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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Young Adult Pilgrimage to the Holy Land


So it's been a busy but amazing last month or so... I was blessed to help lead a youth mission trip to Oaks Indian Mission in Oaks, Oklahoma, followed by a great trip to Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park in Maine with Jessie, followed by visiting with the amazing folks at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, NY and being called as their pastor. While I plan on beginning at Messiah near the tail end of July or early August, in the meantime I plan on catching up on another ministry I've been involved with (as well as relaxing a bit), leading a young adult mission trip to the Holy Land. What follows is a little something I wrote up about the opportunity. If you're a young adult who might be interested, be sure to check out the contact info at the bottom of the post. If you're not a young adult but think you might know one who would be interested in attending, please help me spread the word!

Especially in recent weeks, we've constantly heard heartbreaking stories or seen horrific images coming out of the Holy Land. Most folks in America tend to think this is just yet another phase of a seemingly intractable conflict in a region of a world that's "always been violent." We often don't even feel certain about what's truly happening in the Holy Land, never mind having any idea what we can possibly do about the situation. As Christians we also ask, "how does our connection to the biblical Israel relate to how we should interact with the modern state of Israel?" Lutherans in are particularly sensitive to how the ongoing conflict might relate to our denomination's immense historic failings during the Holocaust as well. Finally, we're concerned about how our public stances might affect current interfaith relationships which have proved amazing blessings in the lives of our local congregations. Confronted with such difficult questions, challenges and complexities, it's so easy to just throw up our hands, pray for peace, but otherwise remain wholly detached from what's going on in the Holy Land.

At the same time, all sorts of folks like going to Israel, maybe to Palestine, see a bunch of historical or pseudo-historical sites, go for a swim in the Dead Sea and then come back home saying they walked in the footsteps of Jesus. What if you had the opportunity to not only walk where he walked, but walk how Jesus walked too, developing relationships with local Palestinians and Israelis and discovering new opportunities to do justice along the way? What if you had the opportunity to move past America's patriarchal obsession with creating our own "balanced" view of the conflict towards accompanying and the sharing the views of our Israeli and Palestinian sisters and brothers on the ground? What if you had the opportunity to go on such a trip with other social justice minded young adults, all the while discerning how God is calling you to walk in the way of Jesus back home? Now that would be a true pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and that's exactly the sort of trip I'll be co-leading from May 21 - 31, 2015, along with Trena Montgomery, a former Young Adult in Global Mission in the Holy Land who will soon return to work with Palestinian Lutherans.

Last January, Trena and I were part of a group of sixteen young adults from across the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) who journeyed to the Holy Land on a similar pilgrimage sponsored by the ELCA's Peace Not Walls initiative, while also training to lead future trips of our own. You can read our groups reflections here.

Does this sound like the sort of thing you're interested in? If you're from the Northeast US, between the ages of 18 - 30 and want to find out more, either check out our Facebook Page or email Trena and I at You can also directly apply here. Safety will be addressed through daily security updates from Lutheran World Federation personnel on the ground in East Jerusalem. Cost of the trip will be approximately $2000 - $2500 depending on the price of your flight, but we're more than willing to help with fundraising ideas. Thanks so much, and we hope you can join us for this exciting opportunity to walk in the way of Jesus!

God's peace,

Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Crocker Mountain and Bushwhacking to Mount Redington in Maine

I got up to the Rangely area pretty early in the afternoon this past Tuesday in order to set up at Round Barn tentsite on nearby Flagstaff Lake, with the intention of just doing a long day hike the following day over the Crockers, Redington, and (maybe) all the way to Abraham if I could swing it, but I unfortunately found out at a nearby restaurant that the dirt road to the site was closed for repairs.

Without much of a better option, and nervous that Caribou Valley Road (CVR), another dirt road that crosses the Appalachian Trail (AT) about four miles down, would prove impassable with my Chevy Impala (boat car), I decided I'd drive down the CVR that evening, hike in on the AT about a mile and camp at Crocker Cirque. Some of the culverts under CVR were washed out, but after only bottoming my boat car out twice I managed to make it to the trailhead, hike up the AT and set-up camp. There was only on another tent at the site, and I never heard folks at all.

After a great night sleep, I woke up a bit late at 6:30a, packed up, stashed my pack a little bit off the trail, with the intention of bagging the two peaks of Crocker Mountain, Mount Redington, and then retracing my steps back to get my pack. If I had enough time I figured, I drop my pack at the car and then run up the AT another six miles in the other direction to bag Abraham. It was a bit ambitious, but with a fairly early start and a whole lot of June daylight, it was definitely achievable...

I bagged both peaks of Crocker pretty quickly and then returned to the South Crocker viewpoint to find an unofficial herdpath to Mount Redington (its one of only two 4000 foot peaks in New England to not have an official trail to the summit). There's an alternative unofficial way up to Redington as well, which involves taking a series of old logging roads. While its certainly easier, its longer as well. Being pretty new to having a smartphone, I had never really used a GPS program before, but given that I had read the herdpath is at times difficult to follow, I had pre-programmed in coordinates for the beginning of the herdpath, a point where it crosses an old logging road in the valley between South Crocker and Redington, as well as the coordinate of Redington's summit.

Well, I lost the herdpath pretty darn quick, and decided to just use the GPS program and compass on my phone for a bit until I could find where the path crossed the logging road. Here's where I made my big mistake... I once heard that putting your iPhone in airplane mode turned off the cell signal to conserve battery but didn't turn off the GPS signals... while it turns out they separate signals (and there are some ways to turn off one but not the other), I definitely heard wrong about airplane mode... I kept pushing through really thick pine scrub, trying to stick to game trails, but for whatever reason, I'd didn't seem like my location was changing much on the GPS program.

The iPhone compass does work correctly while in airplane mode, so I used that to pretty easily find the logging road... the problem however was that the GPS was still saying I was halfway up South Crocker, I thought I had hit a different unmapped logging road... dumb. Eventually, after walking a mile downhill, I realized what was going on with the GPS, turned around, hiking an extra mile up the logging road until I found the herdpath not too far away from where I came out of the woods... wow.

The portion of the herdpath heading up to Redington's summit was pretty easy to follow, and I quickly achieved the summit, although I couldn't seem to find its canister. After a bit of lunch, I felt determined I wouldn't lose the herdpath again back to South Crocker, head back down the AT, grab my bag, and hopefully still have time to bag Mount Abraham. Unfortunately this didn't pan out... the trail on the way down looked a bit wider than I remembered it, and once I hit the logging road again, I knew I made a mistake... I somehow made a wrong turn down the alternative route to Redington, the one that involved a bunch of different logging roads.

Pulling out my iPhone (with the battery rapidly depleting), I took a GPS reading and realized I
was once again about a mile away from the herdpath, this time in the opposite direction. At this point, I was pretty darn sick of that herdpath, and decided to try my luck with the logging roads. With my iPhone almost dead however, and without positively knowing what turns to make on the logging roads, I soon realized I'd need to bushwhack to a waypoint again, this time back to a mapped logging road I could eventually follow back to the AT. Boy oh boy, that scrub was thick (I'm still covered in scratches), but I safely made it to the logging road with about 2% battery to spare.

Eventually I walked the road back to where it crossed the AT, hiked a mile back up to retrieve my overnight pack, hiked back down, got in the car, knew I was too warn out to summit Mount Abraham, and immediately proceeded to have a really big hamburger for dinner at the closest restaurant/ bar to trailhead, Tufulio's (it was pretty darn good).

A few lessons learned... have a real compass with you, especially when headed off-trail, not just a smartphone/ GPS. I remember being told that in Boy Scouts, and wish I had listened. Also, it was a huge relief to me that I didn't summit Mount Abraham... those sort of reminders that you don't need to be perfect and can still have a lot of fun are awesome. Finally, when bushwhacking through Maine's dense forests, definitely wear pants... my lower legs are completely carved up.

Well, off to hike the northern Presidentials tomorrow morning, thanks for reading friends!

Bushwhack to Mount Redington

God's peace,

Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

A Liturgy of the Oppressed


Whew, what a busy couple weeks! After getting to know folks at the annual assembly Upstate New York Synod of the ELCA where I'll hopefully be called as a pastor in a month or so, I've spent some time hiking in northern New England and also preparing to lead a youth mission trip to a Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, which begins next week.

In the meantime, I'm still trying to post my work from my final semester at seminary. What follows is one of my favorite assignments throughout seminary, a paper and liturgy I created based off of Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed with inspiration from a faith community called Parables in Brooklyn. This formed the final assignment for an epic "Liturgy and Postcolonialism" course with Professor Cláudio Carvalhaes. The liturgy itself (at the bottom of the post) was written for a short half-hour Service of the Word service at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, but otherwise it would certainly include a collection and Eucharist. It's a bit "provocative" perhaps, but I'd love to hear what you think.

God's peace,

With only two weeks (and unfortunately around forty pages of writing) between me and graduation, I figure it’s about time to admit something that’s deeply troubled me throughout my seminary education: the majority of church services I’ve participated in throughout my life have been really, really boring! Perhaps it’s due to my overwhelming sense of entitlement as a North American millennial, or maybe it’s because I come from an overly individualistic culture, or maybe it’s just because I’m a good old fashioned heretic… I’m not entirely sure. What I do definitively know however, is that the majority of church services I’ve participated in throughout my life have been really, really boring, and they didn’t mean much. Now such a statement may quickly lead one to ask, “Why be a pastor, or even a Christian at all if you don’t find Christian worship meaningful?” From my perspective, the answer to such a question is quite easy—I’ve developed strong, lifelong relationships through the Church, I’ve experienced a profound sense of community and solidarity through the Church, and I’ve been supported in serving folks and advocating against systems of injustice through the Church. When my mother died from lung cancer at a relatively young age, the Church held me close and told me that life would go on, and it did. In short, I want to be a Christian pastor because I’ve experienced the presence of God in the Church like nowhere else.

Yet, and I say this with some notable exceptions in mind, most church services I’ve participated in throughout my life have been really, really boring. Here’s what my experience of a church service is all too often like (I put this purposefully in a pretty provocative way): I start off by sitting down in an uncomfortable seat, not being allowed to have coffee despite it being way too early in the morning, hearing some announcements and then watching the pastor walk to the back of the sanctuary only to walk forward again in various levels of pomp and circumstance. The folks up front pray some prayers for me and then I spend a whole lot of time trying not to space out while a bunch of long Bible passages are read. After hearing what is often a good sermon (to be fair), I get a brief reprieve by standing up and singing a song, only to have the folks up front once again pray for me, usually from some pretty sounding words they found on an internet resource. The first time I really feel like I get to do anything besides trying to stay awake is the collection, through which I genuinely feel connected to my faith community in mission. The Meal, as long as it is done in a way that is fully inclusive of all individuals, is an extremely profound experience. Shortly after that however, one of the folks up front (sometimes after walking to the back of the sanctuary), reads literally one sentence to say goodbye to me. Couldn’t she or he just look me in the eye and truly say goodbye, lovingly sending me out into the world to serve God and the folks in my community?

Interestingly enough, it is usually only after the official liturgy is completed that the true liturgy, the true λειτουργία, which translates as “work of the people” or even “public service” typically begins… coffee hour! Now that is a good time! I actually get to hear how my sisters and brothers in Christ are doing. I am blessed and honored to support them in their sorrows, laugh with them amidst great joy and simply hear how God is at work in their lives! I welcome in new guests along with the few folks who have good social skills, perhaps share a light meal and finally have a damn coffee! And after that, this is when things really get good… I either learn something about God in fellowship with others, go on some sort of fun outing, engage in meaningful service with my community or go back home and get to take a nap! What could possibly be better? What could possibly be more meaningful? Waking up way too early was kind of a pain, but wow, it was entirely worth it!

I cannot speak for everyone, or even my generation, but I do know I am not alone in these convictions. In my own tiny part of the global Christian community, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, membership in congregations is steadily declining, yet we can’t sign up folks (and especially young people) fast enough for many of our long-term service programs. Every summer for nearly a decade, I had the privilege of engaging in ministry as a camp counselor at a Lutheran summer camp. For many of the folks I worked with, summers at camp were the most meaningful experiences of their lives, experiences they often interpret as experiencing God’s work while ministering in community. Yet few, and I mean very few, probably ten percent or less, of these same folks go back home and regularly participate in the life of their local congregations. One could make the excuse that these sort of folks are too individualistic, do not have their priorities in order or apply their love of capitalistic choice to their faith life. One could also say (and this option seems quite popular in the Church as of late) that we simply do not educate these folks enough… if only we could teach them how the liturgy is meaningful, they would find the liturgy meaningful!

There is however, another option, one deeply informed by the related concepts of postcolonialism, liberation theology and even community organizing… take the data, take the voice of the people in your context (which includes people outside the church building) seriously! Saul Alinsky, often considered the father of modern community organizing in North America, states the following:
The actual projection of a completely particularized program by a few persons is a highly dictatorial action. It is not a democratic program but a monumental testament to lack of faith in the ability and intelligence of the masses of people to think their way through the successful solution of their problems. It is not a people’s program, and the people will have little to do with it. There should not be too much concern with specifics or details of a people’s program. The program items are not too significant when one considers the enormous importance of getting people interested and participating in a democratic way. After all, the real democratic program is a democratically minded people—a healthy, active, participating, interested, self-confident people who, through their participation and interest, become informed, educated and above all develop faith in themselves, their fellow men, and the future.
Alinsky is of course coming from the predominately secular perspective of community organizing, but applied to liturgy one could easily change his last sentence to the following: “The real λειτουργία is the work of a democratically minded people—a healthy, active, participating, interested, self-confident people who, through their participation and interest, become informed, educated and above all develop faith in themselves, their fellow human beings, and most of all, faith in their God.”

In the name of “unity,” or “equality” as a Church, we often hear that all assemblies should do similar things in their liturgies, and that all people should do similar things in a particular assembly, no matter the context. This idea of “unity in similarity” reaches to all levels of our liturgy, even to the level of what we are to wear on a Sunday:
Washed and bleached clean, this garment became one of the basic symbols of baptism… Leaders of the assembly wear it on behalf of us all, showing another way of festive clothing than either “Sunday best” or casual clothes. Indeed, our leaders can thereby step out of the ways in which our current clothing so inevitably communicates gender, sexual attraction, class and wealth, inviting us to another way of considering the human being.
This appeal to “unity in similarity” almost always has the best of intentions, and needs to be honored as such. Yet at the same time, the people are quite clearly crying out, “I don’t want to be bleached clean! I want to come to God’s table as I am, no matter my shape, size or color!” Such data, the voice of the people, must be taken quite seriously. Furthermore, as postcolonialism teaches us, the modernist appeal to universality almost always ends up looking or acting like the dominant culture:
[Universality is] the assumption that there are irreducible features of human life and experience that exist beyond the constitutive effects of local cultural conditions. Universalism offers a hegemonic view of existence by which the experiences, values and expectations of a dominant culture are held to be true for all humanity. For this reason, it is a crucial feature of imperial hegemony, because its assumption (or assertion) of a common humanity - underlies the promulgation of imperial discourse for the ‘advancement’ or ‘improvement’ of the colonized, goals that thus mask the extensive and multifaceted exploitation of the colony.
Baptism, the wider liturgy, and indeed the gospel itself doesn’t bleach us clean! The good news of God’s act of liberating love in Christ lets us to see the beauty of our own unique shade of “differentness” amidst the muck of our humanity, and thereby frees us to lovingly share in the beautifully unique differentness of our sisters and brothers as well. 

Our chief objective as we cultivate new spaces, communities and liturgies is not to achieve a perfectly objective equality. Although we should do our best to move toward this, such a thing is not humanly possible— there will always be inherent power dynamics involved in any social situation, at least until the Kingdom of God is fully with us. We should however do our prayerful best to acknowledge those inherent power dynamics. In doing so we can foster a spirit of hybridity where all can share of themselves, learn from each other and experience the Divine alongside one another as a communion of fellow pilgrims moving towards their unique destinations. Through celebrating the beautiful tapestry of differentness that is humanity, and the rich variety of means through which humanity experiences God, the λειτουργία, the work of the people, is focused exactly where it should be—on Christ, on the God who promises to show up where we would least expect Her and Him to be: “The presence of God and the Lamb—and the presence of the water of life and the tree of life that come from God—should be at the center of the assembly of the church.”

Now, the next question we must ask of course, is what would such a liturgy look like? We can say a liturgy should truly be the democratic work of the people, all God’s people, in all their beautifully unique differentness, but it has to look like something. One possibility stems from the largely secular work of Augusto Boal, the Brazilian director who developed a “theatre of the oppressed.” Reflecting on Aristotle’s Poetics, Boal discovered that throughout much of Western history the point of theatre was simply to produce a sense of catharsis, and thereby to subjugate the spectator:
… the poetics of Aristotle is the poetics of oppression: the world is known, perfect or about to be perfected, and all its values are imposed on the spectators, who passively delegate power to the characters to act and think in their place. In so doing the spectators purge themselves of their tragic flaw—that is, of something capable of changing society. A catharsis of the revolutionary impetus is produced! Dramatic action substitutes for real action.
Similar to Boal’s understanding of the theatre, the whole point of the gospel, the whole point of the good news of God’s act of liberating love in Christ is to free us from whatever may oppress us, whether it be dominant members of our society, from natural phenomenon like disease or disaster, and especially, from ourselves. We are all oppressed, even in a North American context, although it may look slightly different for us here at the center of the empire. Whether through hate, indifference or most often lack of self agency, many of us, myself included, simply cannot help but oppress our sisters and brother both known and unknown, and in turn, we oppress ourselves.

Amidst so much oppression and the guilt that goes along with it, why would we develop liturgies that are supposed to communicate liberation in Christ yet fail to help us recognize our full sense of self expression and self agency in Christ to change this situation? Augusto Boal, speaking through the secular language of theatre, provides us with another option:
“Spectator” is a bad word! The spectator is less than a man and it is necessary to humanize him, to restore to him his capacity of action in all its fullness. He too must be a subject, an actor on an equal plane with those generally accepted as actors, who must also be spectators. All these experiments of a people’s theater have the same objective—the liberation of the spectator, on whom the theater has imposed finished visions of the world… The poetics of the oppressed is essentially the poetics of liberation: the spectator no longer delegates power to the characters either to think or to act in his place. The spectator frees himself; he thinks and acts for himself! Theater is action!
Theatre is not the same as liturgy, but they both are action, as they both indeed can be the work of the people! The way Augusto Boal blurred the line between spectator and actor was to develop a variety of “movement games” through which anyone could participate, even those with little theatrical training. Furthermore, whether it be a theatre or an assembly engaged in liturgy, communities need a facilitator in some sense. In a theatre of the oppressed, this person is not called the narrator or protagonist but the “joker.” The role of the joker is to float above the action, to allow for the greatest degree of self-expression possible, but also to descend into the action when needed. The role of the pastor in a “liturgy of the oppressed” is quite similar—she or he must prayerfully ensure the gospel is communicated, while allowing for the most democratically minded self expression possible.

A basic “liturgy of the oppressed” is attached as an appendix to this paper, one that hopefully proclaims the gospel while taking seriously the presence of Christ in the beautiful differentness of humanity. As this particularly liturgy was developed for a short weekday “Service of the Word” at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, the Meal is unfortunately excluded, although I would consider it central to any Sunday assembly. The traditional Lutheran ordo is followed for the sake of reflecting the liturgical movements of our ancestors but even more for reasons of hospitality, as creating familiar structure hopefully encourages greater self-expression within each individual movement of the liturgy. A “name and gesture” movement game acts as a sort of Kyrie, but a fully participatory “Remembrance of Baptism” rite could greatly strength the Gathering. As a volunteer moves the assembly forward with the “prayer of the day,” it may prove helpful to reflect the prayers of our ancestors through the day’s appointed collects.

The Word portion of the liturgy would look quite different depending on the text(s) used and the folks present in the assembly. If the text for the day is short, reading each phrase and having the assembly repeat seems to work quite well. For longer passages, Bibles should be provided. Although this is of course not a universal observation, I believe a “liturgy of the oppressed” should generally stay away from hymnals, as they often greatly limit self expression. Moving forward, the “columbian hypnosis” movement game then creates an environment for folks in the assembly to have fun, relate to each other and use their bodies in new ways while also exploring social power exchanges. There are a wide variety of more complicated movement games that could also be used, many of which allow for the exploration (and overcoming) of a societal injustice. Discussion then allows the assembly to process the experience, relate it back to the text and most importantly to God’s presence in their lives. The joker should prayerfully shape this discussion to ensure the gospel is communicated. The assembly then responds to the good news in song and prayer. If the liturgy does not include a Meal, the assembly is sent back out into the world with a message of peaceful liberation and community in Christ.

As it has been so aptly stated, “Lutheran worship at its deepest—and this is true of all Western and Eastern Christian worship, as well—is this: a participating and open assembly, served by its ministers, gathered around the bath, the word, the prayers, the table—the very matters which speak and sign Jesus Christ so that the nations may live.” A liturgy of the oppressed takes these central things of worship quite seriously, as they are the gifts Christ gave us to proclaim the gospel. At the same time however, a liturgy of the oppressed also takes seriously the data, the voice of the people, in its context. To say it in a less fancy way, in a liturgy of the oppressed, people matter! The people truly matter! Instead of appealing to the colonialist idea of “unity in similarity,” with everyone engaged in the same action or having “the folks up front” perform the action for them, a more democratic liturgy can develop in which difference is celebrated, not bleached away. Indeed, it is through celebrating the beautiful tapestry of differentness that is our humanity, and especially the innumerable amazing ways God continuously breaks into our lives, that the λειτουργία, the work of the people, is focused exactly where it should be—on Christ, on the God who promises to show up where we would least expect!

A Liturgy of the Oppressed

Greeting: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all! And also with you! 
Name and Gesture: The assembly stands in a circle. The joker begins by stating her first name followed by a physical gesture which is indicative of what feelings and/ or experiences she is bringing into the assembly that day. The whole group then repeats the joker’s name and gesture. This process works around the group until everyone has said their name and performed a gesture. The process is then repeated a second time but without names mentioned. Individuals may wish to step forward and briefly explain to the group why they decided upon their gesture as well. 
Prayer of the Day: The joker invites a volunteer to either pray extemporaneously or pray the appointed collects for the day.
Reading: A short Biblical passage, perhaps one appointed for the day by the Revised Common Lectionary, is read phrase by phrase by the joker, who also invites the assembly to repeat each phrase after it is read. 
Columbian Hypnosis and Discussion: The assembly divides into pairs - choosing role A and role B. A will “hypnotize” B with her or his hand - B must keep her face just a few inches from A’s hand at all times - always an equal distance. A should try to manipulate B into all sorts of positions, using forgotten muscles, liberating her to use the body in a different way than she is accustomed. A & B then switch roles.Remaining in pairs the assembly discusses their experience of being in complete power and without power. They may wish to reread the day’s Bible passage. How does power relate to the Biblical passage just read? How is Christ at work in exchanges of power and the everyday life of the assembly? The assembly then gathers back in a circle and those who wish may share their findings. The joker shapes the conversation as needed to ensure the gospel is communicated. One possible addition: The assembly divides into triads. A hypnotizes B & C using two hands, which may do entirely different movements at any time.A second possible addition: One person (A) stands in the center of the assembly. A hypnotizes two people (Bs) using two hands. Everyone else picks one of the B people to be hypnotized by. 
Hymn of the Day: The joker invites the assembly to proclaim liberation in Christ through a commonly known song for which anyone can call out individual verses. Examples include “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Are Marching in the Light of God.” Movement is encouraged as the assembly is able! 
Prayers of the People: The joker invites the assembly into prayer and then individuals go around the circle offering intercessions as they wish. The Lord’s Prayer is then sung or spoken by the assembly in unison.
Blessing: My sisters and brothers, let us go forth, liberated in Christ to love and serve the world! Thanks be to God! 
Peace: A sign of peace may be shared by all.
Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Jesus Is Praying for You on "Super Stumped Sunday"

Hey folks! What follows is a sermon I was blessed to preach this past Sunday at Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit, an amazingly welcoming congregation in Albany, NY. It was primarily on two of the appointed readings for Ascension SundayActs 1: 6-14 and John 17: 1-11. I'd love to hear what you think, and thanks for reading!

First of all, I want to thank you for so graciously welcoming me into your community here at Holy Spirit. It’s actually my first time preaching in Upstate New York…and I’m incredibly stoked to be here, especially on a day as important as this one… Super Stumped Sunday! That’s right, it’s Super Stumped Sunday, or as it’s been understood for most of Christian history, at least since the fourth century, today is the Sunday closest to the Feast of the Ascension, which took place this past Thursday, which was exactly forty days after Easter. It’s Super Stumped Sunday, which in non-church history/ liturgy nerd terms means the Sunday when Christians around the world commemorate Jesus rising up into heaven from the Mount of Olives to sit at the right hand of God… wow, Super Stumped Sunday, more often known as the Feast of the Ascension… it might not have as much street creed as Christmas or Easter, but it’s kinda a big deal… the day when Jesus no longer was in a literal sense walking around, hanging out with us here on Earth, the day when we as believers in Christ sort of needed to start figuring out what to do next… and thus the day when we very quickly realize that at least a bunch of the time, we actually have no idea how to proceed… and hence, it’s Super Stumped Sunday.

It’s not a bad thing by the way, necessarily… being super stumped. In fact, most of these situations in life, situations when we’re super stumped and that often coincidently happen around this time of year, most of these situations often take place after the most amazing of events. We graduate or watch our children and other loved ones graduate around this time of year. We plant gardens. We go to proms. We start thinking about warm weekend trips and summer vacations. We get married more often and buy more new homes around this time of year than any other. Even if you’re having a relatively uneventful season, you’ve probably spent some time recently looking back on your life over the colder winter months, evaluating your efforts and perhaps discerning how to move forward. My sisters and brothers, we are in the midst of a season of endings and new beginnings, some of which we mourn, to be fair, but many of which we celebrate. It’s a season of immense change, immense emotion, and hopefully, nearly unlimited possibilities if only we keep our eyes and hearts open.

Inevitably though, on Super Stumped Sunday, or the Feast of the Ascension, and in this season generally, we end up experiencing quite a bit of uncertainty. Look back at how the apostles acted in the passage from Acts we read in our first lesson today, which is the primary story of Christ’s Ascension in the Bible. The apostles ask Jesus when he’ll be back to lead them, but of course Jesus doesn’t give a definitive answer, instead simply ensures them they will soon receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus is then lifted up, perhaps much like we’ve seen in all those famous paintings of the story, and well, pretty soon the apostles end up just staring at the clouds. Their actions sort of ring true to our own experiences though, right? I mean whether we’ve just finished up teaching our last week of Sunday school before summer break, whether we’ve just gotten married, or just watched a granddaughter graduate from high school, just entered retirement or have just achieved some other long sought after goal, we often get stopped in our tracks, we often can’t help but take a pause, look around, and let it sink in that, wow, that really awesome thing has finally actually happened! Wow!!! We take in that we’ve finally achieved such a difficult goal! But then, all too often, just like the apostles, we get caught staring at the clouds, absolutely super stumped about what to do next.

We experience the same thing in our congregations too. From what we all said in the confession and forgiveness at the beginning of today’s service, it seems like the folks here at Holy Spirit are well aware of this issue. I’ll just reread a little part of what we all said earlier… “Newness scares us, and we confess to shutting our doors in fear. We have not listened to voices that challenge us. We have resisted the Holy Spirit moving us in new directions.” Wow. Wow… now that is a powerful, that’s an amazing thing to publicly proclaim as a congregation. And what you’ve confessed is true of course, I don’t know specifically about here at Holy Spirit, but throughout most of our congregations and certainly as the wider Church, just like the apostles super stumped about what to do next, just staring up at the clouds, we’ve for far too long spent too much time hung up on past successes and joys, the good ol’ glory days, whenever those were, than actually moving forward into the amazing possibilities of the present and the future. The good news though is that in naming our mistakes, whether as individuals, congregations or as a wider Church, we’re freed from those mistakes in Christ, and thereby liberated to begin engaging in some truly incredible new ways to serve God and neighbor.

Now the apostles experience of being caught staring up at the clouds after Christ’s Ascension certainly rings true to our experience… whether it’s something as amazing as Christ’s incarnation or something as ordinary as former years with a whole lot higher church attendance and larger budgets, we often get super stumped, hung up on past joys and achievements.  I’m gonna go out on a limb here though and say that what’s happens next in our first lesson from Acts DOES NOT always ring true to our experience. We rarely see angels flying out of the sky, at least in a literal sense, telling us to get to work. And while it’s perhaps a bit more common, it’s still pretty rare that we easily shift to what’s next, constantly devoting ourselves to prayer, and being harmoniously and perfectly of one mind as we move forward into the future. It might happen once in a while, but whether its as a congregation, as a family or in our professional lives, even though we’re called to get along and move forward hand in hand, by Christ we rarely do it in a perfect manner. Perhaps we overstep, perhaps we ignore the voices of those marginalized in our communities, perhaps we miss some other crucial factor. It’s possible, but really, really rare that we engage in new things near perfectly the first time, or with universal agreement in our communities. The apostles’ experience of being one in prayer, and sort of magically knowing how to proceed, does not usually ring true to our experience living in this time, in this place.

That’s why I’m so incredibly thankful that on this Super Stumped Sunday, on the Feast of the Ascension, we also heard the gospel message from Saint John, a message filled with profoundly good news, with amazing promise. It’s a sort of rare message too, at least as the gospels are concerned. Today’s gospel message takes place near the end of Saint John’s version of the Last Supper, but it’s radically different than the Last Supper we’re used to. Essentially, Jesus talks a really long time, like a really long time, pretty much for four whole chapters, about how we’re supposed to lead our Christian lives after he’s ascended. Then, instead of doing the whole bread and wine bit, do this in remembrance of me, which of course is extremely important, to the point that we celebrate it every Sunday during the meal, Jesus does something perhaps even more amazing… he prays for His apostles. And similarly, Jesus prays for us too, no matter how we’re living out our lives.

Just think about that… a few minutes ago during Children’s Time, parent and child laid hands on each other, saying a short prayer. The first time that ever happened to me, I’ll admit, it was a bit weird, but once I got a little more used to it, it was incredibly profound… I might be a big of a softy, but it usually made me cry. In praying for each other, we often experience a moment of amazing connection with our fellow believers, a moment of amazing grace, even at times when we’re feeling super stumped, or times of great fear. Just as we pray for each other though, as we heard in today’s gospel message, Jesus is praying for us too. Jesus is praying for us too. Jesus is praying for us, as we struggle with change and figure out how to do ministry in an entirely new context. Jesus is praying for us, for our church councils, for our treasurers, for our acolytes. Jesus is praying for us, for our Sunday school teachers, our Sunday school students and our young adults. Jesus is praying for us, for our musicians, our altar guild and even, our pastors.

We often separate our church lives from the rest of our lives, but there’s even more profoundly good news… Jesus is praying for us all the time. Who here is a health-care worker? Jesus is praying for you! Who here is in education? Jesus is praying for you! Who here is in business or finance? Jesus is praying for you! Who here works a government job? Who here works retail? Who here is retired? Jesus is praying for you! Who here is a parent, a grandparent, a son, a daughter, a spouse or a friend? Jesus is praying for you! Who here is just really darn lonely or searching for meaning? Jesus is praying for you! Just like he prayed for the apostles in today’s gospel message, Jesus is praying for all of us, as we live out our lives in churches, in our families, and in our professions. Jesus is praying for all of us, whatever we might be facing, no matter how confused, or angry, or joyful or just super stumped we may feel. Today, my sisters and brothers, on this Super Stumped Sunday, the Feast of the Ascension, know that no matter how imperfect, angry, weak or tired you might feel, Jesus is praying for you, Jesus has promised to pray for us, and Jesus keeps His promises. Amen.

Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Interfaith Dialogue, the Lutheran "Simuls" and Gender Justice

College Dustin.

What follows is a paper I recently wrote for a Scriptures of the World course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I'd love to hear what you think!

God's peace,

With only three weeks to go before I graduate from seminary, I’ve been reflecting a great deal about the struggles, learnings and growth I’ve experienced here over the last four years. When I first arrived in Philadelphia, I had just experienced two years of immense anger at God following my mother’s death. Furthermore, my journey into early adulthood had left me dumbfounded about, if not at times openly hostile towards Christianity. Although I grew up in a Lutheran congregation, I had only gone under compulsion as a child and then primarily just to hang out with my friends as a teenager. I always figured I was deeply spiritual, but following a specific religion seemed like such an antiquated idea in progressive New England, and certainly not a good enough reason to wake up early on Sunday morning. Upon beginning undergraduate studies at the George Washington University and experiencing what I cannot help but view as the hateful positions of some American evangelicals (I somehow never knew that such beliefs existed before), I quickly came to a vague notion of liking the idea of Jesus while perceiving the Bible as supporting the exact opposite from his message of love and liberation. At the same time, I built on my past readings of the scriptures of other faiths, especially those of Buddhism and Sufi Islam, and thought they painted a portrait of the Divine much more in line with my views.

In response to these factors I identified my religious affiliation as “sort of Buddhist” through much of college and frequently meditated in private, but eventually began missing regular participation in a faith community. As graduation neared and my mother was in the last stages of her battle with lung cancer, I felt immensely supported by my old Lutheran networks back home. Around this time I also discovered that my own Lutheran tradition largely spoke out against the negative scriptural readings of some American evangelicals. Once I heard the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had voted to allow the ordination of members of the LGBT community, I realized there could be a place for me in the Church and I began to actively participate in congregational life, leading youth groups and assisting in worship. I eventually felt called toward ordained ministry and found myself at seminary, where I learned a powerful set of hermeneutical tools for understanding the Bible. Throughout my seminary career and despite my “interfaith concentration” however, I was never exposed to a Lutheran theological grounding for incorporating those deeply cherished scriptural teachings of other faiths into my own Christian worldview. While I knew such teachings were important, I did not have the means to articulate how they related to my faith in Jesus Christ, and in turn felt that my understanding of the authority of the Christian scriptures was incomplete.

Luckily, in taking a "Scriptures of the World" course with Dr. J. Paul Rajashekar I had the opportunity to not only learn the contents of other scriptures (something I was already partially exposed to), but more importantly, to discern how and why I should read the Christian scriptures inter-scripturally, all the while grounded in my own Lutheran theological tradition. This year I also engaged in faith-based gender justice work as Communications Coordinator for Ecumenical Women at the United Nations. Throughout this work, and especially during my week in New York at the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women, I was reminded how the Christian scriptures are so often misappropriated by various actors (especially some American evangelicals), who wish to reverse the gains of women and girls in recent decades and in doing so export their ideas to believers around the world. Finally, I was blessed with the opportunity to read a Christian response to issues of gender justice that is deeply grounded in the liberating love of Christ, that of the Lutheran World Federation’s new Gender Justice Policy. Throughout the remainder of this paper I will discuss my newfound understanding of the authority of the Christian scriptures, their abuse in regard to the gender justice debate, and briefly cite the Lutheran World Federation’s recently published alternative.

Throughout its two-thousand year history the Church’s relationship with the beliefs and scriptures of other faiths has been marked with difficulty, but also diversity. In the biblical witness itself, especially in Paul’s mission to the Athenians, we first see the concept of a universal Logos working outside of Jewish/ Christian community (Acts 17:22-31). This notion of Divine revelation through human reason is also present in the writings of Justin Martyr, who due to what could be considered an early version of inter-scriptural reading with Greek philosophy, claimed that all who lived with the Logos were in fact Christians without knowing it.  Clement of Alexandria also held similar views, yet Cyprian, Tertullian (who was himself deemed a Montanist heretic near the end of his life) and the vehemently anti-Semitic John Chrysostom were all “Christian patriarchs” who denounced the people and scriptures of other faiths. Augustine of Hippo seemed to differ in opinion throughout his career, yet did specifically argue that the Logos worked through a variety of names and beliefs, at least before Christ’s incarnation:
… from the beginning of the human race, whosoever believed in Him, and in any way knew Him, and lived in a pious and just manner according to His precepts, was undoubtedly saved by Him, in whatever time and place he may have lived.
Furthermore, as indicated in his Confessions, Augustine was an active Manichean (and to a lesser degree a Neoplatonist) before converting to Christianity, and thus it would have been impossible for him not to read the Bible inter-scripturally with what he knew from the writings of his former traditions.

Following the Edict of Milan and the rise of Christendom in the fourth century, inter-scriptural reading largely disappeared throughout the Church, at least officially. For the vast majority of illiterate Christians and those on the periphery of the empire, spoken and visual depictions by missionaries may have allowed a sense of inter-scriptural reading, but this was increasingly absent from the academic realm. By the time of Martin Luther and his fellow reformers, Western Europe had become a homoreligious society where marginalized Jews and the Muslim invaders outside Vienna were sometimes considered heretical Christians rather than people of distinctly separate faiths. It was within this homoreligious context that Martin Luther, out of both a pastoral concern that the scriptures be available to the masses and his need for a polemical tool against the abuses of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, developed the concept of the “solas,” thereby leading to our traditional Lutheran exclusivism:
The Lutheran tendency toward exclusivism, therefore, is derived from a doctrinal interpretation of biblical texts. The absoluteness of the Christian claim is thus articulated in terms of the “Lutheran solas:” solus Deus, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola scriptura, solo verbo, sola fide and so on. The doctrinal language of “God alone,” “Christ alone,” “grace alone,” “Scripture alone,” “Word alone” and “faith alone” are all intertwined, and reinforce claims of Lutheran exclusivism.
Operating within a homoreligious context, the Lutheran solas form a powerful argument, as they free the Christian scriptures to be read solely through the lens of Christ. Indeed, when engaged in public theology one can simply say, “As read through the lens of our shared faith in Christ, the Bible says __________, so we should do __________,” and thereby make a persuasive argument.

While theologically powerful, the Lutheran solas also form a circular argument, and thus in their exclusivism cannot provide a strong basis for public theology in our now multi-scriptural world. In recent decades some have attempted to remedy this problem by employing the traditional Lutheran concepts of ‘law and gospel’ and ‘the doctrine of the two kingdoms’ to their engagement with other faiths and texts. Essentially, this line of thought states that in natural law, God is at work in this world through all individuals, no matter their faith tradition. Working within this theological framework, which is essentially a rehashing of Justin Martyr’s old idea of “anonymous Christians,” those engaged in public theology rarely refer to their scriptures or their faith at all. Throughout my engagement with faith-based gender justice work over the past two years, first as an intern at the Lutheran Office for World Community and now as Communications Coordinator for Ecumenical Women at the United Nations, the typical modus operandi was to first privately study to the Bible as an organization, and then make a public statement in almost exclusively secular language. Although still usually quite persuasive, these statements lacked the full prophetic power of a true confession of faith, as they only appealed to minds rather than the hearts of decision makers.

In a twenty-first century world where homoreligiousity is less and less the norm on even the local level, the Lutheran solas alone can no longer provide us with a persuasive means to employ our scriptures in public theology. Indeed, as feminist, womanist and post-colonial theologians have taught us, the inherent universality of the Lutheran solas were always problematic. As Rosemary Radford Ruether states,
Feminism is a new challenge to Christian claims of universalism that poses different problems from those of interreligious relationships. Interreligious relationships speak of many different ways in which experience of the divine has been localized in human experience and the mutual recognition of these historico-cultural configurations by each other. Feminism speaks of new contexts where the divine needs to be localized. By and large, not only Judaism and Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, but even ancient tribal religions have not allowed the divine to be experienced in a way defined by women. Feminism looks back at the history of all religions as expressions of male-dominated cultures that have marginalized women to some extent, although some have been more radically and totally marginalized in some religious systems than in others.
The inherent universality of the Lutheran solas also precludes to possibility of a positive dialogue with an increasing number of nonreligious individuals as well. Furthermore, by instead solely employing a law and gospel understanding to our use of scriptures in public theology, we often end up neglecting to refer to our scriptures or faith at all. Although done with the intention of not offending non-Christians, this in the end is simply another way of dismissing the salvific power of Christ and or even simply the humanity of all individuals regardless of their specific faith tradition.

Luckily, some are beginning to discover the possibility of robustly employing another traditional Lutheran theological concept to scriptural engage in public theology, that of “simul:”
The dialectic of the simul, what we understand as “simultaneously,” is a fundamental presupposition of almost all Lutheran doctrinal affirmations. Lutheran theology understands God’s revelation as simultaneously hidden and revealed; God’s activity occurs simultaneously through the work of the left hand and right hand; Christ is simultaneously human and divine; God’s saving activity occurs simultaneously through law and gospel; the Christian is simultaneously saint and sinner; the sacrament of bread and wine is simultaneously the body and blood; the kingdom of God is simultaneously present here and now and not yet. This emphasis on the simuls in Lutheran theology opens up possibilities for a positive engagement with all people in our world. A proper understanding of the simuls, in fact, pushes us away from an exclusive stance in matters of faith and invites us into an inclusive engagement with people.
The Lutheran solas are still essential however, as they provide us with theological grounding. At that same time, when we allow the solas to exist in a dialectic with the theological paradox of the simuls, we can recognize God’s mysterious work through both law AND gospel in Christians and non-Christians alike.

In this way, we can open ourselves to the diverse peoples and scriptures of other faiths, and instead of theorizing about a “Christian theology of religions,” prioritize the praxis of actually engaging in dialogue. James L. Fredericks eloquently speaks to this point:
In the twenty-first century Christians need to find an alternative to the entire project of a theology of religions. Preoccupation with a comprehensive interpretation of the other religious paths is neither necessary nor advisable for Christians committed to developing new forms of social and religious solidarity with those who follow other religious paths. Instead of a theology that attempts to account comprehensively for the religious lives of those who follow the other paths, Christians should set for themselves a considerably more modest goal. This will entail a shift from theory to praxis… The problems attending theologies of religions make clear how dubious this project is. Instead of using theology as a theoretical basis for dialogue, I propose to let dialogue be the basis, or praxis, of doing theology. Doing theology in dialogue with the others is not an attempt to provide a foundation or rationale for dialogue. Rather, what is called for is a theology that arises through dialogue. This is not a theology about interreligious dialogue, or a theology that justifies dialogue, but rather Christian theology itself carried out in dialogue with those who follow other religious paths.
To put it in practical terms, instead of only referencing the Bible or only using secular terminology when engaging in public theology, we can instead from a place of non-anxiety in Christ state something like, “We are called to believe that we should __________ because of how we understand our scriptures through our faith in Christ. As a fellow human being, how does this teaching relate to the scriptures of your own faith or worldview? I know for sure you have something to teach me, so how can we learn from each other?”

Through our faith in Christ, we know in a general sense how God works: Our God is a god of immense love, who shows up in the most unexpected of ways in the most unexpected of places. By relying on the Lutheran solas, or even the dialectic of law and gospel alone, we further constrain our already limited possibility of understanding the immense power and love of God. Instead, we can simultaneous know that our faith in Christ grants our scriptures immense authority while at the same time living out the calling of our scriptures to see the face of God working through both law and gospel in all individuals, no matter their religious system or worldview. The point of faith is not to make us agree to dogma or a theological legalism, but rather to help us to live out the life our Creator intended and provide comfort when we fall short. As we live out such lives to the best of our limited human ability, acting in Christian hospitality towards people of other faiths and worldviews out of our love for God, we in turn embody the authority of our scriptures for all individuals. Through such actions we proclaim, “We’re okay with whatever theological beliefs you might have, and we want to learn from you. In calling us to live in such a way, the Bible definitely has something good to say.”

If we recognize the authority of our scriptures in Christ while simultaneously constructing ambivalent spaces of hybridity (to borrow a postcolonial term) within which we can dialogue with peoples of other religious and worldviews, what then can we say about how our scriptures are abused to perpetuate systems of patriarchy, particularly towards women and girls? At both the national and international levels, we repeatedly see our scriptures proof-texted to support all sorts of “traditional family values,” many which stand starkly against the cause of gender justice. Many Christian organizations lobby against providing comprehensive sex education and free access to contraceptives in communities stricken by HIV/AIDS. Others cite the Bible to refrain from ordaining women or speaking out against rape and other forms of sexual violence in their congregations. While strongly pro-choice myself, I am able to see how the scriptural witness could lead Christians to stand against universal access to abortion services. Yet at the same time, year after year at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), American evangelical groups along with conservative Muslim countries, the Holy See and others work to block language concerning women's access to a wide variety of life saving sexual and reproductive health services, all in the name of preventing abortions alone. Year after year, these same groups attempt to life up language regarding “traditional family values,” while neglecting to mention a large proportion of violence against women and girls occurs in the home. We must prophetically proclaim the sin of such behavior, yet at the same we must ask how do so many (often well meaning) Christians get such harmful ideas?

The Lutheran solas may provide us with insight on this question. As discussed above, at least in a homoreligious environment, the solas form an extremely powerful argument: “As read through the lens of our shared faith in Christ, the Bible says __________, so we should do __________.” Remember however, that the solas only work as an interconnected circle. Without “grace alone” and “Christ alone,” basing one’s thinking on “Scripture alone,” as those who abuse the scriptures to limit the rights of girls and women frequently do, inevitably leads one to some pretty harmful conclusions. Simply arguing “the Bible says __________, so we should do __________” in a multi-scriptural society while not particularly convincing is often quite harmful.

Especially since the late 1990s, such a message has unfortunately been presented by American evangelicals as the only Christian message concerning the rights of women and girls. Predominately secular individuals at the United Nations, often in a honest attempt to include the “Christian” perspective in international agreements, have in turn limited the progress of gender-justice, but at the same time probably figured Christianity as more a source of harm than good in the world (much as I initially did as college student). By prophetically promoting a more careful reading of the Christian scriptures that keeps in mind God’s liberating love in Christ, organizations like the Lutheran World Federation are now showing the international community there are multiple Christian messages regarding the rights of women and girls:
God desired to share human life fully in the flesh of a human being. God meets human beings in Jesus Christ, who shows who God is: a God who wants to liberate people out of slavery, free them from the bondage of a fallen world, empower the poor and oppressed and invite all to lead lives in freedom as children of God. This is the experience of the God “listening and coming down” to liberate the people who cry for help (Ex 2:24; 3:7). Jesus Christ called his followers into a new paradigm of God’s family, one in which the male-ruled biological family systems were transformed (Mk 3:35). The human body, in all of its realities, sufferings and joy is at the center of Christian revelation because of God’s incarnation through Jesus Christ. Thus, through incarnation God establishes a deeper relationship with human beings. The divine Word assumes a human body and inhabits us (Jn 1:14). Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ is a new, just community of sisters and brothers. This community, the church, is the body of Christ today (1 Cor 12:26–27).
Although we must still improve on reading our scriptures in conversation with those of other faiths, the work of groups like the LWF seems to be working! At CSW57 in 2013, strong language was adopted concerning the prevention of violence against women and girls. This past March at CSW58, those on the side of gender-justice succeeded in moving the international community towards including a robust stand-alone goal concerning girls and women in the post-2015 development agenda.

After four years of struggling to find a theological basis for including the wisdom of other faiths in my understanding of the Christian message, I thoroughly believe the traditional Lutheran concept of the simuls, when grounded in dialogue with the solas, provides a powerful way forward. To put it in less academic terms, through our faith in Christ, we know in a general sense how God works: Our God is a god of immense love, who shows up in the most unexpected of ways in the most unexpected of places. Indeed, by beginning to read our scriptures in dialogue with the scriptures of other religions and worldviews, we can learn more about ourselves while living out our call to practice Christian hospitality toward all God’s children. Christian hospitality is not the only reason to read the Bible inter-scripturally however. As others seek to influence decision makers on important issues like the rights of women and girls by abusing our scriptures, we are called to develop alternative Christian messages that will hold authority in an increasingly pluralistic, multi-scriptural world.

Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Community Gardens, Love Feasts & Chicken Coops: Organizing Around Food Justice

Hey friends! So I'm still in the midst of posting working from my recently completed final semester at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. The following paper was written for an interfaith class with rabbinical students on the concept of Food Justice. It primarily concerns faith-based community organizing as a means to solve local issues of hunger and food sovereignty. Especially as this is an important issue in the Upstate NY Synod of the ELCA (the ELCA is the big national church body I belong to) where I'll hopefully be called to serve soon, it's something that is extremely important to me. Have you had success organizing around food justice in your faith community? I'd love to hear about it!

God's peace,

Food is a big deal! Let me flesh that statement out a little bit… whether we recognize it as such or not, food is a really, really big deal in the lives of believers and nonbelievers alike. Food is a big deal, and in fact, it’s a centrally organizing element of human life. When we gather with friends, with long-missed loved ones, or even to discuss business transactions, we usually gather around food. Dinners together are an important way many folks share stories or live out being a family. Whether it be over the prayerful ritual of shabbat meals or participating in the gift of the Eucharist every Sunday, food is a central organizing element of both the Jewish and Christian faiths as well. Food is central to how we live. Food is central to how we love. Food is central to how we experience the Divine. Food is a really big deal!

At the same time, we all too often harm ourselves, our neighbors and our planet by not comprehending the immense scope of the food system in all its intricacies and treating food with the reverent care it deserves. This happens in our faith communities, even when we think we’re fully engaged with issues of food and hunger quite intentionally. Using my own life as an example, I’ve been of course eating my entire life, and since moving away to college I’ve tried with varying degrees of success to eat organic, local and (a bit) lower on the food chain. I’ve also been involved with social justice work regarding hunger since at least my senior year of high school, during which I organized an educational luncheon regarding the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s World Hunger Appeal as an Eagle Scout project. Not longer after, as a Lutheran summer camp counselor I was critiqued for being “too political” after encouraging my middle school aged campers to urge their congressional representatives to fully fund the Millennium Challenge Account. Finally, since beginning seminary four years ago I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how the liturgical act of the Eucharist informs my Christian faith. At least on a deeper, emotional, and spiritual level, however, I never really considered all these things as particularly related.

While I suppose in an intellectual sense I understood the connection between the role of food in my personal life, my public life and my faith life, it was not really until participating in an interfaith Food Justice course this semester that I truly began experiencing that connection. Quite specifically, it was our engagement with Jewish theological understandings of food that moved me toward this point. Many of the Christians I know are pretty good at thinking theologically about feeding hungry people, caring for creation and celebrating the Eucharist, but on the level of personal piety and understanding one’s sacred connection to God and neighbor through food, perhaps due to the influence of kashrut practices on everyday life, it seems like we have much to learn from our Jewish sisters and brothers. This fact first struck me when reading about the Jewish theological justification for giving a blessing before enjoying a meal:
Our Rabbis have taught: It is forbidden for a man to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing, and if anyone enjoys anything of this world without a blessing, he commits sacrilege. What is his remedy? He should consult a wise man. But what will the wise man do for him? He has already committed the offense! Raba said: What this means is that he should consult a wise man beforehand, so that he would teach him blessings, so that he should not commit sacrilege (me’ilah).
All of creation is God’s, we are only recipients of its bounty as a Divine gift (Psalm 24:1). We should therefore acknowledges God’s creation, and thus our human reliance upon Her many blessings, in order to not commit me’ilah, or to in other words to steal from God.

The Jewish notion of our personal reliance upon God for the bounty of creation isn’t necessarily different from a traditional Christian understanding of food, but it does seem to hold a place of greater emphasis. For example, I found it immensely profound that while learning about various food justice issues this semester, our conversations were always grounded in discussing our own experiences with food over the previous week, something that rarely happens in other seminary courses. Celebrating shabbat over a beautifully prayerful and ritualized (yet actual!) meal in the home is also indicative of a greater Jewish emphasis on the sacredness and power of food, especially when shared in community. It is important to note that early Christians shared this emphasis, as ancient forms of the Eucharist were likely celebrated over an actual meal often referred to as an “agape love feast.” Saint Paul points to both this practice and the reasons for its eventual demise in 1 Corinthians 11:
Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!… So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation (1 Corinthians 11:17-22, 33).
Although the Eucharist was often celebrated as (or alongside) the actual meal of a “agape love feast” in the first few centuries of Christian history, this practice was increasingly condemned as leading to over-indulgence, and in some cases, to the neglect of poor Christians who couldn't afford the copious amounts of food and wine involved.

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine discusses how his mother used to bring food and wine to celebrations of the Eucharist until her efforts were condemned by Saint Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan:
It had been my mother’s custom in Africa to take meal-cakes and bread and wine to the shrines of the saints on their memorial days, but the door-keeper would not allow her to do this in Milan. When she learned that the bishop had forbidden it, she accepted his ruling with such pious submission that I was surprised to see how willingly she condemned her own practice rather than dispute his command… she willingly ceased this custom when she found that this great preacher, this holy bishop, had forbidden such ceremonies event to those who performed them with sobriety, both for freer that to some they might be occasions for drunkenness and also because they bore so close a resemblance to the superstitious rites which the pagans held in honor of their dead. Instead of her basket full of the fruits of the earth she learned to bring to the shrines of the martyrs a heart full of prayers far purer than any of these gifts. In this way she was able to give what she could to the poor and the Communion of the Lord’s Body was celebrated at the shrines of the saints…
By separating an actual meal from the liturgical act of the Meal, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Church Fathers were indeed freeing up additional resources to assist folks living in poverty, as well as protecting their flocks from gluttony. Given that particular context, discouraging the ancient Christian practice of the “agape love feast” was at least logical, and perhaps even wise for a time. Taking a cue from our Jewish sisters and brothers and given our current historical context however, in a time when hundreds of millions of people live without regular access to safe and nutritious food, and those who do have access often eat overly processed, bleached, preservative drenched crap called food because of a lack of choice or inability to pay for more expense alternatives, one must wonder if not actually sharing a meal when we celebrate the Meal still makes any liturgical sense.

Perhaps due the lack of holistic and personal engagement with food in many Christian congregations, it was in fact through a conversation with some of my ardently secular friends that I truly started thinking specifically about the process of organizing for food justice. While planning out our Easter dinner up in New Hampshire earlier this semester, we began lamenting the place of utter desolation that is America’s conventional food system. I also brought up the ineffective ways many faith communities combat food insecurity, and eventually it occurred to us that in both regards, we’re living in atypical times. Realizing this led us to ask some silly but provocative questions… How did so many responsible adults in the Greatest Generation start thinking, “Wow, real whole grain bread is just not a good idea, let’s eat bleached Wonderbread instead!” or “Nope… we’re too modern and actual fruit juice will just no longer do… let’s raise our kids on a steady diet of Kool-Aid and Mountain Dew!” A few decades later, despite “rediscovering” poverty in America during the 1960s, how did so many well meaning Christians decide to start donating to food banks in an effort to combat hunger while continuing to vote for politicians who openly worked to eliminate successful food assistance programs? My friends and I weren’t sure whether we should laugh or cry. We also couldn’t help but ask some followup questions: “How did we become so detached from what we put in our bodies to nourish ourselves and our families?” and “How did we become so detached from the folks in our local communities and around the world who don’t know where their next meal will come from?” In the end, when our questions didn’t lead to any satisfying answers, we found ourselves getting pretty angry, but a good type of angry, a type of angry that freed us to begin envisioning alternatives.

As I discovered this past Easter, now that we’re almost eighty years into the era of industrialized food and almost thirty-five years after Reagan’s first inauguration, an initial step in empowering faith communities to deconstruct and rebuild the utter desolation that is our “conventional food system” is to simply remind folks it hasn’t always been this way. In Closing the Food Gap, Mark Winne points out that taken in the wider context of human history, our so called “conventional food system” is by no means conventional:
If food has a Middle Ages—a period when a dark curtain descended over its history—it certainly has to be the post-World War II era in the United States. It was the beginning of mankind’s descent into industrialized food production practices that emulated the same assembly-line technology that Henry Ford applied to the automobile. In the case of grain production for bread, the industrial model meant that a couple of varieties of wheat seeds were developed for the attributes that were so treasured in Wonder Bread. During the course of establishing this extremely limited range of wheat varieties, hundreds of other traditional varieties that had been bred for their ability to adapt to local conditions soon disappeared from use… Developments like these did produce a cheap loaf of bread. And unlike the aryl disciples of an alternative way—such as college hippies gnawing at unyielding crusts—most Americans were content with the perceived benefits that technology brought them.
Largely due to the immense pressures of growing up during the Great Depression only to face the horrors of the World War II, the Greatest Generation thoroughly embraced the security, convenience and cheap availability of bland, nutrient deficient food, to the point in fact that most of their Baby Boomer children and subsequent generations of Americans seemingly knew no alternative. The positive news in Winne’s statement however is that in denoting industrialized food as a “Middle Age,” he sees an alternative, healthier and more people-conscious food system taking shape.

Similarly, as David Beckmann profoundly notes in Exodus from Hunger, the current lack of political will to significantly lower rates of poverty and food insecurity in the United States is a relatively recent phenomenon:
The United States used to be a powerful poverty-reduction machine… During the New Deal and the Second World War, government policies and organized labor combined to create a broad middle class. During that period the rich got poorer, while workers got considerably richer… President Johnson’s Great Society programs have been much maligned. President Reagan later quipped that “we declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” But, in fact, the Great Society programs played an important role in reducing poverty in the 1960s and early 1970s… Nixon’s expansion of the national nutrition programs, for example, eliminated the kind of malnutrition we now associate with poor countries…Between 1959 and 1980 the proportion of elderly people in poverty dropped from 35 percent to 16 percent, almost entirely due to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Perhaps charismatic politicians like Ronald Reagan successfully redefined the traditional American value of “freedom from want” to “freedom from taxes,” or maybe Watergate and Vietnam simply decreased American faith in government. Whatever the reason for our current lack of can-do spirit to solve food insecurity as a systematic problem in our country (and to properly support our sisters and brothers in similar work around the world), helping folks to remember it hasn’t always been this way, and thereby creating space in which they can get angry, ask important questions and envision a better alternative is an important initial step in organizing to address the utter desolation that is our current conventional food system.

Christian liberation theology (and I imagine Jewish liberation theology as well), provides us with guidance on the next steps of organizing for food justice, namely in its emphasis on Christ’s preferential option for the poor and the power of personal narrative. As Gustavo Gutierrez, whom many would consider the founder of liberation theology, states in his seminal work A Theology of Liberation:
… the process of liberation requires the active participation of the oppressed; this certainly is one of the most important themes running through the writings of the Latin American Church. Based on the evidence of the usually frustrated aspirations of the popular classes to participate in decisions which affect all of society, the realization emerges that it is the poor who must be the protagonists of their own liberation.
Based upon his belief in Christ’s preferential option for the poor, Gutierrez locates Christ’s revelation in history primarily in the lives and stories of those suffering under oppression, which in our context would mean those suffering from food insecurity and other injustices brought about by our conventional food system.

A major role of the Church no matter the context however is to preach the good news of God’s liberating love in Christ to all individuals, and especially those living under oppression, so that they may both recognize their situation and God’s work in their lives to change it:
What the faith says about itself will demonstrate its relationship to the goal of the people who are struggling for the emancipation of others and of themselves. Indeed, an awareness of the need for self-liberation is essential to a correct understanding of the liberation process. It is not a matter of “struggling for others,” which suggests paternalism and reformist objectives, but rather of becoming aware of oneself as not completely fulfilled and as living in an alienated society.
Christ’s liberation in history is thereby manifest both externally and internally through the lives of individual believers and indeed all those in oppressed communities. Furthermore, while emancipating a community from an oppressive situation like our conventional food system is an external manifestation of liberation in Christ, the liberating self-agency that comes from the knowledge of Christ’s work in one’s life is an equally (if not more) important.
In the typically more secular language of community organizing, Saul Alinsky, whom many would consider the founder of modern community organizing in America, summarizes this point quite eloquently:
If people are organized with a dream of the future ahead of them, the actual planning that takes place in organizing and the hopes and the fears for the future give them just as much inner satisfaction as does their actual achievement… After all, the real democratic program is a democratically minded people - a healthy, active, participating, interested, self-confident people who, through their participation and interest, become informed, educated, and above all develop faith in themselves, their fellow men, and the future.
While the first step in organizing for food justice is to help communities remember our food system wasn’t always one of utter desolation, and thus that a better food system is possible, the second step is creating spaces where folks can share their stories and ask questions about how and why food insecurity exists in their local context. If we hold to Christ’s preferential option for the poor, and thus believe it is only the food insecure themselves who can achieve their own liberation, we must also recognize that the personal narratives of people living in food insecurity possess immense power. In creating spaces for folks facing food insecurity and related injustices to share their stories and begin identifying small changes that could greatly better their situation, communities can begin carefully cultivating allies to make those initial changes, which over time can build towards ever greater success and community empowerment.

Creating safe spaces for people living in food insecurity to share their stories on an equal footing with those privileged to have regular access to food is powerful way of moving all sorts of folks in our communities to begin connecting the role of food in different aspects of their lives. When a wealthy business executive picks up a pizza on her way home from work in order to put dinner on the table for her hungry family, does she recognize her intimate connection to the chain restaurant workers organizing for a living wage who made her pizza? Her young son offers a beautiful grace that evening, in which he prays for a healthy planet of great abundance for all God’s children. As the business executive lays down to sleep that night, she feels guilty about relying on takeout and prays for a way to work fewer hours in order to cook more nutritious meals with her husband (an activity she loves). How do the prayers of her and her son connect to those of the restaurant workers praying for a living wage? A few months later, inspired by a conversation she had over coffee hour at her local congregation, perhaps she joins the board of a local food bank. Does she use her business skills to simply address the immediate needs of hungry people in a patriarchal manner, or does she move the organization to begin advocating against the systematic injustices that create food insecurity?

When we create safe spaces for people like the business executive to engage in honest conversation with people living in food insecurity, and hence to reflect on their own stories regarding food, a relationship of mutual learning and accompaniment can begin to develop. Furthermore, the conversation that takes place in such spaces reminds us we’re all dependent on the bounty of God’s creation for our sustenance, and thus food can act as a great equalizer, cutting across all notions of class, social status or privilege. In a practical manner then, what would creating such spaces look like? First of all, accompanied by the folks we wish to help, we should prayerful examine and reform the traditional food bank model for engaging in food justice as faith communities. In Closing the Food Gap, Mark Winne cites a powerful quote from Janet Poppendieck that speaks to this point:
What I have found in seven years of studying the growth and institutionalization of the emergency food system is that emergency food has become very useful indeed… The United States Department of Agriculture uses it to reduce the accumulation of… agricultural surpluses. Business uses it to dispose of… unwanted product, to … avoid dump fees, … and to accrue tax savings… Churches use it to express their concern for the least of their brethren… Environmentalists use it to reduce the solid waste stream… A wide array of groups, organizations and institutions benefit from the halo effect of “feeding the hungry.” If we didn’t have hunger, we’d have to invent it.
Are we truly running our food banks with the input and interests of our customers in mind? Are we providing additional services and training that can help folks no longer need to rely on our food banks? Are we advocating against the societal injustices that get in the way of folks feeding themselves, no matter how much training they posses? Are we actually engaging with the people that visit our food banks and hearing their stories, or is the food bank just something that happens on a week day that only the pastor and a few other volunteers from the congregation know anything about? Are we connecting the meals we provide our customers to the Meal, the Eucharist we gather around every Sunday? Food banks do have their place, but we must prayerfully ask whether they are actually combating food insecurity, or merely perpetuating it.

Another way we can create spaces for the food insecure and secure alike to engage with each other is through recovering the ancient Christian practice of the “agape love feast” discussed above. This doesn’t mean simply turning our liturgies into the careless, drunken feasts rightly criticized by Saint Paul and Saint Augustine however. Rather, in prayerful consideration of the Church Fathers’ criticisms of the practice and accompanied in conversation with those facing food insecurity in our communities, we can carefully reconstruct the Eucharist as the “agape love feast” it was meant to be, a time of communion with God and all our neighbors, no matter their social station. Community gardens can also create space for the sharing of personal narratives, but as Mark Winne states repeatedly, when engaged in the ministry of organizing a community garden, its important to remember “The most important word in community garden is not garden.” These sort of ministries will not change the desolation of our conventional food system overnight, or even in the longterm on their own, but if they’re creating community where stories and learnings can be shared in relationships of mutuality, they can have a beneficial effect. Finally, I know it won’t be a major contribution, but one little thing I’m dearly hoping to do on my first call is to build a chicken coop behind the parsonage, if local zoning regulations allow. While I want fresh eggs to eat myself and share with parishioners and neighbors, and thus contribute towards creating an alternative food system in at least a small way, my main reason for setting up a coop will be to spark conversation about food justice in the small city context I will likely be called to serve. Chickens are a great and extremely easy way to get people talking, are a lot of fun, and even can provide some great fertilizer for the congregation’s community garden!

The finally step in organizing for food justice in faith communities of course is to well, make it happen. In helping folks remember that our conventional food system was not always one of utter desolation, we can open eyes to other possibilities. By creating spaces for those living in food insecurity to tell their stories, important relationships can develop and folks can begin to feel the link between their own eating practices, their public lives, and their faith. Yet without engaging in the work of actually advocating a for healthier, more accessible and sustainable food system, all the community gardens, agape love feasts and chicken coops won’t mean much beyond serving as simple feel good activities. By identifying small, easily solvable problems in our local communities to tackle first, we can begin to build a foundation for greater successes and often avoid the political controversy that federal-level advocacy usually entails.

Finally, when engaging in advocacy work, we should always remember Christ’s preferential option for the poor. In other words, advocacy on behalf of folks living in food insecurity, instead of advocacy with folks living in food insecurity, is both extremely patriarchal and usually ineffective. I’ll never forget an experience I had last year in this regard. On the “Day on the Hill” portion of Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, I visited Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office to talk about issues related to food and hunger along with a number of other EAD participants. We were kindly received, listened to, and offered a Chobani for our efforts (Senator Gillibrand likes to emphasize the work of Upstate NY dairy farmers) before smiling for a picture with the legislative aide who met with us. A few days later I returned to Senator Gillibrand’s office, this time to talk about comprehensive immigration reform. The main difference however was that an amazing woman and member of the congregation where I served in New York City, who herself immigrated to America as a political refugee, joined our group and did most of the talking. After relaying her story, the legislative aide who met with us broke down, cried, and hugged the woman from my congregation. She said she’d personally see to it that the senator would hear about our visit. Personal narratives, especially of those who faced the oppression one is advocating against, hold immense power.

Once again, food is a big deal! Whether we recognize it as such or not, food is a really, really big deal in the lives of believers and nonbelievers alike! Despite its place as a central organizing element of human life, we all too often neglect to give food the reverent care it deserves, even in our faith communities. As people of faith however we can organize to end food insecurity in America and around the world, and furthermore to reform a conventional food system that has resulted in utter desolation. Organizing around food justice can be broken down into three steps and one over-arching value. We can begin by helping folks remember our food system was not always this broken and to thereby recognize something better is possible. We can then begin creating spaces where folks living in food insecurity can feel comfortable sharing their stories and where allies can begin connecting those stories to their own lives. Finally, we can simply identify an easily solvable problem and act in order to begin building up an ever greater body of success. Throughout this work however, we must always be acting in accompaniment with those directly facing food insecurity or related injustices. Advocating with rather than for such individuals, we can live out the calling of Micah 6:8, a calling common to both Judaism and Christianity, to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. 

Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.