Bing tracking

COVID-19: Fall 2020 plans and student resources ›

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.

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”…

Innovative Ministry Partnership Application Criteria

Whether faith communities are currently engaged in meaningful ways with young adults or not, what we are looking for in our Innovation Ministry Partnership is evidence that faith communities sense a call into deeper ministry with young adults – a call rooted in hopefulness and not anxiety or wishfulness. Consider this list as you explore your own community’s capacity and willingness to partner with the Riverside Innovation Hub in innovative ways with young adults.

Selection Criteria for Innovative Ministry Partner Congregations

We think that “evidence” might include some of the following….

  • Hopeful Honesty: Faith communities honest about the realities and challenges at play – both within the congregation and within the larger cultural contexts of the day. Leadership recognizes that the landscape of our communities and the ways we are called to be church in this time and place has shifted. In spite of the anxiety this current context creates, we are looking for congregational leadership that is making decisions and moving to action from the place of hopefulness.  
  • Spirit-filled Imagination: Faith communities that have imagination for ministry that is not simply more and bigger of the same. That have imagination for creative ways to cultivate life-giving relationships with young adults. That have imagination for something beyond hiring a new staff person or setting up a new program. That have imagination which leaves room for the Spirit to show up.
  • Humble Openness: A culture open to a coaching relationship with a trained young adult through the Riverside Innovation Hub. The Innovation Coach will not be coming on board to take orders or share in the existing workload, but rather to coach faith communities through listening and discernment work in their community and with their neighbors. The Innovation Coach may potentially be younger than the faith community’s existing leadership and therefore present a twist on more common power dynamics. Faith communities will need to demonstrate an openness to learning in new ways with new people.  
  • Broad Congregational Buy-in: Faith communities will need to show that there is buy-in among the various leadership structures in their context – staff, councils, and other key leadership – to the vision and spirit of the Riverside Innovation Hub. The partnership lasts four years, but we hope this partnership will stir up something that outlives this four-year period. Long lasting transformation will require continued leadership and support from the congregation among all types of leaders and influencers.  
  • Eager Curiosity: Faith communities with a genuine curiosity about what God is up to in this current context at the intersection of young adults and faith communities. A curiosity and eagerness to learn new ways to do ministry and be church. A curiosity that seeks meaningful and messy insights rather than easy answers. A curiosity that could liberate faith communities to embrace how God might each, challenge, and transform them throughout this four-year experiment.
  • Collaborative Spirit: Faith communities willing to share their success and failures with a larger network of leaders and communities so that we learn together. When we are collaborative and innovative, successes and failures are both equally valuable spaces for learning.  
  • Commitment to the project: Faith communities with the capacity and willingness to participate in every aspect of this project over its entire length, following through on the tasks and presence required to do this collaborative work well.  
  • Called to ministry with young adults: Faith communities who sense a deep call to engage with people in the 22-29-year-old age range. This would be meaningful engagement and not simply a desire to have 20-somethings showing up at church again. Do you love young adults and do you love all the reasons why they stay away from church?

 

  • What will not be selection criteria?  
    • The size of your faith community.
    • Your faith community’s denomination or lack thereof.  
    • How long you’ve been around as a faith community.  
    • Whether you have young adults involved currently or not.  
    • Your faith community’s budget.
    • Your faith community’s location, with one caveat. Track 1 Partners will be limited to faith communities within a 30-minute drive of Minneapolis because we need sites to be relatively accessible for our Innovation Coaches. However, location is not a factor for Track 2 Partners or Track 3 Associate Faith Communities.

Innovative Ministry Partnership for Faith Communities

In order for this work to have the greatest impact, we have crafted several different pathways for interested faith communities to participate in the Innovative Ministry Partnership.

On Jan. 15, 2018 our Innovative Ministry Partnership Application was made available for faith communities with a willingness and capacity to explore their call into deeper ministry with young adults. Applications for Track 1 opportunities closed Apr. 15, 2018. Still interested? We accepts Track 3 applications on a rolling basis.

 

Innovation Ministry Partner Faith Communities – Track 1 (Closed)

  • Work with the Riverside Innovation Hub for four years from the summer of 2018 through the summer of 2022.
  • Year One (summer 2018 – summer 2019): Commit to working 15-20 hours a week with a Riverside Innovation Hub young adult Innovation Coach who will walk with your faith community through a year-long process of reimagining its ministry with young adults.
  • Submit a sub-grant proposal at the end of Year One to the Riverside Innovation Hub to receive $25,000-$30,000 for innovative approaches to ministry with young adults in your context over the following two years.
  • Years Two – Three (summer 2019 – summer 2021): Manage the funds granted to your faith community and implement your plan for engaging young adults in your context in new and innovative ways.
  • Year Four (summer 2021 – summer 2022): Work with the Riverside Innovation Hub to evaluate the three previous years of learning and creating in order to learn what worked and what did not. Faith communities will also work with the Riverside Innovation Hub to share collective findings through written projects and seminars.
  • Attend regular learning cohort meetings and trainings offered by the Riverside Innovation Hub throughout the four years of partnership with the Hub.
  • Track 1 faith communities need to be located within a 30 minute drive of Minneapolis in order to be accessible to our Innovation Coaches.

Innovative Ministry Partner Faith Communities – Track 2 (Closed)

  • Identical to Track 1 with two main differences…
  • First: In Year One, faith communities will identify their own young adult Innovation Coach from their community to guide the faith community through the work of reimagining its ministry with young adults. The faith community’s Innovation Coach will participate in training at Augsburg during the weeks of August 6-24, 2018 with other Riverside Innovation Hub coaches, be a part of an Innovation Coach cohort, and invited to attend all workshops and training aimed at equipping Innovation Coaches in Year One.
  • Second: No funding will be available to Track 2 faith communities. However, they will participate in all other aspects of the partnership with Track 1 partners. They will be included in all training & learning cohorts throughout the partnership, create their own ministry proposal in Year One, implement and adapt their ministry in Years Two and Three, and participate in evaluating the learnings in Year Four.
  • Faith communities may choose to be considered for Track 2 on their own because they believe they have the resources internally to support the work or they may be located more than 30 minutes from the Twin Cities. The Riverside Innovation Hub may choose to invite faith communities who apply to be Track 1 Partners to consider Track 2 based on the fact that there are a limited number of spots available for Track 1.

Innovative Ministry Associate Faith Communities – Track 3 (Open)

  • Some faith communities may share a deep passion and curiosity for this work but not currently be in the position to dedicate the needed resources of time, leadership, and potentially funding to commit to a four-year partnership with the Riverside Innovation Hub. An Associate Faith Community is committed to following the project, eager to be a part of the learning the flows from it, and willing to commit to being a regular participant in the learning opportunities offered through the Riverside Innovation Hub.
  • Associate Faith Communities would commit to attending Hub Seminars and workshops as the project unfolds and have opportunities to learn alongside the efforts taking shape at Partner Congregations.