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Interview with Adjunct Religion Instructor and Author: Chris Stedman

Quote from The Velveteen Rabbit by Marjery Williams

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Reconnection

As we sink deeper into our June theme of RECONNECTION, we are excited to share the great privilege we have at Augsburg University to stay connected with incredible people like Chris Stedman (he/him/his). Chris is a 2008 graduate from Augsburg and is now a writer, activist, and professor who currently teaches in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, MN. 

chrisstedman
Picture of author Chris Stedman

He is also the creator, writer, and host of Unread, named one of the best podcasts of 2021 by the Guardian, Vulture, HuffPost, Mashable, and the CBC. Additionally, Chris is the author of IRL (2020) and Faitheist (2012) and has written popular essays for outlets including the Atlantic, Pitchfork, BuzzFeed, VICE, and the Washington Post. Previously the founding director of the Yale Humanist Community, he also served as a humanist chaplain at Harvard University and a trainer and content developer for Interfaith Youth Core, he has most recently served as an Interfaith Fellow with the Interfaith at Augsburg center. 

In Chris’ most recent book, “IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives” – which will be coming out in a new edition this August – we are invited to get curious about what it means to have connected lives both in real time and online. For so long, online sharing was seen as shallow and disconnected from truth and honesty. Chris invites readers into the possibility that we can find connection in those spaces and that through that experience we might experience fuller reconnection in our real lives. 

We caught up with Chris and asked him a few questions about his book and the concept of reconnection. Thanks so much Chris for sharing your wisdom and insight.

Interview with Chris

WHAT DO THE IDEAS CONNECTION & RECONNECTION MEAN TO YOU? 

We’ve spent the last few years navigating what has been, for most of us, an entirely unfamiliar landscape when it comes to connection, disconnection, and reconnection. 

In the early days of the pandemic, for example, I was working from home and living alone, so for the first time in my life all of my interactions were digitally mediated. Though I’m probably more online than the average person, it’s impossible to overstate what an immense shift this was. It gave me more of an appreciation for the internet’s ability to connect us in unprecedented ways, but also of its limitations, and our need to not only connect but also disconnect.

Even before the pandemic arrived, we lived in an age of constant connection, where we spend more and more time on digital platforms designed to monopolize our attention. Because of this, we have to be intentional about taking a step back from them sometimes—not because life online is inherently fake or inherently harmful, as some argue, but because we need the kind of perspective we can only get when we’re alone.

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Launching the V-Portfolio: Why Vocation is Important By Jon Bates

I just about thought that I knew all that I needed to know about the term vocation as I began my role as the V-Portfolio Coordinator with the Christensen Center for Vocation. Turns out, the more I’ve worked on the V-Portfolio, the more I have realized how helpful being precise about what vocation is, intentional of discerning one’s own vocation, and being honest with yourself is for me and for students of Augsburg University.

Screenshot of home page of the V-portfolio website. Image of a car off-roading in the wilderness with text below explaining what the V-Portfolio is. With my role as the V-Portfolio Coordinator, I have been furthering the work of the V-Portfolio alongside the directors with the centers of commitment at Augsburg University; the Sabo Center, Strommen Center, Center for Global Education & Experience, and the Christensen Center for Vocation. The V-Portfolio is essentially an online E-Portfolio but with a foundation of using vocation as the grounding for students, hence the title, Vocation Portfolio. 

 

Within the updated V-Portfolio website students are introduced or reintroduced to the term vocation, as it is defined as, “the way you are equipped, empowered, called, and driven to make our world a better place for all living things.” Colloquially vocation has been coined as a term that means the type of career or lifestyle one aspires to have. Vocation is something that happens in the future and begins with the individual. The V-Portfolio offers a different definition of vocation. As through the V-Portfolio, vocation is framed to focus on the present and is in response to the world, the neighbor. This is important work as our vocation is compelled to move because of the neighbor and that we get to decide how to respond using our own gifts, knowledge, and talents.

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Little Things are Big Things by Ellen Weber

This winter was long. April felt like an extended March. There is a whole lot of beauty in the winter and the cold can be hard on our bodies. In the midst of the cold, snow and rain, the last week of April if one paid attention, the green began to emerge. The tulips that I planted last fall began to sprout and I could see bursts of green in the mixture ofTulip leaves sprouting up from the brown ground. brown surrounding my house. I woke up to birds chirping out my window and watched squirrels dig up their nuts for nourishment that they had planted last fall. 

I am an amateur gardener who definitely has lots to learn, but continues to show up in March to plant my own seeds knowing that not all of them will survive. During this Easter season of new life and resurrection, I am trying to pay extra attention to what around me needs nourishing. Which seedlings need water, sunlight, more space or coffee grounds added to the soil? When my tomato seedlings grow too leggy, I adapt by replanting them so the stems are fully supported and the plant can focus on rooting down to allow it to rise up. When my broccoli seedlings are too leggy, after googling why that might be, I realize that they are too warm.  In response, I make a shift so that they are no longer under the humidity dome. Each seedling needs something different in order to grow and eventually bear fruit.   Continue reading “Little Things are Big Things by Ellen Weber”

Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action

The following contribution is shared by Dr. Mary Lowe, religion professor at Augsburg and member of the task force and writing team for the ELCA’s new congregational study guide to accompany the ELCA’s social statement, Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action.

The ELCA’s 2019 social statement, Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action provides a powerful framework for gender justice work in the church. “Because we rely on God as a God of promise, this church speaks about sexism and the harm it causes for all people,” says the statement in its introduction. “Those who support gender justice are intent on righting gender-based wrongs that prevent the abundant and flourishing life God intends.”

Cover Image of "Faith, Sexism and Justice: A Call to Action stude guide"This historic document draws on the richness of the Lutheran theological tradition. Four primary themes are woven throughout the statement. God desires abundant life for all. Sin subverts human flourishing in many ways—especially the sins of sexism and patriarchy. The Christian tradition holds challenges and resources for resisting sexism. And the ELCA calls for justice and action to foster flourishing in the church and in society.

You can read the full statement here.

Now a new ELCA study guide makes the 80-page document more accessible for individuals, congregations, students, organizations, and faith leaders as they pursue equity for women and girls. It features six flexible sessions that can be customized for in-person gatherings, virtual discussions, or interactive virtual meetings. Each session incorporates hymns, prayers, videos, engaging activities, and invitations to live out the social statement’s call to gender justice in the world.

You can access the study guide for Faith, Sexism, and Justice in the button below.

Study Guide for Faith, Sexism, and Justice

Continue reading “Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action”

Join us for the Bernhard M. Christensen Symposium

Augsburg University’s Christensen Symposium will feature the esteemed Dr. Brian Bantum next week, Oct. 5 from 11:00am-12:00pm. Please join us either in the Hoversten Chapel at Augsburg or via livestream (register to attend online through this link.) His talk is titled, “All Things Are New: The Language of Our Life in the Face of Empire.”
Brian Bantum, PhD, writes, speaks, and teaches on identity, racial imagination, creating spaces of justice, and the intersection of theology and embodiment for audiences around the United States. He is a  contributing editor of The Christian Century and is the author of “Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity,” “The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial  World,”  and  “Choosing Us: Marriage and Mutual Flourishing in a World of Difference,” which he co-authored with his spouse, Gail Song Bantum.

Reflections on White Supremacy Culture Characteristics

This reflection has been written by Amanda Vetsch who works as the Congregational Coordinator of the Riverside Innovation Hub and has recently completed her Master’s theses which focused on dismantling white supremacy, the church, and Lutheran theology. 

A blank pad of paper with three pens lays on top on a laptop computer. The computer rests on a table top with more pens in a holder to the right side.The staff of the Riverside Innovation Hub have recently spent time reflecting on the list of “White Supremacy Culture Characteristics” written by Tema Okun to better understand how the characteristics of White Supremacy show up in ourselves, our initiatives, communities, and institutions. Some of the staff attended a webinar co-hosted by Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and Tema Okun to mark the 20th anniversary of this list and to begin the launch of new website and updates to the list of characteristics of white supremacy. 

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Thriving Congregations: Collaboration and Project Descriptions

Collaboration

The Minneapolis Area Synod (MAS) and Augsburg University’s Riverside Innovation Hub are both launching opportunities for congregations to be a part of a two-year learning community. These opportunities are both funded by the Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations grant. 

Lilly Endowment Inc logo with organization name belowThe two initiatives will work in parallel for the five years of the grant. The hope is to learn with, beside, and from each other during the two, two-year cycles with distinct cohorts of congregational leaders. Both opportunities are for congregations interested in pursuing or deepening an orientation in their particular place, in relationship with the neighbor and neighborhood, leaning into God’s promises and challenges and that meet us there. The promotion and application processes are collaborative, through co-hosting information sessions and a shared application for congregations. More details on information sessions and the application will be released soon. 

Each learning community will have two, two-year cycles of learning cohorts, composed of multiple congregations. The cohorts will be coached or facilitated by a staff member at each respective organization. Both learning communities will learn from and with each other, with shared learning Summits in the second year of each cycle of learning cohorts.  

PROJECT DESCRIPTIONS

RIVERSIDE INNOVATION HUB (RIH)

graphic design of three wavy lines followed by the word riverside. below are the words innovation hub in black.The Riverside Innovation Hub, stewarded by the Christensen Center for Vocation at Augsburg University, will learn and experiment with the Public Church Framework as a method for place based vocational discernment in the public square for the common good. This new opportunity is an invitation to congregations interested in pursuing or deepening this same orientation in their particular place, in relationship with the neighbor and neighborhood, leaning into God’s promises and challenges that meet us there.  The first learning community runs July 2021 – July 2023 and the second learning community runs September 2023 – September 2025.

This project is open to all Christian denominations within an hour of the Twin Cities Metro Area. Congregations outside this geographic area may apply but should know their experience in the project may differ slightly.  Participation in the learning community will include bringing teams to Augsburg’s campus 3-4 times a year (as COVID-19 allows.)

MINNEAPOLIS AREA SYNOD (MAS)

logo - five colored circle above the words Minneapolis area synod of the ELCANeighboring Practices and Faith Practices, stewarded by the Minneapolis Area Synod, will focus on faith practices and neighboring practices, because congregations connect best with their neighborhood when they practice their faith and they see with new eyes that God is already at work in their neighborhood. The first learning community runs September 2021 – 2023 and the second learning community runs September 2023 – September 2025.

The MAS project is open to all Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) within the geographic boundaries of the Minneapolis Area Synod and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregations within Minnesota.

 

Thriving Congregations: PDF Handout 

Application Timeline

  1. There is a joint application process for both projects that will be released on Feb. 3, 2021.
  2. A letter of intent from the senior pastor is requested beginning March 1, 2021.
  3. The deadline for submitting the completed joint application is April 15, 2021.
  4. Selected congregations will be notified on May 15, 2021 and have until May 28, 2021 to accept the invitation.
  5. The first RIH learning community runs from July 2021 – July 2023. The  first MAS learning community runs from September 2021 – September 2023.

Stay tuned for more details on the information session and application process. If you have any additional questions, you can reach out to Amanda Vetsch with RIH (vetsch@augsburg.edu), Kristina Fruge with RIH (frugek@augsburg.edu), or John Hulden with MAS (j.hulden@mpls-synod.org)

Public Ministry in a Pandemic

by Jeremy Myers

By most measures, it was a typical Wednesday morning commute. Coffee in the cupholder, slow traffic, radio tuned to NPR, brain wandering and wondering if it is ready for the day. But this day was not a normal day. Local government officials were beginning to encourage us to practice social distancing, diligent hand-washing, and no face-touching. It was the third Wednesday of Lent and I was rehearsing my sermon for that evening in my head. My colleague and I had been invited to preach a 5-week Lenten sermon series on the Public Church at a local church. I was in the middle of a thought – reminding myself NOT to crack any inappropriate jokes about the pandemic during the sermon – when I noticed a crowd gathered on the overpass.

older man sits alone in the pews of a church

The Saint Paul Federation of Educators (St. Paul Public School’s teachers’ union) had just begun their strike and they were demonstrating on every overpass that crossed Interstate 35E and Interstate 94 in Saint Paul. I honked to show my support as I drove under the bridge. Then it hit me. These teachers are beginning their necessary strike which will require public demonstrations.

How will they do this while honoring the call to social distancing? We will be preaching tonight, encouraging a congregation to move into their neighborhood as a public church. How will they do this while honoring the call to social distancing? It has been two months since that not-at-all-normal morning commute, and I think I have some things to say about how we live as a Public Church in a pandemic.

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God in the Present Tense: A Story of Unfolding Proclamation

Congregations in the Riverside Innovation Hub partnership have spent the better part of a year moving through the public church framework and taking stock of the learning and wonderings these experiences have generated. In the spring of 2019, teams submitted proposals for grant funds that outline their vision of the proclamation work they want to live into over the next two years. One of our innovation coaches, Baird Linke, shares the story of how this movement towards and into proclamation has and continues to unfold at New City Church.

Let’s hear it for the good news! Ten months gone by, and the churches connected to the Riverside Innovation Hub are preparing to put all their hard work and learning into implementing their grant applications! We are gathering to share our stories, to celebrate work well-done, and give thanks for the ways we have grown together. This is the stage in the Public Church Framework called proclamation, but it is not complete just by sharing the stories of the past year. Proclamation is not reporting—it does not live in the past-tense—to proclaim the good news is to invite others into the exciting “we know not what we will be” of what God is doing in the here and now. Proclamation is both remembering together where God’s been with us and joyfully participating in where God is going.

Team member gives presentation
New City presents their grant proposal to other RIH learning partners at the June 1st Learning Event.

I have worked with New City Church in Powderhorn-Phillips through this program, and I want to share their good news with you. New City Church is trying to do church in a new way (shocking, I know). The planters of New City recognize the complicity of mainline Christianity in the history of white supremacy, cis-heteronormativity, patriarchy, and environmental degradation. Their goal in planting the church was to counter that history with a model of church that centers marginalized voices. They do that by prioritizing the experiences of people of color, the environment, LGBTQ+ people, and women in the life of the church. They have grown quickly since starting out in a living room and have done so while talking explicitly about Jesus to a community that, by percentages, does not necessarily identify as Christian.

 

Their plan for the Innovation Hub grant is to use the resources for a new effort called

the Incarnation Fund that will connect people of color in the New City community to healing practices including somatic experiencing therapy, nature-based therapy, and spiritual direction. Participants will work in small cohorts to grow in community while, as individuals, work with practitioners of color on healing from trauma. New City believes that investing in individual healing makes communal healing possible. This vision hinges on a key belief that guides New City Church (and illustrates proclamation well): inward transformation leads to outward

transformation and vice-versa.

 

Many members of New City Church are already engaged in projects for outward transformation in the community. It is an activist church and the wealth of talents and community connections that New City holds was overwhelming at first. How could we choose just one cause to come behind, especially when there are already groups whose entire focus is on one of the many needs that New City cares about?

 

We realized that we needed to dig into New City’s young identity to find a use of the money that fit. We asked people about what value people found in New City and realized that it wasn’t that New City was doing the same justice work that the members are doing. People value New City because it gives them a place to root their work into a relationship with the divine and challenges people to learn how to be in a diverse community that centers marginalized voices. The community organizers didn’t need New City to be another organizer. The advocates didn’t need another advocate. They need a place where they can hear that they are not alone—that God is moving through a community with them. They are hungry for inward transformation.

 

A lot of resources have been spent over the last year on the inward transformation of white people in order to be in a racially diverse community where the cultural norms around white-body supremacy are broken down. That work has yielded huge dividends for the health of the New City community, and at the same time has dedicated time and energy into formation for white folks. Recognizing that disparity, New City wanted to balance the scales and use the Innovation Hub grant—the largest financial investment to come to New City outside of the Methodist church—to prioritize ministry for people of color. The Incarnation Fund took both of these needs we identified and aligned the creation of something new with the story of life that New City Church has been telling from the start.

 

The story of God is evolving and diversifying in different places and circumstances. Small changes in the genetic code result in wildly different forms of life, but it is all life. Our job in proclamation is to be spiritual ecologists, surveying the landscape for life in its abundance, celebrating old connections, new growth, and working to make that growth possible. The Incarnation Fund is rooted in this ecological vision of our communities—the healing of the whole is directly tied to the healing of the parts. The story of New City Church and the Incarnation Fund is just beginning, and it is one of many. I give thanks for the ways that God is moving in your hearts and communities, and I pray for courage and faith as you move forward sharing the good news you have heard and are a part of creating. Let’s hear it for the good news! Amen.

From Decision Making to Discernment

The following story is from Amanda Vetsch, one of RIH’s Innovation Coaches. She shares her team’s experiences with discernment at University Lutheran Church of Hope (ULCH.) ULCH is located in Dinkytown near the University of Minnesota campus. Their work this year has focused on the challenges and opportunities of being a church in meaningful relationships with young  neighbors who are experiencing frequent transition.

 

In theory, our idea was rooted in the intersection between God’s story, Our Story, and Neighbor’s story so it should have felt good, but we trusted our guts and realized that we had made plans and decisions. We hadn’t actually practiced discernment.

 

The Innovation Team at ULCH had a meeting to begin discerning their next most faithful steps in response to all that they had been hearing, seeing, and learning through the artforms of accompaniment and interpretation. The conversation began with a grounding reflection, responses to that reflection, and flowed into naming the main themes from the stories we’ve heard or learned about thus far. Then, we began to brainstorm the ways that we might respond to those stories and came up with a couple of ideas to write into the grant. We moved toward making a plan to write the grant and set some due dates for ourselves.

ULCH presents at June 1 event
Innovation Team members from University Lutheran Church of Hope share their proposed idea at the RIH June 1st Learning event.

 

There was very little enthusiasm to begin writing or researching. As the Innovation Coach, this concerned me. I want my team to be excited about the work they are being called into. I didn’t want to shut down their idea, but I did need to investigate why the energy was low. Maybe it had nothing to do with the grant idea and more to do with the post-lunchtime lull, or the busyness in their work or personal lives, or maybe it was me projecting my own ideas onto what I expected them to come up with for the grant. As all good coaches do, I sent out an evaluation form. The form asked questions like:

  • On a scale from 1 – 10, how much energy do you have when you think about the work of the Innovation team?
  • If we were to start ALL over at the beginning of this work, where would you focus the accompaniment energy?
  • If there were NO boundaries to money, energy, or anything, what would you do for the grant proposal?

 

These questions were strategic. I wanted to know why the energy seemed low at our meeting. I wanted to know if they felt content with the listening they had done thus far and I wanted to push them to dream a little bit bigger in a more anonymous form. We also had a few one to one conversations amongst ourselves and multiple folks self identified that the group energy was low.  In reflecting upon this meeting, one team member said, “I think we felt a certain pressure to produce something in that first meeting. So we were pushing ourselves to come up with a really tangible product, and I don’t think we felt like we had the freedom to say that we had more listening to do.”

 

On the surface this meeting went well, we talked about the things we were supposed to talk about, we reflected on what we had learned, and came up with an idea.  In theory, our idea was rooted in the intersection between God’s story, Our Story, and Neighbor’s story so it should have felt good, but we trusted our guts and realized that we had made plans and decisions. We hadn’t actually practiced discernment.  

 

Then, the question is how do we go from decision making to discernment? For the ULCH Innovation Team, it meant reconvening our team. This time we started by rooting ourselves in a reflection practice that pushed us away from the tendency to intellectualize and into dwelling in the embodied responses. We took thirty minutes at the beginning of the meeting to reflect, dwell in, and share the ways that we had felt the Spirit moving in this work. The specific question was, “During the artform of  (accompaniment / interpretation / discernment) , when did you feel most alive? Remember the specific moment. What did it feel like, sound like, smell like?”  Each person at the meeting had an opportunity to share their memory. In some ways, I’m sure this activity could have felt like a waste of time. We weren’t learning any new information and we weren’t following the action plan to complete the grant by the impending due date. Yet, we needed to take time to reflect in this way because it allowed us to reorient ourselves. We needed to shift out of the comfortable way of reflecting on our learnings as nuggets of information and into a reflection of experiences and awareness of where we sense God at work.

people recieve gift from innovaiton coach
ULCH team receives a gift from Innovation Coach, Amanda.

We challenged ourselves to dream a bit bigger. We tried to imagine a proposal idea that had no limitations to money, time or energy. This lead us to collectively realizing we didn’t have the information or experiences to represent what our neighborhood and congregation is dreaming about. So we dreamt up ways to begin to hear our neighbors’ and congregations’ dreams. In reflecting on the second discernment meeting, a team member said, “It was helpful to name the fears, or what feels risky. There’s a tendency to want to know beforehand that it’s all going to work as we plan it to. And we needed to be able to say, well it’s risky and it’s supposed to be.”

 

There is no magic formula for discernment. One of the biggest lessons we’re learning in this process is that discernment takes time and trust. There is a desire deeply ingrained in us to achieve and be productive, but discernment cannot happen when we focus on the product more than the process. A shift in rhythm has to happen and we have to trust that we have heard, experienced, seen, and felt God at work. For ULCH, this shift in rhythm means slowing down, giving ourselves permission to push back some due dates, and taking notice of where the energy is or isn’t so we can reorient our attention to where it is most needed. Being freed from expectations to produce a flashy new thing is allowing our team at ULCH to tend to relationships, stories, and life in our ever-changing neighborhood.