Friday, October 24, 2014

The Under-35 Theses


https://www.flickr.com/photos/kvwcreations/7799433726/


Brothers and Sisters, grace to you and peace from the Triune God.

This month’s issue of The Lutheran, a monthly publication of our denomination (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), is set to publish a front page cover article by Charles Austin, called “Get set for clergy retirement wave.” Upon reading the article, we thought that it would be helpful for us, two millennial future pastors (one actively in the call process, and the other on a concluding vicarage), to respond. It was an article that we found to be problematic at best, and disheartening at worst.

The article, while mostly about the numbers, has a tone to it that we are troubled by. Early on, Bishop Barrow notes that he will soon be retiring the “All-Star team” from his synod.  We are happy to note that this is likely true, because we have met many of these pastors who are in this age group, pastors and others who are great leaders. On the other hand, and while we are nearly positive that Bishop Barrow didn’t intend it this way, the comment conveys that the grief over the loss of older pastors that is not nearly equaled by any sort of enthusiasm for what younger pastors are bringing to the table. We know many friends and colleagues that are already in ministry, and they are All-Stars too, doing the hard work of transforming dying Churches, planting new ones, and nurturing faithful and healthy ones.

These are fantastic leaders: pastors, deaconesses, diaconal ministers, AIM’s, and youth workers, who are Gen-Xers and younger, that grew up in a world and a church that was more secular, more skeptical, less institutional and yet still have committed to the long and hard work of being leaders in the Church in a new era. Not only that, we are glad to say that the American Lutheran church of Christendom is dying, a church marked by “Scandinavian” jokes, cultural enclaves, Lake Wobegon stoicism, and endless conflict over any number of issues.

Eric, even as a cradle Lutheran, did his seminary work outside the ELCA, and has come to experience much of our cultural enclave as a barrier to those who are not Lutheran. His experience in a vibrant, transformative campus ministry kept him here, yet he watched as its partner synods cut funding. Emmy came to Lutheranism in college, not drawn by the smell of lefse or the wisdom of the senior pastor but by the incredible and palpable joy of young adult Lutherans who came to worship and to service with serious delight in their vocation and faith.

The writer, and Rev. Winder, an assistant to the Bishop in NW Washington, comment on grief over the loss of the wisdom and skill: “As those pastors leave the scene, some connection between congregations and synods and nearby clergy might also be lost," Winder said. “We will lose,” she added, “the collegial relationships built up over the years.” These comments seem to convey that we do not possess the ability, and apparently need 20+ years of ministry, to build these relationships across denominations, across congregations and synods, and also with other leaders. Yet every generation of leaders has had to do this, and we have been doing this too.  We take this seriously in an age when being a Christian is no longer culturally normative, and when collaboration and innovation is of utmost importance.  We are the internet generation, after all -- we have gone through adolescence and young adulthood with our friends and mentors constantly accessible by Instant Messenger, pager, text, Facebook, SnapChat.  We know just as well how to build and maintain networks where we encourage, empower, and challenge each other.

There is also this question about older clergy continuing to put off their retirement into their late 60’s and early 70’s, some of whom have the means to retire, but are active and healthy. While we certainly understand those who worry about their financial standing and the impact of a recession and slow recovery on their ability to retire, the article makes clear that there are some who can, but choose not to, retire. What we would ask is this: at what point is their wisdom in moving aside and creating space and opportunities for new clergy to have sustainable calls even if you are fully able to continue? Jewish Rabbinical thought bears the idea of the Tzimtzum, which is the idea that God had to remove Godself to create space for creation of something new. What if instead of holding on to calls simply because “one can,” that retirement would be viewed as an opportunity to be mentors and teachers to first-call pastors, seminarians, and candidates for ordination. We as a Church have sought to think about “first-call” health and education, maybe we need to think about “healthy” retirement and providing opportunities for retired clergy to step aside, but still be valued and expected to contribute to those just beginning their work in Word, Sacrament, and Service.

Beyond that, age is never an indicator of wisdom or skill, as the recent Nobel Peace prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, has shown so clearly. What has shown wisdom, skill, and respect is that many of these older pastors have sought to be our  supervisors, mentors, and colleagues, hoping to convey their wisdom and friendship to those of us just beginning this journey. This is not a death of some special generation of pastors and the emergence of a newer, greater one, but is yet the beautiful turnover and transition from generation to generation. We are proud to call these people our friends and colleagues, and are filled with joy to be carrying on the ministry that they have carried these years.  As a friend of ours (another millennial pastor) wrote:
“As a new clergy who was born post-merger, the tone gave an impression that my role in ministry is not substantial because I have not developed 20+ years of relationships yet. It carried an air of 'bemoaning.' The questions it raised for me, as said post-merger pastor, is how do clergy learn from each other, celebrating ministry through generations? What gifts will soon have room to flourish now that a generation is retiring and there will be room for a new one (especially since the teaching techniques in the seminaries was very different for each group)? Where is the hope amidst the statistics that promote fear?”
There is also this question of institutional memory -- that it is problematic that our "young pastors" do not possess it.  We would argue that this lack of institutional knowledge is actually a thing of beauty, because we do not remember an era of Churches that were marked primarily in difference by their immigrant heritage and polity.   We were born in 1988 and 1985, respectively.  We did not come to know the ELCA as a merger denomination but as our home. We have the gift and the challenge of being able to discover the beautiful pieces of our heritage (a heritage, we would note, that has 500 years of institutional memory) and carry them forward, while being able to leave behind some of the pieces that have been problematic in the aftermath of the creation of our beautiful and cantankerous Church.  We want to carry the theological and reforming memory of our church forward, but are more ambivalent about the memory of an institution that might not be helpful.

We had already been discussing this issue privately, calling it (sarcastically) "The Nadia Problem".  We have witnessed the rise and popularity, and celebrated the work of Nadia Bolz-Weber, but we also have an issue with it.  Not because of anything she has said or done, or because she is tattooed, crass-mouthed, or too progressive or too orthodox, but because she does not represent the actual ELCA.  She has been raised up and celebrated as a voice, particularly before our youth and young adults, as "a new way of doing church," putting the "evangelical" in "Evangelical", and so on.  Then we send kids home from Youth Gatherings and college weekends and seminary visits to places where church continues in much the same way it always has.  We love that Pastor Nadia speaks of a church without committees, where anyone is invited to help craft their celebration of Lent and Holy Week -- but most of our churches are still maintained and guided by specific people and rigid time commitments.  Pastor Nadia offers up the voices of her LGBTQ members in a compelling and moving video about their experiences in church, while a good part of the ELCA is still wrestling with "the 2009 vote".  "The Nadia Problem" is that she is being promoted as an example without churchwide acknowledgement that she is actually an exception, and that the Spirit-led and community-based construction of House for All Sinners and Saints has not even begun to move into the churches now fretting about the loss of their "All-Star Team."

Our concern, which again is brought up by this article, is that because Nadia has become an example, it allows the institution to use her image and ministry while still largely continuing on its own path, rife with institutional anxiety and attitudes of scarcity, and bemoaning the loss of a generation of institutional pastors.  We continue to produce leaders equipped to explain what it means to be Lutheran (using our institutional memory), when what the world hungers for is a real and meaningful experience of a God worthy of worship and service. What we pray and yearn for is not an institution with one Nadia as an example, but a transformational generation of leaders of all ages that are able to cope and proclaim the Gospel as well as she has.

Instead of concerns about retirements, systems of scarcity and anxiety, and what feels like bemoaning the loss of a “golden age,” we ought to foster language and leadership systems that value the outsider perspectives of young leaders while also valuing the importance and continued relevance of those who have gone before us, as we try to navigate our Lutheran identity in this strange, new world.

We think, in the end, that this article could have done much a better job at showing the collegiality between generations of leaders, the hope of new leadership, and creative ideas for the contributions of retiring clergy. Young leaders are of great value to our church, particularly because of the rapid rate of cultural change that has occurred since the birth of the ELCA. The innovative ideas that young leaders (both ordained and lay) can bring to our worship, programs, structure, and congregational life should be celebrated as greatly as the gifts of the "older generation" whose retirement is impending.

And instead of bemoaning the loss of older clergy, we might pair those nearing retirement with those entering first call (something Eric had the joy of experiencing in a form in SE Michigan). Let’s create spaces of interaction and value the voices of those under 35 in a way that is not patronizing, nor is na├»ve, but values their outlook on ministry and innovation. And let’s not just cast off retiring clergy, but value their ministry and wisdom in real and tangible ways. Instead of the dangerous nostalgia that can be found lurking across our church, we should be focused on the hard work of faithfulness to the Gospel regardless of age or experience, and be attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit in this era of the church, and this formulation of the Lutheran tribe.

Here we stand, we can do no other,

Emmy Kegler and Eric Worringer

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Offensively More than Fair: A sermon for Humble Walk on Matthew 20:1-16

When Humble Walk came into worship this afternoon, they were greeted with a table full of index cards and markers.  They were invited to fold them in half, write their name, and then fold them into little chairs to push around a paper table.


---

A reading from Matthew chapter 20, verses 1 through 16.

Jesus said,

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning, around six o’clock, to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the laborers for the denarius--the usual daily wage--he sent them into his vineyard.

When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing around idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”  So they went.

When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.

And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?”

They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.”

He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”

When evening came, about six o’clock, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.”

When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received a whole denarius, the wage of a full day’s work.  Now when the first workers came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a single full denarius.  And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last people worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us -- we who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

But the landowner replied to each one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius each?  Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

---

I asked for volunteers, both "under-14s" and "over-14s" as Humble Walk knows its children/youth and adults.  I had about seven.  I asked three of them to come forward, joining me next to the altar, and to stand on one leg.  I told them they could switch if they wanted to.

It’s just not fair.

How often do we hear that in a week?  Parents, show of hands?  From the moment we learn the meaning of the word, we start figuring out what in the world is right and wrong based on fairness.  It’s not fair that she gets a bigger piece just because she’s older.  It’s not fair that he gets the same size piece when he’s younger!  It’s not fair that he gets a bigger allowance, that she gets to stay up later, that his bike is newer.

When I was little, I thought things would get increasingly more fair as I got older.  Most of the unfairness was distributed by clearly ignorant adults, but once I was in charge, everything was going to be perfectly fair.  And then I got older and it turns out that the world doesn’t get more fair -- it gets more complicated.

Like:  is it fair that a book at Barnes and Noble, where I work, costs $2.50 more in store than it does online?  Does it matter that stores have to have pretty-looking shelves and light fixtures and free wi-fi and employees who answer your questions?  What’s fair?

And on a larger scale, is it fair what's happened in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, and is it fair what's happening with the Vikings and Adrian Peterson, and what about Ray Rice and the charges of domestic assault, and is it fair that America wants to enter Iraq to fight the Islamic State, and … is it fair that these questions exhaust me and I’d rather not think about them?

In the midst of all this I am at least expecting God to be fair.  You know?  Church is a place that we talk about justice and righteousness.  Which sounds something like fairness.  Something not like a group project where you do all the work and someone else gets the A.  And I would like God to do the heavy lifting on this one.  I would like God to figure out what it is fair, and to dole it out in perfect accordance with our work and our lives and our needs and our wants.  I would like God to be the grownup I always thought I was going to be.

And then Jesus tells this story:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning…”

I asked for two more volunteers to come forward and stand on one leg.

God sits right down in the middle of us and tells a story that is vastly unfair.  In the face of a world that is big and confusing, a world that seems like it is always less than fair, it is just maddening that God tells one more story of un-fair-ness.  Of people getting paid way more than they’re worth, while others had to slave under the hot sun to earn the same wage.

Jesus uses money as a metaphor for the kingdom.  This is risky, because money and church can make us very, very tense.  And money isn’t just doled out for fun -- we get paid for chores, and then cupcakes, and then babysitting, and so on down the line.  Money is paid out in proportion to work.  And money is limited -- it doesn’t grow on trees.  If you pay someone for more than they’re worth -- for two hours of babysitting when they only did one -- you have that much less to go around.

So there’s a beautiful danger in using it as a metaphor for the kingdom, because it reveals two things that I sometimes fall into thinking about God's grace:  that it’s deserved, and that it’s scarce.

Much as I will pretend I don’t actually think this way, I know there have been times when I believed that God’s grace was something I deserved.  I have believed in my own power.  Like this grace thing is nice for everyone else but I am actually one of the few people perfectly capable of earning my way into God’s grace.  Which means any time I feel distant from God, or lonely, or hurt, it’s my job to pick myself up off the floor and work my own way back into happiness.

And I have definitely acted like God’s grace is scarce.  And I know there have been times when I have seethed at the thought of one particular person getting any grace.  There are people in my life who I just do not want in “my” church.  Or any church.  Or maybe just existing, at all.  Simply knowing they are somewhere out there eating lunch or checking Facebook or smiling is sickening.  Somehow their joy takes away from mine, like we’re all getting smaller and smaller slices of a limited pie.

Look, it’s simple, I just want God to be fair.

I asked the last couple of volunteers to come forward and stand on one leg.

And here is the stinky, annoying, offensive truth:  God is more than fair.  Grace is not deserved or scarce.  Grace is not a reward for my good work from a limited bag of gold.  There is enough in the landowner’s pockets to pay a line of workers from here to the moon, and he will keep right on doling out those coins not because of our hard work but out of foolish, abundant, ridiculous generosity.  Grace is enough, is so much more than enough, and God will keep on handing it out.

It is so unfair.  And thank God.  Thank God that in a world that is so much less than fair, we have a God that is so much more than.

Grace is doled out in offensive doses, abundant and everpresent.  Nobody earns it, and nobody can lose it.  This is why we talk about dying and rising every single day -- remembering our baptism every time we wash our face in the morning or at night -- because every day we are just as baptized as everyone else.  No more and no less.  No matter what we did the day before, we all receive the same gifts each morning:
- Forgiveness of sins.
- Rescue from death and the Devil.
- Eternal salvation.
Paid out to each of us, a day’s wage for a day’s work, no matter if we put in one hour or ten.  Nobody earns it, and it never runs out.

I hand out, to each one-legged volunteer, a silver foil wrapped chocolate coin.

Rest in that, for a moment.  Rest in the offensive beauty of free grace.

As I had the volunteers return to their seats, I passed out chocolate coins to the remaining Humble Walkers.

There is so much there.  So much love, and hope, and joy in the land of God which is more than fair.

But it comes at a cost.  Well, maybe not a cost -- a challenge.  A nudge.  A little tugging at your heart.

Because if this grace is really free, doled out abundantly and ridiculously by a landowner with pockets that never run out … that’s a challenge to us, isn’t it?  A little nudge to say:  Live like it’s not deserved.  Live like it’s really grace, like it’s free, like there is not one thing you can do to earn it.  

A little nudge to say:  Live like it’s not scarce.  Live like it’s really free to everyone, even the people you don’t like.  Or even the people you hate.  Live like we’re all working in the same vineyard, standing in the same line, receiving the same wage at the end of the day.  That same wage of forgiveness and deliverance and salvation.

That’s the dangerous offer with grace:  there’s that little tugging at your heart saying Live like this table, this communion altar, is a preview of the great big dinner table to come.  Where we sit in the kingdom of God with those who’ve gone before us -- our grandparents, and our pets, and all the saints -- but also with those who drive us bonkers.  There is a place for everyone.

And there is a seat for you.  Not because of anything you did but because God is abundant and more than fair in love.  

God’s table is very, very big.

Have a seat.

Amen.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Theology on Tap


Theology on Tap, Theology Pub, Bible & Brew... the concept goes by many names.  I was first introduced to it as the Progressive Christian Fellowship, a loosely associated group of Olaf students who gathered on Tuesday evenings to drink tea and talk.  We leaders came with a question or a topic, and things spun off from there for the next hour.  We wrestled together with the intersection of faith and life, of logic and story, of theology and Bible, of the contemporary world and the traditions of the church, and everything in between.

Theology on Taps engage in the same practices:  opening a space to all people, from any walk of life, of any faith commitment, to discuss what it means to be a faithful person in the face of the world.  For working adults, it's often easy if the Tap is hosted in a bar or restaurant on a weekday evening.  In other cases, it's better for the group to meet over coffee during the day.  The essential ingredient isn't the brew but the people -- a worshipping community (and their friends and family) gathered to discuss the life of faith.

I had the honor of re-starting a Theology on Tap at my internship congregation along with a member who was a deep thinker with a huge heart.  It was an amazing experience to work with him, discussing topics and planning the evening, and we had pretty solid attendance -- between 12 and 20 one evening each month, from a church of 120 members.  I've also been able to visit some other Theology on Taps around the Twin Cities, and to work with some of the pastors who lead them.

So here's what I've seen work:

Build a core group.  Starting small is fine; you can set the tone for the long-term if you lay the foundation well.  Find the philosophers in your congregation, the readers, the writers, the artists, the parents, the lifelong Lutherans, the curious friends and family at the edges.  Get a beer together.  Listen to their stories and their faith walks.  What are the questions bubbling up in your community?  Where are the themes of wondering?  Your leaders don't have to be clergy, or seminarians, or professors or teachers.  Leaders are defined by willing minds and open hearts.  Do they love people?  Can they speak clearly and openly about their questions?  Can they invite others into the space -- even if the others disagree?

* Build a relationship with your space.  You're bringing a crowd into a restaurant for a couple hours. Please, please, from someone who has known and loved many servers:  do not do this on a Friday night.  They need that big table.  Nor should you show up to a bar with 15 people unannounced on a Monday.  Best practices looked like:
- We called around to local restaurants, and talked to the manager about a day and time that would be best for them.  Weeknights were usually less busy.  Some restaurants have private rooms or more secluded areas; if we could afford them (or if they were free!) we preferred those, both for our own comfort and to reduce noise level for other restaurant patrons.
- We set a specific day, time, and place and kept it consistent (e.g., 7pm on the first Thursday of every month).
- We set up a Facebook event two weeks before that first Thursday, and invited all past attendees plus anyone else we wanted.
- We called a week before to confirm that we would be bringing a large group at 7pm on Thursday.
- We called the day before to give the closest estimate we could in re: number of people.
- We arrived on time for our reservation.
- We kept our noise level down.

Build a relationship with your server.  We told our servers why were there, engaged them in conversation, were always polite and had our orders ready.  Hospitality--both giving and receiving--is a central part of the Christian life, and we tried to receive our servers with grace and love.

This last part I cannot emphasize enough, and Rev. Jodi Houge of Humble Walk says it best:  They will know we are Christians by our tips.

Remember this? Don't be this guy.
Or this guy.
Be who you are where you are.
- At Progressive Christian Fellowship, we raised up questions and let the group run.  We rarely came with handouts.  We met in a campus lounge and sometimes brought videos or music.
- With Light of the World, we sat at a long table in the middle of Applebees; often those at one end couldn't hear those at the other, or even in the middle.  We couldn't do a lecture, so we prepared handouts with information and questions.  People gathered into groups of 4-6 and worked through the material together.  We couldn't have played music or videos, but we could put them on the Facebook page.
- At Humble Walk, we have a back room where we can easily have a leader/teacher and small groups at tables.  Many of our presenters were local seminary professors, and they brought handouts.  Music would've been fine, too.

Prepare your people.  In that Facebook event, we'd often post the theme for the night, and if we'd prepared a handout we tried to upload it before the event (and definitely after) so that people could see what we'd be talking about.

Set group rules for conversation.  Some of ours looked like:
We pray before we begin (in one context), because it sets the tone for conversation:  we pray for the Spirit to open our hearts, and we remind ourselves to be kind and compassionate.
We don't pray before we begin (in another context), because it isolates or turns off the "seekers" who have joined us not as "worshipping members of the community" but as friends and family who want to see what this theology pub thing is all about, but they're not really sure about churchy language, and please don't tell me I'm going to Hell for not being sure...
- We try not to say "Everyone knows..." or "The Bible says...".  We say "I ..." or "When I read the Bible I hear...".  We speak for ourselves, and we recognize we speak from our own experience.  We recognize we may not be right -- in fact we openly consider the possibility that we could be wrong.
Everyone has a voice, and leaders guide the group.  Someone may be presenting information, or asking guiding questions, or passing out handouts.  But everyone at the table has something to bring, and their thoughts, questions, convictions, and hopes are a gift to us.  Leaders are not just teachers -- they are people with good ears and compassionate hearts.
Our theology sets the table.  My Theology on Taps have been primarily in Lutheran settings, and that's the perspective that guides the leaders.  Others are welcomed, even desired, but we know also that there is a tradition that longs to speak to us.
This is conversation, not conversion.  No one should walk away feeling ashamed for what they brought with them.  No one's faith or salvation status would be questioned by the group.  This is a safe space to bring our whole selves -- our brokenness, our doubts, our fears, our questions.
This is group theology, not group therapy.  That same brokenness and fear and questions can make a group unsafe.  We tried to respect each other, to share the time we had together, to not monopolize the conversation with our own agendas or long stories.  This took time, and it took courageous leaders who could steer the conversation back.  It was worth it.

Be attentive to those for whom this doesn't work.  Parents who can't get babysitters; those in recovery who can't do bars; those who work in the evenings; those for whom a group discussion is overwhelming or terrifying.  We can't plan perfectly nor accommodate everyone, but we can keep the discussion open -- posting documents, videos, and reflections to the Facebook page and in the church newsletter, for example.



Every worshipping community is different, and it can be tricky to share handouts and documents that have been planned for one context for use in another.  That said -- here are the materials we used at Light of the World's Theology on Taps.

This post liberally borrows ideas from Humble Walk's similar post.

Share your own ideas, experiences, or documents in the comments.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Summer of Scripture: Jeremiah, whores, and addiction

Episcopal priest friends in Madison are leading a group of young adults in a Bible read-through this summer -- the whole Bible in 90 days.  I joined them from a distance, and although my commitment to the project has varied (I made three videos to introduce the first three books of the Bible, then got caught up looking for work and other such endeavors, got back on track, got off track, read almost the entirety of Isaiah in one day to get back on track...) I am currently on schedule to finish reading the Bible the whole way through by August 31st.

[  It's funny, all things considered, to think of having a Master of Divinity degree, and a bachelor's in religion, and having taught Sunday School since I was 14 and being an intern pastor for 21 months ... I still haven't read the whole of the Bible.  Some parts I know so well they're memorized (most of the gospels that are read in the lectionary, for example).  Some parts I know almost as a joke (like Elisha commanding two she-bears to maul 42 taunting boys in 2 Kings 2).  Some parts I am more aware of because I've read about them.  And some parts have come as -- not quite a surprise, but definitely as something new.  ]

Now, almost two-thirds of the way through (and with time on my hands), I wanted to blog about Jeremiah.

Jeremiah the book full of condemnations against the nation of Israel / Judah; they have turned their back on worshipping God and caring for each other.  
  • "I will utter my judgments against them,
    for all their wickedness in forsaking me;
    they have made offerings to other gods,
    and worshipped the work of their own hands."
    -Jer 1:16
  • "Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem;
    look around and take note!
    Search its squares and see
    if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth."
    -Jer 5:1
Jeremiah the prophet is preaching in the midst of Israel and Judah's takeover by Babylon, which he (and other prophets) interprets as a consequence for the sins of idolatry and injustice.  
  • "For thus says the LORD of hosts:
    Cut down her trees; cast up a siege ramp against Jerusalem.
     This is the city that must be punished;
    there is nothing but oppression within her."
    -Jer 6:6
  • "Because you have not obeyed my words,
    I am going to send for all the tribes of the north, says the LORD,
    even for King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, my servant,
    and I will bring them against this land
    and against all these nations around;
    I will utterly destroy them,
    and make them an object of horror of hissing,
    and an everlasting disgrace."
    -Jer 25:8
Things get really, really violent in the book, both against Israel and Judah and against their enemies.  If people generalize that "the Old Testament God is angry and wrathful and hateful," Jeremiah can be the proof-text:
  • "The LORD will roar from on high,
    and from his holy habitation utter his voice;
    he will roar mightily against his fold,
    and shout, like those who tread grapes,
    against all the inhabitants of the earth.
    The clamor will resound to the ends of the earth,
    for the LORD has an indictment against the nations;
    he is entering into judgment with all flesh,
    and the guilty he will put to the sword."
    - Jer 25:30-31
  • "For thus says the LORD:
    Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous.
    There is no one to uphold your cause,
    no medicine for your wound, no healing for you."
     - Jer 30:12-13
  • Babylon doesn't escape judgment in the end, either:
    "Do not spare her young men; utterly destroy her entire army.
    They shall fall down slain in the land of the Chaldeans,
    and wounded in her streets."
    - Jer 51:3-4
I've been through a rough year, and I've been awful to some people, and some people have been awful to me.  So in coming to Jeremiah, I tried to read with my feet in two places:  one, standing in the role of a defied and heartbroken God, who was filled with anger at the lies and mistreatment in the people;  two, in the place of an oppressed and heartbroken people who (like Jeremiah) hated the Israelite perversions that corrupted their worship and the Babylonian invaders who destroyed their home.

I was not really able to do this.

I love the calls for justice in Jeremiah, and there are many:
  • "Let those who boast boast in this,
    that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD;
    I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth,
    for in these things I delight."
    - Jer 9:24
  • "Are you a king because you compete in cedar?
    Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness?
    Then it was well with him.
    He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well.
    Is not this to know me? says the LORD."
    - Jer 22:15-16
and I love the promises of restoration, and there are many:
  • "But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob, says the LORD,
    and do not be dismayed, O Israel;
    for I am going to save you from far away,
    and your offspring from the land of their captivity.
    Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease,
    and no one shall make him afraid."
    - Jer 30:10
  • "Thus says the LORD:
    The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
    when Israel sought for rest,
    the LORD appeared to him from far away.
    I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you."
    - Jer 31:2-3
  • "This is the covenant that I will make
    with the house of Israel after those days,
    says the LORD:  I will put my law within them,
    and I will write it on their hearts;
    and I will be their God, and they shall be my people."
    - Jer 31:33
But I could not really get past the destructive anger of God ripping life from people.  And I really could not connect to the adultery, whoredom, and rape language that Jeremiah uses to accuse Israel:
  • "You have played the whore with many lovers;
    and would you return to me? says the LORD.
    Look up to the bare heights, and see!
    Where have you not been lain with?
    By the waysides you have sat
    waiting for lovers, like a nomad in the wilderness.
    You have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness."
    - Jer 3:1-2
  • "How can I pardon you?  Your children have forsaken me,
    and have sworn by those who are no gods.
    When I fed them to the full, they committed adultery
    and trooped to the houses of prostitutes.
    They were well-fed lusty stallions,
    each neighing for his neighbor's wife."
    - Jer 5:7-8
  • "If you say in your heart, 'Why have these things come upon me?',
    it is for the greatness of your iniquity
    that your skirts are lifted up, and you are violated."
    - Jer 13:22
Yeah.  That last one.  That's in Scripture.  That's in Bibles that we give to our children.

I hate that.

So I wrestled.  That is my hermeneutic:  some Scripture comes to me like the angelic messenger to Jacob at Peniel (Gen 32:22-32), and we wrestle.  And I get my hands full of something stronger than me and I say "I will not let you go until you bless me."  And more often than not I walk away with a limp, but I walk away, and with a blessing.

So I wrestled.

My dear friend Eric, who is one of my favorite people because he calls me on all my bullshit, said to me:  What metaphor would you prefer, to whoredom?

And I said:  Addiction.

I have been in Al-Anon for a year and a half.  Al-Anon is an odd 12-step program; it's for friends and lovers and family members of alcoholics.  We end up all in a room together because of someone else's addiction, and then as we talk we realize that we have developed our own addictions to cope.  We're addicted to control, in one form or another.  We obsess over whether the alcoholic is drinking.  We desperately try to manage appearances so no one else will know.  We manipulate to passive-aggressively get our way.

And then we start to realize that this isn't just with the alcoholic.  The patterns we learned in childhood, in parenting, in our romantic relationship, etc start to spill over into the rest of our lives.  The need to control (or to maintain the illusion of control, anyway) shows up at work, in our new homes, in our friendships, in our relationships.  It moves from controlling the alcoholic to controlling non-alcoholics as well, because if you will just let me do it, it will be fine!

For me, my addiction to control looks like:
  • Craving security in friendships and romantic relationships
  • Desperate to please others
  • Giving up important beliefs and dreams in order to not conflict with my romantic partner
  • Fearing, to the point of paralyzing anxiety, others' opinions of me, my relationships, and my life choices
  • Compulsively lying to close friends and family to avoid the loss of their good opinion
  • Failing to ask for help when needed, so as not to appear weak or needy (even though I am)
...and so on.

It ain't pretty.  And the Al-Anon program directly confronts it.  Each meeting, each reading, each prayer reminds me:  I am not in control.  When I try to be in control, my life is unmanageable and I feel insane.  There is Something greater than me that is actually capable of restoring me to sanity, and it is not me, and I need to give up trying to make it me.

I can't help but see the connection between my addiction and the book of Jeremiah.
Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you.
This is your doom; how bitter it is!  It has reached your very heart.
- Jer 4:18
God has led the people through the wilderness, into the promised land, put a king on the throne and promised to keep them forever, and the people say:  Thanks.  But just to make sure, we'll have a backup plan with man-made idols, false prophets, and manipulative worship.

God has laid down rules for righteousness and justice, for care for the orphans and widows, for avoiding oppression and feeding the hungry, and the people say:  Thanks.  But just to make sure, we'll set up systems, and boundaries, and walls, and hierarchies, just to make sure it all gets distributed "fairly", in accordance with individual and community worthiness.

God makes invitations and promises, and the people say:  Thanks.  But we have a better idea.

This is what the addict does.  I have a better idea.  I can control it.  I can handle it.  I'm in charge.

My inability to accept that God -- the Creator of the Universe, the liberator of Israel, the lover of righteousness and justice and mercy; the Son of God, the preacher of love in the face of power, the giver of grace, the one who overcame death; the fiery Spirit who moved on the face of the waters and drags the reluctant disciples from the upper room to send the good news all over the face of the earth -- my inability to accept that this God has a slightly better grip on my life than I do is sort of cute, in a way, except when it reduces me to a ball of stress and tears and manipulation and brokenness.
Thus says the LORD:  Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD.
Blessed are those who trust in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
- Jer 17:5, 7
It's not pretty.

And when I remember that I have to let go of control, part of me does have to die.  And part of me feels like I've woken up in an alien land.  It's a metaphor for understanding the exile, and a shabby one at that, but it's true enough that I can breathe it in like oxygen:
They shall be my people, and I will be their God. - Jer 32:38

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Midsummer Update

Life update!  I'm still here.  Just blogging less.  Someone asked me recently, "So, since you don't have a call yet, has this summer just been one long Saturday for you?"  Well, yes and no.

Graduation
I graduated from Luther Seminary in May as a Master of Divinity, which is the best superhero moniker I know of.

me with my best bro Austen

hooded!  me, Kim, Jamie, and Ashley in the front

Such regal.  Very education.
Graduation weekend was fantastic, and I am so lucky to be part of the amazing class of 2014.  Watch out, church.


End of internship

I also left Light of the World at the end of May when my 21-month internship was up.  Many, many, many tears were shed.  They are a beautiful people and a beautiful church, and I miss them every day.  I feel so lucky to have been with them and learned from them in the past two years.

Last children's message

Blessing at communion

Covered in bows as a way for the children to say "thank you"

Tears.  Lots of them.  I miss these kids like mad.


Moving

As of June 1st, my lease was up at the seminary, and I didn't have a call or a job.  So I moved from my beloved little apartment ...




... into my car, essentially.  I've been house-hopping since then.  

One week in Northfield, house-sitting for my godson's family while the Cannon River flooded.  Two weeks back with Natalie, who's now living with her girlfriend Katie and who took rent payment in the form of helping begin remodeling her basement:



One week house-sitting for a local pastor & her family, complete with their chicken coop:


She wanted my bread. Cared naught for the eggs.
Now I'm installed in a lovely house in Northeast Minneapolis till call or September 1st, whichever comes first, while its owners are working at Holden Village.  It's full of stained glass and is right near some classic Minnesota bike paths, so I'm happy as a clam.


Summer of Scripture

Along with some Episcopal friends in Madison, Wisc., and some internet friends around the world, I've been trying to read through the whole Bible in the span of 90 days.



It's been a beautiful experience to get this deeply into scripture, and to do it in a community that keeps me accountable, prays with me, wrestles with me, rejoices with me.  I'm currently in Isaiah 40, about a day behind schedule, and hoping to catch up (through Isaiah 66) this evening. 


Hiking & biking

Working out and being outdoors are two things that feed my soul, and they are perfectly combined in the gorgeous Minnesota summers in our parks.  I've been putting an average of 25-50 miles on my bike each week, and I feel fantastic.

Hiking the east side of the Mississippi
Looking up an east side cliff
At my favorite spot, Hidden Falls
Minnehaha Falls

Working at "the ranch"

"The ranch" is the name I have affectionately given the five-bedroom house and quarter-acre yard that my mother maintains.  I go over and help Mom and Dad with house care and other projects at least once a week.

This has included scrubbing, sanding, and priming the garage on three sides...


sundry gardening, weeding, mulching, moving rock and brick, OH and almost being mauled by a mama snapper laying her eggs.

Hi.


Doodling

Doodling!  I've been doing it forever.  No one in the family knows why I started drawing symmetric and geometric shapes, but I was doing it by age six.  Recently I've started playing around with word art as well.







Continuing therapy, medication, and Al-Anon

I hit the one-year mark in Al-Anon in February, and I've continued doing my program work.  I've done my Fourth and Fifth Step -- the personal inventory shared with a trusted person -- and a couple of Ninth Steps -- making amends to people I've hurt.  I've also become a trusted servant in the Al-Anon group on Reddit, which is my way of giving back to the program when I'm moving around so much that it's hard to commit to being a leader or a sponsor in a local situation.

Therapy and medication continue to be a part of my life and I am incredibly grateful for both.

Speaking of gratitude...


Friends

My friends continue to be amazing people who hold me up, cheer me on, feed me delicious food, make me laugh at Dateline till my sides hurt, take me camping, tell me I look amazing in that dress, and help me correctly evaluate if what just happened on that date was absolutely ludicrous.

Austen and Ari keeping me company ... we're all on Tumblr.
Seminary friends hiking from campsite to beach
"Writing prayers" aka drinking wine and sharing stories

Katie and Natalie being so cute it's gross

So .... ?!?!

I'm still waiting on a call, guys.  I promise y'all will be the first to know when I get one!

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Story: a sermon on Acts 2:36-47 (and how the end is really the beginning)

This was my sermon on my last day at Light of the World.



Scripture:  Acts 2:36-47

Peter spoke to the people, telling them the story of God and Jesus from the very beginning, concluding, "Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

---------------

Sermon

Today we move from the gospels into the book of the Acts of the Apostles.  It’s a part II to Luke’s gospel specifically; the writer introduces both books the same way:  to Theophilus, Greek for “lover of God.”  And Luke begins the book of Acts by explaining that the disciples looked to the risen Christ and said “So you’re going to wipe out all the Romans now, right?  Now that you’re back from the dead?”  And Jesus sort of smiles gently and says “That’s not really why I’ve called you all here.  You are going to receive power from the Holy Spirit, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in the surrounding countries of Judea and Samaria, and you know what -- to all the ends of the earth.”

So the Acts of the Apostles is the book of the Bible that tells the stories of all the disciples becoming apostles, becoming people sent out to the very far corners of the globe to preach the good news of God come to us in Jesus Christ.

In today’s story Peter and all the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem, preaching and teaching about God’s deeds of power through Jesus.  Peter tells the assembled crowd:  “God knew that you would hand Jesus over to death, and you did -- you crucified him.  But our ancestor David, the great king David, whose kingdom was supposed to last forever -- he died, and his kingdom is over, but Jesus his descendent did not stay dead.  This Jesus is Messiah and Lord.”

And the people gathered are cut to the heart, and three thousand of them join the Christian church that day.  They are cut to the heart -- they are pierced all the way down, the Greek says:  katanusso.  It’s the same word for when Jesus’ side is pierced on the cross.  Something about what Peter says gets them right here, pierces them, life-changingly.

And so they join the church.  By their actions they proclaim:  This story is greater than any other story.  Greater than religious ritual that tries to manipulate God; greater than political power that tries to dominate others.  This story of Jesus of Nazareth, who did deeds of power and wonders and signs, who was crucified and died and was buried and rose again -- this story is greater than death.

These people knew death.  In some ways death was closer to them than it is to us.  People died much younger, and at home.  Babies died.  Children were lost.  Many of the common jobs in first-century Judea were dangerous:  fishing in stormy seas, guarding herds of sheep against hungry wolves.  And Peter is speaking to a crowd of Jews -- people who are under the oppression of Rome, people who are not unaccustomed to seeing their hopes destroyed by their ruler’s violent ways of shutting down protests and silencing calls for justice.

Some of us live in that place, too.  Some of us fight cancer diagnoses and sick bodies and broken minds, parts of us that we can’t get away from and make every day feel like a struggle.  We watch our loved ones fight for life.  We pray over babies and we mourn our friends.  This is real and it is scary and I don’t like it.  I don’t like that even two thousand years later life can still be as precarious as it was for a sheep out among wolves.

I like life much better when it’s controllable.  When I can fit it inside my hands, like clay, like marbles.  And I don’t think I’m alone in this; I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to keep things safe.  To make things easy.  And sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if when we hold on to things, when we cling to our own security and wealth and power, when we do not want to share, we might be dangerously close to looking at whatever our hands have a white-knuckle grip on and saying “This -- this is life.”

And into all this Peter has come and said No -- this [the cross] is life.

And you know the frustrating thing is that I think he’s right.  Because I have tried, God knows I have tried, to make a life out of the things I can hold.  To say this money, or this job -- or this relationship -- is life, and I will cling to it with everything I have.  Completely ignoring how that clinging turns into a cage.  How whatever I am trying to control soon gets control of me.  How trying to fit my life into something I can grasp often turns into me breaking myself, cutting off the parts of me that can’t fit into my clenched hands.

And Peter says Save yourself from this corrupt generation, from this clinging, this hoarding, this fear, this breaking of yourself down so you can fit into your own tight fist.  Save yourself from that kind of death.  It might look like life, it might move and breathe and talk like life, but this isn’t life.  This [the cross] is life, that God sent Jesus.  This is life, that God knew us, knew that we would try to squeeze down this crazy Jesus message of mercy and hope, that we would try to hold it and when we couldn’t hold it we would seal it up inside a tomb.  This is life, that even death could not hold Jesus.

That’s the story that made three thousand people believers -- that this man Jesus is freedom, is hope, is life, and smallness and fear and even death has no more power.

This is the story that made thousands of people bold enough to sell what they had and share it; to gather every day for worship and prayer; to praise God and care for everyone around them.  

And so over time they became part of the story; this little church of three thousand believers in Jerusalem, who kept growing by tens and hundreds and thousands more, until the day came when one of them whose name was Luke said “We’d better write this down.”  And so the believers came to be a part of the story of Jesus, the story of life that is stronger than death.

So let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was a little group of people who were looking for life.  Some of them had looked in church and they hadn’t quite found it there.  Some of them had looked inside their big houses and their large yards and they hadn’t quite found it there, either.  

And they came together, and they heard each other’s stories.  They broke bread in their homes, and in a golf course, and in an elementary school gymnasium.  They met together to pray.  They talked about trusting God in their finances; those who could, gave, and the funds were distributed to those in need.  They painted a house, and marched in parades, and packed food for Feed My Starving Children.  And every Sunday they met, and sang, and praised God, and prayed for one another, and learned together, and broke bread and found Jesus there.  And sometimes they would turn to each other, and make the sign of a cross on the forehead, and say the words they heard at every baptism:  “You are a beloved child of God.”

They told their friends and family.  And they told their friends, and they told theirs, and slowly the church grew.  People came who were hungry for forgiveness, for mercy, for grace, for life.  And they found it, and they became one people, a people called Light of the World, a place where people were fully known and totally welcomed and radically loved.

They survived change.  Some traditions stayed, and some faded.  They moved from building to building as it was needed.  Finances changed, and they went from two pastors to one and full-time staff to half-time.  They had one intern pastor, and then another, and another.  Their founding pastor was called to larger ministry, and on the day she left they laid hands on her, and with great hope and trust they prayed for the future of all.

They knew there was something greater than death here -- something more than a pastor -- something that felt like life, abundant and real.  

An interim pastor came, and guided them through transition.  They talked and discussed and met and voted and became the first Reconciling in Christ church in Dakota County, repeating what they heard every Sunday over the communion table:  All are welcome -- no exceptions.

They called a new pastor.  She came and she stayed, and she brought with her a wonderful partner and a passion for justice.  There was life, new life, new joys and excitement.  And every Sunday they met together to praise God and break bread and remember each others’ stories.  

And today you will lay hands on me, your third intern, and send me forth.  But thinking that the story stops here would be like thinking the story stops in Acts 2.  It doesn’t.  Even if I didn’t know a single word of the Bible past where we ended today, I would know the story doesn’t stop, because two thousand years later here we are.  Two thousand years later we are still devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers.  

The story keeps going.  The marble keeps rolling.  And this promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone to whom God calls.  There is life here -- there is life here, for you, and you, and you, and you.

Amen.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Twin Cities Passion Walk

Twin Cities Passion Walk

For years I had a dream of mapping out the final hours of Jesus' life as a walk through my beloved city of Minneapolis -- stopping at key points along the Minnehaha Parkway, for example, to read the story of the Passion.

With a class on the passion narrative in the gospels and an internship congregation willing to try new and crazy things, I was able to make this dream come true.




The project will continue to be updated here in anticipation of Lent 2015.