Church Growth (?)

Friends, In 2012 I was ordained as a pastor in the ELCA. In those four years, we centered on what’s truly central: God’s Good News to the world in Jesus Christ. Did we have discussions on church growth? Sure. But the focus was on “equipping the saints” (whether in New Start Congregations – aka Mission Developments, or in standing congregations – aka Mission Redevelopments) to foster life-giving relationships among one another, but also to serve God by serving the neighbor. That’s pretty much the mission of God, and there’s lots of scriptural backup for that. Read the New Testament for specific examples.

So that’s my training. I’ve done Mission Development Training, Mission Redevelopment Training, followed “Grasshopper Myth” authors, authors who assure us that “Dirt Matters.” I’ve read the Great Permission. I’ve read about emotional systems theory and conflict transformation. I’ve trained in pastoral care. I’ve trained in biblical languages, exegesis, homiletics, systematic theology, dogmatic theology, philosophy, anthropology, atonement theology, creation theology, stewardship, and a whole doggone bunch of things you probably have never really considered.

But when you get to the parish, the main things people tend to be hoping for are comforting those already gathered into the congregation and then getting more people into the congregation so that we can keep on doing what we’ve grown comfortable with. That’s understandable. It’s human. But is it what GOD wants? Maybe. Maybe not.

Here’s what we’re looking at. Without going into TOO much detail, following WWII, we saw people grappling with a second “War to End All Wars” within two generations. People were struggling with the depth of human depravity that would allow an entire nation to exterminate a perceived enemy and to do so in the most cool, calculated, inhumane ways possible. People were facing the aftermath of that war and the growth of “godless communism” in Eastern Europe and the Far East. With a mixture of hope and hopelessness, folks turned to the church. And so the years after the War saw a massive rise in church membership – something that hadn’t really ever existed on such a scale before. And they were taking their children, the so-called Baby Boomers, with them to church.

There were a LOT of Baby Boomers. They tended to grow up in one of two ways: they became extremely suspicious of institutions and raised children to be even MORE suspicious than they were, OR they stayed with the church, developed programs to attract (or bring back) seekers, who knew that suspicion wasn’t the best approach to life, and reminded them of their own childhood religion. Nostalgic comfort. I don’t mean it wasn’t sincere. By no means! But it did have to do with comfort and what was perceived as tradition, even though church membership following WWII was actually a novelty.

Well, ever since the late 1950s, church membership has been in decline. Yes, we have flare ups from time to time, particularly following great tragedies. Presidential assassinations, terrorist attacks, things of that nature. But the general trend in church membership has been on a downward track for decades. That feels threatening.

In the 1980s, we saw the rise of the “religious right.” And we saw many of their hero pastors fall to money and sex scandals. We turned to CEO pastors, who began treating the church like a business with a product to sell. That’s kind of the model we’ve been stuck in for the last 40 years.

We love our congregations. We want them to continue. And in an effort to make sure that happens, we grasp at every trend that comes along. Sunday School indoctrination, VBS, singles programs, widow/widower programs, small group programs, every conceivable program there is. We are literally “anxious” about the downward trend, and we will sell our souls if we have to in order to keep alive this institution we’ve poured so much of ourselves into.

Do our institutions “deserve” to continue? I don’t know. Probably. As a collective body, a congregation has a lot of good it can do in a community, but anxiety gets in our way. The will to survive often stands in the way of the need to thrive. As pastors called into struggling congregations (as if that term weren’t redundant), we feel the anxiety, too. It rubs off on us. And we depend for our own livelihoods on financially sound congregations. Let’s face that reality. And so it’s easy for us to get sucked into conversations and pressures to “grow the church.” Everyone is looking for a magic bullet approach.

The good news is, I’ve got one. If you want to “grow the church” by “attracting young families with children,” all you have to do is look to the non-denominational model. Take out the pews. Put in big screens. Host events on Saturdays, Sundays, and/or Wednesdays that a pastor either pre-records or broadcasts from offsite, and intersperse that pastor’s message with a band that plays electrified guitar praise music. Put in a coffee bar. Maybe add a rock wall and a video arcade in order to attract the kids’ attention. That’s what’s working and that’s the “magic bullet” for growing the church’s numbers. Period.

The less good news, or maybe the question that problematizes the good news: Is that what you want? More importantly, is that what GOD wants? I suspect that anyone reading this blog would say, “Not just no, but HELL no!” And I’m with you. What people WANT is to be catered to. That goes for the ever-elusive young families with children, AND it goes for the saints who already sit in our pews.

Those of us already here have strong ideas about what we want in a pastor, for example: young, married, straight, white men or women, who will sacrifice their families for the sake of the membership. We want pastors who will sacrifice their very selves in order to fit into our preconceived notions of what a pastor ought to be (pedestal dwellers, who don’t cuss, who don’t drink, who don’t sin, moral exemplars for us to follow … and then to demonize when they fail to live up to our unrealistic expectations). They should know when we are sick or sad or hospitalized without our having to inform them of it. They shouldn’t be too pushy or intrude on our private lives. They shouldn’t talk about money, but they need to help us be good financial stewards. They shouldn’t talk about politics, but they should let us rant and rave about our political opinions.

Those of us already here have strong opinions about what our worship should be. Solemn but fun, worshipful but easygoing, traditional but flexibile, at the right time of day that doesn’t interfere with our non-church lives and dinners and football games, filled with inspiring music that isn’t too old-fashioned or too repetitive or too “modern.” There should be options for Communion elements: we should have wafers for those who don’t like the bread and bread for those who don’t like the wafers. There should be a gluten free option for those who have celiac disease, but don’t make all the rest of us who don’t have that condition suffer with a gluten free wafer. There should be grape juice for those of us who struggle with alcohol (which the pastor doesn’t struggle with because he or she doesn’t drink), but wine for those of us who grew up on wine at communion. It should be red wine, sweet but not too sweet, dry but not too dry. We should have the traditional liturgy we grew up with, but not done in a boring, rote, repetitive way.

Visitors should be like us when it comes to worship. They should love our liturgy, our vestments, our liturgical colors, our lectionary cycle, our songs, and while they may have their own preferences, eventually they’ll come to know and love us and will worship exactly as we do (even though not all of us are actually very comfortable with everything in our worship). Oh, but all are welcome!

I could go on, but you get my drift. After this lengthy preamble, I just have this to say: It’s not about us or our wants or our comfort. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” Or as Jesus said many centuries before Bonhoeffer, “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it.” “Take up your cross and follow me.”

We are anxious about losing our life – our congregational life, our comfortable faith life. That anxiety stands directly in the way of our finding our life. Our REAL life. Our BIGGER life. The one GOD wants for us. Not the smaller one we have cultivated and curated for ourselves. If we can lay that anxiety aside, put our trust in Christ … who, after all, is the ONLY one who can “grow the church” … then we will be free to focus on what it is that HE wants us to do. We already know WHO/WHAT he wants us to be: his disciples. Loving one another as he has loved us. Serving him by serving our neighbors. If we do THAT, we will surely attract all kinds of people, including the ever-sought-but-ever-so-scarce families with children.

The rest of this is just preferences. Distraction. Light as a puff of empty air.

Ritual or Sacrament … or Both?

Hey, folks! I’ve been “on the job” at Christ Lutheran in Cape Coral for just a hair over five months now, and I think I’m sufficiently settled in to start writing here again, at least occasionally.

On THIS occasion, let’s reflect on the sacraments. It shouldn’t take long, since we Lutherans only have two of them: Baptism and the Eucharist.

Before diving in, here’s what prompted this reflection. A saint of the congregation I serve listened to me preach this past Sunday, which happened to be the occasion of an adult baptism. (Yaaaaaaay!) The exact context in which I used the word “ritual” escapes me right now, but this person – a friend – was put off by the word. “You referred to Baptism as a ritual. I disagree. Isn’t it a sacrament?”

Now, that’s a really great question. Based on the rest of the conversation, to refer to Baptism and the Eucharist as “rituals” kind of degrades the “sacredness” for him. When I pointed out that the sacraments include ritual elements, he responded, “It is a ritual but Baptism and the Eucharist are special. There are a lot of organizations (even families) that have rituals, but the Lord gave us sacraments.”

Yes! The Lord DID give us sacraments, but here’s the kicker: anthropologically speaking, humans NEED rituals. It’s part of our story-telling nature. The Eucharist is a great example.

John’s Gospel tells us over and over that Jesus knew what humankind was like, and laid it out like this: “The judgment of the world is this: that the light has come into the world, and humans love darkness more than the light, because their deeds were evil.” Jesus was never naive about the way of human beings. At the same time, the REASON he came into the world was “so that the world,” which “God so loved,” “might not be condemned, but might be saved.”

As part of his world-saving plan, using what we ALREADY do, but subverting it from within, he gave us a table ritual. Jesus himself first TAKES the bread, then he GIVES THANKS, then he BREAKS the bread, then he GIVES it away. He does this with the words that we call “the words of institution:” “Take and eat; this is my body. Take and drink, this is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”

A command from Jesus, an ordinary element, and a ritual. Of course, it’s MORE than a ritual, but it IS a ritual nonetheless. What happens in the course of this ritual is the remembrance that Jesus, knowing full well about our love for the darkness rather than the light, gives us himself as the sacrifice in the ritual – a sacrifice that substitutes his own body for the bodies of the many people we beat and humiliate and murder and devour on a daily basis, and he says, “Do that to me instead. I’m the one who can withstand your worst, and rather than ramp up the violence as revenge against you, I offer you forgiveness. Eat MY flesh instead of one another’s. Spill MY blood and drink it instead of drinking one another’s blood.” It’s a RITUAL because we need ritual, but the power is shifted from unwilling victims to a willing one. Therein lies the sacrament, or the sacredness, of this particular ritual. “Do this, whenever you do it, in remembrance of me.”

Baptism isn’t that different. It’s also based in murder: murder of the old self, the “worldly” self, the self that loves darkness more than the light. In that water, God meets us again with forgiveness rather than retribution, and this is what gives us new life. We perform this murder and raising from the dead ritually.

If we didn’t NEED ritual, Jesus would have just said, “This is my body and blood. Remember that, and we’ll be good.” If we didn’t NEED ritual, we could just understand that we die with Christ and are raised with him again and we wouldn’t need all of that messy water and anointing oil. Yes, these things are ALSO sacraments, but we can’t discount that they are also rituals, and they are given to us as “a means of grace.”

Philip Melancthon (Luther’s “right hand man”), in Article 13 of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession defined the sacraments as “rites, which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added […].” He went on to clarify that “humanly instituted rites are not sacraments, properly speaking, because human beings do not have the authority to promise grace.”

In the same paragraph, Melancthon explains:

God moves our hearts through the word and the rite at the same time so that they believe and receive faith just as Paul says [in Romans 10:17], ‘So faith comes from what is heard.’ For just as the Word enters through the ear in order to strike the heart, so also the rite enters through the eye in order to move the heart. The word and the rite have the same effect. Augustine put it well when he said that the sacrament is a ‘visible word,’ because the rite is received by the eyes and is, as it were, a picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore both have the same effect.

All of this is merely to say that a sacrament contains ritual as a central component. At the same time, not all rituals are sacraments, as our mutual friend points out. While I used the term “ritual” intentionally last Sunday – to make the point of the visible aspect of God’s gift to us – maybe it would have been just as good, if not better, to stick with the term “sacrament” in this case. But I said what I said, and a good thing that has come from it is that it gave us an opportunity to clarify (at least to ourselves) the similarities and differences of those two words, and to be able to articulate to one another where we’re coming from. Did it bring agreement? Not necessarily. But neither did it bring distress or a cause for stumbling. And it brought about conversation, so I’m counting that all as good.




An Announcement

I had almost forgotten to make this announcement, because I was waiting until the folks at First Lutheran and Prince of Peace in Tulsa knew about it. But the letter is out, and the news is even “FBO” (Facebook Official): My family and I are about to become Floridians!

Bokeeelia, Florida

The good people of Christ Lutheran in Cape Coral, FL have extended me a call in their community, and I have accepted! This has been in the works for approximately two months now, and I won’t bore you with the whole story, much of which involved paperwork, telephone conversations, and Zoom meetings. (I won’t complain. The magic of Zoom is that it allows a speedier and much less costly Call process, if it’s conducted well. This one certainly was.)

It also included two trips down to Cape Coral. The first of which took place during the hideous snow storm we had here in Tulsa. When we left for the airport on the way to RSW airport, we faced freezing drizzle. By the time we were meant to return via St. Louis, TUL and OKC and even Dallas were frozen in, and so we were “stuck” in sunny Southwest Florida for several days, tortured repeatedly by beautiful weather, wining and dining by various council members, hospitality in multiple ways by others, and many sightings of Burrowing Owls and other gorgeous birds. It was awful. You would have hated it. Oh, and the seafood? It was fresh and delicious. Just so awful, you guys.

The second trip was similar, weather-wise, but we didn’t get to spend any extra time in Florida. That trip was a bit more business: meeting the rest of the congregation, locating a realtor, doing a little cruising in a borrowed Mini-Cooper and eating more seafood. (Somebody’s got to do it, and I guess we’ll take one for the team.)

In any case, things went well, obviously, and we begin our adventures together beginning on May 1. In the meantime, we’ve had to get home, endure a bit of waiting until the vote became official, informing the people here in Tulsa, starting to straighten up our home in preparation for placing it on the market. Did I mention that all of this is happening in the final weeks of Lent?

It has been crazy busy on both ends of this. The poor people back in Cape Coral have been jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops and ringing the bells in order to get my installation service set up at the same time that they’re planning their own congregation’s 60 year anniversary. It’s an interesting time, and our family is super excited to get down there.

At the same time, it’s hard saying goodbye to the place we’ve called home for the last eight years. We’ve met a lot of really great people here and have formed some friendships that are going to be hard to change by adding distance to the equation. People at church, people in the neighborhood, people at the kids’ school, people around town. It’s a bitter-sweet time, to be sure.

And hard work. Just did a two-day-long garage sale in which we got rid of most of the bulky furniture items that we don’t intend to drag with us, plus lots and lots (and lots!) of accumulated Schtuff from projects that now belong to the past. That, in itself, is hard to let go of.

All of this reminds me of the time when we were finishing seminary and were anxious about our first call. In addition to the school work, we had mobility paperwork to fill out, regional assignments to wait on, and after the regional assignments, synod assignments. Finally came the interviewing process with specific congregations.

During that time, we chose a kind of biblical metaphor to guide us as we waited. While we watched countless classmates getting calls from their bishops, we had to wait on ours. As we watched them getting interviews and first call placements, we had to wait on ours. The most fitting biblical narrative for us seemed to be “Wilderness Wandering.” We had to learn to trust. “Trust the process” was the catch-phrase, but even then I thought that was ridiculous. I did NOT trust the process. But we did trust God.

Eventually we got tired of waiting, watching a new class coming in for Summer Greek classes and then witnessing the fall semester begin. So we chose a new biblical metaphor: “Abram, Go.” We decided to pack up and move to Oklahoma, whether that would be our ultimate destination or not.
We weren’t in OK for more than a couple weeks before we got an interview at First Lutheran, and that’s where we landed. And it turned out pretty well, I dare say.

This move to Florida is out of character for this guy, who was really missing the Midwest, but it was also clear that we couldn’t stay in Tulsa any longer. I think the proper metaphor for this time, considering that we weren’t financially ready for this move and that we had to trust that things will fall into place SOMEhow is simply this: “God Provides.”

We are all grateful for our time in Tulsa. We are also grateful for the opportunity in front of us. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and we are humbled by all of it.

Stay tuned here for more adventures. Who knows what God (as one of our new friends says, “The Spooky Spirit”) has in store for Christ Lutheran and us? We sure don’t know, but we’re confident that God Provides, and we will do our best to serve faithfully among these folks, who have already shown us such love and support. I think it’s gonna be great!

What’s in a Name?

Not long ago, I was chatting with some friends about names, and the topic is back on my mind. It’s really interesting to me to think about names as a label that get attached to a person long before they develop a suitable label. Most likely, that’s why there are naming traditions in families: it’s just easier to call a child after a relative who had that name before. It honors the person a child is named for, and it can also have a hand in shaping the kind of person the child becomes, but you can’t just look at a baby and say, “That one looks like a Brunhilda.” Or a Ralph. Or pretty much anything else. Nope. “We’re naming her after her great-great grandmother on her father’s side.” And there you go. Nothing to do with any innate quality in the child. It’s just kind of random.

And then sometimes there’s a story. My parents named me Robert Paul, but that wasn’t my mom’s first choice. She wanted me to be a John, Jr. My father, on the other hand, hated his name because of its bathroom connotations. Apparently he was famous for responding to people who announced they were going to the John, “Well, I hope you wipe your Mary while you’re in there.” He told my mom that if she insisted on calling me John, Jr., he’d refer to me as Little Toilet.

So they named me after Robert Wilde, my mom’s father, and Paul Martin, my dad’s father. Both of them died before I was born, and neither of them were really talked about much when I was little, so I have zero associations with either of them. Maybe that’s why my name never really felt like it fit. Other people don’t seem to have this issue. Tims and Julies and even Heathers really seem to just kind of go with what names they were given and don’t appear to think twice about it. Must be nice.

I’ve really never associated well with my name. My family always called me Robby, which I pretty much despised. It was so bad that I once tried to sneakily change my name to Rocky. When I met new friends, that’s who I’d tell them I was. Most likely Balboa was in my mind when I came up with that one. Anyway, my mom dashed that almost instantly, and I was back to Robby. But I never was a Bob or a Robert. (Well, I take that back. When I lived in Germany or among Germans, they used to call me Robert – with the German pronunciation – because “Rob” was weird for them.)

Among some of my friends, because they know other Robs, presumably, I’m “RobMartin.” Just one word. For a few others, they occasionally call me “Robert Martin” (pronounced RAW-butt MAH-tin) after the character in Jane Austin’s Emma. (He is not a gentleman, so Emma doesn’t fall for him, but her little sister eventually does. Things end fairly well for him in the novel. Yay, Robert Martin!)

But in any case, names ARE labels that get attached to us, for good or for ill. I always kind of liked how some cultures normalize taking on a new name -maybe a chosen one, maybe one related to one’s character – once they reach a certain age. But even there, I’m not quite sure what mine would be. Complains-a-Lot? Tubby Belly? Facial Hair Guy? Mr. Neurotic? I dunno.

In college, one of my friends told me that Lopaka was the Hawai’ian pronunciation of Robert, so she called me that for a while. It never stuck long-term, but I didn’t mind it. In Irish, the equivalent of Robert is Roibeárd (pronounced Ruh-BARD). Looks cool; sounds weird. In both cases, it stems from Proto-High German and means something like “Bright Fame.” Not sure what that’s supposed to mean. The Hebrew version of that is זֹהַר (Zohar). Pastor Zohar? Maybe. Apparently Boris is a Bulgarian relative of “Bob.” I kind of like Boris actually. Pastor Boris has a certain sinister Hollywood creep film kind of ring to it.

What about you? If your parents hadn’t given you the name you currently have, what would you choose for yourself? Why that? Interesting to think about.



In-person Worship Dry Run

Hi, friends!

Well, today we had our first in-person worship experience since Reformation Sunday. Had about 24 or so in attendance, and that was pretty nice. Had one guest from Ohio who was just passing through, so he didn’t know to bring his own Communion elements. We got him hooked up just fine. And one of our long-timers had left his bread & wine in the car. He’s an older gentleman, and I didn’t want him to have to go to all the work of retrieving it, so I scrubbed up really well and prepared a cup and host for him.

Music sounded good, as far as I could tell. Somehow, Helper Elf Bob managed to get the sound to come out of the speaker AND through the live stream, but please don’t ask me how he did it.

Our door opener’s alarm didn’t go off, so she was just a teeny bit tardy, but there were plenty of people on hand to cover her until she arrived.

I was disappointed in my sermon. It made a LOT of sense in my head, but didn’t come out of my mouth quite the way I had hoped. In my defense, I had been traveling this past week. As a result, my confidence in my ability to coherently put together something meaningful in a short period of time was a bit stronger than it should have been. Lesson learned. Although, to be completely honest, sometimes the best sermons are the ones where I don’t know at all what I’m going to say until I say it. Hmm.

Overall, I’d give the morning a thumbs-up, and look forward to next week for our “hard opening.” There’s no telling whether we’ll get more people for Palm Sunday, but I think we have plenty of room to still meet with reasonable safety. This has felt like a long time coming, and it was really nice to see people in the flesh again.

Not a very inspirational post today, but I just wanted to drop a wee line to keep myself in the habit and to give all of the two of you subscribers a bit of something to go on. 🙂

Building Use Partners

Six years ago, right around this time of year, I put up the sign you see in the image above, “Is your congregation looking for a home? Call 918-582-0917.”

The first call I got that Lent was from Bonnie Childers (now Bonnie Lebak), Lead Pastor for a group that called themselves House Church Tulsa. Pastor Bonnie and I had a great 30-minute conversation on the phone in which we talked about why I was looking to rent out space in our building at that time. I remember saying very specifically that I wasn’t looking for renters. Not at all. But rather, I was looking for ministry partners. Yes, we would remain our own separate entities, but whoever would wind up sharing the building with us would also commit to worshipping with us from time to time, as well as engaging with us on various ministry endeavors.

Also during that conversation, Pastor Bonnie said, “Let me stop this conversation for a minute, because what I’m about to say might be a deal-breaker for you. We are a church made up primarily of lesbians, gay men, and their families. Is that going to be a problem for your congregation?” The first words out of my mouth were, “Of course that’s not a problem! The Holy Spirit LOVES diversity!” But then I had to backtrack a bit and say that I needed to have a conversation with the congregation. We needed to have a conversation anyway, because Oklahoma was legalizing marriage between same-sex couples, and I had to talk to First Lutheran about what that meant for us, for the building, for my own ministry.

Long story short: the conversation went really well, and House Church Tulsa has been SUCH a blessing to us these past six years, and I hope we have been a blessing to them, as well.

Quick side story: The first Sunday that they were meeting, I had invited Pastor Bonnie and her co-pastors to come to the front of our sanctuary for a blessing on their ministry in our midst. Bonnie said, “Do you just want the pastors, or should the whole congregation come up?” We decided to invite everyone from House Church, knowing that some might have trepidations entering into a “traditional” church community, because of past and present wounds that they had received from the words and actions of traditional churches. I think everyone came up, nevertheless.

When it came time to offer the blessing and all those people came forward past the First Lutheran members seated in their pews, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place. The healing that took place in that moment was like something I had never seen and, to be honest, I haven’t seen since. That, we all knew immediately and deeply, was what the kingdom of God looked like. I’m tearing up, just from the memories.

Anyway, House Church is our longest-enduring building use partnership, but it wasn’t our first. Before then, First Lutheran had housed Comunidad de Esperanza, Tulsa’s first Latino mission-start. When none of the other congregations in town were terribly eager to take on the project of hosting an as-of-yet non-existent worshipping community, the people of First Lutheran were pleased to reach out and lend worship space, an office, and a ministry partnership in what way they could, in spite of a language barrier. Comunidad moved on to a more suitable part of town for their community, but they had blessed us richly while they were here, and we will always have a warm place for Pastor Alvaro Ochoa-Nova and the people he serves.

We also offered space for New Life Church for a time. This was a group of recent inmates on probation and their loved ones, pastored by Chris Stevens, a guy I had met at Panera Bread, I think, during our weekly Community Coffee gatherings. The logistics of that gathering were a bit complicated, not because of the background of the men involved, but simply because finding transportation to the location was very challenging and frustrating. This was a Charismatic community, which meant that they worshipped VERY differently than we did, but the worship they offered was beautiful and life-changing for them. Another blessing for us.

And we also hosted the marvelous Jonathan Martin and a community called The Table, which he had started with Nicole Nordeman and some friends of theirs. It was a praise and worship congregation who numbered more than 250 people on their first night here! It blew us all away. Simply gorgeous worship. They have since moved to Oklahoma City because that was more fitting with their needs, but again, they blessed us richly with their presence while it lasted.

To sum all of that up, First Lutheran Church, in the past seven years or so, has developed a fantastic habit of open-armed welcoming of diverse worshipping communities, and now we get a chance to do it again!

Father Dewayne Messenger and Brother Ray Knapp recently began developing a new mission start in the Ecumenical Catholic tradition, and these folks have chosen the name Todos Los Santos (All Saints) for their community. They are our newest building use partners, and it is going to be such a pleasure to work alongside them! I’ve known Fr. Messenger for several years, having met through the Tulsa Christian Ministerium some time back. He is a thoughtful, generous, reverent leader, and I believe under his leadership, along with Br. Ray’s and that of their council, this community will thrive.

I want to take the time to thank all of you at First Lutheran Church for your patience and for your willingness to embrace the role of host that I have kind of thrust upon you in the past. It’s not always easy to share the things that you’ve long considered your own, including the building where you gather. You’ve poured money, blood, sweat, and tears into building this place since you moved to this current location from downtown back in the 1950s, so it’s understandable that it might sometimes be difficult to share, but you have undertaken the task with incredible grace, and you deserve to be recognized for it. So, again, thank you all.

In that spirit, I know you will welcome Fr. Dewayne, Brother Ray and Todos los Santos with open arms (albeit at an appropriately social distance for now) as we come to know one another.

Blessings to all,

Pr. Rob

“Layers” or “Levels” of God Encounters

Hi. I’ve been away from the blog for a little bit, kind of doing some thinking in a lot of different areas. I’ve mentioned here before that this search for Wisdom in my own life is – as one would expect – spilling over into my thoughts and understandings about my life in ministry.

In pursuit of that type of thing, I ran across an old video of a panel discussion that featured, among several other people, Cynthia Bourgeault, who has been leading my spirit in some fairly interesting directions for the last several months. In this video, someone mentioned how she seems to have left the old model of the church behind in favor of a more direct encounter of the Divine through various spiritual practices, including Centering Prayer, The Work (what students of G.I. Gurdjieff call his “Fourth Way” practices of involving all three energetic “centers” of the human being: heart, intellect, & emotion), chanting, etc.

Cynthia offers a gentle correction, and she does so by mentioning having learned about three “levels” of the church: The Exoteric, The Mesoteric, and The Esoteric.

“The Exoteric church, the one with the doors, that people come into off the streets, the one that needs pastors, the church that’s there when you’re ready to put a bullet in your head in the middle of the night — that church serves an extraordinarily important function, and without access to it, people aren’t ready to go further. Its role is to create a basic welcome container, basic pastoral/ethical nurturance, and a sense of devotional reference points.

“From there on, it opens into the Mesoteric, which is about Path; which is about practice, and that’s where you really sort of bring in the Centering Prayer, the chanting, the psalmody, the Orders of Life. And that, then, drives and makes possible the gateway into the Esoteric, which is badly understood in our culture. It’s sort of equated with the ‘secret knowledge,’ these ‘cosmic PIN codes,” where it really just means the deeper: the deeper understanding, the deeper immersion in what was there all along in the Exoteric, but you didn’t get it before.

“So, the Mesoteric is the real bridge. And I think it’s that bridge that people are hungering for. That’s the place we try and give them in Wisdom School, and that’s certainly the bridge I crossed without ever looking back when I became a teacher of Centering Prayer. [Centering Prayer does most of the heavy lifting] because it begins to change the way people think.

“There’s brain science now to show that meditative practice increases our capacity to bear paradox, to live in ambiguity, and to not immediately react from defensive postures. And it’s the part that was missing from the church. Nobody knew how to do this. Nobody made time and they were drowning in their own sort of ‘surface-ness.’

[There was a comment about the dying of the institutional church. ] “It’s not an either/or. Maybe there will be <strong>fewer</strong> churches. I think the <strong>parish church </strong>may be belly-up. The movement towards greater and more powerfully diverse and impassioned centers – kind of cathedrals in the old way of thinking: vortexes of human energy and then a lot of Mesoteric groups spinning out — that would be the model that I see as viable.

“But I certainly would never recommend going back and starting with ‘the Jesus church,’ because there’s no such thing, at least in our own culture.”

My take-away or reflection on this multi-structured way of looking at the church and spirituality is this: 12 years into my “pastoring gig,” as I like to call it, there are aspects of the Exoteric church that trouble me (institutional racism, institutional sexism, traditionalism over tradition, protection of the institution over living the gospel of Jesus, etc.), and much of it leaves me weary and empty. I NEED that Mesoteric church and sort of aspire to Esoteric practices and embracing integration. At the same time, what the Meso- and Esoteric churches teach me is: IT AIN’T ABOUT ME! There is clearly still a role – “an extraordinarily important function” – for the “regular ol'” church in this world, and I remain committed to it. My hope is that my ministry will help some “transcend” – or maybe simply go deeper into – the traditional church, rather than to just accept it at face value. If I can do that while also being there in the middle of the night, as Cynthia says, when someone wants to put a bullet in their brain, or when Grandma dies, or when someone wants to celebrate new life, I am content. It all belongs.

Upcoming Worship Gnus/News

Hi! It’s been a while since I’ve checked in, so here we are. Plans for Epiphany and the weeks after (leading up to Lent … which begins in the middle of February, if you can believe it. Just around the corner! Eeek!) are coming together nicely. Week one is already planned and we have the skeleton for the rest of the weeks after Epiphany.

With the exception of Epiphany Sunday itself, we’re sticking with Worship Design Studios and their version of a liturgy. The series we’re using is called “God is Holding Your Life.” Since we’re in the grips of this pandemic – still! – and because we’re moving into a new and hopefully better year, this message just seemed really appropriate and needed.

Below is a wee trailer that ought to give you kind of a taste. But Catherine will be playing the music. It won’t be “piped in” via video.

Video Series trailer for “God is Holding Your Life: A Journey of Assurance for the New Year” from Worship Design Studios.

I mentioned that Epiphany Sunday will look a little different from the rest of the weeks. That’s because the first Sunday will be a bit of a hybrid/amalgam worship service, combining elements of Worship Design Studio, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and a book of liturgies and prayers by Brian Wren. I think it will be nice. Familiar enough to feel pretty good, but with a couple things that are just different enough to (hopefully) keep your attention.

So that’s Epiphany and the weeks leading up to Lent. Lent itself is going to be VERY special this year, because the liturgical music will come from the heart and pen and skilled musicianship of our very own Catherine Conger! I’m really excited to hear what she is putting together for us!

In-person Worship, part deux

Hey, all. Been a little quiet here lately as the Looking Forward Taskforce gears up for some phone calls to set up interviews with folks from FELC and PoP, and also since I’ve been on the road to visit my mom.

First thing: Mom update. Apparently there is an appointment with a vascular surgeon floating around out there somewhere. When my niece tried to schedule it, the appointment was sent in the new year, but the doc said that was too far out, so HE would schedule it. Haven’t heard anything since. So that’s about all we know. Thank you again for your indulgence while my family wrestles with all of these health concerns.

Now, onto the update. Last night the CORE COUNCIL met to talk about the usual CORE COUNCIL things. Lately, in-person worship has been one of the recurring topics. House Church, one of our Building Use Partners, would like to do an Advent event, a bit of a self-directed, possibly timed event with various stations for candle lighting, silent prayer, Communion, etc. It sounds like a fantastic idea. However, the CORE folks were concerned about opening the building to Building Use Partners when we weren’t even using the space ourselves yet. So, based on how things went last time, with somewhere between 19 and 23 people in the sanctuary for 40 minutes, we’re gonna try it again.

Beginning on the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 29 (the first Sunday after Thanksgiving), we’re going to try in-person services. The only things I’d like to change, based on last time, have to do with singing, the call-and-response sections, and reading/assistant ministering. Since the space is “small,” the less vaporizing of particles we do, the better. IF you MUST sing, please try to keep it “in your mask.” No diaphragm singing and projection, please. Same with the spoken responses. Your “and also with you” is understood, so there’s no reason to shout it out. And if you’re reading, it would be better to have you come up to a microphone to do it, than to have you standing among the people, masked or not.

Oh, one other thing: you might want to anticipate standing in line before we let you in. In order to keep the time indoors to a minimum, we won’t let people in the door until five minutes before start time. That will avoid having folks breathing in the space for longer than the allowed 40 minutes.

One more note on the service: Our theme for Advent this year is “I Believe Even When.” Week One will still be based on Hope; Week Two on Faithfulness, etc., but the overarching theme is belief in the face of reasons NOT to believe. On our Facebook page, I invited people to contribute their own “I believe even when” statements, and we got a few great submissions. I’d like to extend the invitation again to send yours in, either to the link on FB, if you can find it, or directly to me at pastor@felctulsa.org.

Keep your eyes peeled for more updates!

Peace,

Pr. R.

Task Force, part 4

Another productive meeting yesterday. This time we talked about the Guide to One-on-One conversations, why to do them, how to do them, what we’re going to do with the information we gather. And we put together a list of partners for doing a dry-run. That’s our assignment for a week from now: to have called our partner, practiced a one-on-one with them, and then report back next week what we all learned about what drives and motivates our partner.

The following week we will assign people from both congregations to call and set up a time to meet (in person, over electronic meeting platforms, or on the telephone) to do a (roughly) 45-minute-long one-on-one with them. We’ll talk about that more next week.

Just to fit this into a bigger picture, we discussed how the information that we glean from our wider-reach one-on-ones will help us get a picture of what kind of Bible study we want to do. This way, we’ll be listening to one another (on the horizontal axis through one-on-ones) and listening to God (on the vertical axis through Bible study and prayer), and this will help to guide conversations along into the future. So this is going to give us plenty to do over the course of the next several weeks. As our cross-shaped listening (horizontal and vertical) unfolds, a plan will start to come together. (There IS, indeed, a method to our madness!)

We forgot (Pr. Rob forgot) to ask for a descriptive word from each participant. D’oh!