Tuesday, October 30, 2012

ESR alum Annie Glen

Friends United Meeting Interim Communications Manager/Editor Annie Glen brings us today's post as part of our ongoing series of profiles of ESR graduates:

I cannot believe it has been eight years since I first stepped into my initial class at ESR! The first day I was fresh with excitement about the knowledge I would glean in the next three years.  I was inspired by the fact ESR would offer me the opportunity to take classes within a Quaker atmosphere in the field of counseling. All of the coursework listed in the catalog from DSM IV to Addictions Counseling made me full of hope.

Hope was shattered at the end of my first semester upon the revelation those classes were no longer going to be offered. In an incredulous prayer I asked God for direction. Quite frankly I had a clear sense I was to be enrolled at ESR. But, why? Why was I led to be at ESR?

I felt I was lured to ESR through false pretenses. I firmly believed God had deceived me. My anger and bitterness at the Divine created quite a buttress around my soul. I would continue taking classes because I had no other options, and no sense of direction.

2007 Graduates

I was and still am from an un-programmed background. Therefore, I was not led to be a pastor and refused to take any classes to prepare for a pastoral job.  At that time, I firmly held the belief that seeking God was each member’s responsibility. One person did not have the role of listening and speaking out of the Silence. Pastoring in my eyes was allowing the Meeting to be passive in their walk with Christ, giving the work of seeking the Divine to one person. I wanted nothing to do with it.

The field of counseling offered the path of reconciliation and hope for those who struggled along life’s journey. Reconciliation was my calling, not pastoring. 

What I have learned since that time is the ministry of reconciliation comes in many forms:  one of them is through the ministry of pastoring. I have found when one cares for people one walks in the capacity of a pastor. Along the journey we are confronted with many individuals - some of whom need support, caring, and guidance. They don’t need pontification – that is someone lecturing to them. They need a listening ear, prayerful presence and the space to work out the issues confronting their life. In essence, they want a fellow journeyperson - or someone who will lead them to a place of peace. 

Since the time of bitterness, healing has transpired and I found my heart. In it, I found a gift of compassion, care and tenderness toward those who journey along side me. Wrapped within my soul was the spiritual gift of being a pastor. It is expressed through many ways, not necessarily on a Sunday morning speaking to a congregation. It is expressed by walking with another, by being present, listening intentionally to the message arising within their soul and pointing to the beauty of that of God within them.

Kokomo First Friends

The gift I found and the ministry I continue started a long time ago when I received the words found in Psalm 40: 1-3 as a personal word from the Healer. At that time, I physically felt God had turned his ear to my plea, pulled me out of a miry bog, set my feet upon a rock and placed a new song in my mouth for many to hear.

Essentially, I have a new song I sing because of the Grace surrounding me as I travel the path of this life. The greatest lesson taught by ESR was to authentically share the ministry of God. Mine is a song shared through the ministry of caring –the ministry of being a pastor. 

Although my position has changed since I was a pastor at Kokomo First Friends, I find myself not leaving the role of pastor even though it is not my career title. It is the calling to which I must be true. The song placed in my mouth years ago still must be sung. I share my ministry of caring with many and will continue for years to come whether I have the job called pastor or not. It is a ministry of the heart. My heart cares and wishes to lead people to a place of salvation – of reconciliation -- and I will continue to do so.

Monday, October 22, 2012

"Liminal Ground" Project

ESR student Craig Goodworth was the presenter for this past week's Peace Forum. He presented his project Liminal Ground, which is an art installation in his home state of Arizona.

Craig's project is featured on the Christianity Today website, where they describe the project; "... the raw elements of corn, water, wheat, asphalt, and a lone donkey reveal who Arizona is and how its borders shape its identity. Goodworth is compelled by the Christian notion of restoration—that God's people are called to transform, rather than escape, what is."

The website feature also includes a wonderful video summary of the project:

Thanks for sharing this with the ESR community Craig!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lovely people

ESR Associate Professor of Pastoral Studies and Williamsburg Friends pastor Phil Baisley shares about his travels to attend Soulreaper gatherings in Vienna and Budapest in this recent sermon:

Do you remember those days? It would be the first or second day of class and the teacher would assign an essay: How I Spent My Summer Vacation. You would have to write about the things you did and then make a speech before the class. This is my speech, but it won’t start with what I did. First, I want to tell you why I did it. To do that I need to acquaint you with a very special group of people: the Soulreapers. I don’t really know where the name Soulreaper came from. I only know that about six years ago Henrik, an acquaintance from an online forum for fans of an Italian band called Lacuna Coil invited me to join a chat room on the Soulreaper forum.

Let me define some terms. An online forum is a website where people interact. I use them in my classes as well. People can post questions, comments, recipes, essays, or many other things. They can open what is called a “thread” to initiate a discussion that anyone who is a member of the forum can contribute. They can do that any time of day or night, and people can read it any time of day or night. A chat room, on the other hand, is where people “talk” online at the same time, meaning a person in Williamsburg would be writing notes back and forth with someone in Paris even though in Williamsburg it might be 11:00 a.m. and in Paris, 5:00 p.m. People can get to know each other in forums. They share stories and pictures. But there is always a bit of anonymity. Each forum member creates an alias, which is the name you use in the forum, and an avatar, which is a picture that represents you. In many forums, no one ever knows each other’s real names. That’s a nice safety feature so people you don’t really know can’t find out who you really are. Such things are only known by a few moderators who handle the technical parts of the forum and who are on guard for spammers who would fill the forum with junk mail or maybe inflict a computer virus, phishers who would attempt to steal members’ identities, and trolls who join conversations for no purpose other than to make people angry with each other. Moderators have a tough, unpaid job.

So, at Henrik’s suggestion, I joined the Soulreaper forum, and on my first day, in a chat room I met people from Finland, Hungary, Holland, Greece, Brazil, Serbia, Sweden, Turkey, and Estonia. It was weird, but it was fun. I also learned that Soulreaper was a forum for fans of a band I’d never heard of, Anathema, whose members were from Liverpool, England. Just after joining the forum, I had a birthday. I opened the forum that day and found a thread had been started for me. Soulreapers had written me birthday greetings—dozens of them—some with pictures of birthday cakes and candles. It made me feel really special. That day I learned how to write “thank you” in all the languages represented, and I thanked each Soulreaper individually for their greeting. It wasn’t long before I knew most of their real names, and they knew mine. We learned what kind of work we do, what music we like and don’t like, the movies and TV shows we watch, the books we read and authors we love, the things we believe or don’t believe about God and life and love. In short, we became friends, real friends, not just aliases and avatars.

In the fall of 2007, I went to Kenya to speak at an East African pastors’ conference. On my way there and back I had layovers in Amsterdam. I’d gotten to be good friends with “Vision” on the forum. Her real name is Carla, and she lives in Brunssom, near the Belgium and German borders, and she’s only a few years younger than I. (That’s Carla on the right in the picture in the upper right corner of the bulletin insert. She’s being hugged by Heidi from Finland.) I’d made plans to visit her family on my way back from Kenya. (I’d learned Soulreapers do visit one another from time to time, plus have gatherings at Anathema concerts.) On my way to Kenya, my flight was delayed and I wound up having to spend twelve hours in Amsterdam. I didn’t know what to do, so I called the number Carla gave me. She said, in her very Dutch-accented English, “I live about three hours away by train. I will see you around noon.” I was amazed. This “stranger” was traveling three hours to show me around Amsterdam. When Carla arrived, we recognized each other immediately, and hugged like siblings who hadn’t seen each other for a long time. It wasn’t long after that that we began calling each other “Bro” and “Sis” in our many long online messages. You know how the same thing has happened for me in Turkey and in Hungary and in Austria over the years. It even happened for Soulreaper Dries when he visited Richmond a couple of years ago.

Last March, Anathema was going to play a gig in Amsterdam. Dozens of Soulreapers were going, and the band even dedicated to concert to them. Everybody kept asking me to come, but I just couldn’t. Then, after the show when the pictures started appearing on Facebook and in the forum, I knew what a special time I’d missed. A few weeks later, Agnes, my Soulreaper friend from Hungary, posted that Anathema was going to have gigs on consecutive nights in October in Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. She said wouldn’t it be great to have another Soulreaper gathering. People started making plans.

Just for fun, not really expecting anything, I talked to Jay Marshall, dean of Earlham School of Religion. I told him about Soulreaper, about the March gathering, about the upcoming concerts, and I said, “I’d love to go there and ask those people what it is that motivates them to travel great distances, spending hundreds of euros just to be together. Is it the friendship? Is it the music? What holds a group like Soulreaper together, and is there anything the church could learn from a community that is both online and face-to-face? Jay said it reminded him of ESR’s Access program, where students can earn an M.Div. in five years of online classes coupled with on-campus intensive courses. We talked about the kind of community that develops in such a setting. Now getting serious, I asked if I might use my “professional development” allowance from ESR to finance a trip to the Soulreaper gatherings in Vienna and Budapest. He said yes!

I ordered my plane tickets, my concert tickets, and, with a little help from Andra, a relatively new Soulreaper from Romania studying at a university in Vienna, I developed a list of questions to ask my Soulreaper friends:
- What makes Soulreaper forum so special, so unique?
- What one or two or three words would you use to describe Soulreaper?
- Why do Soulreapers travel so far and spend so much money to be together at concerts?
- What is the relationship between Anathema and Soulreaper?
- Does Soulreaper need Anathema to exist?
- What are the implications of these answers for the church?

So that’s why I took my fall vacation.

My first stop was Budapest, where I stayed in the home of Mandula’s mother and brother. Mandula is not a Soulreaper. She is a friend of Agnes, a Soulreaper whom I met the last time I went to Hungary. Agnes had arranged for me to stay with Mandula’s family while I was in Budapest last week. What hospitality! Then, after a nice day’s rest last Sunday, Agi arranged a night in a Budapest pub where a bunch of people I’d met last trip joined us, and we were met by Soulreapers Zsuzsie and Juliana from Hungary, and Carla and Heidi, who’d traveled all the way from Holland and Finland. What a wonderful reunion! I already knew something special was beginning.

The next day I went to Vienna. Heidi and Carla stayed in Budapest where Agi would be their tour guide. I was going to Vienna to meet up with Caroline from Austria, Gűlşah and Cansu from Turkey, and Natty from Russia, along with Andra. We arrived at the Szene club for the gig that evening. Danny Cavanaugh, the lead guitar player from Anathema met us before the show and chatted for a while. I’d met him once before at a metal festival in Belgium. After the gig, we waited outside the club. We had nice conversations with the support band, a German metal trio called “A Dog Named Ego.” Then Lee Douglas and Vincent Cavanaugh, the female and male vocalists from Anathema came out and talked with us. They’d met some of the others before but didn’t recognize me. Lee asked who I was. I said I was Phil from America but on the forum I went by the alias GrandpaJoe. “GrandpaJoe!” she said. “Vinnie, this is GrandpaJoe from the forum!” We were like old friends after that. (You can see Vinnie and Lee in the concert photos, and also Lee talking with Heidi and Caroline in another picture.)

After the gig, Andra, Cansu, and I walked back to our hotel. Gűlşah had stayed behind since she’d been at the Prague gig and was going to the Budapest gig tomorrow. In the hotel, I interviewed the girls about Soulreaper. I’d already talked with Heidi and Agnes the day before. I would talk to the rest at various times during the week. The next afternoon, after Natty had gone back to Russia, Andra, Cansu, Gűlşah, and I took the train back to Budapest for the gig at A-38, a restaurant and concert venue on an old river barge moored to a Danube pier. I took a tram from Mandula’s mom’s house, and met up with Juliana and her friend, Laura, when I got there. The others came from wherever they were staying in Budapest. As some of the others got off their bus, they met Romin, a young man from Iran. He too was going to the concert. Romin walked the rest of the way with Cansu and Gűlşah and Andra and learned all about Soulreaper. Even though he was a total stranger to the group, he joined us for drinks before the show. He was totally accepted into the group.

Caroline, Heidi, Carla, Agnes, and Viktor soon arrived and we all had a great time eating Turkish delight that Gűlşah had brought. It got even better when Anathema’s bass player, Jamie Cavanaugh, came out to visit with us for a while. What could have been a disaster in some groups turned out to be a real blessing. Not everyone had tickets for the gig at A-38. Danny had promised to guest list whoever needed tickets, but the event was sold out and Danny could only let four of us in. I had a ticket but had given it to someone else, thinking I wouldn’t need it. It came down to two of us not getting into the gig. Gűlşah and I volunteered to spend the evening in the restaurant having a wonderful dinner and 90 minutes of great conversation as we watched the concert on a video screen.

After the show, Danny invited the Soulreapers to the green room—which was actually the ship’s boiler room—where we all celebrated Lee’s birthday with cake and singing and dancing into the wee hours of the morning. Now I truly know what it means to “party like a rock star.” (The photo in the lower right hand corner is of Jamie and me in deep conversation in a quiet area away from the main party.)

The next day some of us met for breakfast and others for lunch as we said our goodbyes. When I arrived in Budapest this year, I truly believed it would be my last trip there. Now Jen and I are already talking about going there together so she can meet my Soulreaper family.

So, what did I learn?

First, what makes Soulreaper special? Cansu said she was a member of other groups, but they have no interest in becoming personal. She remarked how unusual it is to meet strangers and stay in their homes and invite them into yours, but that is what Soulreaper is all about. As I write that, I think of Romin. He’d never even heard of Soulreaper and yet he was welcomed into the group immediately. Now he’s a member. But what makes that happen? Well, music is a factor. And the desire for genuine friendship is a factor. But, according to many of the Soulreapers I interviewed, the number one factor is trust. Carla talked about the “open and honest way we communicate.” Heidi spoke of mutual “support and understanding.” Cansu said there was “no fear of being sincere” on the forum. Heidi added that Soulreaper forum is “a really safe place” where you can share things honestly, and “no one is mean towards you.” Natty talked about people who are “connected by something they have inside.” Juliana put it best, I think, when she said, “Lovely people. It’s good to be a member.”

And what about Anathema and its relationship with Soulreaper? Heidi called the gigs an “excuse for meeting.” Gűlşah said the band is the reason for us being together. Natty likes the fact that the band is part of the forum and band members occasionally post there, and they meet with us in person at gigs. Heidi added, “If there wasn’t a gig, would we still get together? The band says when to go and where to go.” Still, I know there have been many travels among Soulreapers even with no gigs on the schedule. I think Andra summed it up in speaking of the Budapest concert on the train from Vienna, “We do not need the gig, but the gig was the reason for the trip.”

So what are the implications for the church? Juliana is a devout Catholic, a true sister in Christ. She said the church “needs a group like Soulreaper. We can trust each other.” She said that in Soulreaper we have the “freedom to say what we want.” That builds trust. That freedom is what the church needs. In her book Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass talks about an informal survey she took among people who attended her lectures. She asked for words they associate with the word religion. People responded with words like institution, organization, rules, dogma, authority, buildings, structure, principles, hierarchy, and boundaries. Add people’s concept of religion as a source of much of the hate and violence in the world and you have a pretty good idea of how the world sees religion and religious people. It’s how the rest of the world views the church.

That’s a far cry from the first century observer who remarked about Christians, “See how they love each other.” It’s a long way from the apostle Paul’s desire for the church as we read in Romans chapter 12:

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

I keep thinking about Romin, the Iranian university student. He met a group of strangers at a bus stop. They were going to the same place, but they were going in love and in trust. And he met more of them. He even got to meet one of the ones who called them there. They welcomed him. They accepted him just as he is. Now he’s part of the group. Isn’t that what the church is supposed to be like? People who exemplify love and trust so much that others want to be around them? And then you can have the joy of introducing them to the One who calls us all together.

I truly believe the church should be the ones the world describes as “lovely people.” How? Demonstrate that same level of love, honesty, understanding, and trust that a bunch of metalheads does in Soulreaper. It’s what the world needs. We know that. It’s what the world wants. They know that.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Being Broken Open

ESR student Anna Woofenden delivered this message at Joint Worship for Earlham School of Religion and Bethany Theological Seminary on September 14. Below is the video from the service along with an excerpt from the message:

"[A]t the end of the day, we are vessels, vessels infused with Divine Light, urging and pressing to be received and to flow through us. We are vessels that are cracked and broken, broken wide open to receive God’s ever-flowing energy and love. We are humans, all of us, walking broken in a broken world. Does that sound depressing, maybe, or maybe it’s beautiful. We can wallow in the brokenness, or we can dance. Dance as we’re broken open. Dance as we tear the bandage off. Find the beauty, because in the brokenness that the Sacred flows in. It’s when we surrender to something bigger, because we realize we have no choice left, that the Spirit moves. It’s when we’re willing to walk knowingly into a room filled with pain and suffering, to be present, engage, and witness and name the Divine urging and pressing to be received. If we are willing to be broken open by the world and filled to overflowing with God’s love. Then broken is beautiful. Broken is sacred. And broken is holy."

You can read the entire text here: http://annawoofenden.com/2012/10/15/being-broken-open-sermon-video-and-text/

Thursday, October 11, 2012

ESR alum Julie Rudd

Julie Rudd brings us today's post as part of our ongoing series of profiles of ESR graduates:

“I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to; and sure I am that His blessing attends it.“
-John Wesley

I was raised in a beautiful, loving, conservative church. We had delicious potlucks, a commitment to missions that far outstripped our small size, wonderful and quirky amateur music, and a faith in gender roles that was almost as central as our faith in Jesus. I wanted to be a Sunday School teacher when I grew up, and a Vacation Bible School director, and a church pianist, and an activist, and a missionary, and be on every committee, and everything else I could think of that girls were allowed to do. My parents’ church nurtured my faith and my energy, encouraging me to offer music in worship, sending me to Austria on a summerlong mission trip, and even letting argue theology in Sunday School.

I was in college, though, before I realized that I could go to seminary, before I noticed that Sunday School teacher/church pianist/activist/bible school director/missionary actually coalesced toward things I had thought that women couldn’t do. It was at the Earlham School of Religion, though, that I learned to say this phrase out loud: I want to be a pastor. First year, second semester: I took Introduction to Preaching with Tom Mullen and Nancy Faus-Mullen. I told myself and my friends that I just wanted to improve my public speaking skills. Myself didn’t quite believe me, and my friends waited me out.

Tom and Nancy, reviewing the video of my first sermon with me, asked me how much experience I had with preaching. I hadn’t had any, and said so. They were surprised, then thoughtful, then serious; they told me that preaching was a gift of mine, and I needed to admit it. I didn’t, right then, but they kept poking me, and they weren’t the only friends who insisted that I be honest with myself.

I chose Pastoral Ministry as my emphasis. It was an Ebenezer stone, for me. There was a powerful sense of release and relief when I could finally let myself say it: I want to be a pastor. Not a chaplain, or a professor, or non-profit director, or a missionary, or any of the other things one could do with a seminary degree, but a pastor.

Way forward seemed clear: obviously, I will find a church to pastor. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I graduated and couldn’t find a position anywhere. Waitressing wasn’t cutting it, and I started to panic. I want to be a pastor, I said. Where’s my job?

I found a job at the Salvation Army in Syracuse, NY, about an hour away from where I grew up, working with clients with mental illnesses that affected their ability to maintain stable housing. While I in no sense saw the breadth of American poverty, I did see first-hand how people get trapped and crushed, and how stranglingly hopeless those cycles feel. I saw how often those who look or act disreputable are treated with disrespect, regardless of how hard they are trying to find their bootstraps. I saw how therapeutic a trip to the zoo or a walk through a rose garden can be, when offered to someone isn’t usually given a gift. Some of this I had known, already, but the knowledge of it was driven deeper into my heart.

I saw too, within myself, a certain herding instinct- a desire to build community among our group of clients while responding to their particular needs as people. I was never happy or efficient with the paper-pushing aspects of the job, but I could remember to play the music that Tara* liked when she was in my car, then change to the music Michael* liked when I picked him up. I didn’t start conversations about religion – that wasn’t my job – but when Adam* was kicked out of his church for ‘being weird,’ I could passionately preach how much God loves even those who can’t find a comfortable churchly home. Asked or not, I felt called to seek out that of God in each one of them, and love on it as hard as I could. I could pair up clients, on trips, such that friendships would start. I could be more fierce in advocating for my clients than I had ever dreamed. My job title wasn’t ‘pastor,’ but the gifts God gave me, sharpened during my time at ESR, were in play.

I saw this in myself, and others said it aloud for me. It showed up in my performance evaluations (loves powerfully; office is a wreck), and in comments from co-workers. Even my clients (or, perhaps especially my clients) mentioned that it seemed like I should be working in a church. Pastoring in the church is in no way dependent on a Sunday morning pulpit to fill, or an office for my books, or membership in the local ministerial association. I realized in Syracuse that I’m a pastor, not because I’m paid to be a pastor, but because that’s who God made me and called me to be.

Now, my job title actually is ‘pastor.’ I’m serving at Wilmington Friends Meeting, a delightful group of Friends in the cutest town in Southwest Ohio. I’m co-teaching the youth Sunday School class, and I offer a children’s message most Sundays. I have more opportunities to work for justice than I can count, and sharing the Gospel happens both inside and outside the meetinghouse walls. I get to be on every committee, too, which is less fun than it sounded at eight years old, but I love seeing every part of the meeting as much as I had thought I would. I’m not the church pianist, because ours is much better than me, but I do get to play handbells- a reasonable substitute. My time at ESR prepared me well for becoming the minister that I dreamed of being as a child. I find myself relying on things I learned in classes, but frankly, even moreso on friendships that were founded during seminary.

What I’ve learned since ESR, though, is that I’m as much a pastor in the line at Kroger as I am in the pulpit on Sunday. Some are called administrators. Some are called prophets. Some are called miracle workers. We have all these kinds of ministers at Wilmington Friends. I’m called a pastor, though, and I’m grateful to all the F/friends in my life, particularly those from ESR, who have given me the courage to say that out loud.

*Names changed.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

West Elkton Friends

We continue our series on introducing area monthly meetings as ESR student and West Elkton Friends pastor Leigh Eason brings us an introduction to her meeting:

"A hundred years from now, people should know that Elk Monthly Meeting was a wonderful place to raise children, to grow up in, and to age gracefully in.  This Meeting cared about others and practiced the basic fundamentals of Quakerism.  It made a difference in the lives of all it touched.". (Wapella Kay Carver, long-time member of Elk Monthly Meeting in A Sense Of The Meeting, a book about West Elkton Friends, written by ESR graduate Donne Hayden.)

Like they provided for Donne Hayden, West Elkton Friends, located in Ohio off of state road 503 about 15 miles south of Interstate 70 (exit 14), has provided internship placement for many ESR graduates as well as some of its faculty including the dean of ESR, Jay Marshall.

A small, progressive, Christo-centric, and now-semi-programmed congregation worships on First Day as it has since 1806 when its first members migrated to West Elkton from Georgia.  Some of its members recall their parents' stories of abolition and the controversies that once split the congregation into those who participated in the Underground Railroad and those who did not.  Pat Tallbert, one of the older participating members married Corky Talbert, the great-great grandson of the first clerk of the Meeting, and the grandchild and grand-nephew of the four members of West Elkton Friends who established the Underground Railroad in the area, including inventing the double-bottomed wagon. 

Valuing unity, action, common sense, and a straight-forward nature, these members are quintessential Quakers who are people of few words, interested in spiritual development and letting their lives preach their beliefs. Four generations now worship together each First Day, most descendants of those who came to Preble County, Ohio to escape the witness of slavery in the Deep South in 1806.  Fellowship is a priority as is diversity among members at West Elkton.  On Fourth First Day all stay after the Meeting for coffee cake and laughter. All are welcome any First Day.

Rise of Meeting begins at 9:30 AM with semi-programmed worship to follow at 10:30. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Report from North Carolina Yearly Meeting

ESR Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality Carole Spencer brings us this report from North Carolina Yearly Meeting:

The 315th Annual Sessions of the North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends (FUM) was held Aug. 31-Sept. 3, 2012 at Blue Ridge Assembly, an historic YMCA retreat in Black Mountain NC.  I was asked to speak two evenings on the theme of “Community.”   In choosing a text to speak from, I tried to image what scripture Jesus might have used if he had been asked to address NCYM on the theme of community.  Since Jesus quoted from Isaiah 56:7 at the turning point in his ministry when he cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Mark 11:17), I chose as scripture for my two messages, Isaiah 56:1-8, in which we find the original context for Jesus’ words.  The theme thus became “Becoming a House of Prayer for all Peoples.” 

The points which this passage reflects relevant to community are: becoming a contemplative community (a house of prayer), and becoming an inclusive and missional community (for all peoples).  Verses 2-5 are especially relevant today: welcoming the foreigner when our country seems to be entering a new era of prejudice against foreigners, and welcoming  eunuchs, which relates to sexual differentness, so divisive in our churches today.   The context of this passage, often called “Third Isaiah” is the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon, rebuilding the Temple, and trying to regain their national identity by pursuing a policy of increasing exclusiveness, reflected in a kind of “purity movement” in which foreigners and eunuchs were excluded from the new worshiping community.  Those who wanted to carefully preserve the Mosaic tradition of exclusivity had announced strict boundaries as to who was in and who was out.  But the prophet counters with an astonishing announcement: these two most objectionable classes of people are to be gathered, welcomed and celebrated in the new community—a radical break with the law in Deuteronomy (Deut 23:1-6).  The eunuchs were outcasts within the Israelite society, the Other, usually slaves or servants, the outsider who was sexually different, who could not bear children, thus would never have a “name” as they had no descendents.  But Isaiah says: “Do not let the eunuch say ‘I am just a dry tree’ for they will be given “a monument and a name better than sons and daughters…an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isa. 58:2-5).
Isaiah envisions a gathering of diverse peoples—exiles, outcasts, outsiders, foreigners, all “joined to the Lord” in a house of prayer.  While on one level he is envisioning the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, on another level he is envisioning an entirely new future community, a diverse, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, inclusive community of people united to God in prayer.  The prophet’s radical vision was not realized in his time, so some 500 years later, God comes down, even more radically than the prophet’s message, into time and space, as a human being, to re-inaugurate a new community.
Jesus called this new community, the Kingdom of God. It was the heart of teaching and message. This kingdom is not simply about heaven, but a community of transformation on earth.  God’s purpose in salvation is to form us into community, to become part of God’s mission in the world, which is what the word “missional” means—“participating with God in what God is doing in the world.”

Which brings us full circle back to the incident when Jesus quotes from Isaiah 56:7 as he overturns the tables in the Temple and drives out those who had made it a “den of thieves”.   He is radically overturning the patterns of dominance and empire, the world’s understanding of power and privilege and exclusion.  He casts outs the “thieves” and invites in the sick and lame and heals them. 
Our communities are to be a foretaste, a sign, a mini-version of this new inclusive community, which we are already living in but has not been fully realized. We are to be missional communities participating in the ongoing building of the reign of God in this world. To be missional is to love God through loving our neighbors.  “It is God’s mission, for which the Body of Christ—the church—exists.  We participate in helping to build toward the dream God has planted in our hearts.”[1]

[1] A quote from Katharine Jefferts Schori in Gathering at God’s Table.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Border Crossings and a God who Doesn’t Behave

The following is drawn from a message delivered in ESR Worship on September 21 by David Johns:

God doesn’t know how to behave. I find this annoying.
Think about it; if anyone should know how to act, how to ‘play by the rules,’ if anyone should know what our roles are and should be, it would be God. God has a parking space—and it’s a good one: Employee of the Month—the best we have to offer. We can see it from our window. It’s only natural to give God a space; in fact, it’s very generous of us.
We know how God is. So, God has a place…and each of us has his or her place. That’s order. That’s creation. That’s the way it should be. But God doesn’t know how to behave and only rarely parks in the right place. Some mornings we wake up to find the car parked in a drunken fit on the front lawn, skid marks on the pavement out front. God doesn’t know how to behave. What is God thinking?
God is the ultimate party-crasher, boundary-ignorer, class-division basher, dis-respecter of state-lines and national borders, picket-line crosser—the Lady Gaga and James Dean of Mt. Olympus. If God were actually “Our Father who art in heaven,” it wouldn’t be so bad. But God doesn’t stay in heaven, the celestial gated community where all polite and sensible gods belong. And about those boundaries: Carlos Monsivaís , a writer as important to unpacking and challenging the story of Mexico as Gore Vidal was in the United States, often spoke of his fascination with Mexico City’s many transvestites because they were, as he said, the truly courageous ones who visibly and shamelessly reversed the pattern of convention and expectation. 
Yeah. God is like that too… more in common with cross-dressers than with a cosmic CEO in polished shoes and a moneyed pedigree. Perhaps I’ve crossed a line. But…that is precisely the point. 

One of the things we do well as human beings is build walls and draw border lines. It’s not the only thing we do—thank God—but it’s something we do well. It would be so much better if we had stopped with scribbled circles on the crumpled paper from childhood, or if we had abandoned our fortress building when we packed away our blocks and our Legos. But it never stops there.
Humans draw lines that delineate space and then populate those spaces by assigning one group here and another one there. And what are some of the borders we map out? Physical and national ones—those are obvious. Me and you, of course—but more likely, “us and them.” One against one is not very threatening—it’s too human (if we spend too much time at this level we might grow to like each other, or at least see a flicker of the Divine Light). Us provides me the comfort of collaborators and them groups together a bunch of others and this feels more menacing. The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 finalized the colonization of Africa when European superpowers drew a hodgepodge of shapes and placed it over a map, dividing the continent into fifty illogically conceived countries. A half century after independence and the continent is still plagued by the fallout from this enormously disruptive border-ing.
Dividing lines often grow out of a desire to survive, to protect ourselves, to not be swallowed up by someone else and lose who it is that we are—the borders protect the boundaries of identity—I am me up to this point; you are you, but only within that space. These are geographies of self-protection. But these line-drawing programs go horribly wrong—why?— because they construct something that runs counter to what God is up to. In fact, it takes nearly all God’s time to tear down the walls and re-district the neighbourhoods we create.

In the churches we do a good job of confining God to tiny spaces—and confining other people to ideological corners—cramped cubby holes with a few scraps of bible and nowhere to draw a breath of fresh air. But God has a history of dressing up in clothes we don’t expect and showing up unannounced—like a cross-dressing player in a Shakespearean comedy. The Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff, reminds us that Jesus Christ is not only the Lord of little spaces, such as the heart, the soul, or the Church, but is Lord also of the cosmos, of enormous spaces.
But folks often prefer a predictable God, one of little spaces, one who respects the borders and the walls which we determine, who loves those whom we love and curses those whom we curse. There is a god who speaks for us! But it won’t be a living God. It won’t be the God-who-gets-around; it won’t be the one who leaves Mt Olympus to misbehave.
In a certain respect, the Jew and Gentile divide is an “easy one.” God pushed even further and crossed the ultimate inseparable divide in the incarnation. In becoming fully engaged in the human story, God through Christ shatters the border separating humanity and divinity. And if God can pull that off, then the boundaries that stand between us most certainly need to go. 

With her characteristic frankness, Annie Dillard writes:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.[1]

Screeching into the driveway three hours past curfew, engine overheated and new dents in the quarter panels, God shows up. …and we’re not sure what to do.
Once again, God has crossed a line, shattered a boundary, smashed through a wall. And, quite unexpectedly, those of us who have been kept apart by doctrine, race, sexuality, class, by land of birth, by political convictions, by the railroad tracks that divide Us from Them, suddenly are in the same room together…unexpectedly a border has been crossed and we are all staring at each other wondering what on earth to do.
Whatever could God be doing?

David Johns is a graduate of ESR and the School's Associate Professor of Theology.

[1]Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper Collins, 1982), 58-59.