Speak the word

This past weekend I preached at my internship site on Luke 7:1-10. Here’s what I said:

Grace and peace to you from our savior and Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

It’s a weird time to be a pastoral intern. I mean that in my calendar here – we’re less than three month away until my internship is complete. I wrote in my personal calendar a couple weeks ago all the preaching and worship assisting weekends I have left and got to see what Sunday will be my last one where I preach (I won’t spoil it for you, you’ll have to wait and see).

The thought crossed my mind, “Wow, that’ll be fun, I’ll preach what’s on my heart and what I feel God really wants me to say, and I’ll put it all out there.”

But that’s not really a way to preach on a last Sunday. That’s how you preach every time.

So here we go:

Today’s Gospel story is all about speaking the word.

Because that’s what this centurion, a Roman officer, asks Jesus to do so his servant can be healed. He says speak the word and heal my servant.

Like Ezekiel speaks and dry bones get up and walk like we read in the Old Testament.

Jesus here speaks and heals a man, and he’s not even near him.

Speaking changes things. Speaking changes people.

Speak the word.

Like the apostles dared to speak as they felt a spark of fire on top of their heads after Jesus ascended into heaven.

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Speak the word – not knowing what exactly you’ll say, but trusting beyond a shadow of a doubt that God will speak through you – Christ will bring new life through you – and the Holy Spirit will unite people through you, speak the word.

And yes, I am playing with words here. We use words to write and speak, and Jesus is also the word in the beginning with God (John 1). Jesus found a home here in our skin to know our ups and downs, our emotions and experiences all the way to death on a cross; so that he might give us abundant life…so that we might rise in a resurrection and new life with him. We have the privilege of speaking words and the word.

Now, you might be thinking, that since I’m a pastoral intern and Kathy and Peter are your pastors, that we speak the word, that’s our job, but I have bad news for you: you are called to as well. In Acts 2 it says, “for the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”– a promise that holds you and calls you to speak.

“Speak the word and let my servant be healed”—for Jesus speaks through you for the sake of someone’s life.

This looks like Moses when God spoke to him and called him through the burning bush.

This looks like the women at the tomb who first witnessed the resurrection.

This looks like the Samariatan woman at the at the well in the gospel of John, who for all intensive purposes should not have been talking to Jesus, a single man, in broad day light, but nonetheless went back to her town praising God and calling her people to join in this movement of Jesus.

This year Pastor Peter and I taught “A Year of Living Luke” and together we dove into the book of Luke and had some fun and good questions along the way. During the Spring at the end of every class I asked two questions: now that we’ve read this Bible story, what have we learned about who Jesus is, and who we are? Who is Jesus? Who are we?

I took notes, and over the weeks this is who we discovered Jesus is to us:

Slide A

Caretaker, healer, truth-teller, and yes, at times you can see “frustrated” on the right side.

This is who we are:

Slide B

Seeker, blessed, learners, afraid, filled, wanting, self-centered.

Today we hear this Roman officer strongly encouraging Jesus – speak the word, and let my servant be healed. Let one of my people be healed.

Jesus, let us be healed.

Because at the root of this, and I think you know this, Jesus speaks through you. The Spirit of Jesus continues to soar in our lives, calling us to moments where we can lend a hand, help a stranger, and serve those who are struggling. I think you know this, but Jesus continues to redeem this world, to heal this world, and to bring love to this world, still today, through you. Jesus speaks through you.

You might be wondering though, like I do: What if we don’t speak the word? Sometimes I think speaking the word or a word of love, peace, or hope can be left to the experts; I’d rather not get into that business. Maybe you’re thinking that too.

So what if we don’t speak?

I’m willing to bet that God will find a way to bring about hope and love in this world. It’s not up to us to save the world or heal the world. We just trust God is working through us in some capacity – but what if we don’t. What if we don’t speak the word?

My question back to you: Why does that matter?

Are you asking because you don’t have enough time—time that God gave you?

You don’t have enough money/resources—money/resources that God gave you?

You don’t have enough brain-space—a beautiful intelligent brain that God gave you?

I don’t mean to guilt-trip anyone here. But we’re sounding an awful lot like Moses.

Because Moses was also:

Slide B

Confused. Grateful. Wanting. Filled. Blessed. Afraid.

Wherever Moses was, and wherever you are, the words you speak–of love, forgiveness or healing–matter. Speak the word.

I wonder, do you know why we say the words of institution every week, the words before communion, “In the night in which he was betrayed…this cup…shed for all people… do this in remembrance of me?”

Because you heard these words last week. You heard those words 5 weeks ago. Maybe you heard those words last week on this same fourth weekend in May. Maybe your parents heard those words the weekend they knew they were driving the family to their new home, or the weekend after one of their parents’ passed away. Your pastors heard those words when they were kids. The people who built this sanctuary, this church, heard those words. The people gathered to ordain the first woman in our Lutheran church in 1971 heard those words. This church’s grandparents and great-grandparents. A skeptical yet faithful Catholic priest in 1517 said these words. At the risk of death by their colonizers, the first followers of Jesus said these words behind closed doors. Jesus said these words to help his closest friends know that they are and will not be alone, because his story of abundant love and everlasting salvation holds them.

Because words make dry bones walk.

They help us understand that my story is your story, and your story is our story.

And like the women at the tomb, they remind us with new eyes and new ears that Christ has risen from the dead.

That is not something that you keep in! Speak the word!

I’ll end with two stories.

In New Jersey, a Jewish rabbi heard a window crack and fire filled his room. Someone threw something like a firebomb into their home, which is the second floor of their synagogue. He was targeted in a hate crime because he was Jewish. Days later he was talking with other religious leaders in the area, and the mail started pouring in. Letters of love and support came to their synagogue from all over the country, from leaders of Jewish, Christian, and Lutheran faith communities, colleges and organizations. Those written words were spoken so that this faith community heard loud and clear: fear and death do not have the final word.

At the Spring commencement this year for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, graduate Donovan Livingston shared the wisdom and observation of his 7th grade teacher: “let’s put all your energy to good use.”

In Donovan’s speech and spoken word poem, he then shares what she once spoke to him: “Let me introduce you to the sound of your own voice.”

Let me introduce you to the sound of your own voice–a voice that, in all your imperfections and “not good enoughs,” can speak a word of love and new life.

Speak the word.

A new word is here. What is it saying to you?

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A Red Thread: An overlooked and necessary part of ministry

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You can’t see it here, but after I read this paragraph I wrote in the margin “anxious,” boldly underlined. Church, why do you require so much effort in areas that I’m not very good at? In Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White, we read how the burgeoning church, just decades after Jesus’ resurrection, responded to the call to follow Jesus by engaging in these administrative efforts:

  • fiscal challenges
  • ecumenical relations
  • raising money
  • establishing and managing volunteers
  • creative communication (no cell towers or phones)
  • reconciliation among congregations
  • “[preserving] of the church as a Christian institution”

Oh boy. How is an ordained person, who often is one of two or less paid staff in the average ELCA congregation, supposed to do all that?

This is, of course, where I started. In a panic, thinking that I needed to gather all the information I could on a topic that I don’t have much strength in, so I can “do it all” and “be it all” to my future first congregation (God willing, I will be in a first call soon after internship). #superpastor (yes, I will reflect on my reflection).

If you know me at all, you know that I function from and believe in serving from a strengths-based place. God made and makes us all loved and worthy children of God who each have a unique set of experiences, stories, backgrounds, gifts and strengths (Luke 10:27). So why do we waste so much time fixing or filling the holes of places that we aren’t as good in, rather than asking for help and giving family, friends, congregants, or our fellow humans the opportunity to serve and lead from their strengths too?

I told my internship supervisor about this hidden assumption of mine. As I learn (and experience) my assumptions and questions on internship, we thought this was the best topic for my last class, a .5 online independent study with a hilarious, creative, and un-bounded vision caster for the church and the world, Dr. Terri Elton. So, I’m studying church administration. I will be walking through our main text, Church Administration, two chapters a week and interviewing church administrators along the way. I will post my weekly reflections here. I’m excited to book-learn and church-learn in my internship context, and I hope you also contribute in the comments on your contextual learning and questions. I have a feeling I’m not alone in my wondering about how to engage with administration while keeping myself from the temptation of doing it all myself.

Because here’s my starting point; my starting hunch (I know, hundreds of words later, but I’m getting there; you made it here, I’m proud of you!). Church administration is not something to visit or revisit only at times of crisis. It’s a red thread that is woven through every small group, every worship service, every quilters’ group, every late night council meeting, every community meal, and every staff and non-staff’s service experience.

You guys.

This is in everything. All the time.

And this isn’t something to panic about, like when you first learned about germs as a 1st grader; aahhhhh they’re everywhere! It’s something to reorient as a ministry alongside other ministries in a congregation. Bachor and Cooper-White explain that “administration” comes from the Latin ad + ministrare, meaning literally “one who ministers to.” To me, this means the ministries of a church are literally arranged and managed by those gifted in counting, governing, planning, and doing other administration-y things. These people are ministers.

“…[the] one whose work is primarily administrative is no less a faithful servant than those who mostly preach, teach or counsel…it is time for the church to reclaim the holiness of vocations that involve a major measure of administrative work” (vii).

This work, the behind-the-scenes of work of budgets, money, supervising, and schedules is holy work. This work is done by specific people in a congregation, but it’s also work that each leader does a little (or a lot) of in their role. In both ways, we’re reminded that all of our contributions are significant as we are each ministers, and part of the priesthood that God calls us to be (1st Peter 2:9).

You might be thinking, “Allison, but you went to school for and will make an awesome pastor-minister person! How can we all be ministers if you’re the minister?”

Good question. It’s both. A congregation has a minister or ministers (some have a synodically-authorized one if they’re tight on cash), and we’re all ministers. Those who are ordained in the ELCA administer communion and baptism and preach, and are in a separate space (or “office,” like the office of the president or the office of a superintendent) and get compensated. Those who aren’t ordained (or who aren’t on staff) don’t get paid by the congregation/synod/community.  There are other distinctions between ordained ministers and all other ministers (everyone else, as we’re all called and children of God), but the point is that this concept is not black and white. If you’re reading this, looking back at your phone or laptop screen, we’re the same and we’re not. All at the same time.

As you can see by all my parentheses in that paragraph, I’m not satisfied with my own answer, because to say “it’s a both and!” or “it’s just another Lutheran paradox!” is I think a cop-out. Are we the same or are we different? What is it? Where is the peace and justice in knowing that one of us gets all the Starbucks gift cards for our faithful public ministry, and one of us just doesn’t? (it always comes back to coffee, doesn’t it). We’ll leave this topic for another day. I can feel Terri looking at my word count so let’s move on, at least for now. Priesthood of all believers and ministers (the theme of), I’m coming back for you!

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What I wanted to land on as I reflect on these first two chapters of Church Administration is that when a group of motivated people gather to serve and discern God’s call, administration is a pair of glasses that they need to wear in order to carry out that service and discernment effectively. Bacher and Cooper-White write that administration and governance are enacted, “when two or more persons engage in a common purpose” (1).

When two brains, or two hearts, or two strengths connect and say:

  • “Let’s try this new church thing.”
  • “What if we try this church thing like this?”
  • “I wonder what it would be like if we did church this way?”

…there is one purpose. There is a common purpose. Administration is a color in that new portrait of what the church looks like today. We could leave out that color, but we could be leaving out the color that ties all the rest of the colors together, or makes all the other colors work together. They just work.

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I think Paul had this hunch about administration when he was first leading congregations who were sorting out what it meant to follow Jesus; a resurrected savior with an unpredictable, unbelievable story. How do you spread that message? How do you engage an entire community around a faith in Jesus that doesn’t peter out, but blazes a new path and direction in a world that is ripe with possibilities for new life, second chances, and new growth for all? That’s the urgency. That’s the call. So how does a congregation utilize the gift of administration as a red thread that helps us do our diverse ministry and work, and respond to God’s call most effectively?

That’s what I hope to learn more about in these six weeks with you. When was a time when you felt in over your head with administrative tasks (yes, “conflict” is a topic that will be explored in the weeks to come)? What pushed you to ask for help in administrative stuff, or what are you hoping to find help in, as an ordained, otherly-rostered or non-official pastor person, when it comes to administration?

Advent Week 1: Yes, We Are Called to Hope

After hanging up Christmas lights for the first time on our house, a house we are graciously hosted in by my internship congregation for the year, I’ve concluded that today I am tired and my productivity has left the building. So I turn to you, friends. It’s Advent. It’s been bugging me, so let’s do it. I’ve been trying to avoid writing a weekly blog series on this time of waiting for Christmas because I have too much to do. I’m in month three of my pastoral internship. I fear I’ve tilted to the attitude of I’m “too busy” when it comes to my creative outlets. So let’s stop pretending that being “too busy” is something outside my control and admit that it’s a choice. So I choose to write: here it goes.

Getting ready to eat. Yes, all 12 of us fit in the dining room, woohoo!

Getting ready to eat. Yes, all 12 of us fit in the dining room, woohoo!

This weekend and Thanksgiving was fabulous. We had a warm, full house of family from both sides for a few days of eating, laughing, napping, and eating, lots. I truly have every reason to proudly name the theme of this week’s Advent reflection: hope.

Yet the violence and fear in the world weigh on me heavily. The preacher this weekend at my church (my supervisor) shared that Jesus says to his people that awful, violent signs of the end of this world are coming, and yet, be hopeful, because “your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21: 25-36).

Are you sure about that? Jesus, have you looked out the window recently, to Paris, to Minneapolis, to Syria, because I don’t see a place that is shouting to me that redemption and reconciliation is near?

But that’s precisely what we’re called to do. In the face of death, redemption and resurrection is on its way. Ironically, in a time of celebrating the incarnation of God through Jesus, this tiny baby, we hear the message of Good Friday & Easter: there is no resurrection without death.

Our biggest threat is not violence: it’s fear. Fear that keeps us from remembering who we are. I’m paraphrasing what our preacher said, but what I heard was, “Name your fear now, before it continues to grow, consume, and spread.” Fear helps protect us from harm (see “Inside Out”), but when it’s our dominant emotion, it keeps our walls so high that there’s no hope to reach and connect with another person, another community, or another group.

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I admit, this is not the happiest reflection the theme of “hope.” But when we fear, we lose our capacity to hope. When we hope, we untighten our fists of fear and hold the future with open hearts and open wills. Yes, my first reaction, too, is “no thank you! That sounds a little too scary.”

But when we hope for God’s grace and love to come, we become less fearful of the changes to come, and become more grateful than we ever thought possible.

Advent week 1: We are called to hope.

Coming down off the mountain top: #riseupELCA

I’m not sure about you, but I walked around the last few days with part of my heart outside my body in a different place with 30,000 people. That place was Detroit, MI, as I watched through social media and livestream the energy and events of the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering. In 2009 while I was at Pacific Lutheran University loving my college life, I was asked to be one of the adult (I know, right?) chaperons to our home-church’s first journey to an ELCA Youth Gathering. The one in 2009 was in New Orleans, which was especially poignant with Hurricane Katrina coming through in 2005, and relief efforts were still occurring. I was crazy enough to say “Yes” and off we went – I think it was four chaperons and 15-20 youth. We had a connection in Houston. We arrived in New Orleans.

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37,000 Lutherans packed in the Superdome at the 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering.

It was nuts. Welcome to 37,000 Lutheran youth stuffed into a concentrated few city blocks, for five days. We bought out all the Subway bread in like a day. We poured thousands upon thousands of service hours onto the city – made possible by the servants who were already there, helping neighbors, helping families, and helping communities recover. We drove by cemeteries full of only headstones above ground that demonstrated their necessity – because in the South they risk rushing hurricane-force floods that can unearth corpses. We helped a community stuff the backpacks of their tiny neighbors who would go back to school in a few weeks to a school with still no roof because it had blown off in the hurricane a few years earlier.

In the large-scale evening programming in the Superdome, we heard from Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber who many of the kids’ parents didn’t want her to speak, and yet she came, all

Those I chaperoned. We did a shampoo commercial while we were there. (JK)

Those I chaperoned, rocking out to the music and worship at the Superdome. We did a shampoo commercial while we were there too. (JK)

of her, with her tattoos, swearing-like-a-truck-driver mouth, a history of alcohol abuse, and a passionate heart for God’s work, and shared, “That’s what it looks like to be a Lutheran.” We heard a letter from the President of the USA, Barack Obama, read out loud to these Lutherans, that articulated his gratitude for these Lutheran young folks, and all they do to serve, help, and share with those in need, in this city, in this time.

There are things I won’t forget and feelings I can’t shake from those five days.

Your younger congregational members just got off the plane. Yes, they’re your youth, but you can’t stick them back in the youth room. The things they saw in Detroit, they talked with locals who served them more than they served the locals in Detroit, they felt the sense of “aliveness” in Detroit; that can’t be contained to one room.

I ask you, don’t askHow was the youth gathering? (because that’s just about as productive as “How was work?” or “How was school?”)

Instead, focus on engaging stories (here’s an example) rather than asking a blanket question. Settle into the space that only comes when you accept that the one before you is just as much a Child of God as you, and wonder:

Start it off with, “It’s so good to see you! Hey I have a question…” –

a. Tell me a story of when you helped someone during the gathering.

b. Tell me a story of when you knew you had something to say about God, whether you said it at the time or didn’t.

c. Tell me a story of when you gave all you have and all you are in Detroit.

d. Tell me a story of how God came into focus for you at the gathering.

e. Tell me a story of when you knew you had something to contribute.

f. Tell me a story of someone who changed your mind.

g. Tell me a story of when you knew you mattered, and the gathering wouldn’t have been the same without you.

Now the last prompt requires you to trust them, and also that they trust you. If it’s there, great. If it’s not, make it a goal to demonstrate consistent trustworthiness, so that in time, they might answer this truthfully. But for now I ask you to wonder these things with those who came back from Detroit, from the youngest to the oldest – chaperons and coordinators included!

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The truth is, these young adults were changed by seeing all the 30,000 ways to be Lutheran.

If we truly believe in an ever-present, transformational God, than God is up to God’s creative messy, molding work all the time. It’s okay to feel terrified and awe-inspired by this. I know I am. Maybe you were changed while they were gone? I guess the storytelling goes both ways. Know they’re changed, and you’re changed, and the knowledge and articulation of that change happens now, happens next week, happens next year, and/or in decades to come. Be patient. But don’t take advantage of patience – their energy and love for this new world is waiting to be poured out, to the people they love most. You.

So, see what happens; don’t ask them how it was, ask them to tell their story – because no one will tell it like they will.

Also check out Connect with Youth After the Gathering.

Showing up & being present in our differences

My blog will keep going, but my reflection series from my “Adults and Lifelong Learning” class is done! This post is a little long, but stay with me! It’s been so fun to learn, laugh, and reflect with Prof. Mary Hess this Spring as I complete my Master of Divinity degree. What’s next? I’ll give an update when I have a clear update, ha! … serenity prayer, anyone?

This class has been a significant place of learning in my brain and heart, so thank you Mary! Thanks to Timothy, my spouse, for our conversations that often have been the impetus for many of my blog writings, and bigger life thinking – we’re shaping our story together, Timothy, and my gratefulness is too deep for one sentence (and I thought you were the one who uses run-on sentences). Thanks too to YOU, my friends and family in learning and leading, here in Minnesota, in Washington, in between, and in farther off places than that! Stay in the arena and keep asking questions and leading out a place of hope and passion. I can’t think of a better quote to sum up my hope, and for us, as big-hearted, broken, beautiful people:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. – Teddy Roosevelt.

I shamelessly pulled this from Brene Brown‘s TED talk, and this quote inspires me to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I think for her too. I think I can safely say that if you read my blog with any regularity, you saw that coming. Oh Dr. Brown. I cherish your email reply to me, even though it was only 12 words long: “Hi Allison, Check out Grounded Theory by Glaser and Strauss. Thanks, Brené.” Yes, she put an accent mark above the “e”. I literally just sighed. Some day we will change the world together, Brené, some day.

Anyway, as Mary and I were batting around possible topics for this final reflection, she suggested looking at a parable through the lens of what I’ve been learning about how people make meaning an all sorts of varied and different ways.

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We literally were sitting like this (not really) when we dreamed up this post. But this is Mary & me!

I said parables are cool, but what about the experience of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well? Talk about two worlds smashing together. A male, a Jewish religious leader in an authoritative position. A woman, unaccompanied, who has been married five times, from Samaria. Running into each other at a well during the hottest part of the day in the Middle East. In the spirit of the Major League Baseball season starting, this is a pickle.

Just so you know, this isn’t an attempt to put a Jesus-bandaid on lifelong learning. I could quote the Bible with glowing images of our beautiful creation, or little smiling children running to Jesus. But I don’t think Scripture was meant to be cherry-picked in order to support a point. At least, I don’t think that gives Scripture enough credit, or really, it’s own voice.

The Samaritan woman at the well is important to consider as we wrap up this class on how people learn and make meaning, because it shows our insatiable desire to be known by our people and by God (and yes, I’m using the Bible to make a point, but as a wider, frequent theme of the Bible I’m going to say it’s ok). This is not a Bible study or a one-size-fits-all reflection. I want to show that there are a lot (a bajillion?) of points of views on the Bible, and as people in the buzz of spiritual questions/reflection, our task is to be empathetic with each other’s ways of making meaning, no matter how well thought out, complex, or black and white they might be. Why? Because your neighbor wants to be loved (spoiler alert: and is worthy of love), just as much as you are.

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The Northern Lights, in a diversity of color like our diversity of reflections on the Bible.

Curiously enough, this is the space and complexity that Jesus finds himself in when he runs into this woman at a well thousands of years ago. Jesus and the Samaritan woman aren’t just neighbors from different sides of town (80-90+% of US citizens live in urban spaces, think about how hard it is to wrap our heads around this?). They are from different nomad, rural traditions and cultures – Jesus, a Jew from Bethlehem, and this woman from Samaria who the writer of John shares little about. These are cultures with deeply embedded communities and practices, and histories that root them not only in centuries but in millennia.

As much as I am scared for them as a former camp counselor (for legal reasons, rule of three), I’m scared for them if their people, or their neighbors, or their family comes and finds them: a woman and a man from differing and clashing cultures speaking alone. Jesus’ crucifixion (and this woman’s almost-sure stoning to death) could have come quicker than we know them to be. I know, the Bible’s gross, but who are we kidding, isn’t our world now, today?

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In case you print this out, have fun coloring this inaccurate portrayal of the Samaritan woman! Ok that’s my sass, now we can move on.

This is a text that comes up in a lectionary (a widely published rotation of Bible passages assigned for each Sunday) that somewhere around 4 million+ ELCA Lutherans and other Christians hear every three years. Many of those people hear in the sermon that the point of this story in the 4th chapter of John is that Jesus saves, even adulterous women.

I don’t want to belittle this perspective, but with some deeper digging into this Scriptural text, I realized that this woman was a survivor of a system that punished women. This kind of thinking that men are good and women are bad is the black and white thinking we find in 3rd order thinking (according to Robert Kegan, the author of In Over our Heads which has informed my learning this semester). Just to refresh our thinking, here’s what 1-5 orders of thinking/consciousness means:

To be clear I’m not saying that those in a more 3rd order of thinking are sexist. Not at all. I am saying that having a 3rd order frame of mind, and perpetuating systems that function in 3rd order frames, provides a fertile environment for victimization, “us vs. them,” and over all “othering.”  I think the frequent sermon on this text screams that our church, its cultures, communities, leaders, and conversations, are often functioning in a 3rd order space. There is only room for the conclusion that Jesus is the ultimate good, and therefore this woman is the ultimate bad that Jesus was merciful enough to pardon and save.

We have to remember that the point of this model is to provoke empathy in each of us for those using the same frame as us, and for people who are at different frames. Me saying, although I am tempted to, “The conclusion that ‘The Samaritan woman has committed adultery and is therefore only just barely save-able by Jesus, and bless her heart she is’ is stupid and I’m never coming back when this preacher is preaching again,” is not empathetic nor pushing us toward being in community like God calls us to be.

So what do we do? What do we do when we go to a church, for the 1000th time or the 1st time, and hear a sermon that is close-minded and so black and white that we couldn’t even stay to the end of the service?

Do we shake the pastor’s hand at the end and say “Good sermon” or “That was a terrible sermon! How about you try living as a first-century woman who is only valued for her slave labor and ability to give birth as she gets shuffled from brother to brother”? Or, do we come back next Sunday, say nothing, and instead connect with your friend back home via Facebook Messanger, only using Pusheen emoticons?

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If you were wondering, yes, this was a very intense conversation.

Honestly I don’t like any of these options. They scream anger, passivity, insecurity, and isolation. This isn’t what Jesus wanted for his followers 2,000 years later, this isn’t what Kegan would want as people use his model to examine how we make meaning, and this isn’t what I want as someone who doesn’t know what the future holds but knows that we are made our fullest selves together, working toward one mission, not apart in isolation.

Hey, do you have time for coffee? I’m often free Monday mornings, Tuesday afternoons…

We meet at Starbucks (of course), and instead of undercutting their sermon with historical critical analysis, cultural appropriation, and gender dynamics in first-century Palestine, I ask:

Where are you from? … Does your family still live there? … How did you meet him/her? (if relevant) … What brought you to where you work/study/lead/learn now? … Wait, how did you get from there to here? … This might be an odd question, but why is that important to you?

My point is that we have to listen to each other’s stories. I wonder if a significant percentage of pastors and people-oriented roles have experienced hurt in one way or another in their life. This is why they serve, which is beautiful. But it’s also why they sometimes find comfort in 3rd order thinking, in black and white paradigms, because their structured thinking gives them comfort. It gives safety.

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I’m learning that the biggest way that I can change someone’s hurtful, harmful, or dark behavior, theology, mind, or way of thinking is not through teaching, nor sermon-ing. It’s by example. It’s by showing up. It’s doing little things when I think no one is watching. It’s preaching when I don’t think anyone is listening (accentuated by a little girl last year asking me after a service, “Who made God?” and I had no answer); it’s recycling when I could have just dumped it in the trash; it’s writing when I think no one is reading, it’s dancing when I think no one is watching, it’s caring for my body and eating/buying healthy when I think no one is paying attention, it’s caring for and filling with pride for my spouse, one of my most cherished vocations, when I it feels like too few people care what lies in his future.

Lecturing someone who has preached from a 3rd order frame of mind about the “adulterous” Samaritan woman will probably not make a huge impact. It might. But I think what’s more impactful, in lifelong friendship, in lifelong collegeial relationships, in lifelong communities (we’re just a small portion of the church!), in lifelong learning, is showing a different frame of mind, not lecturing about a different frame of mind.

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Growing into a 4th order frame of mind looks like venturing into the unknown with questions, wonderings, and possibilities.

This looks like me offering my historical/cultural analysis in my own leading, designing learning experiences, and preaching, and going back to school to get the credential that shows my church my value and leadership. Yes, there is a tinge of hurt in that last sentence, that it’s only through ordination that I am entrusted with leading in sermon-ing, and leading a community in experiencing communion and baptism, and leading in other ways… so far. Times might change. Systems might change. Expectations might change. It’s through showing up for coffee and modeling a different kind of meaning-making that might be prompt perhaps the most significant learning of all.

For reference and varying views on the Samaritan woman:
John by Karoline Lewis, Fortress Press: 2014. The Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, Westminster/John Knox Press: 1992. John by Gerard S. Sloyan, John Knox Press, 1988.

Lifelong learning: In the space of “What happens if…?”

Welcome to post number four of four for my independent study on adults and lifelong learning! I had a lot of fun collecting my thoughts and questions in my my first three posts on describing the current situation of adults in American life. All of this is heavily informed by Robert Kegan’s In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life.

To remind ourselves, these are the five ways of making meaning according to Robert Kegan, illustrated by PhD candidate Steve Thomason:

For this last week I’ll be exploring how to lead in a congregational context where I, as a pastor, might provide care for my people as a crisis occurs, knowing there are multiple ways of meaning-making represented in the congregation. In the pews are a diversity of theologies, values, family of origin stories, and ways of making meaning. Knowing this, it’s not our job as pastors to make sense to every single one of these people, but it’s our task to provide them with ways to make meaning as they sort out their worldview.

Please note that this post will be soaked in privilege as someone seeking ordination to be a pastor through earning a Master of Divinity. People who are not pastors are loved by God and have the capacity (and beyond) for the kind of leadership I’ll describe here. For the sake of making this an effective case study, I will focus on one specific kind of leadership (pastor) because I will be one (or at least hope to be one).

To make “the rubber hit the road” with these five ways of making meaning, I want to consider a case study, like a crisis a church might face. Unfortunately it’s a dark one, but we live in a dark world sometimes. One kind of crisis that is specific and unfortunately reoccurring are shootings nearby or on campuses of schools. Since Columbine, I think everyone has had the thought, “That would never happen here,” and then a shooting happens near your home or where you grew up.

As pastors, we’re called to hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper/Twitter feed in the other hand. We’re called to care for people, not fix people. We’re called to co-lead and co-create, not dominate conversations, spaces, or worship leading. In my denomination (ELCA), pastors are often identified as those who focus on, “Word and Sacrament,” and maybe this is what people mean by “Word and Sacrament”: holding the sacred conversations, spaces, and writings (Word) while helping others see God showing up in the tangible realities of our daily lives (Sacrament).

So what does it look like for a pastor to hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper/Twitter feed in the other? What does it look like to care for people, and co-lead/co-create with them when a school shooting happens in their community, knowing that multiple levels of consciousness/meaning-making are represented in their congregation and surrounding community?

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Communities and churches can learn about team-leadership from these pandas!

 

In one way, I’ve actually done this before. On the evening of the April 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, I was working the front desk of my residence hall at Pacific Lutheran University. I gathered together other campus leaders and staff to put on a candlelight vigil and about 100 people came from campus and the community. It mattered to me that people had a place to go if they were scared, angry or lonely.

I thought about softening the blow with a nice, kind Bible verse. But the kind of response required to a school shooting needs to be precipitated by community relationships, emotional competency by the congregation, and serving our neighbors together, as church people and non-church people. This “prep” and the response itself is a challenge and almost unimaginable how such a feat might be met. I’m guessing it has been a struggle for pastors in the past. It will be a challenge for pastors in the future. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we should shrink away from it. I think I’ll start there.

I think it wouldn’t be smart to hide. This is a time when it’s a blessing and a curse that part of the role of a pastor is to be a Christian public leader, emphasis on leader and public.  I think holding community conversations (first agenda item: prayer) would be a wise and welcome move. Dispersing a survey on “what kind of education would you like to see or hear or learn from,” when really people are craving person-to-person conversation, would not be helpful. Not that I’ve ever been in this situation, nor wish to ever have to be in this situation. But that’s one thought.

People with 3rd order consciousness (see above video, from In Over Our Heads) see value in themselves as an individual, but have difficulty in seeing themselves as important to society. It would be easy for them to understand themselves as victims of these horrific crimes, or be anxious and anticipate themselves as being victims of future shootings. Shifting language from victim to survivor might be helpful, but that is how some (more than some) make meaning. In crisis mode, we either freeze with fear or we fight to make it right. Creating a structure to articulate our feelings and desires to help would be helpful especially for 3rd order thinkers.

And it’s not like those in 4th order (see above video) are doing much better. They see that our culture, community, or congregation is one among many cultures, communities, and congregations. Empathy might come from this, but also a feeling of helplessness. What can I do, if “that” culture of violence and hatred can terrorize “our” culture/community/congregation? This is of course facetious, because “that” culture is our culture. We are a culture that condones violence and racism and micro-aggressions against those at the margins, socially, racially, and economically.

These are just my initial thoughts, and I think they raise more questions than answers. Like, how to befriend the local law enforcement, school board, teachers, families and students. Much like other fields of work, I think congregational work is becoming more inter-disciplinary. But I think serving as a pastor in the midst of a crisis will be hard work, and I won’t know what all will be required until it happens. But building relationships with those around me as soon as I get to a place or setting and being centered in my own work and connection with God will be helpful and crucial.

Do you see it?

I graduated from college with the conviction that I wanted my life to make a difference. So when I turned to my church to see if they might help, I was given a copy of this book:

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ELCA resource text by Walter Bouman & Sue Setzer

My former classmates are probably rolling their eyes – yes, this is a book any ELCA seminary-bound person has skimmed or read. But here I found the basics of vocational discernment (something not just for to-be-pastors, but for everybody, weird I know) and the basics of what it means to do ministry, i.e. make a difference in the world because I feel so moved because of my faith. Vocation is not just about your job, but about your relationships, your gifts, how you serve, and what makes you feel like “this is what I feel called to do.” Discernment is thinking, wondering, and praying about it.

But the problem of this picture of vocational discernment is that it doesn’t honor different ways to vocationally discern. If you put me in a room with a Bible and say, “vocationally discern!” I would probably stare at the white walls with boredom, hoping that the door was unlocked and wondering when I would get lunch soon. But I fear this is the picture many people imagine when they approach “vocational discernment” that the church so fiercely endorses.

Here’s the problem. We have bodies. We have brains that allow us to question and identify when the wool is being pulled over our eyes. We have feelings and the capacity to thrive and fail. We feel good when we help people or animals or the environment. Vocational discernment is not just thinking: it’s getting lost, adventuring, experimenting (which is what the church is anyway, is it not?), protesting, learning, leading, sharing, trying, failing, trying again, capturing the high moments and trying again.

Not one person has the same equation that adds up to “this is what vocational discernment looks like.” No two people are carbon copies, therefore no two people vocationally discern the same way.

This means the church has the opportunity to welcome and embrace people who think about what makes them tick and serve joyfully in a million different kind of ways.

Vocational discernment is not for the weak. It’s for the courageous. It’s for the failures and the beautiful moments of learning. It’s for those who say to leaders, CEO’s, pastors, bishops, “This is not working, but I have an idea of how to make it work.” It’s for those who look around and see people blinded by insecurity and fear, and can’t do anything but want to rip off their shades and help them see the beauty around them. Not just “ooh, pretty!” beauty, but true, real beauty – when people make amends; when organizations say “Oops, we messed up, and we want to make it right;” when a friend invites the truth by insisting “But why is that the case?” or when a partner admits, “Maybe we’re asking the wrong question?” and identifies the advent of a new chapter.

Beautiful & colorful picture from Brazil, on Pinterest.

This is the kind of beauty that’s all around us if we only open our eyes to see. Young people are starving to hear their church say “I see it, too.” We want to hear that the way we think about God’s presence in our lives is beautiful and needed; we want to hear that our vocations are weird and beautiful and strange and just right – especially in a market where contract work dominates and part-time or full-time work with benefits is difficult to find or keep.

This is vocational discernment:

  • Noticing every time you have the thought, “I really should blog about that.”
  • Reaching out to a church administrator about an HR question and being asked, “What’s new with you? Can we get some coffee to catch up?”
  • Insisting on scheduling informational interviews around a certain class or community-based game.
  • Not looking at your phone for 48 hours as you explore a new part of the state you live in.
  • Realizing that you keep pinning the same kind of quote on Pinterest. It happens. I call it the Pinterest fog.
  • Hanging out with friends, and through the laughter hearing “I know! We could start the…”

Do you see it? This what I see: Authenticity without strings attached. Experimenting with people you trust. Creativity for the sake of play. Being vulnerable and praying it’s met with a connection on the other side.

This is one picture of vocational discernment, but one that echos the qualities that young people are starving to feel when they ask their church, the community in which their faith was first sparked, “Is there anything out there for me?” We want coaches, mentors, colleagues. We want churches to find the same beauty we see in the world, the beauty you can only see if you get lost.

Do you see it?