I Swear

January 23, 2009

An interesting post over at Stuff Christians Like about Jesus followers who use swear words.  Since I’ve never uttered a single curse word in my entire life (ha!), I have nothing to worry about.  

According to Christianity Today, evangelist Tony Campolo told many audiences in the 1980s, “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a (shit). What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said (shit) than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

I agree with that idea and dig Tony Campolo. Children dying is a whole lot worse than swearing. And I have friends that are incredibly unloving, the second most important commandment, but would never, ever swear. So I think it’s easy to get wound up too tight about swearing. At the same time though, if I swear and then get called on it by a friend, I’m not sure saying, “Yeah well kids are starving,” is going to be a great excuse for me.


Apparently, I’m one of few people that I’ve talked to today that hasn’t heard that Tony Campolo story.  Either way, it’s a compelling discussion.  I wonder how many swear words I’ll hear while hanging out with Lutheran youth ministers next week…


Unexpected Inspiration

January 23, 2009

I’m a sports junkie; as much as any church worker I know.  This is not something I’m bragging about.  Sometimes I wonder how much smarter I’d be if a significant part of my brain hard drive wasn’t already bogged down with names, stats, and stories related to sports.  In the grand scheme of life, my devotion to the world of sports is completely and utterly worthless.  I know this; and yet I can’t cut the cord.  

I listen to sports talk radio whenever I’m in the car (the kids HATE it!).  In the past year I’ve subscribed to no less than eight daily or weekly sports podcasts.  I’ve gotten it down to a more manageable number lately — 3 hours a day of the Dan Patrick Show, 30 minutes a day of PTI, and 2-3 hours a week of the B.S. Report.  I just finished listening to Bill Simmons (aka, ESPN’s “The Sports Guy”) and J.A. Adande from the L.A. Times talk about two of my favorite topics — basketball and socio-political culture.  If you are even remotely interested in these topics, or if you just like hearing intelligent people talk with each other, you should carve out some time to listen to the podcast.  (iTunes or Sports Guy’s World)

I realize I sound like a meat-head when I give props to degenerate sports writers for their political insights…but trust me on this.  I have no problem saying this is one of the best sports / race / American culture / Obama conversations ever recorded.  (I didn’t agree with everything that was said – but it was entertaining and enlightening.)

This is especially relevant for people who might be flying in the next few days and want to listen to something on the plane between…say…I dunno…Iowa and New Orleans!!!  Only 4 more days…

Something Fishy About Sea Kittens

January 21, 2009

I wrote a Faith Lens study for the ELCA Youth Ministry website this week.  Here’s what I came up with…



Faith Lens

January 21-28, 2009 – Something fishy about “sea kittens”

Warm-up question: What’s the strangest name you’ve ever heard for a pet?

There’s a new creature swimming in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. Well, sort of. The folks at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have launched a campaign to rename fish “sea kittens.” The strategy is one of several attempts by PETA to discourage people from eating certain kinds of meat. Past projects included referring to McDonald’s and Burger King as “McCruelty” and “Murder King,” and the 2003 “Holocaust on Your Plate” slogan, which compared some farming practices to tactics employed by the Nazis in World War II.

PETA launched the Sea Kittens page on its Web site (www.peta.org) with the intent to appeal to children and their parents. The friendly animated characters link to interactive pages where users can create their own sea kitten, read sea kitten stories, and sign a petition. The term “fishing” is replaced with “sea kitten hunting.” Fish are portrayed as intelligent, adorable, and as experiencing emotions of pain and loss.

The Sea Kitten campaign hopes to create awareness about brutal fishing practices. PETA also wants to discourage people from eating fish in general. The petition, which has over 5,000 signatures, asks the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to “stop allowing our little sea kitten friends to be tortured and killed. Who’d want to hurt a sea kitten anyway?!” The site goes on to declare, “The promotion of sea kitten hunting is a glaring contradiction of FWS (Fish and Wildlife Service) mission to ‘conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats.’”

Discussion Questions

  • How do you feel about the “Sea Kitten” campaign?
  • What are some ethical ways of fishing? How about unethical ways of fishing? Would you sign a petition that asks the FWS to “stop promotion of fishing?” Explain your position.
  • As stewards of God’s creation, what stance do you believe Christians should take on this issue?
  • How does changing the name or identity of something alter your opinion, understanding, or view of an issue? (e.g., Sea kitten instead of fish, conflict instead of war, online advertisement instead of spam, hate crime instead of freedom of expression, protective coating engineer instead of painter, etc. Think of some others.)

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, January 25, 2009.
(Text links are to 
oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

Gospel Reflection

Mark seems like the kind of guy who would rather study Cliff’s Notes (an abbreviated overview) than read an entire book. His gospel is short and to the point. The first chapter (45 verses) tells of John the Baptist’s ministry, the baptism of Jesus, the temptation of Jesus, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the calling of the disciples, Jesus teaching in the synagogue, removing demons, cleansing lepers, and even Jesus’ first preaching tour. So much for beating around the bush!

The gospel text for today tells of how Jesus called his first disciples — Simon and Andrew; James and John. Two sets of brothers. All were fishermen. This is significant for many reasons, not the least of which was the social standing of fishermen. People who caught fish served an important purpose in society, as they provided one of the major food resources for the community. However, fishermen had very little connection with most people, other than their fellow fishers. They kept to themselves. They were dirty and smelly. Many fishermen had no home — they just lived in their boats. They were rough-and-tumble, salt-of-the-earth kinds of people, certainly not the kinds of people that would be thought of as religious leaders!

Yet these were exactly the kinds of people that Jesus wanted to have around.

Jesus called these two sets of brothers to help him show the world that God is a God for everyone; not just the educated, wealthy, religious folk. He turned the word “fishermen” around into “fishers of men” (which we know includes ALL people, not just men). Imagine the confusion that Simon, Andrew, James, and John were experiencing. Not only were they leaving behind the familiar life of fishermen, but they were now going to have to fish for people. This is just the beginning though. Jesus would lead these men on a three-year journey where everything was turned upside-down. Swords would be turned into ploughshares, rough places made plain, lowly are exalted, sick made healthy, and dead were raised to new life.

Though these young men were the same people, they had a new identity. There were no longer fishers of fish, they were fishers of people. In the same way, Jesus changes our identity from “lost, broken, sinner” to “child of God.” It’s amazing how one little name change can make a huge difference in our lives and view of the world.

Discussion Questions

  • What would you say if a strange man showed up at your school and said, “follow me, and I will teach you to fish for people?”
  • Why do you think Jesus chose fishermen to be his first disciples? Why not highly educated, publicly recognized religious leaders?
  • How does changing the identity of the chosen disciples (from fishermen to fishers of people) change the way they viewed themselves?
  • Whether they’re called “fish” or “sea kittens,” the animal is the same. Whether these men were called “fishermen” or “fishers of people,” they were still the same men. All that changed was other people’s perceptions of them. What kinds of labels do you put on other people? How do those labels impact the way you treat them, respect them, or trust them? How would you treat people if you gave them all the same label, “child of God?”

Activity Suggestion

Fishing for people is not about sticking a hook in their mouth and dragging them into your boat (the church). It’s also not about sitting in the “boat” and hoping fish will just magically jump into it. Being a fisher of people means two things:

  1. engaging
  2. inviting

Ask everyone to think of one or two people they would like to go fishing for this week. Give each person some construction paper, marker, and a pair of scissors. Have everyone cut out a fish and write the name(s) of the people they want to go fishing for during the upcoming week. Talk about ways to engage these people in conversation about Jesus. Share ideas for how and when to invite them to your church. Encourage everyone to keep their little fish cut-out in their planner to remind them to go fishing for people.

Closing Prayer

God, you have given us a new identity as your children. Help us to trust in your promises, and to share them with others. Amen.

Contributed by Erik Ullestad
West Des Moines, IA

Extravaganza Workshops

January 19, 2009

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’m really looking forward to the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza next week in New Orleans.  


One of the many awesome aspects of the “E” is the workshops led by Residential Theologians (aka – people in the trenches).  Here are the workshops that currently interest me the most:


Understanding Postmodernism and its Implications for Youth Ministry  – Jake Bouma    I’m biased.  Jake is a friend.  He’s a smart guy and is doing some cool applications of this topic at the church he’s at.


Using Minimalist Theater to Liven Youth Ministry – Bridget Delaney    I’m a person who has always gotten more out of a story if I act it out…but it seems to fall flat when I try to apply it with young people.  Hopefully Bridget can help me out.


Bible on the Brain – Angie Larson    Another obvious bias.  Angie is a friend who has been doing a ton of study on how the adolescent brain works.  She’s one of those people who “gets it”, and is good about explaining brain-stuff to church folk.


Book of Faith – Panel of Synod Staff    I’ve waded in the waters of the BoF initiative, but haven’t completely jumped in.  Hopefully hearing more about how to use the Book of Faith stuff in youth ministry will give me the necessary nudge.


Youth Ministry 2.0 – Nathan Frambach & Vision 2.0 Team    Let’s face it…Frambach could do an entire weekend on “The Art of Bathroom Cleaning” and I would attend.  He’s a genius, but not a know-it-all.  He’s the kind of guy I would like to hang out with (if only I had cool spikey hair and had a little more “game”, theologically speaking).


Exemplary Youth Ministry: from Theory to Practice – Susan Miller & Jo Mueller    I went to a Luther Seminary Kairos course in 2007 that focused on the Exemplar Youth Ministry study.  It blew me away.  Applying the data has been difficult for me, though.  Maybe these ladies can help bridge the gap of theory and practice.


Preparing Powerful Presentations – Michael Sladek    I sometimes pretend to be tech-savvy, but I’m really not.  My Power Point presentations, on the whole, suck.  Michael is super-creative and has a lot of knowledge on how to apply tech-stuff to youth ministry settings.


Frankly, I think this is the most solid line-up of Extravaganza workshops I’ve seen in years.  I could easily make the case for another 10+ workshops…but these are the ones that jumped out at me.  I can’t wait!!!

Google Going Green(ish)

January 16, 2009

I’m always intrigued to know how big companies go about their business.  It seems like Google is taking carbon emissions seriously.  

…in the time it takes to do a Google search, your own personal computer will use more energy than Google uses to answer your query.

Lessons by Connor

January 15, 2009

Here’s a re-post of an article my dad wrote; originally printed in the January issue of the Northeastern Iowa Synod STAR newsletter.  The stories shared by my dad and the other pastor remind me that young people can do amazing things in our congregations.  Sometimes, all it takes is for adults to get out of the way.  EU

– – – 

This summer, Ruth and I had the opportunity worship with our family and the family in which I was raised.  Seventeen of us filled two pews for the first time in many years.  It was good to be together, to confess and be forgiven, to sing and pray, to hear God’s word and taste the heavenly feast together.

The highlight of the service, however, was the reading of scripture.  A young man, perhaps 4th or 5th grade, came forward for the First and Second Readings for the day.  Though he could barely reach the microphone, he had fully prepared to proclaim God’s Word through these readings.  He did not call attention to himself but rather, by his presence and the inflection of his voice, he pointed us to Holy Scripture.  Each sentence was read with respect and a genuineness that revealed the young man’s faith.  I am certain that I have never heard Romans 8 read with such power and conviction.  (Yes, I’ve already written to him expressing my thanks and encouraging him to become a pastor!)

When I shared my gratitude with one of his pastors, the Rev. Rachel Thorson Mithelman, she offered another example of this ministry of the congregation.

It is usually on the 2nd Sunday of the month that we call upon the children and youth of St. John’s to serve as lectors – those who proclaim the First and Second Readings.  Do not be mistaken – this is not training for when they grow up and become “real” lectors.  These children and youth are full members of the body of Christ and of this particular community of faith, and as such they are also called to proclaim the life-giving Word of God in the assembly.

On the 2nd Sunday of April, one of our 4th grade girls stepped into the lectern for the first time.  She read the introduction to the First Lesson with clarity and composure, paused, then taking a deep breath, she looked up and announced with even more volume and conviction, “People of God, listen for the Word of the Lord!”  Everyone in the sanctuary immediately sat up straighter.  Wandering minds snapped back into the moment, those nodding off woke up, and the preacher let go of her usual pre-sermon angst!  Here was a witness, ready to proclaim the Word “from the housetops,” as Jesus directed.  

And the entire assembly responded with equal strength and conviction: “Our ears are open!

Perhaps you have young people in your congregation who are willing to serve the congregation and God’s word in this way.  In addition to the necessary reading skills, it will be important to find individuals who are persons of faith who are committed to properly prepare for the readings.  I believe that it will enrich the congregation, connect with young people and deepen the faith of the reader.  Much good comes when we encourage our children and youth to share the “Book of Faith” in the congregation.


— Steven L. Ullestad

Bishop, Northeastern Iowa Synod

The Case for Not Being Emergent

January 14, 2009


I thought Evan Curry did a nice job addressing the pitfalls that come with defining “emergent”.  For those of you who don’t like to jump between two different articles, here’s what Evan had to say.

I remember a story about a famous punk rock star, who was walking down the street as he was being interviewed by a journalist. The journalist asked this individual, “What is punk rock?” The rocker, hearing the question, turned to a nearby trashcan, kicked it down, and said, “That’s punk rock!” Believing to now understand the punk rock scene, the journalist kicked down an adjacent trashcan. “That’s punk rock?” he said. The rock star smiled and replied, “No, that’s trendy.”

Part of my original attraction to the Emergent conversation was that I didn’t have to be defined by my theology. Specifically, I didn’t have to do theology in a systematic way. For instance, if I believed in Calvin’s doctrine on atonement, I didn’t have to be a “Calvinist” (whatever that is). Equally attractive was that I could believe in Arminian free will, and those who disagreed with me wouldn’t resent me but actually engage in conversation with me. Thus, I wasn’t defined by my theology, but I was defined by my humanity. I wasn’t seen as an “outsider” because I didn’t hold the exact same theology as those who disagreed with me. Instead, I was listened to and engaged with by others. I guess that means we were “in conversation.”

Our human (modern?) desire is to define each other. “He or she is a Democrat.” That feels good. It’s comfortable. We now “know” who/what they are all about. But the problem is that people are just messier than definitions. We don’t fit in boxes very easily no matter how hard we struggle to. I’m not a Calvinist, but neither is John Calvin. I’m not a mainliner, but neither is Walter Brueggemann. I’m not Anglican, but neither is N.T. Wright. We are not confined to our boxes, but we our defined by our humanity; or better yet, our new humanity. Part of becoming a follower of Jesus is shedding definitions, breaking out of boxes, and helping others do the same. We are under the umbrella of Christianity, but one person sharing it may be different (and is allowed to be) than another person sharing the same umbrella.

This being said, it has become slightly popular to now say, “I’m Emergent.” To which I respond, “What? Doesn’t that kick against everything that is ‘emergent’?” I do understand the purpose of definitions, but my fear is that if we define ourselves by “Emergent” we may exclude those who aren’t. Once we define ourselves as that, we reinforce the lumping of the individual into what other people call “Emergent.” For instance, someone says, “Evan is Emergent;” thus, he must agree with Brian McLaren when he says such and such, and Tony Jones when he says such and such, and Doug Pagitt when he says such and such. If one must be defined as “Emergent,” thenI’m not Emergent.

Like the story above, punk rock isn’t something you are or do, but it’s an “ideal” or a “mindset.” Similarly, Emergent must not be something one is, but rather it must remain a mindset since there are certain Emergent ideals (e.g., missional living). So, if one who follows those ideals is “Emergent,” then I am Emergent. 

Emergent is a working definition (a work in-progress per se). It must refrain from attempting to be fully defined…because it can’t be. It is not defined, rather Emergent is defining and re-defining; and it should remain this way.

Maybe we could say, “If you say you’re Emergent, you aren’t”? You can’t be Emergent. Emergent is a conversation. It cannot be ultimately defined. You can live Emergent. You can embody Emergent, but you are not definitively Emergent. You are a human, a new creation, one created in the image of God.

My prayer is that term “Emergent” will soon phase out and that the ideals of Emergent will become what it simply means to be “Christian” (which I think already does mean so).

Postmoderns are OK with paradox so – I am not Emergent. I cannot be defined. I am messier than that. But I am Emergent. I hold those ideals. I have that mindset. I believe in the missional call of Christ. I believe in conversation. I believe in unity.

Part of being Emergent (I believe) is that you simultaneously aren’t. You are part of something bigger than yourself, but you cannot be defined. You are part of a movement that needs no definition. It has ideals, but it can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t be fully defined.

So, I guess I’m not Emergent because I am.


My inner-Lutheran craves more structure (oops…I said the “s-word”!) with the Emergent conversation.  I’m familiar and comfortable with church councils, constitutions, synods, by-laws, task forces of 60% lay and 40% clergy.  I still find value in these entities, despite their inherent flaws.  Perhaps an Emergent purpose statement, or some guiding principles, would make me feel more at ease.  Maybe a leadership board that helps to shape Emergent identity.  (Even the heralded Emergent book of 2008 – “The Great Emergence” by Phyllis Tickle – refuses to slap a definition on the Emergent movement / conversation / thing.)

I believe it’s entirely possible that such structure is both unnecessary and counter-productive to all that is Emergent.  It  just requires this young Lutheran to embrace a little more ambiguity than what my orthodoxy has allowed up to this point.