Thursday, February 25, 2016

What does a missionary do?

Today I learned that enrollment in ELCA seminaries is down considerably compared to ten years ago. 

This got me thinking: perhaps we don't need more pastors, we need more missionaries. Perhaps if the seminaries are down in enrollment, that's because they're making room for missionary training schools.

For quite a while now, I've had this vision statement rumbling around that helps me stay focused. I like to say, I'm a missionary who happens to serve as a pastor.

Mission seminaries are not unheard of in other places and traditions. Good friends of ours from Germany served in Abakan for ten years after completing their studies at the Missionsseminar Hermannsburg
Hermannsburg Mission residences

At the very least, thinking about seminaries as centers training missionaries does focus the sent aspect of seminary. You send somebody to seminary, and then the seminary sends the person they train into mission. 

I tend to think this is one difference between pastors and missionaries. Pastors can be raised up and called in place, from among their own people. This should happen more often. But if you end up with a missionary in your midst, part of your job is to send them away in mission.

After adult baptisms, I think the number of missionaries a faith community sends is the most important measure of that community's spiritual vitality.

In the middle of this dialogue, a colleague asked an innocent question: What would these missionaries do?

I think people kind of know what a pastor does or will do, because they live near pastors and see them at work. Pastors preach, lead worship, visit the sick, tend the dying, go to meetings, juggle flaming clubs.

But what does a missionary do, other than, in the post-colonial mindset, inflict a foreign religion on a vulnerable people group?

Well, it is a good question, so let me offer a sort of list of what I think missionaries might could do.

Build Relationships With People of Peace
It takes time, but the most important thing missionaries do is connect with the right people, develop friendships and partnerships with them, so they can be a voice of the gospel with such people of peace, and through them to the wider community. 
From Mike Breen's Discipling Culture
Missionaries as people sent by those who support them, and sent by God, can overcome and protect against colonial approaches to mission by seeing themselves as companions, partners, accompanists, for the mission of God they see already happening in the community.

from Global Mission in the 21st Century
Swim in Blue Oceans
Identify specific cultural contexts where no one is really going, and then go there. This will vary widely from missionary to missionary, and may even appear somewhat odd or idiosyncratic. One missionary might surf. Another might play Dungeons & Dragons. One missionary might spend time in laundry mats. Another missionary might wait tables near Wall Street. One missionary might move to a village in Iraq. Another might live in a suburb of London. The point is for the missionary to travel enough cultural distance that they have moved to where people actually are, and in contexts open to the gospel but not already inundated with other Christian communities vying for a limited set of already somewhat Christian people.

Read Pope Francis's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium
Honestly, it's amazing. You will be happier after you read it. You will want to share the gospel. Your heart will shift and join the pope's in his heart for the vulnerable and poor. Fair warning, it's kind of long. But heck, if you're going to go on a long journey and stay where you're sent for a while, why not equip yourself with the spiritually profound insights of the world's most famous missionary?

Our friends who were trained at the Hermannsburg Mission walked through a gate as they were sent, and the promise of the early missionaries sent through those gates was to never come back, to remain on the mission field the rest of their lives. Our friends devoted a decade to their work in Abakan, and I think in places like that part of independent Russia, perhaps even longer, a whole lifetime, is needed. So missionaries may be sent, but they will also stay. I know another missionary, with the ELCA. He spent so long in Japan that Japanese became more of his native language than English, and he lived more years there than here. Yet he devoted time every day his whole life to the study of the language, to learn it better, because...

Learn the Language, Translate the Message
I think the average pastor thinks their main job, for which they receive a paycheck, is to optimize the institutional equilibrium of the organization they serve. So they balance a bit of challenge with some comfort, they try not to rock the boat, they introduce change at a glacial pace, and they work really hard not to offend the easily offend able.

This is an impossible job.

The average missionary, because of their freer position vis-a-vis the culture they are seeking to reach, sees their job differently. Their job is to learn the language, and then communicate the living voice of the gospel in that local idiom. This is called indigenization, and it is an art, a highly refined art. It can take a lifetime to learn, and is as compelling and adventurous as a professional violinist playing a Stradivarius. It requires interest, passion, and love. 

Engage New Media
Many pastors avail themselves only of their own in-studio media resources. They write an article for the antiquated church newsletter. They author blurbs for the bulletin. They make bulletin boards. They preach sermons.

These are good things, but missionaries know to reach a culture, you communicate via media. Missionaries read the context well, and identify which media resources are particularly suitable vehicles for reaching different parts of the culture. They get good at writing newspaper columns, they create podcasts, they cultivate engaging social media presence, they make friends with television newscasters and radio show hosts. And these are just examples, because if you look back up to the first point, people of peace, the missionary identifies the right people for the right communities and the right reasons.

But missionaries do not resist media. They inhabit it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Adult Baptisms and Changing Church Culture

At Good Shepherd we do this thing called the catechumenate. My spell check doesn't like the word, and wants to change it to "catechumen ate," which would officially be a past tense construction for an inquirer for Christian baptism eating. "The catechumen ate nachos."

People tell me I shouldn't use the term catechumenate, because it is insider language. But insider to what? I know very few church insiders who have heard of the catechumenate, so part of me thinks it is a great word, mostly empty of content and ready to be filled.

So what is the catechumenate? It is a formation process for those preparing for Christian baptism, especially adults. 

In our church, it also happens to be the "space" and format for forming newcomers to our congregation preparing for affirmation of baptism at the Easter Vigil.

Notice, if you are new to the church, there are some other new terms here also, like "baptism" and "Easter Vigil." But I don't think the language is much of a barrier, any more than learning the language of a role-playing game or square-dancing is a barrier. If something attracts and inspires you, you're down with learning the lingo.

About four years ago, early in my time at our church here in Northwest Arkansas, I noticed a trend. Increasing numbers of our newcomers were (at the very least) new to Lutheranism, and in some instances new to Christianity altogether. A single new member class wasn't that helpful for orientation to Christianity or Lutheranism, and it didn't tend to connect newcomers to the congregation very deeply.

I was aware of an alternative "way" for newcomers, the catechumenate, so decided to invite a group of lay leaders in the congregation to experiment with it through the summer months. We did a mini-catechumenate for ourselves. We read Paul Hoffman's spectacular little book on his catechumenate at Phinney Ridge Lutheran. One thing I did that turned out to be important, I asked Paul to be our "sponsor" for a year of catechumenal living, and called or wrote him with coaching questions throughout the year.

Then that fall, we jumped into. We offered the fall inquiry period, Sunday evening gatherings about six times through the fall for those inquiring into the Christian faith and life at Good Shepherd. Big front and back door so people could check it out without fear of having to commit too much.

After Christmas, we got more serious, meeting weekly and pairing newcomers with sponsors in the congregation. This turned out to be a big task that year, as our catechumenate was about fifty people, all in need of sponsoring families!

The basic structure was simple. The catechumenate has no curriculum per se. It is more of a "way" than a lesson plan. Sunday evenings started with a meal, then a short message from the pastor on a topic of interest to the group, like the portions of the catechism, how Lutherans read the Bible, stewardship, spiritual gifts, etc. (for example, this past Sunday I spent fifteen minutes answering questions about the devil as 'person' vs. the devil as the powers and principalities of this world). Then small group leaders break out with catechumens and sponsors for about a 45 minute study of the gospel lesson from Sunday morning worship.

While they're all doing Bible study, I do the dishes, together with a few other people who help lead the program.

Then, we do the Vigil. I had never led an Easter Vigil before, other than one I did in seminary that had no catechumens. Imagine a full church on the eve of Easter, lighting candles from a bonfire in a fire-pit in the church parking lot, then a walk inside for long readings from Scripture, then one after one adults and youth and children being baptized, then the laying on of hands for dozens affirming their baptism, then simple song and sermon, and Eucharist. We were all amazed at God's Spirit at work.

After the Vigil, I started making my list of potential inquirers for the fall. Do this right away. Start building a list. Create a devoted Facebook group for the catechumenate, and use it as a communication vehicle.

I've also learned to schedule some regular gatherings with those who have just been baptized, to offer continuing guidance and support.

After Easter was when we really started learning how the catechumenate works, and its power. When you pray for people to come, they come. When you anticipate baptisms, baptisms happen. And once you've done the catechumenate once, those who participated the first time make it a priority to help with the next one.

Four years in, we don't have to work to find sponsors, or small group leaders, or cooks for the meals. Everyone loves it so much, they just chip in.

Some things we have been learning along the way:

1. The impact of a year-long program
a) You don't always know what to do with folks who arrive mid-year. But if you explain what they do in some detail, it typically makes sense to them. Often, they wait with anticipation for the fall, then throw themselves into it with gusto.
b) A year is great for building relationships. People become deep, close friends.
c) It changes the whole culture of the congregation. Our church is now a catechumenate church. There's no going back.

2. We don't do as many of the liturgical pieces as we used to
a) We offer a Rite of Welcome before Lent, where we give out Lutheran Study Bibles and bless them, and do a blessing between sponsors and catechumens where the sign of the cross is made on forehead, eyes, ears, mouth, heart, shoulders, hands, and feet. It's very beautiful.
b) We certainly don't focus on specific music much. Some catechumenate conferences are really into the liturgy stuff. Us, not so much. It's not unimportant, but it isn't core.
c) Much greater focus on integration into congregational life. We're really into helping newcomers find their way in our congregational life, and enjoy deep new friendships and partnerships in ministry.

3. The Easter Vigil is big. Very big. It's what we are aiming towards every year. It's a high. We now also have a reception after it, with a chocolate fountain. But the high are the baptisms. It's about the baptisms.

4. People arrive desiring baptism. Each year I wonder, will we have any adults desiring baptism this year? Then they arrive, and we do. Plus some years, many teens and younger youth.

5. We've averaged about fifty newcomers each year. That's just over a 10% addition to the size of our congregation per year. It's a big crew. Every year, it feels like loaves and fishes.

6. It shifts the whole culture of the congregation over time especially relative to people feeling equipped to welcome newcomers. So many of our members have been involved in our catechumenate now, they get the newcomer experience. You can see it in how they greet visitors Sunday mornings. You can see it in how we welcome new ideas and thoughts in our committees and teams.

7. Highlights: Sponsors are a core piece. You can never under-estimate how beautiful it is to see current members sponsor newcomers. Sunday night supper is big. Everybody just chips in. We recommend the following menus: potato bar, taco bar, salad bar, and bbq. Bible study with no pastor, so then you just trust the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and the people of God to bring the wisdom you need.

8. People come from so many different backgrounds. This year, at the very least we have a group of formerly Church of Christ, formerly Unitarian Universalist, some from no church background at all, many from non-denominational or evangelical contexts, many having had a long break between church and their return to church. We range in age this year from two to eighty. A big part of the process is hearing people's stories, and walking with them in the diversity of such stories.

9. It is a program that really equips leaders. The pastor really does need to serve as connector and evangelist to make it work, at least in our context, but over time we have gotten better and better at forming faith in newcomers not just by the pastor, but by a large team.

10. The importance of cooks. I'm leaning towards starting a dinner church this year as our third service because there is so much joy around the weekly shared meal.

11. The importance of dishwashers. If you have sixty to eighty people eat together, there are a lot of dishes.

12. The catechumenate has not become just one ministry among many... it is perhaps, after worship, the core practice of our church. It influences everything else we do. It frames our welcome, our study, our liturgical year, our teaching, our self-identity. I also didn't realize that at first, the "oldcomers," those who had been at the church many years, wouldn't at first really get or even notice what was happening, because the catechumenate is so foreign to most traditional Lutheran or standard church contexts. But give it 5-10 years, and it changes almost everything.

I've probably forgotten lots, and you may have questions. If so, ask them in the comments section here, and I'll try to answer them. But let me leave you with two testimonials from participants in our catechumenate this year. Between these testimonials, plus the great joy I see on the faces of some parents, some teens, and a dad, anticipating baptism this year, I know the catechumenate is likely the most beautiful development in congregational ministry I have had the honor to be a part of in my pastoral ministry.
Testimonial #1: I have to tell you something. I have watched yesterday's message at least 5x today. And the last brings more tears than the prior. I know you are the instrument of God (and blah blah), but truly, thank you for showing up. Thank you for speaking directly to my heart what I have wanted and needed to hear for yearsssss. Thank you for inviting me into this church family. But most of all thank you for showing me the true meaning of God's love. I have been in and out of pews [often excluded for his sexual orientation] for a long time searching for a belonging. I may just have nailed it. Don't ever give up, you are, and your community, make a difference.
Testimonial #2 came in an
FB message:
I want to get a tattoo of wheat. The wheat symbolism from your sermon about wheat and chaff and the baptism of Jesus really moved me. That sermon and that first OLTT [our catechumenate is called Our Lives, This Text] meeting was the first time I "got it". I really understood what Luke (and you) was telling us in the passage. It was huge for me to understand that as a human I am both sinner and saint, both wheat and chaff. Also that being the first time God spoke to the people, his beloved. What I learned from your sermon about fire constantly refining us and that we grow because of the people in our lives that love us. God loves us and we are all his beloved and because of that and remembering that we are constantly being refined is a very powerful thing for me.

The idea of fire was always associated with something negative and scary in my past experience with spirituality. Now fire means something different, something good. Being God's beloved means something different. I am his beloved and it isn't something I have to earn...I was already it.

Monday, February 22, 2016

For The Love Of God

The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism. Jon D. Levenson. Princeton University Press, 2016. p. 235. Cloth.

Love is a two-way street, but in the economy of love between humanity and God, the flow of that love and the level of mutuality is complexly contested. In biblical perspective, love is articulated early in Scripture in primarily covenantal terms, embedded in particular social relations. As understandings of love shift and change through the middle ages and into the modern period, so our reading of God's love and its implications for love of neighbor also shift.

So, for example, Levenson argues early in this book against the misperception that the love of God is primarily sentiment, and so a private matter. Love in Near Eastern treaties is quite unsentimental--it is, in fact, "the proper stance of the lesser party toward the greater" (xiii.). Levenson takes great pains to establish this definition of love as founding semantic context for the term, and the argument is helpful, because it explains, for example, why even as late as the formation of the Lutheran Small Catechism, Luther can coin the felicitous turn of phrase, "We are to fear and love God so that..."

Jon Levenson's work focuses on the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, including its reinterpretations in Second Temple Judaism and rabbinic midrash. He is a frequent interlocutor with Christian theologians, and has written extensively on resurrection in particular. In addition, one of his current courses at Harvard Divinity School deals with the use of medieval Jewish commentaries for purposes of modern biblical exegesis, and another focuses on central works of Jewish theology in the twentieth century. All of this type of hermeneutical and historical work is on full display in The Love of God.

Levenson, however, does not leave love languishing in the historical relationship between suzerain and vassal. He also states, "Although the God-Israel relationship in the classical Jewish sources is asymmetrical, as any relationship with God cannot but be, it is thoroughly mutual, as any relationship among personal beings inevitably is" (xiv). Levenson establishes the validity of this second point through an extensive reading of the love of God in classical Talmudic literature (chapter two), the Song of Songs (chapter three), the Jewish-Muslim cultural symbiosis of medieval Spain, Moses Maimonides in particular(chapter four),  and twentieth century religious thinkers, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig (chapter five).

Levenson's book opts against an exhaustive treatment of the love of God, and instead attempts to evoke the power of the classical Jewish idea of the love of God. This makes the book highly readable and engaging. Levenson's lifelong scholarship, like the best of popular theological writers, has refined his ability to write theologically rigorous books accessible to the lay reader.

As a reader, I found the early chapters of the book especially compelling. I had never really considered love as a cover term for acts of obedient service, but upon hearing that definition, was able to think of the widely varied places where that kind of love is still both expected and practiced.

This kind of love can be commanded. It is a love that is expressed in loyalty, in service, and in obedience. Understanding love in this fashion makes much sense of the love commands, as well as such places in Scripture where Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" and then commands, "Feed my sheep." This is not sentiment. This is obligation. Yet it is love.

Intriguingly, although this is not a Christian or Christological account of love, there are aspects of it that parallel Christian doctrine, such as the concept of imputedness. Levenson notes that in Hosea, in its description of the marital intimacy of God and Israel in chapter two, "righteousness," "justice," "goodness," "mercy," and "faithfulness" are gifts with which the Lord endows Israel in exchange for her exclusive fidelity to him (105). "They constitute at once what the groom contributes to and expects from the relationship."

Furthermore, Levenson points us to a synthesis of love and law sorely lacking in much of Christian theology. Christian theology in particular after the Reformation turn, has understood law primarily according to two uses: to condemn sin and order life together. Law in this account is either a threat, or a burden. But law in Jewish tradition is much more than this, and more beautiful. Understanding the fulfillment of law as love is the way forward.

First, there is an invitation to recognize together with Franz Rosenzweig, that God "has sold Himself to us with the Torah" (192). This is to say, the Torah, among other things, is God's form of falling in love with God's people. If the Torah is such a divine gift, then those who receive such a gift have more options. "The choice does lie between rote observance of the law as an impersonal, unfeeling reality, on the one hand, and the rejection of law as incompatible with the being of the loving God, on the other. There is a third position--a principled stance of openness to the Torah as the medium for encountering the loving and commanding God of Israel" (192).

In this sense, law becomes a commandment, commandment as event, and that event is election, the divine and mutual gifting of God with the community that maintains such an open posture that makes the gift of the law and human gratitude for it one and the same thing--the love of God.

 This review forthcoming in Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry.

Friday, February 19, 2016

This one thing will strengthen the church more than anything else... and it may surprise you

Pastor and parishioner talk
The pious answer is either Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Those are also good answers.

But if you care about the church, this one thing will do more than anything else. Guaranteed.

Every Christian, every church member, schedules an individual meeting with their pastor.

In that meeting, they share with their pastor how they're called to serve in the congregation, in their family, and in the world.

Each person in this meeting asks not what the church can do for them, or what they can get out of church, but what they can do individually for the upbuilding of the kingdom of God.

They talk about some concrete ways to make the vision a reality, such as worship, study, new connections, mentors, service in leadership or support roles, etc. They write it all down.

Then they pray, the pastor offers absolution for past sins and support in the Holy Spirit for the plan for the next year.

Then they set a date on the calendar to meet the year following to evaluate how the year went.

Each pastor does the same thing with their bishop or mentor.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Church for Introverts

Faith communities frequently and inadvertently make life together more difficult for some kinds of people than others.

Lately I've started to wonder if this is particularly true for introverts.

Introverts are not against being in groups. Many introverts do this well. But to do it, they have to put their game face on. Where they really derive energy is elsewhere, certainly not among, or especially in front of, a large group of acquaintances.

Church for introverts doesn't mean solitary religious practice behind closed doors. Although I bet a lot of introverts would want to remind extroverts that religious practice behind closed doors is beautiful, and fulfilling.

Most importantly, church for introverts ensures the unique gifts of introverts can flourish, building up the body of Christ by recognizing the full gifts the Spirit sends.

Here are some ideas for introvert inclusion, based on the work of Susan Cain.

Offer Space for Parallel Processing

Many teachers are discovering that social media is a great tool that allows students to interact in parallel mediated spaces while classroom activity is happening. Churches can do something similar, encouraging introverts to communicate via social media even while large group events are happening.

Churches might also encourage and create spaces private enough for pairs of people to sidle off and do church in twos or threes (Matthew 18:20).

There's a resurgence of coloring as a meditative practice, and churches might take advantage of this. Introverts prefer to be together but in quieter spaces. Extroverts, as much as they love the energy of groups, can remember that introverts are in their "sweet spot" when they're at a table while quietly doing something with others, but not necessarily talking or appearing busy.


In educational settings, invite people to first think about an answer to a question before speaking up. Then, pair people with one other partner to process and talk about the answer. Then have the pairs share with the group. This does some good things for introverts. As Susan Cain says, "No. 1, it gives them the time to process. No. 2, it allows them to get the experience of articulating their thoughts out loud. But in front of only one other student, they don't have to do it in front of the whole class. And then, often, once they have had that warmup period with one other student, they're then much more likely to want to share with the whole class."

Welcome Isn't Always Welcome

I've often thought when churches are described as unwelcoming, that it might be an extrovert describing an introverted congregation. Although there's not a good excuse for churches actually being cold, it is true that introverts on average might tend towards giving other people their space. Couple this with a general reticence to just run up and meet new people if you're already engaged in meaningful conversation with a friend, and you can imagine why some churches aren't as overtly welcoming as others. 

On the receiving side, introverts who visit a church might feel overwhelmed by overly energetic forms of greeting. It might be tiring to them. I'm not sure there is a good solution to this phenomenon, other than awareness, but awareness is good. 

Susan Cain launched a web site after the publication of her book, and humorously, the title of the site is Quiet Rev. Now, I'm not a complete introvert, and it's likely most people don't perceive me as an introvert, but I actually have many introverted tendencies. At a certain point, I need to get away and have space to recharge. Not all or even most of my energy comes from being with other people.

This is particularly true when we get to the liturgy. To center, I'd much rather sit in silence for ten minutes before worship begins. Certainly, I prefer to be in my office in my own head space before preaching or leading worship, even though the job demands something quite different. So my own experiences as a pastor make me think about Cain's work creatively also.

I also offer this entire post with a small amount of reticence, only because more recently the introvert-extrovert dichotomy defined by pop personality assessments may itself lack validation. We'll have to wait and see. The extrovert-introvert pairing rings true for many, especially it seems to true introverts.

I encourage you to navigate to her site, take the introvert quiz, read a recent article on quiet, and then think for a while: are churches geared more towards introverts or extroverts? After you've thought a bit, find a friend, and talk to them about it. Then come back and share your thoughts with the group.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

These books changed my life

Emily Dickinson famously remarked, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."
Some books, some authors, have that kind of enduring impact on our lives, so deep that we no longer think about the world, or live in the world, the same way after reading them. So for this Monday, I offer a list of books that took the top of my head off. Consider sharing this list and replace the categories with your own nominations.

Western Culture: Edward Said, Orientalism 

Reading Orientalism, I learned how much we westerners have defined ourselves by defining ourselves over against what we believe the easterners to be.

The Land: Wendell Berry, What Are People For?

Because you can farm, and write, and writing grounded in the earth can teach us what humans are for.

Family Systems: Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve

If you would like to learn how to be yourself in emotional systems, and play to strengths rather than weaknesses, then this.

Theological Ethics: James Cone, God of the Oppressed

There are many other liberation theologians who have had a profound influence on me, but James Cone was the first, and the most continuingly influential.

Reading Scripture: Ellen Davis and Richard Hayes, The Art of Reading Scripture

Ellen Davis the Old Testament theologian, and Richard Hayes the New Testament theologian, have both trained my reading of Scripture in deep ways, Hayes with his concept of metalepsis, Davis with her attention to the confessional dimensions of hermeneutics.

What a book can be: Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

1181 pages about Yugoslavia at the brink of WWII. But you can't really describe this book. It is an event.

Study: A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life

Sertillanges taught me how to engage the intellectual life long-term while also pastoring and parenting.

Parish ministry: Tex Sample, U.S. Lifestyles and Mainline Churches

I disliked this book in seminary. Then in my call to rural ministry, I called up Tex and asked if he would be my coach for a monthly coaching call. He agreed. His way of thinking about class and harsh ministry was enlightening.

Mystery: Dorothy Sayers, The Peter Wimsey Novels

I don't read a lot of mystery novels. I read all of these, and have done so more than once. I would live in this world if I could.

What a novel can do: George Elliot, Middlemarch

I could have put Moby Dick here, or Bleak House, but this novel, which I read in a British literature class, together with some others, taught me that a novel can truly be a world.

Systematic theology: Robert Jenson

If you want to read a systematic theologian, I still say, read Jensen first. His two volume work is brief and incredible. Once you're done, then read Colin Gunton.

Media: Marshall McCluhan, The Medium is the Massage

Great story about this book, the printers got the title wrong, but McCluhan loved it, because massaging the message is precisely what media do.

Psychology: Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

When people think of psychotherapy, they think of Freud and sex. But they really ought to think of Becker and death.

The essay: David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Read the one about going on a cruise ship. Or about the state fair. Read any of them. Pure gold.

Education: Ivan Illich

I'm not sure which book to recommend, you kind of have to find your way into Illich for yourself. Look him up.

Math and Science: James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science

I read this in high school, and have never stopped thinking about it.

LGBTQ and Christianity: James Alison, On Being Liked

Alison knows mimetic theory and Girard like nobody, and the dude can write. On Being Liked is still my favorite, but so many great essays are also online.

Promise: My great friend Greg Walter wrote a book about the theology of promise. I'm constantly going back to it, because I think it is a lifelong project for me to learn from Greg. 

I am who I am because of these books, these authors. Who are yours?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Coming Out as Church

Mid-January, as part of our congregational visioning process, I invited our Sunday school youth into my office, and we turned the space into a recording studio. We used two yard stickers as clackers to start and end takes, and interviewed anyone who wanted to speak about their vision for our church. You can listen to the interview here:

The next week, the congregation had a chance to vote on their top visions. The item that rose to the top, in large part due to the organizing prowess of the youth, was simple, yet profound:

Have church be outside (even all year)

Here's the thing about this vision. Not everybody gets it, or even likes it. Some people read it and assume the youth mean worship outside, although that isn't exactly what they said. Other people read it, and have an adverse response, because they can't imagine being outside that much. Or something.

I have a lot of spiritually wise people in my congregation, so the majority of adults I know sat with this idea of the youth for a bit, and started asking more interesting questions like:

1. How can we start doing this in small ways?
2. What do we think the kids meant by this?
3. What counts as outside? What counts as church?

If I were to summarize what I heard the youth saying in the interview, I'd say they had great experiences outside in 2015, and hope to replicate some of those and expand on them.

Some of their favorite events of last year included our 4th of July picnic, kickball at the local park against a neighboring church, a fall bonfire where they ran around in the dark and the columbarium and played while the parents sat around the campfire.

A high moment of the summer was a spontaneous showing at the Fayetteville Pride parade. Our congregation organized to walk in it. What we didn't anticipate, but was totally awesome, was the huge youth showing.

I often take the children's message out the doors of the sanctuary into the neighboring courtyard or columbarium. The congregation can still see us, because our sanctuary is all windows. We literally look outside all the time when we are in worship.

They probably remember our Churches Outside Together concert series, our camping trip to Petit Jean mountain in central Arkansas, and many other times we just get outside to play or dig in the dirt. When I started listing all the times we were outside in 2015, it was a long list.

So they like that, and they want more of it.

But then I started realizing how much getting outside is becoming part of our congregational identity, and not just outside in the literal sense of that term. For example, our race and faith adult forum realized we should probably commit to going and being with other Christian groups, joining them in what they are doing. If we want diversity, we can't accomplish it only or even primarily by getting people to come to us. We have to go out and be with others.

Examples of this include recent marching with workers and Interfaith Worker Justice, a prayer vigil for victims of terrorism organized by Latino leaders in Springdale, presence at St. James Missionary Baptist for their prayer vigil after Charleston, and so on.

We all get out if by out you mean in media contexts. I write a column for the newspaper. Many of our members are interviewed for local radio. We're on television. We have a social media strategy. We're in the commons, if you will. We're also in our parish, in the neighborhood, friendly with the school and real physical neighbors.

On the way out of church last night, one youth said she hoped we'd organize a worship service at the local botanical gardens. Other youth just want their Sunday school classes to meet outside.

And I think that outside is an analogy for something even bigger.

It is a ministry, and people know it is a ministry, to be out in the LGBTQ sense of that word. We do not try to hide who we are. We live it proud, and it shows, and it helps many people, especially those alienated from religious community, feel like this might be a place for them.

It is a ministry to be outside the church walls just being church in the world. Of course we are always out of the church in our daily vocations, but there's something powerful in the public witness of people of faith all showing up together at a Black History Month event, or a Pride parade, or a community vigil.

It is a ministry to be out in the outside sense of the word. For too long Christian faith communities have been detached from real care of mother earth. We can learn from our orthodox brothers and sisters, and more eco-sensitive traditions, that we join all of creation in praise of God.

And it is a ministry to not do so much ministry in the church that you have no time to join the ministry of others. Over and over, I realize how blessed other churches are if we show up for what they are doing. For example, this past week we hosted a Shrove Tuesday supper, and it was a blessing to receive guests from area groups and churches, not because they were going to join our church, but because the cross-pollination of their presence with us makes us stronger, and richer.

It is always an art to maintain a center while going out into the world. It takes a rather grounded community to orbit further and further afield. On the other hand, it is a sign of the strength and internal resilience of a community how easily and readily they can fly the nest and soar among others. Communities nurturing strong in events that form faith will find that their people can travel ever greater distances both up towards God and out towards their neighbor, all the while maintaining a grounded and beautiful sense of who they are in relation to God and neighbor.

And when they do, they are practicing church outside (even all year).

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)