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. It is literally a slogan on a bumper sticker, but “Attitudes are the real disability” is Truth with a capital “T” and a theological statement too. 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 decolonizelutheranism.org, 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!

Samaritan Lives Matter

Excerpt from my sermon on Luke 10 last June:

We want to believe we would stop on the road, if we knew the person who was wounded was actually Jesus. He wants to get us close enough to tell that they are, so that we can respond with overwhelming love. Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, 5 police officers killed and 7 wounded in Dallas during the protest of these deaths. Let’s be just as enraged about the shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, as we are about the 5 police officers killed by a sniper in Dallas. We can hold vigil for those killed in terrorist attacks in Baghdad or Istanbul just as heart-felt as for Paris. Because human beings are children of God, no matter where they are or what they look like.

But Jesus knows we have trouble keeping all things equal, even if we won’t admit it to ourselves. We have systemic prejudices, just as Jesus’ original audience did. Which I suspect is why, he gives only one word to describe the victim in the parable he tells about the Good Samaritan: “a man” was on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Just “a man”. No more descriptors: no race or religion, no indications of wealth or poverty, morals or lack thereof. Nothing but a man. A human. In fact, because we have no more information, maybe this man is a Samaritan too, but if Jesus had described him that way, would his audience immediately have excused the behavior of the by-standers, because Samaritan lives are worth less to them, and priests or Levites cannot be expected to be made unclean by coming too close? It might just be understood that Samaritans are threatening in some way, so no one would think worse of you for keeping your distance. Or maybe no one would admit it aloud, but deeply embedded in the ways they were raised to think about Samaritans, they would assume that victim, if he was a Samaritan, had it coming. They would start telling stories about him in their heads, making up a devious history, interrupting the story Jesus is trying to tell. He should not have been on that road, or must have somehow provoked the robbers who beat him and took everything off of him. The lawyer, in answering Jesus’ question at the end of the story, “Which of them has been a neighbor to the injured man?” cannot even bring himself to say: “the Samaritan.” He might have to spit after that word has been in his mouth. He only answers, “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus knows how we are. He knows that we can be so blind to – yet controlled by – our own prejudices, he has to give his victim no description at all, or we will miss the point of the story: Have mercy, on the human being, the child of God who has been made a victim. Grieve what has happened to the human being, lament that we can be so horrible to each other. Act to change it, overwhelming the situation with love. There is no way to justify ourselves out of that. The point, I think, is that the victim in this parable is every man. Or better, every person. He’s you. He’s me. And he’s Jesus. And his life matters. Jesus died for it to matter!

Protesting Like a Protestant

(Written in mid-January as my writing sample for this workshop: http://collegevilleinstitute.org/events/event/broader-public-2017/ )

I am relatively new to protesting. I’ve been to a few protests and rallies before, but I’m white, middle class, and under 40. I will always have more to unearth and examine, to fully understand my privilege. And so it is that the visceral need to act and the threats to take away hard-fought rights and protections of women and minority groups have only become personal for me this political season. What am I going to do about it? I will march in the Women’s March in my state capital this weekend. I will keep calling, e-mailing and writing snail-mail to my elected officials, including those who do not represent my state, but still represent me as a U.S. citizen. I will try to keep having one-on-one conversations with people on the other side of issues. Yet still I wonder, will my protests be effective? I do not intend to protest as personal therapy, although it may indeed be cathartic to do something. I want my protests to be heard and to have an impact. I want to listen to those who have been leading the fight against inequity for a long time, people of color especially. My means of protest need to be authentic to who I am, and relevant to others because of what we have in common. So as I try to shape my own outrage and hurt into some concrete actions, I find myself looking back 500 years to the protester Martin Luther. Since Luther’s core theological principles resonate so strongly with me, perhaps his methods of protesting could be mine as well.

1. Begin with a mindset of debate and dialogue

In 1517 when the monk Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, he was not trying to start a new church. He was posting his research for public debate. Debate is dialogue, and even in the most heated conversations, opposing sides have to listen to one another and run the risk of being changed. I’m struggling with this, but have tried to read and hear from those who voted for the President-Elect despite his inflammatory personality and hateful rhetoric, without dismissing these voters as bigots. If I cannot at least begin from a posture of listening, what hope do I have that my words will be heard?

2. Respond to the Word; do not just react to others

Luther studied the Bible, and protested because the Church was profiting from people’s fears, not delivering Good News to them. Faith-based protests are more powerful, I believe, the more we frame them with the powerful story of God’s action through Jesus. For example, we do not simply object to an assault on the dignity of people with disabilities or women or Muslim people because it is not “politically correct,” or even because it is not kind. We object because our creation stories describe every human being as being created in the image of God. We object because when we baptize, we echo the God-given identity of beloved children of God spoken to each of us, as at Jesus’ baptism. Of course we are appalled by hate speech. But how much stronger our protests are when we speak with an entire faith tradition behind us!

3. Reading, Writing, Translating

Luther spent a lot of time during those Reformation years reading the Bible, translating it into the vernacular, and writing commentary. The revolutionary thoughts that came from his pen shook the power structure and changed so many people’s lives. Reading life-giving sources allows the convictions I will express to not be about me. I know that I especially need to fill my reading list with authors from marginalized groups, to push my own self-understanding and my place in the continuing struggle for equality. I need to understand more about “intersectionality” from those who live it. Writing and re-reading will allow me the space to process, organize and clarify my reasons for protesting. Journaling or blogging can do the same for anyone. As for “translating,” that’s the work we all must do to make our protests accessible and understandable to others whose experience may be so different from ours it is as if we speak different languages.

4. Standing Firm

Doing the work above, repeatedly, is what I believe will strengthen progressive Protestants to take a stand in the face of threats. When Martin Luther was called before the Holy Roman Emperor and expected to recant his teachings, he could not. We must cultivate the absolute conviction that people of faith can do nothing other than to stand against bigotry and assaults on the most vulnerable among us. Ultimately we need the firm conviction that “my” protest isn’t about me, but about “us.”

 

Amplifying

A Facebook friend shared a post by a young woman of color, talking about her perspective on the women’s marches. My friend shared it just saying, “Amplifying”. She was putting a voice that was not her own in front of people who might not otherwise hear it, because she recognized it mattered. My friend’s witness was that her own words are not always what are needed, but her privilege can be used to amplify someone else’s voice within her sphere of influence. It’s a testimony to God at work in the world. I think that action, “amplifying,” could be the guiding principle for ministry with young adults on either a congregational or regional level.

Why? First, because this is what we believe and espouse in all mission: God is already present and working in people’s lives, before the Church arrives on the scene. For example, in global mission, our church only sends people overseas at the invitation of local people, to bring specific needed skills, but always in a posture of “accompaniment.” That means we don’t come holding answers or demanding leadership. We don’t arrive to give incentives (bribe) people to participate in our church. We arrive as inter-dependent guests, with much to learn alongside what we have to offer. Why should our approach to ministry with young adults be different than this humble attitude of accompaniment?

Second, I believe the purpose of “amplifying” is most needed because there is such suspicion of the Church’s motivation for outreach. It is well-documented that mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. are declining in some significant ways. Are we interested in “young adults” or others joining so that they can perpetuate our churches? Or do we truly want to be in relationship, which means we will be changed? We can try any number of tactics to “bring people in” but if the object is always assimilation, they will smell the hypocrisy of that before they get in the door. Others have written thought-provokingly about this, such as this Evangelical young adult: http://faithit.com/12-reasons-millennials-over-church-sam-eaton/.

Instead of creating church programs (like an older version of youth group) we think might attract young adults then trying to recruit them, “amplifying” what Millenials are already doing in the world would be the opposite course of action. Here are some ways to do that:

  1. Acknowledge that young adults are passionate, just not particularly about church. Get into what they are passionate about in the community, because WE as a church want to be changed by them! This would take some detective work out in the community, a good exercise for all church folk, but if it is important enough to us, maybe even the dedicated time of a staff person. Then, we can use some practical theology when we explain to each other how we see God working through a group, project or individual whose words or actions we want to “amplify”.

An example: Eat for Equity! This movement within several satellite cities brings volunteers together to make a meal related to a grassroots non-profit that is working for good in the world. People show up, toss in $10-15, eat, socialize with others who care about such things, and at some point during the evening hear about the benefit organization. Actually, Eat for Equity is all about amplifying, but doing it in a nourishing, low-commitment, way: individual events. A church could do an E4E-like ministry on their own! eatforequity.org

2. Catalogue the assets we as a Church have to offer: network of churches, education, organizational skills, connections, money, public spaces. To empty ourselves like Christ, in order to be inhabited by God’s Holy Spirit, we can think about giving up our space for art exhibitions and performances and our lawns for community gardens. What organizations or community groups already do these things well, and how can we amplify and support them? If we are not trying to entice more members, but to be changed ourselves through an encounter with God working in our midst, then we need to actively invite active groups to use our space, then be present, involved and hospitable to the hilt!

3. Entrepreneurs and Creativity: What is anyone interested in/concerned about/trying to start up that exemplifies God working in the world, and how might we amplify that so that the thousands of people associated with our congregations and their networks might have contact with something/someone they might otherwise never encounter? Can we publish a list of businesses owned by people of color or immigrants, to be explicit about supporting those who are targets of hate crimes? What if we hosted regional “TED Talk” – like conferences, highlighting how God is working through all the contributions and thoughts of the people who live here, for the betterment of our community?

4. Talk about things that really matter. People’s minds only change in ways that really matter through relationships. Congregations are some of the few remaining inter-generational public associations where one common commitment (to Jesus) brings together people who have not much else in common. We have to become known as people who call out bigotry, declare war on poverty, salvage the earth and strive to live intentionally through even our daily choices. We are going to need guides and teachers in those honest conversations, because sometimes in the Church we have been more invested in being pleasant than being honest. We would have to leave behind the right to feel fragile or defensive about what we have “done and left undone,” but asking the generation that has grown up accepting diversity to make our churches honest about our own past and present might just be a way for us into the future.

I could see the same approach for reaching out to a community of color not already present in our churches…

I’m just getting the ball rolling here, and would love to see where this kind of thinking could lead!

“Challenge Us” Pulpit Supply

Last summer I did a short-term pastor gig, bridging the time between an interim who had to leave on a specific date and the new called pastor. My first Sunday was the week after the Orlando night club shootings, followed too quickly by the police shooting of Philando Castile, in our own metro area on July 6th. I was temporary, and had a lot of vehemence built up from not preaching in awhile, so the congregation got everything I had in those sermons. I felt the freedom of being an outsider, and in a way representing my urban neighborhood in a very different context. After the first sermon, which I have posted on this blog (“Demonizing the Other”), I had a phone call just letting me know that they hadn’t ever really addressed what the caller referred to as “the homosexuality issue” at this congregation, but knew they needed to, so a few people were upset. Okay. On my final Sunday, the Council President included in her farewell: “Pastor Lee Ann, you have certainly challenged us! And we hope you will come back and do it again.” It felt like I was the right preacher for the right time.

On the one hand, we claim that with the trust of the congregation, pastors who care for their parishioners well will be best able to change their hearts and minds when necessary. On the other hand, there is a lot of safe preaching (I admit to it too) because you love your people, are tired of griping, or don’t want to start something when there is already enough conflict. Even if the Holy Spirit and/or the news are prompting you: “We must address this!” There must be Lutheran or Methodist or Presbyterian congregations where the preacher is expected to agitate and unsettle the congregation, and those are probably already branded in our area as “social justice” churches. But I’d wager a guess that the vast majority have some topics they know they should crack open, but haven’t.

So here’s an idea: All pastors get some Sundays off, and require substitutes (we call that “pulpit supply”). What if pastors in the metro area knew of a list of challenging preachers who could say what needs to be said, to open or support on-going conversations which the called pastor may not -for whatever reason – choose to do alone. What if such a list not only included preachers who can speak personally about the impact of ministry in the midst of said issue, but BY THEIR PRESENCE make a point. In some churches, this could be the first experience with an LGBTQ Lutheran preacher, or first theological conversation about racism with an African-American Lutheran preacher or only firsthand account by a preacher who has worked directly with refugees. A “Challenge Us Pulpit Supply” list could support pastors in congregations, and give a wider audience to preachers who might serve in specialized ministries (or are otherwise available during Sunday mornings). It should definitely be handled with consultation beforehand to understand the congregation’s limits and needs for challenge, but the freedom of preaching in the regular pastor’s absence could open a can of worms in a very good way!