Sunday, April 28, 2013

What is Gospel (again)?

A. Hanson (Denver, CO 2012)

For my Gospel and Global Media Culture class we were asked to reflect again this week on Gospel and how that interfaces with our varying contexts, in particular, digital contexts.  If anything, after twelve weeks of discussing Gospel, I am even less clear about what this means.  Although I am not sure that is necessarily a bad thing.  

If you ask most people what "Gospel" means, if they have any answer at all, they will tell you that it is confined to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Which is not wrong.  

If you ask a Lutheran seminarian, they will probably try and demonstrate their knowledge and show off and talk about law and gospel in preaching and theology.  Also, not wrong.  But confusing to anyone not in seminary.  

You might also get some variations on “good news” or “salvation” when asking about Gospel. 

I guess after all this discussion this semester I have settled on Gospel as promise.  We call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John “gospels” because they tell the story of the life and work and saving action of Christ.  We speak of law and Gospel throughout the Bible because the promise of God is not confined to these four books.  Gospel is the most basic promise made by God that your sins are forgiven and you have been given new life.  Gospel happens not only in preaching, but also in the way that we interact with one another.  If we are living out of the Gospel promise we are not going to condemn another person for their identity or actions, because we are all redeemed in the same way under Christ. Gospel means that our past sins do not define us and that we are a new creation. 

What does this mean for digital cultures?  It means that we have an even wider, deeper, and more expansive world.  It means that our words and actions have greater reach and greater consequences.  It means that more is at stake and more is possible.  I think that is also means that we need to rethink how we look at what it means to be and do church. 

In my Holy Spirit, Church, and the Triune God (Pneumatology) class we have been spending a lot of time talking about Church.   I have figured out that my definition of church is the place where the Gospel is heard and where we are equipped to take that message into the world.  So I guess that means a discussion of where the church exists.  I do not believe that church should be contained within the four walls of a building.  I believe it is anywhere people are gathered.  For convenience sake, sacraments and preaching often happen in a church, but what would it look like to take church out into the world? 

My teaching congregation here in St Paul, Humble Walk Lutheran Church, is planning on moving church to the park for worship this summer.  It will probably be a little clunky and there will be some things to work out, but it also has the potential to be really great.  Taking church out into the world also means engaging in digital conversation.  How can we create safe digital spaces for exploring matters of faith? How can we foster the same hospitality online as we do when we take church into the park?  I came away from this semester with far more questions than answers, but maybe that is the point.  

Being Church

Amy Hanson, Denver, CO 2012
For my Holy Spirit, Church, and the Triune God class we read a book entitled, Liquid Church by Pete Ward.  This text affirmed some of my convictions about my sense of call, but more than any other text for the class so far, made me vehemently angry.  The idea of "liquid church"comes from the idea that the church needs to respond to the demands of post-modernity in a way that differs from its previously "solid" state.  The solid church operates out of the convictions that church is a destination (a building) and success is measured by budget and congregation size, and faithfulness is equated with attendance.  Ward argues that this "solid church" is no longer relevant and has mutated into new forms that are not helpful.  He states that the church must embrace consumer culture in order to attract people to it.  It is important to note that this text was published in 2001, at a time in which prosperity was relatively intact, the tech bubble existed and the war on terror had not yet started.  I would argue that in the twelve years since its publication, much has changed.  Below are some of my reflections on this text:

Where his argument breaks down for me is where he attempts to put all of his theoretical knowledge into a practical model for what it means to be church in the world.  Ward writes, “Liquid church involves a radical change in attitude for the church.  Church leaders will need a fundamental change of heart if they are to start to take consumer culture seriously.  Instead of opposing materialism and treating consumer culture as evil, we need to embrace the sensibilities of consumption” (Ward 72).  Ward seems to take for granted that consumer culture is something that should be embraced by the church without critically examining these base assumptions.  He plays right into the mindset of so many Americans, that church exists to meet their very specific needs.  It is from this paradigm that we get such ideas as “church shopping,” “seeker-sensitive churches,” and an epidemic of blasé emergent congregations with pseudo-hipster pastors wearing flannel shirts and scruffy facial hair, spouting bad theology, and waving a latte they bought from the coffee cart in the church narthex.  What if the church exists not to meet MY needs, but OUR needs?  What if the church exists as a way for us to be in communion with one another?  What would it mean for the church to be in the world, a part of the world, but also an alternative to the world?  

My own sense of call is deeply rooted in the theology of the cross. I believe that there is a deep and painful yearning “to call a thing what it is” and a deep need among all people to be in real community with one another, to be broken, but also to be swallowed up by grace and to be born again and again each day.   The church is a broken institution composed of broken people and I think my issues with Ward’s perspective are that this can somehow be overcome with enough awareness and enough planning.  It does not matter how aware you might be of post-modernity or social trends, when people get together in community, the best and worst of humanity will emerge.  

My convictions regarding what it means to be church are forever evolving.  I do not think that Ward is doing anything revolutionary, and in fact, I think that he is still operating out of the same assumptions that have shaped the church in modernity.  Along with my congregation here in MSP, I spoke to a group of Lutherans gathered at a St Paul area Synod conference back in February about what it means to do church differently.  The comment that I made was, "Having a coffee bar in your church is not going to bring people to you, but actually going out into a coffee shop just might."  And I stand by that conviction.  People do not need church to be the same as everywhere else in the world, they need it to be a place that is real.  

Monday, April 22, 2013

Creativity in Faith Communities

Credit Humble Walk Lutheran Church

This is a take off from yesterday's post.  I am pleased to announce that Humble Walk Church has launched a Kickstarter campaign this morning, with the intent of recording a compilation CD of all the original songs that have been written for our community this year.  We intend to make this resource available to our mission partners and others at no cost.  But we need to get start-up money from somewhere.  So if you have a few extra dollars and the desire to support a funky little collection of musicians and an even stranger little church...follow the link below:

Humble Walk Lutheran Church Kickstarter Campaign

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Fair Use of Intellectual Property in Faith Communities

The first encounter that I had with creative licenses was back in College when I was on Chapel Staff.  We would plan worship and use the Chapel's CCLI  (Christian Copyright Licensing International) account to select songs.  Many faith communities prefer to do this because it takes away the administrative nightmare of obtaining usage rights.  I did a little research on this, and the licensing fee is $261 for a basic license for a congregation between 200-500 people.  It goes up quickly from there.  This must be renewed on an annual basis.  In congregations with tight budgets, this is an expense that probably is considered frivolous.

In traditional Lutheran Congregations, we do not spend much time thinking about creative use because we have hymnals in which all the legal legwork has already been done for us.  But faith communities that want to reframe how worship is done together need to be aware of the potential ethical and legal implications.  Artists/Composers deserve to be fairly compensated for their creative contributions.  It is their life's work and livelihood and I don't think anyone would argue that point.

There are a variety of copyright issues at play, no doubt compounded by our culture's litigious attitude.  Americans (or westerners in general) believe they have a God-given right to financial compensation if they suffer any losses or potential losses.  Fair use refers to the use of copyrighted material without permission under some circumstances, especially when the social benefits of the specific use are predominant.  It is debatable as to whether or not worship resources fall under fair use.  In the digital context, the potential for improper dissemination of intellectual property is far greater than a music director copying hymn sheets in the church office.  We literally cannot afford to be sloppy in citing where we obtain our music/photographs/ etc.  So we need to do everything in our power to properly obtain usage rights and sometimes that means purchasing a CCLI (or similar) license.  

But better yet, why don't congregations encourage their members to make their own creative contributions?  My home congregation in Denver has several professional photographers who use their gifts for publicity, graphic designers who made the church logo and publications, and other artists who contribute their gifts as a tithe to the church or for a very nominal fee.  My teaching congregation here in St Paul has set aside a line item in the budget to support artists in residence who sign up to coordinate worship music for an entire liturgical season and are compensated for original songs that they compose for the worshipping community.  The Church of the Beloved in Edmunds, WA has produced their own  musical album with worship resources, which is fantastic and nurtures the gifts of their own members.

Friday, April 19, 2013


A. Hanson

(Preached at Luther Seminary, April 18, 2013)

Grace, Peace, and Mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen
The story that we heard in today’s reading is what is known as the conversion of Saul.  What does it mean to convert?  And who is this Saul character anyway?  We know that he eventually turns into the man Paul and Paul is certainly the most prolific writer of the New Testament, but how did he get to this point?  The Book of Acts was written as a companion to Luke’s Gospel with the overarching theme of belonging for all of God’s people.  Salvation in Jesus Christ is not about coming from the right background or doing the right things.  Or even being a good person.  Because Saul is, to put it mildly, not necessarily a good guy.  We hear him described by the writer of Acts as someone who was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” and who has a desire to bring followers of Jesus Christ, those we hear referred to as following “The Way”, bound to Jerusalem, presumably to interrogate them, persecute them, even execute them.  Saul was a religious fanatic.
Yet while on his merry way to continue persecuting followers of Christ, Saul is struck down with a bright white light and in this incandescent theophany he hears, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?”  And the response comes, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”  Saul is then told to get up and enter the city and he will be told what to do next.  He is blinded by fierce light at this point and entirely dumbstruck, so he needs to be helped into the city by the men who are with him.  He literally cannot do anything different at this point.  I believe this is what a conversion is. Being so overwhelmed by something outside yourself that you are literally drowned and brought back to life by God.  When you are converted by God you are given a new heart and all of you is claimed.  The good, the bad, and the ugly.  But conversion is kind of scary, we have to give up the illusion that we are in charge.  And Saul is certainly not in charge here.  He is brought into the city, deposited in someone else’s home and is completely blind and unable to eat or drink for three days.  The only instruction that he is given by Jesus is “you will be told what you are to do.”
But Jesus is already at work and has selected the man Ananias to assist Saul.   Ananias is a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, and this was not an easy life.  Christian worship at this point was practiced in house churches, with a certain level of secrecy, because Christians were at risk of persecution by both the Jewish authorities and by secular authorities.   Ananias would have probably characterized himself as already converted and since he was devoutly following The Way, not in need of any further conversion. 
So too with many of us.  We go to church.  We give money to our favorite causes, we give canned goods to the food pantry every once in awhile.  We pray.  Maybe we do a morning devotion while we drink our coffee.  But do we silently walk past the man or woman who asks us for spare change while we are on our way to church?  Do we refuse to see the humanity in a person of another faith or nationality or political party in our attempts to make our convictions known?  Do we spend so much time curving in on ourselves in self-examination that we miss what we are called to do in the world?
Saul is not the only person who undergoes a conversion in this text.  Ananias does as well.  Ananias is thrust out of what he believes to be true and forced to reexamine what it means to follow Christ.  Ananias has Christ literally speaking to him in real time and can’t exactly ignore him.  Ananias is called out of the relative safety of his home to go lay hands on Saul, a known persecutor of the Christians. Ananias responds, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem, and here he has the authority of the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”  Jesus responds, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” 
 But what if being converted was not an active decision that we make, but actually a letting go?   A relinquishing of control?  Far too often conversion is portrayed as an internal one-time act in which one “turns towards Christ” and makes a decision to follow him.  We have all heard the grand testimonies of how people were on the wrong path, somehow found Jesus, and their lives were miraculously made far better than they ever could have imagined.  The problem with this thinking is that it puts us in charge of making our own conversions happen instead of being converted BY Christ.  This sort of thinking makes Christ entirely superfluous and assumes that if we are right in mind and spirit we will make the right choice.   
But conversion is not a one-time decision.  It is not a destination.  It is a process that goes on in perpetuity in which we are blinded again and again by God and infused with new life by the Holy Spirit.  It happens every single day.  It doesn’t start with any action on our part, but occurred for all time with Christ on the Cross.  It is something that is done to us and for us.  The only thing for us to do is let go and be converted into a new creation by Christ. 
Saul needed to let go of his hatred and contempt towards the followers of Christ.  He needed to suspend disbelief.  And when he was admonished by Christ for persecuting his followers, and by extension, Christ himself, he needed to let go of some pretty devastating shame. 
Ananias needed to relinquish his sense of safety.  To let go of the fear of persecution.  To be called out of himself to be of service to another.  To let go of fierce anger and call another man, “brother,” a man with whom he would choose never to associate. 
Where do we need to relinquish control?  Where do we need to be converted?   Do we need to let go of feelings of inadequacy or fear or shame?  Or do we need to let go of one-sided debates about belief and truly be present to and for our neighbor?  To lay hands on someone who is hurting, call them brother or sister, even though we really don’t want to? 
If this decision to be converted was left up to us, it wouldn’t ever happen.  Human constructions of what is right and good and just, get in the way.  But the promise that we hear in today’s text is that we have a God who is so much bigger than the box of human understanding.  We have a God who transforms contemptuous individuals like Saul into Paul, the man with a unique capacity for preaching and missionary work and addressing pastoral concerns and is responsible for so much of the spread of Christianity.  We have a God who transforms fearful Ananias into a man who boldly lays hands on Saul , who for all intents and purposes is his mortal enemy, and calls him brother and baptizes him.  And we have a God who calls us out of ourselves and uses us to do good even when we are weary or fearful or confused.  We have a God who claims every part of us, even those parts we would rather hide, and transforms us to fulfill our role in the world.  So dare to let go, fall into grace, and be converted.  Amen.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Second Chances and Stupid Abundance

(Preached at Humble Walk Lutheran Church, April 14, 2013)
John 21:1-19

There is a lot going on in today’s Gospel reading.  We have a ragtag collection of disciples who have untied their boat and set it out into the sea.  They have just seen Jesus when he appeared to them, appearing like some wizard in a locked room where they had been hiding because they were afraid.  And after that, Jesus appears to Thomas and invites him to put his fingers into the wounds in his side to prove that this now living man is the same one who suffered a humiliating death just days before.  After all this excitement, real life comes crashing in, and the disciples set out for the most earthly activity of all, fishing.  The disciples have been out at sea the entire night, and have nothing to show for their efforts.  They had put their nets in front of the boat, to the sides of the boat, trailed them behind the boat.  And not even a piece of seaweed has been snagged by their nets. 

At dawn, a stranger on the shore calls to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?”  They answer, “No.”  And I can only imagine that this is a rather exasperated “no” and probably accompanied by plenty of grumbling and eye rolling.   The stranger tells them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”  I imagine the disciples looking at each other and saying, “Like we haven’t tried that already!!” You know, the sort of situation that happens when someone is looking over your shoulder or across your yard and is critiquing your work without knowing the full story?  So imagine the faith and effort it must take to cast your net overboard yet again, despite all evidence to the contrary, hoping that something would come of it.  That God would make something of it.  It is sometimes easier to just give up.  I think this happens to all of us at one time or another.  In the seemingly fruitless job search.  The math homework that is impossible.  The relationship that we pour all of our energy into and get nothing but indifference from our partner in return.  But the disciples toss that net back over the side of the boat anyway.  Second chances. 
And before the disciples knew it, their net was filled with fish, so many that they were scarcely able to haul it in.  Abundance that is so over the top that it is almost stupid.  This is nothing new for Jesus.  At the beginning of his ministry, we see him turning water into dozens upon dozens of gallons of wine at the Wedding at Cana and using only a handful of loaves and fishes, ends up feeding 5,000 on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  And he is up to it again in today’s Gospel.  This is what leads the disciples to recognize that it is Jesus on the shore, and one of the disciples, only identified as “the one whom Jesus loved” turns to Peter and exclaims, “It is the Lord!”  When Peter hears this, he puts on clothes, because for some reason he is naked, and jumps into the sea. 
This is the strangest part of this story for me.  My initial reading of the text has overtones of shame.   I envisioned Peter jumping out of the boat and frantically swimming away from the shore, away from Jesus.  Because we cannot forget that it was Peter who denied Jesus three times.  Peter denied knowing Jesus in his hour of trial in order to save his own skin. I imagined myself into this story.  I imagined all of the times I have done something that I am not proud of, and how my overwhelming shame has made me want to flee.  When we hurt someone and cannot bear to meet their eyes.  When we as children break a window or spill grape juice on the living room carpet, or like on one memorable occasion, when my sister and I dropped one of my mother’s pearl earrings down the drain in the bathtub.  We want to flee from those who know us because we do not want them to think less of us.  We think that if they really knew us and what we did or continue to do on a regular basis, they wouldn’t love us anymore.  
But Peter is not swimming away from the Jesus.  He is swimming towards him.  We hear that the boat is not far off shore, so Peter leaps from the bow of the ship and starts joyfully and frantically making his way towards Jesus.  Like meeting a far away loved one in the arrivals area of the airport.  Or coming back to your hometown for your first Christmas break as a College freshman.  Or coming home from your first week at sleep-away camp.   Suddenly all those things that happened before your parting don’t matter anymore.  Second chances. 
The rest of the disciples haul the boat to the shore, dragging a net completely filled with fish.  We are told that Jesus is on the shore with a charcoal fire and fish and bread.  Jesus directs Peter to get some of the freshly caught fish and bring them to the fire and says, “Come and have breakfast.”  We hear this invitation to join together and eat repeatedly throughout John’s Gospel.  A theme of gathering around a table to break bread in the presence of one another and with Christ.  Does this sound familiar?  We do it every week at communion. 
But the shared breakfast in today’s Gospel is not just about nourishing the bodies of a group of men who had been fishing all night.  It is about second chances.  The “charcoal fire” that we hear about?  The only other time that a charcoal fire is mentioned in this Gospel is in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house where Peter, the same guy who is ecstatically swimming towards Jesus now, denied Jesus three times as he was being taken away to be crucified. 
And fish aren’t the only thing in abundance in this Gospel.  Forgiveness, second chances, and blessings are in positively stupid abundance. We see it in today’s Gospel not only in the miraculous catch of fish, but in the love that Jesus has for his disciples.  And in that same love that he has for us.  In this season of Easter we are telling one another stories of new life and resurrection.  I will leave you with a story of new life and second chances.  I spent Holy Week in Denver visiting friends.  During the Easter Vigil at the church that I called home for several years, I had the blessing of being the baptismal sponsor for my friend Sherry. Sherry was curious about my church, so I invited her to come.  She had no experience whatsoever in church, but I did not know this until she had been attending regularly for about a month and had never once taken communion.  She thought that she was not allowed to, and would be turned away at the table and humiliated because she had not been baptized.  She also really had no idea what it meant to be baptized but thought that it was only for small children and you reached a certain point where you were too old.  And since Sherry is 64, she thought that she was far too old.  I invited her to come up for communion with me on Sunday last June, and she was so scared that I held her hand.  But eight months later she is still attending church and hears about baptism in a sermon and emails the pastor and says, “I want to belong to God.”  So she asks me to be her baptismal sponsor at the Easter Vigil.  Just a couple days ago I received an email from Sherry.  She says, “I feel like being baptized has given me a new life.  I am forever grateful to God.”  It is never too late to be swallowed up by the abundant love of God. 
On the table to the side of the room there are paper cut outs of fish.  I invite you to write something that you have experienced in abundance, maybe it is happiness…maybe you have tons of stuffed animals…maybe you have been blessed with children when you were told that was not a possibility for you.  Write those things onto one of the fish and tie them to the line (see the example that I have already done) as we put them before God and lift them up together.  And throughout this upcoming week I challenge you to think about where you experience abundance and second chances.  Amen.