 6 generations all here together—
Who here is under 13? You’re that yet un-named generation who is more familiar with tablet computers than books.
Who here is between 14-33? We’re the generation the Media is going gaga about, we’re Millennials.
Who here is between 34-49, you’re the generation sandwiched between two giant generations and are sometimes ignored…
which may suit you just fine…
you’re GenX.
Who here is 50-68? You’re the generation currently in charge,
but you’re a generation consistently suspicious of those in charge, you’re Boomers.
Any 69-87 year olds? Like the GenXers you’re sandwiched between two powerful generations, but unlike them, you try to bridge the gap between the two of them, you’re the Silent Generation.
Finally, if you’re between the ages of 88-113, you’re the generation who put together the rules this world is playing by, you’re the GI Generation.

Six generations, all together… Six generations worshipping together.
And on this All Saint’s Sunday, I do want to celebrate
the saints around the throne who’ve been
and the saints before the Lamb who will be.
Those who’ve gone before and those yet to come.
And I also want to consider the six generations gathered in worship before the throne of God today.
Six generations around the throne of God.

Let us pray

Six generations around the throne of God.
One or probably two generations after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,
one John the Revelator was locked up on the Island of Patmos and wrote an astounding, visionary, Old Testament laced, letter to the churches of Asia Minor—modern day Turkey.
He wrote to a generation of Christians facing either explicit state sanctioned terror at the hands of the Emperor Nero, or local persecution
—you know the kind—peasants with pitchforks and bigots with nooses.
In addition to threats to their life, they also likely experienced threats to their livelihood
—economic discrimination, the inability to do so much as buy basic goods and services.

And to that generation, John writes, “You’ve been through a great ordeal… and God knows it, and cares!”
“Some of you’ve even died, for the sake of your faith! In heaven your death is redeemed and made into a great baptismal washing, joined to Christ’s death, and his resurrection too!”
“Your faithfulness in these trying times, is taken as worship before God in the heavenly temple.”
“And God promises to you that salvation from all of this is coming…
 God promises that your ongoing faithfulness is like Palm Sunday—you’re entering into the Temple with Jesus our Savior.
And not only that, those are the same Palm fronds used to build a Sukkah—the booth used at the festival of booths celebrating the end of the Exodus
—the end of Slavery in Egypt
—those Palm fronds are telling you just as Pharaoh’s power over God’s people came to an end, so too has the Emperor’s.”
“God promises that the economic discrimination you’ve experienced will end—you’ll be fed and your thirst quenched.”
“God promises you’ll be protected from those who threaten you.
Though your church leaders may have fallen, Christ the Good Shepherd has not stopped leading and guiding you.”
“Even as you mourn for your fellows, who’ve died, in the faith and for the faith, God promises to wipe away every tear.”
“You might be cut off—away on the Rock of Patmos like me, or in an isolated Church far from the majority of Christians
—but know that there are innumerable multitudes, from all places, and I dare sa,y from all times, here around the throne of God with you, being comforted by God too!”

That was John’s message to his Generation—and it should not be lost on ours—on all of us Six generations around the throne of God.

John says to the GI generation:
“I hear the sadness in your voice as you tell me of losing your friends and contemporaries
—of a funeral every week or so.
I note early on you came through a depression and a war,
and you’ve loyally soldiered on ever since./
God has seen and noted your loyalty,
God was and continues to be with you through the great ordeals
and God holds you in your mourning, wiping away your tears.” 

He says to the Silent Generation:
“You tamed the systems your predecessors put in place, making them more humane. I see you consciously leaving space for those who come after you—so much so that your generation never had a president in the oval office. They call you Silent—your war was said to be the ‘forgotten’ war./
Know this.
God hears you O’ Silent ones.
God also sees your gentleness and your peace-making and your meekness, for what it is, a blessing.
Follow after the Good Shepherd O’ Sheep, He will make you to lie down in green pastures and restore your soul.”

He says to the Boomers:
“You peered into your father’s world and saw no soul—and so you broke it apart and then looked inward to make sure you yourself had a soul, and your intensity is here to stay. You are the wealthiest, most well fed generation in existence, you took leisure and fitness to stratospheric heights, and yet you hunger and are restless./
God offers you living water and a true meal, for in God you will never hunger nor thirst.
“We are restless until we rest in God”—and that rest is offered to you, with joy—for the Lamb has built a booth for you.”

He says to GenX:
“I see the scars of your latch-key childhood. I smell the sizzling cynicism roiling inside you, that comes from a super-saturation of self-sufficiency.
I’ve heard the soulful wrath of your Punk, Metal, and Hip-Hop./
God hears your rage for what it is, an angelic chorus calling to God in a time of need.
God promises to protect you unconditionally, and to never abandon you.

He says to the Millennials:
“A 50% divorce rate, your don’t trust relationships. The 2000 election debacle, you don’t trust politics. 9/11 and the Roman Catholic sexual abuse revelations, you don’t trust religion. The Iraq war, you don’t trust your country. The Great Recession just as you went out into the work world, you don’t trust your own industry. Trust…/
God will lead you by your hand, and I can assure you He is someone, finally, worthy of your trust.”
He says to the youngest among us:
“I’ve heard of your screens, your helicopter parents, being on the go no matter where you go. I gather that your older brothers and sisters are overshadowing you—you may be a new Silent Generation—with your fondness of electronics, perhaps The Muted Generation?/
I do not know where you are headed, but I do know God will be faithful to you
—God is your shelter and food,
will quench your thirst and wipe away your tears.
God is your guard and your guide.
God will see your loyalty even when you despair,
God will redeem your deaths,
And God will transform your lives into the holiest of worship.”

The six generations around the throne of God, as well as those who came before and those who will come after, can all attest that:
God has been faithful,
 God is faithful,
and God will continue to be faithful.


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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

My formal letter to the Office of General Counsel-Federal Election Commission

Dear Office of General Counsel,

          Greetings, this is Chris Halverson, Pastor of St. Stephen Lutheran in South Plainfield, NJ. On October 22nd I received a letter from Steven Baer (see triplicates included) offering between $1,000-10,000 dollars in “donation” to St. Stephen if I pass out a voters guide to my congregation before Tuesday, November 4th. From the clergy chatter on facebook we were not the only congregation to receive a letter like this.

          This seems dodgy to the extreme.
          It suggests religious officials can be bribed, which undermines the authority of the clergy, as well as the message of the Gospel we proclaim—which ultimately is the Good News about what God has done for us through Jesus Christ, not some political agenda.
          Additionally, Mr. Baer’s letter is a temptation to forsake my ordination vows, in which I promised to “live a life above reproach”… which I would imagine includes not taking bribes.
          Not only that, this kind of injection of politics, and ultimately the State, into the Church and vice versa, goes against the division between church and state found both in my faith tradition (Luther’s “Two Kingdoms Theory”) and my country’s tradition (Jefferson’s “Separation of Church and State”).
          Finally, and likely more importantly for you all, I can’t imagine this kind of thing is kosher from an election law standpoint.

          So, that’s my formal complaint. Steve Baer’s attempt to buy church backing of a political agenda: undermines my authority and stifles the Gospel, threatens my ordination vows, goes against the traditions of my faith and country, and probably violates some campaign finance/election laws.

In Christ’s Peace,

Pastor Chris Halverson

If your church would like to lodge a similar complaint send Mr. Baer's letter in triplicates along with a notarized letter of complaint to:

The Office of General Counsel

Federal Election Commission

999 E Street, NW

Washington, DC 20463

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

All I really need to know about the Reformation I learned in Luther’s Small Catechism

         As we remember our Spiritual Father, Martin Luther, and his bold actions for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ
—his standing up to Popes and Emperors. He and his fellow Reformers putting their lives on the line for the sake of conscience.
         As we remember all these things, it would be easy to bring it all to “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” crescendo or a clamorous “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
         But, I would like to take it down a notch this Reformation Sunday—to look at the Reformation from another perspective—after all, a song and a speech can start a Reformation, but it can’t sustain one for nearly 500 years.

         Back in 1986, there was a hit book with an interesting premise and title, Robert Fulghum’s “All I really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”
         The title kinda says it all… much of the basic bits of life—wonder and connection—are already found in the simple stuff of childhood,
 in crayons and “hide-and-go-seek”/ Dick and Jane Books and the earliest of science projects.
         In a similar vein, I would propose a Lutheran equivalent this Reformation Sunday.
“All I really need to know about the Reformation I learned in Luther’s Small Catechism.”

         Luther wrote the Small Catechism in order to pass on the faith to his son Hans, and to make plain the total package of his Reforms to peasant and prince alike. And for generations of Lutherans is has served as our primer, our Kindergarten ABC’s if you will,
teaching confirmation students, informing Pastor’s sermons, and speaking the faith clearly to millions of souls.
         And even today, nearly 500 years later, it serves as a rock of the Lutheran tradition
—like Washington Rock not that many miles away, it is a place on which we can climb up, and from which we look and see everything else. We can get a panoramic view of the Spiritual landscape.
We can be ecumenical, and even engage in interfaith dialogue, because we know where we stand, so we are not lost even when we’re far afield.
We can change and grow in a variety of ways, because the Small Catechism is a landmark for us.
“All I really need to know about the Reformation I learned in Luther’s Small Catechism.”

 “All I really need to know about the Reformation I learned in Luther’s Small Catechism.”

I learned that the Triune God is awful… that is, God fills me with awe
… God’s holiness is so frighteningly beyond us to speak of it is to defile it, is to come up short, is to fail as a witness
…and yet we try.
         God fills me with Awe like the Grand Canyon, on a donkey, on a switch-back, while the poorly packed gravel gives way under the beast’s feet, and the donkey may or may not gain its grip.
         Awe like swelling with pious feelings on pilgrimage on the Mount of Olives where Jesus wept over Jerusalem, just as the first plumes of smoke and pops of gun fire and clashes between Jews and Muslims started across the Kidron Valley at Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Triune God is awful, He fills me with awe.

I learned that the Triune God is worthy of my love and my trust… for God did not simply create and leave, but instead sustains every motion and every breath.
         All good things that are necessary and nourishing for my good health, and that of creation, are from God.
         And not only that, but in every time of despair, every moment of doubt or hurt, in all the depths of human life, the pits that are part of my existence,
God is there with me, for God never abandons, but is there for me in every trial and temptation, comforting and delivering me.

I learned that in the Old and New Testament God gives commands and promises to me, and that they inform and shape my faith life.
         For example, Christ commands baptism and communion.
Christ also promises my re-birth… my resurrection with him, in Baptism
And he promises that he’ll show up and sustain me, in the Holy Meal.
         The commands of God, especially those 10 commandments of Moses, are to be read in a strenuously positive way. I’m not to ask only “what shouldn’t I do,” but also add the question, “If that’s true what should I do for the sake of my neighbor?”
         For example, I should not steal… instead I’m going to improve and protect my neighbor’s property and income.

I learned that as a human being, I am a radically dependent creature.
         I’m always trying to sell out to someone.
         In fact, by my very nature I’ve happily sold myself out to Sin, Death, and the Devil.
         And I thank God that while yet a sinner Christ forgave me.
         That Christ my brother saw me sold—a miserable self-made slave, and bought me back, paying the highest of price for my life.

I learned that as a human I’m still inclined to sell-out.
Sell-out like an aging rocker becoming a Vegas Act,
or Troy McClure and Crusty the Clown on the Simpsons—Selling out is always an option.
         Just as there are no Recovered Addicts, only Recovering Addicts, so too there are no Recovered Sinners, only Recovering Sinners.
         I’ve been bought back by Christ, yet I constantly check the smart-phone ap. Zillow to know my re-sale value.

I learned that this is the case for the whole Church, we’re a Sinners Anonymous meeting.
We’re always, daily, in need of forgiveness
—of a forgiving word
and a reminder to give forgiving words, as well.
         We are called to ongoing repentance, confessing together this need
… and when my conscience pricks or provokes me I ought to confess that which troubles me to a Pastor or a trusted Christian friend, knowing their forgiving words are from God.
They remind me that Christ came for me, and forgives me, and bought me out of slavery.

I learned that despite myself and despite the Church being forever filled with recovering sinners, the Spirit will not leave us,
the Spirit’s work in me, and in the whole Church, is irresistible.
         The Spirit alone,
not building programs,
bible studies,
lay education,
New Bishops,
Old Bishops,
Young Pastors,
Old Pastors,
Tattooed Pastors,
Altar Guild,
or Food Pantry
will sustain us.
         The Spirit alone sustains us and allows us to continue on our journey of repentance and forgiveness.

 “All I really need to know about the Reformation I learned in Luther’s Small Catechism.”