The Lutheran online communities I have been a part of have tended to be very quiet. Many members. A few active participants in discussions (and usually a couple who tend to dominate). A lot of lurkers. Many discussions are echo chambers, with one or two people energizing the thread until it dies.

Well, unless that we tread into one particular subject. This is from the wall of a Lutheran group I joined on Facebook:

*Sigh*  C'mon, people, is this really what we want to show people is at the top of our minds and agendas?


In 30 seconds or less...

We used this video to preface our community's retelling of the Christmas story. Enjoy!


Love has come. For you.

Here's the Christmas message from Kairos tonight. Have a blessed Christmas!

Love has come!

Love has come to you!

The marvelous part of this story is not that it happened a long time ago in a place far, far away.  The Word is waiting to become flesh tonight, right here in this room, right in you!  The Word is waiting to take on your flesh, to be reborn in your heart.

This is such a human story.  A couple faced with a difficult predicament.  A poor family left out of the comfortable accommodations.  The message comes to a simple teenager.  To working men, the kind who would have had to shower after work if they had had showers then, right at their jobsite. 

Yet it is the fulfillment of a centuries old promise, the working out of divine will.  Isaiah promised that the zeal of the Lord of hosts – the love of God for all of God’s people – would bring this child into the world.  He is not born to be tender and mild. Nor is he born to be meek and make no crying.  The songwriters of the church have long told of the cosmic significance of Christ:

This verse from "What Child is This" often gets skipped at Christmas:

Nails, spears, shall pierce him through / the cross be borne for me, for you.

And listen to this verse from "O Holy Night":

Truly he taught us to love one another / his law is love and his gospel is peace
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother / and in his name all oppression shall cease!

This is big!  The story of Christmas is not just about a child in a manger.  It is about the healing of the world.  The mending of all of our broken parts.  The release of prisoners and captives of every kind.  It is about, as St. Paul writes, the very essence of the universe, of life – Jesus Christ is in it all and holds it all together, even – especially – when it seems that it is all about to come flying apart.

And that is why it is also our story.  This Savior of the world is born in dirt and straw.  This king is descended from rulers, and prostitutes and murderers.  His significance is recognized by working people and outcasts, the sick and deformed and completely missed by the religious elites.  He eats with sinners and tax collectors, and is executed as a political prisoner – a terrorist.

This is not a story of the world rising to God’s standards.  It is the good news that God comes to us where we are, just as we are.  God comes to you – right now – no matter what you’ve done wrong, what you are struggling with, no matter what darkness you dwell in.  God invites you to join him, to join Jesus in fixing the broken parts of this world, and to learn from him how to live freely and lightly.

Yes, love comes down to us.  And that love didn’t stay in the manger in Bethlehem, or in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, but walked across the land, to Jerusalem and eventually to Golgotha.  So the love that comes to us isn’t a secret treasure for us to hoard, but is a gift that we are called and compelled to give to our neighbors and our world.  Our forebear in the faith, Martin Luther, once said that the truest mark of whether an action was Christian was whether it cared for our neighbor.  Love comes down, but it must move out through us to those around us.

This Christmas, after all of the presents have been unwrapped and the celebrations are over, beneath all of the joy of giving and the worries about the economy, know this:  Emmanuel – God is with us! Right here and right now. Just as we are. And it is this reality, this love, that is the strong force that glues your life, your family, our community, the whole world together.

Love has come.  Love has come for you!

(Followed by a visual interpretation of "Ten Thousand Angels," by Sandra McCracken)

A matter of perspective

The Church Marketing Sucks blog poses a challenging question today:

How far off do we have to be if the celebration of a baby born in dirt and straw can be impacted by economic conditions?

We hear constantly that sales are down, spelling more gloom for the economy. NPR reported yesterday that Christmas tree sales are down 50% in some areas. Despite some hopeful signs, the Gallup Poll shows that people are not turning to faith -- or at least not coming to church -- to cope with their economic uncertainty and fear.

The most relevant thing we can say is to tell the world what the angel said to Mary, and to Elizabeth, and to the shepherds -- Do not be afraid! Just point to the miracle of God come to dirt and straw, moving into the neighborhood next to us, and worship.


The reason for the season

It's become a reflex in many Christian circles to remind revelers that "Jesus is the reason for the season." Our judicatory a couple years ago helped to sponsor local radio ads urging people to "Keep the Christ in Christmas." The "reason for the season" rhetoric often gets tied into the "War on Christmas" promoted by conservatives who sense a slippery slope being descended when businesses wish us "Happy Holidays."

I'm comfortable with the marketplace taking the Christ out of "Christmas" the cultural celebration. There is so much consumerist pressure on the holiday that adding a veneer of religiosity to it actually hurts the cause of Jesus. Does our spending really need to be identified as "Christian"? Isn't it enough that, with all the media gloom and doom about lackluster Christmas sales, it seems patriotic and in our self interest? Hearing a clerk say "Merry Christmas" -- ever hear a denizen of commerce say "Blessed Christmas" to you? -- may keep the holiday spending within my comfort zone, but is that a really good place to be comfortable?

Fernando Gros has an interesting post today asking, provocatively to some Christians, "What if there is more than one reason for the season?" (HT: The Corner) No, he is not watering down the theological import of Emmanuel, God with us, but rather pointing out that the dialogue about Christmas that the culture starts each year might be one we want to engage rather than rush in to "correct" by identifying why our reason is right and theirs is wrong.

Christmas is the center of our faith -- Love comes down and moves into our neighborhood, next door to incomplete, wrong-headed and broken people like you and me. The incarnation is the only ground we have for hope, which is sorely needed in times such as these. Jesus is the reason for our hope, and the season. And I think he wants us to stop cringing when the Grinch and Rudolph enter the story and people want Santa to bow before the manger in church, and engage a culture that thinks that consumption is love. With our story of hope and acceptance, we can show the world what love really is. And that, as the Beatles said, money can't buy it.


Call to worship

I love the passage from Isaiah that is traditional for Christmas Eve. Our community values participatory worship, so I wrote a call to worship that will allow the people to be part of the drama Isaiah describes. Enjoy!

People: Help us Lord! Darkness looms over us, the night is heavy, and it’s hard to see our way.

Leader: Don’t be afraid! The Light shines on you even now. Love has come for you.

People: Help us Lord! We are oppressed by fear and uncertainty. The weight of busyness, and distraction lies heavily on our shoulders.

Leader: Don’t be afraid! The bar you carry is already broken, and the boot soles that would crush you have already been burned. Love has come for you.

Leader: Hear what the Lord, your God, has promised – your Maker, and the one who makes you whole:

All: For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.


Evangelism lessons from Penn

Being from a mainline, Lutheran tradition, evangelism is unfamiliar territory for me. Its one of those activities, like dieting, daily flossing and skipping Christmas cookies, that I know I ought to do, but somehow never get there.

The community I am part of is very good at testifying to our faith through actions. Collecting food and gifts for the needy, and serving in an essentially secular setting such as a food pantry, shows that someone cares enough to do something, but not necessarily why I care enough to do something for them. Interestingly, in the food pantry I volunteer at from time to time, which is run by the local ministerium, the waiting room has some religious posters but when I have been there there is never religious conversation.

Many of us mainliners are allergic to faith sharing and positively avoid anything that smacks of proselytizing. And with good reason. Approaches that focus on “are you saved?” and “you’re going to hell if you don’t believe what we do” have made many people resisting to even engaging God’s story.

I was fascinated though to come across a video by Penn Gillette (the talking half of Penn & Teller) on Tony Jones’ blog this morning.

In this episode of Penn’s vlog he offers an unusual reaction to the act of being “proselytized” after a recent show.

“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize,” Penn says.

If people of faith – or, for that matter, atheists like Penn – believe that they know something that can help another person, they have a duty to share it, he says. If you saw a truck bearing down on an unawares pedestrian, he says, you’d push them out of the way; why not for something “more important” such as “eternal life.”

Penn’s view of the non-proselytizing position was a whack upside the head:

“How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

It often sounds patronizing and self-serving when Christians cloak their attempts to proselytize in terms of “love.” But how interesting to hear this condemnation of the sin of omission, of failing to tell the story, from a self-professed non-believer!

Now he is certainly not suggesting that it’s a sign of love to threaten or cajole. In that quote I think he is getting at a message that is more life-giving than soul-saving. And therein is a great lesson for “evangelism,” however we conceive it.

If you watch the video, its clear from the way Penn pauses in the midst of telling this story that he was touched by the simple offer of a Gideon Bible from a fan who genuinely engaged him. Not convinced, mind you. His atheism is intact. But he clearly appreciated the love shown by this fan.

There are a couple of good tips modeled in Penn’s encounter with this unknown believer:
  1. Engage honestly. This fan didn’t stalk Penn and thrust his beliefs on him. He engaged him about his show and then simply shared what was important to him.
  2. Be nice, and sane.
  3. Make direct eye contact. This is a deeply personal contact, that makes one vulnerable, and it made an impression on Penn.
Rather than being offended, or labeling the man as a “religious nut,” Penn comes away from the encounter with a positive view --

“This guy was a really good guy… and he cared enough about me to proselytize and give me a Bible”

– with a note and several ways to contact the giver.

Penn says that “I know there is no God, and one polite person living his life right doesn’t change that.” But one polite person does make a difference, by simply sharing something that is important on his own journey. In the simple interaction Penn discerned the man’s goodness – and “with that kind of goodness it is ok to have that deep a disagreement.”

So what do you think? Is Penn’s reaction atypical, or is he on to something? Should we look at opportunities to share our story and our faith as something less scary, and more life-giving?


Tweet, tweet

At my day job, we're looking at what the rapidly evolving communications technologies mean for building community with younger church members and their peers, many of whom believe church/religion to be unconnected with and irrelevant to their lives.

Mark, a pastor in NC, observes the disconnect with younger people and wonders, "could it be that in holding on so tightly to the past, we are letting the future slip away from us?" His great post, "Can the Church catch up?" notes that the church has spent much of the last 200 years, during which we have gone from Charles Babbage's concept of a computer to ubiquitous handhelds, resisting the change exploding in human history. (We've gone from being earthbound to space travel, horses to jets, carrier pigeon to Twitter, while our hymnals have a lot of songs more than 200 years old.)

It's time that we catch on to the revolutions in connecting people that are taking place every year or so. I just hope we realize that we have to change our message and our style of communicating, not just the channel.

It's not just that printed newsletters work for almost no one, and email doesn't work for anyone under 25 anymore. We're used to sending out messages, while people are becoming more and more used to engaging in conversations. This means that a lot has to change.

In his book Tribes, marketing guru Seth Godin notes that the ad model that I grew up with, which interrupted us while watching TV, listening to radio or reading newspapers (remember them?) with ads we didn't ask for, is quickly dying. No major consumer brand has launched with that as its main strategy in the last decade, he says. Instead brands, especially Internet brands, are earning the loyalty of key fans who participate in and expand the company's sphere of influence.

The danger is trying to move old style interruption communications into the twittersphere. Young people may get status updates, invitations, news and weather by text message, but its wrong to think that we can just send the same old announcements and insider messages by SMS to any but those who are already loyal fans. The digital native generations may be less protective of their contact info -- when I first got a cell I limited who knew the number to avoid dreaded overage charges, now teens ask for texts in their facebook status messages -- but it is far easier to text "OFF" or click "ignore" than it is to throw away junk mail.

Getting into these new communications channels requires restraint and wisdom. We need to be thinking about how to equip those who are already linked-in with us to include their friends, share relevant info, offer events, etc. And we need to think how we can communicate more transparently, to acknowledge questions and doubts, to point out useful info and events even when they are not ours, to really communicate and not hide behind institution-speak. Perhaps more importantly, we will have to discipline ourselves to listen in these new communities before we speak.

From my sampling of the growing body of work on non-profit use of social media, it's clear that the church needs to be in this space. As Ed Stetzer says, "it is better to be connected using social media, recognizing the limitations, than to be disconnected." There are ways to do good: We can ask questions (as long as we listen to the answers), connect people with kindreds and with Christ, and generate energy around causes and ministries that solve problems. We can share perspectives from inside and outside the church. The key is putting attention on building community. We already have experiments with "social networks," and we have found that they languish without a champion who facilitates and expands the conversation.

But it is also wise to know what not to do. Having a blog, a Facebook account or a Twitter ID doesn't give you automatic access to people. As NP tech advocate Beth Kanter writes, the top of the list of the signs you're not ready to engage people on Twitter is:
You think Twitter is a bull horn and is a great way to broadcast campaign messaging from a Twitter account that is branded with your logo.

I think its going to be fun building new networks. I just have to remember that everything I learn is obsolete as soon as I learn it. :)


Immutable -- adjective -- unchanging over time or unable to be changed.

Its comforting to think that there is something constant in our world of change and uncertainty. As we watch new political possibilities open up only to be swallowed whole by economic turmoil that seems to defy our predictions and strategies, it is comforting to cling to St. Theresas prayer: "Let nothing disturb you, nothing distress you. All things fade away. God is unchanging."

It's possible, though, to let this idea of constancy become a prison of its own -- for us or for God. Some use this concept to freeze God into a place that is safe for them, to insist that this interpretation or that doctrine is unable to be changed. For others, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8) becomes a way to insist that Christ is locked in history at a safe distance from us, and would have nothing new or specific to say to us, here and now.

God's immutability is real. God is and always be who God has been: Creative. Gracious and merciful. Powerful. Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We can be confident that God is not like the weather, stock market, or the political winds, that seem to lurch to and fro in reaction to new conditions, nor is God like so many of the people we deal with daily -- like us! -- who move easily from support to self-absorption, from generosity to manipulation.

We can trust who God is, and know that God always deals with us where we are, as we are, right now. Things seem uncertain and fearful and new to us, but God knows them and walks with us through the apprehension and terror and novelty of it all. It's very comforting to know that *that* doesn't change.


Actions speak louder than words

Matthew 7:21, 24-27

"Do, or do not. There is no try." (Yoda)

Faith has to be lived, not just thought about.


Feeding work

Matthew 15:29-37

Isn’t it interesting who provides the bread, who gives the blessing, and who feeds the people?


Pondering Thanksgiving

A confession: I am as likely to focus on what I lack or what I miss as on what I have. Living in a spirit of Thanksgiving is hard for me. So today I am grateful that we take out a day to at regularlize the idea of gratitude.

I am blessed in many ways. I have a very cool wife, good and creative kids, a job in the midst of this recession, my mortgage is not under water, a love for writing/reading/learning, enough technology to drive me crazy, a supportive church community, the opportunity to do interesting ministry with good friends and fellow travelers, enough time and money to help out agencies doing good work (in the neighborhood and around the world). Mostly I'm thankful for a God who showers grace upon my sorry disposition (see below). And that's not the half of it. So there, I've said it, for the record. Now feel free to remind me of this list when I am having a hard time being thankful!

Some interesting perspectives out there today that I need to share:

Seth Godin celebrates Thanksgiving, writing that, "For me, the holiday celebrates people who contribute with no expectation of anything in return." He urges his readers to live generously, to go out of their way for people who can't pay them back. Why?

I hope the answer is obvious. It is to me. The benefit is in the fact that they can't pay you back. The opportunity to instruct or assist when you can gain nothing in return is priceless. It creates meaning and momentum and structure.

Hmmm. I believe I've heard that thought before...

John O'Hara
(HT: Emergent Village) riffs on grace -- the whole reason for Thanksgiving.

Grace is classically defined as unearned favor. I’m beginning to realize that this, or any attempt at definition is far from adequate. And that’s because grace isn’t really grace until the hot glow of her presence has fallen on your own sorry disposition.

Brian McLaren
offers some commentary on the classic Thanksgiving hymn, "We Gather Together..."

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining, ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine; so from the beginning the fight we were winning: thou, Lord, wast at our side: all glory be thine!

What a beautiful thought, especially on the edge of the Advent season … God with us joining. Since God has joined with us, since God has inaugurated God’s peaceable kingdom, good can’t ultimately lose and evil can’t ultimately win. God has been with us, whatever we have experienced. Thanks be to God!

My favorite observation comes from my neighbor (relatively speaking), Todd Hiestand:

Stop reading my blog and hang out with your family.


Luther is supposed to have said that the wallet was the third conversion, after mind and heart. (From Out of UR)


Enterprise zones for the church

The states and federal government have used the concept of "enterprise zones" to encourage investment in blighted areas to create jobs and stimulate the economy. The concept works differently in different places, but the general idea is that there are tax incentives to locate businesses in these depressed areas. By giving on some of its normal expectations of businesses, the zones can achieve economic goals that couldn't be met under the normal rules. The special rules only apply to special areas designated as enterprise zones. The rules don't change for the rest of city or state, and businesses that aren't contributing to the specific goals of the zone don't expect a similar tax cut.

A similar concept of church enterprise zones might be a way forward for mainline denominational structures, which (as we discussed yesterday based on Kelly Fryer's thoughts) can cling to conformity when faced with the challenges of a rapidly changing frontier rather than digging deep for faithful innovation.

In his marvelous little book "Tribes," which is a must-read for church leaders who want to challenge the status quo, marketing guru Seth Godin has an apt description that can apply to oldline businesses, charitable and educational institutions, government and the church: "Stuck."

“Some tribes are stuck. They embrace the status quo and drown out any tribe member who dares to question authority and the established order.” (5)

Here Seth gives voice to many younger, emerging church leaders, as well as veterans who are tiring of the status quo and feel called to explore new answers for changing times.

I observe that the ELCA tends to want to birth “new things” within existing models. Communities that are struggling to raise up leadership have to deal with a system in which leaders must vetted, appointed and educated according to a standard pattern. Grassroots communities, or groups that may always be organically small, don’t have easy access to a planting system based on achieving self-sufficiency (we don’t even know what this means in new models yet!) as quickly as possible.

Of course, this makes sense from the institution's point of view. Redefining a part of a system -- such as "pastor" or "congregation" -- implies that the rules are changed for everyone, which could lead to freedom or to chaos. The problem is that if what can be imagined and birthed can only look like what we already know, the possibilities for true creativity and innovation are eliminated. As the old saw goes, "Our system is perfectly calibrated to achieve the results we are already getting."

The results we are already getting are in many cases disappointing. While the mainline church-as-we-know-it works well for many people in many places, the general long-running decline of the mainline churches and the relative absence of post-confirmation youth and young adults indicates that all is not well. In the case of these lost generations, and in the growing number of post-modern people of all ages (it's not a generation but a way of looking at the world), there's a good case to be made that some enterprise zones, spaces where new church could emerge connected with but not in conformity with the denomination and tradition, could help the churches tap into what the Spirit is doing among these populations.

This could be as simple as authorizing “sandboxes” where experiments can run firewalled off from the existing church, much as software developers often run new or potentially malicious programs in a virtual environment where they cannot crash the underlying operating system. These experiments could be set up so that there would be a path into the recognized church if they succeed, by moving toward changes in rules and procedures based on the signs of the Spirit recognized in these new communities. If they fail, we'll have at least learned something. Or if the denomination and community don’t agree on moving ahead, it could be agreed ahead of time that the group would simply cease to exist, or spin off as an independent church.

Such pilot projects provide a way forward for denominations that are “stuck” without creating the risk of massive destabilization or fracture. By being self-contained, the experiments are less threatening to the existing institution than different new “churches” that suggest a new model for others. Of course, experiments do suggest new models, but providing an enterprise zone allows them to take risk and grow without directly threatening the status quo. The new models can later be absorbed into the mainstream once they are proven, rather than stamped out before they are tried because they are risky or misunderstood.

These enterprise zones tap into the latent potential Godin sees in such mired systems:

“Every one of those (stuck) tribes, though, is a movement waiting to happen, a group of people just waiting to be energized and transformed.” (5)

By releasing the energy of leaders and communities who want to experiment, their energy can be harnessed to release even more innovation and renewal across the institution!


Creativity crisis?

Wandering through Kelly Fryer's sites the other day I found an insightful article digging around under the drive for conformity in the ELCA and many mainline churches. You can see it in the endless conversations about sexuality (Is anyone listening to them any more?) which put off change -- or even a decision -- until everyone can agree (or at least a supermajority can impose its will). But you also see it in our discussions -- or lack of discussions -- about What is the church? How do we organize for mission? What does ministry look like post-Christendom?

Kelly notes that its natural for threatened people and organizations to look for confirmity in the name of unity. The US did it after 9/11. And the mainline is under attack. We're declining, our message isn't connecting, we've lost the ear of the culture (and even some of our own members) to evangelicals and what Brian McLaren calls "radio orthodoxy."

It's natural to want to get everyone on the same page, to build an illusion of strength amidst the chaos. But it's wrong. It's an example of what Seth Godin would call the fallacy of going after "most people." Most people in the US rarely if ever go to church. Most people who go to church are not Lutherans or even mainliners. Most people want to be accepted in their diversity, not forced into confirmity. And this leads to the problem. Trying for comformity in this atmosphere leads to a church that tries to play it safe, and most people can do that on their own. The few who want to believe something and take a stand don't want to, or can't, conform.

I don't know when Kelly wrote this article, but it was before the global financial system melted down. The tendency to turn in, protect and bureaucratize that she describes is only going to get worse as money gets tighter, giving goes down, bills go up. Which makes her even more right that this conformity impulse is the wrong response for these times:

It is, I think, a natural impulse to pull in the reigns or slam on the brakes when you feel threatened. And I can't even blame all the people at every level of the denominational institution & within our congregations who end up doing this. But it is exactly the WRONG thing to do. What we need more than ever in the mainline is the freedom to experiment, the permission to make gigantic messes trying new things, and the encouragement to respond to each new context with open minds and creative spirits. We need flexibility, not conformity. We need innovation, not institutionalized sameness. We need faith enough to risk going in directions we've never gone before - even multiple directions at the same time! - not a fear-based clamp down on anything and everyone new. (emphasis added)

We're running a corporation with no research and development department. There are no new products in the pipeline (don't blow a gasket, I don't mean we need new religions, but we aren't doing so well re-casting the Gospel in our changing contexts). When the product that you have isn't selling, the answer isn't to make more of it. Just ask the auto manufacturers. And there is no bailout rescue plan for us.

Imagine if we let go of the natural desire for conformity and ran some experiments. What if we released some people to try new ideas and models to see if they can thrive and even co-exist along side (not in or under) the predominant model? What if we could look at other ways of being church not as threats to our own beliefs and preferences but as just other ways of doing the same work together with different people? The conformity model says we're weakening and these emerging ideas would weaken us. I think it would make us all stronger, and better.


Sustainable mission?

David Fitch has an insightful post on sustaining missional ministries in the midst of the fiscal meltdown we're seeing. These times are tough on all churches. Small, organic communities, those trying to do mission without walls and with different models of leadership, are pressured as well. Our community, for example, is making do without the overhead of a building or even a permanent space, and leadership is volunteer at this point. Even that can be precarious, as the pressures of the economy build on people's work and family lives and affect their commitment to the ministry.

It's especially a challenge for communities that are looking to make a difference in their host communities. One of our values is to give most of our money away, not to put most into mortgage/utilities/salaries as we did in previous churches. I feel good about giving much more to actual causes -- to feed the hungry, help the poor, etc. -- that I ever did in a brick-and-mortar church. But there is a tension between maintaining this capacity to be generous to those in need, which is a greater need than ever right now, and maintaining even minimal ministry expenses as the recession hits home and people's bills go up and pay goes down.

David thinks missional churches can be more easily sustained than the brick-and-mortar/corporate variety in these times for three reasons, which I mostly agree with.

1) Keep building expenses minimal -- We are doing this by borrowing/renting as needed, and using homes much of the time. He suggests that reusing closed church buildings is an option, though heating and utility costs can still be significant (assuming someone gives you access to the building and doesn't want to sell it to you). One solution would be to turn such a building into a community center, social service agency or even a commercial space that can be partially used by a missional community.

2) Have multiple bi-vocational leaders -- It is good to have multiple bi-vocational pastors if you can find them. In our case we have leaders with different gifts volunteering outside their full-time jobs. This can be difficult when one of us travels or is in a crunch time, but we are working at sharing leadership better. He's right on when he says that one leader can't do this alone!

3) Build economically viable communities and lower costs by free-cycling, sharing meals, child care, etc. -- This is a challenge in suburbia, where people are spread out and used to doing their own things. But that in itself is an opportunity.

One of the unexpected blessings of this period will be that many of us will have to readjust our expectations and plan a more sustainable lifestyle. Some will learn to do with less, others will have to do with much less while they pay off significant debts. Free-cycling and sharing some items/services will happen, but I don't see major moves toward living in community, ride sharing, etc. given our individualism, work schedules, etc.

However, perhaps this downturn will help us to focus on what is really important. If we can work hard to get a house and all of a sudden be upside-down, if we can strive for a 401(k) and it can nearly vanish in a couple of months, maybe we will learn to put less stock in these fleeting treasures and focus on the kingdom of God, where God's mercy and acceptance can't be consumed by irrational exuberance, greed or bad luck. Here's where missional communities can make a contribution by holding up the possibility of another, deeper way.

Shrewd dealings?

We puzzled over the parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-8) on our community's blog this week. One analysis of the text that I looked at riffed on the master's commendation of the manager's shrewd and ethically challenged actions and wondered if the church could learn from the ways of the world.

I didn't think much of this question, until I saw this video below. It's so funny it's sad. One thing is clear...there is a lot the church should not teach the "real" world.



Yes WE did!

I was just 10 years old when America’s cities started to burn. In 1968, when downtown after downtown erupted in violence following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my family lived just across the city line from Philadelphia. There was concern and real fear that chaos would ensue and envelop our community. The anxiety was rooted in the same issue that caused the riots, that motivated Dr. King and that created the conditions he fought against – race.

So my eyes teared up last night when Barack Obama took the stage last night as President-Elect of the United States. The emotion did not spring from naïve hope that racism is defeated. If anything, this campaign has showed that racism and xenophobia continue to plague us – perhaps quieter and less socially acceptable, but still forces to be dealt with. No, the tears came from the fact that we could, as a nation, look those forces in the face and choose not to be driven by them. That is the hope that we need.

I cannot begin to imagine the emotion that John Lewis, Jesse Jackson and other veterans of the civil rights movement must feel, going in one lifetime from being subject to Jim Crow to seeing an African-American elected by a commanding margin to the highest office in the land. As a white male who observed some of these struggles, and who wrestles with the subtle racism still embedded in parts of our culture and in myself, I am moved by how far we have come, and hopeful that this election can help us go the distance we still need to go.

I have been impressed with Barack Obama since I saw him speak at a rally in Levittown during the April primary. I was drawn then to the quiet, steady courage that he displayed during the entire campaign, even through the financial meltdown that drove investors, politicians and citizens alike into reactive spasms of panic. I saw in him then, and see even more now, that he gets the changes in the world that require consensus building instead of unilateral bullying, that call for responsible sacrifice and sustainability over opportunism, that demand that we work for the common good rather than hope goods trickle down to the commoners.

This is a kairos moment in our planet’s history. Our problems – environmental, economic, and political – can only be solved by recognizing that we are all in this together, that the sides of the aisles and the ends of the earth are inextricably bound together. Our greatness as a nation depends on our ability to release and nourish the potential of all of our citizens, not just the privileged and powerful. Barack Obama seems poised to move us in that direction.

I was impressed by his common-sense appeal to shared responsibility, that if we all sacrifice and all work hard we can make a better nation and a better world. The last 30 years have been marked by policies that have discouraged Americans from engaging in making a better world. Let us run the country and the economy, the rich and powerful have said. You keep working hard (and harder, and harder) and we’ll make sure the benefits flow down to you. After 9/11, this philosophy reached its absurd conclusion – taking on adventurous wars while asking those given the most to sacrifice less. This led not to real prosperity but to a disastrous economic meltdown that threatens most families and our national security.

I saw in April, and continued to see last night, that despite his barrier-breaking achivement, Barack Obama was not a “black” candidate and will not be an “African-American” president. He has both made promises to and challenged all Americans – rich, middle class, and poor. His hope is of an America that is fairer, more just, and a better citizen of the world – core values that have been driven underground by our fear in the last few years. With roots in both Kenya and Kansas, he is not “one of them” but “one of us.”


What's in the front of your mind?

Luke 12:54-59

Today a lot of eyes are turned on tomorrow’s weather. Will the first World Series game in Philadelphia in 15 years be rained out? What will happen to schedules if the game is postponed? Can the forecast — near 100% chance of rain — be trusted?

Eyes are also turned to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Will the “cratering” across Asia and Europe continue here? What does this mean for our mortgages, our credit, our retirements?

We are a people who are very skilled at reading the signs of the weather and the economy — well, at attempting to read these signs, just like the people of Jesus’ day were. Sadly, we really just distract ourselves with things that don’t matter? Who’ll remember a rain delay by next year (except for the commentators who will trot it out as another time-filling statistic)? Whether the Phillies win or lose, what will be different for us the day after the last game? Knowing stocks are likely to tank, what can we really do about it?

Jesus’ audience is good at reading the weather (though how they do this without a 24-hour weather channel is beyond me), but they’re missing what is really going on in their times. They are paying attention to the wrong things…or, more correctly, not enough attention to the right things. Jesus’ presence among them, teaching and healing, proves that he isn’t just another rabbi. Yet they don’t perceive that this is one of those moments when things don’t just change a little, they really *change!*

We may be in one of those times now…a time when we have to examine our fundamental assumptions about our economy, what the “good life” really is, what our dreams and aspirations can be. People are already looking at those assumptions, deciding which ones really apply any more. The question will be, are we looking at the economic and political weather, scratching the surface of our hopes and values, or will we look deeply at what God might be doing behind these events?

The good news is that we don’t need special knowledge or insight, or inside info or special tools, to discern what is happening around us. As the Message says, “You don’t have to be a genius to understand these things. Just use your common sense…”

More simply, “pay attention!” The real change in the season right now isn’t the election, the Dow, or even the Series. It’s what God is doing right now in and around you. Are you paying more attention to that than the events that are swirling around us?


Generosity in uncertain times

An older gentleman shuffled his shopping cart to where our church was collecting food for the local food pantry. Very deliberately he placed two cans on the table. Then he paused, and took a full grocery bag out of the cart and left that on the table.

"I might as well be generous," he said to me as he guided the cart toward the parking lot. "I may need the food pantry myself before too long."

"The pantry is there for you if you need it," I told him.

He stopped to explain how he's struggling to manage food, heat, and medicine costs on $900 a month in Social Security. "I may need you before long," he said again.

With a plummeting stock market and governments' increasingly aggressive bailouts of bankers and financiers grabbing the headlines, its easy to forget that there are so many, like the food pantry's unlikely benefactor, for whom the struggle has been going on, and will continue no matter what the Dow does.

A couple of days later, an NPR story featured a couple who had bought a business, financing it on credit cards, not long before the real estate bubble burst. Now struggling to buy inventory, they were making do with an on-the-fritz washing machine and borrowing a car to replace one they couldn't afford to repair. Among the items on their "used-to-do" list: giving to charity.

It's interesting how many of us who never thought poverty was a possibility for us -- at least until now -- have to learn what people who live near that margin take for granted: That we need to make sure there is a safety net, because we might need it ourselves.

The food pantries and feeding programs in my area, a relatively wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, are all experiencing a spike in demand and, if our current tumble into recession continues, the need will only get worse. Already, pantry volunteers report a surge of newly homeless clients and many, including working moms and the elderly, who never thought they would need to rely on such a program.

At the same time, donations are drying up and managers worry about "donor fatigue." Rather than picking up extra items for the pantry, people seem to be cleaning out the old and unneeded from their cupboards. On a recent pantry shift, I was overjoyed to receive a huge box of donated pasta and rice. But as I went to stock the shelves, I found that nearly every package in the box was three to five years out of date.

As people of faith we are called to share our first fruits, not our leftovers, with God's work -- which includes feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the sick and prisoners, as well as the institutional church. Yet as the economy worsens many charities find that assistance to groups that serve the poor and marginalized are among the first places people tighten their belts. This trend will continue, because people of faith and those committed to social justice have not been immune from the debt-fueled overconsumption that has brought the economy to the tipping point. Indeed, middle class workers have been squeezed by policies that shift the risk for health care, retirement and other "benefits" to them.

How can people of faith maintain a capacity to be generous, to help those who are in desperate need, in the midst of our current belt-tightening, spending freezes, and the reimagination of "the good life" that is now beginning? In a great article called "Preparing the Middle Class For Life in Uncertain Times," Tom Sine and Penny Carouthers of Mustard Seed Associates suggest that managing our vulnerability to the vagaries of the economy by reducing debt and consuming wisely is a good start. But that can be difficult when it's getting harder and harder to buy milk for the kids and gas the car for the commute to the job you hope you still have.

It can help to stay in touch with the fact that, even if you are struggling, it feels good to help. One of our people at the food collection booth that day said, "You know it feels good to take the money I would have given to church to buy food to donate." Being part of a faith group putting belief into action made him feel like a better person, he said.

He raised a real challenge, though. Note he said he used money he once would have given to church. As leaders, we are challenged to figure out how churches can be leaner and require less fuel and energy, less of our people's money and time, so that they can retain their capacity to give.

It also helps to keep perspective. Those on the margins, I have learned, have a sense of generosity that ought to shame many of us with many more resources. We can learn a lot from the man I encountered at another of these food drives many months ago.

I approached him with a request for a donation, and he told me that he had just been to the pantry, and he was just stopping in for milk. I wished him a good day and he entered the store.

A few minutes he came out and quietly handed me a bag containing a single bottle of shampoo.

"I was just at the pantry," he said. "There was a lady there who asked for some shampoo, and they said they didn't have any. I want to make sure there is some if she comes back."

If you want to know how to stay generous while your 401(k) vanishes and your retirement moves farther away, listen to those who already experience that reality. You may need their wisdom...and the services they depend on... yourself someday (soon).


My God's bigger than your god?

Wonder why so many people see Christians as intolerant and hateful? Exhibit A: Pastor Arnold Conrad before a McCain rally Saturday:
I also would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god--whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah--that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons. And Lord, I pray that you will guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their God is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and election day."

(I'm not making this up -- audio at the link.)
I am, sadly, not shocked that a "Christian" would use God to incite fear and anxiety about another Christian. This is a more obviously religious take on Gov. Palin's coded claim that their opponent "doesn't see America the way we do." Clearly this prayer suggests that Sen. Obama is in league with terrorists and infidels. It's also a not-so-veiled call for divine retribution upon unspecified others, who by virtue of not sharing the American religion obviously have nefarious interests at heart. (Somehow, I doubt that Osama bin Laden is praying for either of our candidates.)

There is so much wrong with such religious intolerance. Let's look at a couple points.
  1. Jesus is clear that it's not religious labels and externals that make a person good. "But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’" (Luke 8:21) The requirements of God -- mercy, justice, humility (Michah 6:8) -- are met in many cultures and religious traditions. Consider Ghandi, the witness of the Dalai Lama, the Muslims and Jews who reach across the Wall to seek peace and understanding. At the very least we are to see the similarities among traditions instead of only fearing the differences.
  2. God is really not as insecure as Pastor Conrad needs God to be. Were that true, God might have been a little more concerned about his reputation instead of eating with riff-raff and unclean outsiders, annoying the high priests and being executed as a terrorist. A God who takes on humanity, who empties himself of privilege and accepts death on a cross to reach out to those who killed him, surely has a very different kind of reputation in mind.
  3. Jesus' strongest complaints were not aimed at "others" but at those in his own religious tradition who were so sure they were right that they refused to even consider the evidence of another way that walked and taught and healed right in front of them.
Sen. McCain needs to condemn this kind of prayer at one of his rallies much more strongly than the carefully worded, Bill Clintonesque "distancing" statement released by the campaign.


Global perspective on the bailout

What would $700 billion do in the global fight against poverty? Thoughts from an Oxfam researcher:
· Would clear the accumulated debt of the 49 poorest countries in the world ($375bn) twice over
· Is almost 5 times the annual amount of extra aid needed to achieve all the Millennium Development Goals on poverty, health, education etc ($150bn a year)
· Is about 7 years of current global aid levels ($104bn in 2007)
· Is enough to eradicate all world poverty for over two years (UNDP calculates it would take $300bn to get the entire world population over the $1 a day poverty line).
On the other hand, he notes that the rescue package is 1/4 the to-date cost of the Iraq war and half of annual global military spending. (HT: Brother Maynard)

Digging further, a World Bank economist notes that while the African banking system is relatively immune from the domino effect of the banking crisis, if the recession reverses the increasing flows of capital into Africa, growth and poverty reduction programs could be hurt and millions of lives could be at risk.


How dare you?

A great comment on the Bush-Cheney culture of indisputability, which looks to be more of the same with McCain-Palin.


A moral crisis

In a post called "Blaming Wall Street Is Too Easy," Chris makes the excellent point that Wall Street and Main Street share blame for the fiscal mess we're in. "You see, we Americans like to spend money. We don't like to cut back," he writes. "The word sacrifice is something we want our war hero politicians to have, but nothing that we want to touch ourselves with a ten foot pole."

We don't even want to sacrifice for war these days. When my dad fought in the South Pacific in WWII, the whole nation was in on it -- sending sons and husbands to war, doing without gas, and cars, and some necessities, not just luxuries. Today we give the rich tax breaks during wartime, and far fewer families feel the effects of the conflict.

Chris goes on to talk about how we can cut back on expenses and luxuries and, working from the grass roots up, lead our "leaders" to make better economic decisions. I applaud this, but it seems a very middle class solution. I can exercise restraint. I can eat out less, and I could cancel cable (TV, but they'll have to pry my internet out of my cold, dead hands). I'm already driving old, paid-for cars, and I use shoes and clothes as long as I can.

But I wonder. What about the poor? What about those who are already just getting by? What about those whose lack of access to education and capital made their pre-meltdown future look pretty bleak?

As seen on TV at the Biden-Palin debate, both parties are falling all over themselves to identify with regular folks. While they rightly blast Wall Street greed, neither seem to recognize any limits that the rich or middle class might have to live under in order to have a just economy. Only the moderator mentioned the poor.

America has been seen for (and criticized for) how it takes care of those with the most when tough times hit. I think it says much more about who we really are, and how moral we are, to look at how we will care for those who are struggling the most.

Here's what I wrote on the comments section of Chris' blog. What do you think?

You make a good point, Chris, as far as it goes. Yes, there is a lot of blame to go around. Yes, I have probably benefited from what has been going on, even without a subprime mortgage or a credit card balance.

Cutting back cable, vacations and fancy chips may be a solution for the middle class (all praise be to us). But what about the people who already look at military service as their college savings plan, who have to sit at the kitchen table and figure out if they'll pay for food, medicine or heat, who can't get college loans (which are probably less of a good idea now, anyway)? In the midst of this plenty a lot of people have been hurting, and now they're really screwed.

It is a moral crisis, that goes beyond moderating the obvious greed of recent years (or, as you so charitably put it, expecting a lot for a little). If God has truly given us enough for all, if we really believe in sufficiency rather than scarcity, then we need make sure everyone gets enough. And that's another area where we're going to have to lead house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood.


Straight talk?

We’ve come to an Alice-in-wonderland time. A time where politicians of all stripes are bashing the untrammeled greed of the very financiers that the politicians set free (thanks to lobbying) to be greedy. A time when a time when the only way to curb the greed of the wolves is to give them most of the cash left in the chicken coop. A time when a conservative administration is proposing moves that, in the words of conservative pundit George Will, make it the most leftist administration in American history!

This is trickle down economics taken to its absurd conclusion: If we don’t cough up heretofore unthinkable bailouts to the entities whose greed created this problem, we’re told, nothing will continue to trickle down to us on Main Street.

We may be at a time where the only reasonable option to protect the poor and developing economies, as well as regular Americans, is to do whatever it takes to prop up broken parts of our economy. It certainly is a time when we need new kinds of regulation to protect against the greed unleashed by deregulation.

But it is also a time to admit the truth. The operative principle of the economy for at least 30 years, that a rising tide lifts all boats, is a lie.

As we have spread and grown our faith in the belief that only unfettered markets can sustain growth, we have watched while a few amass incredible wealth while less and less trickles down to those of us on the main streets and in the cul-de-sacs. Even less trickles down to the poor, to developing nations. The richest nation in the history of the planet hasn’t shared well with the least of these within its borders, and is one of the stingiest nations in terms of foreign economic aid.

This philosophy has given us less, financially and in terms of well-being. Its given us generations now of Americans working harder and being more productive and still barely able to sustain a modest life. It’s created an egregious and escalating gap between the rich and the poor. Many poor Americans don’t have access to the means to get out of poverty, and developing nations are crushed under relenteless debt. It has pushed massive amounts of debt neatly out of sight onto our children and grandchildren. This birth tax just magnifies the advantages that accrue to the well-off.

Let’s face it. After nearly three decades of this approach, Americans are less secure – financially and geopolitically.

In addition to bailing out the troubling waters that threated to swamp our economy, its time to ask our leaders for a new moral vision for that economy. Such a new moral vision should be one in which:
  • No child left behind is not just a slogan but a reality, where the benefits of success based on use of common goods, such as education and natural resources, to name a couple, are reinvested back in the society and the world as a matter of structure, not charity.
  • There is a sense of “enough.” Many have faulted the American drive for more, more, more, the unrealistic expectations of endless record growth, for causing the current crisis. Ancient Israel’s prophets often chided those who were only concerned for their own gain and comfort while their fellow citizens struggled, and promised divine intervention on behalf of the poor. Those passages speak to all of us who strive for trappings of wealth while so many, here and abroad, struggle just to earn daily bread and find clean water.
  • There is concern for sustainability. The ability of the world’s richest few to consume staggering percentages of the globe’s resources comes at the cost of consuming those resources – oil, food, coal, diamonds, etc. – at alarming rates. Scientists warn that if we don’t curb our consumption and its negative byproducts (such as carbon emissions) our planet may not survive. A sustainable economy will have to be driven more by common investment and less on personal consumption, which is the main engine of the US economy.
  • The playing field is leveled. Our recent policies have not only widened the gap between haves and have-nots but have made those gaps permanent. By making it easier to amass, shelter and pass on wealth, and cutting taxes that could be reinvested in better education, access to college, health care, and lowering barriers to entry to business and professions, we have made it harder for many to try to improve their status. Ancient Israel knew that bad decisions, idleness, and luck would force some persons into poverty and even into servitude, and recognized that there are those who can not provide for themselves. So they set up systems, such as the Jubilee year, that ensured that debts and being disadvantaged did not last forever but were occasionally righted, and lived under a mandate to care for the unfortunate.

There are elements of all these points in the US and global economies now. But they are now byproducts rather than drivers of the economy. We need a new moral economic vision that respects our creation by living within its limits, and respects the imprint of our Creator on every man, woman and child by requiring responsibility for the common good of all in accordance with their means.


Like children?

Matthew 18:1-5, 10

It's very human to try to make the Kingdom of God fit into our paradigm. Leaders -- the disciples in their time, just like us today -- are often tempted to want to be "the greatest." We want bigger, more successful churches, to be more "spiritual," sometimes to have influence and political power. Jesus makes it clear here that the Kingdom -- the way God works with us in the world here and now -- doesn't play by our rules.

I don't think Jesus is glorifying children here. I doubt that he was recommending the view of his day, which saw children as workers and much like property, ways of assuring family wealth, any more than he would recommend the modern American view, in which children are the suns around the lives of their families revolve. Certainly Jesus is making a statement about the intrinsic worth of children (and women, and men, and old people -- of all people). But there's more.

In different eras and societies, children share one characteristic. Children are their essential, true selves, and must learn the roles that their societies socialize them into, whether that of producer or consumer, of subservient or self-actualizing. I hear Jesus saying here that we must become like children -- that we must let go of the rules of this world and the desires for power, wealth and greatness that they engender in order to truly bring about God's kingdom here and now. We must get in touch with our true selves -- our child of God selves -- and let go of the shackles imposed by seeing ourselves as a specific job, or status, or family role. Only then, he says, are we free enough that we can respond to God's invitation to "greatness" -- defined as humility and service -- in the kingdom. This doesn't mean actually leaving all these things, as long as we know where our true self and our true "greatness" lies.


Breaking cycles

Matthew 5:38-42

But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (39)
Jesus' command to "turn the other cheek" may have made it into the American lexicon, but it has not worked its way into our life and culture.

Instead, violence is firmly entrenched as one of our constants. In some areas, such as Philadelphia, violence is a daily reality, brought home by the murder yesterday of a young man who came to the city to make a difference teaching and died instead in a botched robbery. In most places we don't have to live in fear of such victimization, yet we are marked by the fear transmitted to us constantly in media. On the national stage, wars and escalating threats of wars seem to be our only tools for dealing with an uncertain world.

Violence begets violence. It's a vicious cycle whether in global politics or life on the neighborhood streets. And in this familiar section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is calling his followers to break that cycle and its many deadly siblings, to act in ways that can stop them in their tracks.

For many of us, the suggestion of not responding when we are attacked is not realistic. We would just be showing ourselves as soft, inviting more and perhaps more intense violence. Yet if we think of cycles of violence, from feuds between neighbors to gang wars to international tensions such as those in the Middle East, it's clear that retaliation just ups the ante. When the victim responds with violence, the attacker is forced to respond in kind or be viewed as weak, ineffective.

Jesus' response is different. If the game turns violent, stop playing. He urges us to be mindful of the many issues and motivations behind the attack sprung on us, and to have compassion on our attacker. By not providing the automatic in-kind response that triggers the next round of violence on their part, we may break the cycle and may be able to bring out a better, more human response from the other. Of course, we may also get pounded harder. It's the approach he modeled himself when accused, put on trial, and taken to the cross.

He skillfully extends this principle to most aspects of our lives. His advice for when one is sued shows us how to avoid playing in the endless cycle of acquisitiveness, of seeking our own advantage in all circumstances (40). The famous "extra mile" command, rooted in a day when a Roman soldier could command an Jew to go one mile, turns the expected response of resentment to an offering (41).

Giving to the one who asks and lending to those who want to borrow (42) is an eloquent way of explaining God's intention for the kingdom. While many of us, myself included, would protest about being taken advantage of or making unwise investments, Jesus' agenda is different. Cycles of poverty and lack of opportunity are as hard to break as cycles of violence. By giving and lending we are not only able to nurture the generosity in us that mirrors God. We are also able to break the cycle of inequality that keeps some people endlessly oppressed.

We often think that receiving charity is a lesser option than "earning," but that is because we assume everyone has equal opportunity. In truth, there are people who can never be on equal footing because of the lack of nurture, of nutrition, of education, connections and capital that come with poverty. And we might whine about 8% interest rates, while in poor neighborhoods people pay bills with short-term loans that may approach 400% interest. Generosity can attempt to correct some of the systemic inequity that we may be blind to.

Jesus is not debunking the old saying of "an eye for an eye..." But he is redefining it. His wisdom is to know that it is not a prescription for our actions but a description of them. If we seek retribution and retaliation, we will get it. If we refuse to break cycles because we "know" that those trapped in them will not respond "properly," nothing will change. But if we respond with the possibility for change, we may, eventually, see change in return.

As we sow, so shall we reap.


Chosen to bear fruit

John 15:9-17

Throughout the gospels, it is clear that Jesus knows people. Not just human nature, but the intimate details and motivations of their lives. He knows Peter's eagerness and his rock-headedness. He knows what his critics are upset about even before they begin to grumble. He knows the core values that the rich young man simply cannot let go of. He knows the bad decisions and bad marital fortunes of the woman he meets at the well.

Jesus engaged people knowing the good, the bad, and the ugly of their personalities and situations.

So it's both astounding and comforting to hear him, in the midst of his great prayer for his band of followers before he goes to fulfill his mission on the cross, say to them: "I chose you. And I love you."

It's easy to read some of our current culture back into this and see Jesus as making the disciples "members" of his "church," as bringing them "in" his circle. But Jesus did so much more: He invited the disciples to share life with him. He invested in them, taught them. Prayed for them. Empowered them. All knowing exactly how weak and human they were.

As I listen to Jesus say this to me -- "I choose you!" -- I hear so much more than being picked for the right team. I'm being asked to play my heart out.
You didn't choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won't spoil. (v. 16)
Fruit is the evidence the world sees that the plant is alive and healthy. It isn't like the tree just hangs around being a tree, and then carves out a bit of time to grow fruit from its branches, then goes back to just being a tree. Fruit comes from what the plant is, from seedling to sapling to mature tree. By telling us to bear fruit, Jesus is saying something truly beautiful to us:
"I have planted seeds in you already. Living connected to me and my Father isn't something you can do -- it's who you are! It's in your DNA. Stay focused on me. If you imitate me -- if you love as I have loved -- the fruit will come."
I can turn following Jesus into a big project, but this text says to me that it's a much more organic process. I don't have to go off and save the world. I just have to work with the seeds and soil I have been given. Jesus the gardener provides the nourishment and the environment. Just as seeds "know" how to put out roots and push up shoots, God the creator has programmed that into the seeds he has planted. My task is to reflect them and love -- in whatever garden I am in at the moment.
What seeds has Jesus planted in me? How is he calling me to grow? What fruit is he nurturing in me right now?


The opposite of distraction

Thanks to Len for blogging this great quote from Henri Nouwen.

“In a society in which entertainment and distraction are such important preoccupations, ministers are also tempted to join the ranks of those who consider it their primary task to keep other people busy. It is easy to perceive the young and the elderly as people who need to be kept off the streets or on the streets. And ministers frequently find themselves in fierce competition with people and institutions who offer something more exciting to do than they do.

“But our task is the opposite of distraction. Our task is to help people concentrate on the real but often hidden event of God”s active presence in their lives. Hence, the question that must guide all organizing activity in a parish is not how to keep people busy; but how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in silence.

“Calling people together, therefore, means calling them away from the fragmenting and distracting wordiness of the dark world to that silence in which they can discover themselves, each other, and God. Thus organizing can be seen as the creation of a space where communion becomes possible and community can develop.” Nouwen, The Way of the Heart


Stations of the Cross IX >> it is finished

Jesus spent his ministry preaching a great reversal: The first shall be last, the meek shall inherit the earth, possessions won't fulfill the rich. Now the reversal is complete. Jesus' death mirrors his birth. As kings aren't born in stables, attended to by cows and goats, so liberators don't set people free by dying at the hand of the oppressor.

Is this failure? The logic of the world – of Herod and Pilate – says that the system wins, the status quo is preserved. But the kingdom of God says that our view is upside down. If in nature a seed must fall to the ground and die in order to sprout new life, then are killing, preserving power and preventing challenge the only ways to save our lives? It depends on how you look at it, according to this meditation on the cross by Derek Webb:

What looks like weakness can do anything
And what looks like foolishness is understanding
When what is powerful has not come to fight
It looks like you're going to war
But you lay down your life

What looks like torture is a time to rejoice
What sounds like thunder is a comforting voice
When what is beautiful looks broken and crushed
And I say I don't know you
But you say it's finished

But I give myself to what looks like love
And I sell myself for what feels like love
And I pay to get what is not love...
Because I see things upside down.

The question is not “How can this kind of vulnerability square with the life we know?” Rather, it is “What happens to the lives we know because this view is really right-side up?”


Stations of the Cross VII >> Linked by pain

Luke 23:36-43

The truth that Jesus' enemies – the systems represented by the Jewish council and the Roman governor – need to deny, a convicted thief can see.

The criminals hanging at Jesus' left and right know the system. They understand how charges get trumped up, testimony falsified, the book thrown at common criminals. One looks at the evidence: If this Jesus is who he says he is – the King of the Jews, the Son of Man – he ought to be able to save himself. Since Jesus is still on the cross, dying in pain, he mocks his helplessness.

It's the pain that helps the second thief recognize Jesus for who he is. Pain levels the playing field. In a classic scene in the TV series “Homicide,” a salesman is pushed in the subway and winds up compressed between a train and the platform – condemned yet still alive. As he deteriorates he asks Det. Frank Pembleton, sitting with him while he awaits the rescue that will kill him, “What is the cosmic reason for pain?” “It's the only thing we have in common,” the veteran detective replies, the thing that helps us understand people whose experience is so different from us.

Sure, too, of his own death, the second thief has no reason for illusions, yet he is too realistic for false hope. Unlike the servants of the system who need to dehumanize Jesus to preserve their status quo, this man restores to Jesus his name and his identity, expressing confidence that Jesus' kingdom awaits.

Jesus' radical message still causes the powerful to neuter or dehumanize him. Yet those who are suffering still name him, and hope for his kingdom. Their pain draws them into union with him.

Stations of the Cross VII >> The torch is passed

Luke 9:28-36

The face of Jesus, which had been mystically transfigured for us on the mountaintop, is now disfigured by us as he approaches his crucifixion.

If the legend of Veronica soothing Jesus' beaten and bleeding face hadn't survived exclusion from the Scriptural canon, we would have had to invent it. She stands in line with Simon from Cyrene, who helped carry Jesus' cross, and Joseph of Arimathia, who offered his tomb to hold his master's corpse. And we stand in line with all of them.

Veronica's tending to Jesus captures our reaction, millennia later, to the history of Christ's passion. She stood on the sidelines, helplessly watching her teacher face his death. We stand across the miles of history, knowing the outcome. Christ's passion has never been a mere piece of history, and it evokes our passion, as well. Our thoughts, words and deeds have the power today to cry out “Crucify!” or “Release him!” -- to soothe the brow of Christ and his fellow sufferers today with a cool cloth or to offer him (and them) sour wine with a ten-foot pole or pierce his side with a spear.

Veronica tends not to the cross or tomb, the necessary implements of the story, but to Christ's face – to his very humanity. She reflects Christ's transfigured radiance onto Jesus' battered face. The torch has been passed. Jesus has given his all; his death as certain as his resurrection. It's up to Veronica – and Simon and Joseph, Mary and the beloved disciple, Peter and Andrew and Paul, and you and me – to bear his transfigured face into the world he loves.

Stations of the Cross VI >> f2f

Luke 2:34-35, John 19:25-27

It's hard to imagine any sorrow greater than that of a parent burying a child. What loss can be greater than separation from one you have hoped for, birthed in joy, nursed and discipline and come to love and depend on? I've known people whose children have died, and there is a sense in which a big part of them died, as well.

What must Mary be thinking as she sees Jesus and his cross? Are there words for the anguish she must feel? Mary's strong faith and trust in God allowed her to turn her body and self over fully to bear Jesus, yet that trust must be near the breaking point. Simeon's words when the child was brought to the temple, so full of promise and strength, must cut her soul more painfully now than the figurative sword that he predicted.

As Mary wonders what she could have done, or said, to spare her child this torment, I am drawn to ponder how our species' failure to accept God's good gifts and order made this moment necessary. I marvel at the depth of love that would count execution an acceptable cost to repair that relationship, and I wonder at the shallowness of our humanity that sustains the breach.

Stations of the Cross V >> He da man!

John 19:4-6

We're able to inflict much pain and damage because of our ability to depersonalize people we don't know or can't see, as well as to rationalize away effects of our actions that aren't immediate.

If I slap you, it's hard for me to deny that it's your face that my hand is touching. I have to see you and be aware of you as I decide to hit. Yet I can wear a bargain shirt without thinking about the children who made it in a sweatshop. I can chart my pension without thinking about the exploitation, pollution, or questionable bioethics of the companies it is invested in. I can protest war or advocate it without knowing the everyday families whose lives that war forever change. If I sit in a traffic jam on the Schuylkill or run unnecessary electronic devices, I don't see the global temperature increase.

This week the Vatican released a 21st Century update of its list of deadly sins, which includes contributing to pollution and the widening gulf between rich and poor, and creating genetic mutations whose results we cannot know for generations. The list has provoked controversy and satire. But its value, like those of social statements by the ELCA and recent environmental proposals by evangelicals, is that it forces us to think about the far-reaching consequences of our actions and to realize that they affect, hurt and sometimes kill real human beings just like us, and damage the environment God has given us to steward. It starts to break down the rationalization of “its a victimless crime” that allows us to depersonalize so many.

Pilate participates in this depersonalization. In this reading his prisoner has already gone from “Jesus” to “this man.” In Jewish culture, one's name was so important that there was a naming ceremony for young boys, and one's person and one's name were inseparable. That's why it was so significant that God allowed Adam to name other creatures. Removing Jesus' name from the proceedings of public execution removes his humanity. He is just a cog in the unstoppable wheel.

What does this mean for me? Jesus gave up everything to go to the cross. He laid aside his divine nature, which could have ended this torture and execution at any time. And he laid aside every shred of his humanity, allowing, at last, even his name to be taken away, so that he could die, anonymous and alone. His name taken away, he identifies with me – and with the nameless and faceless poor, marginalized, sick and broken around the world.

If humans can do this to God, to a teacher living among them offering hope and healing and good news, who can't we depersonalize to get our own way? Yet if we can get angry at the dehumanization of Jesus, can we not also start to recognize him in the nameless others he identifies with and jam a beam in the machine, trying to reverse the cycle of depersonalization that plagues us?


Stations of the Cross IV >> Because we can

Mark 15:16-20

How arrogant we can be in our certainty that we are right, that there is no other possible way to look at events or our own lives!

This arrogance usually asserts itself in private, because that is the only place we can be sure no alternate perspectives will meddle with our surety. The image of Roman soldiers taking Jesus into an inner courtyard for a little fun is all too familiar, not unlike the soldiers who debased their prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Listen! Hear them making sure everyone is present accounted for, so everyone is implicated. There's safety in knowing that no one has the moral high ground to accuse you, at least without convicting themselves as well. Jesus is alone and vulnerable, already bleeding and broken from his scourging at Pilate's hands. The now-famous photos from the prison in Iraq show soldiers debasing and trying to break prisoners who are already completely at their mercy – and reveling in it, smiling for images that document their brutality.

So, too, Jesus' captors have some fun at the expense of their beaten prisoner. “He's already physically damaged...let's mess with his mind.” Their mockery is painful, pressing sharp thorns into his aching head. Wrapping him in cloth of purple – reserved for kings and the powerful – and kneeling before him, must have been even more painful, because they were taking Jesus' very identity, his most cherished gift from his Father, and totally dismissing it, humiliating him (as if he could think straight enough to be humiliated at this point!) and rendering him as less than a person, stripped of the last shreds of dignity. One can see them bragging about their cleverness and macho to other soldiers – if not taking pictures of it and posting them on the Internet.

The temptation to take advantage of those too weak or marginalized to fight back is always present – in Jesus' day, and in ours. The more power one has, the harder it is to see others of lower rank, the broken and humiliated, as people, too. The cycle of dehumanization and violence displayed by these soldiers did not start with them, and it continues to echo into many situations in our world today.

The good news for us is that in this story Jesus is beginning to ascend the throne of his real yet invisible kingdom, by his refusal to save himself at our expense. He could have simply called in angels at any time to overthrow the high priests, to give Pilate a spine, to defeat his captors. But while that would have shown God's glory, it would have left Jesus different from and disconnect from us, from people who can't by their own power overcome oppression. What makes Jesus different from other 'gods' and binds us to him is that his power is less evident in his glory than in his weakness. He doesn't exhort us to transcend our humanity, but instead immerses himself in it, showing us how powerful it is to embrace our humanity as God intended it.

Stations of the Cross III >> Just doing my job

Mark 15:15

From the beginning of this brief scene, it's clear that this is a drama whose end is already written. “Pilate, wanting to satisfy the crowd...” Justice isn't the goal here. This is the political street theatre of empire, a ritual that cements Rome's authority under the guise of being benevolent.

Then, as now, it's possible for good leaders to be so caught up in the rhythm of the machine that they never think about the results of their actions. “My hands are tied.” “I'm just doing my job.” I used to think that Pilate's washing of his hands after sentencing Jesus might be a sign of his disgust with the Jews' insistence on releasing a guilty man and condemning the innocent. But in light of the unfeeling routine with which Pilate moves through this charade, the scene is more like any worker automatically washing off the unavoidable grime that is the result of his trade. “What is truth?” he had asked. Is this the query of a seeker, the cynicism of a political pragmatist, or the sneering dismissal of one who has surrendered hope to the grinding of the machine?

Hurting others and even brutalizing them can be handled in the most banal ways. New York's governor was caught on a wiretap arranging an assignation with a call girl and the tapes show no ardor, just the mundane details of moving packages of money and making sure his credit was good; as an afterthought he had to be reminded what the woman looked like. US leaders talk about the need to keep torture methods such as waterboarding legal with routine earnestness. (Maybe the logic applied to Eliot Spitzer, that one who treated others with an unflinching moral standard should be subject to it, ought to be applied to nations that regularly take other nations to task for “human rights violations”?)

Like Pilate, we are caught in systems that have their own seemingly relentless momentum. Consider the economy. As the rollercoaster accelerates downward, elites who have the experience and capital to take the long view focus on now and sell values down even while calling for confidence that things will get better. Most of us are just along for the ride, rolling with the punches of more costly food and gas, losing homes, disappearing jobs. Yet our consumption often depends upon women and children elsewhere working long hours for low pay in conditions we would never allow. Sometimes we're the pavement, and sometimes we are the steamroller.

Yet this is the world Jesus enters, the system he subjects himself to. His lack of resistance points out how likely we are to, like Pilate, try to please the crowd or ourselves rather than think about justice. By going through this brutal system he brings about good, not by uplifting the brutality and redeeming it by its good outcome, but by showing us that there is another way than “just doing our job.”

Stations of the Cross II >> Who, me?

Mark 14:53-72

I've spent a lot of time thinking about Peter's denial of Jesus, because I share that trait. Not that I've ever been in a position to publicly deny Jesus – this is, after all, a culture that values outward expressions of faith. I've never been in danger of persecution and, working so much in the church, not even of ostracism or being thought weird for having faith. But inwardly, I am able to deny what Jesus wants for me and to cheapen what he has done for me by seeking my own way.

I never really looked at Peter's denial as a denial of himself, of his true nature, who he was called and created to be. But that's exactly what it is. The one who so eagerly responds to Jesus, who gives up family and career to wander the countryside with his teacher, is not just denying Christ. In that moment a servant girl finds the heart of his weakness and he impulsively gives up the identity he has been forming in order to avoid what he thinks is a dangerous situation.

Jesus, of course, knows Peter's humanity. He names Peter's denial without judgment, without casting him away, though certainly with more than a little bit of sadness. Ultimately Jesus redeems Peter's failing, turning him into the core of his church and charging him with caring for his people. And scripture shows that Peter lives up to Jesus' faith in him. In Acts, in comparison with the very human, often clueless and rash disciple – a bit of a bumbler – Peter becomes a bold leader, an articulate and focused witness for his Master.

I feel that Jesus is bringing me, slowly and often against my nature, to a place where I am learning who I am in him. I pray that I can keep that focus, and move away from focusing on my own failings and start living into the faith Jesus has in me.

Stations of the Cross I >> Busted!

Mark 14:41-52

Who am I in this story? I would like to resonate with Jesus, who is giving his whole self over to God for what he knows is a horrible, painful torture and death. But in truth I really have trouble giving myself to God fully. I want to, but I am not there yet – though I am moving, slow but sure, in that direction.

I am more like the disciples: listening, trying to get it, but basically clueless, especially before I have time to think. Even in the midst of my time trying to discern where God is leading, I can sometimes be quick to react and try to keep things safe and understandable, if not controllable. When this happens, I have often heard Jesus calling me back, reminding me to trust, but not before I have reacted and, sometimes, done some damage.

I am fascinated by the brief, out-of-context mention of the young man following Jesus who, at the end of this scene, is grabbed but runs away naked and defenseless. He doesn't get it and knows it, and is honest about his need to avoid what is coming. There are often times that I want to avoid what I am being called to, but it is not uncommon that I try to pretty it up, to make it seem like I am seeking when I am really avoiding.

Then there are the “heavies” who are “just doing their job without thinking.” I like to think this is never me. But there are times when I phone it in – with God, with myself, with my family. And my work in the service of the church leaves opportunities to question the status quo and look for justice and relevance – and while I often pursue this with passion I am aware that there are times that I simply go along with the program. Sometimes it is easier; sometimes my interests align more with the institutions than with others.

It is still awesome to think that Jesus willingly – gladly -- gave himself to arrest, trial, torture and execution. We think of Judas' betrayal as the key action, but as God, as the Christ, Jesus could only have been handed over as his intention, just as the only way to convict him was for him to fail to mount any defense at all! Thank God that it does not matter that I am not worthy of this!


From the depths

Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice...
I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him;
in his word is my hope. -- Psalm 130
When NPR snapped on and jarred me awake this morning, there was the usual litany of chaos and madness: Jewish students shot in their seminary library, in retaliation for brutal Israeli incursion into Gaza. Rescuers in Baghdad blown to bits by a suicide bomber who waited for people to aid victims of an earlier blast. Farmers cutting down swaths of the rainforest to grow soy for bio-diesel, since US farmers are growing more corn for ethanol -- both of which cause more carbon than the fuels they intend to replace.

Normally, the bad news as I drift to consciousness drives me to prayer. I try to figure out what would make these problems better and beg God to intervene.

Today, words failed me. I was driven to lament, to cry out to God with the mourners in Jerusalem and Palestine and Iraq, to groan with the earth trying and failing to keep up with our voracious appetites.

Lord, I cry to you from the depths. How long, O Lord? How long must we wait?

Today, I stopped thinking about these things and simply felt them. I felt the pain and cried out, as God's people have done since the beginning. I didn't want to fix anything, simply to be in solidarity and sympathy with those who suffer.

And I realized something: God, too, weeps for his people.

God is good and powerful. And the world -- even our violence, our greed, our attempts to do good that fall short -- all of this is God's. God's justice and mercy will prevail in the end.

In the meantime, God weeps.

And as much as I want to do something about this awful news, I learned what a privilege it is to first join God as he beholds his suffering people. Sitting with pain and with God -- what the ancients called lament -- made the depth of disaster real in ways that all my thinking couldn't. Crying out took the headlines beyond political issues and scientific problems, and revealed behind them people: humans who grieve and render aid and scheme and end up making things worse when they only tried to do the right thing. People like me, and those around me.

It seems to me that if I'm going to do anything about cycles of violence, to each other and our Earth, it will have to start with reframing abstract "issues" and grasping the pain and frustration and peril they cause to the people affected by them. I must cry out as if I am one of the victims -- because in many ways, I am affected. I must see those who are suffering as God does, and love them, and weep.

Then I can respond to people's pain in the places I inhabit. And if enough of us do this where we are -- wherever in the world we are -- God will change the world.
O Israel, wait for the Lord,
for with the Lord there is mercy;
With him is plenteous redemption
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.