Friday, May 31, 2013

So.

It's been a week since I posted.

I have stuff that I want to write about. A half dozen or so ideas floating around, including one for how I'm going to start engaging pop culture in non-Roundup fashion.

In the meantime, I've been rediscovering my Moleskine, tinkering on my guitar, reading, and watching the new Arrested Development. Oh yeah, and church and family stuff.

So really, this post is just to tell you that I mean to post. It's not very interesting, I suppose. Sorry about that.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Small Sips Is Not Made In Ohio

Oh, that Bono. Jamie the Very Worst Missionary has been writing some posts critiquing mission work. She's received some pushback and has even been told a few times that she doesn't know what she's talking about even though she was a missionary in Costa Rica for five years. At any rate, her latest offering is on the sexiness of missions:
In 2006, U2 frontman, Bono, (literally wearing rose-colored glasses) called the Church to action in Africa during an interview for the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. I was there. It was kinda awesome. It was a bold and honest interview and it created a fervor for justice and aid for Africa's poor and marginalized nations. It lit a fire. And that fire launched Africa Missions to the top of the missionary food chain.  
Africa became a rockstar. Everybody wanted in.  
Six months later, El Chupacabra and I found ourselves sitting across the table from a pastor as he explained that he wouldn't support our effort to get to Costa Rica because, “You guys are great. You're good communicators, you've got vision, and I really believe in what you're doing... but... I just can't sell Costa Rica... Are you sure you're not called to Africa? Our people want Africa.”  
As we left, reality sunk in; Our mission wasn't sexy enough.
During the month of April, the church I serve studied one of our UCC missionary partners in Colombia, Michael Joseph, which was quite interesting (he's in the pic above). We learned, of course, about his work, which included working with victims of violence in that country. We heard about the importance of mosquito nets, and the incredibly long trips that he has to make some days to get to where he's needed. It sounded difficult, and I think it was inspiring to those who gathered to listen. Colombia isn't Africa, but I think we came away with a better idea of what things are like for that country and the importance of missions there.

I suppose that if Bono had talked about Colombia that day, more people would pay attention and want to go there or send support there. Celebrity endorsement sure can do a lot for good causes. But there are many more that fly under the radar, considered not as sexy because a rock star wants to support something else.

I dunno. Colombia sounds like a place that needs help to me.

Where? Not there. Where are footballs used in Michigan's games made? Not sure, but I can narrow it down a little:


Boom.

We've had this argument before. Earlier this week after the tornado in Oklahoma, John Piper tweeted a verse from Job about a wind striking Job's house, killing his family. To his credit (or something), the chosen verse is ambiguous enough that it could just be a reference to what happened devoid of theological postulation.

On the other hand, Piper has done this often enough after major tragedies that we could probably take a good guess at what's behind it. Rachel Held Evans goes ahead and takes a crack at it:
Because this is what John Piper does whenever there is a tornado…or earthquake…or shooting…or war. While the world is still in shock, while we struggle to find the words to convey our grief and compassion and to weep with those who weep, he jumps in with an explanation, and it’s always the same: Bad things happen because God is angry. This is God’ judgment on undeserving, sinful people. Repent. We brought this on ourselves.

That’s because Piper and many in the fundamentalist neo-Reformed movement are working off of a perversion of the doctrine of total depravity that not only teaches that human beings are depraved—that is, that our humanity is marred by sin—but that this depravity renders the world’s men, women, and children into valueless objects of god’s wrath, worthy of nothing more than eternal torture, pain, violence, and abuse. Therefore, natural disasters (such as the recent tornado outbreak, the Asian tsunami of 2004, the Japanese earthquake, sickness, cancer, accidents) as well as evil perpetuated by others (the Sandy Hook shootings, the Boston bombings, the Holocaust, 9-11) are merely expressions of this god’s unending, unquenchable, and unpredictable wrath upon humankind. Sin triggers in god a sudden outburst, a violent temper tantrum, and humanity is exposed to a brief glimpse of what this god really thinks of us, what we all really “deserve.” 
Now again, Piper's tweet wasn't definitive. And to his credit (again, or something), he deleted the tweet at some later point, so he recognized that there was something inappropriate about it...or he got enough pushback from people that he didn't want to deal with it.

This type of theology that always pops up after tragedy, this idea that God is doing this to punish people or call us to repentance, is crappy pastoral care ("I'm sorry your loved one was violently killed in this tornado, but it really was your own fault...what'd you do to deserve it?") and crappy theology ("Nobody expects the Big Angry God! Where will He strike next? Repent, because the next time IT COULD BE YOU!")

For fun, here's a link to my response to one of the last times Piper offered up such an explanation after a disaster. Oh, and here's another one.

A serious subject, with cartoons. Hyperbole and a Half has returned with a blog post about struggling with depression. Here's a brief excerpt, offered without comment, and my strong encouragement for you to go read the whole thing:
And that's the most frustrating thing about depression. It isn't always something you can fight back against with hope. It isn't even something — it's nothing. And you can't combat nothing. You can't fill it up. You can't cover it. It's just there, pulling the meaning out of everything. That being the case, all the hopeful, proactive solutions start to sound completely insane in contrast to the scope of the problem.

It would be like having a bunch of dead fish, but no one around you will acknowledge that the fish are dead. Instead, they offer to help you look for the fish or try to help you figure out why they disappeared. 
Misc. Jan on whether sermons are passe. I say no. Nadia Bolz-Weber's "State of the House" address at her church's annual meeting. Sojourning Spirituality on resigning from congregational ministry. Sounds familiar. The Parish on sitting through fifteen (!) valedictorian addresses during a baccalaureate.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tony Jones, Privilege, and Avoiding Digging a Deep Hole

I admit that I've been running hot and cold with Emergent figurehead Tony Jones the past few years. I've enjoyed a few of his books and have found some of his blog writing to be thought-provoking and informative. But then there are those other times, such as when he rips on mainline denominations or when he seems to pretend that the progressive strand of the emerging church came up with Biblical criticism and social justice on its own (but I've written about that at length before).

Last week, Jones made quite a bit of waves with a blog post entitled I'm Tired of Being Called a Racist, in which he shares several instances of being called out on things he has said during a couple public lectures.

In brief, the first instance mentioned was when an African-American woman addressed his suggestion that Pentecostalism in Latin America and South America could benefit from "being in dialogue with the older, more developed theologies of the West." The woman took that to mean that white Euro-American theology was being deemed superior to the theology of the Global South, saying "it's offensive, it's borderline racist, and it's very close-minded."

The second instance comes from another blog by Christena Cleveland. The "prominent leader" mentioned is Jones:
Last month I heard a prominent leader of a national movement of mostly white Christians give a talk in which he compared his group’s beliefs to various other Christian groups (including more ethnically-diverse groups). While extolling the virtues of his group’s beliefs he proudly proclaimed, “We have a better version of the Gospel.” Now I’m not interested in busting any one person’s (or group’s) chops, and in fact, I give him a lot of credit for saying publicly what many of us say behind closed doors and in our hearts. But as a minority group member sitting in the audience, I found his statement to be unfriendly to diverse voices.
Jones did not react well to these two incidents, as you might imagine. And you can read his defense of himself in the referenced post. What's perhaps more educational is the comment section. 99% of the time I make it a general rule to avoid comments sections, but this is where the real dialogue happened as one person after another tried to get Jones to understand why these two women had the reactions that they did. He doesn't react well to what they say either, insisting that he was sharing an academic perspective and meant nothing racial by his remarks.

The latter, I think, is probably the problem for First World white guys like us. We have certain blind spots that non-whites, American or no, need to point out to us.

Why would an African-American woman react the way she did to Jones' suggestion that the Pentecostalism of the Global South is inferior to Western thought? Jones would likely make his case on theological grounds, but would be less likely to see the cultural issues that are also bound up in such assertions; the ethnic, economic, and racial differences that are also factors at play. His assertion does not seem to make much room for dialogue, even if that is the word he uses. Instead, it is a suggestion that "we" Westerners have something to teach "them."

The second instance is a little more tricky for me, as in context I see that Jones was trying to say that a progressive and inclusive version of the gospel is "better" than a more rigid one. However, Cleveland heard it in a particular way that made note of the diversity (or lack thereof) of the emergent movement vs. some of the movements he was critiquing. Can one truly extol a "better" version of the gospel from a point of view and grouping that is culturally homogenous?

When presented with questions and issues like these, we have at least two options. The first option is the one that Jones took, which is to insist that we didn't say anything wrong, that we were taken out of context, that we're tired of having the race conversation.

The second option is to ask for more information and to begin a dialogue, asking questions such as, "What about what I said did you find 'borderline racist?'" "How did you find my statement 'unfriendly to diverse voices?'" We could further explain ourselves without becoming defensive. And we could take time to check how our own points of view might be unconsciously influenced by our places of privilege in the First World.

In full disclosure, I've been where Jones is. I can recall several instances in seminary in particular. I recall one of the first class meetings of my Ethics course, taught by an African-American professor whose hire back in the day was ground-breaking for the seminary, during which I tried to make the case that people of non-white races could also be racist. This ended up being a lesson in knowing when to stop talking and listen instead. In another class during another semester, I recall helping give a book presentation, during which someone said, "I couldn't help but notice that all the presenters right now are white men," which started what was from my perspective a "teeing off" session on us by the rest of the class.

So I've seen it. On the one hand, I know some of the frustration that Jones felt when he wrote his post. But on the other hand, I know that there come times when asking for clarification or stopping to listen could get me a lot further and keep me from digging myself into a hole.

For instance, I look at Cleveland's post and am particularly interested in how she might suggest improving on what Jones said. I had a similar reaction as Jones did when I first read it, thinking, "That's not so bad in context. What's the problem?" But it becomes my responsibility to ask Cleveland and others what the problem is; to ask it from a non-defensive position.

Honestly, it seems to me that the main problem with what Jones wrote was simply how he wrote it. If it were me, I'd still want to explain myself and what I was trying to get it. Framing it with the title "I'm Tired of Being Called a Racist" probably wasn't a good start. I do think he has some legitimate objections, but if he'd come at it from more of a standpoint of "this is what happened, this is what I meant, please help me understand why it would be construed the way that it was," it would have led to a much different discussion than what ended up happening in the comments.

Friday, May 17, 2013

So, the song...about that.

Hey, remember back during Lent when I was writing a song, and I said I would post a video of it or something?

Well...I still don't have a video or something to post.

HOWEVER, the song is making its big debut this Sunday at my installation service, so maybe it'll somehow be recorded and I can share that.

Or I'll find another way.

The point is that the song truly exists, I'm singing it to my new congregation because it seems to tie in to what we'll be doing that day, and whether it's recorded or not I'll get it on here for you somehow.

That's all for now. Apologies for not posting in a week. It's been a busy one. More posting of actual substance to come.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Diversity and Identity

After reading this over, I found that I addressed all the points that I said I'd address in the previous post. So I guess this'll be it instead of a multi-part series.

The other day I shared an experience that I had while visiting the chapel on the campus of John Carroll University, a Catholic school, which caused me to reflect on a number of things related to my own denomination, the United Church of Christ.

If there's one thing that many UCCers like to be known for, it's our diversity. That's how we started, after all. The Evangelical Synod of North America, the Reformed Church in the United States, Congregational churches (you know them better as Pilgrims or Puritans), and the Christian Churches all eventually came together in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ.

These churches each brought with them their own ideas about theology, worship, and organization. While they all had been influenced by the Reformed tradition stemming from the likes of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, they each had their own take on various things. The Evangelical Synod, for instance, gave the pastor much more authority in its churches than the Congregationalists, who asserted that the congregation (hence its name) had ultimate authority. Congregationalists tended to meet in plain meetinghouses devoid of much religious symbology such as stained glass windows, while some churches Reformed in background didn't retain that belief from Calvin that such things were idolatrous and distracting from the word preached. The Christian churches tended to take its cues from the revivalist worship of the Methodists and Baptists, while the other three were quite a bit more buttoned-down in religious expression.

And then when it was time for these four denominations to come together and discuss how they were going to be one united church, that was a whole new argument. The Evangelical and Reformed churches were used to a much more hierarchical form of governance, while the Congregationalists insisted that each local church could do its own thing, setting its own policies for worship, governance, calling pastors, and so on. Ultimately, the new denomination borrowed a little from both: the Congregationalists' philosophy of local church autonomy was retained and is perhaps one of the most often invoked clauses from the UCC Constitution and By-Laws, but we see more of the representative decision-making aspects of the Reformed in denominational meetings such as General Synod...which still ultimately can be turned down or ignored by local churches.

So, you see, the UCC started as a diverse entity, and still encourages quite a bit of diversity and autonomy today. You can visit a UCC church in one town that is Open and Affirming to LGBT people and observes a "high church" Episcopal-style worship service, and then you can travel 10 miles down the road to another UCC church that declares homosexuality a sin and has a praise band. As determined by our congregational polity, there isn't much regulation of how each church conducts itself, and this allows for quite a variety of religious and theological expression across the denomination.

None of this is bad. That's not what I'm getting at. Ideally, most people can find a church home in the United Church of Christ, barring geographical and other limitations. Diversity might be one of the true marks of denominational identity that we can claim and, in fact, that's exactly what the UCC has been doing the past decade or so via its "God is Still Speaking" campaign, declaring that "No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here." Some more conservative factions have declared this code for certain liberal causes, but on the surface, this is all about diversity: explore the UCC, you'll be welcome among us somewhere.

My experience at John Carroll caused me to think a little about Catholic identity in contrast. The first person I saw in the chapel was a young woman praying the rosary, a common prayer practice in that tradition. Three others were sitting near the front just taking in the space for a few moments, a practice that to my knowledge is considered acceptable and encouraged in many Catholic churches. Two others wandered in later, kneeling at their pew before sitting down. All of these practices are observed and encouraged across Catholicism, and here in this space among this age group, they were still being practiced.

In the UCC, individual churches and people may do things like this. No doubt, some UCC churches actively encourage prayer practices and have cultivated a rich ethos of spiritual exploration. Many others, however, may be holding on to the old "civic religion" philosophy of the mainlines' glory days where such things are best not talked about or, perhaps they adhere to the buttoned-down style of some of our predecessors where, hopefully, some form of piety is being practiced...but is still best not talked about.

Another possibility for a lack of much spiritual cultivation may be that emphasis on autonomy. Again, autonomy in and of itself isn't bad, but at times it seems to be used as a form of resisting exploring beliefs or practices, i.e., "You can't push this on me" or "We can't encourage this too much or it'll seem like pushing." As a result, spirituality in our denomination can seem quite loose in practice and gooey in philosophy, with no real deepening understanding of...much of anything, really.

This translates to our affiliated colleges and universities. As mentioned in that previous post, Heidelberg had a nominal connection to the UCC at best: other than a small framed picture of the UCC symbol in the campus center and a sparsely-attended UCC ministry group, there wasn't much of a presence on campus. Meanwhile, the Campus Crusade-affiliated group was the most prominent campus ministry by far. There are numerous reasons for that, but I wonder what more could be done on the denomination's end to increase its presence there.

Here's my point: the UCC is a diverse place, and this is a blessing. However, the high value that we place on it may at the same time place quite a bit of limitation on what we can teach and encourage one another to practice, and we may be starving ourselves of quite a bit of spiritual growth as a result. If nothing else, my hope would be that local churches could do more to encourage active and even passionate expressions of faith, whether theological discussion, spiritual disciplines, justice advocacy, Biblical study, well-crafted worship, or whatever else. But whatever you're good at, it's important to define why you're doing it theologically and to encourage a passionate exploration of the whats and whys among younger members in particular.

It does nobody much good to never venture a particular identity or mode of expression in the name of autonomy; to always allow concern that you'll somehow be squelching someone else's growth rule the day. In my view, it's the opposite: you'll be squelching growth by never even attempting any way to encourage growth.

So maybe there isn't an official "UCC identity" when it comes to certain things, but there are still plenty of ways (and there is plenty of need) to cultivate an identity within the UCC.

Monday, May 06, 2013

In the Chapel

This past Saturday, I attended a workshop at John Carroll University as part of the Ignatian Spirituality Institute. It's a bit hard to believe, but I only have one more class and then I will have completed the first year of the program. The second year is less focused on classwork and more on supervised implementation, so this workshop was much more focused on practical matters such as attentive listening.

When we broke for lunch, I decided that it was such a beautiful day that I was going to wander around the campus a little. There were students lounging on the immense greenspace between buildings, enjoying the day, some even studying for finals. I wasn't looking for it, but when I noticed the St. Francis Chapel as I walked, I knew that I was going to stop in.

I don't know what I was expecting, but I didn't expect what I saw in several ways. First, the chapel space is much more modern than I thought it would be. I guess that I was expecting soaring trusses and lots of mahogany; instead I found that it's a much simpler space than that, with slate flooring and modern abstract windows. There is also an alcove partitioned off with a marble wall at the rear.

As I stepped into the space, looking around, I glanced into the alcove to discover a student praying the rosary. Wanting to be careful not to disturb her, I sat across the aisle as silently as I could, content to just look around at the space. There were three more people sitting at the front, a teenage girl and two older men perhaps on a campus visit. They left pretty early into my own visit, and then two more students wandered down the aisle, genuflecting before entering their row to sit down. And for a time, there the four of us were: quiet, prayerful, mindful of one another without dwelling on it.

It was quite an understated experience, and yet a powerful one that caused a lot of reflection in me. John Carroll is a Catholic university with obvious strong ongoing ties to that tradition. One of my first thoughts was to rack my brain regarding my own undergrad experience at an institution affiliated with the United Church of Christ to recall whether any classmates had ever felt the need or inspiration to wander in and sit in either of the chapels on campus. The short answer: no, not that I know of.

This led to all sorts of other reflection on a number of issues regarding UCC identity and practice, which I plan to explore over a series of posts. I figure I'll do 2-3 of them depending on how I structure it, but these are the topics I'll cover:
  1. General thoughts on communal understanding in the UCC regarding identity and practice.
  2. UCC identity and practice specifically as it relates to its affiliated colleges and universities.
  3. Cultivation of prayer practices in the UCC--or lack thereof--specifically among youth and young adults.
And maybe some other stuff thrown in. But these were the main items I started thinking about after sitting in that chapel, marveling at the seemingly ongoing dedication to another tradition among a population that mainliners, among so many others, lament that they are losing.

So that's what I'll deal with in the next week or two. Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Uncharted Territory

I only had a brother growing up. As in, I only had a brother and not also a sister.

All things considered, my brother and I have always been good friends. Growing up there were typical brotherly moments, of course, the kind where I usually got in trouble for not including him or wanting him to go away. But over time, once we got past that stage, we did the sorts of things together that you more or less expect a couple of guys to do. We played with action figures, we played baseball in the backyard, we talked about girls.

Things haven't changed a whole lot through the years. Nowadays, we still talk about girls except, you know, they're our wives. We exchange texts regarding the latest escapades of Michigan's football and basketball teams if we're not watching them together in person. We even still play sports together, except now it's usually because Coffeeson (and eventually Coffeenephew once he gets his motor skills down) wants to.

This is what I've always known. When I had a son, that was right in my wheelhouse. It'd be like when I was growing up with a brother, with obvious adjustments.

We now know that there is going to be a Coffeedaughter. And as I ponder that, I find myself in uncharted territory. I don't take this as bad by any means; I'm actually very excited about this news. But for me personally, I'll be venturing into a world I don't know very well. Coffeewife has already been talking about dresses and bows and other things that make me say, "WHAT IS THIS MAGIC?"

I don't mean to stereotype here. I don't anticipate that we're locked into a world of pink and Barbies and tea parties. Maybe she'll be a softball player or (God willing) a drummer. Regardless of particular tastes and direction in forming her identity, she will by definition have Girl Issues. And I could just defer to Coffeewife on these things, but it won't be that simple. Plus Coffeewife, who only had sisters growing up, is doing just fine with Coffeeson, so there's no reason to think I'm going to be completely incompetent at this. But I'm sure there'll be times when I feel that way anyway. That's normal for parents.

Will I be the typical overprotective father, the one who happens to be cleaning his gun on the front porch when her prom date arrives to pick her up? Yes and no. I don't have a gun, so that specific image won't apply. However, I do have very intimate knowledge of the mind of the teenage boy, and it is a frightening, confused place. So I'll definitely worry and do my best to help her make good choices. I've also remarked to Coffeewife numerous times that she'll have me wrapped around her finger; she will truly be Daddy's Little Girl. Oh yeah, it's gonna be bad. But Daddy's Little Girl deserves certain treatment from others, and I'll need first to teach her to treat herself well.

And the drums. I'm gonna teach her the drums.

So, we barrel toward what for me is a bit of an unknown future. Just like with the first one, I'll learn as I go. It'll be fun. And a little terrifying. But also fun.