You fools.

Here’s what I preached at my internship site, on Luke 12:13-21.

Grace and peace to you from our Lord God, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’m going to guess that I’m not the only one who has a hard time whittling things down. Like many other young adults in the month of July, our place is full of moving boxes, with very full recycling and trash bins.

As I’m going through my things and nic nacs, I found a graduation tassel that says in gold letters “09.” It’s probably been years since I touched it, and a total of 7 years since it actually served a function. But as my fingers sifted through the floppy cotton lines, I was reminded of a really great day of family, and friends, and joining my sister as the second generation of our family to earn bachelors degrees. Should I toss it? Should I keep it?

This is why it’s so hard to throw away things. Because things have meaning and they tell us stories of who we are.

4211_91791376890_2994092_n

Graduating from college in 2009

But still, although I decided to keep that graduation tassel, I’m reminded that those things aren’t all of who I am. I am not my things. Even though they give me a sense of security, I am not my things. And that doesn’t mean they don’t have meaning, but when they become the only place that we seek to find out who we are, we’re ultimately disappointed and the answer we seek is incomplete every time.

We realize that we have foolishly raised the finite, Earthly things, our things, to the same level as God.

And I’m afraid that’s the trap that our rich friend has fallen into today found in the 12th chapter of Luke.

Jesus is asked by a nameless man what he should do about his unfair share of his family’s inheritance in the middle of a chaotic, loud crowd. Jesus responds with a parable where a rich man steps back and surveys his abundant crop from a good year. He realizes he doesn’t have enough storage space, so the solution he comes up with is to build not one but many bigger and better barns. All the barns!

Now this parable isn’t just about any person, but a rich man. This is not surprising seeing that we’re in the book of Luke—a gospel that is all about the Great Reversal that Jesus taught about, preached about, and exemplified in his death and resurrection. At the event of the cross, the sin and greediness of the world, and broken relationships were reconciled and made whole in Christ. For a poor man from Galilee, God’s love was poured out into this savior of the world, upending the Roman’s expectations of what a King could look like and do for all humankind.

In our world in the 21st century where those with money and means are featured in the media, those who are looked upon with favor here in Luke are the poor, the widow, and people like Mary, Jesus’ own mother. Luke challenges and reverses our understanding of who is favored, as Mary sang with her relative Elizabeth that “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” We hear about Zacchaeus, the beatitudes where the poor, not the rich, are given the Kingdom of God. Luke’s interest of reversing our expectations of what it means to be rich is shown once again in this unique parable that Jesus shares with a crowd.

It’s as if Luke knew that we would struggle with money and possessions. It’s as if Jesus knew we would struggle in our relationships with money and possessions.

Money is one of those things that touches almost every part of our lives. We make retirement and career decisions with it. We feel more secure with it. We make decisions about where we live and vacation with it.

Even more so, we care what our family or friends will think if they know we have to shop at that grocery store, or use that kind of payment, or what if they knew my credit score, or find out that I don’t know what a credit score is? Sometimes, or all the time, it can feel like we never have enough money or possessions. There’s always something you can’t afford, or is always just beyond our reach. That hunt to feel satisfied, to feel like you have enough, can be a hunt that we’re so embedded in, that we can be blind to the fact that the hunt is all we’re on. This hunt is the only way that we find meaning, or feel joy in our days. Money, and possessions, happiness and identity are tied together in a web that can feel all too mysterious and overwhelming to sort out.

Money and our stuff–touches a very vulnerable part of us. It has the power, if we let it, to tell us who we are.

ca8431bb563fd7c6e98dfbce5e7194c2

Today though, we are shown that it’s only in God, in the death and resurrection of Christ, it is proclaimed to us who we are. A theology of the cross here tells a thing what it is. And God doesn’t take that lightly. God tells us the truth… which on any other day I would say God says I love you! Or You are a part of my flock.

But today, God tells us the truth that we are fools.

And mind you, this is the only time God says anything directly in a parable in the entire book of Luke. And God uses these choice words to address the rich man: “You fool.”

Now, this might feel a little harsh, but it’s a good thing! Otherwise we (and likewise the rich man too) might convince ourselves we have perfect relationship with money, which just isn’t true. God tells us the truth: we are fools.

So often we breeze over this proclamation and go straight to the ominous warning “This very night your life is being demanded of you…”

Before this God tells us up front, plain and clear: You fools.

You fools who value your money and possessions for their ability to ground your whole identity and not for their ability to make you grateful for the bigger meaning and story they connect you too.

You fools who make isolated decisions from your neighbor and your God, and instead of sharing your abundant crop and share, you build your own bigger barn.

This rich man with his bigger and better barns points for us to futility of our choices, and our utter dependence and need of Christ.

Because on our own we can’t stop making poor choices about money. Because on our own we can’t stop defining ourselves by our possessions or bank accounts.

In prayer and in rich relationships that are quantified by time and not a price tag—it’s there we listen and experience the invaluable gift of Christ. Where God takes our greediness and ill-directed attempts at figuring out who we are, and in the cross, through Christ turns them into proclamations that tell us the truth that “You are a fool” and “You are loved.”

Through Christ, God turns them into opportunities for connection, making decisions about money and possessions in conversation with our neighbors, and giving us eyes to see how we understand ourselves through the lens of Christ—a lens that is always infused with unconditional love, as we are both looked upon with favor, and told “You are a fool.” We can’t do this alone, and through Christ our relationship with our neighbors, with money, and our relationship with God is made right.

Right up front, Luke writes in chapter one that the reason he writes this gospel is “So that you may know the truth.” There is no other purpose to tell the story of Jesus than to tell the truth. And that’s what God does for us today. We are told the truth that we are fools—and what better fool to be than a fool for Christ.

A fool that proclaims that light can defeat the darkness.

A fool that sees the cross and doesn’t see death but sees life eternal.

A fool that sees 5 loaves and 2 fish and is confident it can feed 5,000 people.

May we see the truth that we are fools, and see even more clearly Christ’s love working through our relationships and our lives. Amen.

Advertisements

I’m Dreaming of a Church Budget: Not Like the Ones I Used to Know

In this third week of learning about church administration, I’m learning about finances and budgets. If you want to follow along, this week I’m reading and reflecting on the chapters titled, “Budgets and Balance Sheets: Deeply Doctrinal Documents” and “Raising the Resources: Theology Talks and Money Matters!” (pgs. 93-142) of Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White.

I don’t know why, but I was tickled pink when I read this quote, this urging, in chapter five:

“…treat budgets and finance as ways to get there, that is, a means to mission fulfillment” (95).

Dear reader, this week we are encouraged to think of budgets and finances as a way to close the gap between the present and the day when our community’s mission is realized, when “we’ve made it.” The budget is a tool to make that mission come alive; with budget and finances we, the church, are granted the opportunity to make a difference in the world as articulated in our church’s mission statement.  It can happen. Missions can be fulfilled. Missions can come alive. Missions can change the world. Finances and budgets help us close the gap between today and the day that a mission is realized.

I’m pretty sure this is not how many congregations understand their finances. I’m pretty sure they understand them like this, like how I understand them way too often, which is through a series of fear-based, lacking-in-peace questions:

  • Are we in the red or the black this month?
  • Did we get enough money in the last month?
  • Will we have enough to pay off the mortgage/this month’s electricity bill/pay for the bulletin paper/[insert your favorite financial anxiety question here]?

This got me thinking: What if during an annual meeting, the budget and finances were talked about in terms of the fulfillment (& projection of fulfillment) of particular goals or the congregation’s overall mission?

I feel like that would lead to a whole different kind of annual meeting. If I’m being frank, that’s the kind of annual meeting I would want to go to.

I’m discovering that this kind of financial planning has a name: narrative budgets. Grace Duddy Pomroy writes that a narrative budget, “tells the story of the congregation’s mission and ministry, connecting every aspect of the budget to it.” I get the sense that a line-item budget can be partnered with this approach, but narrative budgets frame financial planning differently all together.

I’m sure I’m in a dreaming space that people fall into before they step into a first call, but think about it. In fact, look at it: Here are examples, and I like this one in particular.

Not to toot my own horn, but the part of me that designed the Storytellers curriculum is REALLY into these narrative budgets. When you get to run Storytellers in a small group, or a larger web of small groups, you end up strengthening a community’s understanding of how God’s story is speaking through their story and values. I think, ultimately, that’s what congregations’ annual meetings, and their material, try to achieve.

5023fc5f34eedb7da5add85db26f04ca

Each individual in a congregation is not on an island of spirituality and Jesus-living. We are connected as one body of Christ, and as God works through us, we get to honor and co-create with God the next chapter of our congregation’s story. Even a single congregation’s story is bigger than that congregation (See Matthew 1)!

I think that’s how narrative budgets nail it on the head for me. When budgets are the “why” of “Why we need to hold an annual meeting,” our actions show that our ultimate trust and love is in money. But when you can show the story through pictures, video and/or art of the moments when money made possible a moment of the Kingdom of God breaking through – then you have a story, a narrative, that speaks to radical Spirit of God that powers, changes, and uplifts the mission, the “why,” partly made possible by the “how”: the budget and financial ministry of a congregation.

Do you have experience with narrative budgets? How is it going? Did you walk with a congregation through a transition to using a narrative budget and how did that go? I am curious how others have interacted with this, or church budgets in general, in their congregation.

Bacher and Cooper-White explain that the role of the pastor is to be an interpreter. Interpret the budget as a means, or the “how” to the “why” of the congregation (it’s mission). I’m sensing that there is a prime opportunity to not only strengthen and clarify the financial ministry of the congregation, but keep accountable and imagine big about what a congregation’s mission is. Now I understand why Luther Seminary’s class on finances is called “Money and Mission.” When they are aligned, there’s no other way to understand God’s grace, love, and gifts other than abundant.

I’ll end with this quote from Bacher and Cooper-White: “What is budget and finance stuff? Busy work or a way to serve?” (96). As tough as it is, I sure hope it’s the later.

Cat’s out of the bag: why lifelong learning

Welcome to post number two of four for my independent study on adults and lifelong learning! (cue rainbow streamers, balloons, confetti) I had a lot of fun collecting my thoughts and questions in my first post on describing the current situation of adults in American life. It was heavily informed from the first half of Robert Kegan’s In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life.

In this second reflection I want to build on the last by wondering why churches should care about lifelong learning, and the adults that would take advantage of it (at least, I hope would). I finished In Over Our Heads and it pains me to report that the title is truly a statement, not a question – we are in over our heads. But fear not! The opportunities to work together and walk alongside each other as adult learners are tremendous and bring me a lot of hope.

Prof. Mary Hess pointed me to a doctorate student who did a “live draw” youtube video, outlining Kegan’s framework on how individuals know/understand/interact with the world (he calls it “levels of consciousness”) Check it out.

Now as I nerd out about how awesome lifelong learning is, it’s important that I share part of my story (unless you already know it from earlier posts!). I taught adult small group learning experiences at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater, MN before I jumped back into seminary life. When I arrived their lifelong learning pastor helped me stretch my wings a bit and helped me grow a curriculum that she and others created in the past few years. Working with older adults, hockey dads and moms, 40-year old civil servants, engineers, teenagers, bright young women about to leave for college – these lifelong learning opportunities mattered to these folks, and I’ll always be grateful for their willingness to try those experiments with me as I facilitated and created some small group curriculum (and preached and did some one-on-one coaching).

b3e9671d2140b96f80a0fcc1d4167a2b

Another part of my story is that my mom was an elementary school teacher. Now she’s a tutor and has a huge passion to help kids learn, from classroom basics to gardening and helping them be eco-conscious, to building up leadership in kids (like she did for my sister and I for which I’m grateful). Growing up with a mom as a teacher will always inform how I see that learning is and will always be important for individuals as well as communities everywhere.

So now that the “cat’s out of the bag,” learning is important to me and how I understand my unfolding story in the world. Whether you know it or not, your openness to learn, in various contexts, greatly influences your confidence, growth, and sense of self. Whether the church knows it or not, its peoples’ openness to learn greatly influences their confidence, growth and sense of self!

Why, specifically, should churches be pivoting toward a lens of lifelong learning in their work? (As a general group, I’ll address the bigger faith community of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that I know as “the church”)

1. You said you would. Not to be blunt or anything, but it’s true! Parents, sponsors, and/or other people in the congregation promise to walk alongside people as they get baptized. The pastor asks, “As you bring you child (or adult, or significant other, or loved one) to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities… [here are a few:] to live with them among God’s faithful people, to teach, to nurture, to proclaim, to care, to work for justice and peace” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship 228). Where in there does it say, “model for them that learning in community ends when you receive a diploma?” Unfortunately by offering little to no lifelong learning opportunities for all ages, we’ve made it a cultural practice to not advocate for and create a strong presence of learning in our congregations. And yet we promise to be with them for their whole lives, which implies a life full of rich, hard, beautiful, and life-giving learning.

2. Because learning grows empathy and you step into another’s world. Money is a tough subject to talk about because it’s emotional. Most conversations about money aren’t about money at all. Money is tied to our relationships, our sense of purpose, our sense of home, and the way we understand ourselves and the world. So when I got the chance to coach and facilitate a financial workshop for couples, I jumped at it. One of the things that we teach couples is that financial conversations are enriched by using a couple of improv rules (there’s rules? It’s true!): one of them is “step into each other’s world.” Feel the height, walls, ground, values, dreams, and voice of the others’ space.

What is required to do that? Learning! Learn what the other is thinking by asking and listening compassionately. Ask what is so important to them about their particular view of money. Stories might come out, ideas, or more questions for more learning. This is why learning is so important and is a lifelong practice. It helps us have empathy, and step into the worlds and perspectives of others – in our homes, right next door, or all the way around the world. Like Sharon Creech writes in the award-winning novel Walk Two Moons, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins.”

6df3fded90be37a7eedb2c4b605e56e3

3. Learning changes you. Yes, that might be your number one reason not to learn! Sometimes it feels easier to hide, but I know I would rather live as myself instead of pretending to be someone else because I refused to open myself up to learning. One of my colleagues was an executive coach at a large Saint Paul company. This company gave its employees the opportunity to learn about themselves, their motivations, their stories, where they’re being lead (big picture), and their alignment with their values and beliefs. Yes, individuals could discover that their current job is not where they should be! But this learning is for the sake of the learner (not for the maintenance of the institution), and how they might show up in the world as their most unique self.

This kind of inner-work is crucial especially for leaders. Finding out the “why” of their work and sense of vocation and identity is huge – and learning is the root of this work.

4. Because they’re learning without you. Get on the bus. Your adults, young and old, are leaning how to make a difference outside of church – don’t you want to contribute to those conversations? Bigger questions of “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?” are explored all over our world in different ways – through graduate school, through Pinterest boards, through thought-provoking podcasts, or life-enrichment opportunities through work. Why not contribute to those conversations and jump in the water? Intrinsic to the gospel is a claim about who we are (children of God), and what our purpose is (varied, diverse, beautiful vocations). The church has something to say! Yes, it requires the risk of individuals rejecting or ignoring you, but why not try?

caec7e9218b4bc96146d18c141c25cd6

These are just a few reasons why lifelong learning and church go together for me. Communities and groups are starting to see the need to provide adults with lifelong learning opportunities (see this awesome illustration of learning). When In Over Our Heads was published in 1994, Kegan predicted that America would see an increased amount of adults who seek out formal learning opportunities (Kegan 271). Luther Seminary is experiencing the biggest distance-learners community it’s ever seen – around half of its students. How might congregations be a part of this movement? How might congregations sense God’s nudging to care for and walk alongside all of its members in their learning, young and old?

I think congregations wonder about lifelong learning, but I’m not sure if all sense a need, or have the capacity to think creatively about these things. Either way I think adults desire to learn, but are tentative to admit that they have more to learn (i.e. they don’t want to look stupid, because who does?). I wonder what might be creative ways to encourage lifelong learning in safe and welcoming environments.

I think congregations could be these places and communities, and in baptism they promise to be – but do they want to be?

 

Why I Give

This Fall in worship, the community at Woodlake Lutheran Church, is exploring the theme of “I love to tell the story.” Timothy’s on staff, and we’re there pretty regularly. Each Sunday (and Saturday) a different non-staff person tells a faith-related story and connects it to “Why I give” as we enter a season of focusing on stewardship. Pastor Diane Roth asked me to do it this week, and of course I went long, but here’s what I shared with the congregation. 

My earliest memory of giving to a church was participating in offering in our Sunday worship services back in Bellevue, Washington. As a kid it was such a thrill to touch and pass the offering plate if only for a split second, and to feel like it mattered that I carried it from the person on my left to the person on my right – usually my mom and dad. It wasn’t my allowance, but it mattered and it made me feel like I mattered.

Now with my own family of me, cat, and husband, we give a portion of what we earn to this church. You might know my husband, Timothy, who is the interim music and worship director here who started in September. Diane asked me to share my faith story and why I give and I initially said “Why?” because my husband is on staff and that would be weird. But she said she wanted lots of different voices, and my story, so here it is.

In 2010, the average college student graduated with $25,000 in debt – and that’s before they took on any other additional loans for graduate school, a mortgage, or life expenses. In Minnesota, in 2013, the average debt of a graduate grew to $31,000.

As part of a family paying back loans on two college degrees, three graduate degrees, and moving and life expenses – you might think giving to a church is low on our priority list. But it’s not.

We moved from our homes in Washington state to Minnesota a week after we got married. Over a few days we drove a U-Haul to the midwest to start a new chapter together as graduate students at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.

Consistently, we have leaned on our faith and spirituality to get through tough times of homework and homesickness and can we talk about winter in Minnesota – just that alone, connecting with God and being hopeful that Jesus will bring about a new life of abundant joy – that’s been our breathing in and breathing out over the last four beautiful years.

But that’s why we give ourselves to our people and to God.

We give our intellect to online blogs, communities, and organizations who want to rethink what it means to serve their neighbor.

We give our energy and our bodies to our communities when we walk around Lake Como and smile at neighbors, and when my girls at Zumba class show up because they are hungry to be courageous and seek out human connection just as much a I am.

We give money to communities whose mission and vision we align with, like here at Woodlake and a local community sourced agricultural business.

We give our hearts when I give away scarves I make or when Timothy designs a friend’s dream ordination service.

I give because it was never mine. I can stare all I want at that black or red line in our monthly budget, but that won’t do anything. I give because I am fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who I don’t always understand, but one that I love because God’s relentless love is one that I can place my hope in. Giving our money is a fraction of how we give ourselves to our people and to God. I respond to God’s dreams and love for me by giving my questions, my curiosities, my money, intellect, passions and energy to God’s people – which is partly a church, but mostly, the world, because so far I haven’t found a place where God’s presence does not exist.

If you ask them where they were when Kennedy was shot, people in my parent’s generation will tell you their story at the drop of a hat. People in my generation will be asked for the rest of their lives, “Where were you on September 11, 2011?” My mom was doing my hair before school and we watched the terror unfold on TV 2,000 miles away.

Young people are keenly aware of their prejudice and power to stand up for and with the voiceless in the world. Even though it might not reflect in a giving tally to a church, I would guess that we are not the only twenty-year-olds who are ripe and ready to give ourselves to God and God’s people. I give because I want look back when I’m older and say “Remember that time when we made a change? I was a part of that.”