Monthly Archives: December 2010

Top posts of 2010: #2

The October 25th post entitled Conservative Christianity driving a generation away from religion finished in a virtual tie for first place with over 2,200 unique visitors.  The post was based in large part on conclusions suggested by a new book release entitled American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which is proving to be a best seller.  The blog post is reprinted here:

A week ago, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Minnesota announced a reorganization plan that will eliminate twenty-one congregations in the metro, merging them into fourteen existing parishes.  Stated another way, thirty-five current congregations will be downsized into fourteen.  Some have suggested that if it wasn’t for the influx of Hispanic immigrants, the Roman Catholic church nationally would  be suffering even greater declines in membership.

Of course, the problem of declining religious participation is not confined to Catholicism.   Indeed, statistics suggest the decline in Americans who identify with religion is startling.

That shift is the decline in participation by all Americans, but particularly young adults, in churches. In 1990 only 7 percent of Americans indicated “none” as religious affiliation. By 2008 that number had grown to 17 percent. But among young adults, in their twenties, the percent of “nones” is reaching nearly 30%. The new “nones” are heavily concentrated among those who have come of age since 1990.

But wait, aren’t many conservative Christian denominations growing?  Many evangelical churches thrive but at the cost of theological depth—“a mile wide and an inch deep”.  Some are thinly veiled entertainment ministries.   Joel Osteen Ministries is merely the most blatant example of the appealing “prosperity gospel” that too often characterizes the mega-growth churches, and makes charismatic leaders such as Osteen very wealthy.

But it is the judgmental scapegoating that is turning off this generation of young adults according to an article out of Seattle last week.  Blaming the public perception of Christianity, as espoused by the religious right, for the stark decline in those identifying with religion, the article discusses a poll and a book entitled American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which:

makes the case that the alliance of religion with conservative politics is driving young adults away from religion …. Among the conclusions [of a major survey] is this one: “The association between religion and politics (and especially religion’s intolerance of homosexuality) was the single strongest factor in this portentous shift.”

Twenty somethings are walking away from the church, the article concludes, because of a skewed “public perception of religion as largely socially conservative,” and the perception of religion as homophobic is especially responsible for the growing percentage of “nones.”

An unrelated poll out last week suggests similar conclusions, and correlates with this blog’s recent theme of suggesting that conservative Christian policies are part of the problem of gay bullying and critically low self esteem for many young gays.

Most Americans believe messages about homosexuality coming from religious institutions contribute to negative views of gays and lesbians, and higher rates of suicide among gay youths, a new poll reports … Americans are more than twice as likely to give houses of worship low marks on handling the issue of homosexuality, according to a PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll released Thursday (Oct. 21).

After a recent spate of teen suicides prompted by anti-gay harassment and bullying, the poll indicates a strong concern among Americans about how religious messages are impacting public discussions of homosexuality.

Once again, there is a significant gap between the attitudes of younger versus older adults which mirrors very closely the higher percentage of “nones” among young adults.

Nearly half of Americans age 18-34 say messages from places of worship are contributing “a lot” to negative views of gay and lesbian people, compared to just 30 percent of Americans age 65 and older.

I’ll close by repeating the words of a young woman spoken at the ELCA Church Wide Assembly in 2009 (CWA09),

“Give us honesty,” she said.  “My generation is turned off by what they see as hypocrisy in the church. ‘Love your neighbor’ is on the lips of the church, but a cold shoulder is what my generation sees.”

Top posts of 2010: #1

In the final days of 2010, I will reprint the top posts of the year based upon reader views according to my WordPress site stats.  At the top of the list is the August 30th post that discussed the open letter of retired ELCA presiding Bishop Herb Chilstrom.  That post attracted over 2,200 unique visitors and two pages of reader comments.  Here is link to the original post with comments, and the post itself is reprinted below in its entirety.

Pr. Herbert Chilstrom during Plenary Session NineSince the formation of the ELCA in 1988, the denomination has been shepherded by three presiding Bishops:  Herb Chilstrom, H George Anderson, and currently Mark Hanson.  Herb and wife Corrine now reside in retirement in St. Peter, Minnesota.  On August 26th, Herb penned an op-ed piece for the newspaper in nearby Mankato—his response to the formation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) as a splinter from the ELCA.  Bishop Chilstrom asked three rhetorical questions of those who have departed the ELCA for NALC, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), or another church body.

First, what is it about sex that pushed you over the edge?

The retired Bishop wonders why some elevate questions of sexual behavior over more momentous issues such as abortion, war and peace, and the death penalty.  What is it about the sexual behavior of others that causes such a visceral outcry and schismatic response?

[Other issues seem] far more serious than getting upset about two adults of the same gender who, like most of us straight folks, chose to live peacefully in a life-long relationship — the only such pairing the ELCA has approved. Like their straight neighbors, they live peacefully, go to their jobs every morning, pay their taxes, volunteer for good causes and, in many cases, worship with us. What is it that upsets you about this?

Ah, the straw that broke the camel’s back comes the response.  The various dissident groups go to great lengths to suggest that LGBT issues were merely the tipping point that reflects a lengthy ELCA drift away from tradition and traditional Biblical interpretations.  To be sure, LCMC was formed nearly a decade ago, and many LCMC congregations departed the ELCA prior to CWA09 (but the LCMC has doubled in size since CWA09).

Here is my take.  CWA09 resolutions were not the tipping point but the opportunity seized upon by long time ELCA detractors to scare the the folks in the pews into following their leadership.  For much of the hierarchy of WordAlone, CORE, NALC, and even LCMC, their disaffection with the ELCA goes back to the very beginning, and it can all be summed up in one word—CONTROL.  This blog has previously critiqued the comments of dissident theologians Nestingen, Braaten, and Benne who in similar ways lamented the egalitarian impulses of the newly formed ELCA thereby diminishing the power of the male elites.  Over the years, this coterie repeatedly attempted, unsuccessfully, to achieve leadership status within the ELCA.

But then came CWA09.  They saw their chance and they took it.  CWA09 handed the dissidents a cultural wedge issue that they could use to drive ELCA congregants and congregations away from the ELCA and into their own organization, under their control.  So, Herb, it is not about sex.  Nor is it truly about Biblical interpretation.  Here the Missouri Synod critique of the new Lutheran church bodies makes sense—if these new organizations truly want to be Biblical traditionalists, why do they allow female clergy?  Or divorced clergy?  The existence of female and divorced clergy within their ranks puts the lie to the claim that it is all about strict and traditional Biblical interpretation.  No, Herb, it is something else.  It is all about power and control.

Here is Bishop Chilstrom’s second question:

Second, why are you organizing new churches?

Surely there must be one among them [existing Lutheran bodies] that would welcome you. Why go to all the unnecessary expense of setting up an entirely new structure with officers, boards, committees and institutions?

This might be a good place to interject some basic data about the numerous small and uniformly conservative Lutheran Church bodies that exist in the US in open criticism of the more-progressive ELCA.  For comparison, the ELCA has over 10,000 congregations and over 4 million members (statistics for each derived from Wikipedia or the organization’s website)

  • Missouri Synod (LCMS) 2.4 million members
  • Wisconsin Synod (WELS) 1,300 congregations
  • Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) 500 congregations
  • Free Lutheran Churches (AFLC) 270 congregations
  • Lutheran Brethren 123 Congregations
  • North American Lutheran Church (NALC) 18 congregations.

Bishop Chilstrom assumes the reason why LCMC and NALC don’t join one of the other bodies is because LCMC and NALC will continue to ordain women as their legacy from the ELCA.  I know the LCMC is attempting to to position itself as the moderate middle of Lutherandom with the more progressive ELCA on the left and the more conservative others on the right.  There would also appear to be an organizational difference between LCMC (congregational autonomy) and NALC (a denominational structure).  I have previously characterized LCMC as a website and a mailing list.  Their organizational paid staff is minimal.  No seminaries, no colleges, no candidacy committees, no disaster relief, no missionary support, no … fill in the blank.  It is merely an affiliation of like minded congregations that are free to do their own thing with minimal organizational support or control.

There’s that word again.  CONTROL.  See the answer to number 1, Herb.

Here is Bishop Chilstrom’s final question:

Third, what will you say to your sons and daughters, sisters and brothers and others in your churches when they tell you they are homosexual?

This is the nub of it.  We can argue about “gay issues” till we’re blue in the face, but we miss the human element.  This not some academic argument; this is about real lives, children of God, baptized brothers and sisters.  I asked last week how many church bulletins proclaim “all are welcome”—and really mean it.

“What will you say to your sons and daughters?” Herb asks.

Will you offer empty platitudes (hate the sin but love the sinner)?  Will you “pray the gay away?”  Will you offer junk science such as reparative therapy that will only deepen their pain?  Will you turn your back or offer an embrace?

Retired Pastor Duane from my congregation tells the story of the gay high school boy who came out to him and then asked Duane to accompany him when he came out to his parents.

Mom came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, with a worried look on her face when the pair arrived in the driveway.

“Mom, I’m gay,” the boy said.

“Is that all?” and mom smiled with relief and gave her son a hug.

They were still in the driveway when dad arrived in the pickup with mud flaps and a rifle slung in the rear window.  He exited the cab with a mixed expression of anger and concern.

“Dad, I’m gay”, the son said.

Dad’s face drained of all color, and his eyes turned black.  He looked at his son, his wife, Pastor Duane, and back at his son.  Then, his eyes moistened and his lips quivered.

“I don’t understand,” he said, his voice cracking, “and I probably never will.  But, you’re my son, and I love you.”  Father and son fell into each other’s arms, shaking and sobbing.

This isn’t about doctrine, or confessionalism, or Biblical interpretation, and it ought not be about control.  This is about grace.  This is about trust.  Let go and let God.  Listen to the wisdom of Herb Chilstrom:

I am both sad and relieved that you are leaving. Sad, because this was not what we hoped for when the ELCA was formed some 22 years ago. We believed we could be a church where we held to the essentials and allowed for differences on non-essentials.
But I am also relieved. Now those of us who remain in the ELCA can get on with our primary mission of telling everyone  — everyone — “Jesus loves you. You are welcome in this church.”

A Lutheran Christmas

Awashima with Aunt Karin and Ty, the dog.Northfield and the greater metro area of Minnesota are extremely snowy this year … apparently the snowiest since they began keeping records, and more snow is on the way next week.  Our cul de sac is shrinking as the snowbanks shoved to the edge by snow plows are over ten feet high and encroaching onto the roadway.  This photo of daughter Karin, holding our granddaughter (Karin’s niece) was taken before the latest dump of six inches.  Here’s a link to Karin’s own blog post with wood smoke, wintry remembrances.

We attended the last of three candlelight services at our congregation at Bethel Lutheran last evening.  The music ministry at Bethel is always spectacular with unbelievable talent within our congregation.  Last evening, Anton Armstrong, the conductor of the world renowned college choir at St Olaf and Bethel member, offered an a capella solo rendition of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy”, St Olaf choir soprano and Bethel member Rachel Dahlen offered several solos—as part of a women’s ensemble and also to cello accompaniment, and harpist Rachel Miessler offered harp preludes as well as a solo offering of “Silent Night” between Scripture readings.  What is amazing is that different soloists and ensembles, including the full Bethel choir, provided music at the earlier two services.

On Thursday morning at the regular Bethel Men’s group, we shared personal Christmas stories and family traditions.  For a group that is mostly Scandinavian, there were a variety of traditional family meals featuring dishes, besides Lutefisk, that were unknown to others (suet pudding??).  Retired St Olaf baseball coach Jim Dimick remembered his Christmas away from home in the military, pulling guard duty late on Christmas eve, but the far off strains of “Silent Night” from a nearby chapel eased his homesickness and resulted in a a transcendent moment when he felt the strong presence of God.  Reminds me of one of my favorite definitions of divinity:  “God is what’s there when there’s nothing else.”  Former Northfield High School choir director Wayne Kivell led the men in a harmonized closing of “Silent Night”. 

Obie as SantaA week ago, thirty-four Pearsons (my wife’s family) gathered at Green Lake Bible Camp in Western Minnesota.  Brother-in-law Pastor Keith Pearson (Hector, Minnesota) is on the Green Lake Camp board of directors, and he made the arrangements.  The photo is yours truly playing the role of Santa Claus, but my granddaughter Awashima wasn’t real pleased.

Here are a few other Lutheran themed Christmas notes.

Blogger Jim Kline apparently left an Illinois congregation earlier this year when the congregation voted to exit the ELCA.  Jim found another ELCA congregation, which he joined on Reformation Sunday, and he reported on his own Christmas Eve candlelight service experience:

As the late afternoon service began, I noted that the light through the windows was slowly waning. As we progressed through the service, the familiar carols and prayers brought a sense of closure to me, culminating with the incredibly moving experience of the congregation singing “Silent Night” to the glow of our individual candles. The familiarity of this ritual, accompanied by communion, brought a sense of peace as I look back on the changes in my religious life during the past year.

Earlier this fall, I attended the Fond du Lac Episcopal Diocese annual convention where I met many new Episcopal friends including Bishop Russell Jacobus.  Last evening, an ecumenical candlelight service was offered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Fond du Lac.  Bishop Jacobus presided over the Eucharist and the Rev James Justman, the local Lutheran Bishop (East Central Wisconsin ELCA Synod), offered the Christmas eve sermon.  A combined choir from the host Episcopal parish, a local ELCA congregation, and the choir from Community United Methodist Church offered a choral concert just prior to the Eucharist service.

Merry Christmas to all and God bless us, every one.

Obama at mid term

Here’s a Winston Churchill quote:

Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

And another:

The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.

It should be remembered that following Churchill’s historic and inspired leadership during WWII, the British voters turned him out in the first election after war’s end.

In the recent midterm elections, it would seem that the voters rejected President Obama.  Six fewer Democratic Senators will serve in the new Congress.  Speaker-to-be John Boehner and the Republicans wrenched control of the House from the Democrats.  According to the voters, it would appear that Obama’s first two years have been an abysmal failure.

Did the voters choose wisely?  Was their judgment sound?

Of course, the party in power always loses Congressional seats in midterm elections.  Of course, the party in power always loses seats when the economy is bad, and this economy has been very bad.  Yet, the recent election is more ironic than historic.

It is ironic that voters blame the Democrats for the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, but it is clear that the economy collapsed in the late months of the Bush administration.

It is ironic that the voters blame the Democrats for a bleak employment/jobs situation when the independent Congressional Budget Office reports that Obama’s stimulus saved 3.6 million jobs.

It is ironic that the voters blame the Democrats for government gridlock, but it is clear that it was the Republicans, the “party of no”, that went went all-in and resisted at every turn, choosing politics over policy.  With cries of “socialism” and “government takeover of the health care system” (chosen the “biggest lie” of the year by a Pulitzer Prize winning fact-checking organization), the traditional notion of the “loyal opposition” seems rather hollow.

Finally, the biggest irony of all, that sums up all the rest, is the perception that President Obama and the current Congress have failed, and that their performance should be judged by the results of the recent election.  In a posting in the popular First Read political website/blog of MSNBC, Mark Murray called this the “do-something” Congress, and makes this observation:

Smiling President[L]ost in the poll numbers and the voters’ message in November is this one unmistakable fact: This Congress, which likely will come to a close this week, accomplished more, legislatively, than any other Congress since the 1960s (the Great Society) or the 1930s (the New Deal).

In the past two years, it has:

— expanded the safety net with the health-care law;

— invested billions in the nation’s roadways, airports, schools, and green technologies with the stimulus;

— reformed the nation’s financial system with financial reform;

— passed billions in tax cuts for Americans with the stimulus and the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts

— expanded civil rights with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

And in its final piece of business, the Senate is currently working on one of the White House’s top foreign-policy goals: ratification of the New START treaty with Russia. Then throw in all of the other legislation enacted this Congress, like credit-card reform and the Lilly Ledbetter anti-pay-discrimination act.

Murray then quotes Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein:

“I would probably rank the New Deal [Congress] first,” congressional scholar Norm Ornstein told First Read. “I think this one edges the Great Society. It is at least on par with the Great Society.”

“For all the dysfunction, it was just astonishing what they were able to get done,” Ornstein added.

One thinks that history will judge President Obama and the 111th Congress more favorably than did the electorate.

A Lutheran response to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell

If you haven ‘t heard, the Senate voted 65-31 on Saturday to end the discriminatory policy known as “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”  After President Obama signs the bill into law this week, the Pentagon will evaluate and then certify that the military is ready for this change, which is not expected for a couple of months.  Then, gays and lesbians will be free to be open about their sexual orientation without fear of official recrimination from the military.

Here is the response from Lutherans Concerned North America (LCNA):

The United States Senate voted on Saturday, 65-31, to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation that has discriminated against our lesbian and gay service members for over a decade. The historic vote follows the US House passage of the same bill earlier in the week. President Obama plans to sign the legislation before Christmas. Lutherans Concerned/ North America, serving at the intersection of oppressions, is proud to be a part of the movement to repeal this legislation and celebrates the vote with all of our members, especially those who have served or are serving in the military.

Those serving in the US Armed Forces face unparalleled challenges everyday as they fight to protect our freedoms here and abroad. Now, with this repeal nearly finalized, they will be able to concentrate on their vocation of service rather than worrying about the disclosure of their perceived or actual sexual orientation. LC/NA shares relationships with various other faith based and secular LGBT organizations to bring freedom and equality to all of God’s children, both in the church and in society. The work that LC/NA has done has been a combined effort with the entire LGBT community contributing to the change in understanding of how LGBT people have always served their country with skill, honor, and integrity.

Deputy Director, Ross Murray, commented on the repeal, saying, “It is truly awe inspiring to see people living out their calling from God. Just as Lutherans Concerned works for the full participation of those called to serve the church, we celebrate those who are can live out their call to serve their country without barriers. This is one more step toward full participation in society.”

Our vocation is a calling from God that is realized through a variety of paths, including military service. With the recent historic decisions made at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly 2009, and now with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” avenues once blocked by discrimination are being cleared for all people to live out their calling. As Lutherans we are called to be a public voice, crying in the wilderness, and LC/NA is proud to be living out that calling daily. It is truly evident that the Holy Spirit is moving through our society and our church with a renewed fervor for change and we thank God for this advocate sent on our behalf.

Roman Catholic & Lutheran interaction: “grass roots ecumenism”

LWF President Younan Invites Pope Benedict XVI to Help Plan 500th Anniversary Commemoration

LWF President Bishop Dr Munib A. Younan, assisted by General Secretary Rev. Martin Junge, presents Pope Benedict XVI with a gift from Bethlehem depicting the Last Supper. Second from left is Vatican employee Francesco Cavaliere.

Leaders of the Lutheran World Federation recently met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.  Before considering the report of this latest meeting, here’s the background:

The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) is a global communion of Christian churches in the Lutheran tradition. Founded in 1947 in Lund, Sweden, the LWF now has 145 member churches in 79 countries all over the world representing over 70 million Christians.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is a prominent member of the Federation, and ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson recently completed a term as President of the LWF.  No other Lutheran denomination in the US belongs to LWF.  Since the ELCA is often criticized by other Lutherans for its social activism, it is hardly surprising that the ELCA is the only U.S. Lutheran denomination participatory in the LWF.  Perusing the LWF website suggests advocacy roles regarding:

  • HIV/AIDS
  • Climate change
  • Illegitimate debt
  • Refugee support
  • Clean water and sanitation in Asian third world countries
    In a November 15th address, current LWF President Dr Munib A. Younan (Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and the successor to ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson) stated:

We are called to work to eradicate poverty, to be prophetic against injustice, to be bridge builders between South and North and East and West, to strengthen our sisters and brothers who suffer or find discrimination because of their faith, and to be responsible for the integrity of creation.

In response to the impulse toward ecumenism following Vatican II, Roman Catholics and Lutherans representing the LWF engaged in years of theological discussions that culminated in a joint statement on the doctrine of justification in 1999.  According to Wikipedia,

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a document created by and agreed to by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, as a result of extensive ecumenical dialogue, ostensibly resolving the conflict over the nature of justification which was at the root of the Protestant Reformation.

The Churches acknowledged that the excommunications relating to the doctrine of justification set forth by the Council of Trent do not apply to the teachings of the Lutheran churches set forth in the text; likewise, the churches acknowledged that the condemnations set forth in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the Catholic teachings on justification set forth in the document. Confessional Lutherans, such as the International Lutheran Council and the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference, reject the Declaration.

On July 18, 2006, members of the World Methodist Council, meeting in Seoul, South Korea, voted unanimously to adopt this document as well.

Bishop Hanson at LWFLast summer after his term as LWF President had ended, ELCA Presiding Bishop was asked about the status of ecumenical relations with the Vatican:

The president had been asked if he could envisage a day when a Roman Catholic and Lutheran married couple could commune together with the blessing of both churches. It is the lay people of the churches who are driving and sustaining these conversations, he responded, acknowledging the “grassroots ecumenism” that is alive among lay people. While leaders wrestle with difficult theological issues, “lay people of different churches pray together, study together and work together to build just societies. “If Roman Catholics and Lutherans [for example] can feed the hungry together, wouldn’t it be good if they could be fed at the Lord’s Table together?”

Hanson acknowledged that he is unlikely to see all Christian churches communing together in his lifetime, but “if I can contribute to that vision being realized I’ll be very grateful.”

Here is personal, anecdotal evidence of the grass roots ecumenism of which Hanson speaks.

I hail from Upsala, Minnesota, originally a Swedish community that actually had a Ku Klux Klan chapter in the anti-German days of WWI, but the purpose of the chapter was not to repress blacks (there were none) but to keep Catholics out of Upsala.  The local Swedes covenanted with each other that they would not sell real estate to Catholic purchasers.  Didn’t work.

St Mary's in UpsalaSkip ahead to 1954, and the Roman Catholic church building from nearby St. Francis in largely German-Catholic Stearns County was moved slowly on rollers five miles north to a prominent place on main street in Upsala.  A very real and symbolic movement of the German Catholics from the south that corresponded with an influx of Polish Catholics from the east (Bowlus, Sobieski, Little Falls).  Grandma Hilma was sure the end times were near. 

But, by the 70’s, the Lutheran pastor, the Roman Catholic priest, and the pastor from the Covenant church joined together in a singing group that appeared at nursing homes and elsewhere and also jointly organized a senior center in Upsala.   Local clergy continue to work together in an active ministerial association (the only non-participant is the pastor from the small Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation in town). 

Most recently, in just the last few months, the Roman Catholics replaced that wooden building that had been relocated to Upsala fifty-six years ago, but the new building would be on the same site as the old one.  Where to gather for mass during construction?  My old congregation, perhaps including the descendants of those who once covenanted to keep the Catholics out of town, offered the use of their facilities and insisted that no rent or remuneration would be accepted.

Construction was completed early in December, and the Catholics at St Mary’s are proudly worshiping in their own building once again.  And, the Lutherans from Gethsemane will soon be their guests for a day when the regular Gethsemane Sunday worship service will move to the new Sanctuary of St. Mary’s, to be followed by a brunch hosted by their Catholic friends.  Just as the Catholics celebrated their Eucharist in the Lutheran church building, the Lutherans will now celebrate their Eucharist in the Catholic church building.  I suspect the folks at both St Mary’s and Gethsemane would be just fine taking the final step and actually celebrating the Eucharist together but for official Roman Catholic policy, but the symbolism of the current events is a striking example of grass roots ecumenism.

This brings us back to the beginning, and the recent meeting between LWF leadership and Pope Benedict XVI.  Here’s the report from the LWF website:

The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) President Bishop Dr Munib A. Younan has invited Pope Benedict XVI to work together with the Lutheran communion in realizing an ecumenically accountable commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

“For us there is joy in the liberating power of the gospel proclaimed afresh by the reformers, and we will celebrate that,” said Younan in a message today, when he led a seven-member delegation in a private audience with the Pope. He underlined the need to recognize both the damaging aspects of the Reformation and ecumenical progress.

“But we cannot achieve this ecumenical accountability on our own, without your help. Thus we invite you to work together with us in preparing this anniversary, so that in 2017 we are closer to sharing in the Bread of Life than we are today.”

Secondly, Bishop Younan expressed similar sentiments to those of Bishop Hanson about the continuing inability of Catholics and Lutherans to celebrate the Eucharist together.

In his statement, Younan reiterated the LWF’s commitment to “moving closer toward one another around this Table of the Lord, which Luther saw as the summa evangelii.” The LWF president pointed out that while it was important to “rejoice in each small step which brings us closer together, we do not want to be content with these steps. We remain strong in hope – both for the full visible unity of Christ’s Church and for the Eucharistic communion which is so crucial a manifestation of that unity.”

I studied with the School of Theology at St John’s Abbey and University in the early ‘90’s.  Once a week, the resident students hosted a meal for the non-residents followed by a mass.  But, a couple of seminarians protested that this was contrary to Catholic doctrine because many of the non-residents were non-Catholics , and the joint mass was discontinued–to the common pain of most of us, Catholic and Protestant alike.  In defense of this exclusive policy, one seminarian suggested that when the rest of us accepted the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, then we would be welcomed.  By that standard, I shouldn’t be celebrating communion with most Lutherans, since I’m sure we don’t all share the same understanding; nor is the understanding of the communing children in our congregation likely to be anywhere close to the understanding of the adults.

At the joint meeting, the Pontiff expressed continuing support for ecumenical dialogue without addressing Catholic exclusivity around the communion rail.

Native Americans and Christianity circa 2010

Without researching actual statistics, I doubt whether the percentage of native Americans within any Lutheran denomination is significant.  Although the ELCA has general goals for minority membership, the reality remains that most of us are descended from northern  European immigrants.  The reasons are primarily historical; when our ancestors arrived to make America their new home, they were not here as missionaries, and their communities remained insular.  My home congregation in Upsala, Minnesota, formed by Swedes in the 1880’s, continued with services in the language of the homeland until the 1920’s.  Even the small pockets of Danes in the neighborhood were largely outsiders.  When my grandfather Julius (the son of Swedish immigrants, and the youngest, rebellious sibling) married grandmother Olga (daughter of Danish immigrants) around the time of WWI, it was a mixed marriage.

Not so with Roman Catholics and Anglicans who came to the midwest first as missionaries to native Americans, and thus there are vestigial pockets of Catholic and Anglican native Americans.  This was especially obvious to me as I attended several Episcopal Diocesan conventions this fall.  In the Minnesota delegation and the northern Wisconsin Diocese of Fond du Lac, the Ojibwe lay and clergy presence was significant.  Two years ago, an Ojibwe priest was a finalist for the office of presiding Bishop for the Minnesota diocese.

Native American dancersTo what extent should native American cultural and religious heritage be reflected in their Christian religious practices?  Earlier this fall, I attended a weekend religious retreat consisting of mostly Lutherans.  A young man, a native American from Minneapolis, who had been raised Lutheran by his adoptive parents, was asked to offer a prayer.  He did so with a native American chant, which I found refreshing and spiritual, but I wondered how others received it.  No one said anything.

Yesterday’s Star Tribune newspaper (the leading Minnesota daily) contained an article about a small Roman Catholic congregation located within the native American community of Minneapolis whose members are nearly all native American.  Seems the local archdiocese is coming down hard on certain of their rituals:

Buffalo hide adorns the altar. Sage is burned to help cleanse the heart, soul and mind. Ojibwe and Lakota languages are used in many of the prayers and songs. Traditional Indian elements like these have been part of the worship service for decades at the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis, the only Twin Cities Catholic parish with a predominantly Indian congregation.

Founded in 1975, Gichitwaa Kateri has added Indian elements to the Catholic ceremony for nearly two decades. A lodge made of willow, structured like a dome-shaped Ojibwe wigwam, contains a bundle that holds sacred things, including the Eucharist. Traditional Ojibwe medicines such as tobacco, cedar, sage and sweet grass are used as regular parts of the Sunday Eucharist. Drums and prayers and songs in Ojibwe and Lakota are also prominent.

The future use of Indian practices, however, is being questioned by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which temporarily suspended mass at the church last month after conflict arose over the use of specialized wine.

The congregation had been using mustum, a grape juice with minimal fermentation, as part of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Not only does mustum have linkages to native American culture, it also is safe for the numerous recovering alcoholics within the congregation.  Not good enough, says the archdiocese, and mass has been suspended at the congregation.

Maureen Headbird, 54, a church trustee, said the nearly 100 members of the tight-knit parish would be greatly saddened and disappointed if their church lost its distinctive elements, because they are an important part of their Indian heritage.

“We want to make sure our community stays the way it is,” said Headbird, who is Indian and was raised Catholic. “When you come to our parish, you really have to have an open mind to see what we do. Sometimes that doesn’t work out for everybody.”

ELCA Rites of Reception for gay clergy continue (updated with photo)

It was nearly twenty years ago that two San Francisco congregations of the ELCA defied the official ban on partnered gay clergy by extraordinarily ordaining a lesbian couple to a joint ministry call and a gay man to a second congregation.  Since then, a number of other ELCA congregations and gay pastoral candidates have faced official sanctions for similar acts of civil disobedience, and the number of extraordinarily ordained clergy swelled to over twenty.

After the ELCA church wide assembly actions of 2009 (CWA09) reversed the ban on partnered gay clergy, these extraordinarily ordained clergy have been welcomed onto the rolls of rostered ELCA clergy through very public Rites of Reception.  The first two, in particular, were especially symbolic as the three groundbreaking pastors from San Francisco and other pioneers in the Extraordinary Ordination movement were received as officially recognized ELCA clergy.

The Rites of Reception have continued in recent months.

Pastor Jay Wiesner is a Facebook friend, and the list of well wishers is endless.   Another Facebook friend, Pastor Anita Hill,  was scheduled to be the preacher at Jay’s service yesterday, but with the historic blizzard in Minnesota, Pastor Hill’s flight was cancelled, and she was unable to preach.  Sounds like another Facebook friend, Ross Murray, stepped into the breach.  Jay and Ross are founders and mainstays behind the Minnesota camp for gay youth called “The Naming Project.”

Blessings on the continuing ministries of all.

UPDATE: Here is photo of the Rite on Sunday for Jay Wiesner and a link to a very nice article on the website of the SE Pennsylvania Synod of the ELCA.

December figures of ELCA departing congregations

David SwartlingHere is the latest email received from the office of the ELCA secretary, David Swartling:

Here are the updated numbers on congregational votes to leave the ELCA:  as of 12/7/10, 666 congregations had taken first votes to leave the ELCA.  These 666 congregations have taken a total of 700 first votes.  (As we’ve seen, some congregations have taken multiple first votes.)  Of the first votes taken, 481 passed and 219 failed.  326 congregations have taken second votes (and one congregation has taken two second votes!)  Of the total of 327 second votes; 308 passed and 19 failed.

Meanwhile, the silliness over the pending ELCA social statement regarding genetics continues.  It was previously reported that this potential social statement has some Dakota farmers erroneously concerned that their farming practices are criticized by the statement.  A Fargo newspaper has been in the firestorm.  Following a newspaper report that a small rural ELCA congregation had decided to depart the ELCA based—in part—on the pending genetics social statement, a letter to the editor from that congregation denied that the genetics social statement was important for their decision, notwithstanding an earlier quote from the congregational president to the contrary.

So, who is fanning the flames?  Who is spreading the misinformation?  The usual suspects.

Many of those involved in agriculture think the ELCA should focus on its mission of preaching the Gospel and making disciples of Christ rather than telling them how to grow crops.

So says Lutheran CORE spokesman David Baer on the CORE blog, referencing a discredited Dakota Farmer magazine article. 

Paull SpringMeanwhile, even as Baer and CORE criticize the ELCA for “focusing on political activities and social statements,” NALC bishop Paull Spring joined the efforts of Archbishop Tim Dolan, President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, to oppose marriage equality in the political arena.  The President of the Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America (a dissident splinter group from the Episcopal Church) also signed on to the effort.

CORE gave birth to its own denomination, the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) in August.  Since then, over half the posts on the CORE blog continue to be harsh criticisms of the ELCA.  One would think that the business of starting a new denomination would be their core focus going forward, but it seems CORE just can’t break their habit of ELCA bashing.  Is antipathy toward another Lutheran and Christian denomination their core reason for existence?

The ELCA does not speak through a blog, but regularly issues press releases.  In the 75+ ELCA press releases since the formation of the NALC, there were countless reports of ELCA missions and ministries but nary a word criticizing CORE.

Is the Family Research Council a hate organization?

TonyPerkinsThe Family Research Council is the icon for the mix of evangelical Christian conservatism and politics.  According to Wikipedia:

The Family Research Council (FRC) is a conservative, Christian right group and lobbying organization. It was formed in the United States by James Dobson in 1981 and incorporated in 1983 with George Alan Rekers and Armand Nicholi, Jr.  The group was designed to be a lobbying force for conservative legislation on Capitol Hill. In the late 1980s, the group officially became a division of Dobson’s main organization, Focus on the Family, but after an administrative separation, FRC officially became an independent entity in 1992. Its function is to promote what it considers to be traditional family values. It contains a 501(c)(4) lobbying PAC known as FRC Action. Tony Perkins is the current president.

For anyone who pays attention to such matters, the names of Dobson and Perkins are well-known.

SPLC logoMeanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law Center is a similarly well-known civil rights group.  Here is their Wiki entry:

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is an American “nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society”.  The SPLC is internationally known for its tolerance education programs, its legal victories against white supremacists, and its tracking of hate groups, militias, and extremist organizations. The SPLC classifies as hate groups those organizations that it has determined “have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

The SPLC, based in Montgomery, Alabama, was founded in 1971 by Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin Jr. as a civil rights law firm.  Later, civil rights leader Julian Bond became its president.  In addition to free legal service to the victims of discrimination and hate crimes, the Center publishes a quarterly Intelligence Report that investigates extremism and hate crimes in the United States.

Recently, these two organizations have collided over the decision of the Southern Poverty Law Center to designate the Family Research Council as a “hate organization” because of the recurring anti-gay rhetoric that spews from the Council.  Does the unabashed resistance of the Council to gay rights, including marriage equality and the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, constitute hate speech?  Here’s the take from an op-ed piece in the LA Times by Tim Rutten (emphasis mine):

It is perfectly possible for a church or an organization associated with a denomination or religious tendency — as the Family Research Council is with evangelical Protestantism — to oppose, say, marriage equality as a departure from tradition and traditional notions of civic virtue without defaming gays and lesbians as a group.

In other words, mere resistance to such policy measures does not constitute hate speech, but mean-spirited, hyperbolic falsehoods cross the line.  Rutten continues:

But the council goes well beyond that. Over the years, it has published statistical compendiums purporting to quantify the “evils” of homosexuality. One of its pamphlets is entitled, “Dark Obsession: The Tragedy and Threat of the Homosexual Lifestyle.” At various times, its spokesmen have spuriously alleged that the gay rights movement’s goal “is to go after children” and that child molestation is more likely to occur in households with gay parents. Last week, one of its senior fellows, Peter Sprigg, told reporters on a conference call concerning repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that “homosexuals in the military are three times more likely to commit sexual assaults than heterosexuals are relative to their numbers.”

A blog that I have not previously encountered, entitled TeachtheFacts.org, comments about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s expansion of its efforts beyond race-based issues into the arena of discrimination based upon sexual orientation:

[W]hile plenty of African-Americans support gay rights, it is not a powerful movement within the black community, and there is some resentment when concepts and terms that successfully shifted the balance of power in the 1960s struggle against racial discrimination are applied to this new campaign.

On the other hand, the issues are parallel. Nobody asked to be black, and nobody asked to be gay. Both groups have faced prejudice and discrimination, both groups fought back against powerful opposition. African-Americans got there sooner and tipped the scales fifty years ago, while the revolution among LGBT citizens is largely considered to have begun for real after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. While the fight for racial justice is not finished, with racism having learned to disguise itself, principles countering racism are now embedded in our legal system and in the nation’s belief structures — everybody knows what is not acceptable.

Gays and lesbians lag far behind, “that’s so gay” is still common playground talk, and homophobia is still evident and open, requiring very little in the way of apology or justification in the public eye. 

The SPLC may have made its name in the fight for racial equality, but the fight against prejudice and discrimination extends beyond any particular feature that distinguishes groups.

Not surprisingly, Perkins and other leading conservative religionists have responded forcefully to the addition of the Family Research Council to the list of hate groups.  Perkins wrongly whines that the free speech rights of those of his ilk are threatened, but his organization “will not acquiesce to those seeking to silence the Judeo-Christian views held by millions of Americans”.  The 1920’s quote of Sinclair Lewis sounds an apt response, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.”  Other Family Research Council responders continue to spread malicious falsehoods, such as the aforementioned lie that “homosexuals in the military are three times more likely to commit sexual assaults than heterosexuals are relative to their numbers.”  Teach the Facts blog has quite a bit of factual information debunking this lie and others uttered by Perkins.  The familiar adage, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” is apropos.

The last word goes to Rutten:

Such rhetoric is eerily reminiscent of that with which religiously affiliated opponents of African American equality once defended segregation. It wasn’t all that long ago that some of them argued against school integration because, they alleged, black adolescents were uniquely unable to control sexual impulses and, therefore, would assault white schoolgirls. Exhortations against “race mixing” were commonplace pulpit messages short decades ago, though we now recognize them as hate speech. It’s past time to do the same with rhetoric that denigrates gays and lesbians.

So long as even the most objectionable religious dogma stays under the church roof, it’s a constitutionally protected view. People’s religious beliefs — even when noxious — are a private matter. Our churches are free to order their internal affairs as they will — to set the terms of sacramental marriage as they see fit, to discriminate in the selection of their clergy, to racially segregate their membership or to separate the sexes in their schools or places of worship.

However, when a group sets out to impose its views on the rest of society by lobbying for public policies or laws, it can no longer claim special protections or an exemption from the norms of civil discourse simply because its views are formed by religious beliefs. This is precisely the dodge the Family Research Council has been running.