Sunday, September 01, 2013

Bishop-elect Eaton on Morning Joe, The Dave Matthews Band and Liberating Love

So as many folks I speak regularly with know, I'm in the midst of writing my "approval essay," which means I'm desperately trying to finish the really long assignment (roughly twenty pages) that I have to write before going to a final interview with folks in New England where we'll discern whether or not I should be a pastor.

This year's prompts for the approval essay are all questions about "missional leadership." In less churchy language, this means leadership that inspires folks in churches to get out in the world, spread the gospel and help other folks out rather than sitting around arguing about what new furniture to buy, etc. Luckily, the prompt also states, "this theme is motivated by a desire for a deep and rich conversation about the church and its participation in God's mission." So, I figure it'd be pretty darn missional of me to share my writings thus far, in order to spark wider conversation outside of just the folks I'll be meeting with a couple months from now.  What follows is the second part of a three-part essay, and it's specifically about my core theological commitments and missional leadership.  I'd love to hear what you think!

The Gospel, the good news of God’s act of liberating love in Christ, is a free gift of God for everyone. The Gospel is a free gift of God for everyone, and thanks be to God for this core tenet of Lutheran theology! Yet, we must humbly admit that in many congregations, such a beautiful theological foundation simply doesn’t play out in Lutheran practice. I’m painfully reminded of this problem when I all too frequently see “Camp Calumet” listed as the religion of friends or former campers on Facebook rather than “Christianity.” Why is that our young people in New England seem to relate primarily to a place in the woods hours away from home rather than their local faith community (if they have one at all)? This isn’t just a problem with young folks either, of course... most of my friends a few years older than me, many of whom are now starting families, don’t really feel a need to go to Church or even baptize their newborn children.

Even before starting seminary really, but especially since witnessing a “Conversation with the Nones” (folks unaffiliated with an organized faith community), a forum which Bishop Jim Hazelwood organized at the New England Synod Assembly this past spring, I’ve been thinking deeply about these issues. While I’ve certainly not come to any definitive conclusions, I have a hunch the problem is not primarily the way we worship or that we’re not progressive enough or even that we’re not welcoming to visitors on a Sunday morning. No, my sisters and brothers, our problem is deeper than such concerns: guided by the Spirit, we must discern how to boldly proclaim the good news of the ever-moving Triune God in a 21st century world profoundly hungry for such good news. To put it another way, the Gospel has not changed, and neither has the unique insights of our Lutheran theological heritage, but folks are understandably asking different questions than their ancestors were five hundred years ago, we must address these questions.

For example, what follows is the concluding paragraph of a paper I wrote for a Lutheran Confessions course during my first year of seminary:
The gospel is important to Lutherans because faith proceeds from the gospel and it is through faith that we receive the forgiveness of sins on account of Christ. Brought to contrition by the law we are in turn compelled to the promise of the gospel. This promise is known through the Holy Spirit working in spoken Word and visible Word, the sacraments. The promise of the gospel brings comfort to the conscience, and therefore allows for faith. Through faith we are brought into union with Christ, who exchanges righteousness for our sins, justifying us before God. Justification frees our hearts to do good works out of love for God instead of fear, serving our neighbor freely as the part of the body of Christ.
From a theological perspective, I think did pretty well here... not to be overly suggestive, but its a paragraph a Candidacy Committee could be proud of! Yet, while I still absolutely, positively confess everything written in the paragraph above, I don’t think it would mean much to the folks unaffiliated with a faith community at synod assembly, and it sure isn’t a missional way of proclaiming the good news. Folks like those on stage at synod assembly, and in fact most people I know, seem a lot more interested in being part of a strong community, in having the space to grow and explore their relationship with the Divine without judgement, and simply trying to put food on the table while sending their kids to college.

So then, what’s the answer? How can we boldly proclaim the Gospel to folks in a way that speaks to their contemporary context while staying true to our Lutheran tradition? Interestingly enough, just this morning, on the MSNBC show Morning Joe, Bishop-elect Elizabeth Eaton laid it out extremely well:

“... and I really do hope to be a voice for the good news of the gospel... this business about grace that we’re loved and deeply cared for by a God who loves us. And because of that, that sets us free to love the world and be in service to the world.”

In only four minutes and twenty-two seconds, Bishop-elect Eaton boldly proclaimed the Gospel to folks across the country as they were watching Morning Joe, eating breakfast and starting their day. Furthermore, due the immense communicative power of what I like to think of as “printing press 2.0,” or social media, Bishop-elect Eaton’s interview went viral, proclaiming the Gospel to folks around the world. A number of my friends who have very little connection to the Lutheran church were even discussing the interview on Facebook and Twitter, and even more importantly in offline conversations, building community around the Gospel. In fact, two days after the airing of Bishop-elect Eaton’s interview (I’m now writing two days after I wrote the beginning of this paragraph), the clip is still the most watched video on the Morning Joe website.

This is absolutely amazing! What then about Bishop-elect Eaton’s message proved so powerful and resonated so strongly with our fellow Americans? If you look closely at the quote above, she paired two key concepts: love and freedom. The love of God in Christ frees us from our everyday, mundane lives into communion with the Holy Community and with one another, thereby allowing us to look upon our lives (and serve our neighbors through our given vocations) through the eyes of grace. The free gift of God in Christ, my sisters and brothers, is Christian freedom, a concept at the heart of the Lutheran theological tradition:
... a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor. Yet he always remains in God and in his love, as Christ says in John I [:51], “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man." (Luther, Freedom of a Christian)
Not only is Christian freedom a central Lutheran message, but its also a message our world is profoundly hungry for. All too many Americans (if they’re lucky) have to get up morning after morning, sit in a long commute, only to then sit in a cubicle in front of a computer all day, all in order to barely put food on the table. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, not only in America but around the world, an increasing number of folk face even greater oppression, whether it be from a corrupt government, disease, poverty, hunger, addiction, war or the bloat of their own extravagant wealth. At the same time, folks are more connected than ever before in one global, digital community; when we are inspired and when we are informed, we now have the ability to increasingly help bear each others burdens. Just talking about a loving God that cares for us and forgives us in such a unique situation is great, but it is not quite enough... we’ve been doing that in many churches for a while now.

We cannot just proclaim the love of God in Christ as some sort of warm fuzzy feeling we experience for an hour every Sunday morning that temporarily takes our pain away before we socialize over burned coffee. No! In doing so, we’re just ravaging God’s creation and wasting resources to heat, cool and maintain huge, comfortable but empty buildings where we deal out Marx’s “opiate of the masses,” (a drug we increasingly get paid less and less for). Such work is simply not sustainable, and even more importantly, its a waste of time. God’s love literally does something to us, it liberates us, it free us from the weight of whatever may oppress us into a new existence of discipleship in Christ:
The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus), from a life which is observable and calculable (it is, in fact, quite incalculable) into a life where everything is unobservable and fortuitous (that is, into one which is necessary and calculable), out of the realm of finite (which is in truth the infinite) into the realm of infinite possibilities (which is the one liberating reality). (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)
The life of discipleship is the one liberating reality, a realm of infinite possibilities, and this is profoundly good news! In this liberating reality, we’re freed to not just welcome in but in fact go out to folks like artists, activists, the LGBT community, singles and young people that the Church has turned away for far too long. In this liberating reality, we’re freed to discern with disciples how they can creatively engage with people of other faiths and with secular institutions to better serve their neighbors living in an increasingly pluralistic society. In this liberating reality, we’re freed to carefully and prayerfully move past our continued hangups around human sexuality while still being good stewards of the bodies and relationships that the Triune God has given us. In this liberating reality, we’re freed to embrace our theology of the cross and recognize that we don’t always have the answers. And in this liberating reality, we’re freed to actually step foot outside our church doors to boldly engage in Christian mission to our local communities and in our everyday lives.

How do we proclaim the good news of God’s act of liberating love in Christ to a world that’s so hungry for it yet increasingly doesn’t know what the heck we’re talking about? We simply follow Saint Paul’s example:
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us (Acts 17: 22 - 27, NRSV).
Part of the reason Camp Calumet is so good at cultivating Christian community is that its counselors teach about the Triune God through the culturally sensitive lens of “an unknown god.” Almost everyone I meet, Christians, folks who are “spiritual,” and even most atheists, seem to think there’s something outside themselves, something that they usually wish they could connect with better, even if its just the human spirit. The Athenians, despite all their idols of silver and stone, knew there was something else, something they really couldn’t put their finger on, and it was through the “unknown God” that Paul teaches them of Christ.

We’re all searching and struggling, groping for at very least this “unknown God,” and even the most anti-church campers at Calumet (and there’s plenty of them) feel much the same way. The counselors then don’t use gimmicky Christian rappers or acoustic guitar songs about kissing boyfriend Jesus, but rather teach of Christ through things native to the campers’ culture, using the near-universal yearning for the “unknown God” as an entry point. Perhaps my most cherished example of sharing the good news in this manner is through evening devotionals or “devos,” where the counselor usually plays a song or shares a story, leads brief discussion and ends with Bible verse and prayer. One of my favorite songs I used to play for devos is “Don’t Feed the Pig” by Dave Matthews Band:

Through its eloquent talk of the power of liberating love and the wonder of being grounded in the present moment, “Pig” profoundly speaks to the universal yearning for the “unknown God” inside each and everyone one of us. While I certainly was not nearly as theologically versed back when I was a camp counselor, I’d usually play the song and explain how for me, Christ was that source of liberating love Dave Matthews was talking about. It led to some truly amazing conversations (I mostly worked with teenage campers), and it did so while proclaiming the Gospel in a missional way that strongly reflected our Lutheran theological tradition.

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