Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Ash Wednesday

Curl the fingers to brush back bangs
Consider the vast, bald, blank canvass
The tiny head in the crook of daddy's arm
The elder, furrowed and somewhat dry
The youth, oily and acned
The head of shame, bowed but present
The face of pride, confident that others are more mortal
The heads not there
The heads not in the game
The eyes caught emotional and weeping
The eyes averting, too much soul to bear
The ashes, crumbled, crumbling
Caught under finger nails and creased into flesh
Flickering over noses
Or smeared in too much pressed olive oil

The small bowl
The ingredients back in the sacristy
Ashes of last year's palms

Moving along the altar rail, there I am
speaking again and again
To child and friend and lover and foe
Remember you are dust
To dust you shall return

The, simple stark beauty of imposing ash
is writing them on all those foreheads, 
from heads at death's door, 
to heads recently emerged from the womb. 

The range and texture of our mortality is a powerful, tangible thing.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

One Pastor Processes the Poultry Report

Clergy are called to witness. We are invited into incredibly intimate moments--family tragedies, birth of children, loss of job. While there, we have a unique role. By our presence, and with very little voice, we offer an awareness of a larger reality.
At least that's how I tend to think about the office of pastor as witness. We are called to truly see the world.

Yesterday I served as witness for a very complex reality. It was one of those days when I became convinced of a fundamental truth--there are not good or bad people, there are only people functioning with greater or lesser awareness and integrity in the position within systems they find themselves. 

By which I mean, although our ethics typically focus on individual actions, it is systems that really make for good or ill in our world. The principalities and powers are at play (Ephesians 6:12). Each of us is caught up in those systems, and much of our responsibility as Christians is seeking to extricate ourselves from the ways systems enslave us and force us to serve their purposes.

So here is how the day went. I got up and dropped the kids off for school, and then I headed for the Tyson Foods Inc. annual meeting of shareholders. I was present at the invitation of the Interfaith Worker Justice Center of Northwest Arkansas. Outside the Holiday Inn Convention Center, a large group of poultry workers were engaged in direct action. They are campaigning in a quest for dignity and respect for poultry workers, and just yesterday released the first comprehensive report of working conditions at poultry plants across Arkansas.

I stood out in the cold on the highway while Magaly Licolli and Papa Roach and many other friends led cheers and made speeches. I met clergy, primarily United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist, who had come in from Ohio and Missouri for the day. I met representatives from Oxfam and Teamsters, and heard stories of work on the lines.

Then we went in to the shareholders meeting. I have to tell you this part was incredibly surreal. First of all, there weren't very many people there. It was a very small crowd. We sat down for the meeting, and we were told that those of us who had anticipated asking questions would be allowed to write questions down, and the company would write us back within seven business days.

Then John Tyson stood at the front and voted down every single shareholder resolution that was brought to the floor. The voting had already taken place, largely by proxy. But the votes are stacked, because the Tyson family themselves have 70% of the votes. So each time, John Tyson would receive a report from the secretary that said, "Such and such resolution received X million votes for, and X million votes against." Then John would say, "The votes speak for themselves, the resolution is defeated." 

In one case, a resolution from the Humane Society, there were actually almost 30% votes cast in favor of the resolution, but since the Tyson family voted against, it failed. To be clear, this means that almost 100% of non-Tyson family votes supported the resolution, but the resolution was still defeated.

The total length of the meeting was about 37 minutes. The only time anyone in the audience attempted to speak to clarify something, she (a nun) received a severe scolding from John. He really ought to send her a letter of apology.

So here's the witness part I wanted to tell you about. I know a lot of the people in this room. One of the chief financial employees has kids the age of ours. I was standing next to Donnie Smith the CEO after the meeting, and he was chatting with shareholders. He mistakenly mentioned one person who had success at losing some weight and looked like a different person, and I was able to step in and clarify, you mean someone else, same name, different last name.

Which then opened up a quick space for conversation, chatter about parishes and ministries in NWA, and my appeal for him to improve worker conditions on the lines at Tyson. He guaranteed me they would get right on it. Since Tyson just reported one of their best financial quarters ever, he had every reason to be pleased and confident.

Meanwhile, the only Latina in the room, Magaly Licolli, who directs IWJ, was standing right next to me. I was her guest and ally for the day. She didn't have a chance to speak. Perhaps I should have tried to get Donnie to talk to her, but he was hustling out of the room for the next meeting. The only person allowed at the mic from our group was the white male Oxfam representative. Nor were any of the protesting workers out on the street invited in for their voices to be heard.

And of course the reason I could jump in and speak to Donnie and others was very simple. My own privilege. I wear a collar, and I'm rather confident, I'm a dude, and I have social connections with every group present in that room.

After the shareholders meeting (and by the way, at this point I am seething, because I know all those board members up there don't want to hear anything about poor conditions for workers on the lines, but they all get a nice quarter of a million dollar check just for serving on the board), we drove over to Tyson corporate offices for a meeting with many leaders there.

Here, the tenor of the meeting changed completely. These people are my people. Some of them are my friends, and my parishioners. Many of the higher level employees at Tyson worked at IBP in Iowa before coming down to Arkansas.  I'm from Iowa. I grew up on a farm there, and my grandfather was in the state legislature. So I know exactly how to chat with this group. We talked about Ragbrai, small town Iowa life, our current hobbies. 

I wasn't anticipating this moment, but we walked into a room full of leaders in the Tyson corporate office, two reps from Oxfam, Magaly, and myself, and the room told us, "We are all ears." Well, at first they wanted to not be all ears, and instead tell us about the problem with Oxfam running ads publicly critical of Tyson, but once we got beyond that point, it was a really promising and hopeful conversation.

I believe in Tyson. As I hear over and over from people in my community, those who work at Tyson are "good people." I live in Tyson's shadow, many Tyson employees are members in my congregation, and I know they intend well, both for the products they make and for the people they employ. Oxfam recognizes that Tyson leads the industry in its policies protecting the dignity of workers. But IWJ NWA gets regular reports that the actual experience of workers still doesn't align with the written policies. 

So the awkward place I find myself is this: these corporate office people are "my people." Yet increasingly the folks who work on the line and come to the Interfaith Worker Justice center with their concerns are also "my people." I didn't grow up knowing many folks who are Latino, but friendships in my adult life, in particular here in NWA, have expanded who I know. So I now find myself as pastor identifying not only with those who work at Tyson corporate, but also those who work on the lines.

And I have trouble reconciling the different perspectives on the company I hear.

So what should a pastor do in this situation? Well, I guess I should go to meetings like this one, and speak the truth as best I know it, and listen as best I can. What I noticed is that supervisors and Tyson corporate employees are more frequently white (and at the top, more frequently men), while those who work on the lines are more frequently Latino, and female, and poor.

Our entire culture is like this. We even have the same problem in our church. So I should not point any fingers I'm not willing to also point at myself, at us. There are many gender and race disparities in employment practices in my own denomination. 

The problems for poultry workers as reported by IWJ of NWA are especially worrisome, however. Worrisome enough that I decided to give a faith perspective at the press release event yesterday. Here's what I wrote:

In 1999, just before the turn of the millennium, my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, by a wide majority at their national assembly, adopted a social statement recognizing the moral imperative for a sufficient, sustainable livelihood for all people. Recognizing that our present market system does accomplish this for many people, the social statement also advocated for specific practices for extending sufficiency, sustainability, and a just livelihood for all, in particular the poor.

The ELCA called for the enforcement of regulations against discrimination, exploitative work conditions and labor practices, and for the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

Employers have a responsibility to treat employees with dignity and respect. This should be reflected in employees’ remuneration, benefits, work conditions, job security, and ongoing job training. No one should be coerced to work under conditions that violate their dignity or freedom, jeopardize their health or safety, result in neglect of their family’s wellbeing, or provide unjust compensation for their labor. 

As a pastor observing many workplace contexts, I notice that often those working at the corporate level are unaware of the privileges they enjoy that others working in the places of production do not. I have been to many corporate offices, and know people have regular access to restrooms, sick leave benefits, safeguards against hazardous working conditions, and policies protecting against workplace discrimination and harassment. I believe these companies values their employees, and are committed to recognizing the dignity of all workers. Where they struggle is in extending these benefits to all their workers, especially those on the lines.

Reading the poultry report and hearing from workers, I believe Tyson, George’s, Cargill, Ozark Mountain Poultry, and Simmons have a responsibility to address all the issues raised in the report. They know they have a responsibility to treat employees with dignity and respect. They have the power to do so. They must, and do it quickly. There is no reason why poultry producers cannot proactively and immediately address and monitor all the issues raised in the report.

Here are the recommendations: Increase enforcement of wage and hour laws; regulate and reduce line speeds to reduce injuries and contamination; guarantee paid sick days for all workers; explore measures to reduce discrimination and harassment of workers and increase mobility for workers of color and foreign-born workers; facilitate workers’ ability to organize collectively for better working conditions; ensure access to bathroom breaks to protect worker health and dignity.

I am supportive of the Shareholder Proposal Regarding Report on Working Conditions, which requests the the Board of Directors cause Tyson Foods to publish, by April 1, 2016 and annually thereafter, a report disclosing objective assessments of working conditions in its processing plants. Reports should include incidents of non-compliance, remedial actions taken and measures contributing to long-term mitigation and improvements. Among other disclosures, data to include: 1) detailed employee injury causes and rates, 2) employee compensation by job type and location, and 3) detailed employee retention rates by job type and location showing average employment lent at Tyson. The report should be publicly-released at reasonable cost, omitting proprietary information.

What gets measured gets managed, and I am convinced that if the poultry industry commits to measuring themselves on the issues raised by shareholders and the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center, they will manage truly to make humane and dignified working conditions a reality for all poultry plant employees.

Support of these resolutions and recommendations is in the best interest of consumers, shareholders, poultry industry employees, workers, and our Northwest Arkansas community because poultry corporations, as companies committed to faith and good business practice, are at their best when they work on improving all these issues respond to worker needs. Poultry plant workers are our neighbors, colleagues, and friends. They have been created in the image of God. Let us treat them that way, just as we would like to be treated ourselves.

I do not think anything that IWJ is calling for in their report is particularly onerous for any of the poultry producers to take on and address. Sitting in on the meeting yesterday, I learned that from their perspective, the problem is with the system. They asked a lot of systems questions: How can we get workers to act in their own self-interests? If we put signs up and people don't heed the signs, what should we do? What's the highest priority? Safety? Harassment?  We want to be the best in the industry. Can you tell us what other corporations are doing to improve worker conditions?

This is where I had my main spiritual insight. I think it is absolutely central, essential. In order to really make Tyson the great company it hopes to be, Tyson needs to listen directly to the voices of those most vulnerable in the system. They cannot buffer themselves from those voices. At one point in our meeting, Magaly spoke up and said, "I want workers to come to my office and tell me that things are going great at Tyson, that their concerns have been heard, that they have access to restrooms, that they are safe and well-compensated for their work." 

I think most people working at Tyson corporate want that also. The way it will happen is to get the people at the lowest power position at the company sitting at the table with those at the top. Yesterday, I didn't see that happen. I witnessed the shareholders meeting completely close out any voices it didn't want to hear. It was an exercise in covering eyes and ears and shouting "La La La we're making money" as loudly as it could.

At the meeting at Tyson, I did see listening happening. The group listened respectfully to me, and Magaly, and Oxfam. I think they're going to take action immediately to work on what they heard. But there still weren't any worker voices at that table, and that was missing. They can fix it. I have faith they will.

The same holds true in every system. Often the most vulnerable voices do not get a place at the table, and other more powerful voices attempt to represent them. That never works well. For example, I'm sure my perspectives on all these issues are colored by the double bubble I live in as a pastor. Not only do I cloud my own insights by the exercise of my privilege, but people actually protect me as a pastor and don't always bring all truths to me that they should or could because of my social position in our culture as a religious leader.

So too John Tyson in particular, and Donnie Smith the CEO, and the board, are likely to be quite buffered and safe against external voices because of those same kinds of bubbles.

So here's my promise. I promise to keep listening to Tyson. I promise to keep listening to Interfaith Worker Justice. I promise to keep listening to Oxfam. I promise to keep listening to my many friends and parishioners who work at the major corporations in our community (remember, I also live next to Walmart!). All your perspectives matter. But in the end, I am going to try to find a way to make my voice and witness work for the good of those most vulnerable in any system. I will do this because in the end, in solidarity with the crucified one, Jesus Christ, such witness on behalf of the vulnerable is in the best interest of everyone, even and including those who get million dollar paychecks while their employees who work on the lines are compensated below a living wage and live in poverty. Jesus knew how to be friends with both. It's just that with one group he was in solidarity, and with the other he spoke severe challenge.
"If you achieve a voice that will be heard, you should use it to speak up for the voiceless and oppressed. If you possess any power or authority, you must strive to use it to help and empower the powerless." (Craig Murray)

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Acts of the Apostles Cooperative Boardgame

Crete offers plenty of missionary opportunity
We sat down in the GSLC Studio (aka, the pastor's office) today and play-tested Commissioned by Chara Games.  Our team of apostles already want to play the game again. Contrary to my expectations (I do not typically have high expectations for religious games of any kind), the game mechanisms match the game thematic closely. Commissioned is challenging, intriguing, and fun.

Here's how it works. The board has two sides. In early games, your goal is expansion of Christianity to the cities around the Mediterranean. Later games flip the board over, and you play on Orbis Terrarum, A Roman map of the world by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (20 A.D.).

This is a co-operative board game similar to Pandemic or Sentinels of the Multiverse. All players are working together to achieve the game objective. In our first play through, we played the original Acts of the Apostles. The goal is simple: establish a church in every city, and collect all 27 books of the New Testament.

A theme appendix
Each player plays one of the apostles. I was Paul. Donna was Andrew. Cari was Peter. The board also includes evangelists, and church member pieces. Like Pandemic, each apostle has a specific power that they contribute to game-play. Great games match the mechanics to the theme. Andrew adds new church members. Paul breaks down barriers to mission expansion. Peter is a deck-builder, able to purchase power cards.

Each phase includes the following steps. First, like the deck-building mechanics of Star Realms, players take their base deck and add cards from the Faith card stacks. They can only purchase new cards from the points of cards in hand, so sacrifices must be made during the pray phase in order to purchase more powerful cards during the mature phase.

During the live phase, whoever currently holds the elder staff draws a trials card, invites everyone to pray, shares resources that emerge through prayer, makes fellowship or mission moves on the map, then grows the churches.

Game play continues to the left, repeating this live-action phase, then purchasing more Faith cards to increase the capacity of the draw deck. Then all players arm themselves with new cards, and repeat.

Trials are all challenges for the players similar to the villain or environment move in Sentinels, or challenge actions in other co-op games like Pandemic or Lord of the Rings.

The game includes a theme appendix which explains the historical context for each trial. Examples: Church fed to lions, Nero's rage, Mount Vesuvius erupts, Gnostic heresy.

Prayer is the power up or power move. Each player has a specific power, and then cards added to their deck expand their repertoire. This includes cards adding books to the New Testament, plus higher power cards with miraculous superpower elements. Examples: Carried by the Spirit, Jailhouse Earthquake, Jerusalem Council, Divine Pruning.

This aspect of the game feels comparable to other historical games like Twilight Struggle, and compares favorably.

In the move phase, the elder can move church members, apostles, and evangelists in fellowship moves from one neighboring city to another, or they can send missionary teams out to establish churches in new cities currently without a church.

Churches with more than four members automatically grow members each round. The strategy lies in growing fast enough and spreading strategically while the trials reduce the number of churches and church members each round.

If the light of a specific church is completely snuffed out, it is extinguished, and can never be re-established. If five churches are extinguished, the players lose.

Having just sent a mission team to Caesarea
As I have mentioned, those familiar with board games and co-op games will find parallels to some of the most popular games on the market, especially Pandemic, Twilight Struggle, and Sentinels of the Multiverse. But the game also includes some resource building elements similar to Agricola (artistically, the art of Commissioned is closest to the Gric), Ticket to Ride, or Carcassonne.

But I do not mention all these games to indicate that this game feels derivative. It does not. It's very creative, and stands on its own. It is in league with some of the most popular games out there, and I recommend it highly.

As we were playing, our group kept deepening our understanding of how complicated and difficult it must have been for the nascent Christian church to expand and multiply. Not only that, but we found ourselves identifying with the special powers and limitations of each apostle.

I have two tests for religious games if they are to transcend the weaknesses of religious art.

First, they need to be focused on the play itself, not the message. Game play comes first. This game is strategically challenging, and literally, as soon as we finished, we all agreed we wanted to play again (especially adding the rule in subsequent games that expects a die roll before the live round, deciding whether the players can speak to one another during the sharing and decision-making time).

In an online forum I recently had a chance to dialogue with the game-designers, and they said their primary goal was focused on this, to make the game itself strategically challenging with a compelling narrative.

Second, the game can't tell you what to think. It needs to provide a play space in which to consider options. More sandbox than classroom. Commissioned succeeded in this area as well, because all three of us, even while learning the basic rules of the game, were already imagining strategic scenarios for future rounds.

Finally, this game beats the "I'm a professional" sniff test. I use this test a lot. In television, newspaper articles, and more, I wait to see if the report, or the script-writer, has a sense of religion from the inside, especially a sense of the theology or praxis involved.

Many newspaper articles fail this test. Television almost always fails it.

Commissioned does not. The game "gets" what the apostles were up to in their missionary expansion, and the trials illustrate both the external and internal challenges the early church encountered. One of the most intriguing aspects of the game is the dial players can set on the trials. The apostles can play at the disciples or martyrs play level. Essentially, this sets the difficulty level. But it also illustrates how differences in theology, group cohesion, and geopolitical considerations, all impacted how the church grew.

By the end of the game, players are not convinced that it is a miracle that the church grew, but they do have insight into how complex all the conditions needed to be for it to flourish.

Cari says,

"As to your question about personal or theological discoveries made during the game- not that you have to use these at all- just as an answer to a really good prompt...I found one of the most interesting aspects was the "pray" phase...I really found it fascinating that we would withhold our best "prayers" in order to hold out for something better...The metaphor in that move is something I find really interesting...

I loved that we equated our "super power" to the actual gifting of the particular apostle and I found it refreshing that theology aligns. I also thought it was cool that the characters we played aligned with our own tendencies as faith builders. Not only can I not wait to play again and especially to explore the different narratives offered, I'd love to see what my kids think of it and what they gain from it as well."

Commissioned, like many board games, started out as a Kickstarter project: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/charagames/commissioned

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Don't fast for Lent | Just worship

Some people give up chocolate for Lent. Or meat. Or Facebook.

let me suggest an alternative. Commit to regular worship for Lent. Don't skip a Sunday. Not one.

Attend every Wednesday midweek service. Re-up on a bible study. If you can't make a traditional worship time, join an alternative spiritual practice group, a Monday morning prayer team, or yoga.  Sponsor a catechumen.

Mark all the Holy Week services on your personal calendar, and plan to attend Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter morning.

Lent is exactly the right amount of time to make a new practice "stick." It takes about seven weeks for a new habit to become habitual.

You will benefit personally. You will take a journey of repentance and new life with Christ that is incomparable. If there is any season of the Christian calendar worth sacrifice of time and energy, it is Lent.

Your church will also benefit. Congregational vitality is measured at least in part by the number of those present Sunday morning. Others need you. The church needs you. Show up.

Of course, you can also give up chocolate or meat or Facebook if you'd like. Christian spirituality is very both/and. But commit to Lent.

Lent is designed for renewal. The lessons on Sundays are selected to focus the spirituality of the community as it journeys with Christ towards Holy Week and Easter. Temptation, mission, repentance, prodigal love, costly grace. If you worship regularly, twice a week, you will grow in your love of Jesus Christ. Guaranteed.

Consider giving to ELCA World Hunger. http://www.elca.org/40days

Finally, consider some kind of reading. Read Thom Rainer's fantastic little book about church membership, or Rowan Williams book on the essential components of the Christian life.

But most of all, worship. We live in a modern secularizing era that fails to realize how important the "useless" activity of worship is essential. Give it a try.