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Topics - Brian Stoffregen

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Your Turn / Bishops' Pastoral Letter 2009
« on: March 10, 2009, 04:14:25 PM »
A Pastoral Word to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America from the Conference of Bishops
In Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us. – Ephesians 2

We greet you in the name of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. May your Lenten journey be a time of renewal in faith, and may the Easter promise surround you all.

As we conclude this meeting of the Conference of Bishops, we are convinced that this time of preparation for the 2009 Churchwide Assembly is a hopeful time. We are also convinced that the Holy Spirit is guiding our deliberation and is present in our earnest seeking. This same Spirit increases our ability to listen patiently and speak honestly to one another. In the many conversations, hearings, and correspondence of the past years, the Spirit has been present in the work of the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality.

Our conversations in the Conference of Bishops have expressed the diversity of opinion that is common throughout this church. We give thanks for the unity binding us together in Christ, enabling us to listen carefully to one another, and joining us in a shared commitment to the mission of this church. We give witness to the creative possibilities of diverse perspectives within our baptismal unity. We have been led to new appreciation of our diversity, have been driven deeper into Scripture and Confessions, and have discovered new perspectives for life together as the Body of Christ.

We receive with gratitude Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust: A proposed social statement from the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality. Looking forward to the deliberation of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly and its decisions in regard to this document, we:

• rejoice in the strong affirmation of the gift of marriage, sexuality, and family;

• affirm the faithful exposition of Holy Scripture and Lutheran Confessions;

• support the bold confrontation of the commercialization of human sexuality pervading our culture;

• recognize that our world hungers for the joy of true intimacy and love we know in Christ Jesus our Lord;

• embrace our call to be a public church, thankful we are able to speak words of commitment and hope to a world in need of God’s love in Christ; and

• acknowledge the unity of the Church is the Holy Spirit’s continuing gift, and pray we may continually experience it.

The members of the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality also accepted an additional responsibility, the charge of the 2007 Churchwide Assembly to prepare
“Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies.” This document articulately names the breadth of opinion on the possible rostering of persons in committed, faithful, same gender relationships. Further, it presents one option for working through a process for discernment and decision-making. We recognize that the content of the resolutions and the proposed process for considering them arise from the task force’s deep respect for the faithful diversity they find present in this church.

We acknowledge with gratitude the faithful work of the members of the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality. Their work over the past eight years has been a profound gift to this church. Charged with daunting responsibilities, their resulting witness is articulate. Working together amidst a diversity representative of our church, they testify of their deepened love for one another. The experience of these faithful servants as they in their diversity came to these conclusions encourages us in our own diversity. No matter our particular position on the various issues of human sexuality, we are united by our confession of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”

We prayerfully trust that God will guide this whole church in the coming months as we walk together in our deliberative processes. We know that our human decisions are often imperfect, but we are confident of God’s persistent forgiveness. We are deeply committed to the unity of this church. Whatever decisions the assembly makes, we trust that God’s Spirit will form the wisdom of God’s faithful people gathered in deliberative assembly. We are prepared to stand together united in our continued service to the Church. May the Spirit align our efforts with God’s gracious intent.

May Almighty God grant each of us the ability to listen with compassion and may we speak patiently. May our prayers for God-pleasing decisions be answered abundantly.

The Conference of Bishops
March 10, 2009

Your Turn / "Educated for Marriage"
« on: October 25, 2008, 05:17:03 PM »
The latest Christian Century reports that with all the studies of marriage, one thing isn't reported too often:

Another fact is less well known. As researchers have sliced and diced the data on marriage, they have found one group of Americans for whom marriage does not appear threatened. This group -- about 25 percent of the population -- has an already low divorce rate that has dropped by half in the past decade. People in this group rarely have babies outside of marriage. They tend to marry more than other Americans and to stay married.

This group is defined by one thing: a college education.
[Tim Stafford, "Educated for Marriage," Christian Century, November 4, 2008, p. 11]

After ten years of marriage the divorce rate of college graduates in 16.5% -- not the 50% that is often tossed about.
Only 4% of college-educated women have children outside of marriage.

In contrast, women who drop out of high school have a divorce rate after ten years of 46%. Those who have completed high school, the rate is 38%.

He offers some possible reasons for this.

Students who marry after college are four years older than in high school. That tends to make for a longer-lasting marriage.

College graduates make more money than those who aren't. A major factor in marital conflicts is finances. However, there is also some evidence that being in a stable marriage leads to jobs with better incomes. Single parents families have poverty rates five times that of two-parent biological families. Even stepfamilies experience poverty at almost double the rate of families with intact first marriages.

The fact that someone got into and through college suggests that they can defer gratification and are self-disciplined -- characteristics that are helpful for a lasting marriage.

Graduates succeed not merely because they have mastered a body of knowledge, but because they have, at least in past, mastered themselves.

The author, an evangelical Christian, then gets into the moral and spiritual issues -- they matter some.

However, his concluding paragraphs:

Studies reveal that marriage requires more. American evangelicals are, on the whole, less educated than the general population. Not surprisingly, they have a high divorce rate, even though they are on average quite committed to the institution of marriage and to spiritual growth.

Faith and morality do matter. Studies show that a college graduate with an active faith is more likely to stay married than a nonbeliever or a nominal believer with a college education. An actively Christian high school dropout is more likely to stay married than an agnostic high school dropout. However, education makes considerably more difference in the divorce rate than faith does.

What do you think?

Your Turn / Newsletter Distribution
« on: August 26, 2008, 06:26:16 PM »
Our congregation in an attempt to save on paper, postage, and copier expense and time, are looking at using e-mail as the primary way of distributing our monthly newsletter. Do other congregations do this? Synods I've been in have gone to either e-mailing a newsletter, or posting it on a website where it can be downloaded.

If you are e-mailing newsletters, what helps might you give all of us who might be considering it?

Your Turn / What if....?
« on: April 29, 2008, 01:03:28 AM »
The Sierra Pacific Synod has elected a new bishop, Rev. Mark Holmerud, whom, I'm certain, is not conservative enough for some within the synod. What if those conservative pastors opted to place themselves under the authority of another synod bishop, let's say, the one in Western North Dakota. How should the synods, and/or churchwide, respond to such actions?

There have been congregations who have changed synods. A few years ago, one in northern Wyoming sought transfer from the Rocky Mountain Synod to the Montana Synod. (There are now four Wyoming congregations in the Montana Synod, in addition, another one is in Eastern Washington - Idaho synod, and another is in the South Dakota Synod.)

The congregation in St. George, Utah, transfered from the Rocky Mountain Synod to the Grand Canyon Synod.

All of these synod changes were primarily geographical. The congregations believed that they could be better served by the bishop and synod office that was closer to them than the previous one.

What if a congregation sought to transfer solely on theological reasons, e.g., they believe that their present bishop is too liberal? What then?

Your Turn / Autobiographical theology
« on: July 23, 2007, 07:48:28 PM »
Word & World, volume 27, Number 3, Summer 2007, contains an article by Winston Persaud, "Believing in Jesus Christ in This Postmodern World." His second sentence is: "Christian theology over the centuries has always had an autobiographical character, which contradicts the notion that theological articulation must strive for detached objectivity" (p. 265). Much of the rest of the article contains autobiographical accounts of his own.

Some of my thoughts about the one sentence.

1. How much autobiographical (or biographical) material should be in a sermon? If what we are preaching is true, shouldn't we be able to articulate how it is true in our own lives, or in the lives of others we know?

2. How important is autobiographical stories in witnessing to others about Christianity? Are people more likely to believe us when we say, "I believe in Jesus because the Bible tells me to" or when we say, "I believe in Jesus because he has made profound differences in my life." And then talk specifically about the difference believing in Jesus makes. A course on witnessing I've used, talks about the intersection of "my story" and "God's story" and "your story". Especially for us Lutherans who have grown up attending Sunday school, we can usually tell God's story. Many are able to listen to "your story." We are not as adept when it comes to offering an autobiographical account of how God's story is part of my story.

3. Was the resurrection of Jesus remembered because of "detached objectivity" or because individuals and communities experienced Jesus' presence after his death? Similarly, does our understanding of Christ's presence in the sacrament come from a detached objectivity about the meal, or because we actually experience Jesus' presence our gathering and in our eating and drinking? Or put another way, the Emmaus story was not meant to be just a historical account, but an event that happens again and again -- even today. Jesus opens the scriptures for us. Jesus' presence is recognized in the breaking of bread; and, we also experience the absence of Jesus.

Your Turn / The Gospels -- Jesus Remembered
« on: July 23, 2007, 07:27:56 PM »
I've just finished reading Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, by Marcus Borg. I want to present what he says about the emerging paradigm concerning the writing of the gospels. Quotes and pages numbers come from his book.

"The foundation is a way of seeing the gospels that has emerged since the Enlightenment. In a sentence, the gospels are products of early Christian communities in the last third of the first century. This short sentence carries a freight of meaning.

"First, it has a negative corollary: the gospels are not a direct divine product, as notions of biblical inerrancy suppose. Rather, as documents written within early Christian communities, they are human products. They tell us how our spiritual ancestors in these communities saw Jesus and his significance.

"Second, as documents written in the last third of the first century, they are the result of a developing tradition. During the decades between Jesus's historical life and the writing of the gospels, the traditions about Jesus developed. This is not a supposition, but demonstrated from the gospels themselves, as I soon illustrate. Thus the gospels are not simply historical accounts of Jesus's life. Rather, they tell us how Jesus's followers told and proclaimed his story several decades after his death.

"Third, calling them community products means that the gospels were written from within and for early Christian communities. Of course, they were written by individuals, but these individuals were not 'authors' in the modern sense of the term. Modern authors most commonly write for people they don't know, and they seek to be original and creative. But the individuals who wrote the gospels were crystallizing into writing their community's traditions about Jesus as they had developed in the decades since his death. They proclaimed the significance Jesus had come to have in these communities as the first century wound to its end." (pp. 28-29, italics in original)

To phrase these in different ways, as he does later in his book, although these words are mine.

(1a) The gospels are stories of Jesus remembered. They are not eye-witness accounts. No one had a notebook and wrote down what Jesus said and did as he spoke and acted. We do not have verbatims.  In fact, for the most part, we have Greek translations of Jesus' Aramaic words. Rather, for about 20 years, disciples remembered and told what Jesus said and did. It is possible that around 50 AD some of these rembrances about Jesus were written down in documents that became sources for the canonical gospels. It was another 15-20 years (some 35-40 years after Jesus' death and resurrection) that the remembrances of Jesus' words and actions became the first canonical gospel, known as Mark. Another 15-30 years passed before the remembrances were written as Luke, Matthew, and John.

(1b) The gospels are stories of Jesus remembered after Easter. When the believers remembered what Jesus had said and did, they were looking back through the lenses of his death and resurrection. (I'm not sure that I would make this as significant as Borg does, but I agree with him that it is significant.) The lenses of the death and resurrection colors the way the people remembered the pre-Easter Jesus.

2. What they remembered, told, and eventually wrote down was meant to be understood as more than just historical, literal, or factual. In a sense, all the words and events in the gospels need to be understood as "parables". Their importance is in their meaning(s), not whether or not the event actually happened. Going a step further, seeking to prove the historical facts of a story, may hinder the discovery of the "more-than-literal" and "more-than-factual" meaning that is intended by the rembrances. For example, if a guide points out the exact spot on the Jerusalem to Jericho road where the man was robbed, beat up and left for dead, where a Samaritan eventually attended to his needs, does that help us understand the meaning of the parable? Is such a historical detail even relevant to understanding the meaning of the story? I think not.

When Mark tells us the story of Jesus healing a blind man in Bethsaida (8:22-26) -- the only healing of Jesus that required two touches -- the meaning of that story for Mark, especially within the broader context of 8:22-10:52, which ends with Jesus healing another man of blindness -- is about the struggle all disciples have of seeing (and following) the way of Jesus. Peter struggled with it in this section. He, saw the way only partially. He confessed Jesus as the Messiah, yet rebuked him when he said his way would take him to death. It's in this section that the demon-possessed boy's father confesses, "I believe. Help my unbelief." He believes and he doesn't believe, just like that first blind man could see and yet couldn't see. I know that it is a parable of my life of faith. I have been touched by Jesus. I see and understand the way of Jesus; and yet, it is often unclear, fuzzy, so I continue to need subsequent touches by Jesus to be able to see more clearly so as to follow Jesus on the way to the cross.

Did Jesus heal blind people? Most probably. Does Mark remember these stories decades after they happened just to tell us that Jesus could heal a blind person? I think, as Borg does, that Mark intends meanings that go beyond the historical and literal events. As such, they are like parables. (Borg uses the term "metaphor" for understanding the stories as more-than-historical and more-than-literal.)

Your Turn / Dealing with Secular Impinges to the Church Year
« on: May 26, 2007, 12:21:12 AM »
I was on vacation during our last congregational council meeting. When I received the minutes in an e-mail, the council had made the following decisions: "There will be a Christmas Program this year on a Sunday during Advent." (Note, the Christmas programs replaces our one morning worship service.) The last time they wanted to do this, I objected, which went unheeded, so then took my remaining two-weeks of vacation that included the Sunday they planned to have the program. My position against such Sunday morning programs was well known to the council.

And, "It was decided to sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Page #890, for the May 27 Sunday service in honor of Memorial Day.  It was also decided to sing the hymn Beautiful for Spacious Skies, Page #888, for the July 1 service as a tribute to July 4th."

How do other pastors respond to the pressure to sing patriotic songs as part of Sunday morning worship? I note that May 27 is also Pentecost.

How do other pastors respond to desires to replace Sunday morning advent worship with a Christmas program. (I also note that we have no Sunday school because of so few children, so most of the roles in the program are played by adults.)

How do other pastors respond when a council takes actions that are (a) "behind your back," and (b) known by them to conflict with your own beliefs and practices?

Your Turn / Different Hearings of Scripture
« on: April 26, 2007, 02:20:04 PM »
In Mark allan Powell's book, What Do They Hear?: Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit & Pew, he presents experiments with biblical interpretations based on different categories of people.

The common experiment he does is to have the people read a Bible passage, close the book, then tell what they "heard", then look at their responses.

One he relates is the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32. He used this approach with 100 American students. All 100 (100%) mentioned the younger son squandering his money, but only 6 (6%) remembered the famine in the text. However, when he did the same process with 50 Russians, 84% remembered the famine and only 34% mentioned the squandering. With further discussions, the Russians stated that the great sin of the younger son was leaving his father's house -- thinking that he could be self-sufficient. The Americans saw the great sin as wasting money.

I quote: "How revealing it is that Americans think the great sin was wasting money. They think this because money is very important to them. In a capitalist country, it must be a very bad thing to squander one's inheritance. But in a socialist state, the sin is self-sufficiency. This boy's sin was that he wanted to make it in the world on his own. He trusted in his finances and in his own sense of rugged individualism, and he figured that would be enough to get by. And, who knows, he might have made it if not for the famine. But that's what happens, Jesus says. Famines do come -- and in a world where there are famines (and factory closings and automobile accidents and medical emergencies), only a fool would want to be alone." [pp 18-19]

He isn't arguing that one interpretation is right and the other wrong, but squandering and famine are in the text, "but readers tend to prioritize one element over the other, often to the point of dropping the minor element from consideration altogether. They do this subconsciously and yet seem prepared to defend the selection when it is pointed out to them. Literary critics would say that readers' create meaning for themselves by selectively sorting and organizing the data that the text provides. Readers always do this, often while remaining oblivious to what they themselves are brining to the process, unaware that the sorting and organizing of data is influenced by particular factors of their own social location. People who hear our sermons do the same thing -- the sort the auditory data, prioritizing, organizing, remembering, forgetting: they create a meaning that seems appropriate to them with little awareness of the extent to which their social location has influenced that process." [p. 19]

Powell also notes how Western and Eastern commentaries on this parable differ in emphases, one being how asotos is translated in 15:13. Literally it simply means "wasteful," with no sense of immorality -- which is how Eastern translations and commentaries approach the word -- and then discount the older brother's comments about "prostitutes" as inaccurate. Western translations and commentaries, tend to base their translation on the accuracy of the older brother's comments and use words like "dissolate living" to imply immorality in the younger son's spending.

"At the risk of simplification, we might say that for Western readers the overall accent has been on reform [the immoral son has reformed his ways], while for Eastern readers is has been on recovery [the wasteful, foolish son found his way to his senses and home]. [p. 24]

Powell also used the parable with Tanzanians. He read the story, then asked, "Why does the young man end up starving in the pigpen?" Would they follow the more American hearing and say he wasted his money or the more Russian hearing and say the famine. Powell writes: "A few did write responses liek that, but the vast majority -- around 80% wrote something completely different: 'Because no one gave him anything to eat.'" [p. 26]

More significant for us clergy; Powell did an exercize with Mark 7:1-8 with 50 clergy and then 50 lay people. He gave both groups a sheet with the text printed on it and asked, "What does this mean to you?" Their "empathy choices" (who they identified with) were quite different. They are summarized in this chart.

Empathy Choice:  Clergy  Laity
Jesus                       40      0
Disciples                    0      24
Pharisees                  4       18
Other                      6        8

This strongly suggests (as do a couple other experiments in the book) that clergy and laity read, hear, and find meaning in biblical texts differently than clergy do.

These cross-cultueral and clergy/laity experiments also support the idea of polyvalence -- that texts mean different things to different people. (Powell points out that some of those meanings are invited by the text and some may not be invited by the text.)

If polyvalence is a fact of biblical texts, can we really talk about a "plain meaning" of a text. It seems that there are "plain meanings" that are determined, in part, by the social group who is reading/hearing the text.

This is much more I found intriguing in this little book (107 pages), but this is enough for now. It has spurred me to order more books on narrative and reader-response criticisms.

Your Turn / Episcopal Diocese of Utah Response
« on: March 19, 2007, 12:16:46 PM »
The Episcopal Diocese of Utah has written a seven-page response to the Primates' Communique from Tanzania. It is does not deal with specific issues from the Primates, but offers an explanation of who and what The Episcopal Church is. It was helpful to read about their polity and what the Primates are seeking to do is against Anglical polity.

It's at

Your Turn / The Trend Toward Larger Churches
« on: December 01, 2006, 12:41:51 PM »
The November 28, 2006 edition of The Christian Century includes an article by Mark Chaves called: "Supersized: Analyzing the Trend Toward Larger Churches," (pages 20-25). The author, who teaches sociology at the University of Arizona, looks at the trends of 12 denominations -- all of whom show an increase in the percentage of members attending their largest congregations after 1970. Or, in his words: "people are increasingly concentrated in the very largest churches. Most churches are small, but most church members are part of large congregations." (Articles from this current edition are not online, but perhaps this one will be in the near future at

He tries to explore what happened around 1970 that might have caused this trend. He looks at five possible factors, which he generally rules out. His sixth explanation is: "the increased concentration of people in the very largest churches is caused in part by rising costs that make it more and more difficult to run a church at a customary level of programming and quality."

He notes a significant change around 1970: "Beginning in about 1970 the rate at which donations increased stopped keeping pace with the rate at which the costs of running a church increased."

The affect of this: "When costs increases outpace revenue increases, churches cut corners and reduce quality by deferring maintenance, declining to replace youth ministers when they leave, replacing retiring full-time ministers with half-time pastors, and so on. In short, churches find it difficult to maintian the same level of programming and quality they had before. And this will be true even if the church loses no members.... The result is that people will be pushed out of smaller churches that no longer meet their minimum standards and into large churches that still do."

Some questions:

1. Do you agree with his analysis?

2. How important is quality in growing a congregation?

3. If quality is important, how do we convince stingy parishioners that investing in something of quality is nearly essential for the long-term growth of the congregation? An attitude of "just getting by" helps drive people to the large church down the street. For example, spending $1500 on a piano or organ rather than $12,000; buying a sound-system from Radio Shack and trying to install it themselves rather than contacting specialists in sound enhancing; the examples of low-quality investments in smaller congregations are probably endless.

Your Turn / Why would the unchurched attend your church? ... and return?
« on: October 31, 2006, 06:05:24 PM »
The question came up in another meeting (where it was off-topic): if an unchurched person decided to attend a Christian church, which one would they choose? If they chose yours, what would encourage them to come back a second time?

To put it more specifically, why would an unchurched person decide to visit a Lutheran church? Why might they return a second time?

Frankly, probably most of the unchurched people who visit my church are people looking for hand-outs. We work through a two-county-wide organization that distributes food, clothing, vouchers for gas or housing.

Others who have attended worship have usually come because a member invited them, e.g., to our Christmas Eve Worship service.

Those who return a second time usually talk about the welcome they received from members, our music, and the sermon. From the first full year I was here, 2002, to 2005, our average annual worship attendance has gone up 21%. Although most of the growth has come from transfers -- not from baptizing the unchurched.

I think that few Lutheran congregations are well-equipped to deal with the unchurched who may wander into our worship services.

Some themes we can explore in our discussion is how do we welcome the unchurched in our congregations? What might encourage a "seeker" to look at a Lutheran congregation? What can we do to encourage a second or third visit -- that leads up to a commitment to be baptized and/or to join the congregation?

ELCA Churchwide Assembly 2005 / CWA Worship
« on: August 12, 2005, 08:44:56 PM »
The thought struck me as the Assembly spent most of the day dealing with the sexuality recommendations, that the best image of the ELCA is not what we did in the plenary sessions, but what we did in the daily worship services.

We worshiped. Some worshipers wore rainbow stoles and shirts and buttons supporting their position. Other worshipers wore Luther's Rose and shirts and buttons supporting another position. Most had no indications of their position on the sexuality recommendations. However, we worshiped together as one body. In some instances, people with differing visible position symbols sat next to each other. We sang together. We heard scriptures together. We passed the peace with each other. Most importantly, we received the sacrament together.

I will admit that not all of the worship styles were to my tastes, but they were done well. The preaching has been good. Like the music, they have been in differrent styles. In my opinion, the preachers have not tried to preach a position concerning Assembly business.

Today's preacher did suggest that many of us were hoping that Jesus would return before we had to take the votes on the sexuality recommendations. That, I believe, has been the only direct reference to that "business".

I think that when the voting members report back to their synods, they should begin with holding the stack of worship bulletins from the daily services. The most important thing we did in Orlando is worship together.

Personally, while I was/am interested in the business our CWA would do -- primarily on the sexuality and Renewing Worship recommendations, my motivation for going as a visitor was also to experience the excellent worship that takes place there. As preachers & presiders, we often do not have opportunities to be "pew-sitters" without being "in charge".

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