SoMA issues Request for Proposal for video series on Gun Violence

The SoMA is seeking a writer to collaborate in developing a video educational series on gun violence prevention for the SoMA’s Theocademy program. This series will be a response to the action taken by the 221st General Assembly (2104) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) which said, in part:

"2. Encourage synods, presbyteries, and seminaries to develop educational programs that include
a. the theological and pastoral care issues raised by murder, suicide, domestic violence, and wounding by gun violence,
b. a means of public acknowledgement of grief and repentance in worship and in communal events, and
c. links between those who have suffered from gun violence and existing support, healing, and advocacy groups."

Download the full Request for Proposal here.

Loving Our Neighbors [video]

Time: 5 minutes

TEXT

There’s a pretty common pattern we find in the Gospels when Jesus makes a big, important point: Jesus makes a declaration that appears to be pretty simple and straight forward, and his listeners turn into amateur debaters who want to argue every point, trying to find a loop hole.

One of the most significant of these situations is when a lawyer asked Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life.

Jesus said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ The lawyer answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And Jesus said, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’

What follows is one of the most well known parables in the Bible. 

Jesus tells of a man on the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho who is attacked, beaten, and left for dead. While he was lying there a priest walked by. Seeing the man, he crossed to the other side of the road. Next came a Levite, who also crossed to the other side to avoid the man. 

But then came a Samaritan. This good Samaritan, overwhelmed by compassion, tended to the man’s wounds, put him on his animal, and took him to an inn. He gave the innkeeper two days’s worth of wages and told him, when he came back, he would pay more if the innkeeper required it.

Finished with his story, Jesus asked the lawyer who was a neighbor to the man who was attacked. “The one who showed him mercy,” he said. Jesus’ response? “Go and do likewise.”

As of today, more than 30 of our nation’s governors have made some sort of decree that the refugees from Syria will not be allowed into their states, including the states served by the Synod of Mid-America. They say they have good reasons, mostly having to do with national security and the safety and well-being of our citizens.

There’s little debate as to whether the governors can actually do this. Welcoming refugees is a federal matter. But I’m not a politician nor an expert on security, and that’s not what concerning me right now.

My concern is one as a person of faith, specifically one who professes faith in Jesus Christ. As followers of the Gospel, our concern has to be one of care and compassion. Of concern for another’s well-being before our own. This call to self sacrifice in the service of others is a pretty simple, straightforward call we find in our Bible.

You see: Just like our governors, the Priest and the Levite probably had good reasons for avoiding the man on the road, too. The text never says, but I always assume the Priest and the Levite thought the guy was dead. As professionally religious people they knew coming into contact with a dead body would make them “unclean.” Naturally, this Samaritan wouldn’t have those concerns.

But here’s the thing: Contrasting the Good Samaritan with the Priest and the Levite isn’t even the point of the story.

New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine points out that in telling this parable, Jesus was actually subverting a very common storytelling formula. In the minds of the first listeners, after Jesus said “A Priest and a Levite,” they expected him to say “…and a Jew were walking down the road.” That’s the way the story always went. “A Priest, a Levite, and a Jew.” It’s like how we start jokes with: “A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Preacher walk into a bar.” They thought Jesus was going to say, “The Priest and the Levite have good reasons for avoiding the man. But you, you good Jews, let me tell you how you should behave.”

So when Jesus says, “…and a Samaritan,” they know that something’s up. “Samaritan” was an insult used by Jews. They regularly called Samaritans “dogs” and “half-breeds,” and this opinion easily led to the Jews believing the Samaritans were inherently despicable. They were expecting to hear a story about what GOOD JEWS were supposed to do. Instead they learned a lesson about care and compassion featuring someone they despised. 

So when his story was over, and Jesus asked who best fulfilled the Law that God gave the people, I’m sure it was with great frustration that the lawyer had to admit: It was the Samaritan. In fact, he couldn’t even bring himself to say the word. He said: “The one who showed him mercy.”

Bless his heart.

So we can talk and debate and argue all day long as to why the Priest, the Levite, or our governors are doing what they’re doing. But at the end of the day, Good Christians, the question is what OUR response should be. What does it look like for us to tend to the dying man, lying on the side of the road? What does it look like to care for the refugees and victims of attacks all around the world?

Here’s what I hope:
May we be the people who follow our refugee Lord’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. May we be the people who understand that loving our neighbor is the best way to love God. May we be the people who understand that our neighbor is anyone in need.

SoMA Announces the Jesse C. Swanigan Fellowship

PARKVILLE, MO (November 4, 2015) - The Synod of Mid-America (SoMA) is pleased to announce the establishment of the Jesse C. Swanigan Fellowship, a new initiative to nurture, support, and advocate for women and men of color to gain mid-council executive leadership education and experience in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

"For as long as I have been Presbyterian, there have been calls for conversation and action to help us become a multi-cultural church," said Rev. Landon Whitsitt, Executive of the SoMA. "But even 15 years later, the PCUSA remains a 95% white denomination. We need to become more creative about dismantling the white privilege of our system, and I believe it starts with ensuring that more women and men of color enter the ranks of mid-council leadership."

The 2-year Swanigan Fellowship will find participants involved in all aspects of the SoMA's life and work, working closely with staff to implement programs for new and established pastors, Commissioned Ruling Elderspresbytery leadership, as well as work on the SoMA's flagship program, Theocademy. Participants will also be enrolled in three leadership training programs: McCormick Seminary's Certificate in Executive Leadership programMALT's Interim Executive Training, and the Racial Ethnic Leadership Institute of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

The Swanigan Fellowship is named for Ruling Elder Jesse C. Swanigan, longtime commissioner to the SoMA from the Presbytery of Giddings Lovejoy. In 2014, Mr. Swanigan served the SoMA as it's Moderator. Mr. Swanigan has also served the broader church as President and Treasurer of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus.

"Mr. Swanigan is the embodiment of who we hope our Fellows will be," said Whitsitt. "He is a tireless, creative, and outspoken leader in the PCUSA and beyond, who has spent his life advocating for justice and equality."

Application details will be made available in December, and the SoMA will review applications until January 31, 2016. Interviews for selected finalist will be scheduled for March 14-16, 2016 at the Synod offices in Parkville, MO. Expected start date for the first Swanigan Fellow is June 1, 2016.

Questions and comments can be directed to staff at fellowship@synodma.org.

A Call to Presbyterians to Stand in Solidarity with the People of Ferguson

Sisters and Brothers of the Presbyterian Church (USA):

I write you today in my role as the Executive of the Synod of Mid-America regarding the past week’s events in Ferguson, MO, a community in the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, one of our member presbyteries. I am appealing to you on behalf of those suffering in our own backyard.

For 10 days, the eyes of the world have been focused on the town of Ferguson, MO. We have watched as the family and friends of Michael Brown grieve the horrendous and senseless loss of life of this young man. We have watched as the Ferguson community and people throughout the nation and world have expressed outrage over the killing of yet another unarmed young black man. We have watched as law enforcement has repeatedly inflamed and aggravated the situation, arresting peaceful protesters and using tear gas on the crowds that include children and elderly, the use of which is a war crime under international law.

It is good that we have watched and not turned away. Many have come to believe that we have moved past Watts, that we have moved past LA. But we have not. The testimony of those who have lived through some of the worst moments of our nation’s history has born witness that we have, again, arrived at a familiar place. We are, again, singing the same old song. We must not turn our faces away, we must force ourselves to acknowledge and admit that we continue to fail as a people. We must confess that we have not been the people that God has created and called us to be.

Today I call on the Presbyterian Church (USA) to do more than simply watch.

For several years, our denomination has engaged the words of the Belhar Confession as we have considered adding it to our official confessional standards. Whether or not that occurs, we can affirm the truth of its words:

We believe

·      that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;

·      that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged

·      that God calls the church to follow him in this; for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;

·      that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;

·      that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly;

·      that for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering;

·      that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right;

·      that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;

·      that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.

To this end, I call on the members and congregations of the Presbyterian Church (USA), over 90% of whom are White, to stand with the people of Ferguson and “witness against and strive against” systemic, institutionalize racial injustice.

We must “as the possession of God…stand where the Lord stands, namely against the injustice of the wronged.” Sisters and Brothers, we must stand arm in arm with the people of Ferguson. Black bodies matter and our white bodies will signify that the killing of black bodies is unacceptable.

If you live in or around St Louis please come and walk with the protestors. Listen to their cries, and join them in the call for justice.

If you live farther away, find the members of your own community who are standing against this injustice. Listen to their cries, and join them in their own call for justice.

The Brief Statement of Faith tells us that the Holy Spirit “gives us courage…to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.” So as we work, let us also pray.

Let us pray for:

·      an end to our warring madness

·      an end to racism, classism and the way we criminalize a whole generation of youth and young adults

·      peace officers, that they may keep the peace with justice and equity

·      mothers who have lost their children to gun violence

·      the courage to cross lines that we have never crossed, and to come to know those we have considered "other"

·      to see one another as those who are made in God's image

·      forgiveness for the ways in which we perpetuate fear and hatred

·      forgiveness for the silence of good people.

 

Rev. Landon Whitsitt

Executive and Stated Clerk of the Synod of Mid-America

SoMA Executive issues statement opposing KS House Bill 2453

The following statement was sent to members of the Kansas Senate by SoMA Executive and Stated Clerk Landon Whitsitt, opposing Kansas House Bill 2453.

 

February 17, 2014

Members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) relish our freedom as citizens of the United States. We regularly give thanks for the opportunity to worship our God in the manner we deem appropriate, and celebrate that this opportunity is for all. However, because our church constitution is clear when it names “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind” and “the promotion of social righteousness” as two of the great ends of the Church, it must be said that the recent political agenda being advanced in the Kansas Legislature is neither commensurate with the gospel nor socially right.

House Bill 2453 purports to protect the “religious freedom” of Kansans by legally allowing government employees and business owners to refuse services and goods to gay and lesbian couples and individuals. This is not “religious freedom.” This is state sanctioned discrimination in the vein of laws which, at one time, allowed for discrimination on the basis of color, sex, and nation of origin.

Kansas has always been proud of its “Free State” history, and has continued to forge new moments in that history. We were the first to elect a woman to political office. “Brown v Board” is a phrase woven into our national consciousness, and it is Kansas that is known as the home of the death of school segregation. We must not take a step backwards.

Presbyterians are a diverse group of people. We disagree about many things, but we are united in our affirmation that the God we serve requires each one of us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is this self-sacrificial posture that we promise to assume when each member of our church promises to show Christ’s love to the world.

Ad Astra Per Aspera. Kansans have always believed that we can make a way through difficulties to reach the stars. Please do not shy away from this present difficulty. I urge you to reject this bill and continue forging Kansas’ place in history as a state committed to freedom and equality.

Grace and Peace,

The Rev. Landon Whitsitt
Executive and Stated Clerk
The Synod of Mid-America, Presbyterian Church (USA)

Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy is looking for a new leader. Is it you?

                   PRESBYTERY LEADER - Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy

If you are ready for something different, so are we. The Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy seeks a minister or elder who is a visionary to lead in a supportive and collegial manner. Our priorities are to “equip and support congregational leadership to nurture, strengthen and grow the body of Christ”.

The Presbytery Leader will nurture, encourage, and connect our 84 congregation in urban, suburban, and rural areas and our 175 Teaching Elders. 

Affirmative Action Equal Opportunity Employer

Submit application electronically to plsc@glpby.org. More information available in the “Presbytery Leader Search” section of the presbytery’s home page: www.glpby.org 

 

Pastoral Leadership in the age of Batfleck and #FireToddHaley

batfleck1.jpg

A few weeks ago, nerds* lost their minds.  Ben Affleck was named as the new Batman in the upcoming Superman/Batman movie, slated to release in 2015.

*Full disclosure: I am a nerd. 

The outrage was instant. 

"Does anyone remember Daredevil?!" they cried. "Marvel is doing a happy dance!" they moaned. 

To many a nerd, this was unacceptable. It was yet one more example of Hollywood going for the safe pick and trying to earn a paycheck. In their minds, this film is dead on arrival, with many not even willing to entertain the notion of standing in line for a ticket.*

*Full disclosure: In the end, the nerds WILL stand in line for a ticket.  

Around that same time, NFL got started up again, and fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers* also began losing their minds.  Todd Haley began his stint as the Steeler's Offensive Coordinator.

*Full disclosure: I have almost no interest in American Football. I like the kind of football where you use your foot to...you know...kick the ball.  

In the wake of a horrendous 0-3 start to the season, the Steelers Nation took to the interwebs and began proclaiming that it is time to #FireToddHaley.

"Don't you know that scoring goals is the way to win games?!" they cried. "We should have listened to Kansas City when we had the chance!" they moaned. 

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Ignoring whether or not the criticism leveled at these two gentlemen is justified, the salient point for today's lesson in Pastoral Leadership is a two-parter.

1) It is hard to be a public professional in the age of hyper-opinionizing. 

To be under the microscope of a congregation/session/presbytery/synod/general assembly is awfully hard. To have every move scrutinized and critiqued is difficult when you're often just trying to learn how to be good at what you do. For many, this kind of fishbowl living proves to be too much.

So we should acknowledge what leaders go through, and the fact that most of the folks offering their nuggets of wisdom would be much less welcoming of it if it were directed at them. Striving to create a culture of constructive support is a job for the long run, and pastors can model that for those they serve and make it an expectation. Believe me, it works when expectations are set publicly and prominently. It takes time, yes, but it pays off in the long run.  

In the meantime... 

2) We've gotta get over it. 

This is the life we were called to friends, and we shouldn't be naive about it. Ron Heifetz defines leadership as “disappointing people at a rate they can tolerate." Welcome to the big leagues. Disappointing people is a daily occurrence here. As sure as the sun will rise in the East and set in the West, 

Are the folks who start the whispering campaigns about us wrong to do so? Probably. Should they come talk to you directly? Definitely. Is our whining and moaning going to get it to stop? Absolutely not.

I know its a bit cliched, but if being the leader was easy everyone would do it. But it's not, and they don't. Being a leader means that someone is going to find some way of getting you up on some cross, and it is going to be unjust, and you're going to have to suck up everything you have to say "Forgive them, they don't know what they do." Right? Learn whatever lesson you can from whatever situation you're being thrust into, and then jettison the rest.

I want a healthy church just like everyone else. People are scared and frightened and there is more anxiety going around than grace these days. And that's a shame. But Jesus started with and handful of disciples, and changed the world, so don't–for one second–think that you don't have what it takes to weather whatever storm you're in. If God called you to this, then God must know something about you that you don't. Lean on that.

 

A Reflection on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  There was an enormous amount of discussion about where we are as a nation, a people, and even as a church.  As I was reading through all of the thought provoking articles, I found a very interesting post from a friend of mine, Reverend Jerrod Lowry.   So, I asked him if he would be kind enough to share his  perspective here on the SoMa blog.   We would love to hear your thoughts and reflections as well. 

                A Reflection on  the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

By: Reverend Jerrod Lowry

My brothers and sisters, I am elated that this week we celebrate a monumental, a pivotal, and dare I say sacred moment in the life of this nation and maybe even the world. This week we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for jobs and freedom. This March is highlighted by and remembered fondly by what many call the “I Have a Dream Speech”. Now while I celebrate this moment in history and I give thanks that so many consider this an event worth celebrating after 50 years, I have serious reservations and take umbrage about what we seem to really honor and celebrate regarding the March on Washington.  I am bothered by the way we refer to Martin Luther King Jr (MLK for short) and his “I Have a Dream Speech”. I think if we continue to celebrate MLK and the speech then we miss important factors that are worthy of celebrating and neglect the responsibilities we still have 50 yrs later.

First, by just referring to MLK or Martin Luther King Jr we lose sight that he was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rev. King was an ordained minister, a clergy person, one who was called by God, one who believed in the power of the Word of God, one who believed in the power of the risen Christ. Reverend King was responding to that power and his call to ministry as he delivered those magnificent words on that day.  We must remember that he was not just a good man and a good speaker. He was a pastor, a Christian, and should be referred to as The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on that day and spoke eloquently about how the Word of God, the promises of God, and the God given gifts of people inspired his hopes and his vision of the future. It is a pastor, and a ministry that we celebrate. Moreover, I fear that if we fail to acknowledge his authority as one called by God and ordained by the church then we may also fail to see such a stand as the work and responsibility of all believers.

Additionally I am troubled that our recollection of Rev. King’s words that day is fondly referred to as “The I Have A Dream Speech”. This was more than a speech. This was a sermon. It is not just a sermon because the person delivering it was an ordained minister. This was a sermon because it was delivered in response to what Rev. King understood the Word of God to say and declare. He was responding to the Word of God. Even though he did not “call the text” (begin by reading scripture) King was interpreting the Word of God and declaring how the Word should be applied in the context of the day. King’s sermon that day was delivered with Bible in one hand and newspaper in the other. He stood and delivered a sermon with the Word of God on his heart and the struggle of people on his mind. He stood on the high steps of the Lincoln monument, and yet I believe his placement on a pinnacle of history comes because he delivered a powerful sermon with one foot upon the Biblical traditions of prophets like Jeremiah, and Amos, and Isaiah; and with the other firmly planted upon the broad shoulders of ancestors who endured the African Diaspora. Fifty years ago, Dr. King delivered not a speech but a sermon as he leaned upon the Word of God for the divine authority to speak truth to power and lift high that holy image of hope. This is a sermon and “My God” what a sermon it is!

Finally, we must remember Dr. King’s sermon delivered that day was called “A Canceled Check”. This is important because he came to the podium to remind the world of this promissory note called the American Dream- A promise of opportunity, equality, and justice, a promise that had not been fulfilled. Dr. King called upon the people to demand the check be cashed. Yet, as we commemorate this historic moment, we cannot be caught simply listening over and over to the final portion of the “I Have a Dream Speech and reducing it to nothing more than a sweet and pleasant picture of America where people are recognized for their character, where children can walk together and play on the same playgrounds.  In doing so, then the focus of the day is only to dream dreams instead of seeing the dreams fulfilled. The sermon is misconstrued as a speech about dreams and not as a call to action as the sermon was intended. If we focus on a speech about a dream then we pacify ourselves and may begin to think that this dream will just one day become a reality. If we focus on a speech about a dream then we may inadvertently limit our responsibility to simply hoping that one-day the polishers of glass ceilings and the defenders of walls built to segregate and separate will simply wake up and realize the errors of their ways and the destruction that defending their privilege imposes on others.  Frederick Douglass said,

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong, which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

If we fail to hear, and celebrate, and seek inspiration from the entirety of Rev. King’s “A Canceled Check Sermon”, then I fear we will silence the voice and abdicate the true power of the growing minority. We will fail to seek justice. And we will fail to demand justice in hopes that justice will just show up. 

Friends let us remember there is no emancipation without a Sojourner Truth leading and pushing slaves to freedom. Women may not have the right to vote without the Suffrage movement and the passionate work of women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells, and Lucretia Mott. Where would we be if men and women in the American colonies just dreamt of liberty and never stood up to demand it? Rev King’s message may be lost or at best corrupted if we focus on the rhetoric of an “I Have a Dream Speech”. Instead, let us celebrate a prophet to the nation who reminds us that the Word of God is also upon our lips not to dream but to “pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow, build, and plant”.

 Reverend Lowry is a teaching elder serving the Community Of Grace Presbyterian Church in Sandy, Utah.
 

 

Safety in Numbers?

Those of us involved in the life of the church spend a lot of time worrying about numbers.   From budgets, to worship and program attendance, to membership roles, we are always measuring the numbers.   You can learn volumes about congregations and church membership in the statistical reporting section of the PC (USA) website.   

Numbers are indeed very useful; they can tell us about who is or is not participating; they show us areas of financial strength and areas of vulnerability.  Numbers can even be a useful tool in preparing for the future.  However, I wonder, can numbers truly measure the health and vitality of the church?

            In a recent blog post, Seth Godin writes about the problem with using numbers as the sole measuring stick for success.  Godin writes, "As soon as we measure something, we seek to improve the numbers. This is a worthwhile endeavor, if better numbers are the point of the exercise."  

Godin is right, and I think his message is one that church needs to hear.  Certainly, there is a better method for the church to measure its success than focusing on just the numbers.   Perhaps we should start measuring life and ministry in the church in ways which are more qualitative than quantitative, way which focus more on impact rather than raw data. It would be the beginning of the paradigm shift that many have been discussing in church circles for the last few years- the shift from focusing on membership toward focusing on discipleship. 

 Could we measure success by assessing how creative or how innovative a program might be instead? Could we measure how something we created delighted or challenged people, or the changes it made in the life of the people or the community? 

 If we stay focused on only the numbers then we will most likely fail to fulfill our ordination vow to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  Frankly we won’t have a better church, but we might have better numbers.

     

Pears and Apples. Apples and Pears.

Speaking as someone who has never cultivated fruit trees before...

I've got to think that if someone wants a pear, they should pick it from a pear tree.

And if they want a pear tree, they should plant a pear tree.

And I would suspect that no one is going to plant a pear tree if they've never had a pear before. 

I've had a pear before, and I think pears are delicious. 

But, here's the thing: For the majority of my ministry, I've been operating under the assumption that if I want pears, the best way to do that is to chop down the apple trees and graft the pear sprig onto that stock. It has a better chance of survival that way, right? Existing roots capable of sustaining the new fruit that will be born.  Makes total sense, doesn't it?

But then I am forced to face the fact that there are a lot of people who want apples, and are gonna be pretty upset at me getting rid of their orchard. 

I've changed my mind now. 

I think the best thing to do is not to cut down the apple tree. 

I think the best thing to do is to just go ahead and plant a pear tree. It might take awhile for those trees to grow and start bearing fruit. But it will be worth the wait.

Because pears are delicious. 

Calling all White Presbyterians

So I was trolling the twitters today, looking for news on the ELCA's Presiding Bishop election (BIG blessings to Bishop Elizabeth Eaton on her election!) when I found something quite interesting.

I ran across a group called the "European American Lutheran Association."

Yeah. I had the same reaction. 

Stay with me. 

Digging a little deeper, I found that this is a group that, frankly, made me want to be Lutheran. Here's their Statement of Purpose:

The purpose of the EALA is to dismantle racism, white privilege, and white power by recognizing and confessing our individual and corporate sin, and addressing institutional racism in the church and society by:
-Organizing as white people who will stand with people of color in the struggle to address and dismantle racism;
-Reclaiming our biblical heritage as one family created in God’s image;
-Educating ourselves and others within the ELCA about racism and our participation in systems that oppress others and privilege us;
-Working within the ELCA to fulfill its commitments to anti-racist multiculturalism, and to become inclusive and anti-racist;
-Learning more about the many rich and diverse cultures and national identities that currently are, or that will be, present in the ELCA, its ecumenical partners, and interfaith relationships.

Good golly, that's awesome. 

For the last several weeks, James and I have been asking you all to help us figure out what the SoMA can do to "light one candle" regarding the dismal state of Race in our church and our world.  As a 90%+ ethnically "White" church, I believe that we are obligated to stand up and do something. I'm wondering if forming an association such as the EALA for the PC(USA) would be helpful. 

So, I'm asking all the little children that Jesus loves: Is this doable? Good idea? Bad idea?  

On a Different Note....

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.   Worship the Lord with gladness;  Come into God's presence with singing. -Psalm 100

Every Sunday morning before leaving the house for worship the lovely words of Psalm 100 echo through my mind.  It does not matter if I worship with my wife at her church or visit another congregation the feeling is always the same...fear.

That is right, fear.  You see, God did indeed bless me with a number of gifts, but the gift of singing was not in the cards.  In fact, I think that I may have been one of the few children in the history of the Presbyterian Church who was asked not to sing in any of the Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Mother's Day, Graduation day... and the list goes on for a while.

I admit that as I sit in church and attempt to sing, I often feel myself becoming more and more self-conscience.  It has become even worse since I married.  My wife and her entire family sing well and fortunately for me- loud.   Therefore, I am left with no choice except to make a joyful noise- and hope that God will accept it as singing.

While I am certainly kidding, (except about the inability to sing), there is seriousness here.  Often in our churches in worship or other areas, we are worried more about what the community thinks of us than God.  I know that it seems simple, but I have to stop and remember that God does not care if my singing is good- only that it is full of gladness. 

I wonder what would happen if many of us were able to let go of all these worries and simply enjoy the church experience.  I know we need decency and order, but does it really have to be boring?  Does worship or any part of church for that matter have to be a place to feel inadequate or unwanted?

So I guess in the end we are called do what I do each and every Sunday in worship- reach back let go and sing loud with all the gladness in my heart, and hope to God that its in tune.

Seven Short Stories About Church

1. Poor Helen. I really shouldn't have gotten so worked up. She simply wanted to know if Mormons could go to Heaven.

2. As he lay in the hospital bed, all he could think about was her shoes. Rev. Miles would never have worn something so flashy if he was still the pastor. 

3. Jamie really thought the committee had come up with a great plan. But, then again, Pastor Cole is the one with a seminary school degree.

4. He responded to "The Body of Christ for you" with "Keep your opinions to yourself."  I didn't even mention Trayvon by name.

5. I really should have sucked it up and let the former pastor baptize my daughter. I cried like a baby the whole time. She was a perfect little angel. 

6.  I really wanted to believe the Wilsons when they said they love the congregation too much to stay. The heating bill is going to be a headache this winter.

7. He left the church 10 years ago, and not a moment too soon. Sharon is starting to worry when, lately, the Session has been fondly comparing her ministry to his.

I Stand Convicted

In the days following the controversial Zimmerman trial verdict, a significant amount of time and energy has been expended attempting to understand not only the specifics of the case, but also how this case reflects much larger and systemic issues in American society.    Admittedly, there are also those who say the trial was never about those issues, but there can be no doubt that the trial has unleashed public debate on these issues and those issues are there for the church to confront.   What is the role of the church?   It is evident there are, as is more often the case than we admit, sharply drawn lines of disagreement, each side claiming to stand with God on their side.

This week, I have poured through articles, blogs, and sermons in hopes of helping settle with my own feelings.  But, even after almost a week of reading, listening, and studying, I have more questions than answers about the racial, social, political, and theological questions raised by the tragic death of Treyvon Martin.  I am, however, convinced that we must openly grapple with them.   The loving church has a role it must play, and it must open itself to the raw edges of emotion and candid disagreement.   It must acknowledge that there are those who are convinced that the legal system, and many who purport to speak on behalf of the church, betray them.   Whether one ultimately accepts the correctness of their position, we must acknowledge the reality of that feeling of betrayal, and I sincerely believe God calls us to seek ways to reach across the barriers that mistrust erects.

Two of the more thought provoking articles I read this week were, The Zimmerman Acquittal: America’s Racist God  by Dr. Anthea Butler, and a response to her article by professor Willie James Jennings, What Does it Mean to Call "God" a White Racist?

Dr. Butler's article cuts straight to the heart of racial issues in America, and demonstrates clearly that persons of faith assert feelings of betrayal on a principled basis.  Dr. Butler makes a strong argument that the Christian faith, especially among white Americans, plays a critical role in the continuing racial tensions in this country.

"God ain’t good all of the time. In fact, sometimes, God is not for us. As a black woman in a nation that has taken too many pains to remind me that I am not a white man, and am not capable of taking care of my reproductive rights, or my voting rights, I know that this American god ain’t my god. Their god is the god that wants to erase race, make everyone act “properly” and respect, as the president said, “a nation of laws”; laws that they made to crush those they consider inferior."  

Professor Jennings echoes this same sentiment but challenges Christianity to accept its role in the struggle for racial justice in American society.  He affirms Dr. Butler when we writes:

American Christians must take on the difficult work of understanding how whiteness has been woven like a cancer into their Christianity. It is the power of that whiteness to shape our social worlds—defining good and bad, beautiful and ugly, true and false—that is at heart the reason this wound will not heal. It is the reason why some people deny our grotesque racial history even as it stares them in the face with the case of George Zimmerman.

While these articles by themselves raise issues I simply cannot ignore, the comments following them hit me at the deepest personal level...   I was shocked to see so many white folks making comments like, “I am a Christian…” followed by some very racist and frankly not so intelligent comments.   I marvel at how hard white people try to justify the system with old arguments that are based on the basic assumption that race is an illegitimate made up issue for which whites bear no responsibility. These 'justifications' include thinking like"  It's not about race, it's about attitude; the deck is not stacked against people of color they just don't try as hard as me, and the worse offender a claim of   reverse racism.

My readings made me recall one of my favorite and most powerful quotes from Martin Luther King taken from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  King writes:

"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice;”

Dr. King’s words convict me.  I am a middle class protestant white male.   I avoid confronting issues that I am capable of avoiding because of my position of comfort.   And we I confront them, it is all too often in the context in the pyramid of America, you can find me near the top.  While I firmly believe in the equality of all God’s children, and when called upon from a position of safety, can argue the point forcefully, I have also benefited from a system that values my worth over that of my brothers and sisters and provides me a greater liberty to choose when and how I will confront or debate issues regarding equality.   Seldom will I be confronted by the system and be made only to raise issues of inequality to protect myself from the system. 

Surely, on an intellectual, and in the past week on a deeply emotional level, I am sickened by the hurt caused by our inabilities to deal with but even more to even openly recognize the differences among us, and that those differences lead to hurt and so very many opportunities for hurt to come again.    I am called upon to admit that I have not done everything in my power to change that. 

We cannot legitimately claim that our system does not have its imperfections and that there are not those who can be crushed by it.   We do not have to condemn the system simply because we acknowledge that there are places where it may be broken.    It does not dishonor the system or abandon our own value system to acknowledge that the deck is stacked against groups of people, whether that deck be the system itself or the hidden beliefs of those who have the power to define it.  When we open our eyes, we see every day – that there are laws that value one system over another-  male belief over female life, economic systems that continue to hold people down while blaming them for not living up to ‘the American Dream’,  a citizenry that demonizes people of color. 

The question then before us is what can I do about it?   There are those who would answer the question by simply defending the current system, and seeking to squelch any debate over the ugly issues that are now so openly before us.  But I believe our scriptures are clear that as Christians we are called to work for God’s justice, even when we’re fatigued.  Recognizing our privilege is the first step, but we cannot be bogged down in our sadness and guilt.   Professor Jennings sums up this issue well.

"Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, not against the George Zimmermans of this world, but against those powers and principalities that teach the George Zimmermans of this world that weapons are gifts given by god, that violence is a good quick solution to our fears, and that there is a God-given natural racial order to this world.

What I can do in this struggle is realize that I have a voice, a voice which has the power to share in the struggle.  I have the power to listen, share these stories, and to fight that all people have value and voice.    

Where are you on this scale? I know where I am.  I am convicted, and that is okay, because I realize that this revelation is not the end of the discussion on race, but rather for me, it is just the beginning.  I proudly claim to be a Christian.  I hope to become more proud of how I have acted like one.

The Perfect, the Good, .......the Creative?

As I have shared in the past, I often struggle with the idea of creativity.  Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines creativity as, "the ability to make new things or think of new ideas."

Yet, I find my relationship with creativity is not nearly as simple as Webster's definition sounds.  I would not label either my work or myself as 'creative'.  And often, as I listen and read all sorts of wonderful blog posts and sermons, this feeling of creative inadequacy is reinforced.

This week while perusing the web, I stumbled upon The 12 Most Stifling Reasons You aren't as Creative as You Could Be. I admit that I have an extreme aversion to lists, (if you looked up "P" in a Meyers-Briggs dictionary, there would be a portrait of me!), nevertheless, I found this one to be particularly helpful.

The first item listed as an impediment to creativity was the inner critic.  Wow!  Reading that was like manna from heaven.  Often times in my work, I am my own worst critic.  I will write and rewrite an article or sermon several times, without even saving the draft, because I do not think they are perfect.   That is a problem. 

So often in church work we are more worried about something being perfect and we leave the good things undone.  When our programs, sermons, or even our ministry plans do not feel 'perfect', we abandon or at worst inadvertently sabotage them. As a church, we want to do the most amazing thing- so amazing that we will pass up good things waiting for that one amazing thing- only to find that the one amazing thing is not attainable in the way we imagined.  Then when we cannot achieve this perfect idea or program, we start to think we are not as creative or innovative as we thought, and we really do become less creative. In life and ministry, we should all take heed of Voltaire's admonition, "the perfect is the enemy of the good". We can never really be creative if we always try to be perfect.

That said, one of the more poignant issues the post raised is in its final addition to the list, number 12 - Relax.  This is not something that is easy for churches (or people) to do.  I find this language really resonates with me, "The art of relaxing is like the art of surrender, or the art of allowing." It reminds us that in order to be creative, in order to be all that we are created to be, we have to let go and create space for the movement of God's Spirit.  Then we can focus on what really inspires our creativity.

What are your struggles with creativity?  How do you relax and make room for the movement of God's creative and creating Spirit?  

2 Week Sabbatical

Every so often, when pastory types get together, we have an opportunity to be jealous of one of our own, because she has been granted permission to take the ever elusive SABBATICAL. 

Sometimes, it is 3 months. Sometimes, it is 6. Sometimes, it is paid by the congregation, and other times, it is funded through a grant. There may be travel, or there may be staying home to relax. But we all want it. We are all resentful that we don't have it, and we can't seem to figure out how to get someone to give us one. 

The good news is that you can take sabbatical right now. 

Starting tomorrow, I am leaving on vacation, but I am calling it a "sabbatical." I will not check in, take calls, read email, etc.  I know this sounds like a normal vacation, and you're probably wondering why I'm calling it sabbatical. Why? Because I am sending all my email to the trash while I'm gone. 

If you email me right now, here's what you'll receive in reply:

Subject: FYI - I won't see your email. :) 

I will not see the email you just sent because I am taking an email sabbatical during my vacation, June 28 through July 14.

Surely, you have uttered the words “I need a vacation to recover from my  vacation.” I know that I have, and if you mean the same thing by it that I  do, you mean that life slams you hard the moment you walk back through the door. In fact, most of the time, we can’t enjoy the last part of our Sabbath time because we are fearful about the mountains of stuff that we will be returning to. To quote danah boyd (queen of the email sabbatical), “Vacations should be a break from the insanity, not a procrastination of it.” <http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2013/06/04/email-sabbatical.html>

Enter the Email Sabbatical:

  1. From June 28 through July 14, my email inbox will be set to delete any incoming email. Everything that is sent to this address will go straight to the trash, never to be seen again.
  2. If you would have important information for me to see, resend it after July 15.
  3. If you have an issue that is time-sensitive, my colleague James Gale will be able to assist you. You can reach him by calling 913-608-7662 or by email at james@synodma.org. If he can’t help you, he will know how to get ahold of me.

Grace and Peace,

Landon

The truth is, while you are probably really good at your job, you are not the reason why your congregation, office, company runs soothly. If you give your contacts enough heads up (boyd contacts people a couple months in advance) you can make plans for just about anything. Further, if we who profess to offer the Gospel of Jesus, who's yoke is easy and burden is light, can't demonstrate appropriate self-care and Sabbath, then why would people believe us? 

So take your sabbatical now. Get some peace and rest right now.

I'll see you when I get back. 

You have to go through "No" to get to "Yes"

I grew up in the theatre. Actually, not only did I grow up in the theatre, but I grew up in the theatre in a small town and then went to a small college. There was rarely much budget for the shows we produced, and we developed a saying:

"We've done so much for so long with so little that, now, we can do anything with nothing."

It was a source of pride for us to produce shows with little to no resourcing, and eventually we began to believe that we had (in fact) become better artists because we didn't have all the other stuff that the other kids had. We had to hone our craft before we got to play with the big toys. And hone our craft we did.

I now have classmates that are starring in major network television shows, winning national awards for technical design, and producing critically acclaimed new productions. Because the world was not their oyster, these artists had to rely on their talent and ingenuity, and it has paid off.

Adam Richardson recently wrote on the HBR Blog Network that

Conventional wisdom holds that the best way to boost a team's creativity is to unshackle them from constraints. The less they have to worry about, the more open they'll be with their ideas, the theory goes. Budget? Unlimited! Ideas from outside? Bring 'em on! Different business model? Consider it entertained! Unfortunately this approach can actually be counter-productive.
Constraints, he notes, serve to focus our energies and attentions. They help us strip down to the essentials of our work, and avoid getting distracted by things that have little to no impact on the issues or people we are serving. Likewise, restrictions that choke the life out of your work aren't good, because they don't serve to bring any kind of clarity of focus.

Richardson offers three ideas that are great reminders for Church Work.

  1. "Focus on the vitals" Love God, Love others. Full stop. What we are doing is not anymore complicated than that.
  2. "Change your habits" If you have been doing something a certain way for a long time, you will find that your ability to be creative has diminished. This is not to say that your method was wrong, just that it's not giving you the creative boost you need. Change it up.
  3. "Get uncomfortable" Quoting musician Jack White, Richardson reminds us that "laziness is the enemy of creativity." If what you're doing is easy then the chances of it being creative are slim. Good art is hard work.
As the Apostle Paul said, while all things may be lawful, they are not necessarily beneficial. Living and working in an environment where there is rarely a "No" menas that you'll never be able to spot the "Yes" when it comes along.

My Super Dilema

Every once in a while, I find myself walking into the local mall bookstore for a cup of coffee.  Often times after getting my coffee, I enjoy spending time walking around the store perusing the various books for sale.  However, every trip to the bookstore always ends with me taking a walk through the religious section.  

I find every time I walk down the aisles of the religion section there seems to be at least a half dozen or so new books written about the latest media or cultural craze.  Often times these texts are given catchy titles like The Gospel According to  (insert whatever is popular now.)  I admit that I have very mixed feelings about these types of texts. 

Part of me is excited to see Christians trying to relate the stories of faith to the current cultural text.  On the flip side part of feels a sense of great anxiety.  I worry that these “Gospel According to” books might easily take the stories of faith into places that are not on the most solid of theological ground.  I worry that many try and put the stories of faith into a box they do not, and probably should not go.

This week my struggle whether to  like or loathe these modern cultural examples of biblical narratives hit an all-time personal high, with the release of the new Superman movie "Man of Steel".  I admit that I already wanted to see the movie, but after reading an article in the Guardian things changed.  The article addressed how the makers of the movie were using a Christian consultant to create bible studies and sermon notes comparing Superman to Jesus Christ. 

“The studio has teamed up with a specialist marketing firm with the aim of encouraging pastors to utilize Zack Snyder's comic book reboot in sermons. It has set up a special website touting a nine-page pamphlet entitled Jesus – the Original Superhero. Clergymen are encouraged to "educate and uplift your congregation" using the resource, which also highlights a useful clip from the movie.”

A day or so later, the debate over Superman and Christ spilled onto the radio airways.  NPR's Terry Gross did an interview on Fresh Air with the author of the sermon notes and folks from the studio public relations department.  The interview clearly showed that the studio was intentionally marketing Superman as the perfect modern cultural bridge to Jesus Christ. 

All of this pushed me into seeing the film this weekend.  After seeing the movie, I am still deeply torn about the connection between Jesus and Superman.  There are several scenes in the movie that really do make for excellent conversation both for and against that comparison.  I guess in the end, I feel like I don’t know where to start.  I would love to hear how you are wrestling with these issues, especially if you have seen the movie.

Sabbath = Creativity

The geek world was sad to learn last week that author Neil Gaiman is going to take about a six-month social media sabbatical. He will not be tweeting to his 1.8M followers, 500K Facebook friends, or 1.5M blog readers. Why?

He wants to get really bored. 

"I'll be taking about six months off," he said, "a sabbatical from social media so I can concentrate on my day job: making things up."
There has been little sign that the output of the creator of The Sandman and American Gods has slowed since he took up blogging in 2001 or since he joined Twitter in 2008, in which time he has published award-winning novels such as Coraline in 2002, The Graveyard Book in 2009 and now The Ocean at the End of the Lane, out next week. He has also written two episodes of Dr Who.
Gaiman thanks his Twitter followers in his latest novel for helping him check the prices of sweets in the 1960s but confesses that he would have "written the book twice as fast" without them.
He says the problem isn't the amount of time spent using social media; it's how it spreads into every cranny of our existence.
"People ask me where I get my ideas from," he said, "and the answer is that the best way to come up with new ideas is to get really bored."

I have long been a vocal critic of the amount of work congregations expect their pastors to do.  We say we want leaders, and then we make them act like managers. A 50+ hour work week for pastors is ridiculous and violates our vows to care for these servants. But worse, I think, is that by expecting our pastors to be so busy, we force them to violate one of their ordination vows:

Do you promise to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love? 

Borrowing from Gaiman, the only way to protect energy, intelligence, imagination, and love is to protect sabbath even more stridently. Creativity requires space.

And, yes, pastors are also guilty of not practicing sabbath, and it's damaging their health as well as their creativity. What do you say we all rise up and force these folks to take care of themselves? What do you say?