Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Right Political Party for Christians

Perhaps our national political discourse has always been exasperating and exhausting. Forgive me if for some reason I simply contribute more to the fatigue. But as a Christian pastor whose political theology inhabits a distinct minority position within our largely bipartisan system, I thought an Independence Day post might be in order.

So please take this for what it is, one small meditation on what it is like to not fit into any of our political parties... because theology.

I was raised a Republican. I've spent some of my adult life as a Democrat, and have more frequently voted for Democrats than Republicans. But for most of my adult life, when given an opportunity, I've voted third party.  

It's always a little bit odd being third party. Most people think you're just wasting your time or your vote. Often they've never heard of your candidate (this election, the options for president include Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson--who is a Lutheran, incidentally). 

Why third party? I guess there are many reasons. For one, I simply don't think that my vote has to count in the sense that one candidate or another will actually win because I voted for them. If you're a third party voter, you don't identify with either side in the dominant discourse, so it doesn't much matter to you who wins. In the end it's all some kind of neoliberalism. If you need a Biblical rationale for such a position, consider the fact that none of the prophets and certainly not Jesus or the disciples supported any of the dominant ideologies.

Foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58). Or Paul, For I resolved to know nothing while I was among you except for Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2; and does anyone remember the Know Nothings party? This is a very different kind of know-nothingness) 

On a side note, if you have time, read about Duverger's Law.

So what's neoliberalism, and why is it bad? The term is hotly contested, but basically it's a form of liberalism that tends to protect the freedoms and liberties of the economic sector in particular. It values the function of the private sector in the economy, typically to the devaluation of all else. The market rules.

The economy isn't all bad, and yes, I participate in it rather than exiting it (like some anabaptist communities). But our national political discourse preferences at every turn economic considerations over almost all others (with the possible exception of the security state, which I'll return to in a moment). 

Most critics of the Democrats think Democrats are socialists, but the truth is, from a truly "Left" perspective (which is the perspective I inhabit) the majority of prominent Democrats are still neo-liberals (and so are, in a basic sense, the same party as their so-called opponents). Very few Democrats are actual socialists, or hold a set of political values opposed to neoliberalism per se.

So, as a Christian, why am I opposed to the neoliberal approach to democracy? First, the poor. Notice that our national presidential discourse currently underway mentions the poor never at all. Or the working class. Presidential candidates only care about the middle class, and tailor their message to them. They then cater to the rich, and pursue policies that benefit them.

It's all about money. Just look at how much will be spent on these campaigns. Especially since Citizens United (the greatest heresy and political tragedy of our century), money gets a vote, and those with the most money get to buy the law. Money rules. 

This is what you call a plutocracy, and it's the kind of government we have today. 

I'm opposed to a plutocracy because I find no theological warrant for it. I do not find any defense of propertied interests in Scripture, and much in Scripture that warns against great income inequality. God believes it is a tragedy when some are very rich and others are very poor. God wants better than the super rich doing a bit of charity to fix the injustices they notice and decide to toss a bone at.

Not only that, but the Mother of God sang a song about it, 

"He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:52-53)

This is what you call in speech act theory a performative sentence, not only describing a given reality, but also changing the social reality she is describing. By the fourth chapter of Luke, Jesus is living out a fulfillment of what Mary sings of him in Luke 1. He says he is bringing good news for the poor. Then he does so.

Part of the reason I believe as a Christian that inhabiting a third position outside the dominant ideologies is essential comes down to this: I think the space both to enact the hope that is in us and also anticipate it is to live at the margins of political (and therefore theological) realism. As much as I like some realists and sometimes enjoy reading them (like Niebuhr, a great influence on Obama), I ultimately can't identify with them. They're too enamored of what is and so can't inhabit discursively what will be "in God."

Here's a short (and non-exhaustive) list of priorities I believe Christians in particular should lift up. The majority of our politicians keep these much lower on the list.

I am for: 

  • The poor
  • Campaign finance reform
  • Lots more taxes that fund a real social net
  • Many more checks on the power of the economic sector, and the rich in particular
  • Open borders
  • Ambitious care for refugees and sojourners among us
  • Worker justice and unions
I am against:
  • The death penalty
  • Mass incarceration and profiteering relative to a security state
  • More taxes for war
  • Corporate welfare
  • Hyper-focus on the middle class
  • Our current plutocracy
I am in favor of greater listening to the prophets and less listening to profits.

I am anticipating God's coming kingdom, and do not place my trust in the security state.

I am energized by the vision of the Beloved Community. I am not driven by the fear arising from a supposed scarcity of competing rights.

I tend to think that our current hyper-focus on security plays right into the hands of neoliberalism, which would like as many of us as possible to give away our liberty so that economic interests might benefit. Worse that selling our freedom to the rich (in which case we would add least profit from the sale), we give our freedom away so that the wealthy might further their own interests.

There is class warfare in our day, and it is probably the greatest spiritual warfare in which we are engaged in our nation. The right political party for Christians takes up this spiritual battle.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Worship in foreign languages: Why comprehension is over-rated

When we pray with others in languages not our own, we join--as it were--the celestial choir. I think this is the appeal for those returning to the Mass in Latin, or the Orthodox who worship in Old Church Slavonic. Sometimes we can hear God better when we listen on a level other than basic comprehension, because beyond rational understanding is the true communion of the saints.

 Today I spent the morning in prayer and praise with a Lutheran Vietnamese community at Capitol Hill Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa. Des Moines was the largest site for Vietnamese resettlement in the United States (a close second was Fort Smith in Arkansas). Today there are as many as 15,000 Vietnamese in Des Moines.

It takes a bit of intrepidity to join an unfamiliar congregation and worship with them, especially if you don't speak their language.  I do not speak any Vietnamese--at all. So when I got to church, I went in not knowing how to navigate the community.  I've trained myself to not be nervous, and to take things as they come. It usually works.

At Capitol Hill Lutheran there was an 8 a.m. English-language chapel service already in action, so I drifted past that and back into a kind of lounge where the Vietnamese community was gathering. The congregation is made up primarily of older members, most of them having sought refuge in the U.S. at least 20 years ago during the Vietnamese Boat Lift. I learned later in the morning that there are younger families and members of the parish, but they work weekends so struggle to attend worship regularly.

We all hung out in the lounge, waiting. The English language service ran long, and the pastor for that service spent time greeting parishioners in the hall, so we did not officially begin worship on time, instead about 10 minutes late.

Up to this point in my visit, I had communicated with brief nods and smiles and simple introductions. I didn't want overwhelm the small community, like a noisy sociologist, so I sat and read the Bible a bit and waited. Eventually the Vietnamese pastor (who spoke very little English) introduced me to a member who could translate. He gave me a service bulletin, assigned me to the welcome pew, and made a brief introduction about their visitor as worship began.

Vietnamese is a beautiful tongue, with many sounds unfamiliar to my Anglophone
ear. We sang an opening hymn, accompanied by the 8 a.m. worship musician, who then promptly left after the hymn.

The pastor offered a very long gathering prayer, which was emotional enough that I teared up some.

I should mention, this is an important aspect of worshipping in languages not our own--there's often enough time of incomprehension for mind and heart clearing moments to shine through. It's not "praying in tongues," and yet... it is. Resting in your incomprehension while someone else prays in their heart language is disconcerting and comforting simultaneously.

The majority of the service was devoted to the sermon on the lessons, especially Ephesians 4:29: "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear."

This text took on a completely different sense for me today, as I thought about it in terms of languages. Can words in a foreign tongue still give grace to those who hear? I certainly know the Vietnamese prayers gave grace to me.

We prayed a confession litany, which, although very foreign to my ear linguistically, made sense because of its similarity structurally to the confession of sins in the liturgy. The congregation spoke this part of the service with special energy.

The most basic idea in the pastor's sermon was simple, and I was able to pick up on it because of his hand gestures: we have two ears, but only one mouth, and our Christian practice should reflect this. After 40 minutes of worship, we adjourned to a small bible study in a separate room. My translator invited me please to stay, so I did. We exchanged some very kind if formal greetings. They hoped I would return (I most definitely will!)

Most Christians should be reminded regularly of the most basic missionary moment: that our faith is translated. It was carried first in Hebrew, then in Aramaic, then in Greek, then for a long time in Latin, and then, through the miraculous work of missionaries and the Holy Spirit, to the thousands of languages of the human race. As we are reminded by that great missiologist, Lamin Sanneh, the translation of the gospel into the vernacular has ever and always had considerable implications for mission.

And the very first moment of translation is encounter and incomprehension: hearing someone else speak in a language you do not understand.

After that, the work is learning that language, then prayerfully discovering how to take the gospel you know in your language and translate it into the heart language of those you have met.

It's not my work to translate the gospel into Vietnamese. That's been done by others. But by attending worship with a refugee community in Des Moines, Iowa, I can be reminded of how central translation is to the message itself... we only have what we have (the Bible, our faith, the Word) because of the faithful translation of others.

At one time our ancestors were me, in that worship service, curious and wondering not only about the language being spoken, but the people speaking it, and the content of their message.

Many new refugees have arrived in Des Moines since the influx of Vietnamese. My translator today mentioned: the Sudanese, the Bosnians, and now those from Myanmar. Even more will continue to arrive (as long as Terry Branstad doesn't get his way). And when they arrive, they will offer new opportunities for Christians to discover that first mission moment.

If we are brave enough to subject ourselves to the vulnerability of getting lost in translation.

When and if we do (and I hope and pray more Christians after reading this will go to worship in other tongues), we will hear sayings like the following (the basis for our Bible study in Vietnamese today) with new ears, a grammatical spirituality for the refugee moment:

"Prov. 15.1 A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger. 
2 The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge,
but the mouths of fools pour out folly. "


Thursday, June 23, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Offers No Reprieve From Fear

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A father with his baby.

We stand with communities across the U.S. as we continue to fight for family unity even without #DACA #DAPA
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The @LIRSorg statement on today's disappointing news about #DACA and #DAPA.
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Dear Clint,

Today, we share the disappointing news that the U.S. Supreme Court issued a long-anticipated decision in United States v. Texas, providing the final ruling on whether President Obama had the authority to create the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA+) programs.

First announced by President Obama in November 2014, these programs would have provided protection from deportation to approximately 4 million people currently residing in the U.S. without legal status. These programs have been held up in legal battles since a federal judge in Texas first blocked the program.

Regrettably, the Supreme Court ended the wait today by affirming the lower court's ruling with the Justices split 4-4 decision.

This means that the DAPA and DACA+ programs cannot be implemented and those 4 million fathers, mothers, and children hoping for a chance to live without fear of deportation, for a chance to provide robustly for their families and to call themselves Americans, will instead continue to live in the shadows.

Though today's decision does not make changes to the original 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, this ruling will have a major impact on communities, congregations, and millions of families across the country, including U.S. citizen children who will now continue to remain in constant fear of having their families torn apart.

This is a day of grave disappointment. At LIRS, we stand with communities across the United States as we continue to fight for family unity even without the DACA+/DAPA programs. Our hearts go out to the millions of families who live each day with the constant fear of deportation or irreparable family separation. We continue to pray for a day when stability and security is extended to all who call the United States their home.

Until that day, here are some helpful resources for those directly impacted by this decision:

In peace,

Brittney Nystrom

Director for Advocacy
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Pastoral ministry as comprehensive community consultation and catalyzing change

Yesterday Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson came to our church. He met with Canopy NWA, the refugee resettlement agency we have recently formed. His visit was an honor and a surprise. We were surprised he wanted to meet with the organization personally. We were honored that he took the time, and asked such great and open questions.

It makes you a bit nervous to host the governor. We got pie (he liked the apple), and made sure all the wall-hangings were on straight in our conference room.

This entire week, I've been conducting a comprehensive community consultation. It's something Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service does when it is considering opening a new refugee resettlement site. James Horan, Vice President of Refugee and Community Service from Lutheran Family Service of the Rocky Mountains flew out to serve as consultant. It was particularly helpful to hear from him and spend time driving around our region discussing refugee resettlement, because he has some direct experience opening new sites comparable in size to the one we are considering in our region.

We spent some of our time talking with local and state politicians. In addition to the governor, we met with our congressman, Steve Womack, and local representatives like Bart Hester. We know they are ones likely to get calls on politically charged topics like refugee resettlement, so our conversations with them were both courtesy calls to provide information, and space for them to ask questions about our work.

We were surprised, however, to encounter such great support from these elected officials. Invariably, they graciously said, "Let us know how we can help." Even those whose political position runs counter in some ways to the advocacy work of LIRS still expressed support both for immigration and regional refugee resettlement.

I came to the conclusion sitting down at the table with these political leaders that I should schedule even more such face-to-face meetings. It's worth the time, and you find more points of commonality.

Perhaps it's not so surprising. Christ tells us to welcome the refugee, and in spite of political party, all the elected leaders here in Arkansas are committed Christians. We share a sense that welcoming refugees is both Christian, and the right thing to do.

After the political meetings, we headed to other organizations we believe will be instrumental in providing the quality, long welcome we intend to offer for arriving refugees. We toured a portion of the Northwest Arkansas Community College campus, and learned about their robust adult education and ESL offerings.

We also spoke with their department for nursing and medical sciences. That department can't get as many students as they need, and all their students are employed before they even complete the program, the need is so great for medical professionals in Northwest Arkansas.

In fact, this was something we heard repeatedly in all our conversations. Employers are desperate for employees. Unemployment is at 2.1% in our region. Not only are many of the larger companies looking for talent they can draw to the region, they're also seeking more entry-level and unskilled workers in a variety of areas, the largest being, of course, work in the poultry industry.

We met with Mireya Reith, executive director at the Arkansas United Community Coalition and the Immigrant Resource Center. She helped give us a picture of the current advocacy needs for immigrants in Arkansas. Mireya is a long-time political advocate specializing in engaging marginalized communities, and is a wealth of information, passionate about her work. She also was recently elected chair of the state board of education. Spend time with her, and you begin to see how the Latinx community in Northwest Arkansas is already, and is going to be increasingly, a force for good in our community.

We visited with Mike Malone, CEO and executive director at the Northwest Arkansas Council.  The council is the brain child of some of the Fortune 500 companies located in NWA--Walmart, Tyson, and J.B. Hunt. They've worked on major projects in our region like the airport and widening the interstate. Now, they're focused especially on diversity and workforce development. They're committeto sustaining and improving Northwest Arkansas as a great place to live and conduct business. They serve as a catalyst and collaborator for finding solutions to the opportunities and challenges facing this thriving region. 

We met with Ed Clifford, CEO of the Jones Trust. He was incredibly warm and supportive. In addition to the community center, which is the most obvious public face of the Jones Foundation (it houses a swimming pool, ice skating ring, gym, and many classrooms and meetings spaces--while we met there yesterday it was hosting the War Eagle day camp), they also have the JTL Shop, a Center for Nonprofits which houses about 80 of the 400 NGOs in Northwest Arkansas.

This includes the Community Clinic, a free clinic that many of our arriving refugees will make use of for health services.

Ed estimates there are 12,000 Marshallese living in Springdale. Add this to the very large Latino population, and you realize how different the Springdale of the 20th century was to the Springdale of the 21st. And again, what all these leaders remark on is the way such diversity has strengthened and contributed to the vitality of the region.

We met with Perry Webb at the Springdale Chamber of Commerce (over the course of our two community consultation weeks we also met with Steve Clarke of the Fayetteville Chamber, and three mayors in the region).

Through these conversations I came to a greater awareness of the strategy in place to facilitate Northwest Arkansas thinking regionally rather than individually by town. We are now one economic and cultural corridor, 525,000 people who make up Northwest Arkansas. And since we're growing (perhaps as many as 40 people per day move to NWA, and Fayetteville anticipates 30% growth by 2030), everyone is aware we need to think intentionally about regional development.

Other past consults have included ESL instructors in the I-40 corridor (NWACC, NTI, public schools, Springer Center, and Ozark Literacy Council), missions pastors at Fellowship Mission Center, public school administrators, Lindsay property developers, public transit officials, Walmart, Tyson, Engage NWA, the Cisneros Center, Community Clinic, dozens of community faith leaders, the Walton Family Foundation (we even had lunch with Lynn Walton), and more.

What's the value of a comprehensive community consultation like this, and in particular, how has it been valuable for me as a pastor? 

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a few years will remember that in past years, I've blogged about walking the neighborhood. Typically this was focused on walking the immediate neighborhood around the church.

It's a very different kind of walk to meet with high-level stakeholders throughout the region, but I have to say, if you have good reason to do so, it's worth your time. As a faith voice in the community, my understanding of the assets and needs of Northwest Arkansas has deepened tremendously because of these conversations. I now have an intimate and face-to-face sense of what motivates our community leaders.

If you're new to a community, I still highly recommend the neighborhood walk. But if you've been in a community a few years, you start to get a sense of its opportunities and strengths. If you are thinking about the work of the kingdom of God and what can be planted in your little corner of a great big world, in the process of planting such ministry you will inevitably impact key stakeholders in the region. So it's good to know them by name, and for them to know you.

In a world continually divided by partisanship, people are desperate for stories of real coalition building, and so another great benefit of such community wide consultation is simple: it plants hope. Not only has this work increased the possibility of collaborative work between NGOs around shared purpose, it is also building collaborative bridges between churches and faith communities that often function in more silo fashion.

When I think about how all this has come together, I get goose bumps. We feel God living and active in our Canopy development work. I feel blessed not only to be part of such an amazing organization, and to work with such a diverse and talented set of volunteers who serve on our board and write our grants and conduct interviews and design web sites and more--I also feel blessed as a pastor to be able to gain an even better picture of our region, so the preaching and pastoral work I do each week can be better informed by the needs and perspectives of our community and region.

Next stops for the community consultation: I'm going to try and meet with Tom Cotton and John Boozman, our senators; drive to Little Rock to take our state refugee coordinator out for lunch; attend a service at the Islamic Center; gather a University of Arkansas symposium; get back to actual walking the neighborhood so I can meet landlords for potential apartments for refugees. In the process, might also just meet potential new congregational members!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

How much time should you spend at church per week?

My answer: At least six hours.

Here’s why. First, and most obviously, Christians are called to worship. They observe the Lord’s Day, the Eight Day of creation, and they do so at least weekly (although I find the practice of Roman Catholics and some other communities of going to Mass daily quite beautiful and appealing). 

So at a Lutheran church, that’s at least one hour, maybe an hour and fifteen minutes. 

Then, some of our folks are regularly in the habit of coming early for worship, or staying late, for the mutual consolation of the saints. That is, they stand in the narthex and talk. They greet new people. They catch up with friends. They make plans. 

In particular, it’s wonderful when worshippers get to church early, and sit and pray and meditate in the space before worship begins. It creates a sense of the holy.

So let’s say that’s two hours so far.

Third, it is good for people to be in some kind of intentional study, whether that’s Sunday morning forum, or a mid-week small group, or a leadership huddle or a book discussion. So let’s say you study for an hour, and chat or eat a meal around that study—that’s another two hours.

Finally, the church needs, relies on, and thrives because of volunteers serving in many capacities. Not only do we need volunteer leaders who serve on council and committees, coordinate classes and Sunday school, organize social service and advocacy efforts, we also need people who show up week in and week out and make Bears, repair the facility, practice for worship leadership, sing in the choir, pray, sponsor new members, usher, and more.

Add some kind of service into the hours, and there’s six hours. Of course many people willingly and joyously give even more. But six is a good start.

Volunteering at church and for church ministries is not the only way Christians serve in God’s world, but without widespread participation by the members of the church, many roles fall on a few shoulders. 

And if faith in Jesus Christ is indeed a high priority for us, then a commitment to the work of the church and the strengthening of it should take pride of place in our commitments each week.

Because our church is also a catalyst for so much good done in Northwest Arkansas and beyond, it’s good to remember that the good we do can be spread many places, and indeed the majority of it need not be done at church. Consider a few of Luther’s words on good works:

Faith brings with it at once love, peace, joy and hope. For God gives God’s Spirit at once to those who trust Him, as St. Paul says to the Galatians: "You received the Spirit not because of your good works, but when you believed the Word of God.” 
In this faith all works become equal, and one is like the other; all distinctions between works fall away, whether they be great, small, short, long, few or many. For the works are acceptable not for their own sake, but because of the faith which alone is, works and lives in each and every work without distinction, however numerous and various they are, just as all the members of the body live, work and have their name from the head, and without the head no member can live, work and have a name. 
From which it further follows that a Christian who lives in this faith has no need of a teacher of good works, but whatever they find to do they do, and all is well done (Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works).

We don’t serve in the church or in the world in order to earn God’s grace or favor, but simply because we are so inspired by what God has done for us that we find ourselves, sometimes even in spite of ourselves, up at church, among our people, doing God’s work. And in that Spirit all is done well.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Too much blood at the intersections

A few years back I bought (and then mostly didn't read) David H. Kelsey's Eccentric Existence: A Theological Existence. It's really long (two volumes!), which is no argument against it. It has come out on my desk a couple of times, then gone back on the shelf, because it's going to take time to read, with long stretches available for focus and concentration, something that seems in short supply these days.

But good Lord, here I am doing what I often do when I'm emotionally stressed, I'm distracting me/us by talking about long books.

Ok. Focus.

Here's one thing Kelsey says in his book: "Love as neighbor is expressed as a passionate desire to be for fellow estranged human creatures precisely in the consequences that their shared estrangement have for their shared proximate contexts" (803). 

This past week we all lived this, are still living it. We learned that a man hated himself and the gay community (of which he was a member) so much he could think of no other option than to kill. He was, as it were, estranged, both from himself and others. In his estrangement, he slaughtered many others who had been trying themselves to be "for" each other in their shared estrangement by sharing a proximate context (a nightclub).

When I arrived at a rally and vigil Sunday night at the local Episcopal parish, and saw it was full to overflowing with people--in particular, full of people I don't often see in church--I couldn't help but cry. I have this passionate desire to be for fellow estranged human creatures. I love queer people. Part of what I shared (and of course my words were weak and inept and lacking) was simply this: "Look around you. These are your people. This is your place."

As a pastor, I deeply, profoundly want the community that gathered Sunday night to be a community in Christ together... and never at the expense of their queerness.

So therein lies the rub. Most Christian churches for much of history have taught queer folks they are only welcome in Christianity community if they conform to certain kinds of gendered normativity.

Tuesday night we hosted a Christian service of prayer and worship in light of Orlando. The crowd was (and here I am generalizing) more white and less tipping generationally toward millenial than the Sunday gathering. One of our speakers, a young Latinx and LGBTQ advocate, noticed how white we were, and remarked on it.

But then he named his own pain, that our community was willing to offer space for his grief in ways some of his own Latino community was not. He feels out of place in either context--in our church because it is predominately white, in the churches in which he grew up because he is not straight.

The dangers of double or triple estrangement are rampant. If you are LGBTQ and an ethnic minority, for example, you are at greater risk of experiencing violence or prejudice than if you live at just one intersection of queerness.

So I was proud of our predominately white and cis faith communities for coming out to pray for those who died in Orlando. It made me hopeful for the future.

The disjunction between the groups present Sunday night and Tuesday night, however, made me wonder, "How can we bring these communities together? What does it look like to have shared proximate contexts? What can we do to build trust, and bridges?"

We know that diversity strengthens society and contributes to economic and cultural vitality. We also know that the most diverse societies are the most punitive. So the paradox of diversity: it strengthens us and causes us to fear all at the same time.

Here's what I posted the night of our own prayer vigil:
Today I called the police to let them know about our Prayer and Worship in Light of Orlando. I did so because the television news had been calling all afternoon wanting to do a "security" angle. We don't enlist security at church typically, so I hadn't thought of it. But I decided to go ahead and call. Talked to some nice folks over there. 
Tonight two of the officers decided to come in and listen to the service from the narthex. After service one of them told me he had just lost his gay brother, who died of addiction. It was helpful to him to be able to hear the names of the Orlando fallen read aloud, and the bells. It helped him grieve. He was rather amazed a church would host such an event. I was honored they came in, and thankful they were there.
You never can tell.
Somehow that event right there is the intersection of the punitive, the diverse, the healing, the weak, the straight and the queer. Somehow the Spirit snuck in.

I think my favorite word these days is queer. Queering Christianity. Queer virtue. Queer grace. More and more is being written and collected (like this encyclopedia of LGBTQ and Christian Life by Emmy Kegler) that brings together the intersection of queer and Christian.

Queer is where the strength of diversity can beautifully overcome the drift to punitive and retributive blood at the intersections.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Faith & Science VBS

Finally had time to put pen to paper over at the Patreon site for the open-source curriculum we put together at Good Shepherd this past week. 

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Why I teach evolution as a Christian pastor

What does it mean to "teach" something? So much depends upon this basic question. If teaching is the passing on of indisputable fundamentals, and evolution is considered one such fundamental, then of course many people should be concerned about teaching evolution, not the least of whom are scientists themselves.

But if evolution is the current best scientific description for how life formed and developed on our planet, then teaching evolution is in a sense teaching the scientific method, something that scientists and people of faith can and should encourage.

So, what's the scientific method? According to Rudolph Carnap: "Science is a system of statements based on direct experience and controlled by experimental verification."

So science prioritizes direct experience, and then uses controlled methods of verification to test experience. In the case of evolutionary biology, biologists continue regularly to verify what they observe through direct experience in the natural world, and any good evolutionary biologist (which would also make them a good scientist) would tell you that if direct experience and experimental verification led to a new theory, they'd be the first to embrace it.

Theories are not fictions or fairy tales. They're the best current explanation we have for what is.

Much the same can be said of theology (which is why theology is actually one of the sciences). The methods for testing theological truth claims are of course different from the methods for testing biological truth claims. Nevertheless, theology is not settled, and it is always developing.

This is why any good theologian, and really any good pastor, should teach evolution. Because evolutionary theory is the scientific communities current best explanation for all that lives and why and how it lives, and bringing that direct experience into conversation with the theology that emerges from reflection on Scripture and the life of the church is perhaps the best way to shed even clearer light both on the doctrine of creation (theologically speaking) and the theory of evolution (biologically speaking).

This is to say, doctrine is also a theory. Theology is also a science.

A parishioner recently wrote something I believe to be so very true.

"To me, in life, there is nothing more dangerous than fanaticism. Doesnt matter if youre a fanatic creationist or a fanatic evolutionary scientist, or fanatic anything. We are not doing anyone any favors by thinking black-or-white. Questions are healthy and welcome, in science and in faith. Open your mind. The Bible was not written to be a scientific text – and yet the mythical creation story has many parallels (albeit poetic ones) to how the science community views the origins of our uni- verse today."

There are a couple of claims in here worth expanding. First, it really is the case that as far as we can tell, the original intent of the authors of Genesis was not to give a literal scientific account of creation, but a mythopoetic one. We should not ask of Genesis 1 something it was never written to give.

Second, questions are healthy and welcome, in science and in faith. That's why bringing evolution and Scripture into fruitful conversation is so beneficial. We learn more about both, deepening both our faith and our abilities as scientists.

Third, the creation story does have many parallels to how the scientific community views the origins of our universe today. Even beyond evolutionary biology, there are fascinating parallels between Genesis 1 and current quantum theory.

It is also true that we sometimes do not fully comprehend the implications of revolutions in scientific worldview until much after they take place. In this way, quite a bit of the scientific worldview is a form of faith. Often, as a pastor, I wish both sides of this conversation, the scientists and the Christians, might see how much overlap there is between their forms of thought, they're hopes and goals.

As They Might Be Giants sing, Science is Real. And so is faith.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Trinitarian theology, phenomenology, and quantum physics

Here are insights in three disciplines I believe to be related.

Contemporary Trinitarian theology has emphasized that the "identity" of the persons of the Trinity is located in their relationship to each other. In other words, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ARE their mutual relating.

A consequence of this Trinitarian insight: We are better served speaking of the members of the Trinity as a grammar or language for prayer, or in relationship one to another, than attempting to define aspects of the immanent Trinity based on economic insights. Theologians love to argue whether the economic Trinity IS the immanent Trinity. Under this new construal, there is no immanent Trinity to access backside of the relating itself.

On this point, see most recently Robert Jenson's Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?

In the world of quantum physics, compare this fact, that the equations in quantum mechanics do not describe what happens to physical systems, but rather, they only describe how a physical system affects another physical system.

As Carlo Rovelli says of this insight in his recent Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, "We must accept the idea that reality is only interaction."

A consequence of this is profound. There may not be any such thing as time per se. So Rovelli again: "The passage of time is internal to the world, is born in the world itself in the relationship between quantum events that comprise the world and are themselves the source of time." There is no time in which all of reality/space/being is flowing. "There is no longer space that 'contains' the world, and there is no longer time 'in which' events occur. There are only elementary processes wherein quanta of space and matter continually interact with one another."

Which leads to the final item, phenomenology, and in particular what is often called the phenomenological reduction, formalized most briefly in a phrase by Jean-luc Marion: "Autant de r├ęduction, autant de donation" (As much reduction, as much givenness). For Marion, the more reduction is radicalized, the more givenness is deployed. And to my mind at least, this kind of reduction sounds quite a bit like the Trinitarian perichoretic insight, the quantum physical commitment to reality as and only interaction... because the more reality is reduced to its interactions, just so the more reality.

It used to be the case that quantum theory emphasized that reality didn't exist until you measured it. This is only about half right. For reduction, the measurement is the reality, giving itself precisely in the measurement of what wasn't.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Elon Musk, Paul's "document" to Galatia, Andrew Pettegree's Brand Luther, and Kant's Apperception of Reality

Paul’s letter to the Galatians likely ranks as one of the most important documents of all human history. It didn’t just change the people of Galatia—it accomplished a seismic shift in the relationship between Judaism and emerging Christianity, and established in nascent form a doctrine central to the church and especially to the Reformation—justification by faith apart from the works of the law. This is not to say that this letter clearly defined such a doctrine, only that it initiated a millennia long inquiry into the nature of the doctrine.

It’s a passionate letter. It may be an angry letter. It gives us Paul, warts and all. It’s a glorious letter, and none of us are unaffected by it. Hearing it in worship, preaching on it, offers the opportunity for us to explore how the gospel became the gospel, how the good news central to Christian faith can be comprehended with remarkable clarity, even as it requires faith to trust that grace is grace all the way down.

I'm always curious about the relationship between media and our perceptions of the world. I've been pondering documents and letters as mediums not only for communication, but actual cultural change, perhaps even with the power to shift reality itself, because I've been reading Andrew Pettegree's Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe--and Started the Protestant Reformation. Pettegree's book will itself not leave you alone in your assumptions about the Reformation and Luther. It's a wild book.

So Elon Musk said something pretty funny this past week, that there’s basically a one in a billion chance that we are in “base reality.” He puts the odds on our being in some advanced civilization’s “simulation.” 

It’s not surprising he would say this, on one level, because for quite a while now Western civilization has wondered if there is anything beyond our perception of reality. As early as Kant (or perhaps most influentially in Kant), people have thought that perhaps we can’t know reality itself, only our perception of it. 

Kant's philosophical inquiry into the mind's apperception of reality has had a profound influence on contemporary cognitive science. Basically, there is a difference between our representations of reality and reality itself, and in Kant and much of philosophy that follows after him, there's a long debate about where one can achieve a transcendental apperception of reality that gives us "reality itself" or the thing in itself.

Since Musk is kind of into computers, and lots of technology geeks tend to think computers are like our mind (it's actually quite amazing how much our models for things like computers tend to mimic our current brain models)  it’s no surprise that Musk and others take the Kantian supposition and apply it to computer modeling. 

In other words, just as Kant didn't believe one could achieve a real representation of reality outside of the apperception of the mind itself, Musk finds it unlikely philosophically speaking that there is a "base reality" outside of the apperception of the world itself if all worlds are really just our models/simulations of them rather than the thing in itself.

And what does all of this have to do with Galatians? Well, although most people don't really spend a lot of time reading Galatians, and wouldn't think to put it on a short list of the things that have influenced them the most, the truth is Galatians really is that important. In other words, all of our perceptions of things are so indelibly influenced by this little letter of Paul that we are not even aware of the extent to which it influences us. Like Musk's conversation about computer simulations, or Kant's questions about the minds influence on our perception of reality, our entire worldview is so influenced this 3098 word magna carta of Christian liberty that there's actually a one in billion chance that one could extricate oneself from its influence.

Which is a long and geeky argument for reading and engaging the letter, hearing sermons about it, studying it, and talking about it with friends. 

If you’d like to hear some good news, of God’s freeing work in Christ, the power of faith, inspiration for the kind of spirited love the community gathered in Christ can live as an extension of God’s own love, then join us the next five weeks, June 5th through July 3rd, for a summer series on Becoming the Gospel at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Suspecting the Church

There are good reason for lawyer jokes. Unethical and predatory lawyers are a real thing.

It's okay to dislike certain doctors. Some have horrible bedside manner.

There are good reasons to dislike politicians. Some politicians are incredibly crooked.

Similarly, it's good to notice, critique, and challenge the hypocrisy of the church, and clergy more specifically. Many of us deserve suspicion and challenge.

However, good hermeneuts of suspicion know that an inference from an abuse to a proper use is not valid (abusus non tollit usum). That is, don't draw hasty generalizations from weak premises.

If you meet a bad doctor, find a better one. Don't dismiss all doctors. If you're disillusioned with lawyers, let me or others introduce you to a few who regularly change the world for the better.

Dislike all politicians? Let me tell you stories about the work my grandpa did in the Iowa legislature.

As a pastor, I frequently run into people who have written off church altogether because of a specific experience or set of experiences in their past. When I hear their stories, I generally think a) they are right to be angry and disillusioned, and at the same time b) the solution to their pain is not less church but more.

I think there's a long list of things in this world the church is uniquely situated to do and be, and abandoning the church altogether won't get those things done. That list includes small things like:

  • Large-group singing in harmony while sitting in things called pews
  • Communion wafers
  • Multi-generational interaction
  • Gospel ensembles accompanied by drummers surrounded by plexiglass
  • A non-relative to visit you when you're in the hospital

If that were the whole list, I'd forgive anyone for giving up on church. But I can actually make what I think is a convincing case for the therapeutic value of church. Its not worth giving up on, and here are the reasons.

First, there's the theology. You simply cannot find any other community that has given such sustained attention to working out how to continue to articulate the apostolic community's experience that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. That's actually two reasons. 1) The church testifies to the resurrection, actual resurrection. What other discipline does that? And 2) it does so in each generation by attending to how it can keep testifying to the resurrection. That's theology, and it's kind of amazing.

Next, I believe Christianity is just about the only religion that contains seeds within it for real critique of religion. The problem with criticizing religion from outside of religion is the assumption that one could get outside of religion. But mostly you can't. So many who think they are free of religion are actually more beholden to their (largely unaware and unselfconscious) form of religiosity.

The amazing thing about Christianity (and this holds true for Judaism as well): It's sacred text is one long self-critique. There's no better resource for proving what a failure our religion is than our own Scripture. Want to know how bad our clergy are, how hypocritical we are, how lackluster our witness is? Just read the Bible.

Solidarity with the poor, honest to God neighbor-love, and the smashing of patron-client condescension: Although Christianity often bails on these, favoring like the rest of humanity worldly religions like the worship of wealth, love of relatives over neighbors, and celebration of all those who  climb to the top in order to patronize (these last become known as philanthropists), true Christianity stays at the bottom connected deeply to the poorest, open to love of neighbor, disregarding blood relations (Mark 3:33), nationality, and the like, and profoundly committed to the notion that we are all beggars in need of grace, and the one who has given grace became, in order to give, the greatest among all beggars (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Which is to say, the kind of Christianity that changes things contains within it the seeds of its own suspicion, radically undermining itself along the way, because its central figure, Christ, became poor and sin and all kinds of suspicious in order to form a community like him.

Anyone who has said, "I like your Christ, it is your Christians I do not like," has unfortunately missed out on the unlikeable Christ and may dislike Christians for the wrong reason.

Anyone who is suspicious of the church is right to be. But the right kind of suspicious church exists as the body of Christ in the world as the healing of the nations.