An Apology for the Art in #ELCAcwa Worship

Many following the #ELCAcwa this year have seen the image being discussed and heard the apology offered by Bishop-Elect Strickland. Many have asked how such an offensive thing could happen. As the person who selected the images for worship, I want to offer my apology as well. I apologize to you my colleagues, the Churchwide Assembly and Churchwide leaders and most of all to my African American brothers and sisters who were wounded by this. I know that many were troubled, shocked, hurt, and disgusted by the use of the image. Something I worked on was hurtful, and for this I am deeply sorry.

I do not intend to offer a defense of why the image was used, only an explanation that might help shed light. I was searching for images to align with the gospel text of the service:

“for I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.”
Matthew 25:35-36

This image of someone being visited in the hospital was selected to lift up the African American experience, support their inclusion in representation, and exemplify ministry to the sick. My own cultural situation and lack of knowledge on this genre of art caused me to not see what was evident to others. The representation of African Americans in minstrel art has a painful history. I was unaware, and we did not have enough diversity in our group that vetted and approved the images. I know these issues are being addressed and they will be handled more carefully in the future.

I am fully aware of the place that racism has in my own life. As a white male born and raised in rural south Texas, it is endemic to me in a deep way. At the same time I am deeply invested in anti-racist ways of being. I find Luther’s sinner/saint idea very fitting here. I have the sin of racism embedded in me while I learn to fight and dismantle it.

I want to echo the words my friend Kathy Patrick shared on Facebook: “(this apology) is a clarion call to recognize that we white people in the church have a LOT of work to do to increase our cultural competence, including by diversifying our leadership, so that we can see as we should see. This was not one person’s mistake, it is OUR mistake. We all make similar mistakes every day that injure our siblings of color and the terrible thing is, we do it thoughtlessly because we do not know what we should know.”

I personally intend to do some things differently as I learn and grow from this:

  • I will do some reading to learn more about the history of minstrel art and plays. If you have resources or websites you recommend, please share them with me.
  • I will make sure that any worship planning team that I am part of has a diverse representation of leadership.
  • When I am considering using a piece of art or music for worship, I will ask for feedback from African American colleagues.
  • I will encourage people of color to lead us in selecting images for churchwide events.
  • I will engage in our synod’s anti-racism training.
  • I will explore and lift up the work of African American artists. If you have a favorite, I would appreciate if you shared them with me.

Good Friday Sermon (2019)

Here is the video of the sermon from Good Friday at Faith Lutheran in Bellaire, TX. I pulled ideas from several sources including Rob Bell (myth of redemptive violence) and Richard Rohr (Jesus came to change our minds about God). Sorry for the technical difficulties, we were trying out a new camera.

Misogyny: We like to think we’re past that

We’d like to think that everyone has arrived. Everyone has matured to the point of seeing that equality is God’s design. Women can serve the church equally as well as men (perhaps better?). Most consider the ELCA a progressive denomination. But that doesn’t mean that everyone that sits in our pews are in the same place. This video out of North Carolina is a reminder of that:

And it is great to make a cute video, but even better to follow through and walk the talk. Like this:

Fleshing out what kind of church the world needs

One of my seminary professors recently asked this question. What a fertile question. It gives us a chance to consider the needs of the world. What is the status of our world these days? Where are there hatred, violence, and chaos? Where are there famine, disease, and scarcity? Where are there hopelessness, illiteracy, and neglect?

Our world is filled with these things. Some of them are right under our local noses. Surprisingly you don’t have to drive far to encounter some of these needs. So what kind of church is needed to face the needs of our world?

I think you could say lots of things. You could go lots of different directions and still answer this question in a satisfactory way.

The world needs a church that is loving, so loving that it sees every living thing as part of God’s holistic creation and takes every chance to embody God’s love for the cosmos.

The world needs a church that is adaptive, ready to abandon the old, tired ways of organizational thinking for new ways that bring life and vitality.

The world needs a church that is Christ-centered, focused on the words and ministry of Jesus and how they can bring transformation to our world today.

The world needs a church that is compassionate, never using our status or position in the world to bring harm, but only to bring healing to those who are over-looked.

The world needs a church that is self-sacrificing, willing to give away property, buildings, and money so that others can be better off than they were before.

The list goes on and on. I hope you have your own way of answering the question, because it is an important one. Because really, the question is not about the church, the question is about you and I. What kind of person does this world need? How do I live my life more faithfully for the sake of the world?

My heart always goes back to the sacraments and the assembly. So my answer would be: “The world needs a church that continually gathers around God’s story and table, and then embodies that story and food for the life of the world.” I think telling a better story and sharing food is what the world needs from us the most.

ELCA Worship – Frequently Asked Questions

One of the things I enjoy most about my calling in ministry is being a resource to others. One of the things that drew me to the Lutheran understanding of faith is our connectional polity. Churches aren’t designed to be individual islands in the ELCA. We are connected to each other. We are connected to our neighboring churches in Houston, we are connected to our sisters and brothers across the Gulf Coast Synod, we are connected to all the other ELCA churches around the country, and we are even connected to other Lutherans across the globe. One of the most common signs of our connection is when we share resources. I really enjoy being helpful to others and supporting the work of the church both near and far.

I was asked by the ELCA worship staff to write some Frequently Asked Question articles for their website. These are common questions the churchwide office gets asked, and my responses are meant to be helpful, guiding suggestions on how to address these concerns. Last month, seven of the articles I wrote were published on the ELCA’s website. Here are some excerpts:

What is “postmodern” or “emerging” worship?

  • “In general, the postmodern worship practices of emerging churches are reactions against the pragmatic, baby boomer-oriented, seeker-sensitive movement. Instead of “services” of worship, emerging churches frame their assemblies as “gatherings” that are not afraid of a return to more liturgical forms. The gathering is highly experiential, focusing on the participation of those assembled, often through stations that guide people to interact with prayer, scripture, art, poetry, and other spiritual exercises.”

How can a worship band be used in Lutheran worship?

  • “Music for worship provided by a worship band must be done with the same sensitivity and care as any other type of sacred music. The worship band must frame their role in worship leadership as subservient to the assembly’s voice.”

How can video projection be used in worship?

  • “As a core function, video projection should be used for enhancing the environment for worship. In serving the liturgy, it should not be distracting but aide the space for worship as the body of Christ gathers.”

What components are needed for a sound system?

  • “The pace of technology can be difficult to grasp. Technology that at one time cost churches thousands of dollars to utilize now would cost hundreds of dollars. The cost of technology continues to diminish. At the same time the performance of technology continues to increase.”

What components are needed for a video projection system?

  • “There are many options when it comes to the video projector component. Generally the most important specification will be the light output of the projector, measured in lumens. The higher the lumens, the brighter the projector will be. It is necessary to take into account the brightness of the room in which the projector will be used.”

How do we evaluate worship?

  • “Worship is always being evaluated. Although it may be informal, everyone that is sent forth from an assembled worshiping body has evaluated that service in one way or another. Evaluations might be based on any number of things: the number of people in attendance, the length of the sermon, the pronunciation of the reader, or the number of flubbed notes by the musician.”

How do we make worship contextual?

  • “The sounds of a worshiping assembly should be reflective of the culture that it is planted in. The musical gifts that are present within a local church should be used to make worship contextual.”

Slow Poke Discipleship

The other day I was skimming through Facebook and saw this ad:


Disciple Fast Track. I had to do a double take. Seeing this add made me stop and consider what the purpose of this program might be. I read a little bit more about it.

Fast Track … is ideal for busy people who want to fit a comprehensive Bible study into their schedule.”

I no doubt think that the producers of this curriculum have the best intentions. In fact, it looks like it could be something that everyone would benefit from: a 24 session overview of both the Old and New Testaments. But I think the title of the series misses several crucial pieces of discipleship.

Busy lives are counter-productive. You don’t need me to remind you about sabbath. Sabbath is anti-empire. Sabbath makes us acknowledge that we aren’t really in control of anything. Instead of producing curriculum to meet the needs of busy lives, why not invite people to reorient their lives into something more holistic?

Discipleship is slow. Jesus walked around with his crew for three years. Relational bonds take an investment of time. Disciples are grown and cultivated, watered and nourished. You can’t mass produce them or assemble them in a production line.

Following Jesus is not a race. Calling it a “fast track” implies that there is competition. It implies that there is a slow track where all the losers end up. Arriving at the disciple finish line first means you win.

We don’t ever finish our participation in Christ. We never stop growing into the reality of what it means to be in Christ, guided by the Spirit, living lives of love to the glory of God. We don’t follow Jesus on a race track and there is not a faster lane. It is a journey, it has scenic views and side trails. Going faster doesn’t get you to the destination more quickly.

Summer Reading List

Yesterday I realized that I have read 12 books this summer. I have a few weeks left to squeeze in a couple more. I’m currently on What Is the Bible? by Rob Bell. Here is a look at what I’ve read so far:

  • Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads by Greil Marcus
    • I started this *before* I knew Bob was coming to Sugar Land in October.
  • In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership by Henri J.M. Nouwen
    • For Fall seminary class. The second time I’ve read it.
  • #NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line by David and Lauren Hogg
    • These kids have some wisdom to share.
  • Is Nothing Sacred? by Marie M. Fortune
    • Also for Fall seminary class. This story has interesting parallels to the story coming out of Willow Creek.
  • Mentoring for Ministry by Craig T. Kocher (ed.)
  • Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally by Marcus J. Borg
  • Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation by Andrew Sung Park
    • This was a book I read for a paper on atonement theories last semester.
  • Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today by John Shelby Spong
  • Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too by Louie Anderson
    • If you haven’t seen “Baskets” on FX you need to.
  • A Black Theology of Liberation by James H. Cone
    • I bought this book like a week before Dr. Cone passed.
  • Waco: A Survivor’s Story by David Thibodeau, Leon Whiteson
  • The Four Gospels on Sunday: The New Testament and the Reform of Christian Worship by Gordon W. Lathrop