theology

Ministry in the Conversation...

By Rev. Mindi

In most congregations I know, if a ministry event or program got down to being just two or three people (and one of them was the pastor), they would probably look to end it soon. And until a year ago, I would probably have done the same thing.

We began our Pub Theology ministry just over two years ago, when I began at my current congregation. More accurately, we joined another congregation’s Young Adults group in the city and met with them at least once a month. Then we received a grant between the two congregations, and decided to start a new location closer to us. The idea was to grow and expand and have new folks join in and start new pub theology ministries. For a while it worked, we had other locations and folks joining us from Meetup and other online sites. Fast forward two years, and the other church group doesn’t meet anymore, and the other locations have faded out, but we still meet. Although we have had as many as fifteen, we are most often down to five or less, and sometimes just two or three. And there have been a couple of times I have been the only one.

I mentioned to my Pastoral Relations Committee once that it might be time to pull the plug on this ministry. “Oh please don’t,” a member told me. “Even if it is just you that are there, you are there on behalf of the rest of us.” Me, having a beer—or more likely, a Diet Coke—and waiting for people who will not show up that evening. No, I disagreed with her. But she continued.

“You see, I know someone who doesn’t go to church and thinks the church is just a hypocritical place. But when I told her about our Pub Theology, she listened. She said she could go to a church like that someday. And I keep inviting her and one day she will come with me. But until then—you never know who you might meet.”

It’s true, I don’t. And if I stop going, there is no opportunity.

However, I’ve stopped thinking of our Pub Theology ministry as an outreach opportunity—except for the fact that twice a month, we tip our server generously and are a witness that there are still good, kind people in the world who happen to be from a church.

Instead, I’ve seen it as a place where ministry happens in the conversation, and these kind of conversations just don’t happen in the church that we are used to. 

One of our attendees brought a friend one day who remarked that we got off-topic really quickly. Every week I bring a question or a thought to begin the conversation, and we stick with it maybe five minutes. We try to get back to it but inevitably are sidetracked. Sometimes those attending feel bad that we got sidetracked. I don’t. Unless it is someone railroading the conversation, I welcome those side trails to the discourse. That’s where I learn about relationships, work, values, goals in life, dreams that have been delayed or died, broken relationships, sorrow, joy—you name it. That’s where the real ministry is taking place, in these conversations about the lives we lead. We’ve gotten to know each other on a much deeper level than we have on Sunday morning during worship and coffee hour, or during Bible study, or any other traditional church ministry activity.

In some ways I wish we’d stop calling it Pub Theology or whatever phrase we are using, because the theological discourse—while interesting (our topic last night was hell, whether there is one or not) rarely scratches the surface. What does dig deeper is talking about our lives. And it’s there that we find the harder questions to ask and answer.

We’ve had as many as five in recent weeks, or as few as two, but they still come. And I love these meetings so much and I’m so glad that my congregation understands that they are not full of people all the time, but they are leading to fuller life.  And as one attendee said a few weeks ago: “This is Church. Right here, right now. And it’s church on Sunday morning, too. But this is no less church for me here than there.”

The Problem is the Answer

By J.C. Mitchell

I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition, which for my family was more of an ethnic identifier than a faith community.  The church was there for special rituals in life, but it wasn’t until I lived in Ireland that I discovered a more intense relationship and thus I began my search for church in my adult years. 

I will never forget the great performances done by my peers in Connecticut through the Walter Shock School of Dance.  I had only participated in ballroom dancing, as everyone in my town of affluence did, but I simply enjoyed the larger theatric performances.  I can recall the time break dancers came to our school, and when we went to see a Soviet dance company share mostly traditional dances.  This started my love of dance that brought me to love ballet.

So both of these important parts of my life now were not part of my formative years.  Most people that love dance as an adult danced as a child, and constantly in the church I hear about youth church camp experiences and/or how one was raised in the church.  Neither of these is true for me, but that doesn’t make me any less of a fan, and the best fans are actually critics.  I think there is a unique perspective from those who discover church as an adult rather than those who have grown up with it. There is an outside appreciation that may be overlooked. The same may be said of fans of dance who were not dancers in their youth—there is something unique that draws them in.

Recently I was reading Jennifer Homans’ Appollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, and when I read these words about ballet, I could not help but also think of the church:

Today’s artists [PASTORS]—their students and heirs—have been curiously unable to rise to the challenge of their legacy. They seem crushed and confused by its iconoclasm and grandeur, unable to build on its foundation yet unwilling to throw it off in favor of a vision of their own. Contemporary choreography [WORSHIP] veers aimlessly from unimaginative imitation to strident innovation—usually in the form of gymnastic or melodramatic excess, accentuated by overzealous lighting and special effects. This taste for unthinking athleticism and dense thickets of steps, for spectacle and sentiment, is not the final cry of a dying artistic era; it represents a collapse of confidence and a generation ill at ease with itself and uncertain of its relationship to the past.[i]

I read this over and over, and I could not help but change the word artists with pastors and choreography with worship.  And I must say this applies equally to ballet as it does to the church.

Is this a pure coincidence? 

 Is this a problem of post-modernity? 

Is this a problem of consumerism? 

Is it a problem at all? 

Honestly I think there is more hope for ballet, for it is an artistic form that can explore the divine and humanism equally with no dogma, while the church has found itself stuck in a battle of dogma rather than following the one that preached against organized religion: that Rabbi Jesus.  But maybe we can take the forms and discipline of church, as with ballet, to new and very different ways we cannot even imagine.

Perhaps we can remember in both dance and church, but more importantly in life, what George Balachine asks, “Why are you stingy with yourselves? Why are you holding back? What are you saving for—for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.”

 

 

 

 

 

[i]Homans, Jennifer (2010-11-02). Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet (Kindle Locations 10507-10512). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

Theodicy: The Question that Should Not be Answered.

By J.C. Mitchell

We love going to the zoo with our son.  The best part is seeing animals that we do not usually see, as well as open space to run.  We bring his iPad with his communication program on it and we practice saying things like:  “I see elephant”  “I see bird”  “I see lizard” and even more complex sentences such as “I like elephant.”  Our son engages better sometimes than other times, and there is of course always an “I want peanut butter & jelly” thrown in, as that is his favorite sentence to create.  So when we are in front of an animal I encourage him to press the appropriate buttons and/or I do it to model conversation.  Inevitably, the children that are nearby watching the animal move their gaze from the animal to us. 

None of them say, “Hello” or engage in a conversation, and worse, their parents do not stop them from gawking.  I bet if their children were staring at a wheelchair or a prosthetic they would at least be embarrassed and try to discreetly change their child’s gaze, and the great parents would engage in a conversation with the one that has a different ability.  Yes, they may wait to do it privately, but I am the one there and I would put money on that not being true.  I also hope you notice that it is quite ironic we are looking to teach our son to converse and the response is to stare and say nothing. 

I do have to admit that in some circumstances people are awesome, like when we went to ”Build-a-Bear” after the zoo (we had a gift certificate) and when we pulled out his iPad to respond what he saw at the zoo earlier, the sales person was wonderful.  She asked what he saw at the zoo, and he navigated off the zoo page and said, “I want peanut butter and jelly.”  She laughed appropriately, as I did as well.  Eventually he choose a black cat.  He loved watching the stuffing being mixed and he picked out a hat for his cat.  We named the cat and added a tutu.  However, most people are not as patient and kind as the sales person, and I noticed parents and other children staring at him as he enjoyed and squealed making his stuffed cat.

Honestly, the stares and the ignoring don’t bother me personally.  Well I lie, but I am so used to it and I know it is more about them seeing something new, than having anything to do with my son or myself.  The staring children are just curious and interested, which I totally understand, and I wait for the bold one that asks about why we use the iPad. I will probably tear up when I show that bold child, and perhaps my son will make a friend even just for that moment in front of the elephants.  The ignoring parents are probably pushing something down they do not want to deal with.  It reminds me of the fear some have seeing a body of a deceased loved one.  They do not want to deal with the image of mortality, or reality.

By ignoring my son, the parents are ignoring questions about their abilities, their children’s, and also why they are “blessed” and others are not.  It is the question of theodicy.  It is honestly the most important part of one’s theology: if you believe that God is good and is Love and is omnipotent, why do bad things happen to good people, and vice versa?  

So how do you answer this essential question?  Do you ignore it despite your children’s curiosity (or congregants)?  Do you make up excuses and exceptions?  The excuses include things like but not limited to: God gave us free-will or God never gives us more than we can handle.  Exceptions include but are not limited to: everything happens for a reason, we learn from our suffering, suffering creates character. 

None of these answer the question, which should not be ignored--but it should never be answered.  It must be lived and engaged.  If you start to answer the question, you will find that theology falls short and you end up with yourself or God as judge. 

When we gather with other families that have a child with special needs (or others with different abilities) the question why is never ignored, but answers are never provided.  The answer is lived by bucking normal.  This is exactly what we need to do as church: stop hiding from the hard question and stop trying to answer it; rather, let us live the answer: Love. 

just too cute not to share.  We named the cat Huckle.  

just too cute not to share.  We named the cat Huckle.  



Actions Speak Louder Than Doctrine

By J.C. Mitchell  

I hear Christians of all types say how you treat one another is more important than doctrine.   I can think of two men that remind me of this reality.  The first is John Meis, a student who subdued the shooter at Seattle Pacific University. In Meis’ statement  he writes, “When I came face to face with the attacker, God gave me the eyes to see that he was not a faceless monster, but a very sad and troubled young man.”  He held him for the authorities, and yet still saw the murderer as a person.  This is a powerful statement and it truly comes from a deep faith, which I imagine has been shaken.  I must admit it gives me hope for the world and Christianity that this college student would compose such wonderful response to a horrific experience and share what he saw: another man, not a monster.  I do not need to know John Meis’ doctrine to know that even in restraining another, and specifically a murderer, he still saw and thus treated Aaron Ybarra as a person, and certainly at one of the most trying times of seeing the Creator’s hand in every person.  Meis remarks it was the Divine that empowered him.

The other man that reminds me that how we treat one another is more important than our doctrine is Frank Schaeffer who wrote Why I am an Atheist, Who Still Believes in God: How to give Love, Create Beauty and Find Peace.  Schaeffer recounts his life thus far, with wonderful and powerful prose.  Now I would not peg Schaeffer as an atheist, for he prays daily and is an active member of a Christian congregation, but he embraces his doubt.  I find this refreshing, and this should not be confused with being agnostic: “I don’t view my embrace of opposites as a kind of agnosticism. I view it as the way things actually are. An agnostic neither believes nor disbelieves in God. I’m not that person. I believe and don’t believe at the same time.” (14)  While this may not seem possible to some Christians or atheists, it is Schaeffer’s experience of the Divine, of the world, and thus we should explore this with him, for it has led him to a place where it is easier to give love, create beauty and find peace.

I would love for everyone to share their faith journey, but what makes Schaeffer’s particular interesting is that his parents were famous evangelicals, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, and he was involved in promoting the religious right. He rejected religion altogether, but now is able to fully embrace the mystery of the wonderfully mysterious love many of us call “God.”  Schaeffer shares his epiphanies and doubts in an engaging way weaving his life experiences, Biblical knowledge, scholarship, and art, that I imagine atheists and Christians (or for that matter all people of faith) would agree with his conclusion, which I started with: how you treat people is more important than what you believe.

Schaeffer shares moving stories about his very conservative parents who would have told you that homosexuality is a sin, yet they saw each person as a child of God and saved any judgment for the divine, even renting a home to a lesbian couple.  This proved to be the same non-judgmental love he felt when as a teen he and his now wife found themselves as unmarried and pregnant.  His parents embraced him and Genie, for doctrine about marriage is not as important as love.

One of the most interesting points Schaeffer makes is comparing Denmark and the USA.  In Denmark,  the culture lives the mission of Jesus, by taking care of everyone and providing education to everyone, but very few go to church.  While in the USA we consider ourselves to be a religious nation, and we know children go to bed hungry, have inadequate health care available, and education is influenced by your property taxes.  This juxtaposition of cultures has to rattle all Christians to consider what is more important: your dogma or how you treat the social other?

“How we treat others is the only proof of truth we have. That proof is not found in any book. It is only found in the expression of unconditional trust we may sometimes see in the eyes of the people who know us best.” (91) It is in our families and those we are close to where we, like Schaeffer, find the unconditional trust and love many of us call the Divine (God), and when we can look at those that have hurt us and others and see them as a human, we are on the way of truth. 

How we treat one another is according to Frank Schaeffer the key, and I believe Jon Meis lived that out in that instance he saw a “a very sad and troubled young man” even if do not agree with Meis’ belief that “God gave [him] the eyes…”  Meis did. 

 









God Abounds With or Without You

By Brian Carr

As I was driving the other day, I passed a sign in front of a very large and popular church that read “God abounds in faithfulness.”

At first glance, I thought nothing of this statement. God abounds in faith? Sure, that makes sense to me.

But as I began to think about the message behind that statement, the more disturbed I became. My uneasiness with that message is twofold – first, it is suggesting that God is reliant on our faithfulness in order to abound; secondly, it is suggesting that those without faith will never have God abundant in their lives.  

Now you may be thinking to yourself that I am overthinking this message and exaggerating its negativity. You might be right, but what good is my faith if I cannot critically think about the messages I receive on a daily basis? I would argue that most Christians would agree with this statement at first thought, just as I did. But stopping at “first thought” is a terrible ending point when we examine doctrine and theology. 

So let’s move beyond our first thoughts of this sign, and figure out what message it is conveying.

When we simply look at the phrasing of this statement, it already becomes troubling. If we are saying that God abounds in faithfulness, then aren’t we implying that God does not abound outside of faith? That God does not abound if we are not faithful? This may not be explicit, but anytime we make a statement in the absolute positive, we are also affirming the negative (or opposite) of this statement.

 This is incredibly limiting of God. Is this saying that God needs our faithfulness to abound? Are we putting boundaries and boxes around God and trying to define how and where She can abound?

This statement also suggest that God will not abound in your life if you aren’t faithful. This is very exclusive to those who are not faithful (and how are we defining faithfulness, by the way?). Are we suggesting that God cannot hold a prominent place or presence in the lives of non-Christians (because, let’s be honest, this is what is meant by not faithful)? This is another way in which this statement limits God while simultaneously excluding a large amount of people.

God is certainly bigger than this, right? A better phrasing of this statement would be “one way in which God abounds is in faithfulness.” And before you argue that that I’m nitpicking, know that the way things are phrased can have a profound impact on how they are interpreted.  

For example, notice the powerful difference between these two phrases:

“Men should allow the ordination of women.”

“Men should support the ordination of women.”

The subtle change from “allow” to “support” makes a huge difference. On the surface (our “first thought”) these two statements seem to mean the exact same thing. However, this is not true. The term “allow” implies that the person who is doing the allowing has the right to also not allow the same thing. The first phrase suggests that men are being graceful in giving permission for women to become ordained. It is a very sexist and patriarchal statement. Changing the verb to “support” has now made it no longer sexist. The power of phrasing is real. One word (or lack thereof) can dramatically change how something is interpreted.

Where was I going with this? Oh, right! I am saying that the phrasing of the message on the sign can lead to a very dangerous interpretation of God and of Christianity. In this specific case, the phrasing of that sign leads to an exclusive message of Christianity that limits the presence of God.

The moral of the story? Choose your words wisely and your church signs even more wisely.

 

 

 

Love Rescue Me

By Rev. Mindi

We were crammed in to a four-passenger Cessna, with our baggage in the tail. Four teenagers on their way to Church Camp, two of whom were actually Baptist, one who was Catholic and one who was not raised in church, as far as I knew. Lightest kid sat in the back. I sat next to my fellow churchgoer, and my good friend from high school, my Catholic friend, sat up with the pilot.

The airport in Kodiak, Alaska was built during World War II, and was built precisely because of the amount of fog. The Japanese had invaded the Aleutian Islands and the fear was that they were building up to an invasion of North America through Alaska.  Nonetheless, fifty-plus years after the war, the fog was no longer convenient but a definite problem. The year after this, my brother and friend would try to fly down to Church Camp and be stuck at the Anchorage International Airport for over twenty-four hours due to the fog (it was only the two of them that year, so they got to travel on a real airline).

We had thirteen kids going that summer, and so the seven-passenger Cessna, which had better equipment and was a faster aircraft, had gone ahead of us. Missionary Air was a service in Alaska to help pastors get out to the bush communities, but they also would fly us to church camp for free when we had enough kids that needed to go.  They were able to land.  However, the radar was not working that day at the Kodiak Airport, and the pilot didn’t have the better instruments on this plane.  So we dipped out of the foggy cloud-clover over some rocky island (there are many islands in the Kodiak archipelago), but the pilot made the decision to turn and fly back to the Kenai Peninsula. And as we flew back, about forty-five minutes into the flight, I noticed the pilot kept leaning over and looking down.  “What are you looking at?” I shouted up at him over the roar of the twin-engine Cessna.  “Looking for land,” he shouted back.  At that point, my friend in the front seat began to pray.

It was the first time in my life I thought I might die. Seventeen years old, and even though I had experienced the death of loved ones and had gone to my grandfather’s funeral that spring, it was in that moment, above the white lofty clouds, blue sky and blazing sun, somewhere above the Gulf of Alaska that I thought this might be it.  And it turns out I wasn’t too far off—we started to run out of fuel while landing in Kenai. One engine sputtered out on descent and we had a bit of a bumpy landing. But we landed. We were safe. We were ok.  Later that afternoon we took off for a second attempt after refueling and hearing that the weather had cleared, and had a beautiful trip down to Kodiak, and were later reunited with our other campers that had flown out that morning and those that came from Kodiak on the beautiful, temperate rain-forested Woody Island, where the mist rose out of the trees every morning and you couldn’t see across the two-mile channel to Kodiak Island because of the thick choking fog, but where it burned off every afternoon for a brilliant sunset turning into a gorgeous starscape every night.

Church Camp was the place where my faith sprouted, where I was challenged in my faith and in my very being. I remember every year facing the challenge of, having already been saved, trying to come up with some reason I needed redemption and saving again, because the joyful catharsis of being saved on the last night of Church Camp was something I wanted to experience every single year. Because I was so emotionally vulnerable as a teenager, it was easy to start believing I was a horrible sinner who needed saving, was un-loveable and needed to be loved by God in order for everything to be right. This coming from the one-in-a-million youth for whom D.A.R.E. actually worked for. I never smoked, drank, did drugs or slept around. I was a “good kid.” So therefore, there a) must be something wrong with me that I hadn’t realized and needed to find out so I could be saved, or b) was not interesting to anyone else because I was too good and didn’t need to be saved.  Tough times for this Christian teen.

But it was that last year at camp, just after high school graduation, that changed things for me. Besides my near-death experience (well, it probably wasn’t really, and maybe I just imagined the engine going out as the pilot never admitted that to us though we were all convinced it was) that same week I was at camp a family friend—my age—committed suicide.  After my mom called me and told me, I told my camp counselors, whom I’m pretty sure just thought I was another needy teenager when I became a bit emotional about it (I don’t mean to be flip, but I remember that no one—not the camp counselors or the camp pastor—thought this was a huge thing, that a family friend had taken his own life)—I felt empty. Death was such a final reality and our friend was gone. And there was nothing I or anyone could do to bring him back.


What I really wanted was someone to comfort me, to tell me everything was ok—that I was ok. And as I look back now (“that summer seemed to last forever…” sorry, sidetracked) I realize that I WAS OK. All OF US WERE OK. There was nothing that was so bad that any of us had done. A few there had smoked pot and drank. Some had probably had sex by then. What would have been helpful were some trained counselors to deal with some of the real issues of drug addiction, or at least referrals that way.  But I think what we needed to know the most was that we were not broken people. We were still kids! What had we done that was so awful and horrible? But we were made to think that in order to be whole, to be loved by God, to be accepted, we had to be broken first, and that we had to somehow feel bad about who we were and had been.

I still believe in a God of redemption. I still believe in Jesus as my Savior, Redeemer and Friend. But I no longer believe that Jesus wants me to be emotionally abused and shamed before being able to accept love. There is nothing in the Gospels that says “First, be ashamed of who you are. Second, tell everyone how bad you have been. Third, accept Jesus before you leave camp because you don’t know when else you’ll have the chance to be saved.”  No. What I read of Jesus is him saying immediately, “Your sins are forgiven.”  What I see Jesus doing is accepting people as human beings first and foremost.

I thought about this today because now I live in Seattle and the fog creeps in on my hillside church and parsonage every morning these days, and I’m reminded of Woody Island and how the fog seemed to choke out hope of seeing beyond what was in front of us, but then it would burn off and we’d see the beauty of creation beyond anything we could imagine. Orcas jumping fifty yards off the dock. Sea lions butting up against the pilings. Bald eagles nesting in the trees above Canoe Lake. And the lone red bull (seriously, not making this up) wandering the island, leftover from the days when cattle were ranched there, when the last homesteader left.

I don’t write this to shame my camp counselors, many of whom were just a few years older than me and had the heavy, heavy burden of trying to get kids saved before they went back home. And some of us came from some pretty rotten families. Some came from foster care. Some had been abused by elders. It’s not to say we didn’t need saving—we did.  But that week at camp was what saved us, again and again. A week among the trees, on an island away from everyone else, away from teen pressures, away from the family members who didn’t love us or couldn’t care for us. But I don’t think we were broken.  Perhaps what we needed so desperately to hear was the message of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, simply because we were children, human beings. Not because of our own brokenness, but because of the brokenness of the world. The brokenness of a world in which a teenager took his own life.  The brokenness of a community in which parents abandoned their children. The brokenness of a place in which youth escape these pressures and pain through drug abuse and alcohol.

Maybe we did need saving, but we needed to know that God loved us, and that we weren’t broken, we weren’t damaged goods, we weren’t horrible, sinful people. We were simply children of God.  And I’d like to let my camp counselors off the hook for the job of saving us. I think many of them were trying to figure this all out for themselves as well.

The last day of camp I got up early before breakfast and morning devotions. I snuck my Discman out of my sleeping bag and crept out the door, walking down the path to Lower Inspiration Point, where the sign carved into the tree read, “Be still and know that I am God.”  There was a little peninsula with rotted-out beams in rows for a little outdoor chapel, jutting out into a point in Canoe Lake, and an old driftwood cross erected in front. A tree grew out near the tip of the peninsula, and just beyond the tree was where many kids were baptized over the years, baptized into a temporary community of faith that would be scattered by Saturday.  I sat down on the beam pews and listened to Rattle and Hum by U2, and the song “Love Rescue Me” with Bob Dylan singing came over the headphones:

                Love rescue me

                Come forth and speak to me

                Raise me up and don’t let me fall

                No man is my enemy

                My own hands imprison me

                Love rescue me

                …

                Yea, though I walk

                through the valley of the shadow

                Yea, I will fear no evil

                I have cursed Thy rod and staff

                They no longer comfort me

                Love rescue me

And in that moment as I listened to that song and that album, I kid you not, a bald eagle flew overhead, swooped down and marred the surface of the still lake waters. And I knew that I was being raised up.

The God of Church Camp that said “You must be ashamed. You must regret. You are sinful and unworthy, and you are only worthy if You accept me” was gone. That kind of thinking no longer comforted me.  Instead, this idea of God’s love—God’s love for me because I was me—saved me.

And that love by Jesus is still saving me. I have failed many times as a pastor and a mom and a wife. I have failed as a community leader. I have failed in many ways. But I’m not broken.  I’m not terrible. I’m not damaged goods. I am loved.