Monday, April 28, 2014

U.S. Tornadoes Lutheran Response

April 28, 2014
U.S. Tornadoes

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

Several tornadoes have ripped through multiple states causing loss of life and massive devastation, and the threat of more tornado outbreaks is looming. Hundreds of people must now find a way to rebuild their lives, homes and communities after the tornadoes destroyed almost everything they had.

Your help is needed to bring hope to our sisters and brothers in need. Lutheran Disaster Response is at work, assessing the immediate and long-term needs of those affected by the tornadoes. Working with our extensive network of ELCA members, local congregations, synods and Lutheran Social Service affiliates in the affected area – we will respond wherever we are needed.

We are a church that rolls up its sleeves and gets to work. We know it will be a long road to recovery, and your gifts are needed now to begin coordinating volunteers, rebuilding homes and offering spiritual and emotional care to those in need.

Gifts designated to "U.S. Tornadoes" through Lutheran Disaster Response will be used entirely — 100 percent — to help survivors of tornadoes rebuild their lives and livelihoods. You can help provide comfort, healing and hope in the midst of destruction.

Thank you for your gifts, your prayers and your partnership.

In service to Christ,

The Rev. Daniel Rift
Director ELCA World Hunger and Disaster Appeal

P.S. Please give generously and continue to pray for those whose lives have been uprooted by this disaster. Use thisbulletin insert to share this information with your congregation.

The struggle against poverty as an object of consumption

This post is likely to get me in trouble, although I plead complicity as my excuse. I am as likely to be guilty of what I am describing as anyone else, because I am inextricably tied up in the class habits I inhabit.

As a leader of mission trips, I have thought about the struggle against poverty as an object of consumption for quite some time. Often we go on mission trips for ourselves as much as if not more than for the people we serve on mission. It's important for us to be aware of this fact.

More recently, the ELCA MAPP committee (Ministry Among People in Poverty) published a report, one paragraph of which reads:
Although there are many notable exceptions, our experience is that frequently what people in our congregations see as their response to the poor is to see the poor as clients for their charity, rather than living in faith community among the poor or facilitating the fullness of community among the poor. As a result we have many examples of places where the poor will come to the Lutheran Church for food and clothing but go to church down the street at the Pentecostal church, because at the Lutheran Church they are poor people, but at the Pentecostal Church they are just people. 
I have found this to be true in my own ministry. As a church we often put ourselves in the client position, offering to help those who are poor. We serve meals to the poor, but seldom eat with the poor, or acknowledge that we are the poor, or embrace the poor as us and vice versa.

One reason I love the Sunday Suppers program that an ecumenical group of churches organizes here in Fayetteville is because, at least in theory, it is supposed to be a community meal, with everyone eating together. However, all of us find that in practice it is harder to break out of the scripts we inhabit. It is easier as church people to go serve the meal than it is to go and just eat the meal. And vice versa, those who go to eat the meal are not as likely to help serve the meal, because they are playing their part in the script.

A classic example of a program that does excellent work, but is very much at risk of experiencing the struggle against poverty as an object of consumption is the popular Feed My Starving Children. The program undoubtedly does good work. It feeds hungry people. But there are many aspects of it that are energized more by the bourgeois desire to consume a product (get the t-shirt, take a photo of yourself packing the meals).

Because we are all inextricably tied up in the class we inhabit, it is unlikely we can extricate ourselves from this situation. But it is nevertheless healthy for us to be aware that when we are struggling against poverty, often what we are really doing is consuming our own struggle against poverty. It becomes about us and how we consume what we do.

Walter Benjamin writes of this and says, "The transformation of the political struggle from a call-to-decision into an object of contemplative enjoyment, from a means of production into a consumer article, is the defining characteristic of this."

Other popular examples of this include Tom's shoes and fair-trade coffee. Any time we put ourselves in the patron situation, consuming the good that we do as a commodity, rather than living in solidarity with, serving as allies with, those in poverty, we have exited the struggle against poverty and instead are consuming our struggle against poverty in a capitalist manner.

And I reiterate, it's probably impossible for many of us not to do this. We are all consumers. We are consumers who want to do good things, who hope to make a difference.

All I am inviting in this post is greater awareness not to confuse our consumption of our own struggle against poverty with the struggle against poverty itself. All I hope for is that I myself will be convicted to live in solidarity with the poor, or to even stop making a distinction between myself and "the poor," for indeed we are all beggars, we are all people. We are human first.

We are called to enter the fray as human beings, to share place with our neighbors, rather than live above (or below) our neighbors. We are in this together.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Re-rooting in the Neighborhood

Lots of us have theories on where the Holy Spirit is leading the church in North American in the 21st century. Lots of angsty people hope the church will reach Millenials. Lots of doomsayers believe the Spirit is letting the church die.

I'm putting my money on one basic idea: The Spirit is leading churches to re-root in their communities, in their local neighborhoods.

Many churches do this already, natively. But surprisingly a lot less do than could. It's not uncommon for people living in a neighborhood to have little or no contact with the community of people who worship together in a church building right on their block.

Anecdotally, there are at least five churches I can walk to in my own neighborhood where I don't no a single person who attends there. I don't know where their members live. I've never met anyone who attends these churches.

Also anecdotally, when I tell people I am the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, even if they live right next door to the church, more than once I have had them ask, "Where is that church?" Or: "Is that the church there on Rolling Hills somewhere?"

There are perhaps many reasons why individual churches are in the neighborhood while not being in the neighborhood. If they are a church like ours with a denominational affiliation that tends to attract members from across the region rather than in the specific neighborhood, the church may not have as part of its identity the notion that it is a part of the neighborhood.

It is, on the other hand, surprising to me that congregations don't take the injunction from Jesus, "Love your neighbor," as a practical and geographical suggestion. In other words, as a church, if we are to love our neighbor, we might start right next door, with our actual neighbors... with the school next to us, the other churches nearby, the rehab center down the street, the offices and businesses around the corner, the POA down the block.

This is why I am so attracted to Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen's new book, The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community
. They have captured in this book the heart of a movement that I believe will be the signal movement of local congregations in the 21st century. Churches will thrive in community by re-rooting in their local communities.

On one level, the book brings nothing radically new to the conversation. Community organizing has been around for a while. Neighborhoods have been rediscovering themselves not just from a Christian perspective, but in the post-modern era also.

What is helpful about the way these three pastors frame the conversation, however, is by understanding the parish as an integral part of designing fresh expressions of neighborhood life.

First, they emphasize that many of us have gotten into the habit, unfortunately, of living above place. In our global, networked world, we know more people on Facebook than in our neighborhood, and think of ourselves as a part of interest groups more than our block. So the book is first of all an invitation to live in rather than above place.

Second, these pastors help us define the new parish in ways that has resonances with the old parish model, but with enlivening new modalities. As just one example, since many churches often exist even within one neighborhood, the new parish model invites the possibility of collaboration and mutual mission together in the neighborhood across denominational lines.

Additionally, in the new parish, the neighborhood contributes to the form of the church as much as the church helps define the parish. Neighborhoods, and the way they mutually care for each other, can teach churches something about love and faithfulness.

Overall, the authors of The New Parish adopt a mentality of the new commons, and strive to find the church in all of life. The book doesn't simply redefine the relationship between church and neighborhoods. It is up to some ecclesiological work, redefining the nature of the church itself.  The church is now defined by the way it faithfully presences itself in the midst of the new commons.

The New Parish is published by IVP Press, which is both a strength and a weakness. It's strong on offering devotional resources for readers of the book to think through the spirituality of the transition to a new parish way of thinking. It is soft on some of the ethnographic and social science research I think could be really fruitful in convincing readers why a strong re-rooting of congregations matters for redevelopment in communities and neighborhoods. Perhaps Dwight Friesen, the author who is also on seminary faculty, will write some kind of companion piece that picks up more of this research. I would love it if he did.

My favorite chapter is the chapter on re-rooting itself, chapter 7. The authors recognize that if we are going to let re-rooting inhabit our imaginations, we are going to need to imagine it on three levels. First, we are called to re-root on a personal level. We are called to get to know our neighbors, wherever we actually individually live. Then, congregations are being called to re-root in their local neighborhoods. Then, third, we are called to re-root with other people of faith in our neighborhoods. This will look like ecumenical partnerships, or groups from different denominational affiliations who are committed to causes in our neighborhoods.

I have seen some of these practices already at work in our own community. We have a group of churches who have identified a neighborhood in which they wish to serve a weekly community meal, because there are hungry people. People of faith are partnering together to build community gardens, set up Free Libraries, tutor at the schools, and more.

Often, these kinds of neighborhood re-rooting are even transcending religious boundaries. We have served our meal with the youth group from the synagogue. We celebrate congregational ministry in the summer with congregations of people from at least three historic religious traditions.

The authors conclude with a chapter on "linking," a topic dear to the heart of Dwight Friesen, whose previous book was Thy Kingdom Connected (Ä“mersion: Emergent Village resources for communities of faith): What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks
. The authors recognize that although churches are called to re-root in their neighborhoods, in the new parish model this will include learning best practices from other parishes and communities around the world. Never before have there been as many opportunities for people to share with each other about their parish practices through links and networks at the global level.

The authors have travelled around the country seeing how other new parish ministries are developing. They encourage reader to reach out and learn, nationally and globally, in what might be a kind of new denominationalism. It's a worthy final proposal, and will be a good check on the new parish movement so it is ecumenical rather than parochial.

I conclude with a series of questions from the book. If you are serious about re-rooting in your neighborhood as a Christian, and discovering how your local congregation can re-root in its own parish, consider working through these with a friend or group of brothers and sisters in Christ.

1. Where do you live? Describe the contours of your neighborhood. What narratives or values seem present in the place where you live?

2. How might you describe your current relationship to your place?

3. What might be an intentional and natural next step for you to live even more fully present within and in-with your place?

4. Walk with a friend or two: Invite a neighbor to join you on your walk through your neighborhood. As you walk together share what you see and hope for.

5. Are you a character in your neighborhood? Wonder together about ways of rooting within your parish so people might come to know of and depend on you.

6. Have a conversation with your community of faith exploring intentional ways of being present as a group in the life of your neighborhood.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Where does Jesus go to be today, on this day of his death? On this day the church chants, in imitation of Christ, Psalm 22, the psalm of God-abandonment. Although this day is a day to minimize words, inasmuch as our attention is drawn to the living Word overcoming sin, death, and the devil in His death on the cross, we can say, together with the prayer above, that Christ in his betrayal and death redirects God's attention to the family for whom he graciously dies.

Christ's sacrifice is not a sacrifice accomplishing something for God, as if God needed Christ's death. Christ's sacrifice is complete and utter neighbor-love, a death for the family he came to embrace and save.

Many of us have felt abandoned by God at some point in our lives. But Christ, the Son of God, experiences abandonment by God in total, completely, on the cross, and harrows hell as a result. One could argue that hell makes no sense at all other than the place Christ harrowed and overcame on Holy Saturday. Before or after hell makes no sense. Even hell is now "in Christ."

God is not guilty of Christ's death, even if God was in another sense absent from Christ at the cross. The prayer of the day rightly lays the guilt for Christ's death in the hands of sinners. 

But this precisely is Christ's victory… Christ is rejected by sinners and abandoned by God and so conquers rejection, death, abandonment, hell, and more. No one who goes through any of these things can ever be alone anymore, because they are now a part of God, in Christ.

* Thanks to friend Gregory Walter for inspiring these meditations via our Good Friday conversation this morning.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday (Sheer Thursday)

The pope's getting a lot of press these days (and well he should) because he won't stop washing people's feet. Footwashing is profound, incredibly moving. I remember the first time I participated in a serious foot washing, it was at a YouthWorks mission trip in Lodge Grass, Montana. Having served for a week alongside two other youth groups, we gathered on Thursday evening for prayer, and then we all washed each other's feet.

Some people were so overcome with emotion they couldn't stop crying an hour later. A couple of people, because feet are sensitive to them, had to abstain. But generally speaking, it was one of the most sacramental experiences I've ever had.

This night, Maundy Thursday, our congregation re-enacts the foot washing in miniature. A representative group from our congregation will come forward and wash each other's feet. There are plenty of ways to do this. Some communities everyone participates. In others it is representative. I don't think there's any need to get legalistic... much depends on context and culture.

I do believe the point is the mutuality of it, the reconciliation, the servant posture. Earlier in the Maundy Thursday service, the church conducts a liturgy that is equally counter-cultural. We confess our sins, and receive laying on of hands and individual absolution. the liturgy goes like this:

Friends in Christ, in this Lenten season we have heard our Lord's call to struggle against sin, death, and the devil--all that keeps us from loving God and each other. This is the struggle to which we were called at baptism. We have shared this discipline with new brothers and sisters in Christ who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil.
Within the community of the church, God never wearies of forgiving sin and giving the peace of reconciliation. On this night let us confession our sin against God and our neighbor, and enter the celebration of the great Three Days with God and with one another.
All kneel or sit for silence and reflection.
Most merciful God, we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
Then the presider announces: In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
People may come forward for the laying on of hands, to hear these words: In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins. Amen.
There is something immensely powerful about hearing someone speak words over you: I forgive you. We need to hear those words on the lips of someone else.

Certainly we can play them as a tape in our own minds and hearts, and Christ hears our confession even if we simply pray it alone in our room. But just like the sentence--I love you--spoken by the beloved hits us more existentially than simply imagining them saying it, so too hearing someone commanded by Christ to announce forgiveness carries great weight.

And the hands. Don't forget the hands. I so look forward this evening to the moment after laying hands on others when I will kneel, and a pastor or assisting minister will stand above me, lay hands on my head, and speak those words. They are powerful words. They do things. They are life. It is why this day is sometimes in some places called Sheer Thursday, because the sheer grace of it all shears off our sins and makes us new again in love.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Liturgy is for life

Liturgy is like maple syrup. It's condensed and boiled down language, drawn from the lifeblood of the trees, but then reduced to the purest sticky thing.

Those of us who lead liturgies with some regularity are almost overwhelmed this week with the beauty and magnitude of it all. Each Sunday is the eighth day, the Lord's day, and hopefully every Sunday liturgy reflects at least in part the glory of the new creation made nimble in Christ.

But this week, Holy Week, the liturgies crackle with symbolism, disturb us with their out-of-orderedness, surprise us with dramatic shifts from deepest lament to profoundest hope.

Right now, for example, I have the Good Friday bulletin draft in front of me. There is the prayer of the day (sometimes called the 'collect' because it collects the theme of the service in a short prayer). It reads:

Almighty God, look with loving mercy on your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, to be given over to the hands of sinners, and to suffer death on the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

This prayer, alone could be enough for an hour, perhaps two, of quiet meditation. It draws into prayer God's family, Christ's suffering, and the hope of his life in the Trinity. It reaches out, grinds down, then points up.

Worshippers could do any number of things with this prayer. They could then compare it later to other aspects of the Good Friday liturgy. It is preparing them to hear Isaiah, and the gospel lesson. By naming us sinners, it prepares us for the Bidding Prayers that will follow the sermon. There are likely echoes of this prayer in the hymns.

And then, if we let the liturgy seep into our bones, the liturgy can also carry us out into the liturgy of the quotidian so that we might experience Christ and his suffering not just in prayer around his Cross on Good Friday, but in other aspects of our lives.

Like my kids, who sometimes chant portions of the liturgy while they play--absentmindedly at times but always still prayerful--the liturgy can be the language we speak not simply in worship, but in our souls at work or play.

Like syrup that sticks to the side of the lips, or so sweet we can remember the echo of the flavor later, there is a richness to this language of prayer that grounds and centers us.

Liturgy isn't just for liturgy. Liturgy is for life.

As all of us prepare to observe the Three Day, and the diverse parts of Christ's final days on which we meditate Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter day, I invite us to take some of this language of the liturgy and incorporate it into our lives. Take a chant to work. Pray a psalm at bedtime. Chew on the liturgy like a flavorful candy. Let it energize and enliven your walk.

Because more than anything else, the liturgy is itself participation in the life of Christ. Christ, as the living Word, imbues all other prayer with his very self. That hymn you sing with others--that is Christ. That cross around which you gather--it is the suffering Christ present with us. Liturgy is a glimpse of heaven on earth. And this is true not because it is done particularly well (although we hope it is) but because heaven has promised to show up there in Christ. Wherever two or three are gathered...

Holy Week blessings to all.

Friday, April 11, 2014

One Week to a More Meaningful Life: A Meditation on Depth

There is irony even in blogging this topic, because the screen in front of me as I type this is an early 2009 24" iMac (still going strong). We purchased it kind of early in the advent of our now-ubiquitious flat screens. The iMac spreads out in front of my eyes offering Rothko-like breadth, encompassing a majority of my visual space if I look straight ahead.

Nevertheless, there's no depth. If I stand up and look behind the iMac, there's just about an inch of computer embedded there behind the screen, nothing more, and behind that screen is a wall, with about four inches of air between the computer and the wall.

Presumably if you are reading this post on an iPhone or laptop computer, you also are reading on a device that offers the illusion of depth while physically enacting the lack of it. Many of us quite a lot of the time are now peering out into the world by staring at thin strips of almost nothing.

We are confronted with the paradox that the very device that seems to offer greater physical extension into the world than ever before itself narrows that extension to a physical sliver.

As antidote to this, I have been attempting this past week to experience the world through the eyes of my son. He naturally discovers a depth to the universe I overlook. Earlier this week, we walked the watershed next to our church. Whereas I have seen the watershed primarily as a small barrier between our parking lot and the property adjacent, he discovered worlds in it--living creatures, abandoned mattresses, sharp glass and gurgling stream.

Today, this time at a real park, he heard the distant shrill of a train, and decided to walk to wherever the tracks might be. Forget about wifi. To see a train you have to find the tracks. You can't google it. While chasing a train, you might get distracted by an ant. At three, you're still that close to the ground.

When we are at a park, there is a screen in my back pocket. Increasingly, I avoid using it. It gives me the illusion I am extended to a wider public, a wider world, but when I attend to it, I stop perceiving the actual depth of world and relationship right in front of me.

I lift these observations not as a neo-Luddite commentary on technology, but rather as a call to balance in my own life and the lives of others. Screens do offer extensions of ourselves into all kinds of worlds, many of them beautiful. But they are best used as extensions rather than distractions.

I have been experiencing something similar as we prepare for Holy Week. It occurs to me that most of us keep time differently than we used to. A calendar based on holy days has become foreign and strange to us. Our new calendars are booked, always, busy to the point of breaking. Practice is every Thursday, without exception. There are no special Thursdays. Even Sundays as worship, or Saturdays as rest, have stolen themselves away and been replaced by an eternal Now! a demanding Go! and a tiresome Strive!

What might it mean to give a whole week over to God, to worship, to prayer? In a world with no depth, in times with no pause, prayer becomes a waste of time. Monks are neither wrong or ridiculous. They're simply beyond our ken.

I spent part of last week reading Terry Eagleton's remarkable Culture and the Death of God. Here's a passage from it screen-captured from Google books:
Excerpted from Terry Eagleton's Culture and the Death of God, 2014
Eagleton believes the postmodern condition is best defined, at least in part, as a loss of depth. This is a loss of every kind of depth. Postmodernism shifts away from the metaphysical depths of pre-modernity not through the death of God, but rather through the experience of no depth at all. Similarly, the depth of subjectivity and interiority are lost, part of a "clapped-out metaphysics."

Eagleton makes these observations not to dismiss postmodernism or modernism per se--we are all, after all, inextricably caught up in modernist and postmodernist movements even when we would like to think we transcend them. The more you criticize postmodernism, the more you are postmodernist.

Instead, Eagleton's goal is to illustrate how the rise of culture as a category and the death of God proclaimed theologically in the mid-20th century and again in new ways now, are part and parcel one of the other.

This is why so many postmodern people are completely perplexed why a person might experience a call to join a monastery that devotes itself to the life of prayer. It isn't that they don't believe in God, exactly. It's more like they don't even know there are inner places one could go to which you can only travel through the depth of prayer.

Similarly, those who give up material comforts, divest themselves of aspirational careers, spend their energy going lower, lesser, into a self-less self that makes meaning along measures the measurelessness of postmodernism cannot imagine. What are they up to? They aren't wrong, exactly. They're simply incomprehensible, off the horizon into some foolhardy zone, another country.

I think the greatest danger of staring at this screen is precisely this. I will type this blog, and submit it to the world, and hang my existential hopes on the possibility that many of you will read it (how many is enough?), and I will get my meaning, my sense of purpose, through the illusion of depth that is actually no depth at all. In the meantime, just on the other side of the wall, behind my screen, another world awaits. It's one all of us will be prone to romanticize, now that I've raised our awareness. Some of us will drift off to gardening catalogs, or try to listen to the birds better, or go out and look at the stars tonight instead of browsing Facebook status updates. And that might not be a bad thing.

But that still won't be depth. We are inescapably in the position of thinking, because our technologies have permanently changed our apperceptions, that the night sky is actually an app on our iPhone and if we just squint we'll see the outlines and labels for the constellations; that the party we attend this evening is almost like a movie; that this one flower I saw today would look best through an Instagram filter.

There's no going back, in other words. A flat world is all we have left. It will take a miracle to re-discover depth on the other side of the flat screen that is now our world. But miracles do happen. We walk with Christ towards one this Holy Week. Even time is flat now, so we'll have to see what Christ does with that.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Political Church

This week I was summoned for jury duty. I arrived Tuesday at the Washington County Courthouse ready to perform my civic duty. I figured I might be sitting in a room for a while with little to do, so I also brought along my Holy Week planning resources, and ended up with ample time to select hymns for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. It was a good morning, with a chance to chat with a Quaker jurist who likes literature as much as I do, and a young woman who used to work for the Springdale police department. 
Many conversations with fellow clergy around the country had left me skeptical as to whether I would make the cut and actually serve on the jury. Theories on why clergy are not selected abound. Perhaps prosecuting attorneys believe pastors will be too lenient, acquitting too many offenders. Perhaps defense attorneys believe pastors are too moralistic, and will not be able to presume innocent until proven guilty. Or perhaps juries will defer to pastors. One attorney in particular who also now works in the church said both sides of lawyers would worry a clergy person would dominate a jury. One pastor, the only pastor who reported serving on a jury, reported he had served on two juries, and in both instances was selected as the foreperson of the jury. So there you go.

That, all by itself, is interesting. Apparently in the eyes of the court, a religious leader on the court tips the scales in the jury room enough that it is better to dismiss the pastor.

All of this raises the larger question of the relationship between the political system and the church. We are a nation that has enshrined as its first amendment a commitment neither to establish a religion nor to prohibit the free exercise of it. Those protections, neither to establish nor to prohibit, are embedded in a larger amendment protecting a wide range of forms of free speech.

Transport these commitments back into the life of the church itself, and you have individual people of faith interpreting their right to the free exercise of religion in diverse ways. I think the majority of Christians prefer that politics not be established in the church in about the same way religion is not supposed to be established in the state. There are exceptions to this, I am sure. Some clergy use the pulpit, and some churches use their voice, to align directly behind specific partisan political positions.

Perhaps the way to think about this is to say that the church lives in a strange tension. It is not supposed to be caught up in partisan politics, taking one side or the other in a bicameral system of government. Yet on the other hand, the church is itself a politics. Church is inherently political. John Milbank, one of my favorite theologians on this topic, says that what political theory is to human history in a veiled way, theology is to the understanding of reality and metaphysics as a whole.

In this sense, it is impossible for the church not to be political. It has something to say to the polis, the city, either through its voice, what it says in its confessions, proclamations, sermons, newsletters, and more—and it automatically speaks its commitments through its actions in the world. The moment the church opens its doors to feed those who are hungry, or opens a health clinic or offers English as a Second Language classes for immigrants, its comportment towards the world and actions in it speaks a politics.

From my perspective as a pastor, I hope this kind of church politics would transcend the more typical partisan politics that gets us stuck. I’m not against partisan politics either, per se. There is a nitty-gritty aspect to politics that is unavoidable. We are always working out how to live together as a community and as a nation through the systems that have been given to us, and the cultures that form us. In the end, as much as a Christian would like to transcend partisan politics, they are going to have to go to the polling place and vote for candidates of a specific party.

The church, on the other hand, or any religious community, for that matter, is called to practice a kind of politics that points away from the political theory that applies only to human history, and instead guide our eyes and our hearts towards the fusion of the metaphysical and political understandings that is sometimes called political theology. Religious communities are free to transcend partisan politics because only through the politics they themselves practice can the partisan political landscape actually be transformed. This will seem paradoxical, but perhaps faith communities matter to the political not because they are apolitical, but because they are a different kind of political.

What I love about this when it is done well, at least in the Lutheran congregations I have known, is that Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Green party people all can share a common life together, and confess a common faith together, and then make commitments to change the world in very specific ways that will, in the end and to the world, look like a politics. But it will be, if led by prayer, a kind of divine politics, or an echo of divine government, small and edgy and never as powerful as the systems of the world, but always hinting at another kingdom, another realm, that is sneaking its way into this one.

Which is probably why after sitting for two hours of really fascinating questions for the jury from the prosecuting and defense teams, the prosecuting attorney, when asked if juror #38 could remain, said politely and thoughtfully, "We thank that juror and excuse him." At which point, I left the building, got in the car, and went to the elementary school to have lunch with the kids.

Published simultaneously in today's Northwest Arkansas Times.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Do pastors and theologians have anything to do with each other?

Before you read this post, I encourage you to wander over to Professor Gregory Walter's blog and check out some of his theological musings. Or read the following guest post first, and my response. We've cross-posted these reflections to compliment one another and celebrate our pastor-theologian friendship.

This question emerges from me pondering the state of theology, both academic and for the church, and its relationship to pastors. 
Do pastors and theologians have anything to do with each other?
It seems not! 
1. We're doing different things. Each of us has our (relatively) autonomous regions and expertise. Dead languages. French theorists. German philosophers. Libraries. Hospitals. 9th graders. 
2. Academic theologians are full-time theologians. Pastors can be theologians in a semi-professional way if they have the time. Pastors have many more activities than theology; teaching theology is very close to the task of doing theology for academic theologians. 
3. We may seem to only meet in practical or pastoral theology, but that focuses only on one academic theological discipline. There is far more to the theological disciplines than that. 
4. Theologians seem to write for each other and their students, not for pastors. The task of translating or applying theology depends upon the reader. Academic theology is not ready-made for congregational life. Most academic theologians receive their recognition and achievements through their writing for other scholars. They get paid to teach and research; their earnings from book sales are almost nothing. Writing for a popular audience figures very low in their incentives. And because of that, it seems that academic theologians take a trickle-down view toward pastors: they seem to expect pastors to receive and use what they create. 
5. Keeping up with theology is hard. There are sometimes more popular books or speakers who are not academic theologians that are closer to pastoral ministers. It seems that these authors are who most pastors recognize as theologians relevant to their work. 
6. Theology is slow. It takes a great deal of time to craft and build a theological work. And theologians mature slowly. Theology can't always respond quickly enough to the exigences of pastoral situation. 
7. Academic theologians aren't very interested in ecclesial politics. They've got enough to worry about in their particular academic settings. 
Is there a future for theologians and pastors?

Arkansas-Minnesota Vimeo dialogue preparing our high schoolers to see The Hobbit

Clint's response:

Do theologians and pastors have anything to do with each other?

It seems yes! Respond if you will!

1. Many (though not all) theologians have a pastor. After they emerge from the musty stacks of ancient tomes of theology into the light of day, they wander over to the local parish to pick their children up from youth group. This makes me wonder if they ever strike up a conversation with their local parish pastor about the esoterica of their academic theologizing. It almost causes me to wonder to what extent clergy invite academic theologians to bring their work as a contribution to their ministry. Theologians have pastors. Do pastors have theologians?

2. Theologians often think they are more professional than they actually are. Which is to say, theological inquiry, and quite deep levels of it, can be accomplished in all kinds of settings, even or perhaps especially avocational ones. Johann Georg Hamann, for example, who worked as a clerk in a mercantile house while devoting his free time to intense theological inquiry. And it is the case that many theologians, because of the wide variety of work their chairs or tenured positions or teaching entail (grading papers, attending faculty meetings), may actually be on a level with many others who read and think theologically. This isn't to discount the special role academic theologians play in the wider theological conversation. They typically know more languages, read more specifically and narrowly in a field, and therefore bring levels of cross-pollination and specificity to the theological enterprise many others are unable to bring. But inasmuch as academics tend to think hierarchically, placing their ph.D. and academic status above rather than in the service of the theological conversation, they introduce unnecessary problems.

3. Pastors, on the other hand, often dismiss academic theology. Lamentably, one of the most common things clergy say is, "That's too academic. I don't have time for that." Like any other discipline, you have to learn the language to really engage the topic. None of us were born knowing calculus. You have to learn and rehearse arcane formulas. Similarly, there are benefits to learning the language of theology, and even if academic theology is not ready-made for congregational life, it is the specific role of clergy to translate the important matters of faith for parish life. Clergy are the bridge. They are called to read at least some theology and translate it.

4. Keeping up with parish life is hard.

5. Lots of practical theology fails to be practical. Or, said differently, much of non-practical theology is actually more practical.

6. Parish life is slow. It takes a great deal of time and craft to build a healthy faith community. And pastors mature slowly. Clergy can't always respond quickly enough to the exigencies of theological situations. Just when we get programs in place, the theological landscape shifts. Clergy often perceive theologians as traveling light, because they can remain in their theory, without having to wrestle with praxis.

7. It is rare to hear academic theologians reflect specifically on their life in a local congregation. Theologians write ecclesiologies. It would be fascinating to hear theologians reflect on how their theology connects to the worship services they are attending weekly, or their service on a church council.

8. Pastors are sometimes unaware of how pastoral teaching theology actually is. The average theologian spends more of their time (I imagine) caring for their students, building community in the academic context, attending chapel, walking the campus, preparing syllabi and grading papers, than they actually do researching and writing academic theology. In this sense, clergy and theologians are quite alike. In either profession, one must carve out and protect time to "do" theology.

9.  Where theologians, at least ones engaged in critical reflection, may consider themselves the "grumpy" ones, vetting the truth of ideas and proposals, clergy are for the most part required to be "happy." Regardless of the relative truth of various claims and practices, the pastor still stands before the congregation Sunday morning and preaches. Since a sermon is seldom exclusively or even primarily "critical" work, the positive nature of proclamation shapes how pastors approach the theological enterprise.