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Public Ministry in a Pandemic

by Jeremy Myers

By most measures, it was a typical Wednesday morning commute. Coffee in the cupholder, slow traffic, radio tuned to NPR, brain wandering and wondering if it is ready for the day. But this day was not a normal day. Local government officials were beginning to encourage us to practice social distancing, diligent hand-washing, and no face-touching. It was the third Wednesday of Lent and I was rehearsing my sermon for that evening in my head. My colleague and I had been invited to preach a 5-week Lenten sermon series on the Public Church at a local church. I was in the middle of a thought – reminding myself NOT to crack any inappropriate jokes about the pandemic during the sermon – when I noticed a crowd gathered on the overpass. The Saint Paul Federation of Educators (St. Paul Public School’s teachers’ union) had just begun their strike and they were demonstrating on every overpass that crossed Interstate 35E and Interstate 94 in Saint Paul. I honked to show my support as I drove under the bridge. Then it hit me. These teachers are beginning their necessary strike which will require public demonstrations. How will they do this while honoring the call to social distancing? We will be preaching tonight, encouraging a congregation to move into their neighborhood as a public church. How will they do this while honoring the call to social distancing? It has been two months since that not-at-all-normal morning commute, and I think I have some things to say about how we live as a Public Church in a pandemic.

from Church to Home to Neighborhoods

If our goal is simply catechesis – teaching people what we believe – then all we need is new delivery methods for the information we want people to have. But if our goal is the transformation of lives and the worlds we live in with our neighbors, then delivering information over the interwebs is not enough. The church has become quite skilled at delivering information and assuming it’s forming faith and transforming lives. I have been so impressed with the creative ways congregations are delivering everything from worship services, to game-nights, to virtual retreats. But I also want us to find creative ways to remain public.

In Caminemos Con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/ Latino Theology of Accompaniment Roberto Goizueta says God’s preferential option for the poor “. . . implies a preferential option for the home, the city, and, the crossroads where home and city meet, the church.” The mainline church’s current understanding of the relationship between home and congregation is one of partnership between the home and the congregation in order to enhance faith formation in both. Goizueta values both home and church, but sees their partnership as being for the sake of the city or public. The home is not where we rehearse for a Christian life lived in a congregation, nor is the congregation the place where we rehearse for a Christian life lived in our homes. Instead, the congregation becomes the place where communities of all types (i.e., friends, families, etc.) rehearse for a Christian life lived in the community, or the public square. In this sense, the family becomes the learning unit, not the individual. An individual is not taught how to be a disciple by her parents; rather the whole family learns to live as faithful, freed and called disciples in their own communities. The congregation is called to help the family learn new ways to engage and respond to their neighbors in their public encounters. So, simply delivering content to homes is not enough. How can we, in this pandemic, be a crossroads where home and city meet – where our individual members and families learn to be good news for their neighbors in a pandemic? Paulo Freire says education is always for domestication or liberation. How are we – in this pandemic teaching for liberation and not domestication? Are we spending our time trying to keep our people’s’ attention on our congregations or are we freeing them to be good news for their neighbors?

Die to Live

A few years ago, there was a story in the Star Tribune about a small congregation in Woodbury, MN that knew it was dying. They made the decision to go out in a blaze of glory by spending down their endowment in service of their community. They would only gather for worship – no meetings – and the rest of their time together would be spent serving their neighborhood. They visited local nursing homes, read stories at the local elementary school, and put together weekend meal kits for the students at that school and their families. They took up the hard work of engaging their neighbors. They saw their neighbors’ struggles and began to give themselves away for the sake of these neighbors.

And. They. Grew.

These neighbors started attending worship. And the church did not close. The congregation chose to die gracefully so the Body of Christ could live. If we put our energy into ensuring the sustainability and longevity of our congregations at the expense of our neighbors’ needs, then we run the risk of losing both our neighbors and our congregations. But if we put our energy towards ensuring the wellbeing of our neighbors and our neighborhoods, then even if we lose our congregations, we will have become the body of Christ incarnate in our neighborhoods. In the midst of this pandemic, we are all dying to live again. Maybe the best way we can be dying to live is by risking the financial future of our congregations. After all, most of our congregations are built with dollars whose origins are rooted in American slavery and most of our buildings are on land stolen from Native Americans.

Public ministry in a pandemic will require us to face death head-on. It is inevitable. We cannot avoid it. Our congregations might not die, but parts of our congregations will need to die so that the good news of Jesus Christ might live into our communities. I heard from many leaders who recognized their impulse to over-function immediately after we were ordered to stay at home. We cannot, and should not, do everything. But what will we let die? Our neighbors need life and hope, they do not need a lot of what we spend resources on as a church. What might God’s spirit be asking us to let die so that we have resources for where life is needed? Can we eliminate some practices, some “sacred cows”, some expenses that are not bringing life to our neighborhoods right now?

Trust the Artforms

Hopefully you are saying, “Yes. We can let things die so our neighbors might have life.” But you also might be wondering how you determine what can be released and how your neighbors might need you to show up. This is when I beg you to trust the artforms of the Public Church Framework.

In September 2011 I invited a group of ministry leaders to join Walter Brueggemann and I for breakfast at Augsburg University to begin imaging a new approach to discipleship with young people that prioritized community engagement over catechesis. To be clear, catechesis (or the teaching of core beliefs) is still critical, but I do not think it is the place to begin. Instead, I believe faith formation or discipleship or Christian education must begin by encountering life and the neighbor. From there we can move into catechesis, or the teachings of our faith, with the questions that arise from our encounter with our neighbor. I’m sure I’m wrong, but I like to think our conversation shaped Brueggemann’s latest book, Materiality as Resistance: Five Elements for Moral Action in the Real World. I’m sure I’m right when I say this conversation with these ministry leaders shaped the creation of what we now call the Public Church Framework.

The Public Church Framework is a process of four movements – what we call artforms – which include: (1) accompaniment, (2) interpretation, (3) discernment, and (4) proclamation. It grows out of the assumption that we must first do the hard work of hearing our neighbors’ bad news if we want to know how to proclaim good news to them.

The four Public Church Framework artforms, acccompaniment, interpretation, discernment, proclamation

These are the artforms we must lean on now more than ever during this pandemic. These movements will help our people move from their homes into their neighborhoods as accompaniers, interpreters, discerners, and proclaimers of good news – as faithful people who are dying to live.

If you are reading this as one of our Riverside Innovation Hub partner congregations, then you have already been learning how to flex these muscles. You know what it feels like to practice accompaniment, interpretation, discernment, and proclamation. If you are not one of our partner congregations, it is my hunch that you also already know how to do this work. We like to say the Public Church Framework is descriptive not prescriptive. I like to say it’s not rocket surgery. It is not prescribing a fool-proof technology for solving the church’s challenges. It is simply describing what we already do when we are attempting to proclaim Christ’s good news into our world. You are certainly already doing all of these artforms, but you might not be doing them intentionally. Or you might not be doing them intentionally in relation to one another. Or you might not be involving your entire congregation in the work of these artforms. They are not a planning method reserved for the professional church staff or council. They are meant to be practices or habits that shape the congregation’s culture and life together. Are you simply delivering content to your congregation right now, or are you equipping them to transform lives where they live?

The muscles we have been building are the muscles we need now more than ever – listening, thinking theologically, discerning, and proclaiming. Double-down on these movements right now. Use them with your leadership teams, teach your congregation how to practice them in their homes and in their neighborhoods. They need you to proclaim the good news to them but they also need you to help them learn to discern how they are being called to participate in the good news with others right now.

Some Questions to get you Started

I can’t tell you how you should do this in your context. That depends on your gifts as a leader, your congregation’s assets, and the realities of your congregation’s neighborhood. But I can ask you some questions to get you thinking and wondering about the work to be done.

three people walking on cloudy beach

Accompaniment

  1. What are the listening posts in your congregation’s neighborhood? Where are the stories of your neighbors being shared? Those places where your congregation can interact with and listen to the neighbors who live around the congregation. Maybe these used to be coffee shops and school board meetings. Now they might have moved on-line. Or maybe your congregation is still serving meals to the neighbors or hosting blood drives, etc. How can you find the places where people are still “gathering” so that you can listen to them?
  2. How are you helping members of your congregations find or create listening posts in their own neighborhoods? What are some ways they can put themselves in places where they will hear their neighbors’ stories, joys, concerns, celebrations, and fears?
  3. RESOURCE: One-to-One Relational Meetings – A great introduction to one-to-one meetings that includes a list of excellent questions to help you be in conversation with your neighbors.

older adult covering one eye and mouth

Interpretation

  1. What are the core theological convictions or key elements of the biblical narrative you find yourself drawn to during this pandemic? What aspects of your faith are helping you find meaning and understand the world right now?
  2. How do these core convictions and key elements interact with your neighbor’s stories? How do their stories shed light on your core convictions? How do your core convictions shed light on their stories? Where do you hear God at work in their stories? Where do you hear them longing for God in their stories?
  3. Do the members of your congregation share some core theological convictions? Are there elements of the biblical narrative that are important to your congregation’s shared life together? How can you help your people gain a better understanding of their core beliefs and how those beliefs might help them think theologically (and hopefully) about their neighbors’ stories?
  4. RESOURCE: “Scripts” featuring Walter Brueggemann – A six minute video introducing us to the idea of the dominant script and the counterscript. The dominant script is the story we are forced to live that is not life giving. The counterscript is the story of the gospel that has a very different way of thinking about the world and our place in it. This is a nice way to begin seeing the importance of thinking theologically (counterscript) about our lived realities (dominant script). “Counterscript” by Walter Brueggemann – An article on the same theme.

person with head in hands on train

Discernment

  1. Discernment begs this question: Given what you’ve seen and heard in your accompaniment and interpretation, who is God calling you to be? What is God calling you to do? What are some ways you can gather your people around these questions in this time? I imagine we are all wondering what it is God is calling us to do and be since the pandemic has turned our world upside down.
  2. How can you teach your people to weave together God’s story and their neighbors’ stories in a way that leads them to begin seeing how God is calling them to be present and active in their neighborhoods for the sake of the neighbor?
  3. RESOURCE: Discernment as a way of Life – A nice six-part introduction to discernment as a communal and individual spiritual practice.

person jumping on city street

Proclamation

  1. Now that you have heard your neighbors’ stories, have thought about them theologically, and have discerned how God is calling you into your neighbors’ story with good news – what will you do to proclaim that good news? Proclamation is not always words. Our neighbor might need our actions more than our words. And sometimes proclamation happens by amplifying the good news that is already present rather than inserting good news into a situation.
  2. How can you gather your people together to proclaim the good news you have discerned in creative ways that honor our new rules of life in a pandemic? Is the good news something they need to hear or something they need to experience?
  3. How can you equip your people to plan and implement their own proclamation of good news through word and deed into their own neighborhoods?
  4. RESOURCE: Mele Murals – A documentary about a team of Hawaiian graffiti artists who work with a group of Native Hawaiian youth to create public art that teaches the youth their culture and history. This film is not about the proclamation of Christianity but it is an excellent example of a team of people accompanying a community, interpreting what they learn through the lens of their core beliefs, discerning the proper action to take, and then creating a public proclamation of beauty and pride and liberation.

Habits for Life

Our world has turned upside down. We don’t know if or when we will ever be able to return to normal. The Unitarian Universalist Association is recommending their congregations plan to not gather until June 2021. We will need to resist the desire to over-function while also recognizing we have to do more than what we are currently doing. Things will need to die, or be let go, so that we can take on the new work God is placing before us. The Public Church Framework is a way of walking together into the unknown that prioritizes the neighbor, it is shaped by your congregation’s core beliefs, rooted in communal discernment of God’s movement, and intended for proclamation. It is not a planning tool for leaders, it is a series of movements/ practices/ habits that can shape the culture of your congregation. It is a toolkit your members can access in their own homes and in their own neighborhoods. Even in a pandemic with stay-at-home orders in place and real risks involved in being in public, we are still called to be a public (rather than private) church. Our neighborhoods are steeped in anxiety, despair, and bad news. Our call is to participate in the proclamation of hope and good news that challenges the particular ways anxiety, despair and bad news is showing up in the lives of our neighbors. God has promised to empower us to do this. May it be so.

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.

Our Journey – St. Luke’s Episcopal Church’s Journey towards being a Public Church

Today’s blog post comes as a video from Stephen Richards at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis. He shares the story of their journey with the Public Church Framework and what it looks like in their context. A transcript of the video can be found below the video credits.  

Video:

Credits:

Video: Written, filmed, and edited by Stephen A Richards

Music: “Pulse”, written and produced by Stephen A Richards, taken from the album “Cyclone”, copyright May 2019 (used with permission)

 

 

Transcript:

“Hello, my name is Steve and I’m a member of the Innovation Team at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Minnesota. I’ve been involved with the Innovation Hub team from the beginning and I’m really excited by the work we’re doing. 

However it’s not always been this way. There have been times where I have found the work very frustrating. You see, when we were invited to go on a journey to connect with young adults and God in our community we were not handed a road map for which to do this. And for a long time, I found this difficult. For me, mission had often begun in the church and was about bringing people into the church. Yet, that’s not the way this innovation stuff works. 

You see, when you start asking “What is God up to in our community,” you have to step outside the church and into uncharted territory. 

As we walked the three artforms, accompaniment, interpretation, and discernment, our focus as a group and then as a church began to shift. We started to think more about hearing and telling stories and how we might go into the community to do this. So rather than sitting inside of a building and waiting for people to come to us, we began to look for ways we were already connecting with neighbors. The Montessori School in the basement of our church was an obvious one. And also the green space out front. We learned that people were using the Adirondack chairs that we had placed out there. They were tying ribbons to the peace pole, and regularly visiting the food box. We decided to focus on this as a space where God is present in our neighborhood. A holy ground where we could start wading further into the river. From this, the peace craft project was born. Which is a brand new initiative of St. Luke’s Episcopal church and intended to creatively engage our neighborhood in peace making activities. Peace Craft has become the connector between the church and the local community. 

Through the work we do, and funded by the grant money we received, a new vision for God’s mission has emerged. We are also seeing more people in the church joining us and excited about finding out about where God is working in their lives and the local community. 

For example, one of the innovation team members suggested we might ask for grant money to give out free ice creams to our neighbors after church each Sunday. So we did, we named it, “Ice Cream Sunday.” For three months over the summer of 2019, we stood outside the church, eating ice cream and inviting passersby to join us. In doing so, we met lots of people and got to know their stories. We also got to tell them our stories, barriers came down. We began to wade into the river. First, ankle deep, then knee deep, and finally waist deep. This simple act of going outside and sharing ice cream changed our community. We recently lost our Rector, but rather than finding this period of transition unsettling, people have instead become energized, inspired and open to new ideas. There is a tangible energy in the church. There is a tremendous desire to know and discover what God is doing among us. In many ways, Peace Craft is at the forefront of the mission work of our church. The waters of God’s spirit are now flowing within, through, and from our church. And as it does, the fruit of God’s spirit is evident for all to see. As each week, new people are being added to our numbers, including young adults.”

Permaculture as Proclamation: Understanding the Land as Neighbor

This week’s story is written by Marie Page, a congregational learning partner at Church of All Nations (CAN). She shares about CAN’s experience of understanding the land as their neighbor. 

Throughout the past year, our leadership discerned that learning how to relate to the land as neighbor would be the most far-reaching and impactful focus for our RIH partnership. Over the past

People dig in a garden
The community members at Church of All Nations work together to prepare the land for new plants.

winter, we had a core group of pastors, staff, youth, and adult members who met regularly to study the guiding philosophies and practices of permaculture in preparation for spring. The multi-year plans for our property were made after many discussions with our friends at Ecological Design [the women-owned design group behind Main Street Project, Tiny Diner, and more]; they incorporated a kid’s play area, culinary and medicinal herbs, fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, a pergola, and an outdoor worship space- all priorities for our community. 

 

When spring [finally] came, we got to work! Our regular core group meetings turned into work days, and we even had a few “Permablitz” events with the whole community to kick start some of the most needed projects: removing typical sod, spreading compost, reseeding bee-friendly lawn, planting trees and perennials, and a lot of weeding.

 

We were honestly surprised by the number of people who came out regularly for core team meetings and that even more came out for our Permablitz and work day events. We could see the enthusiasm spreading as real visible changes took root around the church- wildflowers and grasses that we’d maybe only seen in stores or pictures, and especially our herbs. Our community has been blessed by several meals made with herbs grown right outside our doors, that many of us planted and watered and weeded. 

 

We’ve also had many positive interactions with neighbors we’d not talked to previously. Many  were grateful for the work we’re doing and curious to learn more. In addition, we’ve had talks with the local park just down the

person gardening
Working with the plants.

hill, on our same lake- they’ve been working to foster native species all around their property and are enthusiastic. There was one individual who must’ve been upset over the temporary visual changes when we were doing initial digging and reseeding- they reported us to our local watershed district, but when the district came out and saw our plans, they were thrilled with the work we’re doing, as it will greatly slow the water flow and prevent erosion down into Silver Lake at the base of our hill. 

 

Our children have responded beautifully. They were deeply impacted by our VBS program we put on this year, which we crafted intentionally as an offshoot of our permaculture project, to help them understand what we were doing and feel included in it. As we’d spent a lot of time studying how water moves around our property (in preparation for the addition of swales and rain gardens), we created a curriculum around the many ways God uses water to bring forth and sustain life. We were astonished by the degree of attention, focus, and enthusiasm for the stories and activities this year- far more than any of the standard programs we’ve put on in the past. At the end of the week, they each got a watering can and helped water the herbs in our front yard.

 

A few weeks ago we had a special Sunday program where 20 of our grade school children helped us harvest some of those same herbs they’d helped water this spring, which we will be processing for our craft fair fundraiser this winter. We were able to teach them how to care for the plants and pick gently with gratitude for the work they have done to make this gift for us. We also showed them how to notice which flowers have bees but to not be afraid of them- because the bees don’t want to hurt us, just like we don’t want to hurt them. They also learned how to notice when the herb is too young or too old to be picked.

 

This aspect has been the most profound for many of us. In bringing many forms of nature closer to our building, we’ve been able to reshape the narratives that many of us were raised with: nature is an angry “other” that will harm us if given the chance. Instead, we’re able to experience and share with our children that the land is loving and abundant when we approach respectfully- full of food and medicine both for us and for the many forms of crawling friends that have moved in to enjoy the harvest. (The variety and quantity of bugs, bees, butterflies, and frogs has surprised even those of us who’ve lived in this area our whole lives!)

 

people posing with their construction
Permablizters pose under what will become a pergola, for plants to grow on and people to meet under.

It has been profoundly healing for many of us not just to learn these things ourselves but to watch our children grow up in a community where the land as neighbor is part of the air we breathe- seeing them greet their favorite plants, not scream and run from grasshoppers or even bees but approach carefully, with curiosity. This re-narration of “other” into “neighbor,” then friend, and then family is fundamental to our ministry as a church. It fills us with profound joy and hope to work towards a future where the natural open-hearted curiosity of our children can be guided with love to carefully navigate and embrace the unknown, rather than shrinking back or isolating from it in fear. Their hearts and minds, shaped in this way, will shape a better world. 

 

Thanks to the support of our members and partners like RIH, God is bringing forth a harvest far beyond what we could’ve asked or imagined- in our land, and in our lives. We can’t wait to see the new developments next year will bring!

From Frustration to Transformation: The Public Church Framework as a Process

This week’s story is written by Stephen Richards, a congregational learning partner at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Steve writes about his transformation throughout the process of practicing the Public Church Framework. 

Ever had an argument in the car with your partner about the “right way” to get somewhere? My wife and I frequently have such “debates”, and it often boils down to this: she likes to plan how to get somewhere in advance, whereas I’m more of a “wing-it” guy. She likes to pre-navigate potential traffic snarls and find the most economical route to get somewhere, whereas I know where I need to go, have a vague idea of how to get there, and if there are any holdups along the way I’ll navigate my way around them based on what looks like the best option at the time. Needless to say, my wife and I often find driving together a frustrating experience.

 

church with people outside
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

This past year, working with the Riverside Innovation Hub has felt a lot like driving with my wife. When St Luke’s first started this journey and I was invited to be part of the team, I was excited about the idea of working to get more young people to come to church. Of course I wanted more young people coming to church; I wanted lots of people to come to church. However, I quickly began to realize that this was not the point. So I pushed back. If this is not about getting people into church, then what is it about? I remember regularly expressing a sense of frustration to our coach that I simply had no idea what we were trying to achieve. The “goal” was to find ways to connect with young adults in our community, but how to do that and what that might look like was opaque. “So what” and “What next” questions dominated my thinking. I found the process frustrating. I wanted a road map. I wanted a planned route from Point A to Point B. The trouble is, that’s not the way this works. You see, when you start asking “What is God up to in our community?” you’re heading into uncharted territory. 

 

For too long I’d been looking for God inside the church building, and many “solutions” for how to address the dearth of young adults in our churches often begin there. If only our services were more exciting, if only we had better programming and the like. Using such reasoning we also talk about how God is or is not working in our midst. More people in church equals God is working, and vice versa. But instead, we were told to reflect on Ezekiel’s vision of the river flowing from the temple, and imagine this flowing out into our community. I liked the image, but continued to push back. I made the point that if the river was flowing from the temple then surely this means the river is flowing out from our church building? Our coach patiently allowed me to navigate my way through this. 

When I joined this project I thought it was about connecting young adults to God in church. However, as we began to follow the river (both inside and outside of our community), I suddenly realized that it was about a different kind of connecting. In fact, it was me who was connecting with God as I began to realize my entire understanding of mission had been grounded in the notion that there was nothing of God going on outside “in the world.” Sitting inside a church building, I’d been staring at the walls wondering why more people weren’t inside with us, rather than going outside and asking them. The walls were preventing me from engaging with people. They were a physical barrier between our community and our neighbors. Whereas the veil separating us from God had been torn down in Christ, and in the years since then we had been physically and theologically putting it back up.

 

As we walked the three art forms, I became to see where God is at work outside the church. I should not have been surprised, because God is always at work everywhere! How do I know this? Because God is everywhere. There is no place where God is not:

 

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalm 139:7-8).

 

Once I began to realize that church is not the Ground Zero, the modus operandi of God’s activity in any community, I began to realize that the roadmap of mission I had been using had been leading me away from young adults; leading me further inside the church building (where they are not), instead of outside and into our neighborhood (where they are).

 

As we continued with Interpretation and Discernment work, I sensed that not only I had changed, but the team had also had a transformation. Our focus had shifted. We had begun to dream and imagine how we might go and meet people, rather than sitting in church waiting for them to come to us. Jesus told us to “Go,” and we were going. We began to look at ways we were already connecting with our neighbors; the Montessori School in our church building was an obvious one, but also the green space out front. We learned that people were using the chairs we had placed out there, they were tying ribbons to the Peace Pole and using the food box. We decided to focus on that as space as a place where God was present; Holy ground where we could start wading into the river.

people talk in groups outside
Folks from the congregation and the neighborhood gather at St. Luke’s “front porch” to be together and share ice cream.

And so we began. It was the start of summer and one of our team suggested we might offer people free ice cream after church on Sunday. So we did. We named it Ice Cream Sunday. For three months we stood outside the church eating ice cream, and inviting our neighbors to join us. In doing so we met lots of people and got to know their stories. We got to tell them our stories, but we never used this as a recruitment tool; just a way of showing love to those around us, you know, doing the very thing Jesus told us to do (Matthew 2:39). And as we did this week after week, relationships began to form. Barriers came down. We began to wade into the river; first ankle deep, then knee deep and finally waist deep. Some people came back just to hang out with us; people who had never stepped inside our church building. And as we listened to their stories we realized that God was at work in their lives and in our community. In fact, God had always been working in our community, we’d just never taken the time to go outside and listen. But now we were outside, and listening, and starting to see the walls come down. We’d torn up the roadmap, and with the Spirit’s leading had started to “wing-it”…

The Healing Power of Dirt

This week we hear from Ellie Roscher, a congregational learning partner at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Ellie shares a story about the mutual transformation that comes from listening to and empowering young adult leaders. 

 

plants and welcome sign
The Garden at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

Siri, a talented and emerging folk singer, spends significant time on the road playing music. In between tours, she works at the front desk at Bethlehem even though she is skeptical of institutional religion and questions the existence of God. 

About a year ago, Siri found herself in a cycle of despair. She was feeling adrift and unsure of where her community was. And she was feeling cynical, angry and overwhelmed about climate change. She could hear the earth moaning and see it crying out. One night, in response to her lament a friend kindly offered, “Would it help to do something about it?” 

Siri took the challenge to heart. She floated her idea of starting a community garden to me and some other folks at Bethlehem. Yes, yes, yes. We helped her flush out her vision and celebrated with her when she received a generous Foundation Grant. Then it was time to begin. 

At the Riverside Innovation Hub, our guiding text is from Ezekiel 47. In it, we are led away from the temple to deeper water. Along the riverbank there are lush trees with fruit for food and leaves for healing. Siri had a prophetic vision to grow a garden outside the walls of Bethlehem. Bethlehem, a large and resourced church, had not yet leveraged its voice and power to address climate change in real and meaningful ways. We recognized Siri’s passion and vision as beautiful, and we met her there, downriver, to put her plan to action. 

Planting a seed requires the audacity of hope. Tilling the soil quiets the mind, brings peace to the heart, and slows time just a bit. Weeding is a spiritual practice. Watching seed transform is a living metaphor. Fresh air shakes the dust from our souls. Billowing clouds invite us to look all the way up and remember that we are small.

flowers
The late-fall blooms of the garden.

Siri was ready to move from despair. Her leadership invited others to do the same. She built beds, planted seeds, watered them and tended to them. She showed up week in and week out and created a space outside the walls of Bethlehem for folks to gather. Sunday school kids came out into the sunshine to guess what sprouts would become. A neighborhood kid asked if he could help water the beds, another asked if he could have a cucumber. More neighbors, who previously did not engage started congregating when Siri and volunteers showed up to work. More congregation members lingered outside the church. 

Now, at the end of the summer, the garden has exceeded all of our expectations. It is bursting with life. The sun flowers tower over us. The pollinators bring life and vibrancy and splashes of color. We tended to the earth and it is showering us with bounty. The neighbor who was the most skeptical has thanked Siri for creating a space for folks to gather. Congregation members have thanked her for inviting them out of the sanctuary to God’s nature. 

Siri, too, has been amazed at the transformation inside of herself. She is a pastor’s kid, and she has a lot of hurt toward the Christian institution. She sees the harm the church has caused in the world. “It has felt like

gigantic tectonic plates shifting in my being,” she said. “It has been truly transformational to go from overwhelmed to empowered. And to grow a garden on the grounds of a church has been important for me. I’m not ready to worship yet, but growing flowers and vegetables here and having the community rally around me has ushered in healing.” 

garden boxesBethlehem’s innovation team recognized Siri’s vision and leadership. We built our vision around the growing garden and our growing partnership with folks doing conservation and reforestation in the cloud forest of Guatemala. Siri will be one of the young adults traveling to Guatemala come January, after our garden is harvested. She kept asking me if I should send someone else instead, someone who has more clarity about God and church. I think of Ezekiel and smile. “No, you are perfect.” 

The garden has been a blessing. A physical reminder of God’s abundance. A place to gather and listen to the soil and and remember whose we are. It brings dignity to get down on our knees and get dirty. Get some earth under our fingernails. Siri said yes to an invitation to grow something new and rich and beautiful. It has given her hope. And community. Fruit for food and leaves for healing. We are all better for it. We are grateful. 

The Treasure(r) of Sticky Notes: Insights and Learnings from the Artform of Interpretation

The following story is written by Lindsay Boehmer, one of our Innovation Coaches. She shares about her experiences with her congregational teams as they did the messy, surprising and creative work of interpretationworking to weave together their neighbor’s story, God’s story and their own story.

 

I love sticky notes! The first day I met the RIH staff, I was forced to reveal this bit of information about myself through a get-to-know-you question. Just the other day, I earned a new title from Isra—a middle schooler who attends Trinity Lutheran Congregation’s Homework Help Program—when she saw the piles of sticky notes I was documenting from a team activity earlier in the week: “What are you!? The treasurer of sticky notes!?” Well, yes, actually. I use sticky notes for many activities in my life, and this job has been no exception.

sticky note timeline
Innovation Teams and congregents used sticky notes to create a 106-year timeline for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Different colors representing stories of highs, lows, or growth. Photo credit: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

The first time I introduced sticky notes to my Innovation Teams was to brainstorm and collect our learnings from our accompaniment work in the neighborhood. Teams reflected on questions such as “what are our neighbor’s hopes, dreams, and desires for our shared neighborhood?” and “how are our neighbors experiencing anxiety, fear and heartache?” When it felt like our listening had fallen a bit flat, and we hadn’t done nearly all that we had hoped or planned to do, seeing these brightly colored learnings come together on the paper was exciting! It brought new energy as we realized we had heard from our neighbors! We quickly noticed that most of our sticky notes were not from the organized listening we had planned, but from the times we just showed up to events, gathering places, or even just the bus stop.

 

As we moved from accompaniment into interpretation, I saw increased opportunities for sticky notes to be involved! At St. Luke’s Episcopal, the team created a 106-year timeline and invited the congregation to add important events. Sticky notes—small and large, square and rectangular, in eight different colors—filled the years highlighting births, deaths, marriages, programs, leadership, and so much more. The congregation later went through and labeled these sticky notes as high or low or growth points in their congregation. Then, they sat together and shared these stories: one person’s memory triggering another, full of laughs and happy sighs of remembrance. I was asked by more than one member if we were keeping the timeline permanently. I raised my eyebrow about the brightly colored sticky notes becoming a permanent feature of their space, but it was about more than the sticky notes. These sticky notes hold stories that have carried this congregation and that hold life-giving potential for the future of this community.

 

These sticky note activities have been great. They’ve added color to our thinking and allowed for both individual and group reflection, but they still haven’t used the sticky notes to their full potential yet. See, in my opinion, the best use of sticky notes is when you have a whole bunch of them with a whole bunch of ideas, and you can move, re-stick, add, or throw away and create order out of chaos. It’s like a puzzle seeking order, and I find this life-giving!

 

By the end of February, the team at Trinity Lutheran Congregation had conducted four adult forum hours around interpretation topics of our story and God’s story. The team had met with multiple community leaders and residents and had showed up to numerous events, activities, and gatherings in the community. When we gathered for our March meeting, I brought all of the reflections/notes and “data” that the team had collected over the past five months. We walked through it, reviewed it, added things that were missing, and then I gave them sticky notes: every size and shape and color!

 

The team quickly picked pink to represent Trinity and everyone began writing the themes, values, events, activities, descriptions, actions, and phrases that stood out to them. When the activity dwindled, they chose orange to represent the neighborhood and began writing again. Soon, the board in front of us was covered in orange and pink sticky notes. The team began to group them, moving the sticky notes from place to place. Soon, they were adding arrows to show how the groupings influence each other and noticing that some groupings were all orange, others all pink, and others had both colored sticky notes.

Sticky Note Map
Trinity Lutheran Church used sticky notes to see connections and weave stories together. Photo credit: Trinity Lutheran Church

This project is still a work in progress. The team has taken these stories and weaved them together in a way that is making new meaning that they hadn’t noticed before. These pink and orange sticky notes are holding and blending stories and potential for Trinity’s work to accompany the neighborhood’s work; they are holding a grant proposal.

 

It was those piles of sticky notes that Isra saw me combing through the other day at Trinity when she called me the treasurer of sticky notes. And I’ll wear that title proudly, because in these sticky notes, I believe there is treasure. Sure, they are a bunch of brightly colored pieces of paper with a bit of sticky glue on one end, but they’re holding stories and learnings and hopes and fears and dreams. And in their brightly colored, organizing way, they are helping us ask new questions, see different connections, and begin to discern the work that God is calling us to participate in.