May 8, 2017

Deprivileging the White Church

I just returned from our synod assembly. It is an annual regional gathering in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America of leaders and lay persons chosen to be voting members for the assembly. We gather to worship, make decisions both perfunctory and profound, and build relationships across our expansive geographical synod.

At this year's assembly, the opening worship did not set the tone of an inclusive, welcoming gathering. It focused on the German heritage of the Lutheran immigrants who came here in the 19th century. It made use of a "Thanksgiving for Our Heritage" at the opening that quickly said: "us" is white, German Lutheranism. "Them" is those who came after. I do not think this was the intention of the writer or planners. But in a public liturgy, intention is not very important. The impression and the impact is what matters. While other parts of the assembly spoke to a more inclusive, less white-centric church, the opening set a tone that was hard to overcome.

I read this liturgy ahead of time and was surprised and offended. I chose not to attend the worship service so I would not be seen as supporting this exclusive message, and to show some kind of solidarity with those who felt left out. One particularly egregious problem with this opening liturgy was the lack of mention of the very old Latino Lutheran congregations in Rio Grande Valley, some of which are older than most of our majority white congregations. The worship gave the impression that German Lutherans have carried the tradition and then, when the Spirit decided it was time, they recently began to expand their vision to include others through the benevolence of whites.

I'm not looking to blame any particular individuals for this. I am curious how this came to be. All I can guess is that the planning team was not diverse enough to include persons with eyes and ears that would hear this liturgy from a different perspective than the historical, narrow, white experience.

We live with a problem in the Lutheran church, and in other historically white majority denominations, I suspect, one that has been discussed for decades, but with slow progress. We continue to think of the church from a white "us" perspective, and we continue to see the non-white parts of the church as "them," as some other that we benevolently choose to accept among us. We continue to privilege white culture in our decisions and evaluations about worship and church life, rarely even aware that we are doing this, and insensitive to how it continues to exclude and diminish the rich church traditions of many cultures.

It is time to deprivilege the white church. White folks have to do it, but we can't do it alone, because we would likely not get it. We have to deprivilege the white church in converstation with and relationship with all the parts of the church that comprise the body of Christ. We have to lose the sense that we, the white folks, are "us." We need to experience being one part of the body among many, neither privileged, nor rejected, just a part of the wonderful body that only has life when all its parts are honored.

How might we do this? A few ideas, but they are only mine and many others have excellent ideas:

  1. White folks need to be intentional about deprivileging their own culture in worship. That doesn't mean white culture is bad or should go away. It means opening up to the gifts that other cultures bring and understanding that we have much to learn from them. It means not evaluating everything through the lens of whiteness, but through the lens of the Gospel. Perhaps a majority white congregation or synod should at a minimum always worship with at least one piece of music that isn't Euro-American white, one text that isn't English, one visual that is from cultures of color.
  2. Planning for worship and other church events, especially at the regional level, should never be a whites-only group. White people are often not aware of the ways language, liturgy, and music can unintentionally exclude. Even well intended white people who are striving for inclusivity mess this up. White people trying to be inclusive just becomes another exclusive way of doing things.
  3. Avoid as much as possible any expression of the church that appears to tell a story that whites were first, and non-whites came later after we decided to let them in. It's a false, white-centered story that often serves merely to make whites feel better about centuries of racist exclusion, and does not tell the truth. It also perpetuates the notion that non-white groups are never the norm, never the center, always defined by how whites decided to accept them. With this, we must find more honest and horable ways to tell the Native American story even when it disrupts the comfortable white myth of this land and of the church's mission.
  4. Practice unending and non-defensive repentance when it comes to being the privileged, white majority. The church lives with the gift of forgiveness and mercy. Use them extravagantly so that we can be open to God's transforming Spirit.
  5. White liberals need to be careful about two things: Assuming we have all the right answers to these issues, and being self-righeous in judging other whites when they make mistakes.
  6. Be bold in pursuing justice together in the church and outside the church, and let every worship service and church gathering witness to this. Don't let the fear of making mistakes stop you. 
  7. Do not begrudge the loss of privilege. Rejoice in the ongoing work of the Spirit to overcome division and create unity within diversity, reconciliation out of division. If that requires letting go of a lot we white folks assumed was a given, then let it go freely and joyfully.

April 12, 2017

Paschal Candle Making

Paschal candles are a central symbol in the church's worship life. The paschal candle, lit at the Easter Vigil and throughout the Easter season, as well as at baptisms and funerals, shines forth with the light of Christ's resurrection, reminding the baptized that they have new life in Jesus' death and resurrection.

There are many options for buying paschal candles, but a congregation may wish to make their own. It makes the candle a hand-crafted, local expression of a universal tradition.

Making a 100 percent beeswax candle reflects the praise given God for the bees that made the wax for this holy candle, sung in the Easter Vigil Proclamation (or Exsultet). Beeswax gives the candle its own inherent natural beauty. Beeswax, however, is expensive, and buying a premade all beeswax candle can be cost prohibitive. Making your own can be much less expensive, and allow a congregation to reuse old paschal candles for making new ones.

Here are my instructions for making a beeswax paschal candle based on a couple years of experience.

What You Need

Wick (cotton, square braid, #6 for a 2” or 3” diameter candle)
PVC pipe (2” or 3” diamter)
PVC pipe test cap
PVC pipe end cap
Wax pouring pitchers (2 or 3 depending on size of candle)
Tacky wax
Vegetable oil (or canola, olive, etc.)
Long wood skewers
Digital food thermometer (optional)
Bungie cord or twine
Table saw
Wax carving tools


  1. If you are starting with new beeswax, buy it in pellet form. For a 2” candle that is 39” long, you’ll need 5 pounds. For a 3” candle that is 44” long, you’ll need 12 pounds.
  2. If you are starting with old paschal candles, place the candle(s) in a heavy duty garbage bag, set on a concrete surface, and hit with a hammer to break up the wax. Keeping breaking wax until the pieces are small enough to fit into the pouring pitchers and the wick can be removed. Small amounts of decorative wax won’t affect the candle very much. Weigh the wax and add enough new wax to make the new candle. 
  3. Cut the PVC pipe on the table saw 3 to 4 inches longer than the length of the candle you want. Clean out the inside of the pipe by bundling wet paper towels and pushing them through a few times with a broom handle or long dowel. At the cut end of the pipe, use a marker and measuring tape to draw a line on the inside of the pipe where the top of the candle should be.
  4. Melt the wax in the pouring pitchers. Never melt wax on high – it can burn, smoke, and catch fire. Melt slowly on low to medium heat, stirring occasionally with a wood skewer. You can place the pitchers in a large pot of boiling water a few inches deep, or by placing the pitchers on a cast iron griddle or pan on the stove top. You can also melt the wax on an outdoor grill or cooker stand. Do not leave wax unattended while melting. It can take 30 minutes or more to completely melt the wax. Each pitcher can hold about 4 pounds of wax. If all the solid wax doesn’t fit at first, wait until some melts and then add more. While the wax is melting, do steps 5 to 7.
  5. Cut the wick about 8 inches longer than the pipe.
  6. Cut a notch in the center of the PVC test cap. Push one end of the wick through the notch using a flat screw driver. Push through from the inner side of the cap (the raised side) through to the outer side. Tie a large knot in the wick and pull back through so the knot is against the cap.
  7. Using tacky wax, cover the notch where the wick is pulled through to seal, and cover the inside of the test cap lip.
  8. When the wax has completely melted remove it from the heat. Let it cool in the pitchers until it is between 150 and 160 degrees F, using a digital food thermometer. You’ll know it is ready when the wax just begins to harden on the sides of the pitcher or on the top of the wax.
  9. While the wax is cooling, and before it is ready to pour, oil the inside of the PVC pipe by taking bundled paper towels and dipping them in the oil to get the oil on all sides of the towels. Push through the pipe several times to get the inside coated.
  10. Holding the pipe upright the top down (the top should be the cut edge), drop the wick through the pipe and push the test cap onto the pipe firmly. The tacky wax should form a seal all around. Cover this with the end cap, pushing on all the way.
  11. Grab the wick at the other end of the pipe, and tie it to half of a skewer. Pull slightly to make it snug but not tight. Center the wick on the pipe
  12. Place the pipe where you plan to fill it. A garage is a safe place where spilled wax won’t cause much damage. Using a bungie cord or twine secure the pipe vertically against a shelf or some other area where it will stand up without falling.
  13. When the wax is ready to pour, carefully pour into the top of the pipe. Let the wax coat the wick as you pour to prime the wick for burning. Pour wax until it reaches the line you marked on the inside. There should be wax left in the pitcher for the second and third pours.
  14. As the wax cools, the edges will harden first. Eventually, the top of the wax will start to harden. Using a skewer, poke and stir the top of the liquid wax as it cools and starts to harden. This will help prevent a void forming inside the candle as the wax contacts. Check every few minutes and poke and stir the hardening wax again. The inside of the candle will look like a hollow narrowing tube as it cools and hardens.
  15. Once the wax has hardened (it doesn’t have to be completely cool, just firm) reheat the remaining wax. For the second pour, do not cool the wax first. Pour the wax directly in the center of the candle until it just comes up to the top of the candle (do not pour beyond the top). Use the skewer again to poke and stir the wax as it cools.
  16. Repeat the procedure and make a third pour.
  17. When the third pour is nearly hardened. check to see if there is a void below the top surface by poking a hole. If it looks solid below the top, the candle should be fine. If there a void, make one more small pour.
  18. Let the candle completely cool overnight.
  19. To unmold the candle, first remove the end cap by twisting and pulling. Then cut the knot off the wick, and remove the test cap. Cut the wick at the top to remove the skewer.
  20. Make a mark at the top of the candle at the top and bottom, each directly across from each other, half way around.
  21. Set the table saw blade height to the thickness of the PVC pipe, or slightly higher. Set the stop to the radius of the pipe, measuring to the outer edge of the pipe.
  22. Using the marks on the end, run the pipe lengthwise on the table saw, making a cut through the pipe from top to bottom. Then turn the pipe over and cut starting at the other mark. This will likely make a small cut into the candle, forming a small line on each side.
  23. Lay the pipe down and gently pull the top half off the candle. If it doesn’t come loose easily, gently start pry at the end and along the sides.
  24. Turn the candle over and remove the other half of the pipe. Only pull gently on the end of the candle to loosen so you do not bend or break the candle.
  25. When decorating the candle, draw the design on the candle first with pencil, then use the tools to carve the wax. You can add colored wax in the carved lines and other decorations to complete.
  26. Before burning, cut the wick to ¼ inch. When first burning, let it burn at least 2 hours to get the whole top melted. This will help it burn properly for future burns.

November 29, 2016

Hey Liberal, Progressive, Conservative, Traditional Christians: It Starts with You.

It is tempting during a time of divisiveness to blame others for the problems we face. It is even more tempting with the rise of a demagogic president who has played on the fears and darker desires of the people to blame others for what is going wrong. I admit it. I have spent a lot of time and energy thinking: What is wrong with those people? And I have been more than willing to provide my own answers.

But then during the Advent season, which has perhaps never been better timed for the cultural and political moment, at least not in my lifetime, we hear about John the Baptist. I admit right up front, John is one of my biblical fascinations. He is a wild man archetype. He is a mentor to Jesus. He is a much-needed ice pick of a voice breaking through the frozen souls of the liberals and the conservatives of his day. John is introduced in Matthew like this:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
     ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
      make his paths straight.’ ”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:1 – 6)

He is rough and uninhibited. He is attractive and fearsome in the way a lion is, untamed and roaring in beauty. He speaks to the heart because he goes straight to it without playing around with social, religious, or political conventions. He calls people to a new life, a life of getting ready for God’s new and wonderful thing, a life that begins only through the portal of repentance.

But you could be tempted to think, when you hear John’s wilderness scowl, he is speaking to someone else. Probably the people you disagree with. Or perhaps people you agree with but who are just not quite getting with the program. So listen to John speak to the very folks who think that way:

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7 – 10)

The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the liberal and conservative parties of their day, at least within Jewish life. They disagreed with each other. They blamed each other for whatever was going wrong. They argued over whose side God was on. They probably came out to see the fascinating John assuming that the other ones were going to repent, be baptized, change their ways, and become like them. They wanted to see that and feel a little better about themselves.

And John says to the whole sorry mess: You all need to repent! You all need to look at how you are part of the problem! None of you escapes this hard path because you’re part of the “right” party or group or ideology, or because you voted one way or another! It’s you! It starts with you!

And then people humbled themselves, opened up about their own failings more than their opponents', went down deep into the water, and came out with a new start. They were ready to embrace the new, open reality of God’s kingdom breaking in because they had given up on the old, closed reality of their own small minds and self-righteousness.

One of the great gifts of the church is the ritual and discipline of confession of sins, repentance, pronouncement of forgiveness, and the chance to walk the path of life anew. It is a source of great hope that there are communities of faith willing to confess their own errors more than they accuse others of theirs. It might be the only thing that makes it possible for God to work newness among us and in the world.

What to do now as the church responds to a difficult time with the potential for a rise in hatred, racism, nationalism, fear, and blaming others? Let the wildness and cry of John reach us. Confess. Repent. Trust forgiveness. Walk anew the path of love in a time of hate.

Prepare the way. It starts with you, with us, here and now beloved, or it might not start anywhere with anyone.

November 28, 2016

Keep Alert! Stay Awake! There Is No New Normal

In the weeks following the presidential election of 2016, the election of Donald Trump to the most powerful office in the world, something odd and unsettling started to happen. After eighteen months of a campaign that stoked fears of Muslims, Mexicans, and Syrian refugees; after insults and intimations of sexual abuse hurled at women; after demeaning comments made about prisoners of war, soldiers killed in battle and their grieving families; and following a reaction to all of this by the press and the public of protest, outrage, anger, and fear… unbelievably, it all started to be forgotten or ignored. The most petulant and demagogic presidential candidate in modern American politics won, and so people began to accept it all as some new normal for American life.

This is a frightful loss of a moral conscience in our society. It would be one thing to overlook the immature, hateful, and jingoistic statements of a television celebrity who magnified his ego and popularity via a reality television show. He could carry on publicly damaged, perhaps as some diminished, B-list celebrity showing up on Dancing with the Stars, or as a Comedy Central roast insult comic. We could live with it. We could live with it because we could ignore it with little consequence. But this is the president-elect of the United States of America, the man about to assume an office with great power, influence, and import. To let go of all the words, threats, insults, and frightening policy promises all in the name of acceptance of an election, all because he won, is to lose all claim to being a society of any kind of goodness or righteousness.

In the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, we hear what is often called a “little apocalypse.” It’s a stirring text calling the readers of Mark to faithfulness in a time of fear, in the face of a powerful empire attempting to shape the narrative of their lives. Of course, the narrative they were struggling to live was the story of Jesus, the one sent to bring about God’s kingdom of righteousness and justice through humility, powerlessness, and exposure of the empire for all its folly and evil. The power of the Roman empire was great and awful. It was the power to overwhelm one’s faith, hope, and memory with a grand, frightful, and strangely alluring hegemony.

I imagine that in the time of Mark’s Gospel being written, around 70 AD and the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, Jews and Christians were faced with a great temptation: accept this awful reality as the new normal. Give in to the amoral shift happening because it is inevitable and unchangeable. Forget all the great hopes and dreams you had about God shaping a world of love, justice, and mercy. Political, religious, and military power has rendered all that impotent. Take some pills and just let it be.

In that kind of setting, Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel:

But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. (Mark 13:32 – 37)

In the face of great and dreadful power, Jesus-followers were called to persistence and resistance. They were called to beware, keep alert, stay awake. Those warnings and encouragements are all about not remaking what was happening into a new normal, not accepting what was happening but working against it and working for something far better. And perhaps most important, not letting the ugliness of the empire crush the faith and hope of the people who claim Jesus and his love, his way, his death and resurrection, as the only power and empire that matters.

Nothing could be more relevant in this moment. Beware! Keep alert! Stay awake! Beware – the forces of hate that have been stirred up are dangerous and cannot be met with silence. Keep alert – the rhetoric of fear mongering is dangerous and must still be resisted. Stay awake – it is all too easy to fall asleep now and hope this is all a bad dream. It isn’t. It is real. Faith matters now more than ever.

There is no new normal of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that can be accepted or acquiesced to simply because we have grown tired of resisting it, and the one who spouted it all is now about to become president. There is no new normal just because television news and written journalism have stopped pushing back as hard. There is no new normal for those who live by faith, who are wary, alert, and awake to what is going on. For those who put their faith in God and the kingdom coming through Christ Jesus, there is not a new normal, but a new wonderful. And it is not so far from us, and may be arriving through our witness and our actions of love, justice, and mercy.

Keep alert. Stay awake. Now more than ever.