Tuesday, August 28, 2018

On Graven Images, Our Children, and Back-to-School

Last week, I was en route to Meet the Teacher Night when the screen to my iPhone went black. 

After a late night run to both the wireless provider and local Apple store, it was confirmed beyond repair. 

What was worse, I had been too stingy for the $0.99 monthly iCloud subscription and lax in regular backups…for about 12 months. Instead, I had entrusted a free app to automatically save my photos- and it did not. Countless photos and videos were now lost.  I would not have been so bothered if it were not for how many of them were of my kids.  

After spending more than enough time wallowing in my stupidity, shifting blame to the free app, downloading the Facebook zip file of all photos/videos posted circa 2007 (yes, you can do that), and scrolling through my shared texts for pix sent to family and friends, it hit me: I had become obsessed with the loss of the digital images of my children. In some ways, the images of my kids had become almost as valued as my kids themselves. 

As I thought through all the events that had taken place over the last year, I realized how much time I spent trying to capture the moments versus living in the moments. My interactions reduced to the five-inch screen and preferred IG filter. This is not to devalue images, for they can indeed be holy. I have often scrolled through my camera roll in meditations, praying through the moments as a form of an Ignatian Examen. I will continue to do so. 

Yet these images are just that, images. They are not to be mistaken for the beautiful and tangible lives of each of our children. Maybe this is a bit of what God meant when God said, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…” (Exodus 20:4). God knew sacred symbols could quickly be mistaken for the things to which they pointed, reducing the relationship to that which could be possessed, contained, distorted, and even lost. 

And God and God’s relationship with God's people could not and would not be any of those things. 

Our children, who bear the very image of God, cannot and should not be either. 

Still snap those photos and record slo-mo videos. They’re so fun! We should back them up, too. 

This week, my Facebook and IG feed are dominated by images of my friends’ and family (and my own) kids headed back to school. I love it! This is one of my favorite social media weeks. Back-to-School week is a brief respite from other digital trends. Instead of polarizing commentary, I see the faces of those who most wonderfully reflect the love, compassion, generosity, and playfulness of their Creator. I frequently pause to pray for them, remembering the mixture of excitement and angst that comes with a new school year. 

I also pray for the teachers who will be walking alongside these young bearers of the divine image as they learn and discover, question and wonder, struggle and forge a community within their classroom. I especially pray for them in these days, when our schools have become all-too-familiar with violent acts that require our teachers to spend great energy on safety drills, assemblies, and other practices to create as safe of a learning environment as possible. I pray for them because, between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., teachers are like the Otterbox to our most precious images of the divine and holy. 

But mostly I pray all would know, whether in the classrooms or at lunch tables, the hallways or gym classes, playgrounds and bus rides, or when they forget their homework or that it is picture day, they are loved beyond measure- as high as they can count plus one.  Even more, they are bearers of the divine image, which makes them holy, set apart, and eternally beloved. 

This is a truth not able to be contained in a photo. 

Happy Back-to-School! 

A brief meditation that has been carrying me of late. May be helpful in the days ahead, for teachers, students, parents, and any adults caring for children, too. 

Life is a lived paradox, 
A holy question,
an experiment with conflicting experiences,
meanderings between hope and despair.
The only constant 
you are loved to love 
by the Holy One 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Gateways, Glory, and the Gospel in the Midst of Empire: Psalm 24 and Mark 6:14-29

Airports and Airlines. 

They can be the glory of expedited domestic and international travel. They can also be the symbols of some of our more stressful and anxious moments. 

For my recent trip to the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis, it was the latter.  It all began when I was the last to be dropped off at Terminal F by a local shuttle service. When the driver handed me my bag, I froze as I noticed- it wasn’t my bag.  

“Where’s my bag?" 

"I must have given it to the gentleman at…Terminal A." 

Yes, the terminal a half mile before mine. 

In what I believe was my fastest mile pace to date, I hauled to Terminal A just in time to intercept my bag from being checked by the gentleman who was unaware he had the wrong luggage and headed to Florida.   

Then it got worse- like I was living out the children’s story, Alexander’s Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day,  

Because some days are like this- especially at the Philadelphia Int'l Airport. 

My flight was canceled at 11 p.m. because of computer glitches that failed to schedule a flight crew. My bags were lost only 90 minutes later to be found.  The hotel offered by airline was in Bala Cynwd.  No restaurants were open for post-stress snack. I missed the General Assembly’s opening worship. Then, just as my rescheduled morning flight was about to touchdown in St. Louis, I could have dangled my legs out the window and touched the ground, the plane made a quick re-ascent as an unexpected plane was on our landing strip.  

I was never getting to my destination.  

Needless to say, I eventually made it. As my Lyft driver drove down the highway, I saw the St. Louis Arch that welcomes you into the city. Then I breathed.  

The Arch stands 630 feet high and is a beautiful feat of architecture adjacent to the Mississippi River. Originally designed as a symbol of America’s gateway to glory through Westward expansion, each morning as I ran by the monument I could not help but wonder if there was another side to the story of America’s quest for glory and expansion? What about the Native Americans who had lived on that land long before we arrived? What about Africans who would be enslaved on these lands? Is the Arch really a symbol of glory and a gateway of hope for all? Depends on whom you ask.  And in the shadows of this Arch are both a historic courthouse and an old Christian cathedral.  

Which begged more questions, hence snapping this photo. 

Where is the church in the midst of it all? 
Whose glory do we pursue? 
What kind of gateway are we daring to open? 
Are we a gateway to the glory of empire or the glory of God and the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? 

These were also some of the questions raised in their own way by the faithful gathered for the General Assembly.  This was also the question posed by Psalm 24 that called us into worship this morning- fling wide you gates so the King of Glory may come in. 

Now for some context. The people of God were called out of Egypt to be an alternative community to Pharaoh and his empire and gifted by Yahweh with their own rituals, laws, and sacred practices that hinged on the worship of God who will be who God will be.  And who will this God be? One who cares for the poor and oppressed, widows and orphans, hungry and enslaved, and all who look for refuge and safety from emperors, empires, and their own expansive quests for glory. This God was also calling out a people to fling wide their gates to this God’s glory and become an archway of jubilee for those so often exploited by the Pharaohs of every generation.  This is why the Psalmist writes, “who shall stand in God’s holy place? Those with clean hands and pure hearts and who do not lift up their souls to what is false.” 

I could go on. But the lectionary story to be engaged this morning comes to us from the Gospel of Mark Chapter 6, with the likes of Psalm 24 as backdrop for the events leading to the rather gruesome beheading of John the Baptist.  

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Arch of (in)Justice: Reflections on a Pilgrimage to St. Louis for #GA223

Last week, my days were spent with over 1,000 Presbyterians from around the country who gathered in St. Louis for the 223rd General Assembly.

For those unfamiliar, the General Assembly is the national gathering of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Commissioners and delegates representing over 9,000 churches, 170 presbyteries, and 16 synods nation-wide worship, study, discern, and decide on theological positions, business items, budgets, investments, and public witness related to a wide range of social issues. The Assembly is also a chance to (re)connect with friends and colleagues, some whom I only see every two years at the event. In many ways, after perusing the schedule and overtures to be discussed, I presumed this year would predominantly be about networking. 

I did not expect #GA223 to erupt into a week-long revival and participation in God’s justice. 

More on that in a moment. 

First, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. 

On one of my morning runs (yes, I am that guy now... never intended to become that guy; used to loathe that guy), I paused and snapped the picture above of this 630 foot national landmark. Because, you know, instagram.  Intended as a symbol for westward expansion and a “gateway" to American glory, the arch casts a shadow over an old cathedral and a historic courthouse along the Mississippi River. What makes for a beautiful picture on a sunrise run also serves as a (unintended) reminder of how the church and state were (are) bedfellows in these expansive quests for glory at the expense of Native Americans whose land we stole and people we displaced and killed. 

The arch indeed casts a shadow upon both church and state, which sadly lingers still.

Then I returned from my run and landed on Psalm 24:
“Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the king of glory may come in.” 
What would the psalter have to say for this icon of empire? What about the church?

Whose glory do we usher in through our religious and political gateways? At what cost? 

Back to General Assembly. 

The week at #GA223 was both a reflection on and praxis of the kin-dom of God. We talked to great lengths about the infinite scope of God’s grace and the wideness of Christ’s embrace. As we discerned and decided together, we also committed to following our words with our feet, our statements with our activism, and our worship with our public witness. Yes, even a march down the St. Louis streets took place as we advocated for #endcashbail (see below). Say what you will about organized religion and the decline of the mainline church, Presbyterians demonstrated in St. Louis that we are indeed a called, sent, and resurrecting people committed to more than institutional preservation. We are disciples gathered and scatterered to engage our time and place(s) with relevant and liberating incarnations of the gospel.  

Sure, there were decisions made and voices lifted of which we may have disagreed. It must be said, not all of the actions taken were/are unanimously received with a sense of jubilee; neither were we lured by a belief that the church has arrived once and for all at what it means to be a provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity and the created world.

Certainly not. 

Yet, as we worshipped and marched, fellowshipped and debated, elevated concerns for the incarcerated and victims of abuse, responded to ongoing realities of racism and the discrimination of LGBTQIA+ persons, exposed the exploitation of creation and prayed for nations torn by war, and even called out the realities of American empire that marginalizes people looking for refuge, there was an energy in the convention center within the shadows of an Arch that dared us to lean into the stirring of God's Spirit. It was evident, something new and different and faithful and messy and maybe a bit controversial was emerging from this body of believers; we were being reformed and still reforming

We were becoming all the more aware of the shadows cast by archways of despair, confessing our own past and present complicity in oppression; we were also being attentive to the echoes of Scripture, which dare us to live into the sacred story as we fling open the gateways to God’s kin-dom of justice and peace, reconciliation and liberation, and a concern for our neighbors most vulnerable to imperial pursuits of vain glory and expansive conquests of power. All this because we affirm this to be gospel work; this is discipleship; this is the Way of Jesus as guided by the Holy Spirit. 

And this, as mentioned, was not what I was expecting at this particular Assembly. 

As we continue to live in the past and present shadows of empire, with stories of struggle breaking every minute, I pray what we were a part of last week would move all of us to increased public witness of the Gospel between St. Louis and Baltimore, near and far, here, there, and everywhere.  May we move beyond these shadows cast and through the gateways of God’s kin-dom. May we even usher in others who have been relegated to the margins for too long.

May we also be reminded that death and despair have not the last word; God is doing something new and we are being invited to come along for the ride- together as the kindom of God. 

Lift up your heads, O church!
Be lifted up, O ancient people. 
That the Spirit of the Living God may come in
to open a gateway to justice
an arch of hope
for all who bear the sacred image,
creation that lingers for liberation. 

Here are just a few of the ways our the priestly institutional church participated in the prophetic movement of the gospel. As Rev. Cedric Portis, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church noted in worship, the Spirit is thawing out the frozen chosen. You can also check out a summary of actions the Presbytery of Philadelphia developed, aware there is much more left to say…and do.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Intrapreneur or Entrepreneur? Prophet or Priest? The Whole Church Called to Innovation.

When I was in seminary, one of the critical differentials discussed for ministry leadership was between the prophet and the priest.

A prophet is one who is willing to work outside the bounds of a given (religious) system and institution for the sake of work they discern to be of value to a community and in rhythm with God’s mission to reconcile the whole world. A bit reductionist, I know, but bare with me. This involves variable risks and the willingness to speak truth to (religious or social) powers when they were at odds with that very mission. Even more, these prophets are willing to create alternatives, i.e. grassroots movements, newly organized communities, etc., to those very systems and institutions. Prophets refuse to wait for the change they long to see. Prophetic work is hard, sometimes lonely, and can possibly put a leader at odds with the very hands that feed them.

There is plenty of room to nuance more and better, but the point is we need the prophets among us. Institutions without an ear tuned to the voice of the prophets can become oppressive in function, perpetuates of injustice, and breeders of despair within the systems that sustain them. 

Then there is the priest. A priest is the face of both the institution and the people, even a mediator between the two. In the biblical story, a priest even mediates among the people, the institution, and God. The priest serves a vital role in the community, intended to be an arbiter for God’s justice and reconciliation. Priests wear the garments of the (religious or social) systems, speak the language of the institution, and are charged with moving the sacred and shared narrative forward for the sake of the generations to come. In a word, priests are also charged with the work of sustainability. This call is not for self-preservation alone, rather because the story is so good that it must be told and retold, shared and proclaimed from the holiest of holies to the outer courts and the margins of society.  

And we need the priests among us. Prophetic work without priestly partnerships are more vulnerable to isolation and even death. In this sense, if the priests have their eyes an ears attuned to the good word and witness of the prophets, daring to partner together, these movements and alternative communities can be sustained and effect change in the larger institutional narrative and corporate witness in the world. They can even minimize (eliminate?) oppression.

Full stop. 

Over the last few weeks, I have stumbled into numerous conversations that have highlighted the word, “intrapreneur.” I was familiar with the buzz word, “entrepreneur,” being waved as a banner among ministry innovation circles, but this one was new to me.  Yet it made sense. 
“You will be familiar with entrepreneurs, those individuals who set out to create something special, generally via a start-up business model. They are the ideas people, the disruptors, the individuals who have seen an opportunity and are out to make a difference. You may not be aware that key individuals within your organization display the same traits. These are the intrapraneurs, the individuals who are not content to sit back but who have a burning desire to help their organization to succeed and the imagination and drive to carry change along with them. Intrapreneurs are the organization’s natural innovators, comfortable with navigating uncertainty and exploring new terrain. They apply entrepreneurial thinking and actions to the role which they play within the organization and that means that above everything else they embody the fact that innovation is everyone’s job” (Building a Culture of Innovation 162). 
There it is, live and in the world of corporate innovation. Prophets as entrepreneurs and priests as intrapreneurs. Together called to ministry innovation in and through grassroots movements and religious institutions able to effect sustainable change in the neighborhoods, communities, congregations, and larger world God so loves. 

Here I also found a little nugget of self-discovery. In the midst of all the pressure to be entrepreneurial as a minister, community leader, and presbyter, I found renewed energy in the possibility that my gift set was more intrapreneurial (for now). As an intrapraneur, I am called to collaborate and innovate within the systems (read: presbytery and church) that can be good and must always strive to be better. Intrapreneurs are also able to energize, empower, equip, implement, and work to sustain new possibilities within a given organization and to strive to serve as partners with those more entrepreneurial in nature. While there are quibbles about who is more innovative, risk-taking, and faithful to the collective story, we need both. Prophet and priest. Entrepreneur and intrapreneur. They are each vital vocations with their own quirks and pitfalls, hopes and aspirations. They are not to be opponents or binary tracks. There's actually great overlap.

This is where Anna Mazzone drops knowledge:
"Suits or sneakers? Suits AND sneakers! While intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs both try to to solve a genuine problem, the level of chutzpah or mannerliness, the risk and reward, the degree of freedom, the resource opportunities, the network, and maybe most prominently the environment in which they function, are different. They do share having that entrepreneurial DNA, and so it’s no wonder that we see a growing number of people switching roles from being an intrapreneur to becoming an entrepreneur- and vice versa. In a future workplace where one will pursue several careers in one lifetime, it’s probably best to focus not on the title per se, but on further developing the underlying personality and mindset and improving the environment for accommodating both in your organization.” (“Suits vs. Sneakers,” Nitzan Merguei, Academy for Corporate Entrepreneurship Blog. Aug 19, 2016). 
Would love to see more discussions in the church related to both offices and calls. I am barely a beginner in this learning lab. But I do believe this conversation could help leaders in varied places be more collaborative at grassroots and institutional levels of the church as we share the work of ministry innovation. 

After all, innovation is everyone’s job.

Helpful Reads:
Beswick, Chris, Derek Bishop, and Jo Garaghty. Building a Culture of Innovation: A Practical Framework for Placing Innovation at the Core of Your Business. Philadelphia: Kogan Page, 2016. 

Merguei, Nitzan.  “Suits vs. Sneakers,” Academy for Corporate Entrepreneurship Blog. Aug 19, 2016: http://www.afce.co/old/whats-difference-intrapreneurs-entrepreneurs/ 

Myler, Larry. “Intrapreneurs Are Just Like Entrepreneurs…NOT!” Forbes. Jan 15, 2014: https://www.forbes.com/sites/larrymyler/2014/01/15/intrapreneurs-are-just-like-entrepreneurs-not/#674448f0354e