review

2015 In Review

By Rev. Mindi

When I look back over this past year, there are a lot of things I think the world can regret.

More violence.

More war.

More mass shootings.

More hate against Blacks, Muslims, transgender women, and others.

In my own town south of Seattle, I have seen passage of anti-homeless ordinances as the rise of the population living in tents grows. I have experienced the failure of two school bonds, resulting in more overcrowded classrooms and not enough space, let alone resources, for students with disabilities as well as typically developing students, in our district where over 44 languages are spoken and all but three schools are Title IX schools.

Looking back, I remember the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting, in which nine black church members and their pastor were gunned down by a white supremacist. I remember unarmed African-American men killed by police officers, again. I remember the shooting last month at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Denver, and the shooting in Bakersfield, and the massive attack in Paris, France.

Then I remember June 26th.

President Obama comforted the nation by singing and speaking at Rev. (and Senator) Clementa Pinckney’s funeral. In the midst of tragedy, I found hope.

The Supreme Court of the United States declared that marriage between same-sex couples was legal and a constitutional right.

And remember June 27th?

That was the day Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole in Charleston and tore the damn flag down.

And after that?

Several businesses stopped selling the Confederate flag on merchandise.

There were some good days, even absolutely wonderful days, in 2015.

The world isn’t always getting better. It feels, at times, the world is revolving backwards, that we have made no forward motion in terms of civil rights or justice. But then I remember those days to hold on to, those days when the world changes and doesn’t go back. And I see the kingdom of God is near. I hear the call of John the Baptist, and later of Jesus: “Repent, and believe in the Good News.”

As we draw near the end of 2015, and look to 2016, I hear the Baptizer’s call. Repent, and believe in the Good News. For there is still Good News to be revealed, Good News to be shared, and Good News to engage.

Reverent and Rule-Breaking: There's a Woman In the Pulpit

Available today at Skylight Paths Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Available today at Skylight Paths Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble

I have had the pleasure of being part of the RevGalBlogPals community, a group of active clergywomen bloggers, and the great honor of being a contributing author in the RevGals first collective book There’s a Woman In the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments, and the Healing Power of Humor, which is being released today by Skylight Paths Publishing.

As Rev. Martha Spong, director of RevGalBlogPals and the editor of this work (as well as a seminary colleague and friend of mine), states in the introduction, “Our community includes people who are single and married and partnered and divorced and widowed, gay and straight, cis- and transgender, parents and not, clergy and clergy spouses and laypeople, with an age range of twenty-something to seventy-something…” and we come from a variety of denominations around the world. In short, you will not find another work with the personal voices of such a diverse group of clergy women.

Included in this diversity of clergy women’s personal stories are some common threads: the difficulty of following one’s call into ministry by a still male-dominated patriarchal church structure, sometimes calling women away from the denomination of their youth; the focus by others on what clergy women wear and look like; wrestling with theological questions and walking with people on their faith journeys. 

There are prayers and poetry, laments and reflections; tales of baptisms and communions, deaths and births, revelations and resolutions. The stories shared are often of those intimate moments in ministry: placing ashes upon the forehead of a stranger; praying for a dying stranger; baptizing a child; being in the ER when people are informed their loved ones are gone. These intimate moments are shared beautifully, and as I read them, renewed in me the understanding of God’s call to this important ministry I am part of as a Christian pastor.

As I read each woman’s story, I recognized my own frustrations and trying times of being a woman in ministry. I especially resonated with the tales of breaking the rules. Standing in the line of Jesus, women called into ministry have been called to break the rules—even if their denomination ordains women. We still are challenging a status quo, a cultural idea that men are ministers and women are not. And in subtler ways we have been breaking rules even in our liberal, affirming contexts, because the work is not done to welcome all and to follow Jesus’ call.

This is not just a book to give to the clergy woman you know, though she will enjoy it, I’m sure. This is the book to give to anyone considering the ministry. This is the book to give anyone who loves Jesus but isn’t sure about the church and its laundry list of rules. Guess what—some of the clergy aren’t so sure about those rules, either. Yes, there is a place for you. There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and she’s inviting you in.


Slow Down, and read Slow Church

By Rev. Mindi

My small local clergy group was taking suggestions for new books to read, and me with my smart phone and sometimes smart mouth decided to search right then and there for a new book rather than taking a month to go do research. In my Amazon recommendations popped up Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. I really didn’t know much about it but that it was a brand new book, and that the book has a Twitter account that followed me, so I followed back.  It was really by chance and Amazon’s logarithms that I began reading this book.

But I’m so glad I did. Smith and Pattison are not pastors, not professional church leaders, but were inspired by the Slow Food movement to think about church life as an alternative to the “McDonaldization of Society” as George Ritzer coined it. (I read The McDonaldization of Society back in college and still have the book on my shelf—it was a profound wake-up call to the capitalist production machine that our society functions by: the idea that we have to make more stuff and make it faster, and that even our self-worth has come to depend upon it).  Slow Church looks at how church, just like the rest of the institutions of our society, have bought into the hyper-fast production-based model. “Decades, if not centuries, of taking shortcuts have repelled many people from the faith and diminished the quality of our life together” (117). We have tried to short-circuit discipleship and evangelism.

You might think at first that this is a book for a more conservative or evangelical audience, not for a mainline congregation—but we have done the same thing in the mainline church. Maybe we haven’t watered down the Bible to a tract that fits in the size of a business card, but we have (often) failed to do a good job of teaching our children and youth what it means to believe in and follow Jesus, what it means to be part of the church, how to participate in the kingdom of God.

Furthermore, we have failed to connect with the greater community, and that is the key of Slow Church—a reminder for us to slow down and reconnect with God, others and nature. “The ‘ecology’ of Slow Church is embedded in the interconnectedness of creation and God’s reconciliation of all things” (90).

Mainliners don’t differ much from our evangelical or fundamentalist kin in that we also water-down and short circuit the uncomfortable parts of our faith. We don’t do mourning well. Where our evangelical and fundamentalist kin will jump to “there’s one more angel in Heaven,” and lots of celebration that a loved one is now with the Lord, we do the same: we water-down the grieving process and try to jump into getting over death, rather than struggling with the suffering. Slow Church looks at the way our society as a whole has tried to just overcome suffering rather than the “willingness to enter into the pain of others” (83). If we are going to be committed in community to one another, we also need to be willing to suffer together as well as rejoice. This is what it means in particular to be part of Christian community: that we do not suffer alone.

Slow Church is about digging deep and being engaged and committed to the process of God-growth in us and around us. This commitment happens with God and with each other and with the greater community. Slow Church goes back to the roots of our faith in Scripture—Sabbath practice, discernment, community—and asks how we can re-engage with our roots and develop long-term, lasting foundations.

My major critique of this work is that  while my experience resonates with the book's view of church and society, I wonder if similar parallels would be drawn by my colleagues of color and different church cultures. I often err on the side of viewing US culture as homogeneous when it never has been; even critiquing the McDonalidzation of our US culture comes through a white lens, as the McDonalidzation was a white creation to begin with. Just some food for thought.

I highly recommend Slow Church. It is not often that I read a book that I say, “Yes, Yes!” out loud while reading it. I often highlight while I read; this time, I made notes as to what parts to quote for my next board meeting when we talk about stewardship. Each chapter has good discussion questions at the end for small groups or churches. The authors also have a blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slowchurch/ and are active on Twitter and Facebook.

THE SACRED MEAL [Reviewed]

THE SACRED MEAL.  The Ancient Practices Series.  By Nora Gallagher.  Foreword by Phyllis Tickle.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

The Eucharist or Lord’s Supper is central to the Christian faith, and to some traditions it’s more central than in others.  For Protestants it is one of two primary sacraments or means of grace.  For Disciples, like Episcopalians, it is a defining practice.  And Disciples might find the reflections of an Episcopalian very helpful in our own exploration of this central practice.

It is also an ancient Christian practice, by which we as Christians get in touch with the holy.  While we might not think of it as a spiritual practice – in the same way as prayer or fasting, Nora Gallagher offers us a way of looking at this activity in just that way.  Like the other spiritual practices, it serves “to gradually move us out of one place and into another” (p. 15).

Nora Gallagher is not an academically trained theologian nor is she a member of the clergy.  She is, however, an Episcopal layperson, Eucharistic minister, a licensed Episcopal preacher, and a writer.  She is best known for writing spiritually defined memoirs such as Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith. In this brief book, Nora brings to bear both her experience as a practitioner of the Christian faith and her vocation as a writer of memoirs.  This is very much a lived theology of the Eucharist, one that emerges from her experiences as a member of Santa Barbara’s Trinity Episcopal Church.  In many ways this book is a perfect expression of the sort of theological exploration that Philip Clayton describes in his new book Transforming Christian Theology (Fortress, 2010).

As I write this review, I must acknowledge that I know Nora, and several of the experiences that she narrates – I was either in attendance at or something very similar.  Thus, as she narrated her own story, in a very real way I found myself in the story.  I know the people, the churches, the events.  This may skew the way I read the book, but my sense is that Nora writes in a such a way that you need not know or have met Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer or the Rev. Mark Asman to be pulled into the story.   One needn’t have participated in an interfaith Sukkoth celebration led by Arthur or an interfaith breaking of the Ramadan fast at a local Presbyterian church.  That I may have been in attendance, doesn’t change the fact that Nora writes in such a way that we are drawn into a life-changing spiritual practice, one that leads from an internal encounter with the one lifted up in the Eucharist, to a life of service to the world.

To give one specific example of this connection between worship and service, Nora describes a soup kitchen that was launched by members of the Trinity Episcopal Church to serve the homeless community.  That soup kitchen would be the precursor to a much larger community-based outreach to the homeless, but it began in a church, in a small group or base community as they call it at Trinity, that encompassed the sharing in the Lord’s Supper.  Because of the theology inherent in the Episcopal tradition, the elements used had been previously consecrated, but Nora links the Table of the Lord to the table set out for the homeless in a church’s parish hall.  That is an important link that needs to be lifted up.

As one reads the book, one encounters a personal story – Nora’s – and a tradition’s story.  She describes in some detail the theology inherent in the Eucharist – speaking of the way in which the service of Communion involves a time of waiting, a time of receiving, and a point afterwards.  In the first stage, we examine ourselves, what we’ve been doing, confessing our sins if need be, reading ourselves to receive the bread and cup.  From there we move to a point of reception, and this comes to us as a gift, as a matter of grace.  By receiving the elements of communion, we must open our hands to receive them, and that makes us vulnerable.  She writes of this step:

It’s dangerous, opening your hands.  You don‘t know what will end up in them.  This may have been the smartest thing Jesus ever did.  He must have thought, How can make them step into the unknown?  How can I get them to let in some surprise?  I know, I’ll figure out a way for them to put their hands out in front of them, empty (p. 45).

By doing this, by stretching out our empty hands, we acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers nor the power to accomplish the things of God.

After we receive the bread and the cup, a point at which Nora suggests that we are being invited into heaven with all its glories, we return home to the realities of life.  As she seeks to understand the point afterward, she tells the story of an interfaith celebration of Sukkoth, that was led by a mutual friend, Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer.  The point that she wants to make is that the Sukkoth shelters are temporary, serving to remind the Jewish people that theirs is a nomadic past.  Rituals, such as Sukkoth, Communion, and Ramadan, help us in a very real and bodily way reconnect with an ancient event.

The Practice of communion reminds Christians of a meal and many meals shared by followers of a man who wanted them to see a new kingdom.  The practices are “after words,” after the events are long in the past, and whatever words attached to them may no longer be accurately recalled.  The practice remains to keep us in tune with what the original event pointed toward and so that we can add to its meaning and history (pp. 55-56).

By returning to this event through this practice, the events and words of long ago seep into our cells.  The point of regular practice is that our bodies and minds and spirits are continually trained for encountering the God revealed in this practice.  That allows us to be transformed by our encounters with the holy.

In the course of these chapters we are brought into a better understanding of the sacrament that is so central to our faith.  She makes it personal and reminds us that it is something, that if we are able and willing to receive from it, a life-changing practice.  It is not simply a ritual, it is something that prepares us to go out into the world, knowing that the Christ who is present in the bread and cup as body and blood (not in a literal sense, but in a spiritual and mystical sense) is also present everywhere in the cosmos.  It makes Jesus present, so that he might reveal to us the true nature of God.  And as God is present everywhere in the world through Christ, we who are the body of Christ become the “ongoing incarnation.”

The Communion may be an ancient practice, but it has very present implications, and Nora does a wonderful job taking us into those implications, so that we might be transformed for service in the world.  This is a book that can be appreciated and enjoyed by the newest of believers and the ones who have traveled the road the longest.  I think it can be especially useful to the one who finds the Eucharist to be simply a ritual, something done simply because we’re supposed to do it on occasion.  As one who comes from a tradition that practices weekly communion, I am reminded here of the breadth of meaning found in the sacrament.  Those who don’t see the point of frequent participation in the Sacrament might discover a reason to rethink that idea.  If practice makes perfect, then we all have a lot of practice to put in!

Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, MI.  He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Seminary, edits the journal Sharing the Practice, and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.