Community

You're Not Alone: Finding Friends in Ministry

By Rev. Mindi

I graduated from seminary fourteen years ago, with ninety credits and one unit of CPE under my belt. Though I had loved my Biblical Studies courses more than anything, I made sure I took the more practical courses: Church Administration, Stewardship, and of course, Pastoral Ministry Ethics. I figured those would be the courses that would help me in my day-to-day ministry.

Until I came to a church that didn’t want to talk about money or stewardship.

Until I came to a church that had too large of a governing structure for its body.

Until I came to a church that had no internal governing structure for its body.

Until I came to a church that had unhealthy power dynamics within the staff and within the lay leadership.

Until I came to a church that was barely surviving.

You get the picture. In the variety of calls I have served, I have encountered situations that “they didn’t teach me about that in Seminary.”

And even though I am an outgoing person and have immediately sought out clergy groups, sometimes it is hard to relate to other clergy who have had a different experience in ministry. I find it hard at times to relate to clergy in which they were always paid a full time salary with benefits, or were always able to attend continuing education events and their regional and national governing bodies. We all know that relationships are the key to ministry, and if who you know matters, how can you move to a new call when no one at the regional or national level knows who you are because you have never been able to afford to attend? Or how can you compete with pastors who have D.Min’s or other credentials when your continuing education budget is small?

Ministry can be lonely, even when you have colleagues.

Sometimes, you have to build what you envision. “Built it, and they will come.”

A few years ago we began a great local “younger” clergy group. We are small. We can fit around a dining room table. We gather once a month for lunch and to check in with one another. We bless one another when they leave a call, or transition to something new. We honor one another by listening and not judging. We pray for one another when we are going through difficult times. We have built a beautiful support network that I could not minister without.

I also joined another clergy group, with clergy of different ages, but also different cultural and language backgrounds. Many of these colleagues I have been able to relate to in my experience of finding time for ministry while working another job. I have also had a good listening ear from my recently retired colleagues in this group, who get that ministry has changed from when they entered and that those of us in our early years of ministry need more support than ever.

But perhaps the greatest support network I have been part of is UNCO. The UnConference (and yes, I keep blogging about this here, and here, and here) began a few years ago as a “built it, and they will come” event that brings together clergy and church leaders without a keynote speaker. We share our ideas and our concerns in ministry and form breakout sessions based on those topics. All those things I didn’t learn in seminary? I’ve learned more from UNCO than any other continuing education conference. And, it’s affordable! It’s under $500!

Ministry gets awfully lonely at times, and sometimes we feel we are going it alone into uncharted territory, especially as the traditional church wanes and something new is birthing. What is coming forth? What is our role? UNCO is helping us to figure that out for each of us, and I always receive encouragement and support, and even enthusiasm as I return to my ministry setting. And the support continues, through Facebook, Twitter, and Google Hangouts. Sometimes we even pick up the phone and call the old fashioned way, across time zones and denominations.

UNCO West is October 24-26 at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The cost is $350 per person including meals and room for 3 days and 2 nights. There is KidUnco (the BEST!) and there is still space available. Register now!

Sharing Soup of Faith and Love

By J.C. Mitchell

I have been drawn to cooking for years prior to being an artisan baker in New England and a pastry chef on Manhattan Island.  It started in earnest when I was at Hampshire College, where we had a farm on campus and great vegetables to prepare for the six or so housemates.  Most of us were vegetarians for various reasons, from environmental to peer pressure, and our greatest source for inspiration did not come from the Internet, for that was just an idea to us in those early nineties.  It actually came from books, from actual restaurants: Bloodroot and Moosewood were the two that stand out in memory (and continue to serve vegetarian meals).  I owned Sundays at Moosewood, but in our college kitchen someone had the purple Moosewood Cookbook, where I discovered a recipe for Brazilian Black Bean Soup. 

I am sure I referred to that recipe the first few times I made it, but soon that soup was second nature, and often called upon as a cheap way to feed a bunch of people.  I have been cooking this soup now for 25 years without referencing the book.  I know it wasn’t exactly the same every time, but every time it was used to serve a larger group of people. Inevitably there was someone who said, “I don’t like beans” or something else negative, but by the end of the meal, their bowls were empty.

This soup has for me been a sign of my hospitality, which is an important part of my faith.  I have to admit that often food has made its way into my ministry, from cookies to pot-luck casseroles, from pretzel making with children on Good Friday, and hot crossed buns with the moms during Lent, over thanksgiving meals with homeless families, to the great meals with those gathered at Open Gathering.  I even once got up before dawn as an associate minister and set-up over half-dozen bread machines so that the sanctuary would smell like baking bread for World Communion Sunday.  And of course, I have become a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where we base our worship around the Holy Communion Meal.  For me, food communicates as much as hugs and words, and the latter are often the least clear.

In what I would argue was one of my hardest meals of my culinary career, I was called to make this soup.  I was living in Belfast, where I arrived with all my items in my backpack, and had found a flat with a woman from Newcastle and a man from Portugal, and I must say there was no priority to stock our kitchen, let alone toilet paper.  Getting used to syrup being Gold’s and not from a tree, and the lack of rinsing the dishes was easy, but finding something I could make that tasted good for a dozen plus people was a challenge.  Of course the black bean soup was the answer, finding orange juice was the only challenge. The soup was ready and beer was chilled.

Our guests arrive, and one of the older students was a Cockney from East London, who said something that sticks with me to this day.  People were eating the soup with beer and bread and it was a cacophony of conversation and spoons in soup.  It was clear that many of these vegetarians had not often eaten vegetables that were not fried or covered in cheese.  So my Cockney friend sitting on the settee filled with others leaned forward and said to me after eating some, “This is great” loud enough to hear over the music.  I smiled.  I probably said thanks, but he started to sit back on the settee, and turn to his cushion neighbour and spoke as shoveling the soup past his bearded lips, not aware I could still hear him clearly. “What the f@#k is this?”  He didn’t care to hear the answer; he simply kept eating with the music, the music of fellowship.

This is my faith-sharing goal.  I want people to experience me through my following of the forgiving victim I call the Christ.  They don’t have to thank me, but they certainly don’t need to know what it is, they simply need to experience the hospitality and love. 

Our Faith Recipe may had started with a book, for many of us we realize we cannot be anchored to it as if it is an idol itself; we must live it daily in the real world.  When I received the original Moosewood Cookbook for my birthday, and opened to this recipe I had not seen in print in 25 years, I realized how much more important it is to live my faith then keeping my faith in a book, and also I realized I have been calling the soup Cuban for the past quarter century, while it was actually titled Brazilian Who gives a F@#K what it is called? Just keep sharing. 

Love for Country, Love for Our Neighbors, Love for Ourselves

By Rev. Mindi

This video is going viral on Facebook, thanks to the Ad Council and the campaign #WeAreAmerica. I love what this video is about in general, but there is an underlying message that I think is even more important: our identity--all of who we are--is something incredibly special. And while the title of the video is "Love Has No Labels," the narrative states that, "We know that labels don't devalue us, they help define us, keeping us dialed into our cultures and our beliefs in who we are as Americans."

Perhaps, as Christians, there is something we can learn from this video, as we work to include the great diversity of our communities that we minister with and to. Because our identity is holy and sacred.

Revelation Trumps Rules

By. J.C. Mitchell

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

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

I hate, I despise your festivals,

   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

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

   I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

   I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

   I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,

   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing the Full Spectrum of Love

By J.C. Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_20160414_104535.jpg

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

 

"Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today, to get through this thing called life."

By Rev. Mindi

I was sad when David Bowie died, and Alan Rickman, and Glenn Frey. Each death made me reflect on their contribution to culture and society.

But Prince’s death is still rattling me. Maybe because it was so unexpected. Maybe because he was younger than the other three, although not by much. Perhaps, because, as a late Gen-Xer, his music was the soundtrack of my childhood in the 80’s.

It’s more than that. Prince was an artist that couldn’t be captured in a single genre, an activist through music and art. A hell of a guitar player—one of the best. And someone who celebrated sexuality and faith, writing “Sexy MF” and “The Cross.” Prince transcended social and musical boundaries.

And while I was sad on Thursday, it was the public singing of “Purple Rain” and the purple tributes across the world that got to me. Public mourning is something that brings us together, that unites us.

We have had too many communal tragedies in the last fifteen years, from 9/11 to Sandy Hook, to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and beyond, in which we gather in our sadness, but we are also angry. We grieve and we demand justice. We cry out to God and to each other as to how this could have happened again.

With Prince’s death, for now, we simply mourn. And while we ask why and what happened, and we experienced at first the shock and numbness that comes with a sudden death, we are also free to grieve together, and to celebrate his life. The public celebrations and singing, even the thousands of purple balloons outside of Paisley Park, point to a life well lived, something worthy of admiration, and grief at its brevity.

What we’ve learned since Thursday is that we need to collectively grieve, and Prince has given us the freedom to do that, without the anger and shame that has come from so many other collective memorials in the last fifteen years. Think of all the roadside memorials after car accidents and school shootings. Even when we have come together, it has been incredibly tragic, our feelings of grief meshed with cries for justice. We need a public mourning that frees us to grieve, as well as to celebrate, life.

Maybe that’s why so many churches posted the opening lyrics from “Let’s Go Crazy” on their sign boards. But better yet, we ought to have invited folks to public singings of “Purple Rain,” or at the very least, “The Cross.” Because the church needs to be joining in, if not leading, in collective mourning and celebrating life, death and resurrection.

Cause in this life
Things are much harder than in the after world
In this life
You're on your own.

Pass the Ketchup Or How Emmaus Reminds us to Set an Open Table for All Ages and Abilities

By: J.C. Mitchell

Walking to Emmaus, are you?  I hope so. I think Luke purposely does not name Cleopas’s friend, so that everyone can put themselves in this Resurrection account.  Luke adds this Resurrection scene seven miles outside of Jerusalem; that is, just outside the center of power.  The witness is not one of the eleven, but one obviously in the know.  Now this story, which happens on the day of the Resurrection, is only written about by Luke, and I believe it is a perfect reminder of inclusion of all in communion: An Open Table, which is always important and a great way to remember it is Autism Acceptance & Awareness month this April.  

 It seems that the two walking along had different interpretations of the recent murder of Jesus and the news from the women.  The Greek suggests that they are in a debate throwing ideas back and forth.  I imagine it is emotional; maybe not quite as heated as Bernie supporters and Hillary supporters, but something like that.  Jesus arrives, and is not recognized by our inconsequential people, and explains everything from Moses to the events of that morning, and they/we still don’t get it.  I have had people ask me, “Why Luke did not record Jesus’ words about the Hebrew Scriptures?” and I reply,” That is exactly the point.”

Jesus is not interested in leaving us with more Scripture; Jesus leaves us with the Table.  This is exactly where I and Cleopas know Jesus, and that is truly amazing, for we may still have different interpretations, but we are united after this Resurrection moment revealed in the Breaking of the Bread, to go back to inform the eleven with authority. 

Currently my son who is non-conversational (talks only for basic needs) is offered Communion and only takes it when it is delicious bread.  Once I had to hide the Hawaiian Loaf that was brought in (by a congregant that refuses to use sourdough, because Jesus is Sweet not…).  The whole congregation said, “let him have some,” but I reminded them that I already said no (by the way, most of them are great-grandparents).  I will continue to bring him to Communion services in worship and at home, for this act of eating together is truly the act of community, thus I cannot limit it to simply the Table in the Church, or sanctified by such an institution, even when I am the clergy doing such a thing.  I find it seven miles outside with the sojourner or resident alien, not just my beloved liturgy. 

 For even if you were to hear the explanation of the Resurrection from Jesus Himself, you will still not get it; thus my son’s interpretation and experience at the Table is as valid as my own. For Jesus left a simple message, eat together and love one another, and both my son and I can do that well, and with anyone willing to pass the ketchup.  

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! 

 

Is there another way? Buildings, landlords, and ministry

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Rev. Mindi

My alma mater is selling its buildings, its beautiful campus, and relocating. At least, that is the plan. It made the news last week. The oldest graduate theological school in the United States is going to sell the campus.

I’ve written about churches and buildings before, our connection to a space, the power structures in place with building ownership, and of course, the fact that the church is not the building but the body of Christ.

Currently, I’m a part-time pastor of a tiny church, with a tiny church building, with a tiny campus on top of a hill, across the street from an elementary school. A building that is just shy of sixty years old. A building with asbestos in the ceiling and peeling paint and ripped brown carpet in the sanctuary.

I also serve with my husband at Open Gathering, a gathered community without a building. And I have a group of young adults in my tiny church that have started to form a new(ish) community we are, for now, calling “Good Neighbors.” One is renting space; the other meets at a local coffee shop/bar (which, actually, is a Lutheran ministry funded from the sale of a church building).

So what’s the big deal about buildings?

We get attached to space and places. Of course, I am going to mourn when my alma mater moves. Not only did I live there for three years, receive my Master of Divinity there, make some of the greatest friends of my life there and learn so much—I happened to meet my husband afterwards and we had our wedding reception there. The background of my wedding photos is the quad at Andover Newton.

But the school can continue in a different place and space. Indeed, for much of the arguing going on about whether online classes are not personal enough, let’s face reality: more and more people are going to school online. More and more of us are getting our core instruction that way. It doesn’t replace the practical—and I feel that a good seminary education that prepares us for ministry is going to get us out into the field more. Interning at local congregations. Participating in local ministries. Doing chaplaincy residencies at local hospitals and mission organizations. That’s what I received at Andover Newton that was most formative for my practical training.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s what we need for our congregations as well: more practical training in the field. Participating with other congregations in ministries in the community. Volunteering at our hospitals and homeless shelters. Visiting one another where we reside and where we work. I have noticed an increase in participation, from both congregation and community, every time we move an activity outside of the church building—Bible Studies in coffee shops. Pub Theology gatherings at a local bar. Caroling at the train station.

But there are buildings that house wonderful ministries as well. All too often, I have seen congregations hold on to the building by renting out every single space every single day of the week. The congregation becomes a landlord. They are concerned about wear and tear on the building but also how much income is coming in.

Our tiny church building houses four congregations. Four! Our building is in use every single day of the week—for worship, for Bible study, for prayer gatherings, for a Christian preschool in the morning and an After-School tutoring program that we run in the afternoon. We also have had Vacation Bible School, as well as a Social Skills Summer day camp for students with disabilities and their typically-developing peers.  A few years ago we planted our first Community Organic Garden plot, and we hope to expand. One thing I have noticed: when we stop worrying about what's going to happen to us, and start focusing on what God is doing through us, we are open to more possibilities.

Sure, we face the same issues. And maybe we’re kidding ourselves by holding on as long as we can. But the difference may be seeking what is the intention for the space we are in. Is it so we can just keep going? Is our renting to others just to sustain us? Or is it possible to be open to other ministries and missions and giving space for them to flourish? What is God’s intention for us? And ultimately, we do have to ask the question: is building ownership the only way to do this?

It's hard to begin to think of letting go of a place where you've had your wedding, had your child dedicated or baptized, or where your parent's funeral was held. It's hard to not have an attachment to that space, and it is a grieving process.

In my congregation, we are asking some of the hard questions now, and we aren’t sure exactly where we are going. But we are trusting the Holy Spirit. I pray that the leaders at Andover Newton are doing the same. For the rest of us in traditional churches with aging buildings, what is the Spirit calling you do to? Because I’m sure when you agreed to join in membership, or if you’ve been there since Sunday School days, that God wasn’t calling you to be a landlord of the church building. God is calling you into ministry.

Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

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

 

Giving Thanks for Public Education

By J.C. Mitchell

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

By J.C. Mitchell


Star Wars was all over social media yesterday.  I like Star Wars, I grew up with that story.   I am not a fanatic and while I know much about the first six, I have not pursued knowledge about this upcoming one.  I figure I will eventually see the movie, mostly because my lovely wife will make sure, and my friends on social media will make sure I know too much about VII, good and bad for the months to come.  


The one thing that did make me interested was a picture of an African-American boy dressed as a Jedi, and a tweet from @afroeccentrix reading “My little bro who is OBSESSED w/Star Wars now gets to see a more diverse cast on screen. #CelebrateStarWarsVII.” And this my friends, has made me more interested in the movie, for how powerful is it to see someone like one’s own self on the big screen as it will be for the boy in the picture.  This is just a movie, but it is also a powerful expression of our culture, our stories.


This is why my son will dress as Chewbacca this Halloween.  My son has limited verbal skills. Recently he has begun speaking two, sometimes three, word sentences without prompting, and also he communicates beyond words alone, just like his beloved Snoopy, Woodstock, and Curious George.  There are many other characters he likes, but these have become very special to him, and it is hard not to notice these famous characters do not use verbal communication, while at the same time they are included.  So we thought we should introduce our son to Chewbacca, and while he has not seen the movie, we got an inexpensive costume using a stocking cap which he will tolerate on his head instead of a mask. I am aware that Wookies like Chewbacca speak Shyriiwook, but how we experience it on screen, the communication reminds me of communication with one who knows basic language, as it is tone that seems to communicate more than Shyriiwook words.


So while the characters our son already loves are cartoon animals, Chewbacca comes from a whole society that speak in a very guttural sounds, and is honored by many.  


But all these role models have fur (or feathers).


I cannot wait to know the Jedi who does not speak. 

 

 


How Long Must We Sing This Song?

By Rev. Mindi

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?[1]

O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?[2]

How long, O Lord? How long will we allow another mass shooting to ravage people’s lives and send loved ones into the grave?

How long, O Lord? How long will we say prayers for the victim’s families? How long will we pray for an end to violence? How long will we fold our hands and bow our heads, and do nothing more to change the world we live in?

How long, O Lord? How long will we sacrifice our children for gun ownership?

How long, O Lord, will we blame the mentally ill, among the most vulnerable, without offering health care, support, and the removal of stigma in our society?

How long, O Lord, will we go on allowing this to happen, pointing fingers, without actually making any changes at all?

How long, O Lord, will we allow this to become normal, regular, and acceptable in our society?

How long,

How long must we sing this song?

How long, how long…

‘Cause tonight, we can be as one, tonight…[3]

How long until we are ready to compromise to make change? Or to give up our need to have deadly power over others? What will it take? What more will it cost?

Seriously, how long will we sing this song, and how long will our prayers be empty?

We used to light candles in my church when there was a shooting, for the victims, so we would not forget. I still remember the twenty-eight candles I lit the Friday of the Newtown shooting. But now, there are just too many candles to light, and they have become meaningless.

We’ve all heard the saying, “pray while moving your feet.” I believe it is time to say, “pray while calling your elected official.” Because our prayer without action is meaningless, as faith without works is also dead.[4]

Pray, and register to vote.

Pray, and vote for change.

Pray, and call your elected officials.

Demand that children’s lives matter more than access to unlimited guns and ammunition and military style firearms.

How long? How many more children will die, before we finally say too many have died by gun violence?

 

[1] Psalm 13:1-2, NRSV

[2] Psalm 80:4, NRSV

[3] “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” U2, 1983

[4] James 2:26

 

An Open Letter to Church Shoppers

By Rev. Mindi


Dear Church Shopper,

I hate the term “church shopping.”  Shopping implies casual browsing, sampling, purchasing, consuming, returning and exchanging, etc. I know that you have been brought up in a consumer culture, and this is the language you are used to. You want to find the right church like you want to find the right pair of shoes: you want to make sure they are a good fit, and that they feel on the inside as good as they look on the outside. You want to find the church that feeds your needs, your desires, what you imagine church should be. And if your desires are not being met, if you are not being filled, you will move along.

The church is the body of Christ, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 12. It is a body. It is an organism. It is something you become part of and participate in, not sample and browse, consume and leave behind. Church is something you belong to, become part of, and it becomes essential and integral to your life. As Paul says, the hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you.”

Unfortunately, for many churches in the United States, they have also bought into the consumer culture. They try to put on a good show to feed your entertainment needs as well as your spiritual needs, but often the spiritual need they fill is to make you feel good about yourself. We all like to feel good. But at times we also need to be challenged and have a kick in the pants when we are not doing our part to help the poor and the oppressed around us.

Sometimes the mainline liberal church has bought into the consumer culture as well. Sometimes we use phrases like “social justice” and “missional” as catch phrases to lure you in to doing work in the community to help others, but we aren’t always good about it. Sometimes we are helping ourselves. Sometimes we don’t listen to the needs of the community and continue to do the same things we have always done rather than meeting the needs of those around us.  Sometimes what we are doing is not social, is not justice, and is not about serving others. Sometimes the church has used bait and switch tactics, without realizing it.


Church is not the pastor. Church is not the building. Church is the people, the body of Christ, coming together to be one. We shouldn’t be church because the building is pretty. We shouldn’t be church because the pastor is inspiring. We should be church because we recognize that we are the body, together, and we have need of each other. And our money shouldn’t be the most important thing—whether it is our individual giving or the church budget. Sometimes, I think the real problem in all of this is that we have given money power over all of us. That is consumer culture in a nutshell.

So please, stop shopping. Join a church community and belong. Of course that might take a little time finding—there is something to be said about theology and mission that connects you—but don’t go for a while and then leave because you hope to find something better elsewhere. Become part of the community. Belong to one another. Be the church. 

(And churches, let’s be the church, too. Let’s stop trying to show up one another. Let’s actually focus outward to do that social justice thing in being part of God’s beloved community on earth. Let’s worry less about entertaining and feeling good, and more about being the church together, beyond our building’s walls).

Be the body. Belong. Become.