Monday, August 14, 2017

On Charlottesville and the Call of the Church: Standing in the Tempests of Racism and White Supremacy

One thing I have learned lately, the Lectionary has a way of serving as a channel for the Spirit to speak into the issues of the day- and weekend. This was true with yesterday’s familiar Gospel story- Jesus (and Peter) walking on the water in Matthew 14:22-33. 

As I reflected late last night, with the events of Charlottesville on my heart and mind, I landed on this simple charge: upon the waters of chaos is where Jesus calls his disciples to walk. These are the same waters the Spirit hovered over in the beginning and called forth light.

Yet, when the strong winds of this world bellow upon us, like Peter, we are tempted to become become fickle and afraid. When our sure-footedness feels like a thing of the past and safety and security are as questionable as the waters beneath us, we wonder why we ever left the boat in the first place.

This is what Jesus saves Peter from- questioning that upon these waters is exactly where he and all disciples are called to wander in faith, hope, love, and an unwavering commitment to justice. Upon these waters is where he- and the whole world- will find deliverance.

In these days, with squalls of racism and violence and the tempests of white supremacy trumpeted with renewed energy under the banner of God and country, I am giving thanks for those who dare to step out of the boat in faith and to stand. I am giving thanks for those who refuse to sink in the chaotic waters even as they embrace the hand of Christ and walk upon such seas- exposing the evils and injustices that seek to unsettle the spirit and slow the progress of a nation through fragile acts of terror. I am grateful for preachers and prophets, teachers, bloggers, sisters and brothers across faith traditions, and advocates of all kinds who have refused to disengage, remain silent, or white-knuckle their own security and public image and instead have taken to the front lines of holy solidarity and cruciform love.

I pray each of us would have the courage to do the same. Only there, as we walk upon these turbulent waters armed with God's grace and compassion, can we find salvation. This is where the Spirt hovers and brings forth light.

This has always been so.

Some quick links to stories of those walking upon the waters of chaos in these days, please let me know of others I should add:

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Church as the Humus of Heaven: Jesus' Parable of the Sower and Some Wendell Berry, Too


(A Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

There is a well-known Wendell Berry poem that has hung in my office for nearly 10 years. The title of the poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. 

A portion of it reads: 

Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequioas. 
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant, 
that you will not live to harvest. 
Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years

Practice resurrection. 

I am far from a farmer and have a very faint green thumb- my greatest claim to a harvest being the six peppers I grew on our front porch and used in my southwest omelet a few years ago.  Eggs compliments of Wegmans. Seeds from Target. Yet there is something intriguing about not only the agrarian imagery of this poem, but also the very title. Farming framed as a revolt, a sustainable movement of subversion.  The farmer is marked as one gone mad, celebrated for raising unconventional questions, investing in the next generation, putting faith in a slow yet emerging process, and prioritizing sowing in such a way that the fullness of the harvest will out live even the farmer. 

Wendell Berry is an environmental activist, novelist, and prophetic poet who continues to live in simplicity with his wife in rural Kentucky.  His writings have captured the imaginations and underscored movements of change for generations. And Wendell Berry is known for his agrarian imagery. 

He’s in good company. 

While since the industrial revolution we have preferred machines, devices, and factories, the bulk of human history, and even most of the world still today, identified with fields, farms, and living off the land. Jesus was not exempt. It doesn’t take long to see that, in many ways, Jesus was a first-century rendition of Wendell Berry whose pithy statements were laced with references to grain and the harvest, reaping and sowing, wheat and chaff, mustard seeds and invasive plants. These were far from tame motifs, they were culturally relevant nuances of God’s kingdom intended to grow a movement of change called discipleship. 

Jesus’ use of the agrarian world and all its organic metaphors underscore God’s dreams for the world that come by way of a slow yet urgent process with a harvest not only for this generation, but also the generation to come. This mode of divine activity called the gospel is beautiful and frustrating, intentional and local, nourishing yet demanding, even requiring the ability to adapt and evolve in light of changes in conditions.  At it’s core, Jesus’ leaning on this imagery reminds us that the gospel, God’s Way in the World, requires our on-going participation and ability to dig our hands deep into the soil of this world God so loves. 

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in today’s parable, the first of many Jesus would tell to frame his budding movement called in Matthew’s Gospel, the kingdom of heaven. In fact, today’s Gospel story is so central to Jesus’ teachings that it is the only one he actually unpacks and explains for his disciples.

This makes it so much easier for the visiting preacher.

Matthew locates Jesus as seated seaside where he addresses the massive crowds outside of the home. “Listen!” Jesus shouts to those on the beach. "This message is for you, every last one of you.”

Much like the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus announced blessings to those most ignored and dismissed, Jesus again casts wide the net of God’s welcome.  "There was this sower of seeds who had gone mad, scattering seeds here, there, and everywhere- liberally tossing possibilities for new life everywhere this sower went.”

I was reading this parable with fellow leaders of the Presbytery the other day when one of the pastors raised a shared point of frustration, one possibly whispered down the lane by those on the shore that day two millennia ago. 

“This seems to be a pretty irresponsible farming practice,” she said. "A wise sower would have surveyed the land and known that this particular seed falling on a path, in the rocks, or among thorns wouldn’t work. They would have limited their planting to the good soil from the get go.”

That would work with conventional planting, sure. But if we know anything about Jesus and the kingdom of heaven he announced, it is less linked to convention and more reflective of madness. As Paul would say in 1 Corinthians, “the gospel is foolishness to those who believe.” 

Matthew’s inference is clear: Jesus is the Mad Sower of Seeds of this great liberation front called the kingdom of heaven. This Sower shows no judgment or partiality, in many ways his grace is frivolous, overly generous, and borderline insane.  

Which is good news, for the seeds of the gospel have been liberally scattered throughout the generations and to virtually every corner of the earth. The seeds have even been scattered so freely and without hesitation that they have been planted in each of us here today.  The Psalmist says it this way, “Your wagon tracks overflow with richness…”(Psalm 65:11).

The question for us, is what kind of soil will we be? 

Will we dare enable the seeds of God’s Word of love and generosity, welcome and hospitality, justice and commitment to those frequently labeled as other to burry deep within the soil of our individual lives, take root in our communities of faith, and sprout a harvest of hope and possibility in the neighborhoods we call home?

Will we dare look beyond the walls of our buildings to see that this Sower of Seeds is scattering fertile possibilities within the hearts and minds of our neighbors and in the communities our churches were first planted within?

Will we become like that two-inches of humus beneath the tree that is able to nourish a rooted discipleship able to withstand all that seeks to slow the growth of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?

These were the questions posed to those on that first-century beach. These are the critical questions posed to us today. 

In many ways and at various parts of my life, I have found myself more able to identify with the first three categories of dirt that Jesus describes than the final harvest. There have been times when I have failed to understand the kingdom and even allowed the birds of doubt, despair, apathy, and fear to swoop in and snatch the seeds of gospel possibility off my pilgrim path. Other times I have been the one whose faith is fickle, like seed falling on rocky ground or among thorns, unwilling to sink my roots deep into expressions of discipleship because it felt too risky, irresponsible, or may cost me my reputation, privilege, job, or financial security. Maybe you find yourself today as though you are merely feeding the birds, among rocky ground, or being choked by thorns of this world.

Hear the good news of the gospel this morning- Jesus continues to scatter the seeds for the harvest among you and your neighbors still. The invitation remains to be that fertile soil whereby a rooted discipleship can sprout, when the Word of God grows within you and flowers expressions of justice and love alongside neighbors near and far.

While Matthew’s gospel certainly speaks to Jesus’ personal invitation to individual discipleship, this parable is also a corporate, communal call. The parable of the sower is a charge to the gathered people of God, namely the church, to scatter as a subversive movement of frivolous love and generosity, a liberation front in the face of all that seeks to snatch, choke, and wither the world God so loves. The parable is a nudge to be the humus of heaven on earth able to reap a rooted discipleship in Jesus- the Mad Sower of God's love, justice, and grace.

As our Presbytery has leaned into our 300th Anniversary we have spent significant time reflecting on our beginnings, when God’s Spirit first scattered seeds in the hearts and minds of the faithful who came to this nation and founded what is the American Presbyterian Church. In each generation, the faithful were challenged to ask unconventional questions, leverage new incarnations of the gospel initially marked as madness, and pray for God’s Spirit to sprout unique expressions of God’s love and justice alongside the numerous congregations in the communities they were called to serve. In many ways, what began three hundred years ago was like the two inches of humus underneath the tree that created the necessary nutrients for the witness of the Presbytery to sustain growth and faithful witness over many generations and in light of the relevant issues of each passing age.

Whether in the midst of the civil rights movement or the AIDS epidemic, slavery or pervasive poverty, racism or immigration, suburban sprawl or the rise of the millennial generation, rapid change in technology and social media or increased violence, churches in this Presbytery for 300 years have been dared to ask, will we as individuals and communities of faith be fertile ground for new possibilities or will we allow the lure of power, privilege, and the institution choke our witness? Will we allow the joy we first found in being called to follow Jesus frame relevant and prophetic work in the world or will we bail the moment discipleship costs us something? Will we understand Christ’s call to rooted discipleship in the midst of our current socio-political context when many are looking for assurance that chaos is not the final victor and the concerns of the elite are not all that matter or will we allow the seeds of God's grace to be snatched up by the birds of doubt, despair, or worse- irrelevance?

Over the course of three hundred years, the faithful of this Presbytery have demonstrated that we indeed are fertile soil with the seeds of our witness rooted in God’s grace made known to us in Jesus Christ. Yes, we have much to confess and more than enough reasons to lament our being complicit throughout history. We also must acknowledge the fertility of our faith that has extended across generations. Churches have been planted by emancipated slaves ordained to ministry; congregations have been launched in immigrant communities and alongside people experiencing chronic homelessness; hospitals, schools, nutrition programs, and Christian camps have been birthed and mentoring ministries developed in at-risk communities; once vibrant churches have discerned a call to close and reshape their structure so to best engage their changing community with the gospel.  One church even opened up their fellowship hall and vacant Sunday school rooms to artists previously incarcerated and now looking to turn their lives around as they impact the next generation through the creation of elaborate murals that envelop the walls of public elementary schools. 

The Sower of Seeds has been at work scattering seeds of resurrection possibility in this presbytery and in many ways we have been fertile soil for rooted discipleship. I say all this not as an ad for our Presbytery, but because such fertility of the faithful sprouted this congregation in sixty years ago.  This is your storied history, too.

My prayer is that we would continue to allow the seeds of God’s word to take root in our individual and corporate discipleship so that God’s Spirit reaps a harvest among us thirty, sixty, and hundred fold. Along the way, I pray we also remember we are neither Sower nor seeds, rather the soil God’s Word is being rooted within as we live into the hope we call the Gospel.  I pray we view our neighbors near and far through the same lens, for God is scattering seeds of goodness and possibility within them, just as well.


I end by recalling the final line of Wendell Berry’s poem. Two simple words: Practice Resurrection. I had never thought about it before, but resurrection is even an agrarian image, new life out of what was once dead. We are only able to practice such resurrection because Jesus, the frivolous Sower of Seeds, has already been raised.  That’s madness. That’ gospel. That’s the root of our discipleship from one generation to the next. Let it sink deep within you as the humus of heaven on earth.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Design Process and the Church: Ministry as Mitigation of Wicked Problems


I have recently been immersed in varied readings and resources related to design process, a method of product innovation and social entrepreneurialism that has quickly gained traction in the realm of ministry. Design process has become particularly important in addressing "wicked problems,” social and cultural dilemmas that wreak havoc on individuals, organizations, communities, and the larger world and are difficult if not impossible to solve. Wicked problems are vast, complex, and interwoven with so many contributing factors unable to be reduced or ignored. Wicked social problems range from poverty to racism, homelessness to discrimination, mass incarceration to pervasive violence and much more. 

It would be foolish for me to try to unpack design process as if I was anything but a novice, entry-level learner. Instead, check out the book I am currently reading and related resources below.  Here is a sample that caused me recent pause:
"So most social problems- such as inequality, political instability, death, disease, or famine- are wicked. They can’t be ‘fixed.’ But because of the role of design in developing infrastructure, designers can play a central role in mitigating the negative consequences of wicked problems and positioning the broad trajectory of culture in new and more desirable directions. This mitigation is not an easy, quick, or solitary exercise. While traditional circles of entrepreneurship focus on speed and agility, designing for impact is about staying the course through methodical, rigorous iteration. Due to the system qualities of these large problems, knowledge of science, economics, statistics, technology, medicine, politics, and more are necessary for effective change. This demands interdisciplinary collaboration, and most importantly, perseverance.” (Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving 11)
The implications of design process and the church are very real- even urgent.  Every day we are exposed to gross symptoms of wicked problems. We need only mention Philando Castile and the recently returned verdict, current propositions for healthcare legislation, lead in Flint water and Kensington soil, Bill Cosby, closing public schools, pulling out of the Paris Accord, and all things American politics today. This is only to scratch the surface. The temptation is to become either stunted by despair so we do nothing or scramble from one issue to the next as if we can solve wicked problems through a collection of hastily manufactured programs.

Design process, on the contrary, dares social innovators to enter into an intentional process that combines empathy, abductive reasoning, prototyping, and constant evaluation to create collaborative impact and sustainable social change over time (Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving 10).

Design process is not afraid of failure. In theological terms, design process is once reformed and always reforming. When applied to the realm of practical ministry, design process pushes the practitioner towards enhanced listening, learning, and creating alongside leaders in congregation and community as we incarnate localized expressions of the gospel right where God has called us to serve.  Our starting place shifts from how to solve wicked problems to focused and collaborative efforts to reduce impact, change the wind, and cultivate alternatives to whatever may be creating conditions that are far from whole, good, and just.  

Ryan Hubbard says it this way:
“You have to pick something very concrete and very tiny, and not worry that you won’t fix all aspects of the problem. You start on one of the smaller problems, someone else focuses on something else, and eventually, after a long period of seeing no change, you will have enough scaffolding- support base - in place for the community to enjoy some results" (Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving 34). 
In many ways, design process is much like the agrarian, mustard-seed laden kingdom of God of which Jesus spoke. Each seed planted is a small contribution to an invasive movement of subversive growth that fosters new possibilities for the birds of the air to make their home in even the most wicked of environments.  

The question then posed by this methodology: what seeds of subversion have you been called to design and plant in the face of wicked problems? May the church dare to engage in this redemptive process with gracious empathy, humble reasoning, and a commitment to community-based innovation that embodies holistic love for neighbor.

Design away...and don't be afraid to fail.

"Transformative innovation is inherently risky. It involves inferences and leaps of faith; if something hasn’t been done before, there’s no way to guarantee its outcome. The philosopher Charles Peirce said that insights come to us “like a flash”—in an epiphany—making them difficult to rationalize or defend. Leaders need to create a culture that allows people to take chances and move forward without a complete, logical understanding of a problem."

--------
There is much to be gleaned, probably even critiqued, about design process. That said, it is wise and faithful to at least engage. Here are helpful resources and introductions to Design Process:

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Knowability of God: Looking for Assurance and Hope in Times Such as These


Humor me for just a moment as I let my nerd out only to work my way back to why any and all of this matters for such a time as this. In other words, bear with me as I move from the dense to the deeply practical and even pastoral. 

One of the central doctrines of Karl Barth’s theology is the knowability of God. In many ways, this is the foundation and bedrock of all Barth writes about in his vast volumes of dialectic theology- God can be and is made known to us in God’s self-revelation as Jesus Christ. This is Barth’s great prolegomena and theological preface. Barth doesn’t waste time defending, advocating, or crafting clever apologetics about the existence or viability of God. God was. God is. God will always be. 

Barth is a Christian and writes as a Christian to the Church: “God is God and that in His revelation is also God among us and for us” (Church Dogmatics II.1 p. 68).

This enables Barth to move on to expositions on the knowability of God as that which frames and sustains our uniquely Christian movement in and through the world and towards the ultimate goal of reconciliation, i.e. the last published volume of his Church Dogmatics. For Barth, this is critical. The knowability of God is always moving us, and the whole of creation, forward and towards a greater and redeemed end in and through the vocation of Jesus Christ.

Yet, in terms akin to Barth, this is no theological abstraction. The knowability of God is manifested not only in the flesh and blood, work and proclamation of Jesus Christ, but also in the life and work of the Church as the collection of his disciples then and now, near and far.

In other words, the watching world will know we are Christians not by what we say alone, but even more so by what we do in the very places God has placed us. 

Again, Barth writes:
“Only as we stand in the truth, only as we are summoned, authorised and directed by it, can we refer and appeal powerfully and effectively to the truth, and in a way that will genuinely enlighten both ourselves and others. If not, we may carry out a theological movement which is correct in itself. But seen from the outside, it will have the appearance perhaps of a theological trick leading out of nothing into nothing” (Church Dogmatics II.1 p.69-70).

While it would appear ironic for Barth, an ecclesial architect of castles made from paragraphs,* to suggest right theology is not the chief end of humanity, that is precisely what he does. Yes, theology matters, but only in so much as it has the wings of an uncaged bird who moves freely within the world. 

So now- why does any of this matter? 

In these days of "alternative facts" and labels of “fake news,” when those in power function within their own variations of reality rooted in self-promotion, and when much of what we have trusted in political and religious systems and institutions is looked at with warranted suspicion, we wonder what we can know and trust anymore. 

We may even question the knowability of God and proclamations about God among us, with us, and for us. After all, if this were true, what are we to make of the bombings in Manchester and Kabul, bus raids in Egypt that take the lives of children on pilgrimage, detained immigrants and refugees who flee violence looking for safety in another land, elementary kids who cannot focus in the classroom because they did not eat breakfast that day….or yesterday…or the day before. If the knowability of God among us is to be our starting place for assurance in this life, does not the rest of our Christian hope collapse when we read of violence in South Sudan and yet another black youth killed by those sworn to protect, the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria to American armament manufacturing and sales to customers around the globe?

The answer, for some, is yes. Our present realities of injustice and despair can arrest any hope in the existence of a God who is near and able to impact for sustainable good. In many ways, this is the very lament of those who walked that Emmaus road after the crucifixion. 

As I make my morning commute and listen to public radio, I often doubt the knowability of God as one story bleeds into the next. But then I pause and remember the knowability of God is not an abstract pipe dream and theological treatise of intellectual assent. No. If we resign ourselves to mere words and books, debates and recluse religious convictions of idealogical privilege, God cannot and will not be knowable to the watching and wondering and longing world.  The knowability of God comes to us in real place and people who stand at these very places of despair and dare extend solidarity alongside those who suffer and wonder if God is there at all. In this light, I find deep assurance in the knowability of God through my sisters and brothers near and far who have devoted their entire lives to such critical works of advocacy, solidarity, justice, and social change rooted in their commitment to gospel.  

Said differently, we must not waste time on questioning the knowability of God and start living as the very embodiments of God alongside those who suffer and long for things to be made right and whole and safe again. We dare follow Jesus into the cruciform places, taking sides with those most marginalized and wounded by the various manifestations of evil. We are not to resign ourselves to middle-of-the-road jargon and instead look for the knowability of God, as Jesus taught us, among the “least of these.” 

Anything less is a mere religious trick from nothing to nothing. 

"God always takes His stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this sidalone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it
(Church Dogmatics II. 1, p. 386). 

*I believe Barth would have loved Hamilton.