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Fear & Mercy

We were asked to preach a sermon series on the public church at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Roseville, MN during Lent. The remaining services have since been canceled to allow for social distancing. This sermon was the last sermon we preached on Wednesday March 11, 2020. We wanted to share it with you, our partners, because we think it speaks to the tension and anxiety we find ourselves ministering in these days. 

 

There is an irony in asking a congregation to “be public” when the times call for social distancing. The purpose of the Public Church Framework is to move us into a humble relationship with our neighbor for our neighbor’s sake. And sometimes the best thing we can do for our neighbor is disengage and physically distance ourselves. At times like this we must find new ways to be public, new ways to proclaim God’s mercy in the midst of fear.

 

Fear & Mercy

March 11, 2020

 

Ezekiel 47:3-5

“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. 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. 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.”

river at sunset

We continue our tour of Ezekiel’s vision as an invitation to follow the flow of God’smercy as it moves out into the world and your neighborhood. Last week we wondered why this text is so concerned about directions – the water flowing to the southeast of the temple – and we learned it was to show us how the water was flowing over the threshold towards the wilderness, towards the dry and wild places. Ezekiel reorients us to look and move towards the places where God’s spirit is pleading for us to be. 

This week we move out beyond the threshold with Ezekiel and his tour guide. They travel four-thousand cubits down river, just over a mile. The river grows deeper and wider the further it flows from the temple. Rivers, and water of any sort, symbolize life and hope in the biblical narrative. This makes sense given the story takes place in the middle east where freshwater is sparse.

Kristina and I (Jeremy)  knew when we began our work helping congregations become more engaged with their neighbors, we would need to root this work in the biblical narrative. We needed to know how our work fit into Christ’s work in the world. I was familiar with this Ezekiel text so I introduced it as a possible text that could give our work some shape and direction. The river metaphor was rich for me and I absolutely loved the image of God’s mercy growing deeper and wider the further it flowed from the temple. I remember first moving to the Twin Cities to attend the University of Minnesota. Between classes I would sneak down to the banks of the Mississippi Rivers where I had found a flat rock where I could sit and watch and listen to the river. It calmed me. It was gorgeous to the eyes and the ears. And it reminded me of how quickly life flows past but also how quickly new moments present themselves. It was a place of solace and peace for me. But Kristina had a very different experience with this text, so we think it is important to acknowledge sometimes where there is mercy, there is also fear. This is her story.

Wading in can feel risky. 

The first time I (Kristina) read this text with Jeremy, I had an opposite reaction to his of this ever widening and deepening river. A river I could not cross sounded potentially treacherous. When I was in 3rd grade on a family vacation to Montana, I wanted to go white water rafting. My dad agreed to take me on what was supposed to be a beginner level trip. We boarded the sturdy inflatable raft with a river with rapidsdozen others, including our river guide. The sun was warm in the summer sky, the water was rushing bubbly and beautiful, the picturesque mountain river scenery was plush with trees and wildflowers along the banks. Of course I was just along for the ride, sitting between my dad and another kind, older lady as the rush of adventure began. We started off smoothly, enjoying the fits of speed and the slower sauntering at various points along the river. But then we hit a quick patch and the raft violently jostled us, tossing three people overboard. They floated behind the raft through the white caps until the water grew calm again. A bit shook up but uninjured, they climbed back in the raft. All was well for a bit until the raft gathered a rush of speed facing head on towards a large rock. Before anyone could react, the raft was stuck. The guide shouted steering commands to the adults with paddles and barked orders at the rest of us to move to one side of the raft. The back end was getting pulled under by the current and the raft was filling with water, fast. The nice lady who had been sitting by me was now holding me tightly while the water krept up to our ankles. My dad worked with others to simultaneously fight the current pouring water into the boat while also trying to dislodge the plaible raft from the rock it was slowly wrapping itself around. There was a lot of confusion and a lot of water. I was afraid, but barely had time for the fear to erupt in emotion because, just as quickly as we got stuck, we became dislodged and floated, albeit a bit bloated, along the current to calmer waters.  We got out and emptied the raft of its extra water before climbing back in and coasting down stream to our final destination…

When I read the Ezekiel text I can feel the water rising – first to my ankles, then my knees, then my waist and then I can feel it kicking my feet up from underneath me, pulling me along the mysterious dark current – to adventure or to danger – I’m not sure and therefore it leaves me on edge. 

Our two different reactions to this abundant and vast river of God’s mercy has left me (Kristina) wrestling with the question: What does God’s mercy actually look like? Will the power of its surge overcome me or help me rise above? Will I know the difference? If my experience of it stirs fear, can I still trust it to be God’s abundant and life giving mercy? 

Theologian Phylis Trible teaches that the Hebrew word for mercy is the word for womb, only with different vowel points. She would define mercy as “womb like mother love” – the capacity of the mother to totally give oneself over to the need and reality and identity of her child. This kind of love tenaciously embodies God’s deep desire and intention for creation embedded in the promise of life. If God’s mercy is like a womb, and this mercy is as vast as a river that cannot be crossed, then I think we can begin to imagine that God’s mercy not only moves through creation like a river but also holds us closely and intimately with the very source of life itself.  

Jeremy asked me when we were preparing for tonight’s message, if I have ever encountered God’s mercy cloaked in fear. My immediate thoughts went to my earliest moments as a parent, 13 years ago, looking at my fragile and beautiful newborn, counting his tiny toes and fingers, absorbing his heavenly smells all while simultaneously feeling my heart sink to the floor. Never, ever, in my life had I been so uncomfortably aware of how vulnerable I was, how fragile life was, how sure I was that I would be a complete waste if anything ever happened to this new miracle in my life. God’s womb-like-mother-love, in the flesh, in my arms – eliciting both fear and awe, simultaneously and overwhelmingly. 

But even as I share this joyful part of my own story, I am aware of our human tendency to find it easier to see God’s mercy in the good things, in the happy endings. It’s easier to see God’s mercy where there is life. But we all know, where ever there is life, there is also death. What about the painful parts of our stories?  Does God’s mercy flow there? In the places where fears are realized and nightmares are reality? Where the life we hoped for answers us with de

young people walking in a stream

ath instead? Where the rafting trip ends with more than a few close calls, but a tragedy? 

My womb has known life. It has also known death. Three miscarriages, five little blessings in total carried in my womb, all too tiny for this world. It was a time when my husband’s and my world were saturated with grief and fear and anger. Grief at the loss of these small promises of blessing. Fear that my body might not be able to participate in new life. And anger at God for seeming to remain silent and at the world that seemed to go on around me without skipping a beat. During this season of loss, I struggled to find my footing. I was in over my head. The waves were crashing around me and no matter how hard I tried to find a landing to catch my breath, I could not. With our humble raft quickly taking on water, neither my husband or I had any energy left to search for glimpses of God’s mercy.

I shared this heartache with a rabbi friend of mine and would like to share with you the good news he offered me during this time. He said that the rabbis would teach that the root of the Hebrew word for blessing is the same root word in the word knee. And so, they asserted that God’s blessing is anything that brings you to your knees. God’s blessing is with you in the moments you drop to the ground, hands stretched towards the heavens in praise and thanksgiving. And God’s blessing is with you in the moments life completely bowls you over, and you sink to the floor in despair. 

God’s blessing is God’s presence. 

Always. 

Faithfully. 

It is the blessing of God’s mercy present in the womb love surrounding the particular joys and sorrows that make up your story. This gentle truth offered by a good friend, reminded me to look up and out and peak through the grief, fear and anger to a world of loved ones and strangers who were in fact by my side. Some offering an embrace, some offering to help scoop water out of the damn raft, others pointing out signs of life along the river, still present even with the sting of death lingering. 

God’s mercy brings life and accompanies death. We can trust this promise because we know Jesus. We can trust God’s womb like love is deep and wide and has room for all that life offers and all that death denies. We can trust that God’s mercy seeps from the very center of God’s being into the places where hope seems extinguished and the promise of a future seems unfathomable. Sometimes we just need help to remember to look for it. 

I (Jeremy) love this idea of mercy as “womb-like-mother-love”. Throughout scripture we often come across the number 40. It means “long enough”. The average length of human gestation is 40 weeks. So, the number 40 in scripture means long enough for something new to be born. Many of these stories of 40 in scripture are book-ended by the river, or by water in some form or fashion – a watery rebirth.

  • Noah’s family and the 40 days of rain
  • Israel crossed the Red Sea, spending 40 years in the wilderness, then crossed the Jordan River into the promised land.
  • Jesus crossed the Jordan to spend 40 days being tempted then crossing the Jordan River to return.
  • Lent is 40 days not counting the Sundays on which we gather to remember our baptism.

These moments of something new being born are both moments of mercy and of fear.

If you were to walk along the banks of the Mississippi River you would see a deep and wide river. But this river does not simply create life. It creates an entire ecosystem. And in an ecosystem you will always have life and death. You can’t have one without the other. 

When God’s mercy flows into the world it doesn’t only flow to you. It doesn’t only relieve your drought. It creates an ecosystem of flourishing. An ecosystem of interdependent life. So our text tonight is a call to walk alongside God’s mercy as it flows into the world. To see it. To measure it. To be in awe of it. To fear it. To trust it. And to possibly wade into it. 

Poet Mary Oliver says, “Attention is the beginning of devotion” so we invite you to pay attention and look for mercy and fear this week. The Awareness Examen is a very old spiritual practice of prayerfully reflecting on your day, looking for places where you have encountered hope and despair or mercy and fear. It is a habit that can help you learn to see God at work in your daily lives. Find time at the end of each day to reflect on these two questions.

  • Where did you encounter mercy today? 
  • Where did you encounter fear today?

God’s living water is flowing into our world, into our neighborhoods, it grows Shovel digging into earthdeeper and wider as it goes. We believe this water is the source of life and hope and healing. But it does not mean life lived along the river is easy. It is full of fear and despair. Yet, we are invited to follow it, to measure it, see how wide it grows, to learn from it, and to witness it bring life and accompany death.

From dust. To dust. Amen.

Enoughness – Remember and Repent

Today’s blog post comes from the sermon that Amanda Vetsch preached on John 21:1-14 in chapel at Augsburg University on March 11th. To listen to the sermon, click the Sound Cloud audio link. The Scripture text can be found below the link and the transcript of the sermon can be found below the Scripture reading. 

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin,Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. John 21:1-14

 

I originally picked this reading because it’s one of my absolute favorite stories in the bible. It’s one I often go to to remember my “why.” 

Why I continue to show up everyday, why I do the work that I do and study the things that I study, and why I continue to hold on to a Christian Tradition and belief system that has a found itself so interwoven with white supremacy and cis-hetero-patriarchy that it sometimes hard to see, hear, and feel the gospel through all those layers. 

This story has 2 of my favorite things about the Gospel message:  

  • It’s got enoughness and it’s got food. 
    • it gets at “enoughness”  in that’s its a post-resurrection occurrence and in the huge haul of fish, more than they could even draw in
    • And food –  it shows us how simple and sacred it is to share a meal together. Also, I really love breakfast and the image of sitting on a beach eating breakfast with Jesus. How wonderful is that? 

I’m being honest, I picked this reading in the hopes that, if I picked something  that I was already pretty familiar with, it would be super easy to just slap a sermon together. As it turns out, that wasn’t the case. And I probably shouldn’t just slap something together up here. 

So as I sat with the text I just kept coming up with more questions. The questions ranged from silly to complex, like: 

  • Did a resurrected Jesus’s body really need to eat breakfast, or was he preparing it for the disciples? 
  • Why did Peter put his clothes on to jump into the water? And why was he naked? 
  • Where did the fish that Jesus was cooking before the disciples came to shore come from? 
  • Did fisher people usually sit together and eat breakfast after being out at sea? 
  • Did people on the shore usually call out to the fisherpeople and tell them where to fish or was this a weird Jesus trust thing? 
  • And my biggest question, what does it mean to practice enoughness or  a theology of abundance in the season of lent? 

While all of those questions would be fascinating to wonder about, I’m going to spend this time on the last one. So first, let me explain the pieces of that question that might be confusing and then I’ll wonder about it with you all. 

What do I mean by enoughness? 

I mean the belief that there is more than enough, that through God’s promises, we have more than enough, we are more than enough, and we can hope for a better tomorrow. I see this enoughness as a core theme throughout the whole biblical narrative, God shows unending generosity to humankind. I see it in the stories of God providing manna while the Israelites were wandering in the desert, I see it in the parables that Jesus told, especially in the story of the workers who all worked a different amount of time and got paid the same at the end of the day, and in the story of the resurrection. Death is real, and it isn’t final.

And if none of the biblical references made it any clearer, What might a theology of abundance look like in our context today:  It’s trusting that we only need the resources we will use, we don’t need to hoard hand sanitizer or soap.

So now that we have a better idea of what I mean by abundance, what do I mean by Lent?

 In many mainline Christian Traditions, we are currently in the season of Lent. That means, throughout the year, we follow the story of Jesus and right now we are at the part of the story before Jesus’ death and before Easter. This season is a time to prepare for Easter, to repent, and to remember. Many people do this by fasting. Sometimes that means fasting from food, sometimes it means fasting from something, or maybe it means adding a new spiritual habit thing in. One example is from the ELCA Young Adults is to fast from single use plastics.  This season is a season that is often somber, quiet, and simple. The invitation at the beginning of the season, on Ash Wednesday, is to remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. 

How do we hold both of these things at the same time: 

  • A belief in abundance and enoughness 
  • In a season of remembering and repentance  

Here are two ways I think we can do that. 

First, remember. Remember that there is enough. I can fast from hoarding. I can fast from fear. I can fast from hopelessness. I can fast from all of those things because I believe in a God that has, does, and will generously provide for humankind. 

Second, Repent. For me, I’m going to be better repenting  if I am rooted in God’s promises of enoughness. What does that mean? While clinging to the promise that I am beloved, I can be more open to repenting from the ways in which I have caused harm. In the ways I haven’t always been kind, the times I caused harm to the earth when there were less harmful options, the times I talked over someone else, the times I didn’t listen,  the times I consciously or unconsciously assumed my white body was more important than a black, brown, or indigenous body, the times that I remained complicit. For me, if I’m not rooted in a promise of enoughness, the invitation to repentance might actually end up as a trip and tumble into a deep pit of guilt and shame and that’s not the point of repentance. Repentance is to turn away, it is NOT to turn into myself, but to turn away from the ways that I have caused harm and remember that as a beloved Child of God I am called and freed to live in repariative ways that bring good news to my neighbor. 

And these two examples are on the individual level, what might it look like if our communities, cultures, and countries remembered and repented? So I will leave you with that, for you, What might it look like to embody a belief of enoughness in a season of remembering and repenting?

Pay Attention – Lament – Be Bold

Today’s blog post comes from Kristina Fruge’s sermon at Augsburg University’s chapel on January 28, 2020. To listen to her message, click the soundcloud link below. To read her message, you can find the transcript below the soundcloud link.

Pay Attention – Lament – Be Bold

The theme in chapel this month as been: “Public Church: Sticking with Love.” Doing so, in part, by leaning into Dr. King’s words from his speech in August of 1967: “And I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love…hate is too great a burden to bear.” The question Pr. Babette & Pr. Justin posed to those preaching on this theme was:

Amid chaos and hardship in our society, how might we as church stick to an ethic of love and embody a public witness that works for justice and peace in God’s world?

This is a big question. One pleading for attention and demanding a response. It is a question directed at the church. And as someone born, raised, educated and employed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the nation’s whitest Christian denomination…I offer a response to this question as someone a part of this community….

Right upfront, let me name this: The church has failed to respond to this question. It isn’t that we’ve been holding fast to an ethic of love and simply need to rise to the increasing challenges and chaos in the world. No. The hardship we see, which seems to grow in intensity each day, we in fact share responsibility for. I’m afraid that we, church, have been doing more to contribute to the hardship and chaos than we have been doing to confront it. 

I know many of you could share examples to the contrary – examples of love lived out and people coming together for peace and justice. Dr. Martin Luther King and many others who took the charge in the civil rights movement would be examples of this. Please, do not hear me dismissing the miracles of how the Holy Spirit has worked in and through this church and each of you in this place. God’s witness does live here. I’ve seen it. However, I would suggest that more often the sacred ways God’s love has showed up in the world have been in spite of the church, rather than because of it. 

The call to be neighbor beyond the boundaries of our own comfort and imagination will necessitate that we, church, face some uncomfortable realities. 

  1. Our American church history was built in tandem with breaking bodies and stealing homes through the unholy marriage between Christianity, slavery and the genocide of indiegenous peoples. The church has had a hand in countless casualties.
  2. This history has not been righted and the casualties continue. The church, like many institutions, continues to be complicit in perpetuating unjust systems that benefit the dominant culture and harm those with less power and privilege.  
  3. We in the church have too often opted for a lukewarm misrepresentation of the gospel, one that quiets the radical, disruptive message and life of Jesus in favor of “nice guy” Jesus. We like the idea of loving the whole world, but we prefer to keep the fullness of Jesus and our neighbor at arms length. 

These are uncomfortable and dangerous realities. I am not going to dissect them further here, but they must be named as they drastically shape the landscape we, church, must figure out how to travel upon. What I offer in our short time together, are three invitations to the church that I believe offer more faithful bearings from which to navigate the realities of this world and the call to enter into it.

Our first invitation: Learn to pay attention. Mine the gaps.

picture of bird feathers and bird
.

Author Annie Dillard spends much of her writing pondering the curious gaps in the natural world. (read quote – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 268-269) I revisit these words often because they remind me to slow down and be present and open. This attention to the gaps has helped me learn to pay attention to the world. All of it. The beauty, the heartache, the sacred.  

This practice of paying attention helps me notice the gaps here too – between us people. You know these gaps. They exist in the spaces where broken systems damage people’s lives, safety, identity and opportunity at a livelihood. These gaps often exist along racial, class, gender, religious or political lines. They show up at the borders we arbitrarily draw between humanity and all of creation. These gaps can be so overwhelming that they create another gap, the one that exists between me and my neighbor and my fear that I’m incapable of crossing it sufficiently enough to respond, to repair. The gap between the heartache of the world and our ability to enter into it in reparative ways is staggering. 

I suppose it’s not so surprising that we often sidestep the gaps, if we have the privilege to do so. And when we don’t have that privilege to do so, we are left carrying the heavy burden of life, seemingly alone.  The heartache – my own and my neighbors – is something I would rather bypass most days for fear of what I might really encounter or be asked to respond to if I enter in.

Here is where the psalmist comes in. And our second invitation…

Enter into lament. Hold space for confession.

 

Let me reread just a few stanzas from our Psalm this morning…

My tears have been my food

    day and night,

while people say to me all day long,

    “Where is your God?”

Deep calls to deep

    in the roar of your waterfalls;

all your waves and breakers

    have swept over me.

My bones suffer mortal agony

    as my foes taunt me,

saying to me all day long,

    “Where is your God?”

frozen sunset over lake

The text is raw. This lament, like many of our psalms, stings. I find myself simultaneously drawn to its words and resisting them. The psalmist’s pleas for God’s presence and their prose, naming the rushing waves of deep heartache, stir memories of pain. Have your tears ever been your food, day and night? Have your bones ever ached in agony? Have you ever felt abandoned, not knowing where your help would come from? 

Lament psalms are the most common psalm in scripture, yet ecumenical studies of worship liturgies, hymnals and contemporary Christian worship music have found that our American biblical narrative is heavily lopsided in favor of praise and celebration. The psalms and other songs of lament are the most often omitted. 

Lament is not a posture the church in America often opens itself up to. Soong-Chan Rah, pastor and author of Prophetic Lament, says this: “The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost. But absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget…We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain.”

Walter Bruggemann says that the main point of lament is to point to the fact that, “Life is not right. It is now noticed and viced that life is not as it was promised to be.” The voices of lament that linger in neighborhoods, homes, and schools… in rivers, farmland and forests across America in 2020, are exactly the kinds of voices we should be straining to hear. How will we ever know what our proclamations of good news must sound like, taste like, feel like, look like, if we do not dwell in the places of lament and let the waters of the world’s grief swell and speak. 

We must be willing to pay attention to the gaps and enter the places of lament. And when lament speaks truth to unjust realities, we must be open to how our proclamation requires confession. 

And on that note, the last invitation I offer this morning is this: Be brave. Be humble. 

This is why we need more than “nice guy” Jesus. Nice guy Jesus thinks of love as a warm feeling we can have for others at a safe distance. Nice guy Jesus works to protect the comforts of privilege and would never dream of challenging our complacency. 

Jesus wasn’t a nice guy. Loving yes, absolutely yes. Nice, no. The bold intensity of the way Jesus loved brought him out into the gaps of this world, into the places where those who were most forgotten dwelled. The bold intensity of the way Jesus loved brought him face to face with gaps in systems and practices that were way out of line with God’s intentions for creation. The way he loved was so radical, it earned him many enemies and it ultimately got him executed. This love knew the reality of suffering and pain. This love did not sidestep heartache. It stepped further into it. 

This is the kind of love Dr. King aligned himself with. The kind of love was and is a verb. Like Jesus’ love, it lives in bodies and steps into the gaps of heartache, pain, and injustice. This embodied love is a way of being in the world. It is the source of courage to do what is right in the face of fear and uncertainty. 

Sometimes I need to remind my nine year old, you can be afraid and brave at the same time. Whether he is attempting to rock climb for the first time or needs to go into the dark basement alone to get a clean pair of socks, I tell him, you can be afraid and still find courage to do what you need to do. I think we church, can do the same. It will require a posture of trembling and trust. We will need to be brave and humble. 

boy in the weeds

If embodying a public witness of justice and peace in the world that aligns with Jesus is our aim, then we must enter the places where deep calls to deep. Where the waves slam with a forceful intensity, where we are in over our heads.  These places are immense, frightening, powerful, and even, beautiful. We can do this trusting God is in it, already working in the mystery, beckoning the waves to tide towards justice. 

As we go about from this place today, I plead with you to carry these invitations:

 

Learn to pay attention. Mine the gaps.

Enter into lament. Hold space for confession. 

Be brave. Be humble. 

 

And for heaven and earth’s sake, stick to love and stick together. Amen. 

 

What Does It Mean to Be A Public Christian?

Today’s blog post comes from Jeremy Myers’ sermon at Augsburg University’s chapel on January 21, 2020. To listen to his message, click the soundcloud link below. To read his message, you can find the transcript below the soundcloud link. 

 

I don’t want to stand here in the wake of Dr. King’s day and give you a bunch of my words. So, my intent is to allow Dr. King tell us what it means to live our lives as public people of faith. But, to get there, I must share a couple of my own stories.

Those of you who have been confirmed in a Lutheran church might be familiar with the question, “What does this mean?” It is the question Martin Luther uses through his small catechism to help his readers begin to understand what the various confessions of faith in that catechism might mean for their daily lives. It is a powerful question within the Lutheran tradition. One we should always keep in front of us.

In November of 2014 we put my father into assisted living because his dementia was beginning to the win the fight for his mind. He had been a Lutheran pastor his entire professional career and he loved asking the “What does this mean?” question. One day a local pastor came to the assisted living home to lead a bible study. This pastor turned to my dad and asked him when he had last experienced Jesus’ love in his life. My dad looked the pastor square in her eyes and responded, “What does this mean?” I’m not sure if my father understood the pastor’s question. He could not remember how to take communion. He couldn’t remember the words of his favorite bible stories or hymns. He no longer even remembered who I was, but he held on tightly to this question, What does it mean?

Image of the drawing of MLK
Drawing of MLK done by Jeremy Myers’ father

In April of 1968 my father was a 26 year-old seminary student doing an internship at an African-American congregation in St. Louis. He was assigned to preach the Sunday after Dr. King was assassinated. He couldn’t find the words to write a sermon, so his pen and pencil sketched this picture as he asked himself, What does this mean? My dad was trying to figure out what it meant to be a pastor in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination. What does it mean to be a public Christian leader in the midst of pain, and suffering, and tragedy and evil?

Before I go further into Dr. King’s sermons, I first have to give you some context. This is from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

 

This is me. He is talking to me. And, I believe my father knew Dr. King was talking to him as well. Dr. King is a radical, calling us to be radical

Dr. King has given us many ways of thinking about what it means to be a public Christian leader. In August of 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was asking and addressing this question. He and others were arrested for protesting segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. He had been criticized by Christian and Jewish clergy for breaking the law and being an extremist. He penned the famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail in response. Let me read an excerpt from it.

YOU spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. . . But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. 

Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” 

Was not Amos an extremist for justice? — “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 

Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? — “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” 

Was not Martin Luther an extremist? — “Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.

 

So, the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

When someone asks, What does it mean to be a public Christian, it is safe to say, it means to be an extremist for love.

The “transformed nonconformist” is another phrase Dr. King uses to describe the calling of the Christian in the public square. He says . . . 

“In spite of this prevailing tendency to conform, we as Christians have a mandate to be nonconformists. . . 

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists, who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood.  The trailblazers . . . have always been nonconformists.  In any cause that concerns the progress of [humankind], put your faith in the nonconformist! . . .”

Nonconformity in itself, however, may not necessarily be good and may at times possess neither transforming nor redemptive power. . . Paul [in Romans] offers a formula for constructive nonconformity: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  Nonconformity is creative when it is controlled and directed by a transformed life and is constructive when it embraces a new mental outlook.

Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.  The transformed nonconformist, moreover, never yields to the passive sort of patience that is an excuse to do nothing. . . 

[They] recognize that social change will not come overnight, yet [they] work as though it is an imminent possibility.

When someone asks, What does it mean to be a public Christian, it is safe to say, it means to be an extremist for love, a transformed nonconformist.

Dr. King uses the title of drum major to name both our desire to be the best and our call to be servants. He says . . . 

“let us see that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.

Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first. . . And think of what has happened in history as a result of this perverted use of the drum major instinct. It has led to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man’s inhumanity to man.”

[God says], “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But [God] reordered priorities. And [God] said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”

 

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.

When someone asks, What does it mean to be a public Christian?, it is safe to say, it means to be an extremist for love, a transformed nonconformist, a drum major for justice.

Dr. King also calls us to be of tough mind and tender hearts. Or maybe to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. He says, . . . 

[God gives us] a formula for action, “Be therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.

 

Jesus reminds us that the good life combines the toughness of the serpent and the tenderness of the dove. To have serpentlike qualities devoid of dovelike qualities is to be passionless, mean, and selfish. To have dovelike without serpentlike qualities is to be sentimental, anemic, and aimless. 

When someone asks, What does it mean to be a public Christian?, it is safe to say, it means to be an extremist for love, a transformed nonconformist, a drum major for justice, a tough-minded serpent, and a tender-hearted dove.

And Dr. King new the source of these things. He knew the source of love, the source of transformation, the source of justice, of toughness, and of tenderness. And so did the psalmist in our text today. 

Psalm 146:3-9

3 Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
   on that very day their plans perish.


5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
   whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
   the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
7   who executes justice for the oppressed;
   who gives food to the hungry.


The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8   the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
   the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the strangers;
   he upholds the orphan and the widow,
   but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

 

It is God who brings justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, freedom to the prisoners, and sight to the blind. And it is God who brings us to the oppressed, to the hungry, to the prisoners, and to the blind. To be a public Christian is to be a tough-minded, tender-hearted, transformed, nonconforming, extremist for love who boldly follows Christ into the fears and heartaches of this world.

INTRODUCING AMANDA VETSCH

Amanda Headshot
Amanda Vetsch – Riverside Innovation Hub Coordinator

Amanda joined the Riverside Innovation Hub team in August of 2018 as an Innovation Coach. Prior to that, she lived, played, and learned in Rwamagana, Rwanda as a volunteer with Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM), studied at Viterbo University in La Crosse, WI and grew up in Minneapolis, MN. 

During her time as an Innovation Coach, she worked with two amazing innovation teams and their congregations. She learned a lot of things and is most grateful for the opportunity to teach and grow with people as they experimented with the Public Church framework. Her favorite part of the work is Accompaniment and the various ways it takes shape, but her most favorite is meeting with people over coffee, or hanging out at coffee shops, or really anything that has to do with coffee. 

She now joins the team as the Riverside Innovation Hub Coordinator. When she isn’t working, she’s either at Luther Seminary working on her M.A. in Theology with a Concentration in Justice and Reconciliation or playing volleyball. 

Amanda is grateful for the opportunity to work alongside of faith communities as they discern how to show up as a Public Church in a way that is simultaneously authentic to the gospel call for justice, love, and mercy and most appropriate to their own geographic contexts. 

Palm Sunday and The March for Our Lives: How Can We Live Out Our Faith?

This week, we would like to share a blog post written by Cassie Dong, our Communication Coordinator. Cassie was inspired to write this after participating in the “Palm Friday” chapel at Augsburg University last Friday. This blog post illustrates the Interpretative work our faith communities are working on.

 

If you are looking for a straight answer, stop here; there is none. If you would be willing to dwell into your neighbors’ story, your story, and God’s story, then keep reading. It will be long, but it will all make sense at the end. After all, only when you weave these very different stories together can you find how God is calling us to show up in our community. Be patient for this work is slow and challenging.

 

Our Story:  Are we feeling guilty with “being Christian”?

As a young leader, I am used to being vocal about my beliefs. I speak up for people who have been marginalized and have no voice. Yet, one of the most difficult things for me is to learn how to publicly proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that speaks true to the communities that I serve. It is challenging to find the right balance between living out my faith in the public square and to be compassionate toward people who have experienced trauma and pain at the hand of the church. I am disheartened to see faith communities resistant to use “God’s language.” Many faith communities come forward to acknowledge mistakes the church has committed in its long history. However, instead of closely looking at and changing policies, systems, processes, and cultural norms of white supremacy, colonization, and toxic masculinity, many people respond by no longer talking about their Christian faith in public. Are there ways for us, as Christians, to declare that Christianity is a religion of love? Can we live out our faith and allow God’s stories and our stories to guide us in accompanying our neighbors?

 

God’s Story:  Palm Sunday

To answer those questions above, let me first share with you one of God’s stories. I would make an assumption that many of us have read or heard of the story in Mark 11:1–11 in which people “spread branches they had cut in the fields.” They carried these palms as they followed Jesus entering Jerusalem while shouting praises to God. From this Biblical narrative, we have Palm Sunday—the Sunday before Easter when many churches celebrate the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem by carrying palm fronds.

Let’s stop here for a moment and ask a few questions. During church service on Palm Sunday, when being given those palm branches, what do you do with them? Do you wave them while entering the chapel? Do you hold on to them throughout the entire service? Bring them home when the service is done? Do you know what exactly do these palm branches represent?

 

Our neighbor’s Story:  The March for Our Lives

I would need to tell you about my neighbor’s story in order to answer those questions above. In support of stronger gun violence prevention measures, on Saturday, March 24, 2018, the March for Our Lives took place in Washington D.C. where between 200,000 to 800,000 people participated. In other places in the country, thousands of people—many were high school students and young adults—marched onto the street with protest signs sending strong messages against gun violence and demanding for change. Among those protest signs, there were some palm branches: some were held high above the head; others were tied to protest signs. Yes, Saturday, March 24, 2018 was the day before Palm Sunday.

People worshiped during Palm Friday chapel at Augsburg University. Photo credit: Janice Dames

 

Weaving together our neighbors’ story, our story, and God’s Story

On April 12, during the “Palm Friday” chapel, Augsburg University’s associate pastor Justin Lind-Ayres told us about his experience participating in the 2018 March for Our Lives. He compared those palm branches with protest signs we have today. He shared, when people held onto the branches and followed Jesus into Jerusalem, they were marching with Jesus to demand for a change and to celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ. Similarly, people who were marching with palm branches at the March for Our Lives were also advocating for social justice while celebrating the incredible leadership of young people who organized and led this national demonstration. Moreover, these people were explicit about their identity. They sent out an important message: the Christian community is standing with the victims of the Parkland shooting and those young leaders who fight against gun violence.

 

I shared with you about our concerns as Christians, Mark 11:1–11, the sermon about Palm Sunday, and the presence of palm branches during the March for Our Lives because these stories teach us how to live out our faith.  No, it is not enough to just listen to our neighbors, or to only understand our identity, or to only know God’s story. Faith communities must be able to weave together these three stories to discover: Who is God calling us to be? What is God calling us to do? How is God calling us to show up in this community?  Instead of ambiguously saying “we are not that kind of church” or “we are not that kind of Christian,” we must be explicit about our identity and our values—with words and actions. How can we fix our mistakes and/or remove misunderstandings and assumptions that people may have about the church and our faith without actually showing up in the community and being clear about our true Christian values? I strongly believe, as faith communities, we are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to challenge the particular bad news in our neighborhood. Only when we show up in the neighborhood—with humility and compassion—can we understand the bad news and truly discern the good news in our specific context. This is how we live out our faith.

Our Tendency to be Musty People (Part 2 of the Lent Series)

Written by Kristina Frugé

As we move through Lent, into Holy Week and eventually Easter, Christian communities across the globe are moving through story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as they gather together.  This three-part blog series by Riverside Innovation Hub Program Manager, Kristina Fruge, reflects on how we struggle to steward the gift of this complex but beautiful story and why we must continue to come alongside each other in our call to live into its promise.

The first post of this series leaned into the truth of life and death’s necessary relationship and the complicated beauty of being called to be a dusty people. This second post reflects on how often Christian communities forget their dusty calling and replace it with musty practices and habits.

 

Kristina’s children exploring nature. Photo credit: Kristina Frugé

I remember as a young child playing in my Granny’s basement on rainy days when the backyard garden was too soggy for rowdy kids to explore. The cement floor was cold on my bare feet, and the cinder block walls were lined with stacks of boxes and other household items. There was enough room to run and play in the dim light and even kick a dodgeball around for a modified version of soccer with my brothers. These rainy days would bring a burst of energy into what was, on most days, an unlively place. Our shouts of child’s play would cut through the musty air that filled the space—the thick fragrance of time and artifacts of my grandmother’s life and family’s history that had been hidden from the light and elements for years. When the sun would return to dry out the neighborhood, we’d rush up the stairs and out the screen door to join the lady slippers, dragonflies, pine trees, and cardinals playing and alive in the backyard.

Granny’s house and neighborhood hold many of my earliest memories. It was one of several places I felt at home growing up. Another home away from home for me has been the church. The particular faith communities have changed over the years, but together these communities nurtured within me a sense of groundedness in understanding my purpose and identity through the story of Jesus. There have been times in my life when I forgot who I was and whose I was. It was the story of Jesus showing up in my life—through a faith community, a friend, or even a stranger—that helped me remember. I am a child of God, and so is my neighbor—and, this world doesn’t work if we don’t love each other and ourselves as God so dearly loves us all.

I have deep roots within the church and its people. I hold in tension an immense gratitude for the church and a deep heartache for the ways we, as the church, have too often played it safe and fallen short. I have witnessed and contributed to the ways we, as the church, have grown musty in our ways and our places.  Much of what I have experienced in this church often reminds me more of my grandmother’s basement than her backyard.

In my experiences of worshiping in and working with the church over the years, it has often felt like an underlying goal of the church is to recruit people to our team, our activity, or our faith. This objective is not always explicit. However, the desire to see people participating in our churches in the ways we have enjoyed being a part of the church seems to, functionally at least, be shaping where leaders and congregations invest much time and energy. Getting people to show up for our stuff is seen as a marker of health and success. If it’s not happening enough, we are anxious and work harder to get people to come. If people are showing up, we assume we’ve found the solution to buck the trend of declining church participation and just need to keep doing more and better of the same thing. But if how we measure “success” or health is based on how many and how often people show up for our stuff, then we have forgotten who we are called to be.

We cannot forget.

The gospel in fact displays a much different way of being church. We are the ones who are supposed to show up—in the world, in relationships, in places of brokenness, of community, of complexity. We are a dusty people, and this should propel us to live boldly and humbly in the unsheltered and uncertain places. Remembering our dusty calling should embolden us to not be afraid of death or loss because we know it’s only part of the whole story, and the whole story is God’s and it is good.

When we forget these truths we are tempted to let cultural markers of success or anxiety about our survival motivate our actions. We default to habits and ways of being church that are musty.

Musty and dusty should not be confused with each other. Both connote a sense of agedness, but one has seen the light, and the other has not. Musty things may have been dusty things when they came to be—ways to worship or be in relationship with others or gather community in ways that were meaningful at the time.  But they haven’t been given space to let the light, the neighbor, or the elements shape or change them. Musty things do change, in their own way. The longer they are removed from the impact of the world around them, the less vibrant they become, the less life they hold or offer. They may even pick up an unpleasant odor. They lose their impact, significance, and transformative power because we remove them from a relationship with a world that places demands on us. Yet, we MUST keep them around as they are, inadvertently assuming it’s the thing that brings life—the way we worship, the program we built, the ministry structure that worked, or the building that has housed a particular worshiping community.

We forget.

It is not the buildings or programs or things we’ve made that are the source of life and promise and joy. The Holy Spirit’s activity in the world is not contingent on the church’s participation. At best, we work to pay closer attention so we can point to the work of the Spirit and get caught up in it. At times this means we need to get out of the way.

We can also nurture spaces and invest in relationships where the Holy Spirit can show up and do what She does. These spaces and places of community and relationship in its many forms create the gaps in our lives and assumptions where God can get to work touching, transforming, healing, reconciling. When we hold on to the musty practices and programs, we miss the point. We focus on the wrong thing. And stuff starts to stink. The gaps for the Spirit to work within and through get smaller and smaller. We rigidly work to maintain ways of being church that focus on preserving buildings, leadership structures, programs and our sense of control and this distracts from where God is pleading for us to focus—on people, on creation, on the dust present in death and new life.

What is one musty thing in your congregation? What would happen if your congregation got to the work of letting it become dusty? What if we took that musty practice or belief or program out of the basement, into the light and the world and risked how it might be impacted, challenged, or transformed by encountering the neighborhood? Would we be willing to risk even the death of our musty ways, trusting that death and dust are a needed part of new life?

The sky after a rain. Photo credit: Kristina Frugé

The reality of death hits close to home for a declining church, but this absolutely does not mean God’s activity and love in the world is in decline. In the wake of death, we dusty people know that good news is rising to take its first breath. As dusty people we can trust this good news and even participate in it.  If we remember who and whose we are, we can let our musty ways die. This is sacred and faithful work. We can lean into the truth of our dusty calling, remembering, not forgetting, that when things die they give over their space and energy for new life to emerge.

The rain is letting up, and the neighborhood is eager for us to burst through the doors, into the sun, and breath in new life together with creation.

 

Our Calling as a Dusty People (Part 1 of the Lent Series)

As we move through Lent, into Holy Week and eventually Easter, Christian communities across the globe are moving through the life-giving story of Jesus as they gather together. We are reminded in this season that this resurrection story has the reality of death as a cornerstone of the truth it speaks. This three-part blog series by Riverside Innovation Hub Program Manager, Kristina Frugé, explores the complexities of being a people whose Christian story requires us to hold death and life in the same desperate grasp. The series will reflect on how we struggle to steward the gift of this complex but beautiful story and why we must continue to come alongside each other in our call to live into its promise.

 

Roxy and Marie (Kristina’s youngest daughter) on a beach

Nearly 15 springs ago we brought a tiny spry Vizsla pup home. We named her Roxy. She was our first “baby” as a newly married couple in our new-to-us home. She brought joy and mischief to our family through all it’s ups and downs. She was the constant source of comfort and companionship through the birth of three children, the loss of three other pregnancies and the many other in between moments of our life together. She worked her way into the hearts of our family and our children and taught us all how to love and let others love us.

This winter Roxy also taught us how to grieve. Our family huddled together over her aged body, shedding tears and final kisses knowing that her spirit had accepted the end. She impressed upon the hearts and minds of my young children that love is costly. She also clearly showed how it’s all worth it. After especially long days, I often find my 8 year-old son huddled in a corner or on the stairwell trying to push the tears back into his eyes with his fists.  “I miss Roxy,” he sniffles. She was always his most faithful ally, at the ready to comfort and cuddle with him at the close of the day. I sit next to him, with tears welling up in my own eyes and press my hand to his heart. I say, “Do you feel that hurt right here?” He says, “Yes.” I tell him, “This is the greatest gift. Not everyone gets to feel this. This sadness in your heart is proof that you got to love and be loved unconditionally. You will always have Roxy’s love and it will remind you how to keep loving.” Logan shakes his head knowingly and we hold on to each other and the cherished memory of Roxy’s love for us.

This loss has created a gap in our family. It feels similar to what I see when I look out the window at a winter that has overstayed its welcome. Daily, I pine for a glimpse of green grass and the hope-filled promise of new buds on trees. I strain to hear the sweet songs of the birds beckoning spring to takeover the chill of this season. We are in a gloaming, in-between time. Winter’s barrenness holds fast as signs of a fresh season begin to spring to life. Christians have a name for this season that parallels the truths that creation has on display this time of year. It is called Lent.

Lent is a season that works to open a gap in our routines and our false assumptions about ourselves and our neighbors. It parts the veil, shedding light on the vulnerabilities and fears that we work hard to keep at arm’s length. It names the unpopular truth that from dust we have come and to dust we will return. Churches find their pews most full on Christmas and Easter, the joy-filled seasons of the year. We prefer the glad-tidings of celebrating the birth of Jesus and the triumphant Hallelujahs of Easter’s resurrection chorus. But Lent disrupts these two seasons with the harsh, brutal reminder of the necessity of death. The fullness of God’s love for the world as embodied in Jesus is not complete without this part of the story. The most vulnerable truth Lent points us towards is the intimate and integral relationship between life and death.

The rhythm of life, death, and new life is woven into every fiber of the world God created and is creating. Each day on my way to work and home, I drive a few extra minutes out of my way to follow the parkway along the Mississippi River. The trees that reside along the riverbank state this truth each season, a constant reminder of how creation is called to be.

For months, their brittle branches arch naked through the chilly sky until spring emerges with signs of new life budding and humming and growing larger as the days get longer. This makes way for summer’s flourishing green cover that helps the planet breath and shades the soil and its critters from the sun’s warmest days. Finally, and always, autumn arrives with a vibrant burst of color as the trees beautiful hues point to what always must follow life and flourishing—death. This dying display of beauty gives way to the barren and dormant winter season, and the waiting begins again.

And so as this gap in the seasons daily displays the complexities of death and life, how do we pay attention to the truth? How do we let the soil filled with decayed bits of life from last summer teach us? How do we be aware that the stuff of loss all around us is also creating the space for life to breath anew again? These are the things I will ponder this week as we honor what would have been Roxy’s 15th doggie birthday. We will spread her ashes in the places she loved to run, play and explore, adding them to the mix of muck and spring mess that is preparing for a new thing.

The season of Lent begins by reminding us that from dust we came and to dust we will return. This is not a morbid sentiment, but a statement of the sacredness of the cycle of life and death and new life again. The trees along the Mississippi River speak this truth as they move through the seasons, just like the memories of our silly, loving, bed-hogging dog Roxy will remind my kids that love is worth the risk of loss. The dust pressed into our foreheads on Ash Wednesday reclaims this holy life giving element of dust, soil, ash—the remains of what was once living which holds the power to bring about life and love again.

We are a dusty people. This is our calling. In a culture where death is perceived as the enemy, we are called to embody this mystery and live it out defiantly.

Interpretation

Written by Jeremy Myers, PhD

 

Public Church Frame Work: Accompaniment, Interpretation, Discernment, and Proclamation (a Cycle)
The Public Church Framework

The second movement in the public church framework is Interpretation. This is when we move from hearing our neighbors’ stories back into the stories of our particular faith communities. This is an incredibly important step and one that is tempting to skip for a few reasons.

  • We want to skip this step because we might not know what it is we believe as a faith community.
  • Or we want to skip this step because we think theological and biblical reflection aren’t as important as action. We want to move straight to action.
  • We also sometimes think we can skip this step because interpretation will just simply happen without any intentional effort.

Interpretation is an important step in this process because people want to know how faith impacts their daily lives. It is the role of the faith community to help their people learn to see the world in light of God’s promises. We also want our collective actions to clearly express the essence of who we are, what we believe, and the world we believe God envisions for us. This interpretive move is what makes the public church framework different than many other outreach, or public efforts. Theology matters and this theological turn in our work needs to be intentional.

I have heard pastors say their faith community was not ready to do the work of interpretation because they did not know the bible well nor did they fully understand what the congregation believed. If that is the case, then we have our work cut out for us. Those who gather with our faith communities should know what we believe, they should understand the biblical narrative and how it might still shape our lives. If we plan to engage our neighborhoods in a way that is life giving, then we must think about that engagement theologically.  

This turn and attention to habits of interpretation urge faith communities to move beyond what they are not – the markers by which they may define themselves against. “We are not like that kind of church or those Christians.” It moves a community to more closely claim what they are about, why they exist, and why it matters.

There are three strands, or narratives, that we weave together using the artform of interpretation. We weave together the neighbors’ stories we’ve heard in our accompaniment with our own stories as a faith community and with what we believe to be God’s story. Each of these strands help us better understand the other two strands we are working with. These three strands should enlighten one another as well as push back against and challenge one another. This is slow and tedious work but it is vital to forming both our communities of faith and our work in our neighborhoods.

Here are five main questions offered that guide the work of interpretation. How you chase after the answers to these questions is up to you, but we recommend involving as many other people from your faith community as possible. The more perspectives you get, the richer the dialogue will become.

  • What are the core theological convictions of our faith community? It is not an expectation of this work that your entire faith community is on the same page with what they believe. There is no expectation of uniform, doctrinal agreement. However, we do believe it is vital for faith communities to be having these conversations even if they lead to the realization that your faith community is incredibly diverse in its theological convictions.
  • What are the key components (stories, metaphors, etc.) of the biblical narrative that shape our life together as a faith community? Again, the expectation is not uniformity but transparency. There are certain aspects of the bible we think we cling to until we have time to consider it more deeply and we discover these aspects do not really serve a purpose in our daily lives. On the flip side, often  lesser known parts of scripture might be more helpful or more transformative as you begin digging into them together. Who would have ever thought that we (the Riverside Innovation Hub) would have turned to some obscure vision of Ezekiel when looking for a biblical metaphor to frame our project? We have continued to be surprised and blessed by the profound depth of the Ezekiel text that has shaped this work.
  • What are the significant events in your faith community’s history that have shaped your identity?Your community most likely has many stories of sadness and trauma as well as stories of hope and resiliency. Unearth these stories. Learn from them and allow them to show you how they both shape your view of your role in your community and allow them to empower you for that work.
  • How do these theological convictions, components of the biblical narrative, and events from your past influence the way you hear and understand the stories you encountered in your accompaniment experiences?This is the key theological move. This is when you begin to see and learn not only what your community believes but how those beliefs shape your life together and life with your neighbors.
  • How do the stories you encountered in accompaniment push back against, challenge, or affirm your core theological convictions and beliefs? The interpretive move is not a one way street. We should be careful not to assume that our theological beliefs are impervious and only help us understand our neighbors’ stories. We should also allow our neighbors’ stories to interpret our beliefs and understandings about God.Interpretation goes both ways. Our understanding of our neighbor will deepen when we see our neighbor through God’s story. Our understanding of God will deepen when we see God through our neighbor’s story.

The public church framework continues to move us to a place where we are ready and able to proclaim good news into the lives of our neighbors that will actually be good news to them because it is speaking to, confronting, or displacing the very real bad news they are facing in their lives. It also continues to move us to a place where we might actually begin to hear our neighbors proclaiming good news to us. In order to arrive in these places, it is vital that we make the interpretive move and learn to hear and see our neighbor through God’s story and vice versa.

 

 

Accompaniment at Faith: A Spiritual Experience of Listening to Neighbors

Tim Thao standing in front of a wooden fence
Timothy Thao, Innovation Coach

In the upcoming months, the Riverside Innovation Hub will be sharing more stories coming directly out of our partner faith communities as they move deeper into the flow of this project. We are excited to share more on the ground about how the Spirit is showing up as Innovation Teams seek out spaces to listen and be curious to God’s activity unfolding in the neighborhood. We hope these stories stir curiosity and imagination as you wonder about your own contexts and communities.

This week, we hear from Innovation Coach, Tim Thao, regarding the young adult Innovation Team at Faith Lutheran Church in Coon Rapids, MN and their initial learning as they have been having more intentional conversations with their neighbors.

 

The Accompaniment phase has been incredibly fruitful for the shared community of Coon Rapids. Even now, collaboration is bubbling up among the different churches and even between churches and other organizations. Our Innovation Team at Faith Lutheran has accomplished some incredible feats in the early phase of this project. So many connections have been established and with all the right people coming in at the right place and at the right time, it has been putting us in a prime position to do a powerful work in our shared community.

One of our team members met with the superintendent of the local school district, David Law. Their conversation reflected much of what we heard from other sources in our community: the youth are generally underserved in the area, high school students need additional space for extracurricular activities, there is a growing number of transient students, and numerous other issues. The superintendent also mentioned how, seemingly, very few  of the various churches that line both sides of Hanson Boulevard have reached out to support the schools. He recalled that many congregations out in the White Bear Lake area, for example, are big supporters of the local schools. It was surprising for him to see the stark contrast between Coon Rapids and White Bear Lake, despite their similar demographics. As a result of this conversation, David Law is hoping to gather local pastors on a regular basis to establish more support for students and staff in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. He is hoping to meet quarterly and is looking to begin connecting more with the Senior Pastor at Faith Lutheran.

A meeting with the Community Outreach Specialist from the Coon Rapids Police Department also gave us much insight into the culture of our city. Trish Heitman spoke on the exponential increase of incoming calls in regards to mental health and the effect that this has had on the area. We later learned that the conservative tone of the large suburb is having a deep and dramatic impact on the youth of the city and leaders in the city are we are struggling to deal with it well. In light of this conservative tone, the growing population of ethnic minorities and immigrants in the community are met with great fear. This was paralleled with a meeting that two members of our team had with Deb Geiger, the current librarian at Coon Rapids High School. She attested to the tensions that are growing in the community. This opens up a potential avenue for future engagement with our innovation initiative.

We met also with Lori Anderson who runs a program called Transformative Circle. She began the work a number of years ago as she observed the climate and demographic of Coon Rapids shifting. So on the first Thursday of every month, Lori gathers various people from the area around the dinner table to engage on a series of topics. Her Transformative Circle dinners create a culture of inclusivity and unity in the midst of hostility and division. Here, the stories of various community members coalesce and give birth to a shared community, much like that which we so long to see. One of our team members is scheduled to lead January’s circle, and we are excited to see this partnership come out of our accompaniment.

God is, without a doubt, moving in great ways, and we are so humbled to be a part of this mighty work.