Inclusion

Revelation Trumps Rules

By. J.C. Mitchell

I remember some professor in class explaining that for Jews keeping Kosher, or the rules for Shabbat, had different levels of interpretation, which is   why some groups define the rules differently.  I remember in college lighting the match for a Jewish roommate for Shabbat, and I was confused as to why using a lighter or match could be considered work.  This prof explained that some people added human layers of rules in order to assure they were following the Divine’s Desire.   Explained that way, I am reminded of how rules can be comforting.   We know what to expect, and within a rule you can convey great nuance as well as simple restrictions; this is found in the Ten Best Ways, the Ten Commandments.  Yet as we know, rules can be left to interpretation.

Not only are rules as subjective and as personal as the person who lights a Shabbat candle, we often desire the social other to follow the same rules. This is how we design our religion and our religious practices.  However, we balance rules with revelation.  Amos even laments our rules (5:21-24):

I hate, I despise your festivals,

   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,

   I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

   I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

   I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,

   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

 

Jesus takes on the deeper religious rules of scapegoating and sacrifice and stands up to continue living.  Jesus is the revelation that our desire is to follow the desire of God and not the rules humans have layered upon our lives to assure our own order or comfort, often hiding the blood of those sacrificed for peace.

Nonetheless, it seems that the churches today that have more rules also have more people in the pews.  We claim to desire a relationship with Jesus over simply following rules. However, recently I had a revelation of my son using a napkin.  My seven-year-old son has autism and I can tell you simply making the rule, “use your napkin,” does not work.  Months of us reminding him positively, after every bite, has created a situation where he now wipes his hands and face as often as most boys his age, perhaps even a little better, as he has incorporated this act into his ritual of eating.  Not by a rule, but through the intense relationship. 

This is how everything is taught. For our child, including safety rules like, “you can’t go outside without permission,” would be as effective as me making burnt offerings.  So we make the ritual of asking “Go outside, please,” part of his routine of going outside, through the intense relationship of us making that a positive expectation, but is that not what we need to do as the church. 

We are commissioned to be the Church, The Resurrected Body of Christ, to be the revelation in the world; not rules.  Rules are easy--trust me for I know--as I desire to make a few rules for my son, but alas, I will need to stick to the relationship of revelation, and that helps with Church as well.

A little more exciting then napkins and door, here we are feeding birds at the zoo.

Dancing the Full Spectrum of Love

By J.C. Mitchell

It may be absurd to write about dance (and especially contemporary dance), for it is best experienced and felt, rather than described.  Therefore, I write this to encourage you to wrangle with the questions I see asked, answered, and asked again, through the human body.  Of course, if you are in the Pacific Northwest, this is a specific plug, but I hope others will find dancers and choreographers (and/or other artists) in their own local area to support the art and to support your spiritual growth. 

This weekend I will experience Whim WH’im, a contemporary dance company, starting with Olivier Weaver—the beloved artistic director--very emotional and vulnerable piece (per everything I have read and heard) and I believe you will simply be intrigued by the title: A Disagreeable Tale of Duplicity.  So while I encourage people to be more vulnerable, here will be twenty minutes of vulnerability in public, where we as the viewer can add our own layers of story. 

With Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Delicious Pesticides, the audience will get to revisit Pulp Fiction, where I hear the absurdity of violence will be explored (such as it was in the film).  To help with this, some of the movements are based off of the movements of insects as Annabelle shares with Victoria Farr Brown at the Whim W’Him Blog, “Insects don’t have an ego, […t]hey work together like one organism.”  Now are you intrigued, at an exploration of culture and violence, where we may be acting as one organism? This is only the conversation prior to these performances.

You may be into painters, playwrights, or filmmakers; for me, the idea an artist can convey a message (not just a story) without words is very special to me, as language is a struggle for my son, and even before him I had been drawn to this language, because it touches me in a way I can’t describe, which is of course apropos. 

Parents read a child’s body language, but my personal experience of having a child with communication delay has made this language of movement so essential.  From our parental hands being thrust towards a wanted cookie, to him saying, “I want cookie, plzzzz” we have appreciated this very slow dance and have learned communication can be clear without words.  We draw him into this world of language, with the appreciation of his own movements.

So while I can get up in front of a room and discuss and explain complex theologies, and explore these thought-provoking questions in essays, can I, like my son, delve into the inner emotions of humanity without words? 

The choreographers and dancers engage us to do just that, and I encourage you to not sit this one out (be it here in Seattle or in your area), for someone is dancing.  

IMG_20160414_104535.jpg

And yes we do slow down for some paintings, too! 

 

Giving Thanks for Public Education

By J.C. Mitchell

 

So at the table sits my wife, my son’s teacher, principal, school psychologist, speech pathologist, occupational therapist, the 2nd grade general education teacher, a district representative, the physical education teacher (with a passion for adaptive sport) and his private ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) therapist.  We all sit on the small seats the children use so that we can keep our child in more familiar surroundings while we discuss his education.  There is a lot of data and writing; however, it is the stories that seem to say the most and help us to create solutions.  The team atmosphere is a must and we are lucky to have such a good team for our child.  I am all too aware that is not always the case, but I share this gathering around a school table as one of the things I am most thankful for, education for ALL.

Some may see professionals and complain about the salaries of these educated and overworked people who are essential to much of our economy.  I am sure that many professional, like us clergy, are in debt from our education, debt that will be sold by banks to make money..  Nonetheless, I am happy that there are still people who uphold education, and specifically education for all children.

In the state I live in we had people who wrote this as part of the constitution:

"It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders."  Article IX, Section 1   Washington State Constitution

Is that not wonderful?  Read it again, and notice these words: paramount, ample, education, all.

It was brought to the attention of the State Supreme Court of Washington via a lawsuit by McCleary.  And the McCleary ruling made it quite clear the state was not fulfilling the state’s own constitution.  That has led to significant problems, because while everyone in both caucuses like children, they can’t find enough revenue to amply fund education for all. 

So I look at where my taxes have gone and I realize not enough went to education, I am even more thankful for all those passionate educators gathered around that table, the para-educators that fulfill the plans throughout the school day, the bus drivers and aids, all of whom care for my son.

I could be bitter about the struggle for the right resources for my son, for children of color, for the poor, for those with other disabilities.  I could be bitter the answer is too often in the future and never funded, or I can get involved in my local, state, and federal politics and include Thanksgiving in our economy over the mindset named for the day after.

 

I encourage clergy and other church leaders to get involved in education, especially access for all, because this is a justice issue. For more information about the McCleary decision in Washington, click here. Whatever state you live in, as you give thanks this week, give thanks for public education, and get involved or we may soon see turkeys running this country because we forgot Thanksgiving.  

 


Church, Go Back to School!

By Rev. Mindi

We checked in over coffee, talking about the start of the year, about what hadn’t been done over the summer. We shared our frustrations about things that were still the same, and celebrated the changes that have been made and places where we saw hope and opportunity.

We weren’t talking about church; we were talking about school.

Over the course of the conversation, as we talked about our admiration for the younger teachers who seemed to be able to adapt and adjust better, who could multitask and understand the differing needs of today’s children, of all abilities, I couldn’t help but think about church and how so many of the conversations we are having in the public education sphere are almost the same conversations we are having in the church world. While a younger age does not guarantee someone is open to change and adaptation, these observations came from parents at this gathering about younger teachers and administrators:

-Technology is seen as a necessity, not a luxury, especially for students with disabilities, and all students benefit from access to technology.

-They use social media as a teaching tool in the classroom, to share the accomplishments of the school with the public, and to connect with parents and families.

-They are able to multitask and maintain their presence of authority in the classroom, even when there are disruptions and distractions.

-They want to know about students’ lives outside of the classroom—culture, family, interests, progress they are making academically and socially.

 

In contrast, teachers and administrators that are “old school” tend to be:

-Unfamiliar with technology or supports for students with different and unique needs.

-Unfamiliar with social media—even afraid to use it for fear of privacy concerns.

-Using one-size-fits-all models of classroom instruction and behavior expectation.

-Unable to adapt to major changes—want to use same curriculum or method of teaching.

-Struggle with cultures that are different or new to them.

Of course, these are generalizations. Of course, every school is different, every administrator and teacher is different. However, public education in the United States is changing, and these conversations are eerily similar to the conversations I have with my colleagues in ministry.

There are plenty of factors that make a comparison between the church and public school a different one. However, in this conversation with parents, I heard many familiar themes:

-Struggle of an institution stuck in patterns of the past.

-Administrators unable to think outside of the box and try new ideas, or even see the reason for doing something in a different way.

-Teachers not being paid enough to live even near the communities they teach in.

-Not enough resources to go around.

-Access to technology lacking.

-Buildings in dire need of updating, but can’t due to lack of funds.

-Struggle of educating students in a rapidly changing multi-cultural community.

-The number of students on free and reduced lunch rapidly on the rise.

Change “Administrators” to “Administration Board” or whatever your governing body is, change “teachers” to pastors, etc. You get the idea. Our communities are changing with new immigrants and cultures and the number of families at or near the poverty level is on the rise.

What I see that is helpful in this comparison is that change is possible. As part of this group of parents, I am seeing significant change in our school district towards inclusion of students with disabilities. Younger teachers are being hired who are able to multitask and maintain their presence of authority in the classroom. More resources are being invested in technology, including an app for parents to keep up with what is going on at their child’s school and in the district.

At the same time, teacher salaries are low. Teacher turnover is high in the state of Washington, where I live, and more and more teachers are leaving public education altogether. Bonds are not passing at the local level and so buildings are falling into disrepair, and resources are stretched thin. Every year, there are teacher positions that are unfilled by a permanent teacher and instead filled by a substitute, sometimes for the entire year.

The conversation is all too familiar. All too close to home. What can we learn, and what can we do differently?

UnCommon Acceptance

By Rev. Mindi

Two years ago, I sat in a breakout session at my first UNCO—The UnConference for pastors and church leaders—and in the first fifteen minutes of the session titled “Show Me The Money,” I learned more about fundraising and stewardship campaigns than I had in seminary—and I had taken an entire January term course on stewardship and church finances. I listened as church leaders shared what had worked in their congregation, ways of talking about stewardship, and focusing on the positives (“Look what ministries we participated in last year”) rather than the negatives (“Our budget shortfall means we will have to cut programs unless we raise enough money”). 

Two years ago, I connected with pastors and church leaders that I still go to regularly for ideas, support, and encouragement, as did my husband who was planting a new church. But more importantly for us, it was the first church conference that not only provided space and childcare for children (called KidUNCO), but fully welcomed our child AJ, who has autism, into the full life of the UnConference.

Last year, when we returned to UNCO, not only did we receive our warm welcome again, but as AJ ran across the gathering space, where we livestream our worship services and large group “brain-dump” sessions, people who knew AJ from the previous years but could not attend tweeted their greetings to AJ.

UNCO has created a community of church leaders who are connected not only after UNCO meets via Twitter and Facebook, but a way of connecting those who are physically present and those who participate via Twitter and livestream. And following last year’s UNCO, those of us involved in new church communities and the challenges of raising funds for our new ministries began using Google Hangout on a monthly basis—not only to share ideas and knowledge, but also to check in, and lift up one another and our ministries in prayer. The networks created within the larger UNCO gathering, including a writer’s group and synchroblog, provide support and encouragement for creativity in leadership.

UNCO has given me and my husband the opportunity to attend a leadership gathering together—and to bring our child with special needs to an inclusive and welcoming environment. Because of KidUNCO, my husband and I have been able to attend breakout sessions without one of us having to care for our child while we are learning and sharing.

More importantly, UNCO has provided close friendships with colleagues facing similar challenges in ministry. UNCO is not a conference you attend and take back with you what you learn—UNCO is the UnConference, in which you are participating all year long and in person for three days, if you are able to be there.

UNCO West is October 26-28 at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Click here for more information and to register. You won’t find a more affordable continuing education event that will benefit you throughout the year. You can also read Carol Howard Merritt’s excellent article on UNCO in the Christian Century.

Revisiting Equal Marriage

By Rev. Mindi

Last fall, I wrote this article about equal marriage and how while we celebrate that gay and lesbian couples can now get married, we still have a long way to go for creating equal marriage, especially among those with disabilities, in which one partner often loses their benefits if they are legally married. I am posting it again, because while I rejoice in the SCOTUS decision on marriage on June 26th, 2015, we still have a long way to go.

 

 

http://dmergent.org/articles/2014/10/28/equal-marriage

Let us celebrate now that marriage for gay and lesbian couples is now legal in the United States, but may we continue to work for justice for all in regards to the freedom to marry.

 

Crossing the Great Generational Divide

By Rev. Mindi

Sometimes we lament the fact that our children grow up and then don’t go to church. Or sometimes we lament the fact that they do go to church, but not to our church anymore. I’ve written before about how we can sometimes treat young adults as if they are still children, but I see this happen more and more in the churches I serve: we remember people as we once knew them, not who they are now. We still remember when they were kids, and sometimes we still treat them like they are children.

More importantly, however, we do not see how we have grown and changed. And aged. In this time, when 50 is the new 40, 40 is the new 30, etc., we have forgotten that 40 year olds are not young adults, but we treat them that way. And sometimes those of us pushing upper 30’s and early 40’s forget that we are technically middle-aged, not young adults. And I’ve heard retirees feel that they are still much younger than they are. Heck, I know people in their sixties and seventies dying their hair weird colors and getting tattoos just like twenty-year-olds are doing.


What does this matter? Aren’t these all just labels anyway?

In the structure of the church, this can matter greatly. It probably shouldn’t, but it does. Teens and younger adults who were part of the church and are now in their 40’s and 50’s are still treated like children. They are still treated as if they cannot make a commitment or be dependable in the life of the church, and sometimes are not offered leadership positions or their offers to volunteer are not taken seriously.

There’s been so much written about churches and generation gaps and Millenials, Millenials, Millenials—while the next generation is getting ready to graduate high school and we aren’t ready for them—that I think we have completely missed the boat on this conversation.

We need to change the conversation from being about one generation, or about how one generation relates to another, but rather how we see ourselves. Are we truly the Church, the Body of Christ? If so, we are one of the last multi-generational organizations in existence. We are one of the last places where inter-generational community can take place.

But it doesn’t. Instead, we tend to stick with those in our stage of life as we have been seen in the church. I believe that these “stages of life” as I am calling them here come into play more often than actual generations.  These are some generalizations coming up, but see if your church doesn’t generalize based on these “stages” either: children and youth (those under the age of 25) young adults (i.e. those who are single and under 50), young couples (those couples without children that are under 50), young families (single and coupled parents with children whose children are under the age of 25 and the parents are under the age of 60), grandparents and those close to retiring (ages 50-70—can be single, coupled, can be parents or grandparents), recent retirees (70-80) and Seniors (80+).  There is some wiggle room in this, but I feel it has less to do with generations as defined in society and more to do with stages of life. And as more and more people live longer, the age range for these younger “stages” has widened. Look at that: all of the stages under 50 are mainly considered "young."

You might think this, just like generation definitions, is just a bunch of baloney. But as more and more people wait for marriage and children, as more and more people choose second careers and go back to school in their 40’s (or 50’s and 60’s), these age ranges are becoming greater. What seems to have happened is that Gen X, Millenials and the upcoming generation have been lumped into one: the “young adult generation” or “young adult stage.”

What does this mean for leadership in the church?  It means that even though you have aged, you might still see yourself in the same stage, or close enough to it. It means that your definition of young might have changed, because you are no longer in your thirties but your fifties. It means that a search committee looking for a “young” pastor 40 years ago was looking for someone in their 20’s, maybe their 30’s. Today, a “young pastor” could be anyone under 50!  It means that sometimes pastors are turned down who are under 50 because they are seen as not having enough experience.  It means that in regional and national denominational committees and boards, one persons’ definition of young may be very different than another person’s definition of young.

My spouse, who will be turning 43 soon, is still called a “young pastor” and a “young adult.”  I am very close to 40. I am still often am asked if I am serving in my first church (I’m at my third call). I'm in a very different place than I was at 24 and out of seminary, but I'm often not seen that way. And my colleagues coming out of seminary are in need of church positions to move into and that can't happen if those of us in our 40's and 50's are still considered young and still being hired for those positions that young clergy need in order to begin following their calls to ministry.

While in larger congregations some of the age ranges in these stages may be smaller (I know some churches that would not call adults in their 40’s young adults, nor would they call families with teenagers young families, but I have seen and experienced this in many churches both as a pastor, as a visitor, and as a consultant), these stages do set our points of view in a certain way. For folks who are in the “grandparent and close to retiring” stage, the “young families” and “young adults” and “young couples” really could be pushing 50 and they would still think of them that way, as “young.”

So what does this all mean? I’ve just created yet another system of categorization and labels that are not helpful, right?

Maybe. Maybe though we can use this to help deconstruct the myths around age and what is “young” and “old” in the church. Maybe we can stop referring to people in their 30’s, 40’s and even 50’s as “young adults” and think of them as adults in the life of the church, capable and gifted for leadership. And yes, maybe some of us on the “younger” side could stop looking at those over 60 as too old and too traditional and too set in their ways, and we can stop making side comments when they dye their hair or get tattoos. We need to find ways of crossing generations and life stages to be the Church, the body of Christ.

The lectionary Gospel text this Sunday is Mark 3:20-35. I wonder if maybe Jesus, who was in his 30’s, was still just seen as a “young adult” or even “Joe and Mary’s kid.” When Mary and his brothers came and called to him, maybe Jesus was tired of still being seen as a young adult or child. Jesus says, after looking around at those who have sat with him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Maybe we truly need to start seeing each other as our mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, kindred in Christ. If we could see the person who seems too young to be moving into that leadership position as my sibling—if we could see each other as equals in relation to each other—we could give up our need for control and power, our need to put down others as not having what it takes just yet. If we could see each other as part of the body of Christ, as equals—we could let go of these generation gaps and be truly intergenerational, interconnected, integral to the body of Christ.