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Friday, May 30, 2014

Annoyed or Joyful

Last week I was talking with a fellow mom about our recent trip to Target - also known as, that time Jake ran through the store like a wild caveman, alternately screaming and laughing maniacally, using his arm as a machete through the shelf of cake mixes, grabbing the balls in the toyland and tossing them into the aisle shouting: "Ball!!!"

I tried to pick him up to go check out. A woman offered me her cart as I grabbed Jake around his stomach like a football, and he threw his head down like a champion platform diver, yelling the whole way.

I was telling my friend about this because her daughter is just a month younger than Jake and I thought she might have some tips.

She sort of stared at me for a second, then asked: "Well won't Jake just sit in the cart?"

That's when I knew Jake was a "special" shopper.

He's also a "special" zoo-goer. 

We took him to the zoo with his friend, Jackson, in Kansas City over Memorial Day weekend. Jackson sat in his wagon, lifted up the latch to get out at exhibits, respectfully walking over to look at the penguins and nicely holding his dad's hand as they watched the seal show.

Jake on the other hand ... 

No sooner had we gotten him in the wagon facing Jackson then he was saying: "Outttt, Outtttt!"

No sooner had we lifted him out then he was running away from us all over the zoo, charging into the wall of the polar bear exhibit, reaching out to grab the branches of the trees in the bird exhibit:
"Birdieeeee Birdieeeeee."

Jake also got excited whenever the zoo bus went past. He pointed out: "Caahhhrrr! Caahhrrr!!"

"It's a bus," we told him.

Jackson looked at us, paused, then looked at Jake: "Bus," he said, clear as day.

Ben and I couldn't help but laugh.

Jake is certainly a spirited little toddler. He resists holding our hands, even when we force it in the parking lot. A few days ago he decided that before bed he'd rather read books to himself, rather than in Mommy's lap. Mommy is still getting over this.

I shouldn't be surprised though. He is my son, and to this day, the best way to get me to do something is to tell me I can't. Independence, determination, wanting to choose his own way -- I guess that all comes in Jake's blood.

And even in the midst of these crazy terrible 2's, when going to Costco to make a return means risking total destruction and embarrassment ... I think God is yet again teaching me something through my son.

One thing about Jake: he gets people to respond to him. When he's putting the stretchy wire up over his head at Costco, when he's laughing hysterically about surprising me behind a rack of clothes at Target, when he says "YAYYY!" and claps at the end of a hymn in church -- he definitely draws attention.

I notice that people respond in one of two ways:

1) They get super annoyed. Even if he's having fun and smiling, sometimes people get face to face with his huge smile and they see him merely as a blockade to their mission of GETTING THINGS DONE. Yesterday at Target a mom with a little boy of her own nearly ran into Jake twice. Both times he just smiled and said: "iiiHi."

She just shook her head dismissively and rushed past.

2) They get super joyful. They smile at Jake and at each other and even at me. Their delight reminds me that parenting is a delight. That God has given me these little moments - even if they slow me down - even if it drives me nuts - to delight me. To show me that joy is here. 

I'm sure part of them was a little annoyed, too. Kids aren't supposed to play with that stretchy wire -- and yes I did get him to stop ... and kids aren't supposed to be so rambunctious.

But that's part of who Jake is. And maybe part of who he is is God's gift to me as his mom. 

God is telling me that these little interruptions come into our lives every single day. And we have a choice. We can be super annoyed or we can be super joyful.

We can be the person - like the people who smile at Jake and comment to me - who shows someone we meet the face of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus, who said, "Let the little children come ... "

Jesus, who was never too busy to be interrupted and become a vessel of grace.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Letter to "your" Generation

Recently I've been trying to confront the topic of millennials and the church in my blog. Since I am a "millennial" it's much easier to speak from that perspective. That's why it came naturally for me to write a letter to "my" generation.

This one is tougher. But I'm going to confront it with a sense of earnestness and humility. Please receive it in the same fashion.

A Letter to "your" Generation

Last week a friend of mine who is a Lutheran pastor in northern Minnesota (no, not Garrison Keillor) attended her synod assembly. During synod assemblies, pastors, church members, staff people, musicians, professors, students - all those associated with the ELCA synod in that area gather together. The ideal would be that these assemblies are motivating and inspiring, a gathering of disciples that evokes comparisons to the Council of Nicaea, or the Council of Constantinople, where the Christian Church as we know it today was founded.

Unfortunately the reality is often quite different. Pastors joke amongst each other about avoiding assembly, faking sick, about how dull it can be, etc. I can't really say much because I'm a first-call pastor and I've only attended one synod assembly, while I was on internship in Las Vegas and our congregation hosted. That synod assembly was pretty disappointing, though. Our music director - a former Broadway actor and singer - attempted to plan the event with some innovative music and technological elements, and he kept running up against the synod liturgists, who seemed to turn him down and frustrate him at every turn.

I attended a couple of sessions, but it seemed a lot about politics and less about Jesus.

Maybe some of that is necessary "sausage-making," but you'd think we'd at least try to shake things up a bit.

Anyway, my friend shared this story from her synod assembly:

"I was infinitely saddened by something that happened today at our Synod Assembly. We were debating a resolution and there was one young woman, who is on the Lutheran Youth Organization (LYO), who was waiting in line to speak against the resolution. An elderly man came forward and made a motion that the question be called. He was asked if he wished to hold the motion until after the young woman had spoken, but he said no. Someone else seconded the motion for the time of debate to end and the vote to end the debate passed. And then the resolution passed without the young woman being allowed to speak. I am certain that some who voted to end the time of debate didn't realize what their vote meant to this young woman. Others just wanted us to finish up so that they could go home. But we encourage our youth to come and to speak up and cast their vote, but she was not allowed to speak. I spoke to her and she received my pastoral words as comfort, but I am still saddened that her voice was stifled."

This is what I want to say to "your" generation: things like this happen way too often. 

Especially in the church.

Stop silencing us.

Even as I in my letter to millennials last week encouraged those in my generation to return to church and participate and get involved, I worried that their efforts to join in might be thwarted.

Sometimes it seems your left and right hands are working against each other. With your right hand you're beckoning us millennials forward: "Come on in, join our church, get involved, we want YOU!"

With your left hand you're holding us off, pushing back: "You want to do what? That's not how we do things here. Maybe you should ask ___ about that, he's really in charge. I'm not sure that's right for our church."

Here's what we hear: "I'm not sure you are right for our church."

And we're effectively silenced. We back off. Drop out. Go back to critiquing from the sidelines and volunteering for causes that don't involve the church.

Here's what your attitude seems to be: "Yes, I know this isn't the best way to do it, but we had to do it that way, and now SO DO YOU."

You seem to value muddling through for muddling through's sake. 

You sometimes seem to delight in seminary debt or difficult first calls. 

You embrace schadenfreude, which serves only to discourage and mire the church in issues that should have been resolved long ago.

I know what you were thinking when you ended that debate, Mr. Moderator in Northern Minnesota. You were thinking you were tired; you were done. You wanted to go home and get exactly what you'd gotten out of this day in the past, which was mostly nothing. 

You wanted things to stay the same because you knew what to expect. You almost didn't notice the young woman from the Lutheran Youth Organization, even though the night before you'd lamented to your colleagues that: "Young people just don't get involved. They aren't committed like we were."

You didn't realize that you'd taken her enthusiasm, the same enthusiasm you once had for the church, and you squashed it.

Next year they'll ask if she wants to go to the synod assembly, and she'll say no thank you. They don't care what I think. Why waste my time?

And you'll gather with the other pastors at your lunch table with jello and casserole and lament the fact that young people just don't participate in the church. What's wrong with them?

Maybe you had to wait your turn for your voice to be heard. To put in your time. Play a few seasons in the minors and toil in no-name towns before you got your big break.

There's certainly a value to gaining experience and waiting. But I don't know that the Lutheran church has that luxury right now. Time is of the essence. If you have enthusiastic and excited young people who want to be Lutheran and want to lead in your synod or your church, you have to embrace them and give them a chance to speak. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Let them fail. Push them before you think they're ready, and the Spirit will give them wings.

Be slow to judge and quick to understand. Give that young associate pastor a chance to preach more often. Put that intern in charge for a weekend. Let the youth speak at synod assembly, even if you're dying to leave. 

Maybe something else in the program could be cut out. I'm sure some pastors would have some ideas of what to cut.

If what you're doing isn't producing the results you want, maybe you could change what you're doing.

I'd count myself as an example of someone who has been both embraced and effectively silenced by the establishment -- "your" generation.

I was given incredible mentors throughout seminary and served an internship under a pastor who gave me boundless freedom to fail, succeed, and lead. He taught me how to trust myself and how to trust God. He let the rules serve the Gospel, not the Gospel serve the rules.

Then I went through the humbling experience of assignment, effectively being told that I was being sent to rural Minnesota or the Dakotas -- whether my husband could find a job or not (his career requires him to be in an urban area).

I had to dig in, pray, and generous members of "your" generation spoke up for me and gave me a chance in Metro Chicago.

St. Philip, a congregation who has never been afraid to try something new, took a chance on me and gave me the chance to lead for real. We still face generational challenges at times, but I've been honored with the trust your generation has given mine in this congregation.

And yet still sometimes I'm "put in my place" by your generation. The most frequent comment I get when meeting older male pastors in the synod is "Well, she's much prettier than me."

Your generation was radical once, right? You believed in the power of a shared witness to change the world. We believe in that, too. We'd like to work with you. We know we haven't quite proven ourselves yet, but we're getting older - and you know the church needs us. So please let us lead - for real - and don't end the debate before we've had a chance to speak.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Letter to "my" Generation

I knew on Tuesday morning what I was going to blog about this week.

For a small congregation, St. Philip is full of "doers." People who just step in and do whatever needs to be done, with lots of energy.

This week, one of those major "doers," the indefatigable Roxanne(* name has been changed for privacy), had to go to the hospital with what we feared might be a stroke.

After many tests, the doctors ended up ruling out stroke, however, and diagnosed her with a complex migraine.

Hearing that even the indefatigable Roxanne had run into a potential health scare sent waves of anxiety through the congregation. It's Roxanne who organizes Christmas Dinner, Easter Breakfast, Easter Egg Hunt, the Rummage Sale, often the Clothes Closet.

When we moved from our apartment in Arlington Heights to our townhome in Glenview, Roxanne - with her partner, Max* (name changed for privacy), was the first one there - tearing through the house and helping us move at lightning speed.

On Tuesday morning, with Roxanne still in the hospital, I came to church and chatted for a moment with one of our council members. She was tired, and worried.

"What are we going to do?" she said. "Who's going to run the Christmas Dinner and the Rummage Sale when Roxanne isn't here? Who will fix up the building when Tom (*name changed) isn't here?"

"It just makes me sad."

And then she said the line that has lived with me for past three days:

"Where is the next generation?"

Thousands of thoughts, reasoning, theology, ecclesiology, sociology, demography, ran through my head. The long list of well-thought-out and well-reasoned reasons for why "the next generation," i.e. my generation, doesn't come to church in the numbers our parents did, especially not to mainline Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches ...

I thought about how sometimes the "old guard" at a church can, unintentionally, guard the things they do and be almost suspicious of new people who want to help. How people can say they want more younger people and children, but not want the change or disruptions that might bring. How places, especially churches, can become set in their ways and cater toward a particular age group (offering programs at times and in interests that best serve folks in their 60s-70s), and then be surprised when younger people don't want to join in.

I thought about how pastors have betrayed the trust, and the church has betrayed the trust, of many people in my generation. How parents failed to pass on the key points of the faith to their kids, and those who were left to "decide for themselves" were left unmoored and resistant to organized religion.

I thought about the challenges of student loans and a difficult job market and difficult housing market and the pressures on people in their 20s and 30s to simply stay afloat.

I thought about the instant gratification we've become accustomed to in my generation. Many of us weren't taught how to fix things around the house - or the church. We're not as good at making personal connections sometimes because it's easier to stay connected online to people we already know.

We're suspicious of a church where we still see embezzlement stories - two Lutheran synods just this past year - and sex scandals and subtle messages that exclude wide swaths of the population, from people who are gay or lesbian, to African Americans to the working poor to Latinos to people who are unmarried to people who have tattoos.

I thought about all of this - but then I realized it kind of sounded like a long list of excuses. Valid excuses, maybe, but excuses nonetheless.

And I started to get fed up with "my generation," who I'm sometimes left defending and sometimes left struggling to understand.

We all want to give back, right? We want to make a difference. To be authentic and real and to matter.

We want to believe in a God who we can touch and see in a community who carries on Christ's Spirit.

We want all these things. We have valiant goals and authentic desires. In churches, where we often aren't, we could teach many things - could carry on Christ's Spirit in a new and important way.

And yet we have something to learn from those who have gone before.

They show up.

It's easy to sit on the sidelines of the traditional church and criticize it. To want to go somewhere tailor-made for us, with children's arks and upbeat music and trendy Bible studies and finance classes.

I've been there. I get it. It's easier to go to a place more like that.

But there are other places, too. And I've read a verse or two in the Bible about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and it means more about giving and less about consuming.

I had this Scripture reading at my ordination:
"Then Jesus said to them all, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels."

Discipleship is about giving ourselves, as Jesus gave Himself for us. Church can sometimes be more about what we give than what we get.

It's not always going to be pretty or perfect or tailor-made just for us at church. Churches are coming along and working hard but most of the time we're sort of stuck in the past a bit. We're trying to update ourselves but it would be much easier for us if you'd come along and help us out.

If you want to go to a church that offers screens and visuals, offer to help run the Power Point.
If you want to go to a church with more upbeat music, think about if you might want to sing or play in a Praise Band.
If you want to start a Bible Study that meets at a bar, talk to your local pastor and run it through the church. Same for children's classes or mom's groups or whatever you'd like a part of your life. Work with the resources the church has had for generations.

Many people in my generation want to do great things to help others and change the world. The church does too, really.

Churches often have resources that we don't. Churches have buildings and meeting spaces and nurseries and sound equipment and people who give money to the church for the good of the mission of the church -- did you hear that, my generation? You might want to consider thinking about giving money to the church you attend. If you don't, ask yourself why not - and what could happen to change that.

I think the single biggest thing that could make a huge impact for Lutherans and Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians and Christians and agnostics and atheists all across America and the world, is if some of us from "my generation" dragged ourselves out of bed on Sunday morning and just suspended our judgment for an hour and checked out church. And challenged ourselves: all right, maybe this church doesn't seem like "me," but maybe I'll get to know some folks and say to Jesus and to this church: Here I Am. Use Me.

I think "my generation" could do much more good inside the church than out of it. Our generations: from the Greatest to Baby Boomers to GenX to Millenials -- we need each other desperately. The Church is one dynamic place where we can all come together for good and for Jesus.

I've seen with my own eyes what just one family can do.

We have a family in our church who came to St. Philip eight years ago. They have two children, one in preschool and one in elementary. Lots of weeks, they're the only ones in Sunday School and the only ones at my children's sermon. Their mom leads a fantastic Vacation Bible School and recently joined our staff as parish administrator.

They could have come to St. Philip and said, "No thanks," I'd rather go to that church with the Children's Ark! I'd rather blend in.

I can't say I'd have been so courageous at a place where there weren't many others like myself.

But they were. And they still do energize us all, and I know they've changed St. Philip for the better, and as a pastor I don't know what I'd do without them.

This morning the little boy was at church with his mom and walked into my office:

"Oh, you're here! Are you coming over on Sunday (for a church dinner they're hosting)?"

"I am!"


Some of my favorite conversations at St. Philip are with this little guy. I realized as I talked with him that I had an answer to my council member's question: where is the next generation?

It's here. In this still, small voice who comes with his mom to work sometimes and picks up rocks outside and tears through the sanctuary with the Gospel Train before Sunday School.

The next generation is here. We care, I know we do.

But churches need more of us. So, "my generation," if you want to change the world, try changing a church with your presence.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Thursday, May 8, 2014

We Don't Know How to Flush

I've realized a major problem in the Lutheran Church today.

We don't know how to flush.

Bear with me.

In January at St. Philip we had a major plumbing issue. Sewage backed up into the men's bathroom - which smelled bad enough already, believe me - and we had to pay plumbers in the dead of winter to rot out our clogged pipes. It turns out the problem was a combination of an unusually narrow pipe, and someone stuffing a bunch of apparently paper towels down the toilet.

Now we have laminated signs in our bathroom. Please don't flush sanitary napkins or tampons down the toilet. Please don't flush paper towels.

This week I visited the Lutheran Center at the ELCA Churchwide Offices in Chicago for some continuing education. I went to the bathroom and, sure enough, another laminated sign!

"Please do not flush sanitary napkins down the toilet."
"Please do not flush paper towels."

Apparently St. Philip and the ELCA Churchwide Offices share a similar problem.

We Don't Know How to Flush.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church - and churches - in America seem to have a plumbing problem.

I'm married to a licensed plumbing engineer, so I know how important plumbing is. Ben spends his days routing pipes on designs, making sure everything goes to the proper place. Lots of water is reused and cleaned. When he does work in desert climates such as the Middle East, the most important part of his plumbing design is sustainability: making sure there will be enough water savings and reuse.

In the engineering world, all talk is about sustainable design. Making shrinking resources last. Designs that are particularly "green" are given designations through the LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) program. A building with exceptional plumbing and energy savings is called LEED Platinum. There are also Gold, Silver, and standard designations.

Our churches generally are focused more on laminating signs. Maintaining the past rather than sustaining the future.

See maybe I'm making a leap here, but I think our plumbing problem is emblematic of more serious challenges - and opportunities - in the Lutheran church today.

We really don't know how to flush - on the churchwide or the congregational level.

I wasn't taught how to flush in seminary. Conversations about sustainability were rare. I never took a church plumbing course: and by that I mean I wasn't given too many pragmatic tools about how to lead a church through various deaths: of programs, of services, of styles - and into resurrections. We didn't know how to flush out our system and clear out our pipes so that old programs could be reused in new ways, and ones that didn't work could be flushed out to provide fertilizer for new ones.

I see congregations and churchwide organizations still torn apart by battles that are 30 years old - or more. We don't know how to flush our old prejudices and divisions (Call to Common Mission, German, Swedish, Norwegian; high-church, low-church; communion every week, communion once a month) down the drain.

Far too many conversations within the church are internal conversations. On a church-wide level, we debate intricate details of liturgies and differing understandings of the sacraments. We can't see the forest for the trees. Lutherans seem to love to squabble internally. We don't know how to flush.

Those ships have sailed, though. While we debate the details, fewer and fewer Americans are coming to church. People haven't learned the basics of the Christian faith. Our parishioners too often haven't been given the language to communicate their own faith in Jesus and what it means. We cover over complicated questions with breezy catchwords like grace: but too often we fail to give ourselves or others the experience of grace: being loved beyond measure, over and against even death.

We don't know how to flush ourselves: our own idiosyncrasies and personal biases.

For an organization founded on faith and grace and trust in Jesus, we've tended unfortunately to operate instead on fear.

We're scared to flush anything. We hold on to things that aren't working for far too long, because we're emotionally and maybe monetarily invested.

I'm invested. Four years of traditional Lutheran seminary to earn a Master's of Divinity that will mostly prove useful in one particular line of work, in which job opportunities are vanishing by the day. So I'm no proponent of flushing the whole idea of the traditional Lutheran church down the drain. That kind of talk is generally fatalistic and unhelpful, anyway.

But here's the situation, and the problem with our plumbing.

Recently a pastor friend of mine noted that nearly 50 percent of congregations in some Midwestern ELCA synods cannot foresee themselves calling a pastor anytime in the near future.

This is a quandary. We understand ourselves as church in a particular way, and that particular way is particularly unsustainable in the 21st Century.

Our plumbing is clogged. Something about our current model isn't working, and it hasn't been for a long time. Too many congregations are mired in the problems of the past - and roadblocks are standing in the way of renewal. One individual can stand in the way of needed changes. One person can deter a welcoming environment.

Pastors are afraid: because of student loans, because of church politics; to take too many risks.

I'm a believer in down-top revivalism. It begins with grassroots individuals deciding to make a change, which changes congregations, which changes synods, which changes denominations.

It begins with you - whether you're a pastor or a churchgoer or someone who doesn't go to church but for some reason might just want to have a conversation about God someday.

After all, the Christian faith began with One. One Word who became Flesh and rose again, forever changing the narrative of life and death on earth.

How can I tell our church and our Church to flush if I don't know how to flush myself?

We should be really good at this. Flushing, after all, is Forgiveness.

When I came to St. Philip, the first few months were really painful. I didn't know how to flush, either.

Through prayer and discernment, the church council came to the decision to suspend our second worship service, which led to the resignation of our longtime parish administrator and music director.

Sometimes now, when I'm particularly tired or worn out or vulnerable, I think back to the pain of that time, and I struggle to forgive myself or others. I think of those who have left our congregation due to their own pain or hurt over that difficult decision, and I wonder if there wasn't a way to avoid the pain.

But then I think about Holy Week. Even Jesus couldn't avoid the pain of the cross. Only death led to resurrection.

After resurrection we need to flush the pain of death. I need to forgive myself and others.

What do you need to flush? Who do you need to forgive? What do you need to let go of?

I think as a church, and as a Church, when we begin flushing and forgiving, our plumbing will get better.

Maybe we can take down those laminated signs and say: It's all fixed. Jesus, the Plumber to save all Plumbers, has been here and he routed out our pipes so that we might be made clean.

Flush away!

Then we can say that Our church is a Church that knows how to flush. You can come here and flush whatever needs to be flushed down our toilets and you will be accepted and forgiven: by Jesus and by us and by yourself. No sin is too big, too clunky, to be flushed by Jesus' forgiveness.

That suction of the Cross is powerful. No plunger needed.

When we learn to flush, when we learn to forgive, then, I believe, Revival will come to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Sunday after Easter

The Sunday after Easter: What does the Resurrection have to say in the face of Easter violence in Chicago? April 27 Sermon at St. Philip

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Prayers and People: Exponential

I’m writing this blog from a 737 high above the ground on my flight back home to Chicago from Orlando.

I called it Prayers and People because I’ve been all sorts of places with all sorts of people this past week, and somehow or another, they’ve all had to do with prayer.

About a year ago, I prayed feverishly that God might help me be called to a congregation in the Chicago area. About a year ago, I had a Skype interview with St. Philip in Glenview, and before I could believe it my prayers and God’s answers were leading me, Ben, and Jake to yet another new place.

I prayed feverishly when I started my call in Chicago at St. Philip that I might meet some other pastors and leaders in this city, to help guide me and share with me, and give me a sense of how to answer this honoring and humbling call into ministry.

I knew almost no one here, and yet as I prayed, God sent friends and leaders into my life. Pastor Martha Halls, the previous interim pastor at St. Philip, graciously offered to drive with me to the synod’s Professional Leaders Conference, at Redeemer-Chicago in October.

While I was there, I heard a worship band from the church play, and I listened to a sermon of sorts from their “church planter” and pastor, Matt Stuhlmuller.

I listened to Matt talk, and I thought – here is a pastor who is doing something. Honestly, authentically, excitedly – I could tell he was a person whom God had many plans for in the city of Chicago.

So after the event I sent Matt an email, we met for lunch: talked about all the ways God was calling us, and our excitement for the Church and our churches, and even too our fears and disappointments and how God might lead us even from our Good Fridays to Resurrection Sundays. It was great conversation and inspiring talk.

Matt was kind enough to invite to a gathering in the synod called the Church Planters Network, started by Redeemer-Park Ridge pastor and visionary Fred Nelson.

I came to the meetings, albeit often late, and I found myself in the company of more and more pastors who were doing something – or perhaps better said, who were opening themselves to what God might be doing among them and in their churches.

Many of them were pastors of some of the synod’s largest churches, interested in new mission. A few were church planters, dynamic and excited about new ministry settings. They welcomed me in – even though I wasn’t a large-congregation pastor or a church planter – perhaps because we shared together the idea that God was up to something in the synod, and God wanted them to teach me and share with me as God brought to life the seeds He had sown over many years at St. Philip, before I arrived.

I think it was a bit after the first couple of meetings that Matt mentioned to me: “Hey, you should come with us to Exponential!”

Exponential is a huge discipleship, church planting, and evangelism workshop held annually on the East and West coasts. This year it was in Orlando, and the theme was Seek and Save. You can probably tell by this theme that Exponential is not designed by Lutherans.

So, I wasn’t sure, but I’d been to Catalyst – a similar Evangelical conference – before, and I’d heard some of the speakers. And plus, Matt, Fred, Carol (also a phenomenal pastor, from Redeemer), Mark, a dynamic new pastor at a church in Gurnee, Katie, a stellar female church leader and pastor from Hinsdale, Hector, an associate to the bishop, Jade, yet another great Chicago pastor, and a few others I didn’t know as well from Chicago and across the ELCA were going, too. When I went to Catalyst, it was just me and our assistant pastor from my internship congregation. I was interested to see what it might be like to experience this Evangelical Extravaganza with my fellow Original Evangelicals (that’s another, slightly cooler, name for Lutherans. We did begin the Reformation, after all).

There’s so much to say about Exponential. Far too much for this blog alone and certainly too much for my time on the plane. I’m sure this experience over the past few days will leak itself out throughout my ministry: in new ideas for adult forums and discipleship programs at St. Philip; in new nuances to my preaching; in anecdotes; in deepened friendships and relationships … So I won’t go too far into it now.

Prayer – for a call, for new relationships, for the Spirit to lead me in ministry and lead St. Philip – brought me from a new seminary graduate living in California last year to a newly ordained pastor and Exponential attendee in Orlando this year.

Prayer brought me through Exponential, too. An Evangelical conference can sometimes be an odd place for a female pastor. There are lots of workshops for Pastors’ Wives, lots of women following their pastor spouse with children in tow, lots of pregnancies, lots of babies. The Pastor was always called He in examples, and there were a few too many jokes early on at women’s expense.

It has always made me sad that I sometimes experience far more discrimination as a female pastor (in certain settings) than I ever did as a female sportswriter.

It was helpful early on to process and pray through these things with Katie, Matt, Mark, Carol and Fred. Katie is a braver woman than me, and she wore her clerical collar on the second day of the conference. I considered having Ben attend with me next year and go to all the Pastor’s wives workshops.

I found myself caught, ashamed almost for being upset by the jokes and male-only club that sometimes dominates these conferences. But God gave me the space to look at it from the long view, and I saw myself there, with the other female pastors from our synod, as a witness of sorts. A visible reminder of what is often invisible in the Evangelical world: a female lead pastor. And maybe perhaps, one of those little girl babies in the arms of her pastor’s wife mom, might see a woman at the conference refer to herself as pastor, and years later tell her dad: I think I could give the sermon, too.

The Evangelical world is changing before our eyes. Leaders like Andy Stanley are challenging previously held givens: demanding that faith rest not on a supposed inerrant book but rather on an event, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When I thought about it later, how too Evangelicals at the conference were lifting up a place for people who are gay in their churches, and preaching tolerance, and seeing the face of Muslims and people of other religions in our midst: I thought, you know it’s great they are saying these things, but Lutherans have been saying them for decades.

Maybe we have. Maybe it’s a Lutheran tendency to assert that we have always been right, all along. And maybe it doesn’t matter.

Andy Stanley has a much bigger pulpit to preach from – figuratively – than the average Lutheran pastor. He’s a phenomenal preacher, he knows his Bible, and thousands of people – at least - are listening.

The church is changing at Exponential. Movements are beginning, and perhaps most optimistically: young people of all ethnicities, economic backgrounds, locales, even countries: are excited about witnessing and spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Not just by converting, or “saving,” but by, as one of the speakers said: Living Questionable Lives. Being transformed by the Gospel in such a way that we might be asked why? And there, he said, is where our witness most powerfully begins.

So I can throw aside the misogyny and gender bias and some of the antiquated language for a moment, and give thanks in a new prayer for a prayer that began a long time ago. That God might use me, and that God might pair me with other leaders so that I might learn from them and grow with them as the Spirit works in each of us.

I am so grateful for the ways God has answered that prayer.

And I’m utterly grateful for one final way that God has answered my prayers.

See I’ve been away from Ben and from Jake since Sunday afternoon. And darn if every little baby or toddler at that conference made my heart hurt. I missed them. My arms felt empty without carrying my little guy around. Last night, probably because I was tired and overloaded from the fantastic but also tiring conference, I found myself nearly crying in bed as I imagined his chubby little arms and tiny little hands gripping my finger and pulling me across the living room for yet another game.

I told myself, God, if I can just get back in time Thursday night to rock with him and read before bed like we always do, that will be enough for me, God.

Originally I was booked on a 7:45 p.m. flight arriving in Chicago at 9:30. But the conference ended at noon. And I told myself I would do whatever it took to just get on one of those earlier flights. I got to the airport at 11:30 a.m. – we left a bit early as the others had a previous commitment that afternoon.

I got on the standby list for 2:40. It was delayed. There were 22 people on for standby and the gate agent told me the flight was overbooked. No room.

I felt the pathetic tears of a new mom creep toward my eyes as I told her: “I’m trying to get home to see my son.”

And unbelievably, this gracious woman moved me up to No. 2 on the standby list.

I waited in agony, and then I watched as one “Platinum” member on the list below me got to go ahead. There’s nothing like the airlines to give us Americans a little glimpse of life in a caste system.

The agent saw me fretting, and just when I was sure I wouldn’t get a seat, and I prayed that last desperate prayer: she whispered to me “I have a seat for you.”

So I got on. I’ll land in Chicago, God willing, around 5:15 p.m. Plenty of time to rock my baby to sleep; plenty of time to thank God for all these prayers, all these places, and all these people doing God’s work.