Non-Profits as Faith Communities?

We need a new church.

The majority of Millenials are not going to church, even those who grew up in a church. Seminary enrollment is down, which means that young adults are largely not considering careers serving the Church. That doesn’t mean that this generation doesn’t have faith, or don’t want to live out their faith in concrete actions or be part of a movement. It just means that congregations are not the way most Millenials are choosing to do these things. The “How We Gather” study by two students at Harvard Divinity detailed some “replacement” organizations that Millenials are using to meet some of the needs filled by church, such as spiritual transformation or a supportive community. Yet I wonder about inter-generational relationships and commitment to a higher power and sacred text beyond ourselves. Or a sense of discovery of what the Holy Spirit is doing, revealed by how the Spirit has worked in the past (by reading scripture). I wonder about theology: faith seeking understanding. How are these needs being addressed by the “replacements”? The people who are truly atheists and agnostics are one matter, but I wonder about those who have a spirituality based on Christianity, yet are repelled by churches as they are. Might there be another way for them to form spiritual community, do theology and make a difference in the world, than through congregations?

Also, and very importantly, since mainline Protestant denominations have been mostly white and middle class, how would we make sure that is not the outcome?

How could association with faith-based non-profits provide some of the benefits of congregations, without the turn-offs? Non-profits don’t have this baggage that some churches do: bureaucracy and nostalgic traditions that slow the pace of action, ties to social policies that are behind the times (LGBTQ…), or pressure to fit a mold by presenting only your “Sunday best”.

A faith-based non-profit can foster so much, perhaps previously claimed by congregations:

  • Belonging, supporting a common cause
  • Education and mutual sharing of expertise, applying theology to complicated public conversations
  • Public voice of faith
  • Established group to mobilize when urgent response is needed
  • Inter-generational relationships
  • Caring community one can lean on in crisis?

Imagine pursuing a double bottom line for non-profits, the double goal of creating belonging and spiritual community for donors/volunteers as well as valuable services for the non-profit’s target audience. For many non-profits, this is a burden no one has the capacity to take on, but if people of faith saw it as a new way to create faith communities, while supporting the non-profit’s mission, could not everyone benefit? Still, the great need would be for commitment, and regular involvement of supporters. And for that it has to be perceived to be worth the effort, meaningful for volunteers and making a positive impact in the world. With a spiritual hunger and need for community that, for some, will not be met by congregations because of past negative experiences, a non-profit could become a new way of being “church” for a new generation.

Help, It Hurts! (written for “A Broader Public” Collegeville Institute course)

First, do no harm. I am no doctor, but as a habitual do-gooder, that part of the Hippocratic oath is key for me too. There is so much suffering in the world, and I want to help. But too often our responses leave new problems in their wake. For example: massive food aid and lifting tariffs on rice to Haiti in the 1990’s was intended to relieve the agricultural burden and boost industrialization. Instead domestic rice production collapsed and the country now cannot feed itself without imports. Or this: A non-profit provides daily free dinners to alleviate hunger in an urban neighborhood in the United States. Yet what was meant to be emergency aid, institutionalized over time, creates a chronic problem for some: health conditions associated with never cooking at home with fresh ingredients. Hunger is real; so are unemployment, poverty, obesity, and diabetes. To stop responding to the needs of our neighbors is not an option, so how do we think through the potential “problems” our responses might create, and guard against them? Here are some first steps towards help that doesn’t hurt:

1. Resist simplistic explanations

From hunger to trauma to cleaning up in the wake of natural disasters, layer upon layer of cause and effect create the dire need for help. Political, economic, and personal decisions all intertwine in how we hurt and help each other. Both of the above examples deserves its own article or even book, to examine all the factors properly. We all cause damage all the time, sometimes even when we are trying to help. This cannot be overemphasized, because laying blame affects how we respond or hesitate to do so.

2. Base our actions on requests from trustworthy sources with firsthand experience, instead of on what we are willing to give

Who are the people who have been working on the cause for a long time, with not only channels for emergency aid, but a sustainable vision for the future? Long-term community leaders must define our involvement based on what is needed, not on what we want to give. This goes for our emergency response, development work, or getting involved in protest movements.

3. Aim for sustainability and cultivate relationships

If we are interested in contributing to long-term good in other people’s lives, then we have to forge lasting relationships. We need to ask for feedback and correction, so there is mutual accountability, and respect for each others’ expertise. If history is any teacher, what we on the “giving” end need most is an education on how to use our resources well. And it is going to be difficult for us to receive that feedback outside of trusting relationships.

Given the history of some missionaries’ colonizing practices, it may surprise readers to know that these guiding principles come from my church’s approach to global mission, which they term “accompaniment.” Self-examination and confession, then trusting others to know what they need, is the beginning of our attempts to help without hurting.

Honoring Mothers Fair Trade Tea (+ Chocolate!) Party

I grew up going to mother/daughter teas and other such church functions with my mom. I proposed taking that idea and using it to lift up mothers around the world, who are better able to support their families through fair trade agriculture or handicrafts. Here was my “script” for the event, with some notes. I’d be delighted if others wanted to copy and adapt the idea!

This is a different kind of tea party. It still includes time to sip and chat, enjoy all generations playing together, and some delicious treats. But all of the tea, coffee, and cocoa we share today is certified Fair Trade, and in the midst of appreciating it, we’re going to learn about why that matters.

We are planting seeds, so that every generation knows about the value of fair trade.

By serving fair trade products, we’re honoring mothers, because products that pay fair wages to those who farm or craft them help marginalized women around the world to support their families, send their children to school, and build up their own skills.

We are showing that we have choices for everyday products we drink, chocolates with which we treat ourselves, and in clothing, accessories and gifts that we buy.

We are giving thanks for all of the women whose thousands of small actions, have added up to big differences in our lives. And we are attempting to be those agents of change in the lives of others.

Our 1st Course of the Tea Party features… fair trade Coffee!

Since coffee is frequently grown on the continent of Africa, a church member has made creamy rice banana bread to share, from her home country of Liberia in West Africa. You will also be served some other treats listed on the program on each table, and there are notes as to which items are gluten free. Lemonade is available for our younger tea partiers, and others. Once all of the tables are served, I will give a short introduction to fair trade…

Introduction to Fair Trade

We all eat foods and drink beverages produced in developing countries, in the global South. We all wear clothes and buy products made in developing countries, often without much thought to how those on the other end of the supply chain are paid, what their working conditions are, or what impact the production of what we will consume has on the environment. The truth is, not all trade is fair. The Fair Trade movement aims to bring all of these factors into view in the “developed” countries so that consumers can knowingly choose to buy fairly. It cuts out the middlemen, who shield us as consumers from knowing the true costs of low prices, to the farmers and artisans.

The World Fair Trade Organization has Ten Principles of Fair Trade, which are shown with the “program” on every table here today. For every principle, the opposite is what’s happening in the majority of industries in developing countries. For example, if the principle is “no child labor and no forced labor,” both of those deplorable practices are a reality in many industries. Through fair trade, farmers are given a fair and dependable price for their crops and artisans are given a fair price and markets for their handiwork. They gain access to fair credit that helps in creating a more sustainable livelihood. Their cooperatives, democratically-run organizations, give workers a stronger voice to negotiate fair prices, teach best practices and make sure children are protected from forced labor. The cooperatives themselves reinvest in their communities through projects such as clean water systems, disaster response and solar power. They encourage and educate about ecologically sustainable practices. I’ll share some specific examples during the fashion show.

Where do we find Fair Trade products? This is the 20th year Lutheran World Relief, a development and relief organization our church body supports, has partnered with a fair trade organization called Equal Exchange to market fair trade coffee and chocolate through our churches. It was a way to get the word about fair trade out to people who believe in caring about our neighbors, and a percentage of each of those sales went from Equal Exchange to LWR’s agricultural programs. LWR is now transitioning to direct purchasing from the farmers in their own development projects, but obviously the strong commitment to fair trade remains the same. The centerpieces on each table and handicrafts to be featured in our fashion show are mostly items ordered through SERRV, one of the first Fair Trade handicraft organizations in this country, which started in the late 1940s. But we also have a fair trade store in St. Paul, Ten Thousand Villages on Selby Avenue; BTW, Monday they’re kicking off a summer emphasis on fair trade clothing from 3 organizations: Mata Traders, Global Mamas, and Maggie’s Organics. Church member is a fellow with the Bush Foundation, and told me about a Twin Cities Hmong fair trade group that markets in the U.S. the handiwork of artisans from SE Asia (Red Green River). “Trades of Hope” markets fair trade handiwork based on house or online parties (similar to how tupperware used to be sold). Now fair trade chocolates, tea and coffee are available at grocery stores. That is all to say: “Fair trade” is becoming more widely available as an option for food, gifts and apparel, but to adopt “buy fair trade” as a value we all need lots of reminders, opportunities and reinforcement. We can remind each other: there are things to consider beyond getting a good deal at the check-out.

Note about this congregation: We serve fair trade tea and coffee during coffee hour already. If you wish to donate to that specifically, your financial contributions buy more fair trade products!

When you are finished with your course, I invite the “models” for our fashion show to join me over at the handicrafts table.

Our 2nd Course features Fair Trade Tea, and because tea is most commonly grown in parts of Asia, church member has made us wontons, and church member has made us coconut jello to go with the other refreshments.

Our fair trade fashion show is comprised almost entirely of handicrafts from SERRV ( one of the oldest fair trade handicrafts organizations, founded in the late 1940s.

(Information and quotes shared during the fashion show were taken from SERRV’s website and catalog. I chose items that could easily be carried and displayed in a fashion show, grouped 2-4 per country. In addition to jewelry or accessories, I also ordered some décor, such as serving platters and trivets. All of these items are available for “consignment sales” from SERRV, which means we did not need to pay in advance for anything as long our congregation registered an account, but just ship back what we did not sell, and payment for what we did sell. The consignment order form has items grouped by country. Clothing is not included in the “consignment sale” category, but we did model clothing that I already owned, from SERRV. Highlighting items from a dozen countries made our fashion show last around 30 minutes.)

Excerpts from the fashion show:

Mexico and Guatemala

Teenaged church member and pre-school church member are showing you fair trade products made in Mexico and Guatemala! Teenager is wearing a tree necklace & bracelet made in Mexico, and an apron from neighboring Guatemala. Pre-schooler is showing you her turtle backpack, made in Guatemala.

The jewelry Teenager is modeling was made by Union Progresista Artesana. Lucina currently assists with packaging and jewelry assembly for UPA in Mexico and is enrolled in a new women’s project to learn jewelry-making skills. Her hope is that with the new skills she will be able to work full-time and earn a steady income. She has two teenage children to provide for on her own, as her husband migrated in search of work but has gone missing. She said, “I am a single mother and I have to give my children a better future.”


Mother and daughter church members are showing you fair trade handicraft items from Indonesia. Mother is wearing a pearl heart cross necklace, and scarf, and daughter is carrying two fans with traditional designs.

In many parts of Indonesia, rural families have increasingly had to migrate to find work to support their families. Pekerti, the Indonesian People’s Handicraft Foundation Marketing Service, has been working since 1975 to preserve traditional Indonesian handcrafts skills and to promote income-generating projects among the rural, enabling them to remain in their villages with their families. They have had programs that provide heath care, school scholarships, and loans. They encourage the use of raw materials from sustainably managed sources and provide information and projects on conservation. The pearl heart necklace our model is wearing was made by Pekerti.

Our 3rd Course features Mexican hot chocolate! Cocoa grows especially well in the Caribbean and Latin America. Church member has made us Mexican wedding cookies to accompany the other assorted treats.

When you are finished with your food and drinks, you are invited to take a walking tour of the other tables, as all the centerpieces are Fair Trade handicrafts owned by members of this congregation.

Coffee, tea, cocoa and most items from the fashion show today are available through a “consignment sale” arrangement with SERRV; that means that you can purchase them today at a discount if there is something that speaks to you. We will also make them available on Sunday after worship. After that, whatever remains will be sent back to SERRV. We also have a dozen SERRV catalogs, and they ship items remarkably quickly, within 3-5 days, so you would have something in time for, say, Mother’s Day if you ordered soon. Take a catalog with you if you think you would use it. Or just look up their website:

Thank you to the servers, those who prepared the food and drinks and especially those who have run this event from the kitchen, to those who decorated, greeted, modeled in the fashion show, and who will clean up afterward.

A public photo album from the event is available at:

Frederick Buechner Narrative Writing Contest – Theme: Storm

I sent this memory from January 2008, to the narrative writing contest at The Christian Century in the middle of April, just after Pastor Herb passed away:


I could not get over it. I still haven’t gotten over it. I was traveling with Pastor Herb, who had been serving as a missionary for so long that multiple people told me “he speaks better Swahili than most Tanzanians.” Every day of that week we left the junior seminary where he was based, and headed to a remote preaching point among the Maasai people, where word would spread that we had arrived and people would walk in from all around for worship. Since Pastor Herb could only make it to each of his 113 preaching points (some with buildings, and others without) a few times a year, at each site there were baptisms, confirmations, and even once a wedding as part of the service. Local, trained evangelists tended the people’s faith in between. By this point in the week I had already witnessed Pastor Herb perform an exorcism on a woman possessed by an evil spirit, yet in my mind I held that event as really true, but really “culturally specific.” I was very glad that Alana, an American college student, was traveling with Pastor Herb for the first time this week too, so she and I could check our incredulous observations with each other. Such things didn’t happen in worship back home. But here people believed that spirits and demons were active, so they lived it out. That’s how my mind wrapped around what I had witnessed, until the storm.

Late in the week we bumped out on a rutted dirt trail while dark clouds gathered overhead. Pastor Herb was talking to his evangelist about the weather. It’s going to be really hard driving out of here if it rains hard, they were saying. Alana and I exchanged glances. When we arrived and stepped out of the jeep, it started sprinkling. People were already gathering, and although there were several small earthen homes around, this was clearly one of those times we would worship without a roof over us. The evangelists got busy registering those who were going to be baptized. In the Maasai culture, once the (male) head of a family decides they will become Christian, the whole extended family gets baptized. This was one of those times: 54 baptisms at once. I snapped a photo of the sky before we started, which was the definition of the “eye of a storm,” a bright center surrounded by dark gray cumulus clouds as far as we could see. Yet Pastor Herb was determined. He would not return here for some time, so he was going to preach everything there was to preach and baptize everyone who desired baptism. Part of the way through the baptisms, it got really windy and was raining hard, with thunder and lightning not far off. The full force of the storm was upon us.

One of the evangelists spoke into Pastor Herb’s ear. “You can go to the jeep if you like,” Pastor Herb said to us and the evangelist, without judgment. And he turned to baptize the next person; he just spoke the words louder, over the noise of the storm. We were a combination of too sheepish and too awed to go to the car, because shortly after he said that, the weather gave up. The rain started tapering off, then stopped completely. The sky was still as dark and threatening as ever, but it was as if the storm was holding its breath. I turned to Alana and whispered, “Ummm… did he just calm the storm?” “Yup,” she whispered back, as both of us kept our eyes on him. It was nearly impossible to explain it any other way. It still is. Worship ended and the meal that always awaited us began. The second treasured photo I have from that day is a picture of Alana and I grinning while eating rice and goat meat under a tree, a rainbow slicing across the dark gray sky just above us.

Saints and Sinners, All of Us

“Don’t you want to have your own children?” someone asked me. I cannot fathom how my adopted daughter could feel any more “my own” than she does, or more beloved.

“God has blessed us with another child.” she said. I smiled weakly, but because adoption is the lens through which I view the world, I wondered where that theology leaves people who either struggle with fertility or have unwanted pregnancies?

What if I told you that many “religious” comments made to adoptive families contradict how we actually believe God works? In any congregation there are likely to be multiple families touched by adoption. Birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees: we are each both saint and sinner, simultaneously and constantly. I am convinced that this theological concept from Martin Luther, if discussed often and well, would change the unexamined, often hurtful theology put on members of adoptive families (including birth parents). There are so many kinds of adoption, including domestic or inter-country adoption, foster care, kinship adoption by relatives, and adoption by step-parents. That is to say, it’s not a small niche community affected, but a wide-spread network of people who have been touched by adoption of all kinds.

Parents who adopt children are simultaneously saints and sinners. There are all kinds of reasons to adopt, from fertility struggles to family history to deeply-held beliefs. Yet the first assumption of many people is that adoptive parents must not have been able to birth children, and that carries some unfair judgment. Despite all we know now from science and anatomy, archaic views still linger about causes of infertility. Some judgment from the sidelines is rooted in old wives’ tales about how certain actions can cause a miscarriage, or blaming women for “putting off children” to have a career first, as if finding the right spouse or right timing for children is anybody else’s decision than the parents. But the insidious, unexamined theology people of faith might still harbor based on references to “The Lord God closed her womb” is that God is somehow behind fertility or infertility. Most miscarriages are caused by chromosomal deficiencies. God’s “will” is indeed for our bodies to determine when conception cannot lead to a healthy human being, but is God intervening in every specific instance? A close, critical reading of some ancestor stories can help all of us to make conscious attitude adjustments about those struggling with fertility. Try reading Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, or Elizabeth’s stories; how is God involved, and for what purpose? Does giving God the glory for “blessing” some with children turn into a whispered impression that God must be withholding the blessing from others? Is that understanding really how we believe God works, even if it is how fertility struggles were explained in ancient times, or used to tell the story of God at work through our faith ancestors? It is very helpful to mention these often-assumed, rarely-named assumptions when reading actual Scripture. Notice how, for example, Hannah does not conceive Samuel simply because she prays hard enough, but she dedicates him to the Lord’s service in the Temple beforehand (effectively making an adoption plan!). This does not justify telling anyone that they would birth children if they prayed hard enough.

Parents who adopt children are simultaneously sinners and saints. While ultimately the emotional, financial and social challenges unique to adoption might make this way of forming a family seem altruistic or sacrificial, I assure you, as an adoptive parent, that we are all sinners too. While the process of becoming adoptive parents is more intentional than the 50% of pregnancies that are unplanned, our families end up being just as vulnerable to the pressures others experience, with some added baggage. Adoptive parents separate and divorce, and struggle with addictions and mental health issues too. Fortunately, now there are many more resources to support adoptive parents than in past generations, including education on possible challenges due to the circumstances that led to our children being available for adoption and talking about our children’s adoptive identities in healthy ways. There are challenges, but there is no doubt that our love for our adopted children is just as strong as for biological children. And that’s theological too, because we believe that we are all God’s children through adoption, siblings with Jesus Christ, and God loves us unconditionally too. But let us be clear: we are not saviors. Sometimes adoptive parents hear something similar to: “You are such a saint for adopting! I could never do that.” Or even, “You really saved them.” But neither of these are what we believe. We are all making decisions the best we can, in our complicated, flawed, human ways. We are all capable of committing – in our families and our “church families” – to loving those who are not “flesh of our flesh.”

Birth parents (and especially mothers) are both saints and sinners. Most of us believe there is nothing we would not do for our children. But does that extend to making an adoption plan? Whatever the situation was that made a child available for adoption, ultimately placing them in a family that is prepared to love and care for them is a great act of love and sacrifice, and a cause of enduring heartache for the birth parents. Many, many factors create these complex situations, and some of them are definitely personal, for which birth parents hold responsibility: having unprotected sex, substance abuse, abuse or neglect. Yet other factors we might attribute to society and all feel some culpability for ourselves as well: oppressive political regimes, lack of access to mental or physical health care, generational poverty, or laws restricting access to birth control. These are all human-caused situations, so what has God to do with it? We might credit God with inspiration to do what we believe is best, even when it means heartbreak. The story of King Solomon judging between two women who claimed the same child (1 Kings 3:16-28) highlights the love it takes a birth mother to choose life for her child, even if it means separation. When the wise king declared that the child should be cut in half, the true mother begged for the child to be given whole to the other woman. She made an adoption plan, for her child’s future. We also imply God’s participation in these decisions when we talk about “God’s plan,” but we must do that theology carefully. My adopted daughter and my birth daughter look alike, and people say to us: “God sure had a plan!” But I am certain the same person would never say, “God planned for your adopted daughter’s birth family to be incapable of parenting her.” Under the human-caused circumstances, the Holy Spirit could have credit for working out the possible outcome that we would be brought together. But that’s not exactly what was said, is it? The actions and choices of birth parents to make an adoption plan can result in the children they birthed questioning their identity and worth, and bearing a primal wound, but birth parents bear this knowledge and their own loss too. That’s actually enough. No outsiders are either qualified or needed to comment on how they could never “give up a child.” Any of us could be overcome by pressures both personal or societal, but the question is our capacity to love enough to do what is best for the child.

Adoptees (people who have been adopted) are sinners and saints too. It is helpful to talk about that, even with children. I wonder about the unconscious thoughts or feelings adoptees, working out how their behaviors make them like or unlike both their birth and adoptive parents. Some might gravitate towards risky behaviors as they reach puberty and are determining their identities. Does that mean they are innately drawn to such things, or is it because they haven’t processed their inner questions? Being adopted doesn’t mean just one thing, for example that you must be a hero or an outcast. Adoptees are simultaneously both, just like everyone. From Scripture we can lift up those who were adopted, like Moses or Esther, who were empowered by their identities to lead their people. We can lament those whose families were not nurturing. For example, we can talk about how Sarah responds badly to Ishmael and his birth mother Hagar once Isaac is born, but God makes a nation out of Ishmael too. No matter what decisions people have made about us, God wants the best for us! Of course, not all adoptees grow up to be heroes of biblical proportions. But from some examples in Scripture we claim that we can all channel the painful parts of our histories to make a difference for others. And that is one way we definitely believe God works. While “being adopted” may be woven into any part of an adoptee’s life, consciously or unconsciously, every action is not about being adopted. The vast majority of the time, it’s just about being a kid. As the saying goes: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” Behaviors or feelings, both positive and negative, arise for all of us, and are much more likely to be about age, developmental stages, or circumstances than they are to lead back to being adopted. That said, some adoptees could have struggles related to the reason they were adopted in the first place, such as abuse or neglect, in utero or after birth. Where is God in making us who we are? Adoptees in our midst can remind us to unpack carefully how we use verses such as Psalm 139:13 “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Or Jeremiah 29:11 “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Our whole lives are comprised of sinner-saints making the decisions. God cares about what happens to us, inspires, and empowers us. But it also helps a whole lot to admit that we are all simultaneously saints and sinners, all the time.

Attitudes Are the Real Disability – Sermon from 3/26/17

John 9:1

Caleb could not see the scrolls to study the Torah, and he couldn’t listen to any teaching in the synagogue because people associated his disability with sin. So he was no expert on theology. He could not recognize the people around him by sight, but couldn’t identify them by voice either because they kept their distance and never talked to him, just about him. So Caleb couldn’t be considered an expert on his community either. But one thing he knew thoroughly and intimately was his own disability. He was the expert on that, both what it meant for him physically, and how people would or wouldn’t interact with him because of it. Yet even about this one thing, they would not listen to him, or respect his expert authority. To them he practically had no voice, no identity other than “the blind man.” The Gospel writer doesn’t even give him a name (I made “Caleb” up)! The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar talked about him, asking, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But when they finally talked to him, they challenged him on who he was: “Then how were your eyes opened?” They demanded the impossible: “Explain the physical miracle, or we will not believe you are who you say you are.” Then they go after his parents, because this grown person certainly cannot speak for himself. And the Gospel-writer participates in disabling his voice by writing: “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” As if fear for themselves is the only reason even his parents would treat Caleb, a person with a disability, like a human being.

This is nothing new for people living with disabilities. So, even though we usually hear this text preached with blindness as a metaphor for “spiritual blindness” and recognizing the light of Christ, this time, let’s take it literally. Caleb’s life was defined by disability, because that’s how others chose to see him. When we were in middle school, Kate and I became friends, because her friend and neighbor Jamie and I were in band together. With a few others, we formed a social group, a lunch table. Kate has cerebral palsy and an out-going personality. On her wheelchair, I still remember the bumper sticker: “Attitudes are the real disability,” and Kate embodied it. Her laugh – sometimes out of place, uncontrolled, loud – broke down attitude barriers in our school. Access to mainstream classrooms or employment or power in organizations or faith communities are not restricted by what our bodies can or cannot do, but by attitudes, recognizing or not the valuable human person in front of us, through whom God’s works might be revealed. Jesus disputes the shaming, but really common, theology of equating disability with sin, then mixes part of himself (his saliva) with the earth, then smears it on brother Caleb’s eyes. He talks directly to him then, gives him a task to do, so that what Caleb does with who he is, might reveal God’s work to everyone who would ever hear about it. Later, Jesus hears how Caleb had been thrown out of the synagogue for speaking his truth, seeks him out, and tells him directly who he is. Caleb receives what so many of us yearn for: personal revelation from God in the flesh.

Of course, Caleb, child of God, had all this capacity before Jesus came along and restored his sight. Who knows, he could have revealed profound theology before physically being able to see, but the attitudes of his peers incapacitated him, and after a lifetime of this, who wouldn’t internalize it? One thing we might dig into more here is not just a theology of disabilities, but a theology of discrimination. When others will not believe you, consult you, or trust you to be the expert on your own identity, it is to the detriment of the whole community. Everyone could miss God’s work through you, the witness of your voice, your life, and your transformation happening right in front of them. It is worth it for all of us to believe people with disabilities: that they are definitely able, valid witnesses, contributors to our communities and able to reveal God’s work in the world. Now, at this point the sermon could take a couple directions. We could do some self-examination about the people whom we have not trusted to be the authority on their own identities or to tell us about the discrimination they experience even in faith communities. People such as women, people of color, transgender persons. That could be a very convicting and powerful sermon direction. To understand who might give such an account, I have found the Decolonize Lutheranism movement really powerful. You can look up their blog at, and interact with real stories of exclusion that go well beyond frustration with Lutheranism being equated with lutefisk. It opened my eyes.

But let’s stay with the theology of disabilities in this sermon. The late Nancy Eiesland, a theologian and sociologist who lived her whole life with disabilities, drew a much more powerful metaphor than “I once was blind but now I see,” in her first book, The Disabled God. She hoped that in eternity she would still have marks of her disabilities because she didn’t know who she was without them; they made her who she was. Besides, she saw Christ himself with disabilities. Disabilities can be so varied, and can arise anytime during our lives, that Eiesland refers to others as “temporarily able-bodied.” How might it impact our faith, our relationship with God and our neighbor, if we see on the cross, a disabled God? Jesus is at once paralyzed, and in terrible pain. His hands and his feet are nailed straight through, so there’s no way to move or use his limbs; eventually he is even powerless to lift himself up enough to breathe, because that’s how crucifixion kills. And true to all disabilities, the real oppression is not the physical stuff, but the social isolation, the emotional anguish of being abandoned, unheard by his friends, his disciples, even perhaps by God the Father (you remember, when he cries out from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Christ’s wounds remain after the resurrection, holes all the way through all 4 limbs, and a wound in his side from the spear, which could elude to any number of unseen, internal disabilities. They never go away; in fact he uses these wounds to prove his identity after the resurrection. They prove God’s intention to be dis-abled with us instead of perfect and glorious above us.

What might this image of a disabled Christ mean, for us? For the “temporarily able-bodied,” it could be a wake-up call not just to pity or feel compassion for people with disabilities; for those with disabilities, it might be encouragement to not be frustrated, but to keep on agitating until we all do better. If our systems do not allow access for people with disabilities to speak up and lead, we are convicted of ignoring the voice and works of God. If our theology does not explicitly condemn equating disabilities with sin or curses from God, we are failing to fully understand and convey what Jesus was doing on the cross. And more broadly, we could all miss the redemption, and even grace of every challenge in our lives, to mind, body, relationships and spirit. But a disabled God is not just staying on the cross to prove a point, but really cannot do everything for himself. He cannot come down from the cross, which is different from choosing not to. Dependence on others for something is a part of having any disability. A disabled God is dependent. God is dependent on humanity for the work of God to be revealed on earth. God is dependent on our disabilities like Caleb’s blindness, our attitudes, and our attachments to each other, to embody resurrection. I need to wrestle with that some more, I think. But it sure changes how I see the body on the cross. Thanks be to God.

Women’s March Huddle

The meet-up was going fine. About half of the women knew each other already; they were friends of the woman at whose house we were meeting. There were a bunch of mothers of young children – some stay-at-home moms, and others who weren’t – plus a couple from the generation above us. I didn’t know anybody. It was a Women’s March Huddle, the 2nd action encouraged by the organizers of the massive Women’s March movement, to continue the momentum after that January 21st event.

I might have guessed from the timing that I could be out of place. It was scheduled for 11 am on a Sunday morning. I am not currently employed in congregational ministry, but we are active members. So while everyone else was in casual clothes, I had obviously come from church, and in fact I had left my husband and kids there for Sunday School, and had to pick them up in an hour.

We dove into the materials and discussion of interests and potential actions, introducing ourselves in little bits as we brought up ideas. But things eventually got to the point, as they always do, where I figured I’d better “out” myself as a pastor. Several groups and books I intended to bring up were faith-based and besides, if I didn’t mention it before I left to go back to church, it might be more awkward when they found out later. I said it this way, “I guess it’s time for me to ‘come out’ as a Lutheran pastor,” with a smile to reassure others that I didn’t consider that a scary thing. The immediate feedback was also good-natured, but with an edge. “Oh, I hope you don’t hate me then for being an atheist!” “Or me!” “I grew up Lutheran, but those are the ones in my family who are really conservative now, so that really turned me off.” “Lapsed Catholic over here.” I hadn’t intended to instigate public confession or demand excuses. I responded, “Being a feminist means we believe everyone can make their own choices, right? I’m not judging you, if you’re not judging me.”

I then shared about some of the action lists I was on because of faith-based community organizing and that our church is near the state Capitol so that could factor into transportation plans for protests there. Several of the other women were very new to organizing, spurred into action by the election. I have experience at this, but I realized, not outside of faith-related circles. What we’re trying to do is build community and support each other in actions around common values. It’s like church with worship or Scripture, but still with some thoughtful reflection and stretching our understanding. For some in my huddle, this is a new phase of participation for them, in the public sphere beyond work and school. I don’t necessarily need this huddle group to find my place to connect in the resistance. But I do need it to connect with a huge swath of people who share some of my values, but who might otherwise only associate most Christians with the Christian Right. For my world view it is a very helpful reality check, which I expect to bend my heart and mind even more as we start reading books and essays together as well as marching or writing postcards. Huddle up!