Tuesday, May 1, 2018


Podcasts have become my new favorite thing. They're great for long drives back to Iowa, and as someone who needs to have some sort of noise before going to sleep, they're a great alternative of the blaring screen that comes with streaming. There are a lot of great people to listen to out there, but here are some of my favorite faith-based podcasts. All podcasts are available on apple podcasts. The hyperlink for each title will send you to their website where you can also listen to these podcasts and get more information on them as well.

#1 The Bible Project - Tim Mackie & Jon Collins

I got into the Bible Project because we started using some of their videos for Confirmation. Since our focus for this year is on the New Testament, we've used the series on the books of the Bible. Each video takes a book and dives deeper into what's really going on, other than what you see when you just read it at face value.

So, I didn't accidentally put a YouTube channel on my podcast recommendations. The Bible Project actually uses a variety of platforms to reach people and help make the Bible accessible to people no matter which denomination they are. They describe it as a "desire to help other understand the scriptures and all their complex themes in a way that is engaging, approachable, and transformative."This includes taking into account the literary design and the historical content that is also within the Bible.

The podcast is used as a way For Tim and Jon to talk through the premises of the videos they want to make. For instance, the current video series they are working on is literary tools used in the Bible. This includes setting, characters, and design patterns. So, before you get your 6 minute video on design patterns, there are 3 podcast episodes on the topic, where they discuss the idea for a total of almost 3.5 hours. So, in essence, if you want the just get "Spark Notes" version of these topics, check out the videos. However, if you want an in depth look, the podcasts do a great job of diving deep into these topics.

#2 The Bible for Normal People - Peter Enns and Jared Byas

This podcast has a similar approach to the Bible Project - trying to find a way to get the best Bible knowledge out to normal people. The biggest difference I've noticed between The Bible for Normal People and The Bible Project, is that the latter's main demographic is to young adults (18-45), while the Bible for Normal People has broader appeal. They also like to say at the beginning of each episode that they are the only God ordained podcast on the internet (I'm still waiting the fact check on that one).

So what do they actually talk about in their podcast? In the available 45 episodes, they cover a variety of topics including deeper looks into books in the Bible and the bigger themes they relate to (Understanding Deuteronomy & the Story of Israel’s Kings), how the Bible relates to current events, (“Moving Beyond Patriarchy,” with Carolyn Custis James), and other issues that Christian face in their faith (Faith and Doubt: No, You’re Not the Only One).

This podcast does a really good job of addressing both sides of an issue they discuss. Let's take "Moving Beyond Patriarchy" as an example. When reading the title, you would probably assume its a podcast with a far left, feminist agenda discussing why the patriarchy ruins the Bible. However, James does a great job of explaining how patriarchy is the backdrop of most of the Bible, and while that may not be what we strive for in today's society, it's something we need to take into account when we read the Bible. The idea is similar to why lambs are such an important symbol in Biblical society, even though in today's agricultural standards we depend more on pigs, cows, and chickens. It was just different then, but we need to understand that difference to get to the root of these stories.

#3 - The Liturgists

This podcast describes itself as "creating a global conversation, blending science, art, and faith to explore the most vital issues of our time. In an age where the Church is mainly known for culture wars, we send a different message: there is room at the table for all who are hungry." So while the first two podcasts look more at Biblical themes and how we use the Bible today, the Liturgists takes issues of today and look at them through a Biblical lens. For instance, I mentioned before that the Bible Project is currently doing a series on literary tools in the Bible such as setting, characters, and plot. On the other hand, the Liturgists have podcasts that include topics like body image, shame, and media literacy.

In short, this podcast is great if you're looking more focused on how to apply our Bible knowledge and faith into the "real world." Sometimes we struggle with how our faith can be incorporated into our everyday lives. For instance, the Bible never directly tells us how we should relate our faith to science, so how do we make that connection?

The other thing I really like about this podcast is that they make a point of saying that The Liturgists are not just the hosts of the podcast - it's everyone in the conversation. They have Facebook groups, live meetings, and a whole lot of different ways for this community to connect with one another to keep the conversations going. In this day in age, it's really easy for each of us to stay in our lane and keep our ideas to ourselves rather than truly collaborating. This group and this podcast really challenges this idea and strives to make it a true community.

Honorable Mention

Inglorious Pasterds 

The only reason this isn't in the top 3 is because it has such bad language and talks about some pretty inappropriate things at times . While it doesn't bother me, I know there are lots of people out there for whom it does matter. So, if you are sensitive to foul language or discussion topics that are necessarily "church appropriate," this is not the podcast for you. However, I will say, this podcast will make you go through all the emotions in every single episode. While they are some of the funniest guys I've listened to, they also talk about real topics and get deep into the issues that people face every day.

The premise of this Podcast is that it's 3 burned out, former pastors who all come from conservative Christian backgrounds who explore new, more open-minded ways to experience faith. They talk about current events, their own church experience, and bring in guests to talk about various issues within the church today, all while enjoying beer or other adult beverages.

CXMH - Robert Vore

The only reason I don't have this as part of the top 3 is because its a much more specific topic than the other 3. However, this is probably my favorite podcast to listen to right now. I started listening to this since I am continuously becoming more of a fan of Steve Austin's work, who is a former host of this podcast. (I read his book From Pastor to a Psych Ward in one sitting, something I don't think I've done since I was a kid) My appreciation of his work comes from his story hitting a little to close to home. For those of you who don't know, I lost my best friend to suicide, so being able to listen to Steve Austin about his struggles has really helped me understand my friend's struggles so much more and has helped me cope a lot. 

So, even though Austin is off working on other projects, Robert Vore still continues the important conversations about mental health and where the church comes in on those conversations. Vore will bring in different mental health experts and Christian leaders. Topics include things like grief, trauma, self-care, and family. While this podcast talks about specific diagnoses, such as anxiety or bipolar disorder, it also talks about struggles everyone has to deal with, like self-image or recognizing our own emotions. Everyone can get something out of this podcast. I believe mental illness is something we don't discuss enough in the church, and I think this podcast does a great job of getting that conversation started.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

There's an app for that!

One of the biggest things I struggled with when I went off to college,and aged out of youth group and other faith formation activities at church was having resources for every day use. I had a hard time finding good books in a sea of Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer publications. If I wanted to listen to Christian music, which artists used good theology in their songs? Christianity has so much influence in so many different aspects in our life, but how do we sort through all the different voices to find the ones that resonate with us?

Now in ministry, there is a struggle for making time to explore our faith. Sometimes it hard enough to come together on Sunday mornings, much less for faith formation classes on Wednesday nights or small groups on Tuesdays. Even our youth already have grueling schedules.

This is where my new project comes in. I'm going to start posting lists of my top 3 recommendations for different things where you can bring your faith outside of the church building. It will be a variety of things, there are no limits to what the 3 can be. It could be books, podcasts, simple service projects, or anything else we can think of. 

So let's start off with my first three - my top 3 phone apps. Let's be honest, we're probably all on our phones way more than we should be. Why not use them in a productive way?

#1 - Bible Gateway (you can also visit their website here)
This is my go-to app for everything! They have 49 versions of the Bible on the app, and have a variety of other languages like German and Spanish, but also have the Greek and Hebrew translations as well. There are also audio versions of the Bible (unfortunately, not all 49 translations). 

Bible Gateway also includes some great tools on the app. You can take and save notes as you read. They also have a variety of reading plans that you can follow, such as New Testament in a Year or Bible in 90 days. Under resources, you'll find tools like maps, devotionals, and dictionaries.

#2 - Our Bible 
This one was actually recommended to me by one of my favorite podcasts (that list will come another day) The app has two main categories - devotions and library. You can save things from each category to make your own home dashboard or "my stuff." I really like the devotionals because their series are short and sweet. Most are only a few days long. There is also a vast variety of topics that they have for devotionals, from mental health, parenting, and even for those who are less "churched." For those of you who are interested in the #decolonizeLutheranism movement, they also have the #ShutTheHellUp advent devotionals that they promoted, with writings from people like Lenny Duncan who is currently a seminarian and vicar with the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. They also include a variety of media with their devotionals, including video blogs and podcasts.  Their library is also a great tool, because not only does it have a variety of downloadable Bibles, but they also have book recommendations listed as well. 

#3 - Frolic 
 For those unfamiliar with Frolic, it started out as a curriculum for children from birth - 3 years under Sparkhouse, and Sparkhouse is a division of 1517 Media(formerly Augsburg Fortress) the ministry of publishing within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Spark house makes faith formation resources for people of all ages, not just Sunday school resources. However, people may know them best for their curriculum like Whirl or coLABorate confirmation.

So with their app, they have it set up so it is customized to help your children learn based on their age. I made up a pretend child - Castiel who is 21 months old (that's why you see it in the picture on the right). You can add as multiple children as well. The app will give you updates each month in 4 different categories - Your Developing Child, Growing in Faith, Celebrating the Season, and Just For You. The picture on the left explains each category more. Each category will explain some sort of way you can connect with your family. So let's look at the Growing in Faith and what it means for little Castiel. You can see below that each category will be listed and you can click to read more if you like. Each one will only be a few paragraphs, so it's quick and easy to read. Perfect for busy families! So with Castiel, Frolic addresses the "whys" that come with a curious toddler and how you can use that to talk about faith with them. How cool is that?

Honorable Mentions:
Luther's Small Catechism - Luther created the small catechism as a tool to teach about faith and the Bible at home. I know I've had many copies over the years, and they're so small so I always end up losing them. Now, there is no excuse!
Book of Common Prayer - sometimes is just really hard to pray. While the Book of Common Prayer is not necessarily Lutheran, it does come in handy. It has both daily and occasional prayers. You can even set reminders for daily prayer if you so choose. 

So I hope this and future lists will be helpful! If you have any ideas or requests for a Three on 3, you can comment here or e-mail me at gracelife@gracelutherancu.org. 

Monday, February 5, 2018


At the end of January, I was with the ELCA Youth Ministry Network's Extravaganza in Houston. This is an annual event that the Network hosts every year to learn, renew, connect with other church leaders from all over the country. Some of the ways this event makes this happen is through workshops, general sessions with keynote speakers, and regional and synodical meet ups.

The theme for this year's E was "Finding Forward" - what do we need to do to help move the church forward? This challenges the comfort of the status quo. Changing the focus from "that's what we've always done," to "what's a new way we can reach people that we haven't been able to before?" or "who within our community is being left behind that we can help?" or "What are the gifts of our congregation that we haven't been able to showcase yet?"

Friday night we had our first General Session. There, we heard from Enrique Morones from Border Angels. The goal of Border Angels is "to ensure that all people are received with a sense of humanity and compassion, and that the cycle of death along the border does not continue into the coming years" They are driven by Matthew 25:35 - “When I was hungry, did you give me to eat? When I was thirsty, did you give me to drink?” Border Angels works with many issues related to immigration. They bring out water to the desert where people are known to travel, they help those here who don't get fair wages because of their immigration status, and they do a whole lot of advocacy. One of the biggest points that Enrique made was that immigration is a world wide issue. In the US, we hear a lot about a the boarder wall (which according to him has killed at least 11,000 people already. Think about how many animals that would kill and displace as well). However, its not just a US/Mexico issue. In America, we also get a lot of people from Central and South America. Its also important to note that most of the migration deaths are happening around the Mediterranean Sea - people escaping from places like Syria and washing up on the shores Greece. The Border Angels are doing everything they can so we don't have to see any more pictures of dead kids washed up on any shore. It's a tough and complicated issue, but they are doing whatever they can to show compassion to all of those who decide to immigrate not matter how they chose to do so.

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On Saturday I was a part of two main activities. We had our Region 5 touch point in the morning, then had the Gathering tour in the afternoon. For our regional touch point, we met with all the participants from region 5 - including Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Michigan. It was a great chance to not only catch up with people from our Central/Southern Illinois conference, but also all my old friends from Iowa!

That afternoon I went on a 4 hour tour around Houston to see some of the things we will get to see this summer as part of the National Youth Gathering. First stop was was near downtown that was full of beautiful murals since it was great for photo ops! Luckily, when Grace Lutheran comes to town, our hotel is downtown so we won't be far.

Then, we were off to see one of the service learning sites for the week. The goal of these service learning projects is to have a mix of learning about Houston and the people who live there, as well as getting our hands dirty to help with the work organizations are already doing in the area. While each bus went to a different site, my bus went to the neighborhood of Freedmens Town. This is an area of Houston that was allocated to slaves who were freed after the Civil War. However, because of Jim Crow laws and the lack of acknowledgement from local and state government, these people were left to become self sufficient. For instance, one of the biggest issues was healthcare. Hospitals in the area and time where either Whites Only or Coloreds Only. The closest "emergency room" that this neighborhood had access to would be a 2 hour drive today from this area of Houston.

Luckily, they came together and used the skills they learned while they were slaves and built beautiful houses, paved their own streets, grew their own crops, and eventually even had their own doctors and lawyers. Unfortunately, since then the neighborhood has not been well maintained and is undergoing major gentrification. Now, the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum foundation is working to reclaim and refurbish these homes and showcase all the amazing things that went on in this neighborhood.

This is a model of what the neighborhood is to believed to have looked like before reconstruction. The frames of houses represent houses that have been torn down to create new buildings in the area

So to bring it back to the Gathering, a service site like this would include a few different things. Firstly, the students would get to experience the museum like we did, hearing stories about the people who lived there and how they inspired people all over the country. Then, they would work with the organization with projects like archaeology. They would excavate the area with local archaeologists to try to find artifacts that help them understand what life was like for these families. This would have the learning component tied in with literally getting our hands dirty.

"Being safe is risky, and being risky is safe," that was one of the points Saturday's speaker, Marlon F. Hall made during the General Sessions. Hall is a pastor in the Houston area, but the impression was that he spends very little time in an actual church building.

Hall pushes the boundaries for what ministry means. Does it have to be confined to Sunday mornings? Do people have to sit in pews? Does it have to be in our church building?

One of the first ministries he described was the Eat Gallery. This was a restaurant created to host local chefs who had great talent, but may not be able to house their own restaurant quite yet. Not only did this support local culinary artists, but the community got a chance to come and enjoy a variety of foods all in one spot. Unfortunately, his congregation took a huge hit, losing most of their members because they didn't want their pastor to also spend his time as a restaurant manager. However, he stuck with this ministry because he knew it benefited his community and made a real impact.

He's started other ministries since then, including Project Row Houses where they showcase local artists, such as writers, musicians, and filmmakers, to reflect what is going on in the community. They display this art in local row houses to, again, curb the gentrification of these neighborhoods. He also started Folklore Films to help share the stories from the community, specially the hard stories that are sometimes either hidden, ignored, or hard to come by. Nonetheless, these stories need to be told in order for the city to heal.

He tells this story about a screening he had with the mayor of Houston.  She loved the screening and was deeply moved, so she knew there was more to Hall's story. Hall tells how the mayor kept asking him about his work, and who he was. He started of with the fact that he is a husband and a father, then he went on to talk about his work with Folklore Films, then he finally broke and said, "you know what? I'm a pastor." He was terrified because Folklore Films was given a grant from the city, and it wasn't supposed to be used for religious purposes. However, the mayor was thrilled. She told him how she had been looking for a pastor, looking for a church, and she may have finally experienced true church through his film.

There was a funny trend that happened all week. Every time someone from E ran into a local, the first thing they would always be asked was, "So what brought you to Houston?"
Almost every time, the E participant would go, "Well... (deep breath) we're here for a convention." "Oh what kind of convention?"
"Well... (another deep breath) we're all youth directors and will be bringing 30,000+ youth here this summer for our National Youth Gathering" (as they scream on the inside while thinking please don't think I'm a crazy person)
"Oh that's so cool!"
We were all scared to be ourselves. Sometimes I really hate talking about my job. There's been a time or two where I've just told people I'm a teacher to avoid the subject. I know every time I meet anyone and say I work in a church, I'm instantly flooded with questions. Some people are truly curious, while others are looking for a debate. I know I personally never want it to seem like I am trying to "convert" someone, and I think that's true for a lot of people throughout the ELCA. I will do my best to answer questions, but I get leery when people start with questions like "does your church think gay people go to hell?"
So one thing I'm going to try to do from now on is be more bold with these conversations. Jesus preached love and acceptance. I think that's pretty darn cool. I think it's time we do our part to take back the Christian narrative and focus it back on love.

Sorry I got a bit off topic. Back to Houston :)

At another one of the General Sessions, our speaker was Jamie Bruesehoff. She is known for her blog titled "I am totally *that* mom." Her husband is an ELCA pastor, and they with their 3 kids live in rural New Jersey. Their daughter, Rebekah, also happens to be 11 years old and transgender.

Jamie shares how their family went through this transition together. They always knew their daughter was different. Before coming out as transgender, their son would write things on his notebook like "Girls Rule!" He also loved the color pink, and eventually gave up on the boys section of target and found pure bliss in the newly explored girls section. Through all of this, they sought the help of a gender specialist, and discovered that Rebekah (formerly Benjamin) was transgender. She finally got to start living as herself at 8 years old.

My favorite story that Jamie shared was the dress dilemma. One year, Rebekah wanted to wear a dress for Easter Sunday. This would be the first time that Rebekah would ever wear a dress to church. As we all know, you can do one thing in the public world, but its a whole other issue to try it in the church. So Jamie and her husband tabled it. They wanted to support their child, but also didn't want to put her in harms way. They had no idea how the congregation would respond. Pastors kids have it hard enough, and transgender kids have it hard enough, much less a transgender pastor's kid.

Eventually, they let her wear the dress. They didn't want to hold her back, and wanted to let her just be herself. Jamie talks about all the joy that came from that Sunday morning. One congregant even noticed the huge boost of confidence that came with allowing Rebekah to be herself. He mentioned that before, she would be shy, hiding behind Jamie. Now, with that dress she was approaching all sorts of people, twirling and dancing to show off her new dress. Something so simple brought so much happiness and love.

If you want to hear more about Rebekah's story, you can watch the video below:

Sunday started off with worship. We had liturgy performed by Romantica and Ben Kyle, with a sermon from Bishop Michael Rinehart on the Road to Emmaus Story. Also, since I haven't mentioned this yet, all of the General Sessions gave us ALL THE FEELS. I don't think we had one session where they didn't make someone cry at some point. I know one of the most powerful parts for me was they set up grief prayer stations. These included stations for personal grief, grief in ministry, for creation, for injustice, and for Houston. You would to go as many stations as you wanted to and would write your prayer on basically a giant piece of confetti. So, once everyone wrote their prayers, we had our own prayers of intersession where each bundle of prayers where lifted up (via fan and giant glass tube. I apologize for the lack of picture. Imagine a giant T-Shirt gun for prayers, but much gentler). Just seeing all of our prayers, all the different colors floating through the room was pretty cool to see.

Then the rest of Sunday was for workshops. Over the day I attended one about bring confirmation home, then about youth-led VBS, and then one titled "A Case Study in Overcoming the Monochromatic Membership of the ELCA." While all were wonderful workshops that will influence my work here at Grace, this last one was the one I found the most motivating.

So I've mentioned before that the ELCA is the whitest denomination in ALL of American Christianity. We are 96% white. NINETY SIX! Even Missouri Synod is better than us (sorry LCMS friends). COME ON!

Our presenter, C.J. Clark is the executive director for Living Waters ministry in Michigan. He describes it as a mission that happens to have a camp, rather than a camp with a mission. The programs started basically just because he needed to fill beds. Camp was going to cost the same to run whether or not they were filled, so he thought he might as well just give them away. He connected with the local Lutheran Services organization and worked with them to get foster kids to come to camp for a week with no cost to them. He got the beds filled, but ended up expanding this idea to other organizations. His question was always "If we were to just give you a week of camp and let you do whatever you wanted, what would you?" and would then give them that week of camp. Now, one of the opportunities that has come from this is Bridge Builders. This camp works to create leaders within the ELCA, while also discussing the issues of race. The goal is that these campers will eventually become camp councilors, then camp leaders. Having this model has increased their staff diversity while also giving campers a great experience and creating leaders for the whole ELCA. It's proof that we don't have to be stuck at 96%.

So how does this impact Grace? How Living Waters created this camp was by working with local organizations. They changed the focus from what Living Waters wanted camp to be to what they could provide with their camp that other organizations wanted. We already have so many people at this church trying to reach out to our local community, we just need to keep our eyes and ears open to be able to help in any way we can. You never know when the spirit will inspire you.

Also, I just want to put in a plug for my friends who think that since they live in a small, white town, that they may not be able to work on the diversity issue at all. Check out your census stats. If your town has any sort of diversity, reaching out to the community so your church reflects your city or county could have a huge impact. For instance, Grace Lutheran is 97% white, while Champaign County is about 73% white. If we kept our current members, but changed to reflect the diversity in our own community, our active membership would increase by over a 30% (or over 100 people). And for those who have been pushing membership increase to also help with our stewardship campaigns, it could help our bottom line as well. If they reflect the average county income of a little over $46K a year, and they averaged 5% giving in their income, that would be and additional $230,000 for our budget. Not saying that would all automatically happen, or that we should see increasing our diversity as a way to increase our revenues, but its just some food for thought.

This weekend didn't hold back. We discussed the hard issues. We were honest about our brokenness - personally, communally, and nationally. The weekend was an emotional roller coaster including bearing our grief while also supporting one another with amazing love. There was learning about all different aspects of ministry including worship, VBS, family learning, and camp. The last two years I've left feeling more informed, supported, loved, and motivated that before I came.

Ministry can be really hard, so I'm thrilled that the ELCA not only has this Network set up to support one another, but that we also have the Extravaganza to come together to learn from each other, worship together, and just love on each other through everything. So thank you ELCA and Grace Lutheran Church for making this a great experience for me.