Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Spring at Amazing Grace

Now in the midst of Holy Week, here are signs of God's new life:

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Political street theater

On Friday, a few of us from Amazing Grace experienced some political street theater near the campus of Our Lady of the Lake University where Westboro Baptist Church was scheduled to protest a theater production of The Laramie Project, a play about Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming man so violently beaten a decade ago. We went to see the play, but to also prayerfully and nonviolently counterprotest this group that regularly protests military funerals, college graduations, and other events. Fred Phelps, their leader, is the example of so much of what I don’t want to be as a Christian.

The evening was a bit anticlimactic. We didn’t see Fred Phelps. We didn’t hear hate-filled shouts. We did however, encounter more of the crowd gathered with signs promoting love. There was some shouting and horn-honking, but for us from Amazing Grace, it was more a night at the theater than a night of political street theater.

Though I love the idea of being vocal about our faith and being a witness of God’s love in the world, marching is certainly not in my comfort zone. I’ve done a few MLK marches, but I always feel a bit anxious and uneasy. Will I get arrested? Is somebody going to get hurt? Am I willing to take risks for what I believe?

The play itself was very powerful. It retells the experience of Laramie residents before and after the attack. After the play, I felt emotionally drained. It’s hard to imagine that such violence exits, and that people can be so hateful.

As I watched the play, I was very aware that religion was playing a major role in how people understood the tragedy. Characters included a Unitarian Universalist minister, some sort of Christian Evangelical preacher, a Roman Catholic priest, and Fred Phelps. I noticed an absence of Lutherans. I know that there is a Lutheran congregation in Laramie, and have been there, but wonder now what their response was.

And I wonder what my response would be. If something like that happened here in San Antonio, would I speak out? How would I address it? I pray that I would have courage to remain loving and faithful.

And so, here we are in Holy Week, after the political street theater of Palm Sunday.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran church leader who was assassinated while presiding at Communion in 1980. He courageously spoke out on behalf of those who are oppressed.

Here is the trailer for the 1989 biopic:

I first learned about Oscar Romero in 2001 when I worked at Sky Ranch Lutheran Camp. All the camp’s cabins are named after people who have lived out lives of Christian social justice—including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, and Oscar Romero.

For a college class on Old Testament prophets, my assignment was to write a paper comparing a modern figure to people from the Bible. I wrote about Romero and how his actions as bishop in El Salvador were like the calls to social justice found in the teachings of Jesus and the work of Old Testament prophets. Like Amos, Romero called out those who might sell the poor for a pair of sandals (Amos 2:6).

Romero and Jesus spoke out for poor people in extractive economies. In first-century Palestine, then a Roman colony, the people were paying taxes to the Romans, thus making the tax collectors rich. In Romero’s El Salvador, while no longer a Spanish colony, the campesinos were working on plantations they did not own, providing income for the elite land owners. Many of the crops, including bananas, coffee, and sugar, were later sold to markets overseas, including the United States. In a 1980 speech at Louvain, Romero said, “The poor are the body of Christ today. Through them, he lives on in history.”

When I preside at Eucharist and lift up the loaf and chalice, I often think about Oscar Romero. I’ve never felt in danger of being assassinated because of my ministry, but maybe I should be. Maybe I need to start taking a more confident stance in loving my neighbor. When we eat this Body of Christ, we are standing in solidarity with all God’s people.

A prayer for today:

O God,
You have shown us your love in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We remember and thanks for all those who have striven for this peace, especially Oscar Romero. Continue to be with the people of El Salvador and all who live in the midst of oppression. Stir up in us a spirit of justice and help us courageously follow you. Amen.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Who parks where?

We just put up a few new signs at Amazing Grace:

It’s a step toward being intentional about welcoming people who are new. On Sundays, I deliberately park on the far end of the parking lot to leave closer spots for others. Having a few visitor spots calls us be more aware of visitors in our midst.

Here is a picture I snapped in the parking lot of a certain local megachurch:

Here’s an example from a church in Iowa:

Both signs give special treatment to people in positions of power and prestige—CEOs and pastor’s wives. I even wonder if the church has any business using such power-filled business phrases like CEO, when Jesus is such an example of humility and servanthood—qualities not always associated with CEOs.

In welcoming visitors, we give power and prestige to those who don’t have lots of power or social capital—strangers and newcomers. Jesus said, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Matthew 25:35).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sandals and social justice

In the past weeks, I’ve been wondering if my pastoral preaching and teaching has been as justice-focused as it should be. Am I able to “go and do likewise,” as Jesus describes in telling the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)? Am I a sheep or a goat? Do I actually welcome strangers, clothe naked people, or visit those who are sick or in prison (Matthew 25:31-45)?

The prophet Micah talks about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). I wonder if I’m walking humbly with my God if I’m listening to an iPod while I walk, or if I’m wearing expensive designer walking shoes. How humble is that?

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, Amos decries those who “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2:6).

I have a pair of Teva sandals that, even on clearance, still cost the equivalent of several hours of work for a minimum wage worker. At full price, they would be over one hundred dollars. I feel like I have literaly sold the needy for a pair of sandals. (Full disclosure: I actually own two pairs of Teva sandals).

Justice texts like these function as law for me. They point out the brokenness of the world, and my own participation in it. I lament the world as it is, and long for the world as it should be. I keep on fervently praying, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Social justice is a theme throughout the Bible, and I pray that the Church may continue to figure out how to respond to the injustice in the world. Thus, I am a bit confused when I hear that Glenn Beck is encouraging Christians to leave churches that preach social justice.

Here’s a link:

I would be concerned if a church were not preaching love of neighbor and care for those who are oppressed. That doesn’t sound like Communism or Nazism to me. It sounds…umm…well, Christian.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Worship why

From time to time, I like to answer questions arising in my congregation about liturgy and worship.

It looks like we are not having a sunrise service on Easter morning this year. Why not?
This year, Amazing Grace will have worship on Easter Sunday at 8:30 and 11:00. This change comes for two reasons. 1) Low attendance at 6:30 a.m. in the past. 2) An effort to encourage people to attend the Easter Vigil on Saturday night. Sunrise services are a relatively recent worship phenomenon, likely developed as a shorter alternative to the longer, but more traditional Great Vigil of Easter.

In the early centuries of Christianity, baptisms were only performed at one time in the church year—Easter Vigil. Followers of Jesus gathered all night and into Easter Morning, remembering and retelling stories from the Bible of God’s saving deeds. Persons new to Christianity—called catechumens—were baptized at the Easter Vigil and welcomed into the faith. In preparation for baptism, the catechumens would have a period of preparation, usually involving prayer, fasting, and acts of charity. This time became Lent.

The Vigil includes lighting the Paschal candle from a new fire, hearing stories of God’s saving deeds, remembering Baptism, and celebrating Holy Communion. If you come to our Vigil, expect a service lasting a bit longer than a regular worship service. It might be about an hour and a half long.

It also looks like we aren’t having a separate Children’s Service on Easter.
That is correct. Jesus welcomed children in his arms. Young people belong in worship, rather than being ghettoized into a nursery or cry room. Crunchy cheerios in the carpet are good signs! Ideally every worship service should have elements that appeal to children. A properly executed Easter Vigil can be a powerful experience for people of any age. There are more visual and tactile elements—holding lit candles, being sprinkled with water to remember baptism, eating bread and wine. It’s a very multisensory experience for children and adults alike.

Why doesn’t Pastor Paul put his sermons online?
While I might summarize or occasionally share excerpts of sermons on my blog, as a general rule, I don’t regularly post sermons. First, the sermon is a live, spoken event. What we read is simply a manuscript. There are all kinds of oral and visual elements that just don’t show up in the text. Second, I want to encourage worship attendance. Being together in Christian community is important. You need more than just reading a web page. Third, I want to avoid plagiarism. It’s too easy and tempting for pastors to just go online and get somebody else’s fresh sermon.

Welcome time

The Gospel text for March 14th—the Fourth Sunday in Lent—is from Luke 15. It’s the story Jesus tells about a young man who leaves home, squanders his inheritance, becomes excessively hungry, and then comes home to the arms of a welcoming father. You might know it as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”

However, upon further thought, we see that there’s more to the story than just the prodigal son. We could also call it “The Parable of the Grumpy Brother.” This brother is upset that the other brother has returned home. He gets irritated that things aren’t going to be done like they were back in the good ol’ days when he was large and in charge. He becomes uncomfortable with his father’s radical hospitality.

Then again, we could also read the story as “The Parable of the Welcoming Father.” The father welcomes his child back, with open arms. He runs out to meet him, and kills the fatted calf—a sign of abundance and hospitality. This reminds me of God’s welcome for all of us. No matter what we’ve done, no matter our past, God loves us and welcomes us home. This is a story about forgiveness, welcome, and hospitality.

As church people, it’s easy to fall into being Grumpy Brother, especially when newcomers
challenge our deeply held understandings of what it means to be church. As Christian people, we are called to be Christlike. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. He touched people with leprosy. He crossed all kinds of social, cultural, and religious boundaries.

It’s easy to say “All are welcome,” but that phrase raises questions. Some people have not felt welcomed at places that say “All are welcome.” What does that mean? To what are we welcoming and inviting?

At Amazing Grace, we are at an opportune time for thinking about welcome. We have suburban development growing around us. We have a church denomination that has been struggling with various issues of welcome. We have a beautiful and diverse spectrum of thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and lifestyles among our members at Amazing Grace. It would be helpful for us to think about adopting a congregational welcome statement.

This welcome statement would explicitly name and invite people to be part of life together with us. It could be printed on our bulletins, newsletter, and website. I would love to see it on wooden Burma Shave-style signs leading up our driveway. Whether we adopt such a statement or not, the process of discussing and thinking about it would be a formative set of conversations.

We will start come conversations about welcome during the next Pizza with Pastor Paul on
Friday, March 12 at 6:30 p.m. I invite and welcome you into the conversation.

Pastor Paul

This is my pastor's column from Amazing Grace's March newsletter.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A sad day in San Antonio

One of our fellow San Antonio congregations closed this week. The Express-News article about Zion closing is available online:

This is sad event. The Lutheran Church is losing a strong urban presence in San Antonio. I pray for those touched by Zion’s ministry that they might continue to be fed by ministry of word and sacrament. I also pray for the neighborhood surrounding Zion.

Rather than simply lament the loss of a “Golden Age of Lutheran Worship,” I also pray that Zion’s closing can be a wakeup call for other congregations in how we think about evangelism, culture, and location.

Zion’s closing did not happen overnight. It was a process that began decades ago. One of the many factors was the vast suburbanization that has occurred in countless American cities over the past fifty years. Middle class white people have been moving away from the center of cities, and toward the suburban fringe. The difficult challenge is in adapting to this changing demographic.

I say this as a pastor of a congregation that began as a mission start in the early 1980s. We were a very rural congregation, but now the exurban sprawl is developing around us. Many of the founding families of my congregation transferred here from urban congregations like Zion.

The vast majority of new members my congregation has received in the past year have been people transferring from other Lutheran congregations. We’ve been doing more flip-flopping Lutherans and less reaching out to new people. I don’t have easy answers to any of this.

It’s also high time to address and acknowledge our own continual institutional racism in the ELCA. We need to remember that what makes us Lutheran is a theology of grace, not what type of casserole we bring to a potluck or what color hymnal we use (if we even use hymnals).

I admit that one of the reasons I wanted to come to Texas was that I was passionate about bilingual, urban, and multicultural ministry. It still saddens me that San Antonio does not have a vibrant Hispanic ELCA presence. To illustrate, at a recent theological conference here in San Antonio, the theme was Hispanic spirituality, and the worship opportunities included the bilingual setting from the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal. You would think that San Antonio would have some wonderful musicians who could lead this music in salsa, plena, and norteƱo styles. No! Instead, an ensemble was flown here from Madison, Wisconsin. They were indeed talented and creative, and from a congregation with whom I am very familiar, but it just doesn’t make sense that Lutherans in Texas would need to fly in people from Wisconsin to lead multicultural worship.

I think of the hymn “Marching to Zion.” As Zion Lutheran Church closes, God’s people still march to Zion, not the church building, but the metaphorical Zion. The work of God still continues. The ELW services for closing a congregation includes this prayer:

May the witness of the people who have ministered in the name of Jesus Christ through Zion be undiminished and continue as they leave this place. Amen.