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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.

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