The Word

Lots of Christians talk about the living word of God. In the Lutheran tradition in particular this means that the WORD is not something static, not limited to the divinely-inspired scripture but lives in the reading, the hearing, the preaching and the receiving of it. The word is always new, newly spoken into each context. The word is not simply carved into stone tablets never to change (this, THIS, is precisely what makes us stand apart from other Christians, and even other Lutherans. Our dogged clinging to the orthodoxy of a living word leads us to to such radical ideas like women are people and therefore equal and what Paul said about the gays might be a little different than the 21st century and also the GLBT community is people. Shocking, I know.).

Our first week in Ireland has been filled with what I’ll call The Irish Word. This is not the living word – at least not in the sense of revelation from God; its not exactly not either. The Irish Word, it seems, is storytelling. Some of these experiences have come in contrived – and brilliant – tourist experiences. The Leprechaun Museum – a series of rooms built around particular stories and legends – is led by a storyteller. Ancient tales of leprechauns and fairies reveal the history and myth of this place. The storytelling dinner at the Brazen Head Pub was another space filled with Irish folklore. (These two experiences included a shared stories, and as always, it is interesting to note how storytellers bring different variations and voice to the same tale.)

Alongside these performed stories are the countless stories that lie just beneath the surface. These are the stories of Irish liberation, the famine, and of The Troubles. Historical sites are always entwined with the harsh reality that has played out in this beautiful landscape. But even more than the prescribed historical sites, a casual conversation reveals how alive this history is for folks. Perhaps it is simply for the tourist to gain a bit more perspective, but my sense is that it is always there just beneath the surface. It is the word waiting to be told.

Beside The Irish Word came a stark juxtaposition: The Church Word. I saw this at the Book of Kells and in our compline service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Trinity College’s collection and display of ancient monastic books reveal the importance of Ireland in both Christian and Western history (in many ways consecrating their courtship since Constantine). As inspiring as Kells was, there is a fixed-ness to it. Scribes no longer copy it. They no longer add a tittle or jot, an illuminated letter or a graphic. It remains safely behind an air-tight case for the preservation of generations.

As beautiful as compline was, it felt like an experiential Kells – sealed safely for the preservation of generations, lacking fresh air and life. The priest and the choir performed the rituals of the liturgy. Apart from confession, a creed and a couple amens, the congregation had very little to do other than watch. The Word was spoken and sung, at the Word does not go out unfulfilled. So, obviously it has a purpose… but I can’t help feeling there could have been more.

And so now I am left wondering – are we people of the word or people of the story? Does the good news of Jesus live in us, just beneath the surface. Is it as ready to be shared as a bartender with a tale from the Troubles? Is it so thick that you can’t help bumping into it because it is everywhere? Do we have the same gospel, the good news, and does it change it the storyteller’s voice? Do we dance with the word as it plays off our tongue, delight in the telling and the hearing?

Or do we simply preserve the word? Learn it and know it so that it can be sealed-up airtight. Do we hold onto it so tightly that it become confined by tradition unable to dance?

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Not a spectator sport

I’ll admit it. 2 Kings is not one of my go-to texts – either of personal devotions or “professional use.” So when the text at Trinity UCC this week was 2 Kings 6:1-7, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

It was women’s day at Trinity and there was a guest preacher. It was the culmination of a weekend conference. The preacher was Rev. Courtney Clayton Jenkins from Euclid Ave Congregational Church in Cleveland. She brought a powerful message about the way all of us – and particularly women – can lose our cutting edge like the “junior prophet” in this Elisha story.

Rather than summarize her sermon, I simply want to reflect on botht the sermons I heard on Sunday – at Trinity and Shekinah. These were specific sermons cultivated for a particular audience. Pastor Curry was preaching on effective leadership, Pastor Clayton Jenkins on Women’s Day. Yet these were sermons that revived my spirit – not as a spectator but a participant.

This is the clearest way to understand the Word of God as a living word. Between the preacher’s lips and the listeners’ ears, the Holy Spirit intercedes. The word becomes THE WORD. This is also why scripture is not static or infallible. For it to be without error requires it to be unchanging, requires a suspension of context and culture, expects that what God said thousands of years ago remains unchanged. If our God was made of stone or gold I could buy that. But our God is a living God. The TRUTH of God – of grace and mercy, of calling us back, of covenant and promise – these are the nature of who God is. How those truths are revealed by God and among God’s people is always contextual, always relevant.

The word is living, but I have to be willing to participate to tap into that power. I’ve heard plenty of bad sermons. There are places that expect excellent preaching and places that have no expectations for preaching. When I’m in a place of low/no expectations, when I for whatever reason close myself to the words of the preacher, I am actually denying the power of God. I assume that God can’t use this voice, this context, this situation to speak a word of promise into my life.

It is the difference between going to a ballgame and playing a game. Last weekend I took my daughters to a friends’ birthday party. When kickball started, they were both hesitant. Neither had played kickball so they wanted to check it out first. With some encouragement, Eleanor decided to play. She kicked, she caught, she even pitched. Annie was unable to move off the picnic table and get in the game. She was quite happy to watch and did not feel like she missed out on anything.

With preaching, it is easy to expect the preacher to do all the work. They are the ones called to that task, trained and cultivated a way to deliver what they (we) believe God is speaking in this moment. But preaching is an experience begging participation. I need to be open to the fact that Shekinah Chapel can speak to me, my culture, my context. I need to expect that Women’s Day is for me too.

Sabbatical is easy to give me a view from the picnic table. I can watch others “do church.” I could be a voyer and assume this isn’t my place. Or I can hear the encouragement to stop watching and join in the fun of what is going on around me.

Shekinah Glory

Shekinah is the English interpretation of a Hebrew word for God and God’s dwelling. It is also the prophetic name of an ELCA community in Riverdale, south of Chicago.

When the presence of The Lord settled in the temple in Jerusalem, Shekinah is the word to express that relationship between God, God’s People and the place where they connect.

Worship at Shekinah Chapel was the fullness of that expression. Pastor Yehiel Curry is a force that is part spiritual mentor, part community organizer, part head coach, and part shepherd. Yes, he is a leader, but he has cultivated a network of leaders and structures that gives space for many voices to emerge. Shekinah is not brokered by the seminary trained leader; the presence, the indwelling is accessible to all.

I knew that Shekinah offered an invitation to discipleship – an altar call – at every service. Within the Lutheran tradition this is rare, our theology rooted in the idea the movement between God and God’s people always begins with God. Culturally, to ignore the altar call moment for some notion of theology purity is to dismiss the authentic connection many evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Baptists expect from a church. Like Shekinah, All Peoples’ community comes out of these experiences and I when I wanted to make the addition, I called Pastor Curry.

This is the strongest example of the fullness of a ministry that cannot be captured in a simple blog post: congregation and community rooted in culture and context.

Have a dynamic church is not rocket science. There is no magic spell that will make churches like Shekinah or All Peoples or any other not just relevant but signficant in the lives of folks inside and outside the church. It is about being rooted in culture and context.

When churches struggle to do this it is because, I believe, the culture and context is different from the leadership or the legacy or the history or most likely all of those. Rather than embrace fully the culture, mainline churches expect folks to check part of themselves at the door. We want you, but not all of you.

In the book of Acts, the apostle Phillip is sent to encounter the Ethiopian Eunuch. Racially, culturally, sexually this person is other. Given his position in the Egyptian government, he was probably of a higher economic class as well. Everything about this story is about redefining who is in and who is out.

This is often referred to as the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch.

Theologically, which is really to say spiritually, this is accurate. The word is opened and he utters, “Look, here is water. What is to stop me from being baptized?” The answer of course is nothing. The Spirit of God comes to dwell with him in the waters of his baptism. He is encompassed with Shekinah.

He does not, however, stop being all the things that make him other. Racially, culturally, economically, sexually nothing changed. He doesn’t have to check his race or his job or his sexual reality at the door. Shekinah dwells among him in the fullness of who he is.

I’ve heard folks talk about Shekinah Chapel (and other ministries of color within white/mainline denominations) in terms of their otherness. Altar calls aren’t Lutheran. Black folks don’t understand our history. Latinos can’t have their Lady of Guadalupe.

What I love about Shekinah, and Pastor Curry, and what I experienced in the community was the boldness of the Ethiopian saying, “What is to stop us?” And God answers: nothing.

It is an imperfect metaphor, I realize, because it still assumes the otherness of people of color. (I have heard black leaders talk about the ways dominate white culture within the ELCA keeps people of color within the categories of otherness, as “specialized ministries,” which often means separate and unequal. There is a reality of otherness when people of color make such a small percentage of the national church, but too often it is this that defines our communities rather than, say, a belovedness as children of God). Better metaphors are the great commissioning, the sending out of the disciples, Joshua’s army at Jericho working to claim what God has already promised.

If Shekinah has any defining otherness it is their embracing of the priesthood of all believers. The congregation has a structure of empowering leadership, of shared responsibility, of accountability, of apprenticeship and mentorship. Of course this isn’t perfect, but when looking across the landscape of mainline churches this is what stands out. It isn’t the hue of their skin but the power of their effectiveness. They are Paul and Silas, continually locked up by the prisons of racist and buerocratic systems with the power of God busting down doors. They are the preachers on Pentecost where the Holy Ghost translates the Gospel so that all may hear. They are the yeast messing up the unleavened bread, the light shining in the darkness, the salt that has not lost its saltiness.

Because of the rootedness of context and culture, the dwelling of God was visible, was palpable, is powerful. May the whole church be enveloped by Shekinah Glory.

Peacemaking in Killwaukee

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A major focus of my sabbatical is shalom through peacemaking. Today kicks-off a city-wide effort of politicians, police, and pastors called Ceasefire Week. After a week of events, there is a culmination with the 10th annual Ceasefire Sabbath, inviting all faith communities to preach (and practice) peace.

On the surface, this seems like an easy effort to support. Any effort towards peacemaking and curbing gun violence needs to be applauded. And on the surface I lend my voice in support of this. Pastors I work with, admire and support are at the forefront of this year’s efforts (See this write-up including Pastor Olson from Our Savior’s Lutheran Church). 

In years past, however, religious leaders from groups like MICAH have offered lukewarm support to Ceasefire Sabbath. Why? Why would justice-minded religious communities not step-up to support Ceasefire Sabbath? The answer is that violence is way deeper than the soundbites offered in these initiatives. Up until this year, this has been a media event with great talking points and no concrete actions toward curbing violence in Killwaukee.

At least this year is different. The Milwaukee Clergy Coalition, a collective of mostly Baptist congregations, is sponsoring a gun-buyback initiative. Original efforts pressed the city – specifically Mayor Barrett and Police Chief Ed Flynn – to authorize and implement the program. When the city refused to put-up money for the effort, the coalition raised their own funds to make it happen. I applaud this effort and the spirit of courageous leaders not waiting for others to do the hard work of peacemaking.

Apart from the gun-buy back effort of the Milwaukee Clergy Coalition, I am still left conflicted about this effort. I want a more peaceful city. I want members of my congregation and community to stop being terrorized by violence. Here’s how our police chief puts it:

“We need grownups, we need adults, we need a community that says, no! You’re a punk if you need a gun to win a fight. You’re a jerk if you shoot somebody and wreck your life and wreck their life. No, we don’t respect you. You don’t deserve a monument of wet teddy bears and empty beer bottles. No!” Flynn says.

Flynn, in his typical demeanor, insults the very residents he is sworn to serve and protect. (Now my feelings for Flynn are no secret, so perhaps this sounds like me spouting off from a bully pulpit – but hear me out). In this quote he blames the community that suffers from gun violence for this situation. “We need grownups, we need adults,” he says, as if the neighborhoods are run by children. This white cop is implying that these neighborhoods – primarily neighborhoods of color – are not mature. All I hear is a white man yelling, “Come here, boy.” If there is violence in our neighborhood it is because we aren’t “man enough” to handle it.

This is Flynn’s typical M.O. Whether speaking to congressmen or clergy, Flynn shows no respect for others in the room. His arrogance and brash personality no-doubt got him where he is, but is devastating to a city plagued by historical and current community-police relations (note that I fully agree with his positions stated in Congress, but thought his testimony revealed more about his character than his policy). His quotes about the community stepping-up are in this same vein. It assumes the community has been absent or negligent.

Instead of bashing the residents living with the reality of violence, let’s look at a broader context of this situation. First, residents are living in a divided city along racial and class lines. This division breeds racist and classist decisions and policies that hurt residents in Milwaukee. The city is starting with a stacked deck.

Now, let’s look at the sobering reality of incarceration rates for black males in Milwaukee. We’re #1! Wisconsin has the highest rate of black male incarceration (twice the national average) and that plays out in our neighborhoods to mean that more than half of all black men in their 30s and 40s had been incarcerated at some point (see data here).

Take this tinder-box of a situation and let’s add the gasoline of police-community relations in the city. Names ring out like Flynn’s old role-call methods conjuring ghosts that dared cross the thin blue line: Frank Jude. Ernest Lacy. Derek Williams. Dontre Hamilton. This is a culture of violence. This is not childish on the part of neighbors and residents. This is the fierce reality of life in Killwaukee.

So rather than blame the community for not doing enough, let’s engage this work with compassion and righteous anger. We need righteous anger toward the systems that exist making a life of crime more appealing – and certainly more accessible – than going legit. Let’s get angry about the struggle to even get a minimum wage job. Let’s work toward banning the box. Let’s be honest about what living in poverty is like instead of blaming those in the struggle.

And let’s show compassion for those who in the midst of impossible circumstances make horrific and violent choices. Let’s realize that for some little boys playing cops and robbers in Milwaukee the hero isn’t the one with the badge. Let’s build stronger relationships between police and citizen, to show that not all cops are bad and not all people of color are criminals. Let’s bring healing into our city. Let’s bring jobs. Let’s care for those who bring violence upon our city. Let us pray for our enemies.

Let’s move beyond talking points. Let’s DO the work of peacemaking. Shalom is not established by a wish or waiting for someone else. It is about that place where shalom and tsadaq embrace (Psalm 85). That means peace and justice are together. Until there is justice in our city – around race and class and police/community relations – until that justice is established there will be no peace. Let’s follow the efforts of the Milwaukee Clergy Coalition and be makers of peace.

San Fran- pt. 6 Stay with us for it is evening, and the day is almost over

On Monday night at 9:30 I’m stepping off the bus into the Tenderloin. I’ll be meeting up with Thom Longino, an associate night minister. His agency, the Night Ministry of San Francisco, has been around for 50 years offering a ministry of presence in the city. It was established through a collaboration of congregations wanted to address the growing homeless population that was coupled with the counter-cultural movements of the time. 2 CPE students will also be walking this night and a crisis counselor will be answering the crisis line in the office. We will be working from 10 pm – 2 am.

“We walk at a saunter,” Thom explains as we head out. “We want to go slow enough that folks will notice us, but be ready to break into a sprint if we need to.”

The strategy is simple: Show Up. Be there in the Tenderloin and the Castro. Walk the streets. Be approachable. Show up in the bars and the all-night donut shops and the drag shows. Talk with the regulars outside Burger King. Look for the folks you usually see. Be.

It is a cold evening, even by San Fran standards, so Thom and I head out with a bag of socks and 5 or 6 blankets. The blankets are gone in the first 10 minutes. The socks are gone within 40.

I’m struck by how many people know Thom and Night Ministry. Sometimes the conversations are long, but often they are short. We get hit up for change – or more. Occasionally someone will ask for a prayer or a blessing. The conversations with bartenders and the worker at the donut shop have the feeling of having begun ages ago with no end needed – like the conversations of a play-by-play and color commentator of a baseball game. The conversation goes on for innings – sometimes over several games – paused and constantly interrupted by the next pitch. But these conversations have no urgency, no need for completion. They will continue. There will be time to pick it up again.

Since it is cold – and near the first of the month – the streets are pretty quiet. This gives me and Thom a chance to chat about ministry and callings and Franciscan thinking and living and life.

What I’m most struck by in all of this is the consistency of the Night Ministry. Thom hadn’t been out on the streets for a week. But someone was. And someone was answering the crisis line. This work is 365.

I’ve been noticing recently that there is no “down time” at All Peoples. There is busy and very busy. But even in the midst of our busiest time, we still shut down for heat or snow days. We still take a sabbath week in August. We will, from time to time, close our doors.

And that’s the thing. The Night Ministry has no doors to close. It is out there, every night. Night ministers are on the streets. When they are tired. When they are cold. When they aren’t sure they have anything left to give. When one more hard luck story, one more life broken by violence or addiction or abuse seems too much to bear, the Night Ministry is there. And the people, the community, knows this, depends on this.

I saw the looks as we walked – the confusion (was he really in a priest shirt?), the resentment (damn Jesus freaks), the shame (“God knows I’m sinning, just keep on walking”). But most of the time I saw a look that can only be described as knowing. A knowing look that conveys the assurance that no matter what, no matter how hard it gets, someone from the Night Ministry is out. And that knowing look expresses what so many felt, what I feel: Thanks Pastor Thom.

San Fran – pt. 5 Amazing Grace

Monday afternoon I made my way over to Grace Cathedral – a towering gothic Episcopalian church near the financial district. Not surprisingly, the space was immense and inspiring. Soaring arches, intricate stained glass, beautiful icons.

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Right inside the eastern doors is the Interfaith AIDS Memorial Chapel. It is a simple space with an altar adorned with Keith Haring’s altarpiece The Life of Christ. The walls are marked with sacred symbols from the major religion and a portion of the NAMES PROJECT quilt hangs above. It is simple and profound.

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There are times when the AIDS crisis hitting San Francisco comes up – in conversations, in readings, in settings like this chapel. It sounds historical, distant. Later that Monday I ask Thom Longino if the Night Ministry gives out condoms (a similar outreach based in the Haight does). His response is a nonchalant “If we get them in we’ll give them out.” Unlike what I remember about Chicago’s Night Ministry, this is not a focus of their ministry. Back home now I wonder how HIV & AIDS affects the city. Where does it compare with the epidemic hitting segments of Milwaukee?

Soon I find myself drawn to the space between the baptismal font and the pews. A large labyrinth is inlaid into the floor. Near the chancel, the orchestra from Lund University begins a rehearsal for an evening concert in the cathedral. It makes for a powerful backdrop as I begin to walk and pray the ciurcuts.

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A major focus of my sabbatical is prayer and I’ve been fond of labyrinths for a while. Of all my youth ministry experiences one of my favorites was waking up a group of high school students at Bay Lake Camp for a 3 am candlelight walk. The students had no idea it was coming and it wasn’t at a significant time like sunrise or sunset – just a surprise in the middle of the night (followed by an amazing breakfast feast at 4 am and then going back to bed).

I began to walk, to pray, repeating the mantra and focus of my sabbatical: presence, prayer, peacemaking. I was asking where is my peace? The stream-of-consiesouness prayer leads me to quote scripture – Psalm 121 (from where does my help come from).

Around half-way through my journey inward I find myself chanting to myself the Kyrie. In peace, in peace let us pray to The Lord. Lord have mercy. For the peace from above and for our salvation, let us pray to The Lord. Lord have mercy.

It leads me in and I’m struck what St. Gregory’s the day before had done – how it had connected me with an ancient prayer and my own beginnings, with the liturgy – rote, repetitive, boring, consistent.

In the center I move through each petal of the rosetta – the center known as the illumination – alternating the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed, as if I’m walking through a rosary (I’d throw in a Hail Mary, but I never remember all the words).

I decide to exit the center using the outdoor labyrinth. Standing in the shadow of the towering cathedral I reflect on this revelation, this ancient connection. What does this mean for integration, particularly at All Peoples?

All Peoples is not a liturgical church, though there are obvious patterns in the worship that we follow. When we deviate from that norm, it is felt, and is generally intentional. There is gathering and prayer and reading and sermon and offering and offering prayer and the Great Thanksgiving. It is only at the sharing of Holy Communion that a familiar liturgy emerges. Weekly communion is in itself something that marks us as different from a baptist or charismatic or non-denominational worship.

The need for flexibility and Spirit-led spontaneity resists a formal liturgy.

And yet, I am finding the power of it in worship and prayer.

San Fran – pt. 4 Tree of Life

Sunday afternoon was a glorious day in San Francisco. It was sunny and warm. The wind wasn’t whipping. And people were everywhere.

I was making my way to Parque Ninos Unidos, a neighborhood park in the Mission. For the last few years it has also been the home to the Free Farm Stand. Rain or shine on Sunday afternoons volunteers set up tables with rescued and donated food, and it is all given away. 120-170 households are served every week. The food comes from a local bakery and from the donations from the big downtown farmers market. At the end of the day, farmers give away their produce and it gets sent to a church food pantry. What the pantry doesn’t take ends up at the Free Farm Stand.

There’s also a table marked “Hecka Local Food” – food grown within blocks of the park in backyard gardens and fruit trees.

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I soon meet Tree, an elder who buzzes around more like a bee than the stationary nature his namesake implies. The farm stand is switching over with a refreshed stock of fava beans, greens, oranges, artichokes, chard, cherries, and more. Around a half-dozen other volunteers – college students, slow food folks, and general do-gooders – are making this happen. Tickets are given and folks wait for their number to be called. The hum around this outdoor hive blends harmoniously with the laughter of children on the nearby playground and the chatter from the grade school game of softball. A paleta cart jingles by and abuelitas chatter on the benches.

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Tree checks in with a couple volunteers and then we duck into a pocket-garden behind the farm stand folding tables. “Most of these are community maintained beds, but a couple folks really like their own personal garden so there’s a couple of those here,” Tree explains, his opinion on private beds conveyed in tone.

Just outside the garden is a triangle slice of land no wider than 8 feet at the base. Here, Tree planted a micro-orchard with Japanese mulberries, avocado, and a few other food-bearing plants. Tree explains the hassle the city gave him to plant these trees. They needed to be fenced in – to make the space separate from the rest of the park. The fence is 4 feet tall and Tree had to raise $3,000 for it.

Tree says the community garden here and around the area are a poor substitute for the Free Farm. The Free Farm stood on the former home of St. Paulus Lutheran Church, a building that was burned years ago and cleared as a vacant lot. The Free Farm began around 2010 and was a major source of hecka local food and a great place to engage a core group of volunteers. St. Paulus is developing the land for mixed use including low-income housing and a worship space. A worthwhile project, though Tree worries where in the city he will find land like that again.

We soon meet up with Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain a deacon at St. Aiden Episcopal Church and a research scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity. Margaret was another lead dreamer and organizer for the Free Farm (and is a little more generous in her understanding of the St. Paulus land).

Tree is trying to get things in order at the farm stand so he can show Margaret and me his newest project, a backyard garden a block away. He’s also on and off his phone, a bicycle tour is wanting to see the space as well.

I can’t say I understand exactly the circumstances of the backyard space. We enter an old building with makeshift workspaces, lots of office furniture and a general collection of stuff. We wander through the unmarked building, winding towards the backdoor. What we step into is surreal – a backyard jungle with giant avocado trees lined by bamboo stands. There are pavers and pots and stands of berry bushes and poppies and roses and herbs for teas and herbs for cooking and garden statues and a plum tree that unceremoniously drops a fruit a foot away from me.

Tree started this backyard bliss back in the 70s when he was living in the attached building as part of a communal living arrangement. He’s been in the neighborhood ever since – now living a couple blocks away.

He has big plans to transform the space to grow more food. He wants to gather his friends from the Free Farm and have them help with the work. He and Margaret begin discussing planting locations, moving some flowers to plant more food. He shows us a stump with new grafts from 2 different types of avocados.

Tree is a pioneer and a futurist. I want to take back what I said about him being stationary. It isn’t that his is staying still, but he is clearly rooted. In his neighborhood, in his mission, in his passion. Tree is like the image in Revelation – blooming in all seasons, all sorts of different fruits. The tree of life.