Christianity

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.  

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

 

Enemies, Trust, and Dying for Congregational Transformation

By Derek Penwell

From time to time someone will come to my office, anxiety etched across the brow, looking for a listening ear. When I open the door on these occasions, I don’t know what kind of pain lies on the other side. I summon my best active listening practices from Pastoral Care 101, and I say, “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Well, Gladys and I have been having problems. You may have noticed we haven’t been around much lately.”

 

Sometimes I have, and sometimes I haven’t. I try to remain noncommittal: “I”m glad you’re here now."

“Let me cut to the chase.”

(That’s good. I’m pro cut-to-the-chase.)

“I think Gladys has been having an affair with a co-worker…”

And with that we embark on an all too familiar journey into betrayal, fear, and recrimination.

I listen to another sad story, which often ends with a question. It’s a big question, one I never feel comfortable answering. People who come to see me with problems like this ask it anyway:

“What should I do?”

I know the difference between directive and non-directive counseling, between offering a way to move forward and offering the person the opportunity to make those kinds of discoveries and decisions. I often have a hard time keeping my mouth shut about what people ought to do, but in these situations, it always seems better (easier?) to go with a non-directive approach:

“What do you want to do?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know what to do. I lover her, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust her again.”

There it is. Trust.

Trust. Relationships require it if they have any chance at being healthy. To say that “once lost, trust is difficult to recover” is, surely, to have said something everyone already knows instinctively. How long does it take to quit checking text messages and phone logs? How much time has to elapse before you believe that a trip to the store for milk and bread is really a trip to the store for milk and bread?

Unfortunately, there’s no calculus capable of offering a quantifiable answer about how much time it takes to rebuild trust. However, one thing is certain: If trust is to be rebuilt, it won’t happen just because of the elapse of time. Trust takes work, hard, often tedious, repetitive, mind-numbing work. Showing up when you say you’re going to show up. Being where you said you’d be. Doing what you said you’d do. Going out of your way to reassure the other person.

No matter how strongly a person feels about having recovered, no matter how eloquent the protestations about “turning over a new leaf,” no matter how many genuine tears are shed seeking forgiveness, there’s no short cut to the actual work of rebuilding trust.

Everyone knows that, right?

The other side of it, though, which also seems equally self-evident, but often gets overlooked in the face of the pain is that the wounded party has to want to heal, has to want to find trust again. This too requires work.

It’s possible to bang your head against a wall for someone who appears only to relish the sight of you concussing yourself. It is impossible to heal, however, when the infliction of pain becomes the glue that holds the relationship together.

Betrayal and the Congregation

It occurs to me that many churches have been wounded, whether by promiscuous pastors who took advantage, or by unprincipled lay leadership, or by denominational neglect–or just because the organizational system was set up to fail. Whatever the cause, the first casualty of betrayal is trust.

Unfortunately, the lack of trust in wounded congregations is a self-destructive feedback loop of bitterness and distrust that inhibits healthy growth and creativity. Distrust in a congregational system treats all change as equally menacing, treats everything new (people, programs, ideas) as presumably hostile–until proven otherwise.

A trip to the store for bread and milk is always assumed to be a pretext for something else, something surely more nefarious.

A new Sunday School class can never be just a new Sunday School class; it’s an indictment of the other Sunday School classes or a new avenue for some hostile party to consolidate power.

A change to the worship service or to the worship space is either an attack on tradition or a play to increase the power base of some suspicious constituency–or both.

What gets communicated in a wounded system where trust has been lost is: “We’re not quite sure yet how you’re trying to screw us over, but we’re pretty sure you are. Therefore, we’re withholding approval and/or permission.”

Has your church lost trust? Here’s an informal checklist:

  • Do you regularly have meetings that last longer than 2 hours?
  • Do people bring dog-eared copies of Robert’s Rules of Order to board meetings?
  • Do you hear at least one reference to the Constitution and By-laws at every meeting?
  • Do people bring their own calculators and red pens to the meeting where the budget is being proposed?
  • Do you have meetings where there are arguments about whether everybody on staff “really needs their own stapler?”
  • Does rearranging the furniture in the narthex or switching brands of air freshener require board approval? (Bonus: If really bad, does it require congregational approval?).
  • Do you have a lot of congregational meetings?
  • Does the announcement of a meeting elicit a particular kind of feeling in your stomach?
  • Do you keep an extra bottle of Rolaids in your car for use before meetings?
  • Does recruiting for congregational officers evoke anxiety not for a fear of who will say “no,” but for fear of who will say “yes?”
  • Do you require a doctor’s note from staff who call in sick?
  • Do you have people who regularly drive by the church to see if the pastor’s car is there?

How Can We Trust Again?

I wish it were easy. It’s not.

I wish I could point you toward “7 easy steps to recovering your trust.” I can’t.

It all comes down to this: a wounded congregation must make a decision to begin trying to trust again. You may get burned. But relationship is always a crap shoot.

How about this?

  • Be mindful that each positive step in which you don’t get hurt is a step in the right direction.
  • Call attention to and celebrate positive steps.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t enter every new situation convinced you’re going to get burned.
  • Assume people (even those who feel like the “enemy”) are telling the truth until you find out otherwise.
  • Don’t get into the habit of thinking of people with whom you share the body of Christ as the “enemy.” It’s too difficult to pull back from the precipice.

Even if trust hasn’t been restored, you’re going to have to live like it has. Until you can live together with a commitment to restoring trust, ministry, if possible at all, can only be tenuous and fragile.

And if all else fails, remember, it’s God’s church–not your’s (or your “enemy’s”).

Besides, trusting your enemy is just about impossible--although dying for your enemy has been done before.

"I Love the Sinner" Is Often What Abusers Say

By Derek Penwell

“I love her, but she’s got to learn right from wrong,” he said … after beating her half to death. And there she lies, one foot in this world and another in the next—but fully “loved.”

I imagine that’s what LGBTQ folks hear when yet another Christian says, “I love the sinner, but I hate the sin.”

Now, I can imagine that immediately upon reading the connection between those last two thoughts, cries of righteous indignation will rise as a chorus unto heaven. “We’re not abusers, simply because we hate what homosexuals do with their private parts. We’ve never actually, physically struck a gay person because of their gayness.”

Hmmm … Maybe not, I don’t know you. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to believe you’re not part of a roving band of homo/transphobes out trolling the streets for fresh bodies on which to work out your frustrations with the dismal state of America’s godless culture. Nevertheless, I don’t think that gets you off the hook for the violence that is done in the name of your religious commitments for two important reasons.

First, when you fight against anti-bullying laws written to keep LGBTQ kids safe from being abused, you are propping up a system of violence that steals the dignity, and often the lives of those children you say you love. If a gay or trans kid commits suicide because you want to retain the right to loudly and repeatedly announce to the world your moral disapprobation, giving energy to a system dedicated to never letting LGBTQ kids forget that they are sinful aberrations for which the fires of hell are regularly stoked hotter, you bear some responsibility for their death. When LGBTQ kids get beaten, when they’re kicked out of their homes and forced to live on the streets and struggle to do some of the despicable things they have to do to stay alive, you may not be raising a hand against them, but you’re certainly massaging the muscles that do the damage. When you support a vision of the world in which LGBTQ people daily have to live in fear for their livelihoods, their homes, their right to a peaceful and flourishing existence just so you can proudly announce your doctrinal purity and your commitment to a world where only your religious beliefs matter, you may not be drawing anyone’s actual blood—but don’t kid yourself that there’s not blood on your hands.

Second, physical violence isn’t the only kind of violence. The abuse that takes place in families, for instance, is often not physical abuse. You can lay claim to having never physically harmed a person, while at the same time being guilty of killing that person’s soul. As anyone who’s suffered abuse by an abuser who claims to love them can tell you, some of the worst things that can be done to you have to do with being humiliated, devalued, dehumanized, made to feel alone and crazy. For how many years, for instance, did we gaslight LGBTQ people, makinghomosexuality a mental disorder? [Answer: Even though homosexuality was removed from the DSM-II as a disease in 1973, it wasn’t until 1987 that it was completely removed as a disorder, “ego-dystonic sexual orientation,” from the DSM. In other words: “Gay people are crazy or, at least aberrant” gave shape to the world we now inhabit.]

Take a casual glance at a list of behaviors considered emotionally abusive in personal relationships; then, read that same list through the eyes of someone who is LGBTQ, and try to persuade them they’re not victims of “loving” abuse. As one of my favorite theologians, Fred Craddock, said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words … can kill me.”

Now, someone might object: “We really do love them. We just think what they’re doing is wrong.”

Fine. The problem is that if you talk to many abusers, they will say the same thing … and mean every word of it. Punching someone in the mouth because you “love” her and “want to correct” her, can’t help but be heard by the person being so punched as a blatant form of patriarchy (i.e., I know better than you do what’s appropriately “not sinful”; you’re just going to have to trust that I have your best interests at heart), or as a way of justifying the hatred and violence of the puncher, or simply as a cynical lie. Whatever the case, your attempts at “loving” the object of your disapproval always seem to come off as a self-righteous assertion of your moral superiority (at best), or downright antipathy (at worst).

Let me see if I can make this any clearer (and I know it doesn’t feel good): Participating in a system that belittles, punishes and commits violence against those who are often in the weakest position to defend themselves, frames you as an abuser in the eyes of those whom you claim only to be trying to love.

Here someone might wonder: “But how can they not know I love them? I said I love them, didn’t I?”

That’s the whole point. Saying you love someone as you punch them in the mouth, or standing by (while cheering or remaining silent) while somebody else punches them in the mouth or loudly fighting for laws that will continue making punching them in the mouth legal in the name of “religious freedom” isn’t love.

A cursory reading of the Gospels suggests that, for those of us who follow Jesus,love isn’t the perpetual need to make everyone else conform to our understanding of righteousness; it’s the merciful realization that Jesus has freed us from the responsibility of thinking that’s even our job.

Finding Excuses to Die: The Problem with Thinking It's about Everything Else

By Derek Penwell

(From the archives) 

Finding Excuses to Die

“It was great to see all those people there for Easter yesterday.”

“Pretty great.”

“Of course, and I hate to say it, there’s a part me that dreads Easter.”

“Well, there’s a lot to dread about Easter. It’s busy, and all those extra services. Easter’s tough on ministers.”

“No. That’s not what I’m talking about. Well, all that stuff is hard, but I mean something else.”

“What?”

“Monday. I hate the Monday after Easter. Because as soon as Easter’s over, I start thinking about next week, and how most of those people won’t becoming back. Then that reminds me about how it feels like our congregation’s dying.”

“I know. That’s rough. So, what are you doing to make things different?”

“We want to change.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Well, it’s more complicated than that?”

“More complicated than what?”

“We want to change, but in order to change we need some things to be different.”

“But if things were different, that would be change already, right?”

“Has anybody ever told you how obnoxious you are to talk to?”

“Yeah, I get that a lot. But what is it that you need changed that—if you got it—would finally provide the right environment for transformation?”

“For one thing, we need more people to get involved.”

“How are you going to get them involved?”

“We’ve tried everything we know to try: begging, chiding, wheedling, shaming.”

“How’s that working for you?”

“It’s not, actually, smart guy.”

“So, you can’t change until somebody else does something?”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t sound very good when you say it like that.”

“Why else can’t you change?”

“We need more resources.”

“Like what?”

“It’s been tough. The budget’s been a train wreck. Money’s just hard to come by. If we had more money, things would be way easier.”

“What would money buy you that—if you finally had it—would allow you to change?”

“I’m not sure. Wait. I could get a new computer.”

“What would you do with a new computer?”

“I could get more done.”

“What kinds of things could you do with a new computer that you can’t do now?”

“I could write more, organize my time better. Digitally. You know.”

“You don’t have a computer?”

“Yeah, but a new one would be more efficient.”

“I’m just going to take shot in the dark: Have you ever considered the possibility that the quality of your tools isn’t your most pressing problem?”

So, here’s what I think: Most congregations don’t want to change. I’ve said this before, but I’m still convinced it’s true. Most congregations would rather die than change.

Believing that something external has to change before anything internally has a crack at transformation is a recipe for death. Whether you admit it or not, when you say, “Just as soon as _____, then we can start thinking about changing,” you’ve started making preparations to die.

And the convenient part about it is that you’ll have ready made excuses for why it’s dead.

Waiting for the conditions to be just right, focusing on external stuff is like saying:

  • I could be a better preacher if I had a nicer pulpit.
  • We could have more baptisms if we just had a nicer baptistry.
  • We would have bigger budget if we had better accounting software.

It’s fiddling. Plain and simple.

You can’t lose weight by buying a cooler treadmill. If you’re not using the heck out of the one you’ve got, buying a new one is only going to succeed in making you two things you don’t want to be: fat and broke.

In fact, you don’t even need a treadmill at all, we have these wonderfully free analog devices called “roads” and “sidewalks” that, with a little effort should suit your purposes.

If you’re not changing with the people and resources you’ve got, then even if all those Christmas and Easter folks came the next week, nothing would be different. In fact, things might get considerably worse.

Most ministers are afraid in the deepest part of their souls of getting everything they’ve always said they needed.

Because if your wish list is completed, and you finally get everything you think you need to change (more volunteers, a better web site, an associate, the right associate, great leadership, a bigger parking lot, an oversubscribed budget, shade grown coffee and Barcaloungers in the narthex), what happens if things don’t change then?

If you think what’s at stake can be fixed by newer and better Barcaloungers, then this is the best I can do for you.

If you’re worried about equipping disciples for the reign of God, then get back to work. You’ve got all you need to do that right now.

You want to change? Then change.

“That’s easy for you to say.”

No. Well, it may be easy for me to say. But it’s not any easier for me to do than anyone else. I fight my own battles with resistance.

The question isn’t whether I’m perfect at it. The question is whether I’m right about it.

The fact still remains that if you think the culture of your church is going to change for the better if you wait long enough for everything to fall into place before you do the difficult work of transformation, you’re always going to find an excuse to die.

Power Can Be A Big Problem

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

The problem, in my mind, is the abuse of power.  Now let me tell you what I am talking about. Over the past several years, I have spent a large amount of time reading about what has been called “The New Atheism” and its critique on religious faith.  Having grown in popularity after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, this movement points to the 9-11 attacks as an example of the evil that can be done in the name of religious faith.  That is often followed with a longer list of historical events in which evil has been done by religious believers - the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Salem Witch trials, etc.  The number of books that have been written criticizing the philosophical underpinnings of the New Atheism, along with their near complete blindness concerning the benefits of religious faith on culture (criticism that has even come from fellow atheists) is no small number.  These books often point out, accurately, that some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were perpetrated by governments committed to an atheistic philosophy - Stalin and the USSR, Pol Pot and Khamer Rouge,  Mao and the PRC, Kim Sung II and the DPRK, etc. 

Now, my reason for citing these examples of the evil committed by certain atheistic regimes is not for the purpose of “tit-for-tat.”  It is not a “right back at you” moment; not a “Yeah, but look at what you did” kind of thing.   Honestly, I think those of us who claim religious faith need to listen with a discerning ear to those who have claims against us.  And though I have many philosophical disagreements with the current atheist movement, I will grant them this truth, there have been times when evil, even great evil, has been done by those of religious faith. There has been evil that has been done in the name of God.  That is a painful reality, but it is the truth, and we who have faith should own it.  It is by no means the whole story of religious faith, but it is as a part of the story.  But those of no religious faith have the same problem.  Great evil has been done by those with a purely materialistic worldview.  Apparently, evil makes for strange bedfellows.

So when it comes to the human capacity for cruelty, the issue of religion or non-religion does not seem to be the necessary factor.  As I look at this matter, it is the presence of power, and its abuse, that is the common characteristic.  Every human community has some kind of structure of power.  In regard to political structures, power is the possession of control or command over others.  I heard a famous American politician once say, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”  Power becomes the precursor to evil when it is used to impose one’s worldview or one’s will on others.  In explanation of the evil done by the atheistic regimes, Bo Jinn offers this critique, “The governing ideology behind every one of these [acts], . . . involved the proposition that there was no power greater than their own.”    I would add that for the times when evil has been done in the name of religion, it has occurred because those in power felt empowered by God to maintain orthodoxy or to purge away what they considered evil.  

For those of us who are Christian, it was our Lord who reminded us that power is something that we should be suspicious of.  Two of his disciples once asked him to sit on his right and on his left when he came into his kingdom. Which means they wanted to sit in seats of power. To this request Jesus replied:

You know that the rulers of Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your  servant. . . .  Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. 

Our understanding of power is to be different.  It is not about the imposition of our way of life on others through the strength of force.  It is about the sharing of our way of life through acts of service and commitment to the common good.  It is not the love of power that motivates us; it is the power of love that moves us to act.  Dr. King said it this way:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.  Power at its best is love implementing the demands for justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

For both people of faith and people of no faith, the issue of power and how it is used is of utmost importance.  We must always ask ourselves, what principles, ideas and beliefs are behind the use of whatever power we have been given.  As can be seen, we are all more than capable of using power to achieve the wrong end.  Which means we also have the capability of using power for the right end—a more just and compassionate world.  It is within our power to make the right choice.    

 

Bo Jinn, "Illogical Atheism: A Comprehensive Response to the Contemporary Freethinker From A Lapsed Agnostic"

Leading the Way

By Rev. Mindi

Almost three and a half years ago, I began at my current call to ministry, a tiny congregation to the south of Seattle. A congregation with very few children and that, quite frankly, wasn’t used to having children present in the congregation.

My (at the time) four-year-old child with autism was definitely a change for this quiet congregation. AJ can vocalize and laugh and giggle very loudly. On occasion, he had made not-so-happy noises. I have interrupted my own sermon to try to calm him down when others could not.

When we first came, he ran up and down the center aisle and the sides. He would run all over the chancel throughout the service and be difficult to contain and have him sit still. Once, he figured out that he could step over the pews instead of walking between them, and stepped over each one.

I heard complaints on occasion about my son being too disruptive and too loud. My first pastoral relations committee meeting was a tough one. I heard people ask if my husband could take my child to his church instead. I know people want to come and worship and take that one hour out of the week to reconnect with God and it’s hard to do it when the child next to you is screaming, or shouting, or yelling. But it’s even harder for the parent who wants to come to worship with their family and finds they are not welcome, let alone the pastor.

Now at age seven and-a-half, AJ still runs around, up and down the aisle. He sits at the drum kit and plays the drums, and often at the keyboard, refusing to follow any instructions but plays his own tune. However, when the prelude starts, for the most part he now knows that he needs to sit down. He often sits in the back pew with a friend, sometimes one his own age, but often an adult who can help him sit most calmly in church.

But something remarkable has happened in these three and-a-half years, and it’s not that AJ has quieted down or matured a little. It isn’t that AJ has changed his behavior; it is that the church has changed with him. Children now take the offering during worship, and on occasion AJ has helped. A few young families have come with their little ones who have run up and down the aisle and all over the chancel. The children lead the adults in saying the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday before the Prayers of the People. And one of our youngest read part of the Gospel According to Luke on Christmas Eve, along with the other adult readers.

At my most recent pastoral relations committee meeting, one of the eldest members of the congregation brought up how wonderful it was that children feel free to dance and wiggle and move about. She remarked how delightful it was to her, that it warmed her heart to see the children so free to be themselves in our church, a place where they are welcome just as they are. And she turned to me and said, “It’s because of AJ. AJ has made this church welcoming of all children.”

Too many churches still try to do a separate-but-equal ministry for persons with disabilities, or an outreach to persons who are houseless, or to teens who are at-risk. Too many churches want to do something to change other people, to make them more acceptable.

But this is what inclusion does: inclusion changes us.

We are continuing to have to push for inclusion in our child’s school and our school district. Often, students with special needs like our child’s are separated in a Special Education class. While they receive more individualized instruction, they do not receive the socialization with other students. However, as we keep promoting at our child’s school, it’s less for AJ’s growth as it is for the other general education students. How will “typical” peers ever learn about students with disabilities if they are not in their classes? How will adults live with and work with (and hire, if they become employers) students with disabilities if they have had little to no social interaction with their disabled peers?

Outside of public education, we still are struggling for inclusion for AJ in extra-curricular activities: music and dance and sports. Summer camps have been notorious for not including (by not accommodating) students with different needs. And sadly, this has proved true for us, even at church-run day camps and Vacation Bible Schools. We know from other parents that this does not get any easier as children grow into teens and young adults; few of them are ever included in the events of their peers.

This is one of the places that the church still has the opportunity to lead the way in our communities, and frankly, in our world as a whole. We have the opportunity to lead the way in building up the beloved, inclusive community of Christ here on earth. We have the ability to truly make a difference—not just for people with disabilities—but for all of us, because inclusion changes us. And I believe it changes us to be more like the image of God.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. ~Isaiah 11:6

Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. ~Mark 10:15

The Best Darn Continuing Education Event You Will Ever Attend

By Rev. Mindi

A few years ago, some of the people I follow on Twitter started using the hashtag #unco. I asked what it was, and that was the first I heard of the UnConference, a time when clergy and other church leaders can gather together, share ideas, and dream together of what creative ministry could be. At first, I thought, “that sounds nice, but I have so many denominational responsibilities and other conferences I want to go to, I don’t think I can fit another in.”

Then I learned that the UnConference isn’t really a conference (re-read the name). There are hosts and organizers, but no keynote speakers. We all bring something. We all come away with something. We all participate and learn and teach together. I started thinking that this might be something I’d really like—a group of colleagues to hang out with and share stories and insights. After all, isn’t that the best part of conferences—the after-hours when you get together and talk, not the hours of listening to a keynote (even if they are great speakers)?

However, I learned even more: this was something you could bring your kids to! Say WHAT?! They have KidUnco. Kids have their own times to participate so you can go to breakout sessions and learn and chat together. Or, you can bring your kiddo with you if you want to. And there is free time to explore, and we all stay in the same place together so you can hang out with other adults when your kiddo goes to sleep. Unlike denominational conferences where you have to go to bed when your kiddo goes to bed because you’re in a hotel floors and doors away, you are right there.

The cost is way, way less than any conference I ever paid for. Right in line with a lot of denominational continuing education scholarships, too. And they have two locations: East (at Stony Point, New York) and West (at San Francisco Theological Seminary in California). East is May 16th through 18th this year (West is in October; we are still waiting to confirm exact dates).

I learned more in the first fifteen minutes in my first UNCO breakout on finances (called “Show Me The Money”) than I did in the required seminary course on church administration and stewardship. I learned more from my UNCO experiences than I have from any other continuing education opportunity. And, unlike most conferences and workshops, the work is continuing. Not like boring homework, but good work—new insights, ideas, and colleagues partnering with you. I have at least two groups that have continued, one since 2014 on funding, that meet monthly via video chat. I get to connect with my friends in ministry in real time and chat about what is going on and work on what I want to work on for my ministry.

All those @ names I was following that used the #unco hashtag? They became my friends, most of whom I have now met in real life. Most are not of my denomination, either, which is helpful. I have accountability, friendship, and encouragement in a very 21st century way that is helpful to who I am as a pastor and the ministry I am engaged with.

UNCO allows for creativity and collaborating. UNCO has given me a space in which I not only enjoy the work we are doing together but I also find rest and renewal. It’s both work and self-care all in one. And my clergy spouse and my kiddo get to come with me because it’s open for all of us.

Consider joining us at UNCO this year. For more information, visit www.unco.us. Registration for East is available, and West will be soon (those of us who go to the West location often like to say #westisbest, but to each their own). And follow #unco16 on social media! 

 

The Creatively Maladjusted

Given the fact that it is Martin Luther King, Jr. day and injustice toward vulnerable people persists, I thought I might offer a few thoughts about what it means to remain silent in the face of that injustice—and about what it means not to, what it means to be creatively maladjusted.  Disclaimer: My analogy with the Civil Rights movement is only meant to be suggestive, not to establish easy equivalences

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those whowere selling the doves, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”  Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:1319).

Following the first miracle at the wedding in Cana, Jesus and his new disciples take a few days off, then head into Jerusalem.

Where do they go?  Straight to the temple.

What happens?  Jesus makes a whip of cords and starts turning over the tables of the money changers.  He’s ranting and raving about how they’re turning God’s house into a marketplace.  The folks in charge don’t much care for his attitude and say, “Who are you?  What sign can you show us for doing this?”  Then, Jesus commits the ultimate Jewish faux pas by saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

What Jesus has done, in effect, after making such a grand splash at the wedding at Cana, is to guarantee that the very people who might have helped promote his ministry are the ones whom he has alienated by his little foray into temple finances.  He’s made some pretty influential enemies in his first trip to Jerusalem.

So what?  What’s the significance?

Well, think about it.  When Jesus cleanses the temple in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it occurs at the very end of Jesus’ ministry—after entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and just before being snatched up and crucified on Good Friday—which, if you think about it, makes more sense.  You can see why Jesus would be upset with the religious establishment in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  They’ve hounded him for three years, and are plotting to kill him.  A little righteous indignation seems appropriate.

But in John, the cleansing of the temple comes right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  He’s had nothing but smooth sailing up to this point.  Why upset the temple bigwigs right off the bat?  It makes much less sense, from a narrative standpoint, to have Jesus challenge the money changers in the temple just as his ministry is taking off.  Why does John set up the story this way?

John puts the story of the cleansing of the temple right next to the wedding at Cana on purpose.  He’s making some rhetorical hay about the shape and trajectory of Jesus ministry.

What do I mean?

Well, how must the disciples be feeling after seeing Jesus pull a Bobby Knight in the temple? They have to be terribly confused.  They thought they were getting a pretty engaging guru, fun to have around at parties, somebody to keep the open bar open—but what they got instead was a loose cannon, an unpredictable guy who knows his way around the business end of a whip.  Jesus' impatience with the way things are calls to mind what Martin Luther King wrote in Strength to Love:

 “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”

Well, Jesus is nothing if not creatively maladjusted.

Jesus explodes our tame, self-aggrandizing expectations about how joining up with him will be the end of our problems.  John wants to show us that just because you follow Jesus doesn’t mean everything magically becomes sweetness and light.  In fact, joining up with Jesus may cause you a whole new set of problems you might otherwise have avoided if you’d just stayed home and watched Jeopardy.  Sometimes we have to follow Jesus into the temple, where only hostility awaits us.

And that bothers us, doesn’t it?  If not, we haven’t been paying attention to what happens to people willing to walk into the teeth of the storm.

In April of 1963, a group of well-meaning (I think) white clergy in Alabama got together and issued a statement calling for the end of demonstrations they considered “unwise and untimely,” by “some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” even though this group of white clergy recognized “the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized.”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today, responded to these clergy in his, now famous, Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Not surprisingly, Dr. King’s anger at the unjust social systems made bolder through their embodiment in law is present throughout his letter, raising again the Augustinian question about whether unjust laws—laws that degrade “human personality” and “distort the soul”—ought rightfully to be considered laws at all.

Dr. King reserves his biggest disappointment, however, for the church.  He rightly criticizes white moderates, whom he considered to be “more devoted to ‘order’ than to ‘justice’; who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”   He speaks candidly in his letter about weeping because of the laxity the church, about how “blemished and scarred” is the body of Christ “through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformist.”

At one point, Dr. King recalls with a certain wistfulness “a time when the church was very powerful.”  It’s interesting to note, though, just how he sees the church’s relationship to that power.  The church was at its most transformative, he argues,

when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.  Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’  But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than humans.  Small in number, they were big in commitment.  They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’  By their efforts and their example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide, and gladiatorial contests.

It occurs to me that we who have committed ourselves and our communities of faith to seeking justice are the inheritors of that legacy—a legacy that hears the cries of inequity and injustice, and remains incapable of turning a deaf ear.

We are the spiritual offspring of the creatively maladjusted.  We cannot stand by and do nothing.  We join together across the diversity of theological and denominational lines to take our place in the procession—a procession that, just in this country alone, stretches back through the Civil Rights movement, through women’s suffrage, and through the abolition of slavery.

We are people who cannot abide and will not stomach the excuses offered up by unjust systems that somehow “now is not the time,” or that raising a ruckus only contributes to the problem.  We draw together because we’ve been called to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God—not because there is anything necessarily heroic in us, but because we’ve been passed a torch by heroes and saints who’ve gone before us, and who have called us to bear witness that God is not satisfied with either an unjust society or a lazy church “more devoted to ‘order’ than to ‘peace.’”

There's a constituency within the church today urging caution, who think it "unwise and untimely" to press the issue of justice for young African American men who suffer disproportionately at the hands of the legal system, for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people within the church, for a beloved community that includes our Muslim sisters and brothers—even though this constituency recognizes “the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized.”  They believe that taking any kind of a stand will be heavy-handed and disruptive, while failing to realize that, if Jesus is our model, heavy-handed disruption of the existing unjust order is sometimes not the thing we wait for the right time to pursue, but the very thing with which we lead, the thing that sets the shape and trajectory of our ministry.

If we are indeed the offspring of the creatively maladjusted, we will never have a better time than the celebration of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to start living like it.

A Little Consistency Please

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Dr. Lisa W. Davison

I am a fairly open-minded and intelligent person, but one thing has evaded my comprehension for some time now. No one takes the biblical texts more seriously than I do; I’ve spent my life studying, exploring and learning about the bible gaining a working knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek (the 3 languages in which the biblical texts were originally written), so that I do not have to rely on someone else’s translation that is far removed from the extant biblical texts and tarnished by human biases. Granted, my own translations are also influenced by my biases, but I have made it an intentional effort to remove myself from and critique those lenses with which I read the bible. I cannot say the same for all translators; some of whom have claimed that they are merely giving a “literal” translation of the original language (i.e., Hebrew, Aramaic, & Greek) into the target language (in this case English). This is absolutely impossible.

At this point, I must say a word (or more) about this term, “literal”, and all of its derivatives. In my lifetime, I have heard countless, well-meaning people of faith who claim that they believe the bible to be the very words of God; therefore they take/read the bible “literally.” Really? How can a thinking person make that claim with a straight face? If one begins reading at Gen 1:1, it is not very long before this “literal” approach starts falling apart. In what order did God create the world (humans first or last)? How many animals went onto the ark (2 every kind or 7 pairs of some with 1 pair of others)? I could go on and on. In addition to these inconsistencies of the Torah, there are more glaring examples of how folks who claim this “literal” approach fail to be consistent. Ask them if they have sold everything and given it to the poor, as Jesus taught (Luke 18:22, Mat 19:21, & Mark 10:21), and they will quickly tell you that Jesus didn’t mean that “literally,” and they do it with a straight face. Really?

As I once heard Rev. Peter Gomes, former Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard School of Divinity and the Pusey Minister at Harvards Memorial Church, say: “There are no true literalists; there are only selectivists.” This is spot on! All of us, who claim that the biblical texts have some authority/influence in our lives, are SELECTIVISTS. We select which texts we take somewhat “literally” and which are meant to be seen as “metaphorical” or too outdated to be binding in this 21st century world. So, the question must be asked: “How do you make that choice between those texts that are to be taken ‘literally’ and those that must be further interpreted and/or discarded?” The problem I encounter over and over again is that people cannot answer this important question. They cannot tell me why Lev 18:22 is to be taken “literally,” even though this text does not say what they want it to say, but Luke 18:22 should not be taken “literally.” They cannot explain why a strange text from the Pauline corpus about some sort of orgiastic behavior is a clear condemnation of same-sex relationships (Rom 1:25-26), but Jesus’ clear condemnation of divorce (Mark 10:1-12; Matt 19:1-9) no longer has the same authority. They cannot tell me why they think 2 commandments (Lev 18:22 & 20:13) from among the 613 commandments in Torah are still binding, while they eat their bacon (Lev 11:7-9) cheeseburgers (Exod 23:19) with abandon and ignore the clear commandment that sassy children should be stoned (Deut 21:18-21). They must intentionally ignore the use of “Sodom & Gomorrah” by Jesus (Matt 10:14-5; Luke 10:10-12), or they would have to acknowledge that even he understood that it was a teaching story against inhospitality not homosexuality. Why do they want to argue that the age of the earth must match the internal (and inconsistent) chronology of the bible, but they do not want their doctors to treat them with only the “medical” knowledge and advancements available in the 2nd century CE?

Why, one might ask, are these people unable to answer my basic question, to provide a consistent hermeneutic1 by which they interpret and apply biblical texts? For many, the answer is simple. They do not want to admit that they only take “literally” those texts that do not step on their own toes or negatively impact their desired lifestyle. I hope they would still agree that the biblical endorsement of slavery (Lev 25:44-46; Eph 6:5- 9; Phil) is no longer justifiable, and surely we are not stoning adulterers (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22), otherwise D.C. and Hollywood would be a great deal less crowded. Perhaps their congregations would be as well.

In an effort to be candid, I will share my hermeneutic for reading biblical texts. As a follower of the way of Jesus, I value and recognize the two “greatest commandments” that at least 2 gospels (Matt 22:36-40 & Mark 12:28-34) attribute to Jesus: “Love God with all you are(Deut 6:5) & “Love your neighbor as yourself(Lev 19:18). Every text in the bible must be evaluated with these questions: does it teach me to love God with all that I am and does it teach me to love my neighbor as myself. If the answer is “no,” then I must delve deeply in research to seek an answer as to why this text might be in the bible. If the answer is “yes,” then I must also delve deeply into the exegesis of the passage, so that I do not just bend it to approve of what I do and what I value.

In addition to a consistent hermeneutic, I also weigh biblical texts in light of logic, scientific knowledge, and contemporary contexts. Do I believe that evil spirits cause human diseases? No, so I do not go to an exorcist or priest when I have a headache, fever, or other signs of illness. I would say that the same is true for many of the well- meaning folks I have been describing. So, I wonder why, if they are thoughtful people on other topics, they do not apply the same level of thought to the issue of same-sex relationships? I would welcome that conversation, that honesty, but I’m still waiting for someone to offer that opportunity.

_______________

1 “Hermeneutic” refers to the interpretative framework that one uses in interpreting and determining the applicability of biblical texts. In biblical studies, we seek to have a consistent hermeneutic, meaning we evaluate all biblical texts through this framework. 

Living by the Sword

by Rev. Mindi

American children are nine times more likely to die in gun accidents than children anywhere else in the developed world.

Firearms were the third leading cause of injury related deaths nationwide in 2010.

The CDC reports that 21,175 suicide deaths are by firearms, just over half of all suicide deaths every year.

This year alone, over 62 shootings have taken place at schools, over twelve thousand killed in gun incidents, and almost 25,000 have been injured in gun incidents in the US.

And the list goes on and on and on. These statistics alone, and report after report after report, ought to make us question the plethora of guns in the United States, the attitudes about gun ownership rights and responsibilities, and the overall risk of life when it comes to gun ownership. I know—some of these are criminals with guns. Yes. However, look at the rates of accidental death and injury, especially to children—and we ought to at least question our attitudes about availability of guns.

On Monday, Jerry Falwell, Jr. made the statement that Christians should be arming themselves to shoot Muslims. He later clarified he meant Muslim extremists, but still. “Christians should arm themselves.”

What?

Why in the world should Christians arm themselves? Isn’t this antithetical to the message of the Gospel? To Jesus, the one who saves? Jesus, the one who gave up his own life?

Carol Howard Merritt writes about the reality of domestic violence and murder when guns are present in the home. We all know the church has a history of hiding abuse and covering up domestic violence, persuading women to stay in abusive situations where they are more likely to end up killed by their partner.

Rebecca Sumner writes about a time when she stopped someone with a gun by using her words. And she isn’t the only one—remember this story? It was in 2013 that Antoinette Tuff talked down a shooter in a Georgia school, in an incident where no one lost their life.

Both Carol and Rebecca mention the phrase, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” in their stories. Here’s my story. I know more than one person—who are generally good people, who have been law-abiding citizens for the most part—have, at times, been so angry they pulled a gun on someone who wasn’t armed. Or threatened to pull a gun on someone who angered them. Or talked about going and shooting up someone who had hurt them. Or even pulled out a gun on someone they loved.

Good guys, all with guns, who, if they had their gun with them in that moment, would have become the bad guy. Because it is so much easier to lash out in a fit of rage with an accessible gun. It is so much easier to do something you could never imagine yourself doing if you have a gun. It is so much easier to kill someone, or yourself, if you have access to a gun. And it is nine times more likely that your child will die in this country than anywhere else. So we need to stop saying “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” because more often than not, the good guy will become a bad guy.

Jesus, when met with violence in his arrest, argued against violence. Jesus’ disciples did not carry weapons, even when their lives were at stake.

 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

Matthew 25:51-52

 

Forced Adaptation

By Rev. Mindi

In 2009, the world changed as we knew it.

We went from analog to digital TV.

Remember the concerns, the worries and concerns for senior citizens that would no longer be able to watch TV, that people wouldn’t be able to find the digital converter boxes (even though you could sign up for one for free) and that people would have to buy new TV’s?

We survived. The world didn’t end. Chaos didn’t erupt in the streets. And now, six years later, we’ve almost forgotten about that transition. Few of us have the big box TV’s anymore. When I asked my congregation a couple of weeks ago (using this change from analog to digital as my sermon illustration about change), only a couple of people still had a box TV. Everyone else had a flat TV, including the senior members of the church. Six years ago, there were concerns that senior citizens wouldn’t be able to accept the change from analog to digital, and that was the main argument against the change.

Turns out, senior citizens adapt pretty well, as do most of us.

What happens when the church is resistant to change and uses the excuse that our senior members can’t make the shift and change? One, we are telling ourselves a lie about a group of people, and two, at some point the change is inevitable and we either adapt, or our message is no longer received. Because it is almost always the very people who are afraid of a generation or group not being able to adapt to change that are unable to make the change. It is almost always the ones worried about others that cannot make the shift themselves. The results after the 2009 switch from analog to digital show that the largest group not ready for the shift were ages 35-54.  Not senior citizens.

I went out to lunch today and at the table was a tablet with card reader. This is now the third restaurant chain that I have been to in the last month that is switching over to this practice, where you pay right at the table when you are finished. The menu is even loaded and you can order your food from your table, but for now, the wait staff still come to your table and take your order the old fashioned way, but who knows for how long? More and more chains are having options of ordering online through an app and you pick your food up ready to go.  How many churches are still only taking check or cash for pledges and donations? How many church websites still do not have a mobile option? How many congregations still do not use social media? And how many times will we make the excuse that it is senior citizens who are not ready? 

1440 was the year technology changed the church forever, the year the printing press was invented. In the next one hundred years, Bibles would be mass produced and printed in languages other than Latin. The church was eventually forced to change. The next big shift is already happening, in both the ways technology is used within the church, but also the church itself, in how we organize, gather, and do mission and ministry. We are shifting from creating community to finding God already at work in the community. We are shifting from doing mission to help others to partnering with others in their God-given work. But some of us are adapting faster than others. Some of us are handling this shift better. 

As those of us that have congregational budgets operating on a calendar year know, this is Stewardship season. This is the time when we mail out the pledge cards and stewardship letters and invite people to give. However, unless we being to embrace technology, we are going to be left behind, or out completely, if we are still expecting people to carry cash or check. And unless we embrace the shift of partnering with our community that already exists, to do the work God is already doing, we are going to be shutting the doors of many churches that still think their mission is to share the message of Christ’s love but have no idea how to do it in today’s world.

There are hundreds of books out there about this shift happening in our church and culture, with authors who can state this far better than me. However, if we cannot admit that it's not senior citizens that have a problem of adapting, but ourselves, those of us in leadership, we are fooling ourselves and shutting the doors on our face.