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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.

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.

The Research Begins!

Our research began on Sunday, October 22, 2017. We are conducting site visits at 12 different congregations across the Twin Cities who have been identified as communities of faith engaged in effective ministry with young adults. We are seeking to learn from them by observing their ministry with young adults, conducting focus groups with their active young adults, interviewing key leaders, and surveying their entire congregations. We will conduct these site visits throughout the fall and winter. We will spend the winter and spring analyzing these visits and distilling our findings down into key components of effective ministry with young adults. The visits, interviews, and analysis will be completed by an interdisciplinary research team of eight faculty members from Augsburg University including . . .

Adriane Brown, Assistant Professor and Director of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies

James A. Vela-McConnell, Professor of Sociology

Jeremy Myers, Associate Professor of Religion

Joseph Underhill, Associate Professor of Political Science

Kristen Chamberlain, Associate Professor & Chair of Communication Studies

Nishesh Chalise, Assistant Professor of Social Work

Stacy R. Freiheit, Associate Professor of Psychology

Terrance Kwame-Ross, Associate Professor of Education

What do we mean by “effective” ministry?

Our research team will seek a deeper understanding of how congregations and other faith communities are effectively engaging young adults. Our hope is to learn from those who have developed effective practices, systems, and communities in order to share what they have learned with other faith communities who are seeking to improve their ministry with young adults.

Interdisciplinarity

Before we begin to define effective engagement and describe our methodology, it is important to highlight our team’s commitment to interdisciplinarity. The life of faith cannot only be studied theologically, nor can the dynamics of a faith community or congregation. Christianity confesses belief in an incarnational God. Jesus is God’s word become flesh. God’s word lives and moves among us, in this physical world. Lutheranism confesses a belief in the Deus Absconditus or the “hidden God”. This is the belief in a God whose revelation is not obvious but hidden. It is the belief that God reveals Godself to humanity in, with, and under the physical realities of life. This nature of God’s revelation demands that our inquiry be interdisciplinary.  God is to be found in the stuff of this world – nature, human community, struggles, etc. – and therefore the other disciplines shed light on the substances and phenomena in which God is present. Second, because God is hidden in these phenomena and substances, our inquiry must be theological otherwise our interpretation of the thing will be incomplete, from a theological standpoint. Therefore, in order to fully understand how communities are effectively engaging young adults in a life of faith, our inquiry must be interdisciplinary – theological and scientific (for lack of a better term right now).

Effective Engagement

We have allowed our commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry influence not only our interpretation of the data we will gather, but also our definition of important variables on the front end.  Some Christian faith communities might consider effectiveness to mean large numbers of participants, large numbers of conversions, or assimilation to a particular lifestyle condoned by the specific faith community. Our team’s understanding of effectiveness is shaped by the following commitments, which grow from our own discipline-specific theories as well as the teaching and learning culture at Augsburg University.

Our intent is not to eliminate faith communities who hold a different definition of effectiveness, but to offer other explanations for why what they are doing with young adults seems to be working and in what capacity is it (or is not) effective. A system will always behave the way the system is designed to behave, but that does not always mean the system’s effectiveness is optimal or healthy.

Therefore, effective ministry with young adults will . . .

  • Reflect an ethos, or spirit, of effectiveness indigenous to the community.
  • Take place at the intersections of faith and the arts, faith and political activism, faith and environmental stewardship, and interfaith engagement as well as other places where faith is wrapped up in active, public lives.
  • Listen deeply to their life stories in order to hear and understand the “bad news” in their lives so that “good news” might be proclaimed in word and deed. It will provide a promising alternative to a personal theory that is no longer working for them.
  • Weave together text and context in a way that results in deeper understanding of both the text and the context.
  • Learn from them, equip them, and empower them for active discipleship that is theologically aware and publicly engaged.
  • Be developmentally appropriate for those in this age category (i.e., relationships based on values, not activities; right and wrong is easier to determine at this age than in adolescence, questions and answers are more relativistic).
  • Have a strengths-based perspective that enhances the strengths that are already present in individuals and the community.
  • Produce grassroots interaction rituals, which results in “collective effervescence,” or an intensification of collective awareness, attention, experience, emotion, and energy.
  • Clearly communicate these rituals as well as the community’s stories and values along to the participants.
  • Will balance the desire to address the needs of the individual while simultaneously addressing the needs of the larger context and the world.
  • Will demonstrate a desire and ability to adapt to new members and maintain a cohesion between its inward identity and external identity.

We assume any congregation currently engaged in effective ministry with young adults has already incorporated many of these things, whether they know it or not. Effectiveness is very contextual and we try to leave room for that, but at the same time we hold some commitments which we believe should always be present. Our working definition of effective ministry will continue to grow and change throughout this study.