Saturday, May 19, 2018

How to do all the Christian things

A lot of people in my life and in my parish are new to Christianity or the life of the church. It's not unusual to be asked a rather straightforward question: "So, how do I do this thing?"

That's a big, sprawling, epic question... what do I do now that I'm a Christian?

It's a good question, a very good question, because Christianity is indeed a "way." And if you're new to it, your heart has been warmed and you feel called but you're still feeling out how to go about doing. The "way" is frequently fraught, sometimes glorious, and often even dangerous.

When I get asked this question, I kind of of want to respond, "I have no idea!"

But that's not really accurate. It's simply more like I've spent 45 years finding various ways to attempt life in Christ. Sometimes I fall into good habits. Other times I get lazy. Through it all, I rely on God's faithfulness. And I try really hard to avoid insipid, vacuous, or pollyanna forms of the faith.

Many people are seeking simple resources and practices they can engage that will help them deepen their faith. They've seen the faith modeled in all kinds of ways, and some of those ways are less than helpful. Much of pop Christianity is just about as edifying as pablum.

So on this particular point, I really do have a few recommendations. Four, to be exact.

But these are not going to be completely straightforward. I'm not going to point readers to the first thing they might grab if they go to the Christian bookstore, or pull up on television. I'd like this list to be idiosyncratic, and therefore a bit more helpful and sustaining. Think of these as various quirky ways to live our baptismal covenant.

Read a really old book (and a lot of other books)

I don't really have devotionals or workbooks to recommend, although I have nothing against them. I just find that reading books has been THE way that I come to a deeper understanding of Scripture. So, I recommend that everyone treat Christianity like continuing education, and find a way to read good books.

Start by reading the really old book. By which I mean the Bible. You might check out the new Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version (5th edition). That's a spectacular and meaty study bible that will serve you well for years. Or read the Lutheran Study Bible, and use the wide margins to write your notes.

Where should you start? Well, it doesn't hurt to start at the beginning, and go from there. Or use a reading plan for daily readings. Or if you've never read the bible much at all, you might just start by reading one gospel, like the gospel of Mark, and then keep reading that gospel over and over for a time, to become very familiar with it.

Besides reading the Bible, I recommend reading other books. Some parts of the bible are more neglected in our culture, so you might read something about The Forgotten Books of the Bible.

Or you might try to read a book that helps you hear how a community unlike your own reads the bible. Consider Reading the Bible With the Damned. Or read a book that synthesizes information about a character in the bible who is hard to understand but worth the time. Like N.T Wright's Paul the Apostle: A Biography.

It's also worthwhile to read book length treatments of how inspiring people attempt to live as Christians. I really like Kathleen Norris's A Cloister Walk, or Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution.

Finally, it's worth reading a book that really challenges your faith and assumptions. Since he recently died, and is the father of black liberation theology, I might recommend The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by James Cone.

Basically, just read a lot of books. If you want to keep getting more and more recommendations for good books, subscribe to a magazine like The Christian Century, which is always reviewing them.

Be with people (but not too much)

Christianity really is about other people. Remember that Jesus taught the greatest commandment was to love God, and another commandment was basically identical to it: love your neighbor as yourself. Bishop Curry preached an amazing sermon today on this very topic at the royal wedding.

I love the juxtapositions in the gospels that illustrate how Jesus did this loving. He loved the little place where he lived, that rural community along and around the Sea of Galilee. But then he also set his face towards a city (Jerusalem) and ultimately guided a community of faith who launched from that city to the ends of the earth, always striving towards indigenization so the gospel would find its way lovingly into the cultures it met.

One of the primary ways we do this "love one another" is in worship. There's a good reason so many of us commit to gathering for worship once a week. It works. It focuses on a specific gathered community, and imagines Jesus Christ walking among them. Not exclusively there, as if only that community could experience the presence of Christ and the love of God. But most definitely there.

In such community, we practice the main Christian practices. We give thanks. We forgive one another. We rejoice.

Bonhoeffer, in his doctoral dissertation on the holy community, had this to say: "The Spirit is only in the church-community, and the church-community is only in the Spirit" (144). And, "`To be in Christ' is synonymous with `to be in the church-community'" (Sanctorum Communio, 140). It takes some work to unpack that, but it's really true.

So find a church, commit to weekly worship among those people, love those people, and ideally find a couple of ways to contribute to that community so it is strengthened and vital.

Then also make sure to rest and pray on your own. Find time, even if brief moments, to do things that feed your soul and offer space for self-work. There are so many ways to do this, it's almost impossible to list them all, but at the very least you might pray the Jesus Prayer, or pray the Lord's Prayer, or practice silent meditation, or just go for a walk. Personally, I like to go on runs, and sometimes sit in the evening and just listen to jazz.

You might like to use a tool for daily prayer, like this one from Hawaii, or this one from Philadelphia.  

Say and do good things

Christianity is about sharing the faith that is within you and living that faith in your daily life. There's no one-size-fits-all formula for the way of this, and so much of it is about your own vocation and the work of connecting faith to your specific daily life.

But there is one thing I can recommend here of utmost importance, and it's this: trust that you live out your Christianity in your daily existence, not through special exertions. Christianity is not much about supererogation. So, if you're currently attending university, then the way you can do good as a Christian is to study, attend class, treat your classmates with respect, and earn your degree. If you work at a corporation, perform your role well and ethically, and you're living as a Christian.

The one way you are called to be different from those who are not people of faith is in your intention to do good in spite of the consequences. There are many ways we are tempted (especially in an economic system like neoliberalism) to pursue ends that are not themselves "good." But to fight against these things is not supererogation. It's simply integrity in the face of temptation.

And we're supposed to share the faith. Many Christians aren't very good at this, and those who are sometimes do it more for show than anything else. But authentic sharing of the faith is much like sharing about anything that brings you joy and gives you life. If you're telling people about your faith because it makes you happy, inspires you, and makes you a better person, then you're probably doing it right.

Don't do it to convert anyone. Nobody wants you to relate to them just so you can convert them. But everyone who relates to you wants to know the real you, and if your connection to God in Christ is part of what makes you you, then sharing about it is as natural as anything else.

Justice is what love looks like in public (Cornel West)

When Christians in our tradition make vows at their baptism, the last thing they promise is to work for justice and peace in all the world. It is this final vow of baptism that is especially squashed by our culture. First, much of Christianity has emphasized a kind of quietism that fails to live love in public. It's focused on simply getting along, and not making much of a fuss.

But much of contemporary Christianity is also simply fragile. In my own tradition, this is co-optation by white fragility in particular. Because for so long Christianity, and in particular white Christianity, has been the dominant mode, many have assumed their way is the only and right way. So in the face of challenge, the fragile retreat, get defensive, and close down. In doing so, they fail to seek ways forward in the way of Jesus that challenge themselves and their own fragility for the sake of their neighbor (which we are called, remember, to love).

If justice is what love looks like in public, then in addition to the private familial love we are called to practice in our families and places of worship, we are called at the civic level and in the polis to works of justice, which is the form of love in public life.

This will be the most difficult answer to the question, How do I do this Christian thing? Because to do the Christian thing in public, you'll have to be committed, together with others, to the slow and arduous work of justice. For that work, I can suggest nothing better than to connect to networks committed to such justice. You might start with the social justice networks in your own denomination, and then expand out to ecumenical networks like the Poor Peoples' Campaign, or Sojourners.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

One day [pastoring] in middle America

This is not going to be short. But it will be as honest and clear as I know how to write it.

And I'm going to start with a question I fielded recently on self-love.

Does Jesus teach self-compassion? Or was Jesus only all about compassion for “The Other” and about self-sacrificing oneself to the point of severe abuse and death?

First, one thing you are raising here is basically the feminist Christian critique of historical Christianity, which emphasized pride as the cardinal sin.

A LOT of feminist theology points out that if pride is the main sin, then we elevate self-abnegation as a virtue. But that's problematic, because so many women are self-abnegating to the point of losing themselves.

So, in the feminist theological tradition, they find resources in Christian theology and Scripture that point out that the loss of self is as much a danger as too prideful of a self, and they see in Jesus a model for the balance or centered life that is both self-loving and self-denying. Or something like that.

To me, there's a LOT in the gospels about Jesus' self-love. First of all, he seems so regularly at peace and comfortable with himself.

Second, he doesn't try to do and be everything to everyone. For example, there were probably thousands of lepers around, but he healed only a few. Similarly, when he would get overwhelmed by crowds, he would go off to quieter places to pray. He regularly changes location or context in order to care for himself and the people around him.

It is true that he ultimately sets his face for Jerusalem, and knows the consequences of that, but he prays right up until the last minute for that cup to be taken away from him. He doesn't want to die. And it seems he is able to be as bold as he is because he loves himself AND knows he is loved by God. Remember that at his baptism, there's the voice, "This is my beloved Son." Given that God is Trinity, this means that self-love and self-care is built into God in Godself, as it were.

Now to the one day [pastoring] in middle America

Monday was not an easy day. Just two days prior, our church was full of mourners commemorating the life of a young member of our congregation. Our sister in Christ was remembered by most of us for her smile and her strength as an activist. She did life together so regularly with so many of us, the grief of her loss was especially profound. We wanted and needed space (and still need space) to simply mourn. But because she was also transitioning gender, some of that was highlighted, especially in the media, where news articles about her death kept emphasizing her gender identity rather than her person.

This made my function as pastor complicated. I wanted to make sure and offer comfort and support to many in the LGBTQ+ community impacted by her death, while also not over-emphasizing this one facet of her life. She was a whole person just as she was. She was baptized into Christ, and also wonderfully open to other faiths.

As the pastor, it was my role to steward a memorial that would honor her, give thanks for her life, comfort her family (who I was just getting to know) and her friends (many of whom belong either to our church, or the wider networks of which many of us were a part). And in the meantime, navigate my own grief and anguish.

Then, having mourned, my job was to wake up Sunday, shift gears, and celebrate the confirmation of our junior high youth, pray for mothers on Mother's Day, preach a sermon about the Ascension, and enjoy the Mother's Day holiday. None of this was a burden, because it was all honestly so joyous, and with people I love. But it did require a massive shift in my emotional and cognitive landscape.

Finally, we come to Monday, the difficult day. Arriving at 8:15 a.m. for Morning Prayer, I prayed with our little group of retirees who then stay and do "Spit and Shine" duties around the church. Having prayed with them, I went to the office to work on (in conversation with our office manager and some volunteers) the content of our new church web site.

After an hour focused on the web site, I met my fellow carpoolers for a long round trip drive to Little Rock. Why Little Rock? Well, to gather with others for the launch of the Arkansas Poor Peoples' Campaign. So off we went, crossing the Ozark mountains down into central Arkansas.

And here's where things get complex. We stopped at a Wendy's for lunch. Imagine the scene. I'm standing with Lowell Grisham, the retired Episcopal rector from Fayetteville. He's wearing a white collar. I'm wearing the same kind of collar, but mine is wrapped in a rainbow, a piece of art lovingly designed by folks from church.

A woman approaches us and asks, "What does your collar mean?" My answer: "Well, it means the same thing as his." Point to Lowell. Smile. Prepare to explain more. She says, "Yes, but does it... mean... what I think it means?" Me: "Yes, it does, it's a pride thing."

End of conversation. The woman harumphs, and storms out of the Wendys.

It was then I realized we weren't in Fayetteville anymore. And it reminded me how hard it is to live in this America when you don't conform to the "norms."

We continued our drive down to Little Rock. We stood in the 90 degree heat together with our community, launching the campaign with speeches and banners and signs and chants and a march that concluded with civil disobedience.

If you don't know anything about the Poor Peoples' Campaign, I recommend a pause at this point. Go to their web site, and read a bit around in it. Then come back.

Are you back? Great! So let me tell you, I'm in complete 100% agreement with the focus of the PPC. We have deep unaddressed issues in our nation, especially focused around race, poverty, a war economy, and environmental degradation. I probably have my own list of concerns that expand out into immigration and class, but even those issues are encompassed in various ways by the PPC. So, I'm all in on their goals.

I'm less in on the strategy, especially the civil disobedience. I'm fine supporting others when they decide to engage in civil disobedience, but I'm not yet ready myself to engage in it, at least not until such disobedience is done in order to fight against an actual unjust law.

This is where joining with others in a common cause becomes so very fraught. I'd like to design my own campaign, do it "my way." To struggle alongside others means compromise, accompaniment, care. As we walked the streets of Little Rock on the way to the location for the civil disobedience, I kept lifting half-articulate prayers... for the safety of those who would be arrested... in confusion over my own unwillingness to get arrested... in puzzlement over why I have trouble, from my privileged perspective, seeing with eyes wide open.

And I can see two different issues. We want to build a coalition, and building a coalition means meeting people where they are at. Many people are not ready for civil disobedience. On the other hand, my community, the people with whom I identify, tend to believe we aren't disrupting things enough. They'd like to engage in even more civil disobedience, of the disruptive kind, and I don't disagree with them.

This is where neoliberalism comes in, and the critique of it, so now I invite you to read a quick book review, and then return. It will help you understand why I think it is so complicated to be a pastor in the 21st century, probably anywhere, but especially in middle America.

Are you back?! Great! Just in case you didn't read the whole review, let me offer a short snippet:
The challenge of caring for souls: 
is not the effort to fix discrete personal problems or even to redress specific injustices. It is, rather, to aid people, individually and collectively, in finding their footing—to articulate the deep meanings that ground their lives and to strengthen healthy collectives and social movements that hold some residue of transcendent values. 
Rogers-Vaughn believes that much of therapy and counseling (including pastoral care) colludes with neoliberalism. He identifies collusive care as that which emphasizes

adaptation to society (rather than resistance), functioning in accord with the values of production and consumption (rather than communion and wholeness in relation to others and the earth), symptoms relief (rather than meaning-making), and accepting personal responsibility (rather than interdependent re­liance within the web of human relationships).
Our ride back to Fayetteville was highly energized. We had a lot to discuss... about neoliberalism, the efficacy of direct action, the goals of the campaign. Then suddenly, we were back at the church, and I was walking right into the pastoring stuff, needing to shift gears once again.

Because Monday night was a BBQ put on by Shine Solar, the company currently installing our solar panels at the church. Hopping out of the car, I barely have time to say goodbye to my traveling companions, when I am caught up in conversation with the Americorps volunteers currently staying at our church (yes, in addition to worship and Sunday school and offices and such, our church is also currently housing an 11-member Americorps team), then a hello to the families coming out from the sanctuary after the high school choir concert held there, then more hellos to visiting families, and congregational members hosting the event, and some conversations about the solar with the sales team from Shine Solar, and some chasing of small children whose favorite game is "get the pastor to chase us."

Somewhere in there, I ate a burger, and eventually tried to get home in time to see the family before bedtime.

This whole time, and throughout the day (and this is an essential part of this blog post, notice that this is all woven into the day, from sun-up to sun-down), I've also fielded e-mails and phone calls and texts on at least the following items:

  • A family struggling through divorce
  • People grieving the death of a musician in town (the officiant is Lowell)
  • Questions about whether I believe in the actual resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • Some back and forth about the new screen for the sanctuary
  • More grief conversations
  • Planning the Interfaith Camp we're hosting
  • Scheduling an interview for a documentary about immigration to Northwest Arkansas
  • A conversation about self-love and Christianity (I'll post content from that below)
  • Scheduling the opera group who will be doing a special pop-up performance Pentecost Sunday

Now, I'm not complaining about any of this, mind you. The breadth of it all is part of what I love about the job. But by the time you consider the grief, the campaign, the drive, the solar, the various pastoral ministry concerns, the relational demands, the news of the day, etc. you can see just how broad the scope is of this pastoral work in the 21st century.

It's a miracle I handle any of it correctly at all. Only by the grace of God. And I constantly fail. Like all the time.

I also happen to think that this unique combination of ministry roles all in a short few days illustrates the extent to which our congregation is figuring out how to do all of this "ministry" stuff faithfully in a dramatically shifting cultural context. Because these days, the whole preaching and praying in public thing is more fraught than ever before.

Tuesday was my day to at least kind of try to process everything. I got up right away and had coffee with Emily Linn, the director of Canopy NWA. It's always good to sit down with her to talk. We've had a lot of refugees arrive in the past few weeks. We're blessed by their presence. We're also quite worried about the future of refugee resettlement in the United States, as the folks who currently have the power to make decisions on refugee admissions don't seem to have the moral will to commit to significant admissions (watch for a speech from Mike Pence some time soon).

And we talked about the uptick in hate related actions against our Muslim neighbors in the past few weeks. Given that Ramadan starts this week, I spent that coffee conversation brainstorming the many ways I might be able to be a good neighbor to my Muslim friends.

Then I went to the office, worked on logistics for our trip to the national youth gathering, edited a litany for Pentecost Sunday, prayed for Palestinians, for Israel, and for all the things. Worked on the curriculum for the interfaith camp.

And then I went bowling. With our sound tech at church and some guys from church, all of whom work in the music scene in Fayetteville. We'd been trying to get together socially for a couple of months, and a lunch bowling date turned out to be the ticket. We spent the time reminiscing about their friend they'd lost (the one whose funeral Lowell was officiating). We threw heavy balls down a wooden lane and ate BLTs.

Then I came home, and went on a run, and drafted the outline of this blog post, and tried to rake leaves on a remaining section of the yard that has been neglected because life and ministry has left little time for simple, mundane work. Further illustration that I'm still trying to figure this whole thing out.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

A Dry Spell and a New Blog

Something this spring has contributed to a lot less focus, so not as much new content has arrived at Lutheran Confessions. In the meantime I have been at work on a new blog and web site, a partnership with some blogging co-authors. You can check out new content there, including a new post on Illegal Theologians: