Each year for the Augsburg Youth Theology Institute, daily themes are chosen that are grounded in a biblical text. During the months of training and preparation for the Institute, the college mentors engage in theological reflection as a team and dig deeper into the biblical texts together. Through their leadership development with staff and the Institute chaplain, they read, plan, write, and eventually lead daily devotions for participants using these verses. The following themes and verses are now this year’s devotions.
Thank you to Pastor John Schwehn and Pastoral Intern Tori Remer for their guidance and support as mentors prepared to write these devotions. The hours of conversation, prayer, theological reflection, and support that were given throughout the process is gratefully appreciated. We are proud of our college mentors and their work this spring.
AYTI offers these themes and devotions for use by our partners. All credit should be given to the Augsburg Youth Theology Institute when using this material. Thank you.
MISSION OF AYTI
The Augsburg Youth Theology Institute (AYTI) inspires emerging high school theologians to observe, interpret, and engage their world through Christ for the sake of their neighbor. Our participants learn how to reflect theologically on culture and find meaningful ways to respond to the call from God that happens in this process of reflection.
To achieve this, we provide an intense, one-week residential experience with a new theme every year. Students read theological texts and experience a college classroom, participate in worship, explore diverse community-based learning, and have intentional small group conversations led by college mentors. Following their week on campus, students write a theological paper on the theme and their paper is published in a journal to be shared with congregations and the wider community. www.augsburg.edu/ayti
I was asked to write a blog post this week for the Riverside Innovation Hub that would introduce a series we are calling “Front Porch Stories.” This series will highlight stories from neighborhoods near and far where congregations are creating, cultivating or entering into front porch places where neighbors meet neighbors. Places where curiosity can be nurtured, stories can be shared, and simple connections can spark new relationships. Places where new life and new hope might have some room to take root.
However, I’m struggling to have imagination for new life and hope today. Instead, death and hopelessness are crowding my heart and my mind, just as they are saturating our communities near and far – our schools, our corner grocery stores, our city blocks…
Today, as I write, marks the 2 year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder in the neighborhood of Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, MN. His sacred life – like countless black and brown bodies before and after him – senselessly taken by uninhibited police violence.
Today, as I write, dozens of parents in the neighborhood of Uvalde, Texas have woken up to the first morning of the rest of their lives without their children. Young, beautiful, holy lives whose bodies and futures were destroyed with bullets and brutality.
Today, as I write, families and loved ones in Buffalo, New York prepare to bury their beloved elders, family members and friends. Ten cherished human beings who were targeted, terrorized and massacred by a young man embodying the violent evil lies of white supremacy ideology.
Today, my heart fears that the front porches are too few and that their power to overcome the constant waves of violence and grief are insufficient.
We talk about sowing seeds of love, connection, justice, mercy, and hope. Yet the seeds of violence, evil, hatred and fear have been nurtured far too well for far too long in our places. The two young 18 year old men and their evil ambitious destruction, reflect an ugly truth about the state of our humanity today. The systems tasked with stewarding our public safety reveal the deep roots of a harmful belief that some lives don’t matter. The seeds we have sown are breeding unimaginable violence and yet it’s completely imaginable because of how regularly it visits us.
While we wait for the Minnesota landscape to more fully thaw out this chilly spring, let me share a memory with you from a much warmer spring day several years ago…
My precocious three-year-old daughter and I were en route between errands, stopping for a quick cup of coffee and goodies, when Marie spotted a giant dragonfly on the sidewalk. We squatted down to investigate. I cautioned her to move slowly so we didn’t scare it away, but her sticky little fingers were already reaching out to touch the creature. It didn’t move.
“Mommy, what’s wrong?”
“Oh honey, it looks like it’s dead. See the owie?” I said, pointing at its mis-shaped and slightly oozy side of head.
“I don’t know sweetie. But look how beautiful it is. Look at its lacy wings, look at the bright colors on its body.”
“I like its wings.” She paused….“What will it do now?”
“Well, maybe a momma bird will pick it up and feed it to its baby birds so they can grow big and learn to fly.” I picked up the dragonfly and placed it in the grassy median nearby. I continued, “Or it will go back to nature in the grass here and make the dirt healthy so plants can grow.”
“Oh, so it will come back alive?”
I paused…. “Yes. It will. Just in a different way.”
Thanks to Marie’s discovery and observations of the dead dragonfly several years ago, I now find my senses awakened anytime I see a dragonfly. Spotting the black and white iridescent wings of the 12 spotted skimmer or the vibrant green stick body of the ebony jewel wing stirs a hint of exhilaration within me. These sightings have become small but holy moments. They point me back to the complexity and simplicity of Marie’s interpretation of the promise of life present in the dead, lifeless body of that dragonfly.
While our chilly Minnesota winter hasn’t made room for any visits yet from these fascinating flighted creatures, they have been on mind this Easter.
To be candid, Easter has always been uncomfortable for me. Back in my youth ministry days, that mostly had to do with the fact that I’d start my Easter Sunday at 6:00am in the church kitchen preparing food with sleepy students for our church’s Easter breakfast youth fundraiser. But over the last few years, I’ve simply struggled to connect with the joyful celebration of Easter worship. The Hallelujah chorus and triumphant shouts that “Christ has risen indeed!” have landed flat for me. Disingenuous seems too harsh of a label, but something has remained amiss for me with the Easter proclamation when life around me – or rather the devaluing of it – seems to reflect something far from the truth of this promise.
The Augsburg Youth Theology Institute (AYTI) is one of the many initiatives of the Christensen Center for Vocation. AYTI inspires emerging high school theologians to observe, interpret, and engage their world through Christ for the sake of their neighbor. Our participants learn how to reflect theologically on culture and find meaningful ways to respond to the call from God that happens in this process of reflection. Following their week at the institute, students write a theological paper on the theme that is compiled into a journal and shared with congregations and the wider community.
At the end of June we wrapped up the 2021 institute, and it was incredible! So many amazing young people were excited about our theme, And It Was Very Good: Affirming and Advocating for Gender and Sexual Diversity in God’s Creation. We welcomed instructor Deacon Ross Murray to guide us through a week of curriculum that focused on faithful advocacy that allows LGBTQ people to be full members of society, reading the bible through a queer lens, assessing our congregations using the Reconciling Works Building an Inclusive Church tools, and telling compelling personal stories rooted in theology. Our young people engaged in deep discussion, thoughtful reflection, and learned what it means to be a young theologian.
Our research shows that young adults do not like to be ‘targeted.’ We are fairly certain innovation, theologically understood, is not the creation of new, shiny programs intended to ‘attract’ young adults back to church. We think innovation has more to do with faith communities stepping into vocational discernment in partnership with young adults and their neighborhood. This means getting out of comfort zones, moving into the neighborhood to actively listen to/respond to the neighbors’ story, engaging young adults in this contextual learning work AND trusting that God has a new thing for us and our neighbor in this work.
Below is a collection of blogs written by Hub staff to help congregations and innovation teams gain better understanding of the Public Church Framework. More blogs will be added on this page as Phase Two of our project unfold. We try our best to respond to the needs/challenges of our partner faith communities by providing useful, relevant resources.
The Riverside Innovation Hub is convinced of two things.
First, we are fairly certain young adults do not want to be targeted by efforts to win them back to church. They would much rather be participants and leaders in efforts to target pressing issues impacting their neighborhoods and the globe.
Second, we are fairly certain innovation, theologically understood, is not the creation of new, shiny programs. Rather, it is best understood as vocation. It is that thing that happens at the intersection where we are simultaneously aware of our neighbors’ deep desires, our deep desires, and God’s deep desires. Innovation happens when we are responsive to God’s call to be in life-giving relationships with and for our neighbor. We believe the Public Church Framework offers us an effective way to engage young adults — and all people — in that life-giving work.
This document seeks to explain the Public Church Framework and the biblical imagination that serves as its engine, specifically Ezekiel’s vision of God’s abundance.
The Public Church Framework
The Public Church Framework is based upon three presuppositions. First, the Triune God is present and active in our world working to create a future for God’s creation. Second, God calls God’s people to join God in this work of co-creating a future for God’s creation out in the world. Third, most — but not all — of these places where this work happens are places of suffering. Douglas John Hall defines the practice of theology as the work a Christian community takes on when it is seeking to proclaim good news that will actually displace bad news, or suffering. He says,
“Theology is that ongoing activity of the whole church that aims at clarifying what ‘gospel’ must mean here and now. . . The good news is good because it challenges and displaces bad news . . . Gospel addresses us at the place where we are overwhelmed by an awareness . . . of what is wrong with the world and with ourselves in it. It is good news because it engages, takes on and does battle with the bad news, offering another alternative, another vision of what could be, another way into the future.”1
Displacement does not always mean elimination, but it does always mean the suffering no longer has center stage, it is now accompanied and challenged by a hope which changes the nature of the suffering. Therefore, the Christian community’s call is to proclaim good news that challenges bad news, simultaneously discerning and proclaiming both incarnation and vocation — how God is at work in the world and how individuals, faith communities, and institutions are called into this work.
The Public Church Framework is a method for doing this work. It is descriptive rather than prescriptive in that it describes a natural rhythm or method many undertake when aiming to clarify “what gospel must mean here and now.” It is an approach to Christian formation and discipleship that begins with a movement out into the public square rather than beginning in church doctrine. The framework walks faith communities through four movements, or artforms, designed to move the faith community into their neighborhood’s story, into God’s story, into their own story, and into a time of discerning how God might be calling them to be proclaimers of good news into their neighborhood and with their neighbor. These artforms include:
Accompaniment: The movement into the neighborhood in order to hear the neighbors’ stories. In this movement we learn to engage and listen to the neighbor for the neighbor’s sake.
Interpretation: The movement into God’s story and the faith community’s core biblical and theological commitments. In this movement we learn how our core theological commitments shape our understanding of our neighbors’ stories and we learn how our neighbors’ stories shape our understanding of our core theological commitments.
Discernment: The movement into the space between our neighbors’ stories, God’s story, and our story. In this movement we learn how to listen for who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do in light of the present reality and God’s promises.
Proclamation: The movement back into the neighborhood, this time prepared to proclaim good news in word and deed with our neighbors. In this movement we learn how to boldly speak the truth of Jesus Christ in ways that challenge the way people in our neighborhoods are suffering.
We believe the good news is always Jesus Christ, but we also believe this good news of Jesus Christ will look and sound differently depending upon how individuals and neighborhoods are experiencing bad news. Young people, actually all people, will be drawn to a faith community actively engaged in proclaiming good news and challenging bad news in its neighborhood. The Riverside Innovation Hub’s Innovation Coaches will be guiding faith communities through the artforms of the Public Church Framework. Ezekiel’s vision of the abundance of God’s creative love as it flows away from the temple provides us a compelling image for this work.
Ezekiel’s Vision (Ezekiel 47:1–12, NRSV)
1 Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple towards the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. 2 Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me round on the outside to the outer gate that faces towards the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.
3 Going on eastwards with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. 4 Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. 5 Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. 6 He said to me, ‘Mortal, have you seen this?’
Then he led me back along the bank of the river. 7 As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on one side and on the other. 8 He said to me, ‘This water flows towards the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. 9 Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. 10 People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. 11 But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. 12 On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.’
Ezekiel had trained to be a priest in the temple but ends up living his adult life in Babylon, exiled around 598–597 B.C.E. In 589 B.C.E. he receives word the temple and all of Jerusalem have been destroyed. True to the Hebrew prophetic tradition, Ezekiel sees the destruction of the temple as a direct result of the peoples’ unfaithfulness. Therefore, he begins to share these visions as he prophesies against the temple, but it is a vision and a prophecy of hope, not despair. In this vision, Ezekiel encounters an enigmatic figure who, after touring him through the temple, takes him beyond the walls of the temple in order to show him exactly what happens in those places where the water flows when it leaves the temple. Many biblical scholars connect this river in Ezekiel’s vision to the river that wells up and waters the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:8–14. The temple cannot contain God’s creative force. In turn, the temple becomes a source of blessing for the entire land, rather than a fixture intended to serve its own purpose.2
In a move very similar to Hall’s understanding of good news as that which challenges bad news, Elsa Tamez claims the river in Ezekiel’s vision to be a metaphor for God’s jubilee. A jubilee that can only be proclaimed if it becomes specific in ending actual suffering.
“When one speaks of the jubilee, it is essential to have before one the concrete situation that one is experiencing: debts, poverty, unemployment, violence, discrimination, exclusion, conflicts, sorrow, dehumanizing consumerism, the lethargy of the churches. For the jubilee is the good news that supposedly puts an end to that reality of suffering and dehumanization. . . If we speak of jubilee in a generic sense, the injustice is hidden, and the jubilee loses its power and ceases to be jubilee.”3
Therefore, Ezekiel’s vision becomes an invitation to follow God’s jubilee as it flows into the world and and makes everything live where it flows. The Public Church Framework provides faith communities with a way to do this, to become blessings for the entire land on which they are rooted rather than existing to serve their own purpose. We are Ezekiel, following the enigmatic divine tour guide along the river as we learn to see the breadth and depth of God’s love flowing away from the temple and into the world.
Accompaniment: Mortal, Have You Seen This? (vs. 1–6a) — The river flows out from the temple and towards the desolate places. We are called out of our temples and our comfort zones to follow this river and to stop and notice how wide and deep it becomes. As we hear our neighbors’ stories, we become aware of how God’s deep and wide love and mercy are at work in their lives. We learn to hear and see so that when we are asked this question – Mortal, have you seen this? – we can answer with a yes. Accompaniment is the practice of learning to see and hear God’s love bringing life to our world.
Interpretation: The Water Will Become Fresh (vs. 6b–8) — As the jubilee river flows it brings fresh water into salt water. This fresh water desalinates the salt water and makes it fresh. The jubilee water dwells in, with, and under the salt water and makes it able to support and create life. The same happens to us as the stream of God’s story flows into the streams of our stories and our neighbors’ stories. God’s story begins to dwell in, with, and under our stories and our realities. This brings hope to stories that were at one time hopeless. Interpretation is the practice of learning how God’s promises (the fresh water) change the way we look at suffering in our world (salt water) and how those sufferings change the way we look at God’s promises.
Discernment: Fishing and Spreading Nets (v. 9–11)—The living water brings about diversity and abundance. The fishing is good along this riverside. We have now seen the fullness of this river and we now have some choices to make. Is it time to fish? Is it time to dry our nets? Is this a place to fish? Is this a place to gather salt? There is work to be done along this riverside and we are invited and equipped to do it. Discernment is the practice of learning to hear God’s call and to know when, where, how and why to act on that call.
Proclamation: Fruit for Food, Leaves for Healing (v. 12) — Ezekiel walks the riverside and notices the trees on both sides of the river and the harvest they produce. The trees are growing fruit for food and leaves for healing. The gifts of these trees create a future for God’s people. These trees do not only produce seeds that ensure the future of the trees themselves, they produce leaves and fruit for the world. Proclamation is the practice of producing and presenting our world with our gifts for the sake of the world, not for the sake of our own propagation. Christian faith communities re-engage their neighborhoods with fruit for food and leaves for healing — gifts to be given away that create a future for God’s people.
God’s creative, life-giving, jubilee river flows out from the temple and into the world. Our call is not to damn up the river and keep it in the temple. Our call is not to expect our neighbors to come to the temple to experience the life giving water of the river. Our call is to follow the river as it deepens and widens and makes all things live. As we learn to do this — to see, to fish, to spread nets, to grow and harvest fruit for food and leaves for healing — we will find ourselves in the midst of innovation. Our innovation will be the work of co-creating a future for God’s world with God and our neighbor along the riverside. Our young adults will be drawn to this work. They are not looking for the temple, but they surely are seeking what they can find at the riverside. They are looking for others who are eager to bring the fruit for food and the leaves for healing to their neighbors.
Which of the four artforms gets you most excited? Why? Which one do you think your faith community will struggle with the most? Which one do you think your faith community will have the easiest time putting into practice?
What are some examples of how your faith community is currently proclaiming good news that challenges the bad news of your neighborhood? What are some examples of where your faith community has failed to challenge particular bad news in your neighborhood? Where is there good news happening in your neighborhood beyond the current reach of your faith community?
What part of the Ezekiel text do you find most inspiring? Where do you have a hard time connecting with it or understanding it?
What would it look like for your faith community to follow the river of God’s living water out into the neighborhood away from the church building? Who are the guides that might accompany you on that journey? What might happen?
1Douglas John Hall, “What Is Theology?” Cross Currents 53, 2 (2003): 177–179.
2Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel. Vol. 20–48 . Word Biblical Commentary, V. 29. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2016).
3Elsa Tamez, “Dreaming from exile: a rereading of Ezekiel 47:1–12,” In Liberating eschatology: essays in honor of Letty M Russell, ed. Margaret Farley, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 69.
Curious about the experience of Auggies who have been involved in theological exploration of vocation? The summer 2014 Augsburg Now magazine features an article about previous Christensen and Interfaith Scholars, Faithful and Relevant.
Augsburg College hosted Seminary and Divinity School Day on October 28. This event allows regional college students to connect, reflect, and explore theological graduate study options with representatives from 18 top-notch seminaries and divinity schools.
Martha E. Stortz, Bernhard M. Christensen Professor of Religion and Vocation, gave the keynote address at the event.